Whether you’re a novice yogi still searching for the style of yoga that suits you best, or a teacher with hundreds of hours of experience, this resource center contains useful and valuable information for you about the study and practice of yoga. Learn how scholars and experienced teachers define yoga and what it means to them, get a general feel for the many lineages and styles of practice, understand the benefits of developing a regular practice, find the practice and teacher that are right for you, and even get some tips on how to select a teacher training program.
What Is Yoga?
Answering the question, “What is Yoga?” is challenging and is the subject of extensive academic and philosophical study. As the largest nonprofit supporting yoga, we offer this brief introduction to Yoga, along with perspectives from leading scholars and yogis, to help answer this question.
Yoga was developed up to 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. While Yoga is often equated with Hatha Yoga, the well-known system of postures and breathing techniques, Hatha Yoga is only a part of the overall discipline of Yoga. Today, many millions of people use various aspects of Yoga to help raise their quality of life in such diverse areas as fitness, stress relief, wellness, vitality, mental clarity, healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth.
Yoga is a system, not of beliefs, but of techniques and guidance for enriched living. Among Yoga’s many source texts, the two best known are the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Both explain the nature of—and obstacles to—higher awareness and fulfillment, as well as a variety of methods for attaining those goals.
As in any field, some aspects of Yoga are too subtle to be learned from books or lectures; they must be acquired through experience. Hence Yoga’s time-honored emphasis on the student-teacher relationship, in which the teacher helps the student develop a practice that brings deeper understanding through personal experience.
Since the individual experience of Yoga is quite personal and may differ for each practitioner, there are a wide variety of approaches to its practice. Yoga has in recent times branched out in many new directions, some of which are quite different from its traditional emphases. All approaches to Yoga, however, are intended to promote some aspect(s) of wellbeing.
As a result, today’s practitioners have more options than ever as they seek to gain the most from the vibrant, ever-expanding field of Yoga.
Types of Yoga
• Gentle yoga classes are typically calming, relaxing, and less physically demanding than other classes. They may also use props to aid students in their practice.
• Spiritually-oriented yoga classes often include meditation in addition to asana practice. They might also emphasize yoga philosophy, chanting, mantra, or cultivating spiritual growth.
• Flow yoga classes are typically invigorating, and they often include aerobic elements. Each posture is usually held only for a short time before moving to the next posture.
• Alignment-oriented yoga classes give particular attention to precision bodily placement, often with longer holds of asanas. Classes might use props to help students attain the desired alignment.
• Fitness yoga primarily emphasizes the physical dimensions of yoga practice. Typical objectives might include aerobic conditioning, gaining strength, or building stamina.
• Hot yoga classes involve practicing in heated rooms (varying in temperature, potentially up to 110°F). The postures themselves may or may not be physically demanding.
• Specialty yoga classes often customize yoga for particular groups, such as seniors, children, expectant mothers, and those facing serious health conditions. Specialized training is important for teachers who work with these groups.
In addition to the types of yoga we identify on our Directory, it’s common for a teacher or school to identify with a style, tradition, or lineage of yoga. Common names you may hear or read about include Ananda, Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Integral, Kripalu, Kundalini, Power, Prana, Sivananda, Vinyasa and many more. Each style has unique characteristics, and it can be helpful to consult with a specific teacher or school, or review the details on their profile, to learn more about their approach to yoga.
Benefits of Yoga
There are many benefits of yoga, including:
• Stress relief: The practice of yoga is well-demonstrated to reduce the physical effects of stress on the body. The body responds to stress through a fight-or-flight response, which is a combination of the sympathetic nervous system and hormonal pathways activating, releasing cortisol – the stress hormone – from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is often used to measure the stress response. Yoga practice has been demonstrated to reduce the levels of cortisol. Most yoga classes end with savasana, a relaxation pose, which further reduces the experience of stress.
• Pain relief: Yoga can ease pain. Studies have shown that practicing yoga asanas (postures), meditation or a combination of the two, reduced pain for people with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, auto-immune diseases and hypertension as well as arthritis, back and neck pain and other chronic conditions.
• Better breathing: Yoga includes breathing practices known as pranayama, which can be effective for reducing our stress response, improving lung function and encouraging relaxation. Many pranayamas emphasize slowing down and deepening the breath, which activates the body’s parasympathetic system, or relaxation response. By changing our pattern of breathing, we can significantly affect our body’s experience of and response to stress. This may be one of the most profound lessons we can learn from our yoga practice.
• Flexibility: Yoga can improve flexibility and mobility and increase range of motion. Over time, the ligaments, tendons and muscles lengthen, increasing elasticity.
• Increased strength: Yoga asanas use every muscle in the body, increasing strength literally from head to toe. A regular yoga practice can also relieve muscular tension throughout the whole body.
• Weight management: While most of the evidence for the effects of yoga on weight loss is anecdotal or experiential, yoga teachers, students and practitioners across the world find that yoga helps to support weight loss. Many teachers specialize in yoga programs to promote weight management and find that even gentle yoga practices help support weight loss. People do not have to practice the most vigorous forms of yoga to lose weight. Yoga encourages development of a positive self-image, as more attention is paid to nutrition and the body as a whole. A study from the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that regular yoga practice was associated with less age-related weight gain. The lifestyle study of 15,500 adults in their 50’s covered 10 years of participants’ weight history, physical activity, medical history and diet.
• Improved circulation: Yoga helps to improve circulation by efficiently moving oxygenated blood to the body’s cells.
• Cardiovascular conditioning: Even a gentle yoga practice can provide cardiovascular benefits by lowering resting heart rate, increasing endurance and improving oxygen uptake during exercise.
• Presence: Yoga connects us with the present moment. The more we practice, the more aware we become of our surroundings and the world around us. It opens the way to improved concentration, coordination, reaction time and memory.
• Inner peace: The meditative effects of a consistent yoga practice help many cultivate inner peace and c