What is yoga?

Yoga in a few words

Yoga is a Sanskrit (ancient Indian language) noun which translates to « union ». Originally, yoga was considered as a spiritual method to train the body and mind to become aware of their own nature. Yoga is not considered as a religion, but a way of living with health and peace of mind as its aims. Coming up with a definition of yoga can be very challenging. Many schools and philosophies developed their own practice and definition. However, we easily identify one common aspect between all of them, which is the state of being.  In practice, doing yoga is moving through different poses and focusing on breath at the same time. On the physical level, yoga postures (called asanas) are designed to strengthen and align the body. These postures make the spine flexible and healthy and facilitate blood flow to all the parts of the body. On the mental level, breathing techniques (called pranayama) and meditation (called dyana) are used to quiet, clarify, and discipline the mind. However, even if today people mostly start doing yoga with a physical goal in mind, they soon realize that yoga is far more than just a physical exercize. Yogis should focus on the journey, not the destination, and simply enjoy the ride.

History

Yoga was created around 3000 b.c. in ancient India. Thus, it is one of the longest surviving philosophical systems in the world. Patanjali (around 150 b.c.) developed yoga based on a loose set of doctrines and practices coming from Hinduism. He established an eight-stage moral and physical discipline needed for the soul to attain absolute freedom from the body and self. Some gurus introduced yoga to Western countries in the 19th century. The Indian teacher and yogi Swami Vivekananda was the first one to bring yoga to America in the late 1800’s. However, yoga has become very famous in the 1960’s, when people started showing interest in Eastern philosophies. Since the 1980’s Yoga has become increasingly famous worlwide, but more as a physical exercise than a meditative and spiritual guide.

The effects of yoga practice

Recent research confirmed what yogis felt and believed many years ago. As you may know, yoga is often recommended to promote relaxation, stay fit, improve flexibility and reduce stress. Indeed, yoga has proven its capacity to provide the same benefits as any other exercise program, increasing general health and stamina and reducing stress. From a medical point of view, yoga has been used to alleviate problems associated with migraine headaches, diabetes, backaches, asthma, high blood pressure, menopause and many other chronic illnesses. Some clinicians have reported studies investigating yoga as a complementary intervention for cancer patients to decrease depression, insomnia, pain, and fatigue and to increase anxiety control. In terms of body benefits, by using only gravity as resistance, yoga is a perfect physical therapy routine. Yoga poses strengthen and balance all parts of the body. Yogis are fit, strong and flexible and injuries are very rare. Moreover, the physical posture and alignment required by yoga practice can influence your mood and self-esteem. Yoga is a highly relaxing exercise, but not only. Many yoga practitioners claim that the strengthening of mind/body awareness can bring eventual improvements in all facets of a person's life. But as explained before, the practice of yoga is not about improving the brain and body capabilities or being happier. In a globalized and inter-connected world in which we rush all the time, yoga is a chance to connect to what we already have and what we already are. We started this article saying that the common point between all types of yoga is the state of being. And this is the main reason why you should practice yoga: to be present to yourself and to other people, and be aware of any second of your life.

Different types of yoga

There are six major branches of yoga, but tons of different styles (also called types or schools). The six branches all have the same goal of union and health, but with different ways.
  1. HATHA Yoga is a generic designation for the branch of yoga including any physical postures: it’s the Yoga everybody knows. In fact the other branches of yoga below do not focus on postures.
  2. RAJA Yoga aims at finding mental clarity through meditation and simple lifestyle.
  3. KARMA Yoga focuses on awareness and peace by helping others.
  4. BHAKTI Yoga is the path of devotion and love of God, or Universal Spirit.
  5. JNANA Yoga is the practice and development of wisdom and knowledge.
  6. TANTRA yoga is the path of self-awareness through religious rituals, including awareness of sexuality as sacred and vital.
Thus, the most famous entry point to yoga is Hatha Yoga, the one involving a sequence of several postures and breathing techniques. But Hatha Yoga includes many different yoga styles. Let’s have a look at the most famous ones.
  • HATHA Yoga is the original yoga, from where all the others come. It includes more than 200 postures, but it is very gentle, its movements and postures are paced slowly, which makes it perfect for beginners.
  • ASHTANGA Yoga involves a very physically demanding sequence of postures. It uses a sequence of Hatha poses which are always performed in the same order. The sequence always starts with sun salutations to warm up. Then, the sweat and deep breath purify the body. Ashtanga Yoga can be difficult, but not impossible for beginners.
  • VINYASA Yoga is considered as the most athletic yoga style. It comes from Ashtanga, but here the poses go from one to another in a faster way. This is why Vinyasa is also called « Flow Yoga », it can look like a dance. There is no specific order of postures, and the flow depends on the teacher. Vinyasa is definitely not designed for beginners.
  • LYENGAR Yoga focuses on performing perfect movements and postures while controlling the breath. Each posture is held a long time until it becomes perfectly aligned. This yoga style is a good workout for injuries thanks the focus on method and alignment.
  • BIKRAM Yoga is designed for those who want to sweat… a lot ! The class is held in a sauna-like room and students perform two series of 26 postures. The heat (40°C and 40% Humidity) facilitates the loosening of tight muscles and cleans the body.
  • YIN Yoga mostly focuses on seated postures and relaxation. During the class, students hold few postures a longer time. Yin is a great class for beginners and people looking for inner peace.
There are as many yoga styles as yoga teachers on Earth since every expert can design specific classes according to her students’ needs. You will probably hear of prenatal yoga, sridaiva yoga, restorative yoga, power yoga, integral yoga, energy yoga and many others. However, most of them come from Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Lyengar, Bikram or Yin yoga.

Where to practice?

If you are a beginner, you need to start with a yoga teacher. She or he will explain you the purpose of each posture, and guide your practice. Wherever you are on Earth, you can probably find a group class in a Yoga Studio or a Gym. To make these group classes fun and unique, Panther organizes events such as Yoga Brunch, Afterwork Yoga, Yoga on Rooftops and many others. After few years of practice, enjoy the beauty of practicing alone, on the morning in your bedroom, in a forest, on a beach, wherever you are, whenever you want. There are already 300 million happy yogis in the world, what are you waiting for?

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