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The Health Benefits of Yoga

Yoga: A Fitting Practice

I’m not flexible. I’m too stressed out. These are the most common excuses why most people don’t take yoga. But, they’re missing the point. The whole reason for taking a yoga class is to become more flexible and reduce stress.

In today’s anxiety-ridden world, yoga is the perfect solution. Unlike so many other activities, yoga is not competitive. You work to your own level and rest when needed. For those accustomed to the gym or an aerobics class, it’s a nice respite. For others who haven’t done anything physical in years and are nervous, this should calm your fears.

10 Reasons to Join Yoga

If you’re contemplating taking yoga, September is a great time as it marks the first official National Yoga Awareness month. The Department of Health & Human services created this new health observance to build awareness of yoga’s proven health benefits and provide people with actionable guidance and tools to better their own well-being. To commemorate the event, many studios around the country are providing free classes and workshops during the month. For more information or to find free classes in your area go to Yoga Month.

If you need another reason to take up yoga, consider the latest findings. In a recent study researchers found that those who practiced yoga were more mindful. Since watching what you eat requires mindfulness, they found that yoga participants were more likely to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than others who participated in other types of physical activities.

Not convinced yet about the benefits of yoga? Then, visit the Yoga Alliance website to learn about the top 10 Reasons to Try Yoga.

What is Yoga?

Yoga refers to traditional physical and mental disciplines originating in India. The main philosophy of yoga is simple - mind, body and spirit are all one and can not be separated.

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” which means to control, to yoke or to unite. Yoga is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Buddhism and Janism.

The development of yoga can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago and possibly longer. In the 1800s and early 1900s, yoga masters began traveling to the West, attracting attention and followers. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hatha yoga was strongly promoted in India through the work of Swami Sivananda, T. Krishnamacharya and others. Three of Krishnamacharya’s followers – B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois – continued his legacy and increased the popularity of Hatha yoga.

What is commonly considered yoga in the West is just one of several paths of yoga and is referred to as Hatha yoga. In the 15th century, Swami Swatamarama compiled a text called Hatha Yoga Pradipika which described this system of yoga. The main goal of the text was to describe the physical disciplines and practices of Hatha yoga and integrate these with meditation.

Types of Yoga Classes

Yoga can be described by the word asana, which refers to the practice of physical postures or poses. What differentiates yoga styles is the pace and variety of poses used during the class.

Here are four major styles of yoga along with a brief description of what to expect:

Traditional Styles (Iyengar, Ashtanga). Originated in India and incorporate the teachings from Indian gurus. Ashtanga means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, a fast-paced, intense style of yoga. A set series of poses are performed, in the same order. This type of class is more physically demanding and is often the inspiration for what is often called Power Yoga. Traditional styles emphasize developing strength and stamina.

Contemporary Styles (Bikram, Forrest). These styles originated in the U.S. but are based on the traditional methods of yoga. Bikram, which was pioneered by Bikram Choudhury, is a style of yoga that is practiced in a 95 to 100 degree room. This method uses a set series of 26 poses. The heat is designed to help loosen muscles and joints but care must be taken not to overdo it and cause injury. Contemporary styles emphasize developing flexibility through stretching.

Vinyasa/Flow (Hatha). Vinyasa is a general term which means breath-synchronized movement. Vinyasas are used in many different types of classes. In a vinyasa flow, a series of poses called Sun Salutations are performed where movement is matched to breath. Flow styles emphasize breathing and stretching.

Alignment Oriented (Iyengar, Anusara). These type of classes focus on correct body alignment. These classes are ideal for beginners because they tend to move more slowly, focusing on the correct position and preventing injury. Iyengar is based on the teaching of B.K.S. Iyengar and is focused with body alignment. These types of classes emphasize holding a pose for longer periods of time vs. moving quickly from one pose to the next. Alignment styles emphasize form, stamina and stretching.

If you want to learn a few basic yoga poses prior to joining a class, websites like Yoga Journal, Gaiam and even Amazon offer a number of DVDs and books.

Yoga Studios: Teacher Certification

Once you’ve identified the type of yoga class to take, the next step is where. You needn’t find a yoga studio nor live in California. Across the country, local schools, colleges, and YMCAs offer yoga classes. Many gyms offer yoga as part of membership so you don’t need to pay anything extra to participate. A simple Google search should turn up plenty of options. YogaClassSearch offers an online search tool to find a yoga class in your area but does require that you enter your email address.

Greater class availability means more options to choose from. If possible, try to find a qualified teacher. Although no national standard exists, sites like YogaAlliance allow you to search for certified teachers in your area

Instructors certified by Yoga Alliance meet certain standards. Upon completion of a 200 hour program, teachers can use the RYT symbol or Registered Yoga Teacher. Completion of the 500 hour program, entitles teachers to use the E-RYT symbol or Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher. To learn more about Yoga Alliance Training Designations, click here.

Equipment Needed

You’ve signed up for a yoga class, so the next question is what to bring? The good news is that the requirements are very limited and inexpensive.

The most important investment is a yoga mat. In some studios, you can borrow a mat, keeping in mind that many people have used it before you. Yoga mats come in a variety of thicknesses. If your class is on a hard wood floor, then opt for a model with more cushioning. Yoga mats can be purchased in many sporting goods stores, even at Target (that’s when you know yoga has gone mainstream). Plenty of options are also available on-line. A decent yoga mat can be purchased for $27.00 - $50.00.

Before going out and spending a lot of money on a new yoga outfit, it’s wise to try a few classes first. For very hot classes like Bikram, don’t wear too much clothing! For most classes, a work-out top (for women) and fitted, stretch shorts tend to work well. Whatever you wear, make sure that you have enough coverage to accommodate a variety of upside down positions. Once you’re ready to buy, you don’t necessarily need to purchase from a specialty outfitter like LuLuLemon or Prana or Hard Tail.

A number of well-known brands including Nike, Fabletics, and REI along with niche-brands like Athleta and Lucy offer yoga apparel. In addition to your outfit and mat, you should make sure that you bring a towel, bottle of water, and if you sweat profusely, perhaps a change of clothes.

Mindfulness that Costs Pennies

Regardless of where you live in the U.S., yoga is one of the least expensive investments you can make in your health. Prices vary but should be no more than $20.00 per class. If you buy a series, the cost typically ranges from $12.00 - $18.00 per class. Before purchasing a series, be sure to try the studio first and even experiment with different teachers. Once you’ve tried a few classes, then you can determine if it makes sense to invest more. Remember, with National Yoga Awareness month in September, be on the lookout for special pricing and free classes.

A final note: Don’t be afraid to walk out on a class that doesn’t fit your needs. I have practiced yoga for over 25 years and have walked out on plenty of classes that were boring, too slow or had a lousy teacher. If you’re first experience wasn’t what you hoped that’s fine. Try another class. Or, try another teacher. But, give yourself the benefit of the trying a few times before you make a final decision.

Last updated August 31, 2016

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