Want to learn more about what yoga can do for you? In this post, I share the benefits of yoga, plus a short history of yoga, including the origins of the modern yoga practice. You’ll also learn about the types of yoga, how to modify poses, and more.
In its historical context, the word yoga always refers to a difficult task or effort that someone is committed to. This carries over easily into an understanding of modern yoga. It is often difficult to do the poses. Plus, it takes effort and commitment to practice them, let alone get yourself to the studio in time for class!
If you already practice yoga, however, you’ll know that the effort is effective and worthwhile. A regular yoga practice can help you:
- Create mental focus and clarity.
- Break old habits and learned patterns.
- Increase body awareness.
- Reduce stress.
- Improve your cardiovascular health.
- Lose weight and build muscle.
- Build strength of mind.
When I discovered yoga, my life was chaotic. I was managing rock bands in Los Angeles and was slowly watching myself turn into the stereotypical music industry asshole. It was the type of job where being a jerk was expected, almost demanded, from others in the industry. Even though I could see myself sliding down the slippery slope, I felt powerless to stop it.
Yoga helped me see how much this was destroying my relationships with my partner, with my family, and with myself.
I was unhealthy — mentally and physically — and I was unhappy.
Yoga helped me rediscover what it meant to be in a healthy relationship, helped me reconnect to what was important to me, and helped me become more physically fit and mentally strong than I have ever been in my life!
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Yoga Quick Facts
|Sanskrit||Yoga is the same word in Sanskrit and English.|
Yoga poses are called asana in Sanskrit.
|Meaning||The root of the word yoga, yuj, means to yoke, or tie together. |
Yoga is to bind, or tie yourself to something.
Asana translates as seat, posture, or pose.
What is Yoga?
It’s hard to define yoga in a few words, partly because it really depends on the period of yoga history you are talking about. Yoga has never been a static concept; it has always been changeable and will continue to change.
What was Yoga from 1700–800 BCE?
The concept of yoga, in fact the word itself, first appears in the Rg Veda (~1700 BCE).
From this time until around 1000–800 BCE, yoga related to improving life through longevity and prosperity and, when you die, the prospect of coming down as rain, so that you can go through it all again, and again, and again…
What was Yoga from 800 BCE–700 CE?
The concept of yoga as liberation — removal from the cycles of life, death, and rebirth — didn’t come about until the time of The Upanishads, the earliest of which date from around 800 BCE.
This shift of thinking sees the Vedic solution of rebirth as a problem to be solved. Yoga at this point in history refers to the process, the methods, the claims and goals that define liberation from the cycles.
What was Yoga from 700–1600 CE?
It wasn’t until about 700 CE (2400 years after the Rg Veda) that there was even the idea that yoga could be practiced by regular people. This is when Tantra yoga arrived on the scene.
Tantra created a new yoga that took some pieces of Vedic yoga, some parts from The Upanishads, and added something new. It was the first time yoga was offered to the ordinary householder — you, me, everyone!
Tantra says that life is the point. Enjoying and experiencing life is the point the universe was trying to make. Yoga, in this sense, is connection to life.
What was Yoga 1600–1930 CE?
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written in the 1600s. It is one of the most influential surviving texts on Hatha yoga. The book includes information about asanas, pranayama, chakras, kundalini, bandhas, kriyas, shakti, nadis, and mudras.
The most complete document of asanas (yoga postures), the Sritattvanidhi, was written in the 1880s and was compiled by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, one of the Maharajas of Mysore.
Yoga at this time was essentially sitting in meditation for extended periods of time. The asanas described and pictured in these texts can be broken down into two categories. Some of them were warm ups you would do before practicing yoga, and the other were seated postures for meditation.
What is Yoga from 1930 to Now?
The idea that yoga was somehow connected to physical fitness? Well, that didn’t come about until sometime in the last 100 years with the dawn of Modern Postural Yoga.
In 1930 the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, was a patron of the arts. He sponsored Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to build a yoga shala (practice space) so that he could teach yoga asana to the young boys of the palace. This was designed as a way for them to burn off energy and calm themselves.
All modern yoga comes out of this first school of yoga.
The Definition of Yoga
Despite the changes throughout history, the core concept of yoga has always maintained a common thread. This explanation from J.A.B. van Buitenen does a good job of gathering all the different ideas of yoga into as simple a definition as you should expect.
