Are you a Yoga newbie? Still having trouble deciding which style to try out first? I understand that it can be difficult in the beginning – the amount of information out there and the huge variety of classes on offer can be overwhelming!
I’m going to teach about; the origins and benefits of Yoga practice, the different styles you have to choose from, and why a particular style might work better for you than another. Keep reading to not only learn about this incredible way to achieve optimal health and but also how to pick the best style for you.
Here are some basic facts about Yoga that will help you more about this ancient practice.
What is Yoga?
Let’s start with what Yoga is not; Yoga is not a religion, neither is it necessary to become a vegetarian to benefit from Yoga practice.
Yoga is a collection of physical, mental, and spiritual practices that date back thousands of years. Yoga is intended to create greater physical health while providing its practitioners with mental clarity, tranquility, and focus.
Do I Need to Be Flexible?
Many Yoga styles demand a degree of flexibility to be considered proficient – but you don’t need to be flexible to begin practicing Yoga. A better way to look at it is; Yoga can help develop your flexibility. Being more supple is a benefit of Yoga practice, not a prerequisite.
Do I Need To Practice Every Day?
Of course not! Even one hour of Yoga practice per week will let you reap the health and mental benefits of this extraordinary approach to strength and health.
What Does Namaste Mean?
Namaste is a traditional greeting in Yoga that is basically you recognizing the divine spark in another person. It has very deep spiritual roots in Hindu culture and literally means: ‘I bow to the divine in you.’
The Roots of Yoga – Upanishads and Vedas
An intrinsic part of Yoga practice is the recitation of mantras (repetitive phrases/words); the mantras are traditionally extracted from Indian holy texts called the Vedas. Vedic mantras are used to praise and invoke spiritual powers to act in our lives.
The Vedas are both a spiritual core and the philosophical foundation of Yoga, as well as Hinduism.
Although the Vedas are the most valued sacred texts in Hindu culture – the Upanishads are the vehicle used to transfer their wisdom into pragmatic teachings that Yoga practitioners can benefit from every day.
Traditionally there are about two-hundred Upanishads, but only eleven are considered as ‘principal’ to Yoga. The Yogic practices taught by the Upanishads are meditation based, and the philosophy is a component of the core beliefs in all styles of Yoga.
What Science Says About Yoga
There are many ways that Yoga promotes health; many of them based originating from the physical movements and postures used, and others from learning better stress management. Here are some scientifically based benefits of Yoga.
Back pain is a common health problem in the US. 80% of Americans will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. This study published in The Clinical Journal of Joint Pain strongly indicates that Yoga can help.
In a controlled study, Hatha Yoga practice provided women with knee osteoarthritis significant relief from pain and increased levels of joint mobility.
Research at the University of Westminster has demonstrated that practicing Yoga can reduce perceived levels of depression in the subjects tested. The University researchers concluded that Yoga is an effective alternative treatment for depression.
Now, let’s examine the most popular Yoga styles and explain why each may be the right choice for you.
Hatha simply means ‘physical’ Yoga; which describes just about all the Yoga styles you’ll encounter in our part of the world. Hatha Yoga is an umbrella term for the different styles you’ll see listed on any studio’s schedule.
Ashtanga is a physically demanding Yoga that is based on 6 strenuous pose sequences called the series. They are performed sequentially as you progress. You’ll be moving rapidly from one pose to another with each Vinyasa: the series of poses you practice linked by inhalations and exhalations of breath.
Bikram Yoga (hot yoga) is named for its creator; Bikram Choudhury. You practice under sauna like conditions (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) as you move through 26 basic Yoga postures – twice. Bikram is appealing to newbies because the classes are predictable; allowing you to focus more on the workout, than remembering the sequence.
Do you like to feel the burn? Vinyasa Yoga has a lot in common with CrossFit.
The class is dynamic as you link movement and breath in a manner that is dance-like and quick. There’s a strong cardio component to Vinyasa Yoga; your heart will be pumping!
If you like an intense exercise session – then Vinyasa is for you.
