What Is Yoga and Why Is It So Popular?

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Yoga is one of the most popular and explored fitness activities today, but its benefits far surpass the physical practice. Although the movement aspect is bringing more and more people into the studios, often what keeps them coming back is the mental and spiritual connection they regain with themselves— both their bodies and their minds.

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What Is Yoga?

By definition, yoga is a physical, spiritual, and mental practice that originated in India over 2,000 years ago. The first mention of yoga asanas (yoga poses) was in "Yoga Sutras," written by Patanjali around 400 B.C. He also wrote about the ancient Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda, as well as Sanskrit grammar. Although not much is known about the man himself and there are numerous myths and tales about his life, he's considered to be one of the fathers of yoga.

The word "yoga" is derived from Sanskrit "yuj" which means "to unite," or "to yoke." This refers to the union between the three universal aspects of the human being: body, mind, and spirit. It also speaks to the union between the individual self and universal consciousness to reach spiritual awakening.

We might think of yoga as just stretching and breathing in a downward-facing dog, but this ancient practice has been a part of Indian culture for thousands of years. While there are plenty of styles, interpretations, and creative fitness routines that have developed over the years, the real goal of yoga is to bring all the aspects into unison, to live in the present moment, and to achieve liberation from any kind of suffering.

History of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient discipline and with such a long and rich history, it comes as no surprise that pinpointing the exact moment of its origin is not the easiest task. Lord Shiva, also referred to as Adiyogi Shiva, which literally translates to "the first yogi," is another father of yoga. According to poems and scriptures, he was the first to attain the full level of enlightenment over 15,000 years ago. In some parts of India, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a famous yoga instructor, scholar, and ayurvedic healer, is also considered to be one of the fathers of yoga.

Yoga, as we know it today, is somewhat different and is therefore referred to as modern yoga. It has evolved from Patanjali's sutras, which are a compilation of yoga asanas, philosophy, and the spiritual practices of ancient yoga.

Experts on the origin and development of yoga throughout centuries have somewhat agreed on four main periods which shaped this ancient discipline and brought it closer to what we think of as yoga today.

Pre-Classical Yoga or Vedic Yoga

Even though Patanjali's sutras are considered to be one of the first and most important texts on yoga, the word "yoga" was actually first mentioned in the ancient sacred texts, the "Rig Veda," or "Vedas,” as they're known within the yogi community. They were a collection of songs, mantras, and sacred rituals developed and used by Vedic priests known as Brahmans.

Around 500 B.C., the discovery of another important collection of yoga scriptures, the "Bhagavad Gita," shone a light on the rituals surrounding yoga, the role ego plays in self-discovery, and how to reach enlightenment.

However, most findings from this era were written on palm leaves that were fragile and easily destroyed, damaged, or lost. The little of what remained is considered sacred and plays a huge role in the foundation principles of yoga today.

Classical Period

This era was defined by Patanjali's sutras and his system of yoga. Also called Raya yoga, his eight-limbed path towards enlightenment (or Samadhi) is being taught in almost every school of yoga today, with Ashtanga yoga at the root of all eight limbs.

Ashtanga yoga, literally translated to eight limbs of yoga, is one of the most popular types of yoga practice today and it's also a foundation of many newer styles and mashups that have developed over the years. It was created by T. Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century, but it's derived from Patanjali's sutras and his system from this Classical period of yoga.

Post-Classical Period

The third defining time period for yoga comes a few centuries after Patanjali. Yoga teachers at the time tried to drive from his teachings and create practices that would increase longevity and rejuvenate the body. They moved away from the Vedas and their spiritual practices and looked at the physical body as the best means to achieve enlightenment.

They believed that by cleansing the body, you would also cleanse the mind and help detach from the physical world. This was the era of Tantra Yoga and its radical techniques to cleanse the body. This type of yoga practice is what led to Hatha Yoga, or the physical practice we know and love today.

