Yoga is a mind-body therapy that connects the body, breath, and mind to energize and balance the whole person. It uses physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to improve overall well-being.
Descriptions of yoga, the word means "union" in Sanskrit, appear more than 2,000 years ago, and yoga was practiced thousands of years before that. Today, millions of Americans of all ages and fitness levels practice yoga regularly. Although yoga is a spiritual practice for many, most Westerners do yoga for exercise or to reduce stress.
History of Yoga
In its traditional form, yoga is considered a complete lifestyle that provides a path to spiritual enlightenment.
The dimensions of yoga are sometimes depicted as a tree with eight limbs:
- Pranayama (breathing)
- Asana (postures)
- Yama (restraint)
- Niyama (healthy observances)
- Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (higher consciousness)
The practice of yoga came to the United States in the 1890s with the teachings of a guru named Swami Vivekananda. Yoga became popular in the 1960s because of growing interest in mind-body therapies. Today, yoga is often done as exercise, separated from its traditional spiritual roots. In this form, yoga is taught at local YMCAs, health clubs, and yoga centers. It is often suggested by doctors to reduce stress in people with high blood pressure and heart disease, and to improve flexibility in people with arthritis.
Types of Yoga
Different branches or paths of yoga have developed, including:
- Bhakti yoga. This form of yoga aims to take all of the love in one's heart and direct it toward the divine. By seeing God in all of creation, the person has respect for all life and is encouraged to treat others generously.
- Hatha yoga. This is the most common form of yoga in the United States. It emphasizes physical postures or exercises, known as asanas, with the goal of balancing the opposites in one's life. During the exercises, flexing is followed by extension, a rounded back is followed by an arched back, and physical exercises are followed by meditations.
- Jnana yoga. This form of yoga emphasizes deep contemplation. Practitioners seek Jnana, or "wisdom," through meditation. The goal is to be one with God.
- Karma yoga. This form of yoga is based on the philosophy that "yesterday's actions determine today's circumstances." Practitioners of Karma yoga make a conscious decision to perform selfless acts of kindness. By making today's actions positive, they hope to improve tomorrow's circumstances for both themselves and others.
- Raja yoga. Known in India as "the royal (raj) road to reintegration," Raja yoga blends the four layers of self: the body, the individual consciousness, the individual subconsciousness, and the universal and infinite consciousness. Raja yoga is most concerned with the mind and spirit and emphasizes meditation.
- Tantra yoga. Like Hatha yoga, practitioners of Tantra yoga seek to balance the opposites in their lives. They also try to break free of the "six enemies", which are physical longing, anger, greed, vanity, obsession, and jealousy; and the "eight fetters", which are hatred, apprehension, fear, shyness, hypocrisy, pride of ancestry, vanity of culture, and egotism, by using discipline, training, and rituals.
Hatha yoga is often a general term that is used for many different types or styles of yoga. If a class is called "Hatha yoga," it includes both breathing and physical exercises or postures. Other styles of yoga can be more intense. Among the more popular styles of yoga are:
- Ashtanga or Power yoga, a more demanding workout where you constantly move from one posture to another ("flow").
- Bikram or Hot yoga, a series of 26 asanas (postures) done in a room that is 95 to 100 degrees. The goal is to warm and stretch the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and to purify the body through sweat.
- Integral, a gentle type of yoga that may include breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation.
- Iyengar, emphasizes great attention to detail and precise alignment of the body, and holding poses for long periods of time.
- Kundalini, emphasizes the effects of breath on the postures, in order to free energy in the lower body to move upwards.
- Viniyoga, adapts postures to each person's needs and abilities, and synchronizes breath and postures. Breath leads the body into each posture.