Kundalini Yoga is growing in popularity. This isn’t a typical Yoga class; its based on Kriyas, which are repetitive physical movements coupled with intense breathing – while meditating, singing, and chanting.
It’s both physically and mentally demanding.
The goal of Kundalini is to release the untapped energy within you and raise your level of self-awareness. If you want to focus as much on the spiritual aspect of Yoga as the physical – this could be the right style for you.
This is a slow moving and tranquil style of Yoga intended to create a deep state of relaxation. You’ll hold poses longer to have a chance to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system.
Restorative Yoga is a style everyone can benefit from at one point or another. If you have a hard time winding down, struggle with insomnia or are frequently anxious, then Restorative Yoga could be the answer.
Ashtanga Yoga Has a Profound Impact on Health
People have been practicing (and enjoying the benefits of) Yoga for thousands of years. While its popularity has waxed and waned over the last hundred years – Yoga is enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the United States. Research has proven that practicing Yoga can have a profound impact on your health.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the most physically dynamic styles of Yoga and what it could do to make you feel better, look better, restore your health, and improve your mood.
What is Ashtanga Yoga
Yoga is a three-thousand-year old practice that originates in the Indian sub-continent; the word itself means to “yoke” or “connect.” The things being connected are traditionally understood to be the body and spirit in order for practitioners to achieve liberation.
There are various styles of Yoga, and each one has a particular focus or goal. We’re going to focus on one style of physically dynamic Yoga that has enjoyed incredible popularity in the U.S. since the 1980’s; Ashtanga Yoga.
The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga actually means “eight limbs.” As a system of both physical and spiritual health maintenance, there is an underlying philosophy to Ashtanga Yoga that is divided into eight parts.
1) Yama: Restraints and moral discipline
This limb refers to the vows, discipline and practices that concern the world around us, and how we interact with it.
While practicing yoga can increase physical strength/ flexibility and also aid in calming your mind; what’s the point if you’re still stiff, weak and stressed in daily life?
Ashtanga Yoga has five Yamas; including
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (don’t steal)
- Brahmacharya (correct use of energy)
- Aparigraha (avoiding greed).
2) Niyama: Positive duties or observances
The second limb usually refers to our duties towards ourselves, but can also be considered in actions towards the world. Niyamas are traditionally practiced by people who want to build character.
3) Asana: Posture
The physical aspect of yoga is the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga. This concept means being able to repose comfortably, so you’re not “pulled” by aches and discomfort of the body or suffer restlessness from an uncomfortable position.
4) Pranayama: Breathing Techniques
The word Prana means “energy.” It is used to describe the force that keeps us alive and the energy of the universe. Prana is associated with the breath also refers to working with the way we breathe. Ashtanga Yoga teaches that controlling the breath can affect the mind in a very real way.
5) Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal
Pratya means to withdraw or draw in. The second part ahara means anything we absorb; the various sights, sounds and smells we perceive continuously.
6) Dharana: Focused concentration
Dharana means focused concentration. Dha means maintaining, and Ana means something else. Visualization and focusing on the breath are practices of dharana and are what we generally think of as meditation.
7) Dhyana: Meditative absorption
The seventh limb is when we become completely absorbed in whatever we’re meditating on.
8) Samadhi: Enlightenment
This is thought of as the final step of the Ashtanga Yoga journey.
Ashtanga Yoga may have lofty spiritual goals built into it – but we’re going to look at some of the scientifically verified benefits of this ancient practice that will allow to you reap some incredible real-world health benefits.
Ashtanga Yoga and Flexibility
The postures of Ashtanga Yoga are an effective way to build and maintain a high degree of muscular flexibility that will make daily movement easier and prevent the injuries that can come from making sudden moves or being accidentally forced to move a joint or muscle beyond the typical range of motion.
According to a study conducted by the Journal of Athletic Training: Increased flexibility is positively correlated with reduced muscle soreness and incidence of injury in the physically active.
