Yoga. It seems like everyone is doing it these days, from professional athletes, to Hollywood celebrities and their fitness trainers, to stay-at-home moms and busy managers who need a moment to unwind after a stressful day. Originally, yoga came from India and before it spread worldwide, it had a deeply religious element to it. It has always been a mind-body practice that focused on mindfulness, physical well-being, and healing both body and mind, but the religious aspect was less and less prominent as teachers started to bring yoga to the masses. To many people, yoga is just stretching to ambient music or sitting in a painful looking twisted position while praying to some higher power. Before I tried it, I even thought I had to have some athletic and spiritual background in order to start attending yoga classes.
But just like meditation, yoga practice today is studied as a very powerful healing tool, and you do not have to believe in any higher spirit(s) or god(s) to embrace all the benefits of yoga. Everyone has different beliefs and nobody should feel excluded from this practice, so we are not going to focus on the religious origins of yoga; whether you are Atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian, the healing power of yoga is available to you!
WHAT IS YOGA?
Yoga is not just stretching, yoga is not just breathing, and yoga is not just sitting still and finding peace in your mind. Yoga is a combination of three major components: physical movement, controlled breathing, and meditation. These three aspects combined is what makes yoga practice so different from other traditional forms of exercise where the emphasis is on the physical side of the story. We go running to improve our endurance, we lift weights to become strong and agile, we stretch to increase our mobility and flexibility. But we don't do yoga to be better at exercise we do yoga to be better at life, to feel good, to heal, to connect. Luckily for us, it often manages to improve our athletic performance anyway.
Postures you create with your body during a yoga practice are called asanas. There are many asanas, each with various modifications and expressions. Some are more physically challenging, some focus on mobility, some are more restorative, others stimulate the flow of lymph fluid in the body, and some help to ease pain or improve digestion. You can set your own pace as you transition from one asana to next, sometimes spending several minutes resting in a single pose, and other times moving through the motions with the rhythm of your breathing. You are more than welcome to modify every asana to suit your own fitness level or medical condition; slight discomfort is not a bad thing to experience, but it is not meant to be painful. There is a distinct difference between a red light stop sensation of pain, and the intensity of muscle building and strengthening, or release. As my favorite yoga teacher says: Find what feels good. Yoga postures are put together by yoga teachers to create a flow that can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a full hour (and longer, there is no limit), but even five minutes of mindful yoga in the morning still counts as a practice and is beneficial!
Pranayama is what we call controlled breathing. There are several pranayama techniques that are taught in yoga, like Ujjayi or Lion breathing, bringing our focus to the breath, finding ease in challenging postures by controlled breathing, and learning to calm down the body and the mind by using mindful breathing techniques. Some forms of Pranayama are designed to be practiced prior to beginning an asana sequence, and they serve to focus or clear the mind, or to prepare the body for the coming movements. It might be challenging at first to connect and synchronize the movement with the breath, but with regular practice, it will become second nature to you, and you can learn to actually control your movement by using your breath; get deeper into a posture just by breathing mindfully, and bring calm to a stressed mind (more on stress relief in a moment).
Meditation is such a rich topic that we've given it its own post, which you can read here! Mindfulness is simply being aware of your thoughts and feelings, maintaining full attention and being present in that moment. If you learn to be mindful during your yoga practice, you will soon experience an improvement not only in your mobility and flexibility, but also in your overall well being; you will begin to notice and pay more attention to what is happening in your body. You will learn to find stillness and calm within both body and mind, and you will potentially begin to find a new love for yourself and your physical body. One of the root teachings of yoga is that it is the cessation of the association with the fluctuations of the mind; better put, you are not your thoughts, but the observer.
WHY HIT THE MAT
Yoga has been studied as beneficial for a number of health conditions, both mental and physical, including asthma, depression, obesity, and diabetes, but also showed to be very helpful for pregnant women, cancer patients (as an addition to their medical treatment, not instead of it) or elderly people with sleep problems. However, yoga is probably best known as a wonderful stress-relief tool.
Our bodies respond to stress with an instant reaction of the sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). We know this reaction as fight or flight. It doesn't necessarily have to be a negative stress situation that triggers this body response; even looking forward to an exciting job interview, first date with a new potential partner, or planning a wedding is somewhat stressful for the body. Our heart rate goes up, our breathing rhythm changes, our senses are sharper, blood sugar is released into the bloodstream for a boost of immediate energy, the adrenal glands start producing adrenaline (epinephrine), cortisol levels increase and our body is ready to either fight the potential danger or run away from it.
Once we get out of the stressful situation, our nervous system returns to a calmer state we call the rest, repair, and digest response, the parasympathetic part of the ANS calms our body down, and balances hormones again by lowering cortisol levels and heart rate. This is a natural stress response our bodies are well adapted to, but in todays modern stressful life with all kinds of stimuli in our every step, we find ourselves in fight or flight mode more often than we should, without there actually being any real danger. Chronic stress leads to a number of health issues, including overworked adrenal glands resulting in a condition known as adrenal fatigue as well as unwanted weight gain, and chronic exhaustion.
