Yoga is no new craze. In fact it’s one of the oldest systems of exercise known to humankind – at least 3,000 years old and possibly even older.
Yet, amazingly, it’s a system that seems tailor-made for modern times. It’s becoming so popular because, in a frenetic, stressed, insane world it feels simply wonderful to have a stretched and toned body and a relaxed and stress-free mind. You only need to try yoga to feel the benefits and, even better, the more you practice, the deeper the benefits. It’s truly a panacea for many of today’s woes.
WHAT CAN YOGA DO FOR YOU?
On a purely physical level, yoga puts pressure on all the different organs and muscles of the body very systematically. As well as toning the outer body (which it does exceedingly well) it tones the whole inner body too: liver, lungs, kidneys, spleen, intestines, heart. The precise postures of yoga work deep into the body, causing blood to circulate profoundly rather than just around the outside edge of the body; nourishing every organ and softening the muscle and ligament tissue. The deep stretching is said to bring both bones and muscles gently back into their optimum alignment while lubricating the joints.
Yoga can improve the oxygenation of your blood and improve your circulation. It’s also a superb way of helping your body to detoxify, as it encourages lymphatic flow (the “waste removal” system of the body). Not only does your body detox when you perform yoga: your mind does too. The specific yogic breathing techniques (called pranayama) directly affect the nervous system, eliciting the “relaxation response” in which the parasympathetic nervous system takes over from the sympathetic nervous system so you feel calm, cool and in control.
If you practice yoga regularly you will almost automatically lose weight and develop a leaner body. Many yoga teachers also find that yoga can help improve will power: people often find it easier to stop smoking or lose weight when they start yoga.
Cheryl Isaacson, yoga teacher and author of several books on the subject, says that regular yoga can even delay the ageing process. She also believes that other, more subtle, changes occur: “Anyone who practices long enough will begin to notice improvements in their health, energy and mental state,” she asserts, “becoming calmer and more detached from the worries of daily life. They feel clearer, more directed and more purposeful.”
Recent research backs this up. A report in The Lancet describes how yoga relaxation exercises such as yoga nidra (a guided meditative technique) actually alter the neural networks of the brain, inducing deep rest. Further research reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience indicates that pranayama techniques such as breathing through one nostril can affect a huge range of bodily responses, from cardiovascular activity to hormone balance to shifts in the nervous system: all for the best.
IS YOGA SAFE?
Yes, yes, and yes – providing you find the right teacher and the right class. However it is a powerful system and should be treated with respect. Because many yoga postures look so simple, it’s easy to underestimate their power and, just like any other form of exercise, yoga can harm as well as heal if practiced incorrectly. Always start your yoga practice by joining a class with a fully-qualified teacher – the governing body for yoga in the UK is the British Wheel of Yoga (see below). Remember that it’s not just the style of yoga that counts. The personality of the teacher and their way of presenting a class are equally important – you need to feel confidence in your teacher and relate well to him or her. Be prepared to try out a few classes and “shop around”.
If you have any health problems (particularly heart conditions, back problems, or if you have had any kind of surgery) you should find a very experienced yoga teacher or a yoga therapist who will understand your particular needs. If you are pregnant, you will need to avoid certain postures. Ideally, you should find a class specifically designed for pregnant women or have individual sessions with a yoga teacher or yoga therapist.
Meditation, an intrinsic part of most yoga classes, is fabulous. However it can bring up old emotions and, if you have a traumatic past it is possible that meditating could stir up memories and bring some distress. However this is no different from what might happen were you to start undergoing psychotherapy.
WHICH KIND OF YOGA SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
Hatha yoga is the general name for the physical practice of yoga. Many classes will simply call themselves by this name – or simply “yoga”. However over the years many different approaches have sprung up – and there are a huge variety of classes from which to choose. “Always start with a beginner’s class,” recommends Simon Low, “you need to experience a slow, steady and safe introduction to yoga theory and practice.” In other words, don’t launch into ashtanga yoga just because some Instagrammer does it – you could come a cropper.
Here’s a brief guide to the most popular types of yoga and their approaches; plus websites for more information on each approach.
• Generic hatha yoga: expect relaxation, warm-up, postures, breathing and deep relaxation. Many teachers will also include meditation. Ideal for everyone and the most commonly available class.
• Vini yoga: puts emphasis on individual tuition and individual needs. Safe, gentle and ideal for beginners. Often taught on a one-to-one basis. The perfect introduction for anyone nervous about yoga.
THE PRAGMATIC APPROACH:
• Iyengar yoga: a very focused precise form of yoga which puts great emphasis on correct posture. Teachers use “props” such as blocks and belts to help you into position. Great for those who want the benefits without too much “weird stuff”.
• Yoga therapy: therapeutic form of yoga with a medical background. Will usually offer classes for specific problems and conditions, ie back pain, arthritis, asthma, pregnancy and individual sessions if necessary. The best choice if you have a medical condition.
THE SPIRITUAL APPROACH:
• Sivananda yoga: gentle, laid-back yet pure form of yoga based around 12 key postures. Has a strong spiritual element (often includes chanting and meditation). Ideal if you’re deeply drawn to Indian philosophy and lifestyle.
• Dru yoga: a very gentle, holistic approach which includes breathing, visualisation, deep relaxation and meditation. Uses graceful flowing movement sequences. Said to release negative thought patterns, energy blocks and deep-seated trauma. Yoga meets psychotherapy.
FOR THE MORE EXPERIENCED:
• Ashtanga yoga (also called ashtanga vinyasa yoga): so-called “power yoga” which uses a specific breathing technique and sequences of postures carried out at far greater speed than other forms. It’s an intense workout and not suitable for absolute beginners. Ideal for those who find “normal” yoga too slow and boring.
• Bikram yoga: intense and highly athletic, the yoga studio is heated to temperatures of 100 degrees to allow students to stretch that bit further. Created by yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury who has a host of celebrity fans. Great for stressed-out high achievers and those who want a deep, stringent detox.
• The British Wheel of Yoga: www.bwy.org.uk The main body for yoga in the UK: hold a list of certified yoga teachers and classes around the country (for a wide variety of types of yoga). See their website in the first instance which may answer all your questions.