Research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine has discovered that female test subjects who completed an eight-month course of Ashtanga Yoga practice experienced a significant increase in muscle strength and flexibility. The conclusion of this study was that Ashtanga Yoga is an effective alternative to conventional strength training.
Ashtanga Yoga is Heart-Healthy
A research study in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology strongly suggests that Yoga has genuine benefits for heart health by mitigating or reversing cardiovascular and metabolic risk factors that may lead to disease.
Ashtanga Yoga and Mental Health
There is concrete evidence that practicing Ashtanga Yoga is an effective way to improve mood, relieve depression, and help maintain a positive outlook on life according to a paper in the journal Mindfulness.
Study participants were required to complete at least two Ashtanga Yoga classes per week for a period of nine weeks. Research subjects who completed the full nine-week course reported significant improvements in:
- Feelings of depression and anxiety
- Interpersonal functioning related to assertiveness,
- Increased attention to self-needs
- Capacity to connect
Your Bones Will Benefit
There is conclusive, research-based evidence that Ashtanga Yoga has a positive effect on bone density in postmenopausal women. The study followed 34 pre and postmenopausal women over eight months to determine what effect if any, that Ashtanga Yoga would have on bone health.
Participants who took two one-hour long classes per week showed measurable improvements in bone mineralization. The researchers further conclude that Yoga practice on a more frequent schedule will likely result in even greater improvements than they observed.
Improving Balance and Stability
People who are visually impaired are at greater risk for falls due to the lack of visual input to establish balance. In this study, scientists evaluated an Ashtanga-based Yoga Therapy program as a multi-sensory intervention to improve postural stability in individuals with a severe visual handicap.
They found that Ashtanga-based Yoga therapy was an effective way to increase balance and physical stability in people who are unable to orient themselves using visual cues. It’s reasonable to assume that these benefits may extend to many people who suffer balance issues or wish to increase improve balance and stability to avoid being injured in avoidable falls.
An Ancient Practice with Health Benefits for Today
Enduring for over three-thousand years; Ashtanga Yoga has improved the health of countless people around the world. Beyond the proven physical benefits, Ashtanga has an effect on psychological health not found in conventional western-based exercise practices. It’s truly a case of “what’s old is new again.” Try it out! Find a nearby class and see how it makes you feel. You may discover a new and exciting road to greater vitality and a unique mental outlook that may buffer you against the challenges of your daily life.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a mental state that involves focusing your complete attention on the present moment – without judgment, analysis, or concern. It sounds a little strange, doesn’t it?
Our daily lives commonly consist of rushing from one activity to another while we worry about how we’ll respond to an email, pay the next credit card bill or deal with that client who needs something right now. But is this the healthiest way to approach life?
Mindfulness is a method of facing the events of our everyday life with both extreme focus and equanimity. While this may seem like new age mumbo-jumbo – and you may be telling yourself that you thrive on the challenge of multi-tasking; there are some real-world benefits to practicing mindfulness that are hard to ignore.
Whether you’re the head of a large company or a working mom, keep reading to discover the benefits of facing life’s challenges with a whole new outlook.
According to mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment with intention while removing all judgment as if our lives depended on it, with the knowledge that the present is the only real moment we have.
Strangely enough – our lives may literally depend on taking advantage of this unique mental state.
Mindfulness Meditation Bolsters the Immune System
In a 2003 research study on the effects mindfulness meditation has on the brain and immune system; a widely used 8-week clinical training program in mindfulness meditation was applied in a work environment with healthy employees.
The conclusions were startling.
Scientists found that there were significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the wait-list control group. Additionally, the magnitude of growth in activation of the left side of the brain (from mindfulness training) directly correlated with the magnitude of antibody titer rise to the vaccine.
Mindfulness practice made the people in this study more resistant to disease!
Beat Stress with Mindfulness
Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of mindfulness practice in reducing stress and anxiety levels in test subjects. By teaching an individual to focus on the present, mindfulness prevents people from obsessing on concerns that they can’t resolve by always worrying about them. Mindfulness is a way to prioritize your thought processes so you can deal with issues pragmatically – without obsessing on the problems that have no immediate solution.