Modern Period

When yoga teachers from India started traveling to the West, it was the beginning of a completely new era as the influences from both sides resulted in revolutionary techniques and practices. In 1893, one of the most popular yoga teachers, Swami Vivekananda, made a huge impact at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago with his teachings and beliefs, talking about the union of self and the Universe, without the need of separating religions.

At the beginning of the 20th century, T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Vivekananda started promoting Hatha Yoga all over the world and opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore, India in 1924. This school produced some of the most important and influential people in yoga who set strong foundations for many of the styles we practice today: B.K.S. Iyengar, Sri Patthabi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar.

Types of Yoga

If you walk into any yoga studio, you'll most likely be presented with a variety of different yoga styles and types. Some of these are offered only to beginners, others are meant for more advanced practitioners, and then there are types that mix in other fitness elements.

It's safe to say that even though yoga took its time through centuries to come to the modern era, the last couple of decades had seen dramatic growth in styles, derivations, and different schools and teachings. Just like everything else today, yoga practice is constantly updating and evolving, bringing in new elements, practices, and techniques. The goal of yoga should still be the same, but in many cases the focus is on the body and the physical benefits, leaving the other two integral aspects on the side.

However, yoga is an ancient discipline and it's been practiced for thousands of years. Sooner or later, people start telling you how good it makes them feel instead of how it makes them look. Here are some of the most popular types of yoga (or yoga styles) you'll most likely encounter today.

Hatha Yoga

Let's just preface this by saying that all physical yoga is hatha yoga. The word hatha is a combination of "ha, " meaning "sun," and "tha," meaning "moon." It combines yoga asanas, yoga breathing (pranayama), yoga mudras (gestures), yoga bandhas (energy locks), and internal cleansing (shatkarma) of prana (life energy).

Pranayama is a collection of breathing techniques that are designed to control prana within a person through meditation, visualization, and physical locks known as kumbhaka.

There are three yoga bandhas that should be present in every yoga practice: Mula bandha (root lock), Jalandara bandha (the throat lock), and Uddiyana Bandha (the diaphragm lock). When they're all active at the same time, it is known as Maha Bandha. Their purpose is to control the prana and regulate its flow throughout the body. By locking certain areas you're locking the life energy and preventing it from traveling to other areas. This is meant to help activate and control the energy centers (or chakras), build up internal heat, and help cleanse the body inside out.

Shatkarma is one of the main techniques for cleansing the body with the goal of removing any toxins that might cause blockage of prana. It's meant to keep the body healthy, strong, and toxin-free.

Ashtanga Yoga

Based on Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga, Ashtanga yoga was created by Sri Patthabi Jois and it includes yoga asanas, yamas (moral codes), niyamas (self-discipline), pranayama, pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and finally, samadhi (enlightenment).

The physical aspect of Ashtanga yoga is vigorous, dynamic, and challenging, combining the foundational hatha yoga with vinyasa (flow between movements). It's made up of six series of levels which all have a fixed order of yoga asanas. Each series has its own purpose, with the sixth and final series only meant for those on the highest levels of mental, spiritual, and physical practice.

The usual ashtanga yoga classes you attend in a yoga studio near you will offer the first series with some advanced or modified asanas from the second or third series. And while most studios aren't rigorous on the exact order of asanas, some religiously follow the Ashtanga Yoga School and its principles, not allowing you to deviate from the rigid structure.

The key principles of Ashtanga yoga include:

  • Ujjayi pranayama breathing technique: Also known as victorious breath, this pranayama technique is slightly audible and it's used to warm and energize your movement while increasing focus and concentration.
  • Drishti focus: Every asana has a focal point that helps direct your energy throughout the entire session.
  • Vinyasa flow: Every asana is guided by your breath. This flow of inhales—as you open poses—and exhales—as you close them or get deeper into your body—creates flawless transitions and helps move the prana throughout the body.
  • Bandhas: The locks of energy are meant to regulate and control prana while helping improve balance and core strength.
  • Consistent practice: Devoted Ashtanga yogis practice six days per week with Saturday as their day off. Other rest days include full and new moon days as well as the week of menstruation for women.

