Yoga is an ancient practice originating from the Indian subcontinent. It is not a sport, but rather a physical discipline and art form. True yoga is non-competitive and the aim is to improve and perfect one's own practice of the asanas (postures). You may see advanced yoga practioners doing quite extraordinary things with their bodies (e.g. try Googling the asana called Niralamba Sirsasana), which have no doubt taken years of regular practice to achieve!
Beginning its life thousands of years ago in the form of meditative sitting positions, yoga has evolved and developed into a full physical system aiming to enhance the well-being of the mind and body. It is becoming a hugely popular pursuit across the world, as people recognise the benefits which practicing it can bring.
Yoga Has a Spiritual Aspect, Should I be Freaked-Out?
Yoga is different from other forms of physical exercise because it is an art form which has some very inclusive spiritual considerations at its heart. Yoga looks at the complete package and aims to improve the well being of your body and thereby also your mind (or soul, however you like to think of it).
Yoga is definitely not a religion. Confusion does arise, however, because it is such a broad and all-encompassing term. In its homeland of India, yoga is indeed linked into religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Those practicing on this pathway focus on the meditation, breathing exercises and rituals, intertwining it with the practices of their religion. Prana Kriya, Bahkti and Kundalini are styles of yoga, which emphasise this spiritual aspect.
The type of yoga performed with an emphasis on physical postures, is actually known as Hatha Yoga (literally ‘fierce’ yoga). This is what we more commonly think of in the West when the term ‘yoga’ is used. You can practice Hatha Yoga (and it’s many variants, some of which are listed below) safe in the knowledge that it is unlikely to interfere with any type of religious or non-religious views that you hold.
How much spirituality is involved in a conventional Hatha Yoga lesson is entirely down to each teacher or style. It may take the form of an invocation at the start of the class (frequently performed in Astanga Yoga), chanting an ‘Om’ sound at the beginning or end of a lesson, chakra (energy points in the body) work, sitting or lying silent mediation at the beginning and/or end of the session or in a verbally guided meditation.
Essentially, all forms of Hatha Yoga revolve around the practice of postures (called asanas), most of which have their own names in Sanskrit (the language of the pre-Hindu Indian civilisation). This gives us postures with names such as Trikonasana (triangle), Baddhakonasana (bound-angle), Virabhadrasana (warrior) and so on. Learning the posture names is incredibly interesting (many have stories and myths behind them), however not at all essential and most teachers tend to interchange between the Sanskrit and western names.
To make matters even more confusing; in the last 100 years, Hatha Yoga has split into some distinct styles, as various teachers have added new meaning and insight to the practice. For example you may hear about some of the following:
- Astanga Yoga - performed very methodically in series of set routines or ‘vinyasas’
- Iyengar Yoga - challenging postures held for long duration and often using a lot of props and equipment to master them
- Jivamukti Yoga - which has very particular methods of sequencing postures and uses traditional Indian music. Its practitioners also take on various ethical lifestyle considerations
- Dharma Mitra Yoga - with many hand balances requiring balance and strength
- Forrest Yoga - with an emphasis on respecting and healing your body
Typically most yoga teachers (myself included) have experienced more than just one style of Hatha Yoga, and will therefore bring their own unique perspective to classes they teach.