How much do you know about yoga? It’s OK if your first thoughts are about a bunch of veggie-eating hippies, able to bend themselves into a pretzel pose while making the ‘om’ sound together.

That would actually be quite tricky even for the experienced yogi, but luckily the practice of yoga goes much deeper than the stereotypical aspects it might appear to be.

In the last couple of centuries, many passionate yoga practitioners were inspired to create new and different types of yoga.

There is a style of yoga for every type of yogi (the name for someone practising yoga). The most amazing part of true yoga philosophy is the fact that it’s built around your personal needs and body.

Whether you want to go for active and sweaty types of yoga, feel your body needs a more restorative and relaxing approach or maybe you love yoga philosophy so much you want a more spiritual type of practice … Through practice and commitment, you will fall in love with yoga as it becomes exactly what you want it to be.

The great thing about yoga is that even though it’s steeped in a history of mysticism and tradition, the practice itself is a deeply personal and powerful experience to ultimately make you a healthier and happier person.

Yoga Started as The Science of The Mind

Today we know yoga as a physical activity for stretching and stress reduction, but when we go back to its complex origins, we’ll see that the yoga philosophy and history are inextricably linked and grounded as the science of the mind.

The word Yoga is a Sanskrit word and directly translated means ‘union’.

Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-Aryan language from over 3500 years ago, and is still used in yoga practice today.

According to Patanjali, yoga is the extraordinary experience gained by controlling the modifications of the mind. Yoga is thus, in more simple terms, a practice where we try and ‘unlearn’ all those thoughts and memories that keep us from experiencing the world exactly as it is in the moment and direct them in the way we choose to.

Who is Patanjali?

Patanjali is known as the sage behind the first, classical comprehensive text specifically on yoga, written over 1 700 years ago.

Very little is known about him and 'he' might even be a group of people, but what’s important is the fact that these ‘Yoga Sutras’ created the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga or the foundation of the practices we see in yoga today.

"If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you can experience yoga."

– Patanjali 

You can delve further into the world of ancient writings like the Bhagavad-gita or the Mahabharata from over 2 000 years ago if the history of yoga fascinates you. You will also learn how the Yoga Sutras led to the Hatha Yoga Pradipka where a lot more focus was being placed on asanas (physical postures) and this eventually led to more physical forms of yoga in the late 19th century.

There’s a lot of mysticism around yoga and thus it is important to realise that, at the end of the day, yoga in its simplified form is only a set of practices to better oneself.

Yoga helps unfolding
Yoga helps us to open up and unfold to show our real inner beauty to the world - Photo by Jay Castor on Unsplash

Types of Yoga Today

Many ancient forms of yoga and historical figures helped to develop yoga to be what we know it as today, but one of the most well-known is probably Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989). Highly influential and seen as the ‘Father of modern yoga’, he helped to revive Hatha Yoga and the physical asana practice in particular.

Krishnamacharya also schooled two very influential teachers called BKS Iyengar (1918 – 2014), the founder of the current popular Iyengar yoga and Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009) who created the now more commonly known style of Ashtanga yoga.

These developments all - directly and indirectly - led to the more modern spin-off yoga styles of today.

Today we have yogis and teachers who really make the practice their own and creatively combine modern movement sciences with traditional forms. They create fitness and mindfulness practices for the everyday yogi and manage to leave positive imprints on people's lives.

We all have different needs and it should be no different when we seek out the yoga class that will suit us best.

Most yoga styles will get you to experience better fitness and greater mindfulness, but with a variety of styles and continuous development across the globe there is certainly a style that might be more fitting to your objectives ...

Yoga for Better Fitness and Cardio

There are plenty of yoga styles where you can adjust the intensity of your practice to tone and shape your body. With a lesser focus on chanting and yoga philosophy.

It’s about your body, the physical benefits and what happens to your mind when you relax and exercise.

  • Ashtanga yoga is vigorous and dynamic. This set sequence of movements is more focused on the physical practice than theory and is harder to adapt to bodies with injuries.
  • Iyengar yoga is for all levels of experience with a focus on body balance, mechanics and alignment. You will hold the poses for a bit longer and props can be used to help you get the correct alignment and intensity
  • Bikram yoga is the popular well-known ‘Hot Yoga’ created by Bikram Choudury. Consisting of 24 poses and two breathing exercises, it’s a standardised series with little focus on rituals and you’ll certainly sweat in a room heated to 41 degrees Celsius.
  • Rocket yoga was developed by Larry Schultz in the 1980s and is a fast and dynamic style where the Ashtanga movement ‘series’ is combined with the vinyasa yoga flow style. Many teachers develop their own style with this more free form.
Yoga mind
Some yoga forms can push our bodies and show us how our mind can sometimes hold us back - Photo by Rishikesh Yogpeeth on Unsplash

Yoga to Help You Restore and Relax

Resetting your mind-body connection by going ‘inward’ will not only improve your overall mood, it will also have a positive impact on the world around you.