Even the most Ashtanga-based yoga studios won't spring all of these principles on you at once, but if you're interested in diving deeper into your yoga practice, you might start seeking them out yourself.

Vinyasa Yoga

This style of yoga originated from Ashtanga and it's characterized by flowy movement and transitions that remind of dance. Each asana is tied to the other and usually gives plenty of creativity to the teacher. The point is to synchronize your breath with movement and help you focus on the present moment while opening, closing, twisting, and bending your body.

Rarely you'll encounter two same classes as there are no fixed orders or forms a teacher must follow and often focus on a specific area of the body or a theme that defines the asanas. Its variable nature allows for the exploration of your flexibility, mobility, and balance, making it a great option for all levels and all ages. Depending on the chosen yoga asanas, each vinyasa class can be different in terms of intensity, difficulty, and duration, with the usual classes lasting from 45 to 75 minutes.

yoga class

Power Yoga

Often used interchangeably with Ashtanga and Vinyasa for marketing purposes, this kind of yoga style mixes elements from both and keeps the flow fast-paced and intense. It's a more dynamic style of yoga that keeps your blood pumping and makes you sweat rather than hold poses for long periods of time.

Many studios now offer power yoga combinations with other forms of fitness styles, from Bootcamp and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to barre and even Zumba.

Iyengar Yoga

Created by B.K.S. Iyengar, this unique yoga style is based on Ashtanga and Patanjali's sutras and it's known for its strong focus on timing, precision, and special props to help reach the final expression of every yoga asana.

It follows a unique sequence developed by Iyengar that's meant to integrate the body, mind, and emotions. Even though there are some rigid aspects, it welcomes every level and age, putting the emphasis on its far-reaching health benefits that will help in the practitioner's everyday life.

Kundalini Yoga

Some believe that Kundalini yoga was the first yoga healing practice that bases its techniques and rituals on your spine. In Eastern cultures, it's believed that divine energy comes from the base of the spine and it's the energy we come into the world with. The word "Kundalini" translates to the coiled snake, so the point of this yoga type is to uncoil that snake and connect ourselves to the divine energy within us.

Originally, Kundalini was a study of spiritual philosophy and the science of energy, finding ways to connect with our roots. The practitioners of this yoga practice can often be seen wearing white as it represents the expanse of your aura, providing more protection from harmful energy as well as projecting positivity into the world.

The goal of Kundalini yoga is to unstick energy in our bodies so that it can flow freely and nourish the mind-to-body connection in order to connect with the divine. There are five main aspects of Kundalini yoga: breathwork, mantras, kriyas (breath, posture, and sounds in unison), mudras, and meditations.

Two main breathing techniques used in Kundalini are long deep breathing and breath of fire which are used interchangeably to either create heat or help lower stress.

Yin Yoga

Yin yoga is a form of relaxing practice that focuses on deep connective tissues in your body and which helps you get deeper into your asanas. It's slower and more meditative, holding yoga asanas for longer periods of time to stretch and lengthen your muscle fibers.

Yin yoga is beneficial for improving your flexibility and mobility as the long holds and more passive stretches (no force applied) allow for the natural opening of the joints. It also improves blood flow and increases oxygen and nutrient absorption.

The practice is based on Taoist principles and ancient Chinese philosophies of Qi energy that runs through our bodies. Also known as Prana in Indian culture, the goal of this yoga style is to restore the healthy flow of energy and release any locks.

Yoga Nidra

This form of deep, guided meditative practice is derived from the eight limbs of yoga, more specifically Pratyahara or the withdrawal of senses. It allows you to take a good analysis of your body and enter a state of deep and relaxing meditation. Many people refer to yoga Nidra as sleep yoga as it's taking you further than regular seated meditation and tapping into your delta state, which is where your brain goes while you sleep.

It's practiced lying down and science shows that it helps calm your fight-or-flight response and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, promoting recovery, healing, and repair. Yoga Nidra may be far from your usual practice, but its vast benefits bring more and more people to the mat.

