Women Doing Yoga

The Ultimate Guide to Yoga

Yoga encompasses a vast collection of spiritual techniques that allow the user to incorporate their body and mind to achieve a state of calm and relaxation. As the most widely performed exercise system in the world and with hundreds of variations available, it’s continual growth and adaptability to modern times have made it the popular discipline it is today.

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For many people, yoga is far more than the exercise of body and mind and is more of a way of life. The numerous benefits that can be found from this ancient discipline are the main reason why millions of people around the world choose to practice it.

Dating back over 5,000 years, the origins of yoga are quite fascinating. From then to the modern practices we now know today, some things have changed slightly while others stay the same. Almost every street in a busy neighborhood has a yoga studio or fitness center which offers this exercise system, and there’s a style out there to suit everyone.

Woman Doing Yoga at Sunset

With thousands of yoga poses and sequences to master, as well as a variety of styles, yoga is an unlimited source of exercise and enlightenment. The poses can be used to achieve mental wellbeing, weight loss, physical rehabilitation, and improved flexibility, among countless other things.

What Is Yoga

Simply put, yoga is an ancient discipline that centers on achieving enlightenment with body and mind. It achieves this by using a range of techniques and practices performed in different sequences and poses. There are literally hundreds of different variations of yoga available to practice, with the most common types in the Western world being referred to as “Hatha Yoga”.

Woman Doing Yoga in Prayer Position

Each different path of yoga focuses on its own set of approaches and techniques, so it’s really about finding one that suits your personal goals. The philosophy behind yoga is universal so there’s no need for anyone to feel excluded based on religion, race, or background, as it aims to encompass all people around the world.

Most yoga practices are calm and relaxing, with a large focus on breathing. This breathing is referred to as Pranayama and begins with the act of deepening your breathing. These breaths are done to coincide with various physical poses so that your entire body, mind, and spirit work together to achieve enlightenment.

Many people practice yoga as both a form of physical exercise and mental meditation, and its unique ability to combine the two has given it the popularity it knows today. No matter which style you choose to practice and how you practice it, there are countless benefits to be had with this ancient exercise system.

The History of Yoga

To understand more about yoga, it’s essential to know where did yoga originate? Although there are varying accounts of its true origins, the most common belief is that it began in Northern India. Dating back 5,000 years ago, the Indus-Sarasvati civilization is often referred to as the birthplace of yoga.

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Because the original teachings of yoga were transcribed on palm leaves, these fragile items weren’t strong enough to stand the test of time. Most of what yoga encompasses has been passed down through oral recollections, lending to the obscurity and uncertainty of this ancient practice.

As centuries went on, yoga itself went through quite a few variations. From the pre-classical yoga where ideas about karma and ego were acknowledged, right up to post-classical periods which focused more on rejuvenating the body, all of these amazing changes gave us the modern form which we know today.

Modern Yoga Practice

The modern world of yoga looks quite different today to how it first began, depending on where and how you practice. Western yoga is particularly different, as these customs and techniques have been modified to suit our lifestyles.

Women Doing Western Yoga in Gym

In 1947, Indra Devi opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood and bought this amazing system to the western world. Although it took many years to gain the popularity it has today, this is still recognized as one of the most important moments in hatha yoga and western civilization.

Nowadays, approximately 15 million Americans are estimated to perform at least some form of yoga in their exercise routine, making it a hugely popular system. These systems generally focus more on the physical aspect of yoga and less on the spiritual side, which is more suited to our modern culture.

However, some may argue that these modern forms of yoga practiced in Western civilization look nothing like traditional methods due to this fact. Nonetheless, the Hatha yoga which has been adopted here is still full of its own amazing benefits for both body and mind.

Types of Yoga

Although the actual figure is hard to determine, there is thought to be hundreds of different variations of yoga out there. These nine represent the most common types of yoga practiced, each offering their own unique benefits and purpose.