“Any translator will have difficulty in giving a satisfactory rendering of the word yoga…. The word yoga and cognates of it occur close to 150 times in the Gita, and it needs attention. The root is yuj-, which means to yoke, as one yokes horses to a chariot. This literal meaning occurs in the Mahabharata: when battle is at hand, the warriors call for the Yoke…. The word yoga always refers to a strenuous effort to which a person has committed himself….
It is not the case that yoga has so many different meanings, but that the central meaning is a complex one that in English is not exhausted by one equivalent. Yoga is always of somebody, in something, with something, for some purpose…
Yoga, then, implies (1) the process of a difficult effort; (2) a person committed to it; (3) the instrument [s]he uses; (4) the course of action chosen; and (5) the prospect of a goal.”
A Brief History of Yoga
How old is yoga? You’ll hear all sorts of answer for this question and it really depends on what you mean by yoga.
The two most common answers are:
- Thousands of years old.
- A few hundred years old.
I am amazed by how often people claim that yoga is thousands of years old.
Sure, technically something called yoga was referenced in the Rg Veda, but this was nothing like the physical asana practice that we do today. There is no written evidence of the word yoga before 1700 BCE, so those who claim yoga is 5,000 years old are hard-pressed to back up those claims with evidence.
The first known images of asana, which at the time were exclusively seated postures for meditation, were carved into temples dating from around 1200 BCE.
The asana of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (circa 1600) features about a dozen postures, mostly seated, continuing the tradition of yoga from a few centuries earlier.
The Sritattvanidhi (circa 1880), includes dozens of different postures, getting us one step closer to our modern yoga. However, those exercises were being practiced solely to prepare the student to meditate for hours on end. There was no element of physical fitness — that wasn’t part of the practice until the 20th Century.
Modern Postural Yoga originated in 1930 in Mysore, India. It began as an exercise regime to burn off the energy and excess testosterone of the teenage boys who lived on the grounds of the Mysore Palace.
So yoga is 3700 years old, and it’s 3200 years old, and it’s 1300 years old, and it’s 400 years old, and it’s 140 years old, and it’s 90 years old.
How can that possibly be?
Let’s take a step back and look at the origins of yoga in more detail.
Origins of Yoga
Yoga as Success in Life and Death
The concept of yoga, in fact the word itself, first appears in the Rg Veda (~1700 BCE). The Vedas are the earliest known texts related to Hinduism. They are four texts — the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda.
The Rg Veda is the oldest Vedic text and is accepted as the source of what is now generally called Hinduism. The four Vedas describe the concept of Hinduism as a lifestyle rather than a religion. Yoga, which at the time meant discipline, or disciplined meditation, features as one of the most important aspects of the Vedic texts.
Yoga teachings found in these texts are called Vedic Yoga.
The texts encourage the practice of dedication, specifically of meditation, to aid in the merging of the material and physical world with the spiritual realm.
The word yoga only appears in the Rg Veda as part of a compound word, yogakshema. This means cooking, churning, or agitated by the process of relationship. It’s telling us that you should expect a transformation, that yoga is going to change you.
The Rg Veda says, “One who knows thyself perfectly is blessed with enthusiasm without which success is impossible.” Here, the word success refers to long life, good health, worldly prosperity, death, and rebirth.
Yoga as Liberation
In the 700 years between the Vedas and the Upanishads, Indian society and culture changed and, therefore, so did the goals of life.
A new concept of what yoga meant — the idea of liberation and the removal from the cycles of life — emerged around the time of the earliest Upanishads (~800 BCE). This shift in thinking sees the Vedic solution of rebirth as a problem to be solved.
The Vedic idea that the goal of yoga is long life, health, or prosperity so that you can be reborn was seen as outdated and incomplete.
It was replaced with this new goal of liberation from the limitations, conditions, and mortal requirements of the world. The ultimate win was to remove yourself from the cycle of life so that you could return to the pool of Consciousness.
From this new understanding came the traditions of Classical Yoga, which is the yoga of Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. The goal of Classical Yoga is to free yourself from life, and reach Samadhi, or oneness with Consciousness.
