Yoga is believed to have originated at least 5,000 years ago in Northern India, as a spiritual practice that was passed on by oral tradition until the first sacred Vedic texts, the Rig Veda, were written, sometime between 1700-1100BCE. What most people in the West now think of as yoga is Hatha yoga, a practice more focused on “asanas,” or physical positions, wasn’t developed until many centuries later, when yogis developed techniques to cleanse the spirit through addressing pains and mis-alignments of physical existence. Hatha yoga was popularized in India in the 1920s, and in the US in 1947, when a Russian woman named Indra Devi (often called the mother of Western yoga), a student of the founder of the first Hatha school in India, opened a studio in Hollywood.
Today, yoga encompasses many diverse styles and philosophies that are rooted in the goals of aligning body, mind and spirit and achieving balance and wellness. Many physical, or Hatha yoga practices emphasize regulated breathing, or pranayama, which is used as a vehicle for opening and purifying the body and focusing the mind.
Because the focus is meditative as well as physical, the benefits extend beyond the physical, but physical benefits include increased strength, flexibility, stamina, respiration, energy, cardiovascular health and protection from injury, to name a few. According to the American Osteopathic Association, “Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness, increases body awareness, relieves chronic stress patterns, relaxes the mind, centers attention and sharpens concentration.”
On the flipside, any physical exertion also has the capacity to cause or exacerbate injury or misalignment, so a sense of inner body awareness should be cultivated. Yoga does invite self-reflection and a sense of caution, but beginners and those with known injuries should consult their healthcare practitioners and yoga instructors.
Types of Yoga
There are upwards of 20 different modern yoga styles, and different yoga studios and teachers also have different flavors. As many yoga practitioners have said, there are as many ways of doing yoga as people doing it—it’s about finding the style or styles of practice that work best for the individual and allowing natural evolution over time. Below is a brief overview of several popular types of yoga.
Iyengar yoga was founded by BKS Iyengar (1918-2014), who was a beloved yoga master to many people worldwide. According to yogajournal.com, “By paying close attention to anatomical details and the alignment of each posture, Iyengar Yoga is the practice of precision. Poses are held for long periods and often modified with props. This method is designed to systematically cultivate strength, flexibility, stability, and awareness, and can be therapeutic for specific conditions.”
Ashtanga yoga is a vigorous practice that synchronizes breath and movement and focuses on a particular style of vinyasa flows (a sequence of continuously flowing postures) to activate core strength and build internal heat and circulation. Power yoga is an offshoot of Ashtanga and is focused on fitness and stamina.
Hot yoga is an umbrella term for several types of yoga where the room is heated to at least 85 degrees (ant up to 105), including Bikram yoga. The focus of hot yoga is detoxification and increased stamina and flexibility.
Both Restorative and Yin yoga focus on postures done on the floor, held for longer periods of time, with plenty of props to make the body comfortable. Yin yoga focuses on the dynamic tension of breathing into one’s physical “edge” while supported in a pose so that the muscles remain relaxed and deeper connective tissues and ligaments are targeted. Restorative yoga is even gentler and is centered on achieving complete relaxation to restore the body’s natural energy and vitality through gentle twists and seated folds. Restorative yoga is indicated for injury and illness recovery.
Other types of yoga include Kundalini, Prenatal, Acro and Yoga Therapy. If you’re just starting out, most yoga studios offer a drop-in rate or even a free first class. Find a class that is open to beginners and tell the instructor it’s your first class. For seasoned practitioners, going back to focus on yoga foundations or recommitting to a daily meditation or pranayama practice can renew and re-invigorate. For those short on time, there are also many online yoga studios that you can join for a small monthly rate, but when starting out, it’s nice to receive assistance from someone who can help you to do the postures in a way that prevents injury and maintains proper alignment. Check out the classes at Benicia Yoga and Wellness, The Benicia Yoga House and Benicia Fitness, or check online for additional class options.