What Is Yoga?

“Yoga is a mind and body practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Like other meditative movement practices used for health purposes, various styles of yoga typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation,” according to the National Center for Complementary Integrative Health.

For many, yoga means partaking in a popular fitness practice that focuses on body awareness, encompassing body, mind and spirit. It is generally a low-impact, safe form of exercise when practiced properly under the supervision of a well-trained instructor. Body awareness is a widespread teaching in yoga because yoga tends to push you out of your comfort zone to explore how your body can move differently.

Types of Yoga

Yoga is a personal form of exercise and there are several methods suitable for all fitness levels. Since it is a personal form of fitness, you can find the yoga style and class that fits you. Here’s a summary of the most popular styles.

Hatha – In Hatha yoga, participants usually hold their posture for a few breaths, gaining time to explore each pose fully. Hatha yoga generally offers an introduction to the basic yoga postures.

Iyengar — This particular method of yoga focuses on the precise alignment of the body, utilizing different props, such as blocks, straps, chairs and even a ropes wall (quite literally, rope loops attached to a side wall, which you can step into to help you hold your body in position).

Vinyasa – In Sanskrit, Vinyasa means “flow.” Movement and breath are emphasized in this style of yoga, creating a vibrant flow from posture to posture. There is a variety of different types of Vinyasa, such as Ashtanga or Jivamukti. Music is often played to keep things energetic.

Restorative – This method focuses on relaxing and restoring the body. Props are often used to support the body in various poses, such as bolsters, blankets and blocks. These props are used to allow the person to experience the full benefits of each pose without having to exert extra effort.

Bikram – This form of yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury. Bikram is performed in a heated room (up to 105 F) and goes through a series of 26 poses; they are almost always the same, no matter where the class is taken.

Power – Power yoga is a faster, high-intensity practice that builds muscle.

Benefits of Yoga

One wonderful thing about yoga, compared to other forms of exercise, is that it is for people of all fitness levels and all ages. Even those new to yoga can do the most basic poses and stretches and reap the benefits. There are numerous benefits of practicing yoga.

Practicing yoga can help:

  • Improve your relaxation and focus
  • Increase your flexibility, strength and overall physical fitness level
  • Enhance your mood
  • Reduce back pain
  • Improve your quality of life
  • Decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia
  • Lower your heart rate and blood pressure
  • Support your mind-body connectedness by helping you advance with new poses over time

How to Begin Practicing Yoga 

  1. Before beginning any fitness regimen, consult your health care provider, especially if you have a medical condition or are pregnant.
  2. Invest in a yoga mat and comfortable clothing. (If you don’t want to spend the money just yet, try a towel or blanket, though it may slip on wood flooring.)
  3. While performing yoga, pay attention to proper form and alignment to avoid damaging joints and muscles.
  4. Practice basic poses at home.
  5. Listen to your body. Move at a pace that feels right for you and if a pose hurts, stop.
  6. Remember to breathe!
  7. It is important to remember that every individual is unique and your body changes from day to day. Sometimes a pose will be effortless; other days, your muscles may be tight or your body may be tense. Take it slow and try not to get frustrated.
  8. Just because you can’t accomplish a pose today doesn’t mean you won’t get it. Practice and over time, your body will surprise you.
  9. Have fun and enjoy the process.

Four Basic Yoga Poses for Beginners

*Names of yoga poses in both English and Sanskrit

Child’s Pose | Balasana

  1. Sit down on your mat. Exhale and lower the hips to the heels and forehead to the floor. Have the knees together or if more comfortable, spread the knees slightly apart and allow your body to completely relax.
  2. Breathe deeply into your belly for three to six breaths.

Mountain Pose | Tadasana

  1. Stand on your yoga mat. Inhale and press your feet down, and reach your head up to lengthen the spine. Roll your shoulders down and back to open the chest. Relax your face and your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
  2. Lengthen the inhalation and exhalation by breathing deeply into your belly through your nose. Release any thoughts or distractions and let your mind be focused on the breath.

Five-Pointed Star | Trikonasana

  1. Standing, step or jump your feet out wide apart with your arms out to the sides. Feet should be parallel, directly under the wrists.
  2. Press down into your feet, out through the fingertips and up through the crown of your head.
  3. Breathe and hold for two to four breaths.

Warrior II | Virabhadrasana II

  1. Turn the right toes toward the right wall and the left toes slightly in toward the center. Bend the right knee directly over the ankle into a deep lunge. Keep your hips and chest forward and look at the right middle finger.
  2. Press down through the feet and out through the fingers and crown of your head.
  3. Breathe and hold for two to four breaths.
  4. Turn the right toes toward the right wall and the left toes slightly in toward the center. Straighten both legs. Press the left hip out and slide the arms to the right. Rotate just the arms, resting the back of the right hand against the inside of the right leg.
  5. Press down through the feet and out through the fingers and crown of your head.
  6. Breathe and hold for two to four breaths.

“Yoga Precautions,” Mayo Clinic Staff, mayoclinic.org, June 22, 2016.

“Yoga,” Stephanie Watson, webmd.com, April 27, 2016.

“Yoga: In Depth,” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health Staff, June 22, 2016.