Controlling our breathing during yoga helps with stress reduction. Deep, slow, and mindful breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, provoking the rest and digest response. Along with gentle body movement in a calm, quiet, friendly environment (even with some calming music in the background, or possibly some soothing aromatherapy with calming scents like lavender, or the soft light of beeswax candles) it creates a safe environment for us to relax, breathe, stop worrying about potential threats, and even forget our everyday problems for at least a short period of time, time when we can focus 100% on nothing beyond ourselves. This is a wonderful stress management tool, isn't it? During a restorative yoga class it might seem like you are not doing much by staying in a specific asana for ten minutes and slowly breathing, but you are actually doing a lot for your body and mind. By using breath control, you can learn to calm the body in even the most physically and mentally stressful situations.
Improved mobility and flexibility is an essential benefit of yoga practice, especially for people who suffer with chronic body aches and joint pain. If you experience any stiffness in fascia, joints, or issues like back pain, sore feet, or tired wrists, yoga can help you relieve these symptoms by increasing mobility, muscle elasticity, and most importantly, strengthening muscles around joints to support them better. Yoga alone will not heal any underlying inflammation in the body that can cause these issues, but it is a powerful tool to help managing these symptoms. The combination of bringing the body into the rest, repair, and digest state along with improved muscle tone can have wonderful results, even improving markers of disease and inflammation in the blood as was documented in the Last Best Cure. I also highly recommend checking these two amazing posts, where autoimmune patients share their personal experience with yoga here and here.
HOW TO HIT THE MAT
Intrigued by what you learned so far, but still confused, and unsure of how and where to start? It depends on your personal preferences, current physical abilities, and goals. I am pretty sure we all have one major goal in common we want to be the healthiest versions of ourselves and living with the highest quality of life possible. Yoga is not a cure for everything, but I do believe it is a very powerful tool for everyone. There are many different types of yoga that developed over the years, some are better known than others, but they all have one thing in common they are here to heal. Lets take a closer look at the most common types of yoga you can come across, whether you choose to attend group classes in a studio or practice alone at home.
VINYASA YOGA The word vinyasa can be translated as arranging something in a special way, and in yoga, it simply represents asanas arranged in a grouping that flows well from one to the next. In Vinyasa classes, you perform a sequence of postures and synchronize them with your breath as you transition between them. Vinyasa is also used to describe a specific sequence of asanas (for example Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog to Downward Facing Dog).
HATHA YOGA Hatha is the name for basically every yoga practice that consists of several asanas performed in a flow. The word hatha is translated as a yoga of balance, where ha means sun and tha means moon. Power yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Iyengar yoga these are all classified as Hatha, so this is more like a family of yogas than a specific type on its own.
YIN YOGA This is my favorite type of yoga. Yin yoga is designed as a more passive practice to increase connective tissue mobility around joints (especially the hips, pelvis, knees, and spine). It is not very dynamic and it usually consist of just a few asanas performed for a few minutes at a time while using support tools like blocks, blankets, bolsters, and pillows. This is a very comfortable and meditative type of yoga, perfect to do on those days when you don't feel your best or you feel sore. I love taking a Yin classes during a painful period, when I don't feel like stretching dynamically or moving vigorously, but I still want to get some mindful movement in. It is also perfect as a ritual before bedtime! When you perform these long, relaxing asanas on your bed, you can easily fall asleep during the practice (this happened to me a few times).
RESTORATIVE YOGA Restorative yoga is very similar to Yin Yoga. The flow usually involves just a few poses held for the longer period of time, even 20 minutes or longer. You support your body with props just like in Yin yoga, and it is very gentle and relaxing. Restorative yoga was first introduced by B.K.S. Iygenar, who is known as the Master of Asana in the yoga world. This type of yoga is especially helpful for stress management and patients with depression or anxiety, while Yin yoga is generally more used for increasing mobility and easing pain.
POWER YOGA Power yoga is a vinyasa practice with a fitness kick to it. It is usually very dynamic, more strength and balance oriented, with a focus on core strength, stamina, and breath. Some people have problems with holding a pose for too long, like Yin yoga does; it can be challenging physically, for others it can be boring and they tend to rush to the next asana as fast as possible (I am like that often, impatient to explore more). If this sounds familiar, Power yoga is perfect for you. It is quite a workout, but because it is so active, it is usually over before you even realize you have been doing it for 30 minutes already!
HOT YOGA Hot yoga is basically any yoga class that is performed in a room with a higher temperature (85-105F or 29-40C) in order to sweat more so as to release more toxins from the body. This style of yoga includes Bikram yoga, Forest yoga, and Baptist yoga. Also, it is generally easier to increase mobility as joints and muscles tend to work better after a good warm up and the risk of injury is lower.
KUNDALINI YOGA Kundalini yoga is probably the most spiritually focused type of yoga. It combines physical movement with dynamic breathing techniques, meditation, and repeating mantras to create consciousness along with physical vitality. One of the common mantras used during Kundalini is Sat Nam I am truth. Kundalini yogis often use some calming, meditative music as a background for their mantra chanting.
