5 NOV 2014 / LEARN

The appeal, versatility and benefits of Yoga

Some practice yoga for physical fitness, others for improving the mind. It may also be used as a quiet meditation technique, for spiritual release, or just for relaxing and boosting your vital energy for the day. Yoga Australia describes it as a union of the body, breath and mind and, while originally taken up by women in the West, it has now grown to the extent that more and more men are becoming involved.

There are millions of adherents throughout the world and a variety of forms. Each may get something different out of practicing yoga.

Such is the versatility of yoga schools that there is one to suit everyone and the ancient posture methods may be tweaked to fit into any busy schedule.  De-stressing from the worries and pressure of work is a universal problem in our fast-paced society and yoga is the antidote than can be enjoyed by both males and females of any age.

Indeed it is this very versatility that attract so many. What yoga means to one person is completely different to the experience of another. Let’s delve into that a little bit more. For example did you know that there are over 100 recognised schools of yoga, each with their own focus and discipline?

Here’s some of the more well-known styles:

Hatha Yoga. Defined as the physical aspects of yoga, this form stresses the physical and breathing parts of the exercise. It has become a generic term that refers to all yoga that stresses gentle breathing and relaxation. Its non-demanding nature has made it very successful in the West.

Raja Yoga. A “deeper” form of yoga, incorporating exercise, breathing exercises with meditation and study.

Hot Yoga. A stringent set of exercises, performed in an artificially heated room. Hence the description of “hot”. Another very close form with similar exercises and emphasis on “sweating it out” is Bikram yoga — the forerunner of “hot” yoga.  This is nothing like the gentle hatha yoga! Be prepared for some solid exercise mixed with a sauna-like environment.

Iyengar yoga. Introduced by B.K.S Iyengar, this form of yoga is a meticulous and detailed form of the discipline. People are encouraged to perfect yoga poses, rather than just sitting haphazardly. Great attention is paid by teachers of Iyengar yoga to finding the right posture and care is taken to perfect the form of the posture.

Ashtanga/Power yoga. A fast-paced, intense series of exercises, Ashtanga consists of a series of yoga positions performed in a physically demanding way.

Bhakti yoga. There is a debate among yoga adherents as to whether the practice of yoga is a spiritual form of meditation, that is towards believing in a deity. While the vast majority in the West would say no, preferring to point to the health, breathing, meditation and exercise benefits, those who practice Bhakti yoga would say otherwise. For Bhakti yoga is pure spiritual devotion. Its adherents focus is God and everything is the manifestation of the deity.

Yoga also has a fascinating history. While the birth of yoga is impossible to trace, ancient statues dating back 5,000 years have been found depicting people in yoga poses in India.  So ancient is yoga that it has fostered a number of schools of thought as to its origins. Almost as many as the variety of disciplines of the form!

Some consider it to have been introduced at the time of the Buddha, while others link it to the advanced, artistic and highly-skilled Indus-Sarasvati civilisation. However the introduction of yoga to Western culture is a far more recent event, with interest in the form starting to strengthen in the 1970s.

There are a number of health benefits of yoga, the actual benefit depending on the type selected. For example a gentle relaxing hatha yoga exercise is excellent for pre and post natal pregnancy. It will help relax and tone muscles and will very quickly increase muscle flexibility. This is of course vital in preparing for childbirth.

Upper body strength is improved, even in some of the gentler forms of yoga and there are a number of poses that will assist posture. Heart health is improved too as the various forms of yoga have been shown to slow heart rate and reduce high blood pressure.

Just as importantly is the way yoga teaches people how to relax, how to meditate, how to stop and take time out. To quote the famous Zen saying: "Meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”

The more physical aspects of power yoga or Ashtanga are obviously challenging. However if practiced regularly (and you are fit enough for this variant of the exercise) the health benefits are immense. Certainly combined with a healthy and nutritious diet, yoga will assist to improve your all-round health. It's suitable for men and women from all walks of life, yoga is becoming more and more popular in our culture.

So whatever your need: spiritual, exercise, relaxation, health, there is a form of yoga that suits you. From the fun and relaxed hatha to the more stringent and physically demanding power version to those that are focussed completely on a spiritual path, yoga is a holistic form of meditation, relaxation and exercise almost without peer. So grab your yoga mat and some comfortable clothes, choose your favourite school and join the millions of fans practicing the health, fitness and energy cycle that goes back to the dawn of civilisation!

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