Many serious health problems have their origin in chronic stress.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that sudden emotional stresses — particularly anger — have triggered heart attacks, cardiac arrhythmias, and even sudden death. While this most often occurs in people who already have heart disease, most people don’t know they have a problem until acute stress causes a heart attack or stroke.
Mindfulness will help you control your stress levels for a healthier life.
Mindfulness for a Better Memory
Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara conducted a study of 48 undergraduate students who were assigned to either a mindfulness training class or one about nutrition to discover what effects – if any – mindfulness had on memory
A week before the classes started, the students were given two tests: a modified verbal reasoning test from the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and a working memory capacity (WMC) test. Mind-wandering was also measured during both tests.
The mindfulness class offered a conceptual introduction to mindfulness, as well as instruction on how to practice mindfulness with targeted exercises and in daily life. Meanwhile, the nutrition class taught nutritional science and the strategies of healthy eating.
Less than a week after the classes concluded, the students were again tested.
The scores demonstrated that the mindfulness group significantly improved on both the verbal GRE test and the working memory capacity test. The students also exhibited less mind-wandering during testing.
None of these changes were true of the nutrition group.
Mindfulness improves your capacity to retain information and focus on the task in front of you.
Mindfulness Practice Keeps You Emotionally Stable
There are studies that have shown how mindfulness can decrease emotional reactivity.
Researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness practitioners with a control group that had never practiced mindfulness. Each group was shown a series of emotionally charged pictures.
They observed that the experienced mindfulness practitioners were better able to disengage from the emotionally upsetting photos, enabling them to focus better on cognitive tasks than those test subjects who had no mindfulness experience.
Use mindfulness to disengage from distractions that keep you from giving the tasks at hand your complete attention.
Relationships Can Be Improved with Mindfulness
Studies have shown that the ability to be mindful is an accurate predictor of relationship satisfaction – defined as the capacity to respond well to relationship stresses and also to be able to effectively communicate your emotional state to your partner.
There is evidence that mindfulness mitigates the adverse effects of conflict between partners in a relationship and is frequently associated with the ability to successfully navigate a range of social situations.
Dealing with people can be difficult at the best of times – mindfulness practice is a proven way to stay calm and get the most out of your personal interactions.
What about the Workplace?
It’s true that mindfulness reduces stress and eases the emotional strain of human interaction – but does it help you at work?
Research done by Taylor and Millear in 2016 shows that employees can benefit from mindfulness training. They discovered that mindfulness helps workers to construct a buffer between themselves and their work that can prevent “burn out” and reduce turnover.
They also found out that employees who demonstrated higher levels of mindfulness are much less likely to leave their jobs for any reason.
Mindfulness is an excellent way to keep your head straight under stressful working conditions and may prevent people from walking away from their jobs due to stress.
This article covered a few of the essential benefits of mindfulness practice:
- Stress reduction that can prevent certain illnesses and improve your outlook
- An improved immune response to disease
- Enhanced memory and improved focus
- Better relationships and interpersonal communication
- Emotional stability
- Better work performance and ability to achieve your career goals
A quick online search can get you started on the basics of practicing mindfulness in your daily life so you can start reaping the incredible emotional and physical benefits of this whole new way of approaching life.
To move through life with ease we need to be well balanced. We need to have strength when it’s called for and we need to able to tap into abiding calm when life gets crazy. So how does a person possess both of these seemingly opposite attributes? Well, the practice of yoga has your back. Here are five poses that will help you to unlock within yourself the power to move forward in life with strength and the ability to take things as they come without stress.
Photo Credit: Dawn Yager
1. Crow Pose (Bakasana)
While this pose seems intimidating that’s exactly what you need to start to become brave and conquer hidden fear that might be centered around the idea of not being able to hold yourself up. This pose gives you confidence in your own abilities and turns your awareness inward to look for not only answers but additional strength to move through any difficulties.