Yoga for the People
The yoga of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and Classical Yoga was reserved for the Brahmin priests. It wasn’t until ~700 CE (2400 years after the Rg Veda) that an idea that yoga could be practiced by regular people sprang into being.
This is when Tantra yoga arrived on the scene.
Tantra took the systems that were designed for the few, changed them yet again, and offered their new system, designed for the many.
Tantra yoga took pieces of Vedic yoga, parts from the Upanishads, and added something new. They offered it to the householder — you, me, everyone. Tantra said:
Anyone can practice yoga. Yoga is life.
Tantra says that life is the point of living. Enjoying and experiencing life is why we exist — and yoga helps us connect to life.
What about the idea that yoga could was somehow connected to physical fitness?
Well that didn’t come about until the last 100 years with the dawn of Modern Postural Yoga.
Modern Postural Yoga – A Brief History
Yoga as a physical practice is firmly rooted in the patronage of the Maharajas of the Mysore Palace. Thanks to its extensive library, yoga asanas (yoga postures) are known to have been practiced there from the early 1700s until 1950.
The most complete document of asanas is less than 150 years old. They are found in the Sritattvanidhi, which was written in the 1880s. This work was compiled by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, one of the Maharajas of Mysore.
Coming to America
The age of modern yoga is said to have started with Swami Vivekananda’s visit to America for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. This is the first time that the rest of the world paid any serious attention to the teachings of yoga.
The World Congress of Religions was the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. It is recognized as the birthplace of formal inter-religious dialogue.
Swami Vivekananda spoke to the delegates and introduced Hinduism to the world outside India. This speech is so important in India that it is memorized by school children in India to this day.
In 1894, a year later, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III’s grandson became the Maharaj of Mysore. Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV was the one who sponsored Tirumalai Kirshnamacharya to build a yoga shala (practice space) for the young men of the palace. The Maharaja had diabetes and was also interested in learning more about how the practice of yoga could help him stay healthy.
The Physical Practice Begins
This was the beginning of modern yoga — for the first time, yoga was understood and used for its physical benefits.
Yogis started to teach and practice yoga with the objective of healing the body and to prolong life.
Many yoga gurus and teachers emerged in the first half of the 20th century and began the work of spreading the practice of yoga and meditation throughout the world. Three of the most influential of these — K Patabhi Jois, Indra Devi and B.K.S. Iyengar — were all students of Krishnamacharya.
In 1948, Pattabhi Jois founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore. By 1964, Jois had begun teaching Ashtanga yoga to Westerners in India. Then, in 1974, he came to America. He spent four months in Encinitas, CA teaching and spreading Ashtanga Yoga. This was the start of Ashtanga Vinyasa in the US.
Yoga is a way to freedom.–Indra Devi
In 1938, Indra Devi, a Latvian-born woman, became the first foreigner to learn yoga from Krishnamacharya. She was tasked by him with taking yoga to the West. In 1950, she helped yoga become a worldwide phenomenon by moving to Hollywood.
There, she became the teacher of many Hollywood celebrities including Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor, and Gloria Swanson, and importantly the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who would help introduce B.K.S. Iyengar to the Western world.
Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.–B.K.S. Iyengar
In 1952, Yehudi Menuhin befriended B.K.S. Iyengar. Menuhin credits Iyengar, through his yogic teachings, with helping him become one of the most skilled violinists in the world.
In 1966, Iyengar published Light on Yoga (which has now been translated into 17+ languages) and began regular yoga demonstration tours where he would perform yoga to rapt audiences. In 1975, he founded his yoga institute in Pune, India.
A Pop Culture Practice
By the late 60s, yoga had became an unstoppable force.
In 1967, Elvis Presley was practicing yoga and singing Yoga Is As Yoga Does in the film Easy Come, Easy Go.
In February 1968, The Beatles travelled to Rishikesh, India, to attend a Transcendental Meditation training at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. Widespread media coverage of their visit helped change Western attitudes towards Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation.
Yoga just kept spreading.
In 1968, Yogi Bhajan introduced North America to his modern interpretation of Kundalini Yoga, and Bikram Choudhry started teaching his hot yoga in the early 1970s in Hollywood. Jivamukti Yoga was founded in 1986 by David Life and Sharon Gannon, Anusara yoga was founded in 1997, and Corepower Yoga was founded in 2002.
