The practice of yoga has become a massive, widespread industry — approximately 20 million individuals practice yoga in the US and the activity is a $10 billion-per-year industry. And it’s not without it’s merits. Studies suggest it not only promotes physical fitness but also mental well-being. To put it bluntly, taking up yoga makes a lot of sense for those trying to better their lives.
Technically speaking, what we call yoga is somewhat of a misnomer. Yoga is a term that encompasses a wide variety of mental, physical, philosophical and spiritual elements that originated in India approximately 5,000 years ago. The yoga we predominantly practice in the western world is called Hatha yoga, one branch of yoga that focuses on physical poses that promote physical wellness — meant to beget both mental wellbeing and spiritual awareness.
Hatha yoga itself is believed to have originated around the 11th century, but its roots in western culture only date back to the late 19th century. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is known as the father of modern yoga. He taught yoga in Mysore, India where he garnered interest in the practice among his young students by emphasizing the physical elements of the practice while adding western gymnastic techniques to his teachings.
Many of Krishnamacharya’s students were integral in bringing yoga to the west. One student, a Russian woman who went by the name Indra Devi and was Krishnamacharya’s first female student, helped spread his teachings in the west when she taught her own gentle yoga practices in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Another student, K. Pattabhi Jois taught westerners who came to study with him in Mysore in the ’60s and ’70s. Jois created his own Ashtanga style yoga, which he taught to celebrity students like Sting, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Krishnamacharya’s students, and their subsequent students, have made yoga the widespread practice that it is today. And though popular versions of yoga tend to shy away from yoga’s humble, more spiritual origins, its emphasis on wellness — both of the mind and body — remains very much intact.
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While Hatha Yoga is essentially a blanket term that encompasses all physical practices of yoga, if you see a class specifically billed as Hatha it will be aimed at beginners. Hatha classes teach the basics of positions and breathing exercises at a relaxed pace. It’s gentle and an all-around great way to relax and work on your flexibility. If you’re not sure if yoga is for you, this is the place to start.
Bikram and Hot Yoga
Hot yoga is pretty much what you think it is: yoga practiced in heated rooms, typically 105 degrees. It is most often associated with Bikram Choudhury’s Bikram style yoga, though the two are technically not the same — Bikram always utilizes the same 26 positions, whereas regular hot yoga has no limitations on what positions are practiced. Some have touted hot yoga as a great way to build strength and lose weight, but studies have suggested its benefits don’t go beyond traditional yoga classes while increasing the likelihood of over-stretching and heat exhaustion. Bottom line? If you don’t do well in the heat, your time is better spent elsewhere.
Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Power Yoga
Vinyasa is a rigorous, fast-paced yoga style where positions are connected through breathing. One style of Vinyasa is Ashtanga, a practice developed by K. Pattabhi Jois. It is characterized by a set of six series of positions that make up around 70 positions overall; these positions are always practiced in Ashtanga. Power Yoga, like Vinyasa, doesn’t follow a fixed set of poses, but has a more athletic focus compared to Vinyasa. Though they have their differences, Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Power yoga are all great options for those who want to use yoga as an opportunity to get fit.
Developed by B.K.S Iyengar, this type of yoga places importance on body alignment and attention to detail in forming poses. Props such as straps, cushions and benches are used to set up the pose properly. Even beyond the slow pace of beginner-oriented Hatha yoga, the poses are often held for long periods of time. The overall effect is meant to be physically therapeutic and is helpful to those recovering from injuries and body pains.
Called the “yoga of awareness,” Kundalini yoga is more philosophical and spiritual in nature. It combines positions and physical exercise with chanting and meditation. Compared to other yoga types practiced in the US, it’s still a bit more obscure, and to some it might be too “out there.” But, with an emphasis on mental well-being, it might be the best option for those looking for a wholly therapeutic experience.
Basic Terms to Know
Asana: Another word for position or posture during yoga sessions.
Namaste: Literally meaning “I bow to you,” it is a term used by practitioners, usually at the end of a class.
Om: A mantra chanted at the beginning and end of yoga sessions; in Hinduism, it is the “sound of the universe.”
Pranayama: Awareness of or controlling breathing.
Savasana: This means “corpse pose,” it is a final, restorative position in a yoga class.
Ujjayi: Sometimes referred to as an “ocean” or “victorious” breath, the Ujjayi breath requires inhaling, constricting the throat muscles and breathing through the nose. This promotes concentration and relaxation.
Vinyasa: A movement between asanas in yoga sessions, usually accompanied by breathing.
Festivals to Attend
One of the biggest Yoga festivals around, Wanderlust is — fittingly — a traveling fest comprised of yoga, meditation, musical performances, lectures and workshops. The yoga at Wanderlust ranges from beginner to advanced and encompasses a variety of yoga styles, so any practicing yogi should feel at home. What’s more, Wanderlust comes to several cities throughout the year, so there’s no pressure to travel far.
Telluride Yoga Festival
This festival takes place in the small, 2,319-person mountain town of Telluride, Colorado. The small, idyllic setting gives it a relaxed feel, ideal for finding your center. And while there are plenty of opportunities to practice your asanas with the guidance of world-class instructors, the festival is also an opportunity to explore surrounding mountain wilderness through hikes and climbs. Come for the yoga, stay for the scenery.
Bahkti Fest Midwest
Bahkti Fest Midwest, held in Madison, Wisconsin, is the definitive midwestern yoga festival. While it has music and workshops like other yoga festivals, Bakhti Fest focuses primarily on the spiritual and meditative aspects of yoga, be they traditional or modern. There’s also a wellness sanctuary that includes massages, bodywork and energy work.
Maine Yoga Fest
This New England festival takes place in Portland, a great place to go in and of itself. But the chance to try yoga while suspended from the air, on slacklines or on paddleboards should be reason enough for East Coast yogis to make a trip to Maine Yoga Fest. With over 40 instructors and studios on hand it’s also a great place to hone your yoga skills beyond the experimental stuff.
International Yoga Festival
Perhaps the ultimate yoga pilgrimage, the International Yoga Festival takes place annually at the Parmarth Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It includes presentations and instruction from dozens of spiritual leaders and yoga teachers from India and around the rest of the world.
So, Should I Do Yoga?
Weighing the Risks and Rewards
Because yoga is often billed as a relaxing and restorative exercise, and it has its roots in physical and mental well-being, it’s easy to overlook the potential risks of practicing yoga. Exercise is inherently a risky thing and yoga isn’t much different from more obviously high-risk activities like running or football. Practitioners can run the risk of over-stretching, tearing ligaments, dislocating joints or pulling muscles.
But unlike running or football, there is an increased awareness of one’s body in yoga. Injuries can be easy to avoid if you’re aware of your body’s limitations. The “no pain, no gain” maxim does not apply here. If something hurts, you need to slow down or stop. Don’t attempt poses that are beyond your capability and don’t overdo positions that are giving you a hard time.
If you stay mindful of your body while practicing yoga it can be incredibly beneficial. Aside from the obvious increases in flexibility, muscle tone and weight loss (especially if you’re doing more physically demanding styles), yoga has been known to reduce stress, anxiety and bodily aches and pains. Studies have also suggested practicing yoga helps you sleep better, and it may even increase your libido. If any of those benefits sound appealing to you and you’re willing to put in the effort and patience to get better at yoga, then it’s more than worth trying. Namaste.