Man Performing Hatha Yoga
  • Hatha - The Sanskrit term “hatha” refers to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures, so essentially it covers almost all types practiced in western civilization. This basic form of yoga is ideal for beginners as it offers a more relaxed approach to breathing and poses.
  • Vinyasa - This type of yoga is more fast paced than others, and is favored by people looking for a more intense workout from their yoga practice. Vinyasa usually has followers moving through a range of positions and sequences quite quickly, designed to invigorate and get your heart rate rising. Vinyasa yoga links your body and breath together in more of a dance-style movement, so it’s a lot of fun to practice.
  • Ashtanga - For those people who like a lot of order and regime in their yoga, Ashtanga is for you. This method consists of six series of different poses so every time you attend a class you know exactly what you’re going to get. The aim of Ashtanga is to build heat, but this is always done following a strict routine. If you don’t like surprises and want to know what you’re in for each class, Ashtanga is the best choice.
  • Iyengar - For a yoga style that focuses on perfecting the moves and holding poses for a long time, Iyengar is the best pick. Teachers often share a lot of information about the importance of alignment and precision in these classes, so it’s not just a simple way to get through the moves. Iyengar pays a lot of attention to alignment and breathing, so it’s far calmer than other forms.
  • Bikram - Another form of yoga that follows a fairly set routine, Bikram yoga is designed to make you sweat. With 26 different poses in each session and two different breathing techniques, this form of yoga is best performed in a heated room. Every Bikram studio follows the same 26 poses which take an average of 90 minutes, so there are no surprises when you enter one of these classes.
  • Hot Yoga - Although it might sound similar to Bikram, and does share the same heated room philosophy, hot yoga isn’t encumbered by those 26 strict poses. These classes are known for being incredibly hard work but producing some of the best results if you’re looking for weight loss, so they’re not for the faint hearted.
  • Yin Yoga - For a larger focus on meditation and aligning your body and mind, many people swear by Yin Yoga. One of the most practiced western forms that put a huge emphasis on meditation, Yin Yoga is great for those who want to relax and unwind. These classes rely on a lot of props and yoga equipment so that you can spend more of your focus on achieving the breathing and relaxation side of things.
  • Kundalini - If you’re looking for a more spiritual experience with your yoga, Kundalini may be the choice for you. This physically challenging method incorporates not only physical movement and breath, but also chanting, singing, and meditating. The main purpose of Kundalini is to release inner energy and achieve self-awareness, so it’s about far more than just getting the poses right.
  • Restorative - Just as the name suggests, restorative yoga is ideal for calming your mind and body and slowing things down. These classes move quite slowly and work towards a relaxed state, and they’re recommended for athletes, people with anxiety, or those who find a hard time settling down.

Benefits of Yoga

As the most ancient and holistic system used for physical and mental well-being, it’s no surprise that yoga has a range of benefits. No matter which style of yoga you choose to practice or where you do it, you’ll notice instant benefits to traditional forms of exercise when you partake in a class.

Woman Doing Stretching
  • Strength Building - The amount of strength you can achieve just by performing yoga poses is one of the most unfamiliar benefits of this exercise. Yoga uses your own weight as resistance to improve your strength and build lean muscle mass, giving you a more toned and fit physique.
  • Improves Balance - As you become more experienced at yoga, you’ll find yourself able to go more into stretches and poses. This increased ability will help your balance, which is useful not just in yoga but everyday life too.
  • Improves Flexibility - Just as your balance improves, so too does your flexibility. Using yoga equipment and props is the easiest way to improve flexibility quickly while also being able to achieve some of the most difficult poses.
  • Weight Loss - Although not really known as weight loss tool generally, most people who practice yoga swear by its weight loss abilities. Bikram and hot yoga classes, in particular, can help you shed close to 450 calories in just one session, making it far more effective that most forms of exercise.
  • Increased Mental Focus - As one of the only popular exercises that focus on your mind as well as your body, yoga teaches you breathing and focus techniques that you can take with you through everyday life. Eventually, you won’t need to give a second thought to it and your mental focus will improve all on its own.
  • Reduces Stress and Anxiety - Exercise as a whole has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, but none more effectively than yoga. As this practice teaches us to connect our body and mind and slow things down, it’s one of the easiest ways you can achieve total calm when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Increases Blood Flow - Most of the relaxation exercises you learn in yoga aid in boosting circulation, and the practice as a whole gets more oxygen into your cells. With yoga, you can reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes thanks to its ability to reduce the chance of blood clots in your system.
  • Boosts Immunity - When you perform the various poses in yoga that allow you to stretch, contract, and move, you’re actually draining your lymph nodes. In doing so, you’re helping this delicate system to fight bacteria, destroy dangerous cells such as cancer, and rid your body of toxins.