Lululemon Athletica was created in 1998 in Vancouver, Canada by Chip Wilson. Until that time, he had been produced clothing for snowboarding and skiing. Wilson saw the potential in the market as yoga was rapidly expanding across North America – and the world.
In 2001, Time Magazine featured supermodel Christy Turlington on the cover of their magazine with the headline “The Science of Yoga”.
So, how old is yoga?
Modern Postural Yoga began roughly 90 years ago in Mysore. But it has its roots in traditions that have been evolving for hundreds or even thousands of years.
This brings us to the present day, but our story, and the story of yoga, continues. Yoga has always been a changeable force and it will keep evolving along with our culture.
The Benefits of Yoga
The main physical benefits of yoga include:
- Increased flexibility.
- Increased muscle strength and tone.
- Improved awareness of breath.
- Improved posture.
- Weight loss.
- Increased self-awareness.
- Improved proprioception (awareness of where your body is).
- Reduced stress.
- Better sleep.
- Improved cardio and circulatory health.
- Improved athletic performance.
- Protection from injury.
Each class of poses, and each individual pose, brings its own unique benefits to the body and the mind.
The Benefits of Standing Poses
Standing poses are the foundation of your asana practice because they teach you how to set up your foundation! Work done in standing poses will help you in all other pose categories.
Standing poses are great for building strength in your legs and hips, improving your balance, and strengthening your core. They also teach you how to move your shoulders, straighten your legs and spine, and support body weight, making it easier to feel and adjust your alignment.
For more detail on the benefits of specific standing poses, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
- Trikonasana / Triangle Pose
- Tadasana / Mountain Pose
- Ashta Chandrasana / Crescent Lunge
- Virabhadrasana 1 / Warrior 1 Pose
The Benefits of Seated Yoga Poses
Seated poses help improve flexibility in your hips by stretching your legs and passively allowing your hips to open. They are also great for strengthening your back muscles and toning your core.
Sitting on the floor is not comfortable for everyone, especially if they are new to the yoga practice. You can always sit on a chair or use yoga props to help find what works for you.
For more detail on the benefits of specific seated poses, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
The Benefits of Yoga Twists
Contrary to popular belief, yoga twists do not wring out your organs or release toxins. If they did, your organs might rupture, or those toxins would go into your blood stream and make you sick!
However, yoga twists do help maintain mobility in your spine — which is a much more important reason to do them. They can release muscle tension around your spine which may reduce pain, increase flexibility and relieve lower back pain.
For more detail on the benefits of specific twisted poses, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
The Benefits of Forward Folds
Forward folds help lengthen and strengthen your spine, as well as strengthening your quads and lengthening your hamstrings. They also stretch the muscles that support your hips.
Forward folds can help you learn how to engage your hip flexor muscles to deepen your forward folds and strengthen your abdominal muscles. They can also help calm your nervous system.
For more detail on the benefits of specific forward fold poses, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
The Benefits of Back Bends
Back bends help us to strengthen the muscles needed to stand up straight — these same muscles take you into a back bend. They also help keep the spine supple and build strength and flexibility in your shoulders, hips, and legs.
They offer the opportunity to practice engaging your pelvic floor and your deep core muscles to create more stability in your core, which can give you access to a safer and deeper experience of your practice.
For more detail on the benefits of specific back bends, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
The Benefits of Inversions
Inversions in yoga are defined as any pose where your head is below your heart. So, while we often think of poses like Handstand and Headstand as inversions, there are more accessible options such as Downward Facing Dog and Standing Forward Fold as well.
Inversions are great for helping build strength in your arms and shoulders and learning to overcome fear and build confidence. Inversions also help improve your balance and they are a great way to see the world, and yourself, from a different perspective.
Despite what you may read, inversions do not cleanse your lymphatic system. The lymphatic system filters bacteria, abnormal cells, etc from your blood, and sends the clean fluid back towards your heart. It works whether you are upside down or not.
For more detail on the benefits of specific inversions, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
- Sirsasana 1 / Headstand
- Sirsasana 2 / Tripod Headstand
- Sarvangasana / Shoulder Stand
- Adho Mukha Svanasana / Downward Facing Dog
The Benefits of Arm Balances
Arm balances will help you build strength in your arms and shoulders, core strength, and leg strength. In fact, these poses are great at really working your whole body, which is why they can be challenging to practice.