To begin squat down and place your shins and triceps (back of the upper arm) together. Then place your hands down in front of you with careful attention to the symmetry of the hands. The fingers should be spread as if you were sliding your hands into gloves. Start to press down into the hands and move forward through the sternum and heart center until the creases of your elbows are directly above your wrists. At that point rather than trying to lift your feet continue to move forward in space and squeeze your legs into your arms creating a feeling of lift. Go slow and take your time because the symbolic benefits you are learning far out way the fanciness of the pose.
Photo Credit: Dawn Yager
2. Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
This pose is also called awkward pose and it absolutely feels that way. You are being asked to dive down deep, become grounded with the strength of your lower body while lifting the heart and longs providing a feeling lightness and space at the same time. Can you think of a time in your life when you had to use your own strength to get through while maintaining a sense of ease and lightness? Utkatasana mirrors those life situations and as we become better at this pose our mental qualities start to reflect this as well.
Begin by bending the knees and sending the weight back toward the heels. Squeeze your inner thighs together and lift the pelvic floor and low belly. Reach the arms forward parallel to the floor and reach across the chest and collar bones. Soften the face and take big deep breaths. Try to stay about ten breaths before returning to stand.
Photo Credit: Dawn Yager
3. Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvotonasana)
This variation of side angle is the best to tap into your side body. The left side body houses your emotions, your experience of self and memories. The right-side body organizes and moves you forward. It helps to present yourself to the world. Having the additional benefit of the strong foundation of legs and and upward lifted eye gaze you have a powerhouse of a pose that helps you to clean up the emotions and set your sights of improvements in the future.
Start by stepping your feet about 4 feet apart, turn your right toes to a 90-degree angle facing the top of your mat. The back foot should be parallel to the back of the mat. Take a deep breath in and as you exhale bend the right knee to 90 degrees and place the right hand outside the right foot simultaneously reaching the left arm over the left ear at an angle. The left palm faces down as the eye gaze turn up toward the left pinky finger. If the reach to the floor is too far try placing a block under your right hand or placing your right forearm on your upper right leg. Breathe deeply there for about 10 deep breaths. To come out, look down and lift the upper body back up as you straighten the right leg. Repeat on the left.
Photo Credit: Dawn Yager
4. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
As you begin to stretch your physical body in the pose you simultaneously learn to go inward. There is nowhere to look and nothing to see so by default you learn to take your attention deep into the self. Your best ideas and deepest needs are held there. It takes practice to go inward and hear them. Soon you’ll be able to hear them before the opinions of others.
Place your hands on the mat shoulder distance apart, again you should spread the fingers not too much and not too little, as if you are sliding your fingers into a glove. Step the feet back about 3-4 feet and separate the feet the width of the hips. For a moment lift the heels high, bend the knees and push through the arms reaching the tailbone back and away from the crown of the head. With a little bend in the knees remaining release the heels back down, be unconcerned if the heels touch the floor. Down dog is all about length in the spine. Soften or close the eyes and breath into your body. Try to hold up to 20 breaths but always rest when you need to.
Photo Credit: Dawn Yager
5. Cradle to Baby (aka Pada Urdhva Kaptonasana)
The hips also store lots of emotions, especially emotions of the past. The great thing about that is you don’t have to strip up old memories and relive pain of the past to release them and let go for good. By holding poses deep within the hips are freeing yourself from long held stories and making room for new positive outcomes.
Start by sitting up tall and bring your right leg up toward your chest. Place the right knee into the crease of the right elbow and the flexed right foot into the crease of the left elbow. At this point sit up tall again and use the strength of your core and back to remain sitting tall with your chin parallel to the floor. Use the strength of your arms to gently overpower the tightness of the hip. There should be no pain and no straining but discomfort is normal.
These 5 poses all have the power to move past difficulties of the past and create a safe and loving yet strong space to move forward. Keep in mind that yoga is meant to create more happiness in your life without having to change externals. That means you can become happier and free the way your life is today.