Restorative yoga is an easy introduction to yoga and can benefit yogis of all ages.

  • Hatha yoga is the gentler form of yoga. Postures are adapted for students according to their level and a typical class will focus on breathwork, final relaxation, meditation or a little chanting.
  • Yin yoga is slow-paced, and the aim is to increase the circulation to joints and improve flexibility by holding poses for 5 minutes.
  • Restorative yoga is there to help you relax. It releases tension in the body through long-held gentle stretching and the aid of props like blocks and straps
Yoga body and mind
Yoga can be used to calm your body and your mind - Photo by processingly on Unsplash

Yoga for Self-awareness and Spiritual Reasons

These forms of yoga mostly include some form of physical movement as well, but their focus is on how we use our energy, correct it and make use of traditional techniques to move into a more self-aware state of consciousness.

  • Satyananda yoga is a holistic style that includes breathwork, deep relaxation (yoga nidra) and meditation. It’s a yoga that offers development and awareness of the self and energy flow.
  • Kundalini yoga seeks to awaken energy centres in the body and taps into the power linked to our true essence. Meditation will feature mudras, mantras or chanting.
  • Sivananda yoga is traditional and balances physical and devotional practices. They embrace the spiritual aspects of yoga.
Yoga is a way of life
Yoga is not a religion.  It's a way of life - Photo by olaf scheffers on Unsplash

Benefits of Yoga

The biggest challenge is to try and describe to someone what a transformative effect yoga can have on them. Luckily science brings out new findings daily where believed historical beliefs and benefits of yoga are verified through studies.

Working On a Healthy Body

Did you know that long-term studies have shown that yoga, inclusive of asanas, meditation, social support and a plant-based diet could actually reverse heart disease?

Not only does it repair damaged tissue, it also regulates cholesterol and therefore performs better than most exercise types in reducing heart disease.

Above and beyond that, here are other miraculous findings where research has proven how regular yoga practice will benefit our bodies:

  • Strengthen and tone your muscles. With yoga you’ll gain from all physiological affects cardiovascular exercise offers, including weight loss.
  • It regulates your heart rate and research shows that yoga can reduce blood pressure significantly.
  • Yoga prevents ageing of muscles through oxygenation and helps mobility by restructuring and organising the collagen networks within fascia or connective tissue.
  • Molecular biology has shown how a yogic lifestyle can increase the length of DNA telomeres, which is associated with increased longevity and health.
  • Relaxation practices teach your body to be more efficient with less. These activities reduce stress hormones which means your body is less likely to hold onto fat.
  • Improve your posture, reset your spine for better body alignment and delight your joints. A seven-year clinical trial showed that yoga is safe and effective in managing osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
People who love yoga
Yoga can also introduce you to a broader like-minded community - Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash

Cultivate a Happy Mind

With the help of modern neuroscience, we continuously discover how yoga and meditation can create physical alterations in our brains.

We are complex beings; we operate as one system and these natural chemical effects in our brain also influence our bodies to create a greater sense of contentment.

Here are some scientifically proven effects yoga can have on your mind:

  • Yoga can help you to beat bad habits or conditioned responses as it regulates dopamine and increases your brain’s neuroplasticity. This way your brain can develop preferable neuropathways and you physically learn to think more happy thoughts! Yay!
  • Yoga reduces cortisol and adrenaline, both stress hormones. If your cortisol levels are too high for long periods this leads to inflammation and weight gain.
  • Yoga makes you happy as it increases the amount of serotonin and BDNF (brain derived neuropathic factor), both of which help regulate mood and counteract depression.
  • Become more relaxed as yoga increases your alpha brain wave activity and GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), both of which get rid of anxiety and stress.

Our physical bodies and behavioural patterns influence our mood and visa-versa. Yoga has a way of uniting these two worlds through mindfulness.

We can (and do) write books about the benefits of yoga, but it’s important to realise that none of these bodily functions or effects happen through isolated activities.

Yoga has a magical way of addressing all aspects that keep you from living a full and healthy life, but this can only happen through safe and continuous practice.

yoga makes us happy
There's a physical explanation why yoga creates a clear mind - Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

Welcome a Better Life With Yoga

Whether you want to get your body in shape and have already bought into the pure physical benefits of yoga, or you just want to experience a more blissful way of living, yoga has stood the test of time and is there to help you create a more balanced and wholesome life.

With a complex history, millions of opinions, daily developments, mysticism and even spiritual associations, it’s something that could seem intimidating at first. But there is a common thread in all types of yoga which binds us together that will hopefully emerge in your practice - yoga helps all of us to become better, happier and healthier people.

Start your journey today towards a more harmonious mind and body. Join a yoga studio or get an experienced yoga teacher through Superprof for a more customised practice that will suit your own body and needs.

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Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.