WHERE TO HIT THE MAT
The best way to find the type of yoga that will work for you is to try several styles that appeal to you and then pick your favorite. You don't have to focus on one specific type though, you can easily mix and match them and focus on whatever you feel like doing that day. Many yoga studios offer a first class or two for free so you can try different classes and studios in your local area to find the perfect one for you, before you commit to pay for a longer membership. If you are like me and you are not a fan of group classes, individual classes are available in some studios as well, just do a little research to find out what is available in your area.
If you are short on time or/and you feel the most comfortable in the safety and environment of your own home, (or you live somewhere that appropriate classes aren't offered) you can simply try an online class! This is what I personally do and I love it. There are plenty of yoga resources online that are worth the investment; they offer individual support, downloadable materials, free trials and very often daily or weekly newsletters. SoMuchYoga.com recently made an in-depth review of several popular online yoga courses, their quality, price range, suitability for beginners and other important criteria. Check out their post before you subscribe to a site so you know in advance what you are paying for.
That said, we highly recommend Zenward yoga an online school with comprehensive individual support, a large supportive community, and also 30 days of free beginner programs for those of you who have never tried yoga before. This way you can ease into the practice at your own pace without the fear of those intimidating looking complicated postures you think you are not able to position yourself into yet. I can tell you that after 30 consecutive days, my body is so much more flexible and confident in the poses, and I never did yoga before! Its amazing to gain strength, balance, and confidence in your body's abilities!
If you feel confident enough (or you have some experience with yoga already and feel like you know what you are doing), check out these awesome free resources Do Yoga With Me, Do You Yoga, and Yoga With Adriene! From my own experience I know that nothing can substitute a personal assessment with a certified teacher in real life, but once you learn the basics and you find what feels good for you, don't hesitate to practice in your own living room by yourself if that is your preference. There is a study showing that group classes have even larger benefits due to the community aspect though, so if you can, go out, meet people, connect with them, move with them, and you never know, you might find some amazing new like minded friends!
WORD FROM A YOGA TEACHER
As an instructor, a great degree of care is placed on creating a sequence of movements that will bring the student from a place of possibly sore, cold muscles, through a peak expression, and then winding back down for some rest, relaxation, and integration. Most people think of savasana as the part of class where you get to sleep, but most teachers would agree that this is the place you get to reap the greatest rewards of creating a dedicated yoga practice. It is the space where you get to quietly reconnect with the body, and take the time to let go of whatever narrative you have been carrying around either for the day, or maybe for many years.
The other thing I hear most often from friends and strangers who haven't yet tried yoga, is a belief that you need to be flexible to be a true yogi. Yes, some of the advanced asanas are greatly aided by being a little extra bendy, but to reap the benefits of yoga, absolutely zero flexibility is required. That will come. With time and dedication to showing up to your mat, you will see immense changes in how your body moves and feels.
Once you make it into the studio, and onto a mat, be prepared to struggle. That's the beautiful part of it! Sometimes the struggle is physical, and sometimes its all mental. Everyone gets to struggle together, and you've come to a space where all judgment is suspended. Leave it at the door. Your teacher is there to provide you with both verbal and physical adjustments, as well as instruction on how to use props to make the yoga asana accessible to every body, and make sure that you are staying safe while engaging in the practice. My favorite prop that I use almost every day at home is my bolster. Just know, that no matter what, when you step inside a yoga studio you will be supported.
My role is to use my training to assess what I am seeing in front of me, and provide cues on how you can deepen and strengthen your yoga practice. Some teachers will bring more of the Yoga Sutras (or teachings) into the class, some less. But the grounding principle for yoga is always going to be the bringing together of the mind, body, and spirit. Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodha = yoga is the cessation of (the association of) the fluctuations of the mind. Through the practice of yoga, you can learn to create a moment or space for pause, and move from reacting to responding to the world around you.
Each instructor brings something a little bit different to a class, so don't be afraid to try out a BUNCH of different styles, studios, and teachers, until you find one who works for you. Were human. Were all unique. And that is a beautiful thing.
NOW HIT THE MAT!
You don't need a fancy mat to start doing yoga, and you don't even need expensive clothes! Susanne loves her Gaiam mat, and I cant say enough good things about these simple yoga blocks to elevate the earth closer to you if your flexibility doesn't allow you to touch the ground yet. I also use sofa cushions for support during Yin classes, but if you don't have that option, bolsters are pretty inexpensive and they will go a long way in your practice, not just at the beginning. The only thing you need is a good plan, passion, and trust in the process. Even if you are not interested in any spiritual aspect of yoga or meditation, you might benefit greatly from maintaining a regular practice. Yoga is more than just stretching, more than just moving with the breath. Yoga helps you with your own body awareness, with cultivating love and respect towards your body, and by giving you the wonderful benefit of stress relief, which you most likely need if you are a human living in modern society! Hop on your mat now (or step slowly and carefully) and enjoy the experience. Don't exercise because you hate the way your body looks or feels; cultivate a mindful yoga practice because you love your body and want what is best for it! If you love your body and treat it with love, care, and respect, it will absolutely love you back! Namaste!