Because they are challenging, they may also help you build willpower, determination and strength of mind.
The Benefits of Supine Yoga Poses
Supine poses are poses done lying down on your back. They can be some of most effective poses for increasing flexibility and mobility in your hamstrings, hips, and spine. They can also be useful for learning how to do more physically challenging poses (think arm balances, inversions, and even twists) in a modified form.
Doing a pose lying on the floor makes the work more accessible before progressing to the non-supine version.
Of course, the most important pose in yoga, Savasana, is also a supine pose. Practicing this pose at the end of every yoga class gives your body and mind a chance to absorb the work that you have just done and prepare you for whatever is next in your day.
The Benefits of Hip Openers
Hip openers work the muscles that cross the hip, including the hip flexors, adductors, glutes, abductors, hamstrings, and the external and internal rotators.
Sitting at a desk for long periods, as many of us do during our working day, lends itself to tight hips. When your hips are tight this can lead to overuse and misalignment of your spine.
The benefits of hip openers include improved range of motion, reduced stress, and more support for the muscles of the back and the spine. This can help relieve and / or prevent back pain.
For more detail on the benefits of specific hip openers, see our individual pose breakdown posts for these poses:
- Padmasana / Lotus Pose
- Ashta Chandrasana / Crescent Lunge Pose
- Dhanurasana / Bow Pose
- Gomukhasana / Cow Face Pose
- Bhujangasana / Cobra Pose
Studies about the Benefits of Yoga
While yoga is not a miracle cure for everything that ails you (contrary to what many yogis claim), there are hundreds of physical, mental, and emotional benefits that stem from a consistent yoga practice. Some research has been done to explore the benefits of yoga, but it is hardly comprehensive and there is a long way to go!
Here are a few study-supported benefits.
Yoga improves your immunity
Yoga can strengthen your immune system at the cellular level — and it has been shown that your immunity receives the boost before you even leave your mat.
Yoga improves the quality of sleep
A Harvard University study showed that 8 weeks of daily yoga is enough to significantly improve the quality of sleep for people with insomnia.
Yoga makes you smarter than running does
A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that 20 minutes of yoga improves the brain’s ability to quickly and accurately process information. This improvement is greater than in subjects who ran for 20 minutes per day.
Iyengar Yoga reduces high blood pressure
A 2011 study published by Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that 12 weeks of Iyengar Yoga produces clinically meaningful improvements in patients with high blood pressure.
Yoga decreases chronic inflammation
A recent study found that a regular yoga practice decreases chronic inflammation in the body by lowering the level of pro-inflammatory markers, such as cytokines.
Yoga makes you happy and reduces anxiety
A study from 2015 showed that practicing yoga and meditation regularly results in higher serotonin levels (aka the happiness hormone). The same study showed that those who practiced yoga and meditation for 12 months have reduced anxiety and depression.
Savasana is better than lying on the couch
Practicing Savasana was more effective that simply lying on the couch to help balance blood pressure, according to research published in The Lancet.
Precautions & Contraindications
Remember that while yoga is for everyone, not all poses are for all people! Always practice caution and listen to your body.
Below are some general guidelines for your yoga practice. However, it’s always best to consult your doctor and your yoga instructor about the best way to care for an injury or other condition while practicing yoga.
For specific yoga pose contraindications and precautions for each pose, see our individual yoga pose breakdown posts.
- If you have low blood pressure, make sure to keep your head above your heart.
- If you have high blood pressure, lifting your arms overhead can cause dizziness, so practice caution.
- If you have a back injury, make sure to be aware of how you feel when practicing back bends. Do not push through the pain. Instead back off and only go to where there is no pain. You can always stop and take a break.
- If you have a neck injury, focus on using the muscles that support your neck to keep length in your neck. Also, avoid looking up in poses.
- If you have carpal tunnel syndrome or other wrist injuries, some of the hands down yoga poses may be best practiced using a yoga wedge, or with your fists down instead of flat hands.
- If you are pregnant, be aware that closed twists are not recommended in the first trimester. Pressing your belly into the ground in your second or third trimester is not recommended. We recommend you consult a yoga teacher who has had a child and has training in pre-natal yoga for advice on modifications to your practice.
