The 21st of June marks International Yoga Day, recognised by the United Nations by their proclamation of 11 December 2014. Originating in India, yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual practice that is truly transformative, and the motto for this year’s celebration is “Yoga for Wellness”, a theme befitting for the current challenges. So what exactly is yoga, why does it matter and how can you use it to your advantage? Let’s take a closer look.
What is yoga?
The popularity of yoga as a form of physical exercise in the western world dates back to the 1980s, largely due to the influence of Dean Ornish, a follower of Swami Satchidananda, who connected yoga to heart health, effectively legitimizing yoga as a purely physical system of health exercises outside of counter-culture or esotericism circles, and unconnected to any religious denomination. Numerous asanas seemed modern in origin, and strongly overlapped with 19th and early-20th century Western exercise traditions.
Historically, however, yoga refers to a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines originating from ancient India around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. A broad variety of yoga schools, practices, and goals exist in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, with the most well-known types of yoga being Hatha yoga and Rāja yoga.
Why practise yoga?
Yoga has been widely studied and may be recommended to promote relaxation, reduce stress and improve some medical conditions such as premenstrual syndrome.It is considered to be a low-impact activity that can provide the same benefits as “any well-designed exercise program, increasing general health and stamina, reducing stress, and improving those conditions brought about by sedentary lifestyles”.
The NHS states that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity, especially strength, flexibility and balance, with some evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains – including lower back pain – depression and stress.
Yoga is generally promoted as a physical therapy routine, and as a regimen to strengthen and balance all parts of the body.
In addition to the physical exercise aspect, yoga can also be beneficial for breathing, focus, mindfulness, and stress relief. According to physician Jamie Zimmerman, MD, a Sonima meditation instructor, yoga “trains your brain to notice what’s happening your body, helping you pay more attention to sensations of hunger and satiety.” This can have a profound and positive effect on your psychological relationship with food – especially useful if your image is a key goal in your transformation.
A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health also argues that twenty minutes of yoga improves the brain’s ability to quickly and accurately process information – even more so than running. “While most exercise gives you a choice to either zone in or zone out, yoga encourages you to return to the present and pay attention,” states the author. “This mindful awareness has been correlated with structural changes in the brain, including growth in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with executive function, working memory, and attention.”
Which style of yoga should I try?
There are many popular styles of yoga that are widely practised including Ashtanga, Iyengar and Sivananda. Some styles are more vigorous than others, whereas some may have a different area of emphasis, such as posture or breathing. Today, many yoga teachers develop their own practice by studying more than one style.
No style is necessarily better or more authentic than any other. The key is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level and transformational objectives. You may choose a class that is more fitness-oriented if physical transformation is your desired outcome, whilst a more spiritual class may be more beneficial if you are looking to use yoga to enhance your character and work on your inner strength. If you are looking for a class with greater focus on the meditation and breathing elements, sessions will typically be longer.
Don’t be afraid to try a few different classes with different teachers to find the one that feels right for you.
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