Hot Yoga

Created in the 1970s by Bikram Choudhury (often also called Bikram yoga), hot yoga is a form of yoga practice that's done in a heated and often very humid environment. Bikram kept the room at 105 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity level of 40%, with the purpose of keeping your heart rate elevated throughout the entire session and maintaining good muscle flexibility.

Nowadays, there are many studios that offer hot yoga classes that don't follow the exact Bikram formula, but rather do hybrid vinyasa and power classes while keeping the temperature and humidity on the high end. Additionally, many Bikram studios that still teach his sequence gave up the name after the public scandal and revelations of sexual abuse.

Many practitioners love this form of yoga because it makes them sweat and helps them get deeper into certain poses. Still, it's important to say that hot yoga is not for everyone. The intense heat and humidity can take a toll on your cardiovascular system, so if you're diagnosed with any kind of health condition, you should take precautions and talk to your doctor before taking a class.

Benefits of Yoga

The plethora of yoga benefits is what makes it so popular amongst its practitioners and even though some of them are physical, many more come in the form of mental and emotional rewards.

Increases Flexibility

Probably one of the most obvious and well-known yoga benefits is its effect on your flexibility. Both long, passive holds and more dynamic, active stretches lengthen your connective tissue and muscle fascia, helping increase your flexibility over time. Yoga asanas are designed to allow the energy to flow freely and by lengthening your muscle fibers and stretching your body in all directions, you're only contributing to the expanse.

Improves Range of Motion

Another important benefit of yoga is mobility. Working on your connective tissue and fascia includes the joints, ligaments, and tendons they're linked to or wrapped around. Research shows incredible results in people aged 60 and over which really speaks to its efficacy. As we age, we lose elasticity and collagen, so knowing we can still improve our range of motion at a later stage in our life shows the importance of adding yoga practice into our fitness regimen.

An increased range of motion supports balance and stability, potentially lowering the risk of falls and bone breaks later in life. This is truly important for your overall health and longevity as falls seem to be one of the greatest causes of mortality in the elderly.

Tones and Strengthens Muscles

If you've ever taken a yoga class you'll know how holding certain poses for a few minutes can be really challenging for your muscles, leaving you shaking until the instructor guides you to a different yoga asana. Studies show its effect on the strength and toning of your muscles, even though you're not adding any additional weight other than your own body weight.

Improves Balance and Stability

Maintaining good balance and core stability becomes crucial as we age, helping reduce the risk of falls and making us more agile and mobile in our everyday life. Yoga practice often includes many standing or inverted balances that help improve your balance and stability, especially after implementing consistent sessions.

Improves Mental Health

Many people come to yoga for the physical aspects but stay for the myriad benefits it brings to their mental health. People generally report feeling more relaxed and calm after a yoga class, their stress levels reduced, and even their anxiety levels toned down. This is why yoga has been added to a variety of different therapies and treatments in cases of depression, PTSD, among others.

Studies show how these yoga-based treatments really help with major depressive disorder and are even considered to be an alternative therapy for this debilitating mental health disease that so many people struggle with these days.

Helps Boost Your Immune System

Yoga practice helps you lower your stress levels and flush out toxins through sweat. Both of these lower your overall inflammation and boost the function of your immune system. Chronic stress and the fast-paced lives we all lead are extremely detrimental to our immune system—once its function is impaired, we're more susceptible to disease.

Improves Self-Care

How often do you take an hour for yourself and just tune in to the sound of your own breath? Many people report that it helps them do just that: improve their connection to themselves and really feel what it's like to be in the present moment.

It's a wonderful way of taking care of yourself in today's busy world and it only takes an hour out of your day or a few hours from your week. Self-care routines may mean different things to different people but those who like to move their bodies and tap into their mind-to-body connection find themselves drawn to yoga classes.

Final Thoughts

Yoga practice has been around for thousands of years and for the right reasons. It's beneficial to your physical and mental health, helping you not only gain flexibility and increase your range of motion but also learn how to slow down and focus on one breath at a time.

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