- If you have a shoulder injury, yoga poses that put strain on the shoulder joints or involve lifting your arms overhead may make the injury worse. Always practice caution and listen to your body.
- If you have a hamstring injury, be aware that your hamstrings can take a long time to heal. Don’t get frustrated and push your way though the pain. Take your time and allow your body the time and space it needs to heal.
Modifications & Variations
There are endless modifications and variations for yoga poses. Below are a few general guidelines for your yoga practice. Always ask your yoga teacher if you are not sure about the best way to do a pose for your body. Even more importantly, listen to your body and don’t push it into places that don’t feel right for you.
For specific yoga pose modifications and variations see the individual yoga pose breakdown posts.
If you are new to yoga
When you are new to yoga, there will be many instructions that you don’t understand, or that you can’t make work in your body.
We all go through this — it is part of the practice (and a part of learning any new skill). It is perfectly fine to modify poses or take a break when you need to. Ask the teacher for help if you’re trying to figure out how to do what they ask. Take your time, be patient with yourself, and keep practicing.
If you can’t touch the ground in a standing forward fold
Just bend your knees until you can touch the ground.
This is much more beneficial than hanging out in space and not touching the ground. The connection of your hands to the earth sends a signal to your hamstrings letting them know it is OK to relax. This will, over time, help you find more flexibility in your hamstrings.
If you can’t reach your feet in a seated forward fold
You can always use a yoga strap and flip it around the soles of your feet. Hold the strap in your hands and push your feet into the strap as you pull on it. Lengthen through your spine and before long, you will start to feel your hamstrings getting a good stretch.
If your lower back rounds when sitting on the ground
Sit on something — a yoga block or a folded up yoga blanket work well. This will allow you to tilt your pelvis forward and down a little more so that you can work to find a small arch in your lower back. This will help you build strength in your lower back and can also align the rest of your spine.
If your knees are higher than your hips when sitting cross legged
Sit on a yoga block or folded up yoga blanket and make it as high as you need so that your knees are only as high as your hips. This will help your hip flexors open passively over time. If you practice regularly, one day you might not need the prop under your hips.
If stability is difficult in a standing pose
Practice near a wall so that you can use the wall for support. Just reach out and touch the wall as firmly or lightly as you need to find your balance.
Misconceptions & Myths About Yoga
There is a lot of nonsense out in the world about yoga.
People who don’t practice yoga often don’t understand what it is, what the benefits are, or even what the point is! People who do practice yoga often spread spurious claims about what yoga is, what it can do for you, and what kind of a person you have to be if you practice yoga.
If you’ve heard something about yoga that seems weird or unlikely to you (including in this post), I encourage you to do your research through trustworthy sources and make up your own mind.
Here are a few of the more common misconceptions about yoga.
Yoga is for women
This is true. Yoga is for women. And yoga is for men. Yoga is for non-binary people, yoga is for transgender, fluid-gender, and agender people. Yoga is for all people!
Yoga is for thin people
Sure, yoga is for thin people. It’s also for short people. And it’s for tall people. Yoga is for curvy people. Yoga is for people with limited mobility. Yoga is for amputees. Yoga is for the hearing-impaired. Yoga is for whomever wants to practice it.
Yoga is for every body.
Yoga is for skinny white women
Because yoga is often represented on TV, movies, ads and other mass media as being practiced exclusively by skinny, rich, white women, that is often how it’s perceived out in the world. I have taught yoga around the world, and I can assure you that yoga is actually practiced by people of all sizes, shapes, and cultural heritage.
I’ll repeat. Yoga is for everyone and everyone can benefit from yoga.
Yoga is for flexible people
One of the most common excuses I hear from people not trying yoga is that “I’m not flexible”. Well, guess what? One of the benefits of yoga is that it helps you become more flexible! You don’t have to start out that way.
Very flexible people actually have their work cut out for them in yoga. If you come to yoga and you’re already flexible, it can be exhausting — and take a long time — to build the strength needed for healthy back bends, arm balances, and standing poses.
If you come to yoga and you’re strong but not very flexible, you’ll have a natural ability in some areas of the practice and a challenge in others. Arm balances and standing poses might come easy, but the forward folds and back bends will take more work.