Why Should I Practice Yoga

There are many reasons why people choose to practice yoga, whether they benefit from the regular exercise and improving their physical well-being or appreciate more the mental impact it can have on their stressful lives. So, what is yoga good for?

Man Doing Fitness Yoga

Yoga For Fitness

There aren’t many exercise systems available that improve your overall fitness the way that yoga can. For most, practicing yoga for fitness is the main reason why they choose this workout. Although some styles of yoga might not give you a solid cardio workout, research has found that almost all styles will improve your strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance.

Yoga For Spirituality

Considering just how connected yoga and spirituality are, it makes sense that this is one of the most popular reasons why people practice it. No matter your background, religion, or beliefs, the spirituality taught in yoga can be universally attained by anyone. Yoga truly is a holistic package that unites your body, mind, and breath to achieve great things.

Yoga For Versatility

If you’re looking for an exercise system that won’t leave you bored, yoga is definitely it. There are hundreds of variations available to try, and within each of those teachings, there are hundreds of poses and positions to master.

You can work out anywhere you like with yoga, and you can enjoy it on your own or with others. It’s a truly versatile exercise that can be enjoyed by all shapes, sizes, ages, and fitness levels.

Yoga For An Injury-Free Workout

For those people who tend to push themselves too hard at the gym and end up injured and sore, yoga is a great alternative. Yoga teaches us to pay attention to our body and mind at all times, so we’re far more aware of when we might be pushing ourselves to the limit.

Not only is it an effective workout, but yoga can be used for physical rehabilitation and relieving pain, so it’s extremely valuable to learn.

Yoga Equipment

Although traditional yogis practiced with little else than their own mind and body, yoga equipment is a market that has grown significantly today. In Western practice specifically, there are quite a few useful props that you can use to improve your form and get the most out of your yoga poses. Here are just some pieces of yoga equipment favored by studios and followers in modern times.

Yoga Mats

Perhaps one of the only pieces of yoga equipment that have been used for thousands of years, yoga mats are by far the most popular. Although traditional yoga mats were made from animal skin, the most common type today is PVC. These mats have a range of benefits including hygiene, stability, safety, and giving the user their own personal space to stay focused.

Colorful Yoga Mats

Yoga Blocks

Yoga blocks are sold in pairs and are generally used under your hands to bring the ground closer to you. These allow you to achieve poses and stretches that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, but they can also be utilized in different parts of your body for resistance training and finding your alignment.

Woman Doing Yoga on Yoga Blocks

They’re made from foam, cork, or wood usually, depending on the personal preference of the user for density and comfort.

Yoga Straps

A yoga strap is a simple device with a lot of benefits, but one that seems to be underused by many. These straps help with flexibility and create a bridge between your hands so that you’re able to achieve poses. Some people shy away from them as they don’t want to appear inflexible in class, but they are ideal for building your form.

Woman Doing Yoga with Yoga Straps

Yoga Wheels

A relatively new product, but one that is picking up popularity, is the yoga wheel. These simple wheel designs can be used underneath your back to achieve bends, laid flat on the floor to rest of for various poses, and incorporated into just about every yoga pose there is.

Woman Doing Yoga with Yoga Wheel

Yoga Towels

Not to be confused with everyday towels, yoga towels have been designed specifically to go over the top of your yoga mat. These towels help to protect share mat users from bacteria, but also provide an extra grip in difficult poses particularly if your mat has become sweaty. They’re made from microfiber materials and usually with a rubber base that allows them to stick to your mat.

Doing Yoga on Yoga Towel

Yoga Balls

Another term for the widely popular exercise ball, these fitness devices have found their way into common yoga practice. Using a yoga ball with certain poses gives you more engagement in your muscles, and they’re ideal for physical rehabilitation while you perform your practice.

Woman Doing Yoga with a Fitness Ball

Yoga Clothes

The clothes we wear during yoga is just as important as the props, so it’s essential that you feel comfortable and flexible when you practice. Yoga pants are the most popular item, even worn outside of the studio, but there is a whole market of clothing including shoes, shirts, and even bras.

Woman Dressed in Yoga Clothes

Yoga Breathing

One of the most important yoga basics you should know is breathing, as every single style and form of this ancient exercise will focus on the breath. As you progress through your yoga journey, the concepts related to breathing get more complicated, but for beginners, they are quite easy to master.

