by Diana Price, Medically Reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 07/27/21
Fitness trendsetters are onto something that ancient yogis knew thousands of years ago—yoga feels good and can help you stay healthy and fit. If you’re looking for a gentle form of exercise that feels great and can help you tone your body, look no further than the yoga mat.
What Exactly is Yoga?
Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “union.” This gentle, low-impact form of movement began more than 3,000 years ago in India as a way to promote union of mind, body, and spirit. The practice incorporates physical postures called asanas, with breathing practice (pranayama), and meditation(dhyana).
Yoga is considered a practice—not a religion—and anyone can choose to practice it without compromising individual religious or spiritual beliefs. Many people associate yoga with pretzel-like movements performed by contortionists, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are many different styles of yoga and the practice is available even to the most inflexible, stiff bodies.
Yoga as a Form of Exercise
Whether or not you embrace the breathing and mediation aspects of yoga, the physical postures are an excellent form of exercise. The gentle, low-impact movements target every muscle group in the body. Chances are you’ll begin yoga focused on the physical postures, but you’ll eventually find yourself noticing your breath and striving to quiet your mind, both of which can only benefit you.
There are many different types of yoga, so you should be able to find one that matches your goals and fitness level:
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- Ashtanga yoga: Ashtanga yoga is a vigorous, fast-paced form of yoga designed to build flexibility, strength, concentration, and stamina. The pre-determined series of postures is performed in synchronicity with the breath. Ashtanga is a very athletic practice—expect to sweat!
- Iyengar yoga: Iyengar yoga is designed to build strength and flexibility. The practice focuses on precise alignment. Practitioners of Iyengar yoga use props such as blankets, straps, mats, blocks, and chairs to support alignment. An Iyengar class is gentle, but challenging—expect to hold poses for long periods of time, such as one minute or more.
- Anusara yoga: Anusara is a newer form of yoga, created in 1997, that combines strict principles of alignment with a playful spirit. One of the main goals during an Anusara class is to open the heart.
- Restorative yoga: Restorative yoga is a very relaxing form of yoga designed to help muscles fully relax. Expect to spend long periods of time in reclined poses supported by bolsters and blocks. Restorative yoga is a form of passive stretching.
- Bikram yoga: Bikram yoga is often referred to as “hot yoga.” Bikram yoga consists of a series of 26 postures practiced twice each in a room that is heated to 95 -100 degrees Fahrenheit. The practice focuses on detoxification and building stamina. Bikram yoga is not for the faint of heart—expect to sweat…a lot.
- Vinyasa yoga/Power Yoga: Vinyasa yoga and power yoga are sort of watered-down versions of Ashtanga yoga. The poses are linked to the breath and performed in a flowing sequence. The practice builds strength and stamina and can be an intense aerobic workout.
Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is a gentle, low-impact form of movement that has been shown to reduce stress and improve quality of life. It can improve flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina. It has even been shown to improve mental clarity, promote relaxation, and aid sleep.
Many people approach yoga as a physical practice – and it is – but it is also an opportunity to breathe and quiet the mind. It’s sort of like a moving meditation. Most people find themselves more relaxed and peaceful as a result of the practice.
You don’t need to chant or meditate to practice yoga. All you need is a mat, comfortable clothing, and an open mind. A qualified yoga instructor will help guide you through the practice that is right for your body. The first class may seem daunting, but we navigate yoga the same way we navigate life – one breath at a time. Chances are that after that first class, you’ll be hooked.