Of course, if you come to yoga without flexibility or strength you have the most to gain from the practice and you will quickly see changes in your body!
You know why that is? Yoga is for everybody and every body.
You need special yoga clothes
Not true. I mean, there’s even nude yoga where you don’t need any clothes at all!
One of the first studios I taught at was in the heart of hipster Los Angeles, where all of the struggling actors and musicians used to live. These students came to class in whatever old (usually second hand) t-shirt and shorts they had lying around.
It was awesome, because there wasn’t any of the yoga pants envy that can happen in some studios. People came to practice yoga, not for a fashion show, and I loved it.
Wear whatever you want to class as long as it allows you to move your body freely. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable.
Yoga isn’t for me
Yoga is for everyone!
That doesn’t mean everyone will like yoga — and if you don’t like yoga that’s cool. We can still be friends.
As long as you understand that saying you don’t like yoga is kind of like saying you don’t like books, or music.
There are dozens of styles of yoga and tens of thousands of yoga teachers out there — each teacher is a little different than the next. And, let’s be honest, some are going to have more training and experience than others!
It’s more likely that you don’t like a certain kind of yoga, or you didn’t like that one yoga teacher you tried at the gym 10 years ago.
If you’re interested in yoga, I encourage you to try out different teachers at your local studio, try out different teachers on YouTube, try out as many teachers as you like until you find a few that inspire you!
If you’re not sure where to start, the next section will give you an idea of what to expect from the various styles of yoga.
Types of Yoga
Acroyoga combines yoga and acrobatics. Acroyoga often involves two people practicing together, but can also include group acrobatics, in which at least one person is lifted off the ground.
Aerial Yoga uses hammocks or straps hung from the ceiling that are used to support students as they practice traditional yoga poses, as well as movements from Pilates and dance. The poses are often done ‘floating’ off the ground, though not exclusively.
Anusara is a branch of Hatha Yoga that integrates spiritual teachings and precise principles of alignment into the practice. At the heart of Anusara Yoga are its life-affirming principles of Opening to Grace and Aligning with the Divine.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was created by K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 1960s. The practice follows the same sequence and series of poses in a precise order and is very physically demanding. It synchronizes breath with movements and the asanas are linked by flowing movements called vinyasas.
Bikram Yoga is a system of hot yoga created by Bikram Choudhury. Bikram Yoga classes consist of a set sequence of 26 postures, practised in a room heated to 105°F with a humidity of 40%. The yoga studio room is carpeted and the walls are covered in mirrors. Instructors do not adjust the students.
Chair Yoga was developed by Lakshmi Voelker-Binder in 1982. As the name implies it is practiced sitting on a chair or standing using a chair for support. The asanas are generally modifications of modern yoga poses.
The practice is suitable for students who are new to yoga and is especially popular with students with limited mobility due to aging, injury, or disability.
Classes described as Hatha Yoga often involve yoga poses practised more slowly and with more static holds than a typical vinyasa or Ashtanga class. However, all yoga, apart from the Kundalini Yoga of Yogi Bhajan, is derived from the Hatha Yoga tradition.
A modern Hatha Yoga practice generally involves a focus on connecting your breath, body, and mind, and classes often include pranayama (breath work), asana (yoga poses), and meditation.
Hot yoga is a form of yoga purely as exercise performed under hot and humid conditions, resulting in considerable sweating. Some hot yoga practices seek to replicate the heat and humidity of India, where yoga originated. Bikram Yoga was the first style of yoga described as hot yoga but there are now endless variations on the concept.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Hot yoga is not for everyone. The intensity of the workout and the hot temperatures have the potential to cause heat-related illness.”
Iyengar Yoga is named after its founder B. K. S. Iyengar and places emphasis on detail, precision and alignment. Iyengar Yoga often use of props, such as belts, blocks, and blankets in class. It is not uncommon to work on just a handful of poses in great detail during a 90-minute class.
Iyengar Yoga is helpful for learning the subtleties of alignment, as well as improving body awareness and learning how to use props and do different modifications of asanas.
In my experience of yoga around the world, Iyengar teachers are some of the most well trained and knowledgable teachers you can find.
Jivamukti Yoga was created by David Life and Sharon Gannon in 1984.
