A look at the benefits of the spiritual practice of Yoga.
What is Yoga?
Loved by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Lady Gaga, yoga has been popular in Western culture since the 1980s. But where did it come from and what exactly is it? Although we now tend to think of yoga as an exercise routine, it was originally intended as a spiritual practice. Yoga was created as a holistic healing technique that helps and enriches a person's spiritual development.
The word 'yoga' means 'union' which refers to the idea that it is intended to unite your body, mind and soul, helping you to balance and harmonise these three different areas of your life. It originates from the ancient Hindu medical practice of Ayurveda, and is thought to date back more than 2,000 years. So this is one celebrity trend that's certainly not a passing fad!
How does it work?
The purpose of yoga is to calm the mind, in a similar way to meditation. It is said to guide you towards finding inner peace by helping you to reconcile your physical self with your mental self and your spiritual self.
Yoga has many different ways of being practised, but most of them follow the Yoga Sutras written down in about 500 BC. This is an eight-stage guide that is part moral code and part practical advice on how to deepen your spirituality.
1) Yamas: practising non violence/restraint/truthfulness
2) Niyamas: having purity of mind and body/thoughtfulness/being content
3) Asana: yoga postures
4) Pranayama: breathing techniques and control
5) Pratyahara: control of the senses
6) Dharana: Concentration/focus
7) Dhyana: meditation
8) Samadhi: higher state of consciousness
As well as its spiritual purpose, yoga is said to provide physical health benefits. The asanas, which means poses or postures stretch and strengthen muscles, increasing your physical flexibility, stamina and blood flow. Yoga is also said to reduce stress and boost your mood. The idea is not to strain or push your body but to slowly and gently build up your strength. Each pose represents a different flow of energy. Eventually you work towards practising pratyahara, dharana and dhyana while holding a yoga pose for long periods of time in an attempt to achieve unification of mind, body and spirit.
While you hold the yoga poses, you practice breathing control and techniques (pranayama). These aim to aid your concentration and fill the whole of your lungs with air to improve oxygen circulation around your body and to encourage the free flow of life force energy.
Beginners should take classes with a qualified yoga instructor who will help you to work at your own pace and master poses that might be dangerous to try without supervision. Once you have learned some of the techniques, you can practice them at home. You can buy books that show you the various yoga poses, or look online or in your local library.
Types of Yoga
There are many strands of yoga, each with a slightly different emphasis - some more relaxed and some to provide an intense work-out. Here are six of the most popular types.
Derived from ancient Indian texts, this yoga was popularised in the west during the Seventies and Eighties. Linking each posture to a breath, ashtanga yoga is a vigorous, demanding version of the exercise transforming static poses into flowing movement. Postures are always performed in the same order.
A series of 26 poses practised in sweat-inducing heated studios. This type of yoga is not for the faint-hearted. It is said to encourage fast weight loss and is favoured by some athletes but its style and its founder has attracted controversy in recent years.
The best choice for beginners. This is a gentle introduction to basic yoga poses. You will not be pushed but you will feel stretched and exercised after a class. This is the most popular style in the UK.
Creating proper alignment of pose is the most important thing in this yoga. You will be instructed in great detail about how to execute each position perfectly. To do this, props such as foam blocks or chairs are often used. Teachers are trained to a very high standard so choose this style if you have an injury as you will receive knowledgeable instruction.
Fluid movement and flowing poses are the key to this yoga type. Kundalini is your life force energy, which believers say is coiled up like a snake at the base of your spine. This yoga aims to awaken your kundalini energy.
Moving fairly rapidly through a series of poses which are sometimes set to music; this yoga is almost like a dance. The movements are synchronised to the breathing and no two sessions are the same so you get lots of variety.
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