Jane E. says her daily practice of yoga makes her more flexible, improves her concentration, and gives her an aerobic workout as well.
"It's a really comprehensive kind of exercise that not only affects my physical well-being, but creates an important connection between my body and my mind. I feel more energized and also refreshed mentally after practicing yoga."
Apparently many people agree. Over 10 million Americans report that they do yoga, an exercise made up of a series of poses based on an ancient Indian spiritual discipline. If you're interested in starting yoga, you might want to try an introductory drop-in session—an option at many studios and establishments—before committing to weekly classes.
Since yoga first gained visibility in the 1960s, numerous teachers, styles, and organizations have emerged, but finding one that's right for you can sometimes be a challenge. A good teacher and the right practice can significantly contribute to your enjoyment, growth, and understanding. Moreover, a good teacher can ultimately determine whether you continue to gain the benefits from a constant and continuing practice.
How Yoga is Used in the United States
Yoga combines physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation. Its purpose is to increase relaxation and balance the mind, body, and spirit. Yoga means "union" or "yoke," and it is believed that this describes the union between body and soul. Yoga was developed as a discipline to help practitioners reach spiritual enlightenment.
There is some research that suggests that yoga might help with conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, and improving balance in seniors. Even though there is some evidence that suggests that yoga might be good for your health, yoga should never be used as a substitute for conventional medical care. If you have a medical condition or problem, consult your doctor before starting yoga. Learn about the physical demands of the type of yoga you are interested in and discuss them with your doctor.
Different Kinds of Yoga
Perhaps your physician has recommended yoga to you as a way to relax, or you've talked to a friend who swears by her annual yoga retreat. Don't be fooled by the seeming passiveness of the idea of a "pose." While yoga is not a sport and is never competitive, it can be as rigorous as an aerobics class.
There are many different schools and styles taught in the US. Some teachers have been certified in particular traditions, others offer a synthesis based on their own practice with Indian masters. The various major traditions include the following:
Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding form of the practice. This yoga uses a concept of "flow" that has participants moving continuously and jumping from one posture to another, building strength, flexibility, and stamina. This is a real workout and not for those looking for leisurely stretching exercises.
Bikram yoga, founded by Bikram Choudhury, utilizes yoga postures practiced in a heated environment.
was developed by Swami Satchidananda relies on breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation as much as on postures for the practice.
is a style of yoga that uses props such as blocks and belts to aid practitioners in performing many of the more difficult postures, and great attention is paid to a precise alignment of postures.
places emphasis on "honoring the wisdom of the body" and allowing each student to develop an awareness of mind, body, emotion, and spirit. The practice is delineated into three stages: learning the postures and exploring the body’s ability; holding the postures for an extended time and developing an inner awareness; and moving from one posture to another in a spontaneous movement.
involves postures, meditation, and the coordination of breath and movement. The practice is said to create a controlled release of kundalini energy, a creative force thought to sit at the base of the spine.
involves a set structure that includes relaxation, pranayama (breathing), and classic asana postures.
was developed by Krishnamacharya, a teacher whose disciples have created numerous other yoga forms. Viniyoga is a gentle form of flow yoga (continuous movement) which focuses on a student's ability rather than on idealized form.
For a description of other traditions see
Finding a Teacher
There are many excellent yoga books that explain the postures and have beautiful photographs and illustrations. Yet a teacher can impart an understanding of the poses and the practice of yoga in a way that a book cannot. A teacher can also help you develop correct alignment in the various poses so that you get the greatest benefit and an internal stretching and healing begins.
While there is still an emphasis on yoga as a physical exercise, many teachers now address the more spiritual aspects of practice as well.
"My teacher includes a meditation practice and sprinkles our class with aphorisms about letting go and being in the moment," says Dale.
Other teachers take a holistic or even therapeutic approach with their students, reading their yoga practice as an open book on their personality and behavior.
"My yoga teacher would tell me 'stay in the pose' when I thought I was just too tired and needed to rest," says Anna, "but she was usually right. She seemed to know more about my endurance and capabilities than I did, and as a result I gained a new sense of self and discovered a reserve of strength and power that I didn't know I had."
Elisa opted to attend a more structured class with a more reserved teacher.
"I just want a teacher who corrects my postures if they are sloppy," she says. "Not someone who seems to have some advice for other aspects of my life."
There is no national certification program for yoga teachers, because standards for teacher training and certification are different for each style of yoga. Before choosing a teacher, learn as much as you can about their training, including who they trained with, whether they have any specialized training (such as teaching yoga to children or people with disabilities), and if they continue to study and train.
The word "yoga" as we use it in the United States, refers to a broad category of some very different kinds of mental, physical, and spiritual practices. If you have a desire to learn, you should take some time to get acquainted with the different schools and styles to appreciate what various teachers have to offer. This is, in fact, a most personal kind of exercise, and the benefits accrue slowly and subtly over time.