The asana practice is said to be more than mere physical exercise to keep fit, increase strength, and flexibility — it is also designed to improve one’s relationship to all others and lead to enlightenment. Jivamukti emphasizes animal rights, veganism, environmentalism, and social activism as part of the practice.
Kundalini Yoga is two different things. There are the Kundalini awakening practices of Hatha Yoga, Tantra, and Vedanta and there is the Kundalini Yoga of Yogi Bhajan.
When someone talks about a Kundalini Yoga class they are almost certainly talking about the style of yoga created by Yogi Bhajan in 1968.
That Kundalini Yoga combines asana-based kriyas, pranayama, and meditations to develop awareness, consciousness, and spiritual strength. It is founded on the principles of Sikh Dharma and the teachings encourage students to train their mind to experience God.
Power Yoga is sometimes called Power Vinyasa, or known by the brand CorePower Yoga, and is considered by many as a Westernized style of Ashtanga Yoga. The practice is usually focussed entirely on the physical aspects of yoga.
There are several forms of Power Yoga, each with their own founder, including Beryl Bender Birch, Bryan Kest, Larry Schultz, and forms derived from Bikram Yoga, such as Baptiste Power Yoga founded by Baron Baptiste.
In Restorative Yoga, asanas are held for longer than in most other yoga classes with the aim of restoring and relaxing your body. Props such as folded blankets, blocks and bolsters are used to support your body in order to allow the body to relax.
The practice allows you to slow down and let your body open through passive stretching.
Sivananda Yoga is a school of Hatha Yoga that was founded by Swami Vishnudevananda with a mission to spread the teachings of yoga and the message of world peace. The practice focuses synthesizing the principles of the four paths of yoga (jnana, bhakti, raja, and karma) along with five aspects (or points) of yoga — exercise (asana), breathing (pranayama), relaxation (Savasana), vegetarian diet and positive thinking (vedanta), and meditation (dhyana).
An open-level Sivananda class consists of warm ups, pranayama, and 12 asanas mixed with periods of complete relaxation in Savasana. The sequence emphasizes back-bending and forward-bending of the spine and poses are held for a relatively long time.
Vinyasa Yoga is, slightly confusingly, a form of Hatha Yoga. Generally speaking, in Vinyasa Yoga classes, asanas flow from one pose into the next, usually in coordination with the breath. Several poses are linked together and practiced on one side of the body before changing sides. The Vinyasa sequence can be a set sequence or vary from class to class.
Yin Yoga uses props in a similar way to Restorative Yoga and is also a slow-paced practice. Yin Yoga incorporates principles of traditional Chinese medicine with poses held for long periods of time.
It is intended to allow students to find their edge and stress connective tissue to release fascia, ligaments, and joints. It claims to be able to open up blockages and release energy to flow freely. The focus is on how students feel in the pose.
It is not intended to be a complete practice in itself, but should be used to complement more active forms of yoga and other exercise.
Yoga Nidra is also called yogic sleep. The practice is often led by a teacher taking students through a guided meditation intended to create a state of conscious relaxation, bringing about total physical, mental, and emotional relaxation.
In Yoga Nidra, the goal is a state of meditative consciousness (Samadhi) that is often compared to lucid dreaming. Yoga Nidra is sometimes used to help soldiers cope with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A Final Note About the Benefits of Yoga
If you’ve read (or skimmed) this entire post, then you probably have a deeper understanding of the depth and breadth of this thing we call yoga. I’ve always found that little word an inadequate way to describe an expansive practice that defies definition, and has dozens of varieties, and tens of thousands of teachers.
What yoga means to me is going to be a little different from what it means to you and to anyone you know who has tried yoga. There is no one right or wrong way to practice yoga. So when you hear someone say, in judgement, “That’s not yoga”, you can ask them “What is yoga? And why do you get to decide?”
The one thing we can all agree on is that yoga can offer a huge array of benefits, from physical strength to mental acuity and — according to some — enlightenment and everlasting life!
While I can’t promise you immortality, I have seen yoga change the lives of hundreds of friends and students and I know it has the power to change your life, too.
Namaste OMies, Stephen
I hope this post has helped improve your understanding of the benefits of yoga and expanding your possibilities with yoga. It’s my goal to inspire you to explore your yoga practice more deeply while enabling you to cultivate the strength and clarity needed to live your life adventure to the fullest!