Girl Doing Yoga in The Park

Most hatha yoga classes use ujjayi breathing which is a steady and resonating breath. The best way to find this style of breathing is to close your eyes first and focus on your natural breathing state. Pay close attention to the pace, sound, and rhythm, as well as how long it takes you to inhale and exhale.

The observation of our natural state of breath places a huge role in yoga, and through this observation, we’re able to create a state of awareness in our body and mind. Once you have a good understanding of your breathing, you can then begin to make adjustments to it.

Start by trying to match the length of exhales and inhales. As you breathe in and out of your nose, try to shift the focus of where the breath is coming from. You want to now breathe from the base of your throat so that it’s less nasally and more soothing. There’s no need to do this loudly just for it to be effective, as most people commonly believe.

Woman Exercising Yoga Breathing

The more you practice this breathing the more effective it will be, and it’s the best way of harnessing your mind and staying focused. The aim is to keep a steady ujjayi breath through your practice, even during rigorous moves, and this can be very hard to achieve at first.

Common Yoga Terminology

Along with learning the breathing and physical aspects of yoga, you should also make yourself aware of the language used. If you’re ever attended a yoga class, you may have heard some Sanskrit phrases and words use before, but not had any idea what they mean. Here are some popular terms used and what they mean for yoga practice.

Pranayama: This is the Sanskrit word for breath control and breathing exercises, and it’s a crucial part of yoga. Pranayama is important for achieving stillness and inner awareness.

Mantra: This means a tool or instrument of thought, and refers to the chants, sayings, sounds, and words that are used during yoga. These are repeated with the purpose of creating a positive mental transformation.

Asanas: Meaning seat, asanas refers to the physical postures performed during a yoga session.

Om/Aum: Commonly chanted in repetition during yoga and meditation, om is thought to be the first sound of creation.

Mudra: This refers to a seal, and during yoga, there are different seals your body can perform. It’s believed that certain positions of your body can have an effect your energy, so a seal is commonly used with the hands.

Savasana: The literal meaning of this is “corpse pose”, but it refers to the ending of your yoga session and the final relaxation pose you perform.

Ujjayi: This is a style of breathing commonly found with Vinyasa yoga, and relates to a large hissing breath that fully expands your lungs.

Namaste: This translates to “I bow to you” and it’s a respectful way to end each yoga session. This is done by placing the hands together at the heart chakra, closing your eyes, and bowing your head.

Popular Yoga Poses

Even if you’ve never practiced before, there are some basic yoga poses that you’ve likely heard of. These terms cover some of the simplest yoga exercises and they’re a great way to test the waters and see if you like what this ancient system can offer.

Downward Facing Dog

By far the most commonly heard yoga pose, downward facing dog stretches your entire body in the one move. To begin, start on your hands and knees with knees below hips and hands just forward of your shoulders.

Woman Doing Downward Facing Dog Yoga Pose

As you exhale, lift your knees away from the floor making sure you keep your knees slightly bent. Lengthen your tailbone and use this resistance to lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling. Exhale again and stretch your heels flat onto the floor and straighten your knees.

Keep your outer thighs and outer arms firm as you press index fingers into the floor. From here, lift your inner arms and firm your shoulder blades as you bring them towards your back. Widen them again and draw them into your tailbone as you keep your head between your upper arms.

Sun Salutations

These are postures used to strengthen your body and stretch, and there are a few variations of sequences. With 12 different postures within, a sun salutation or “Surya Namaskar” should be done first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. These yoga stretches are ideal at waking you up and giving you a refreshed start to the day.

Woman Doing Sun Salutation Yoga Pose

A sun salutation looks similar to a standing posture which then goes down to the floor and stretches out your entire body, then returning to standing position again. This classic sequence gives a rough outline to how a sun salutation is performed:

  • Mountain pose
  • Upward salute
  • Standing forward bend
  • Half standing forward bend
  • Four-limbed staff pose
  • Upward facing dog
  • Downward facing dog
  • Feet to hands transition
  • Half standing forward bend
  • Standing forward bend
  • Upward salute
  • Moutain pose

Child’s Pose

This is a resting pose, commonly performed as a starting pose. It’s quite simple to achieve and ideal for beginners. This pose massages your organs, stretches your entire body and improves overall blood flow so it’s quite effective in many areas.

Woman Doing Yoga Child Pose

Kneel on the floor onto your mat. Bring your big toes together so they’re touching behind you and then sit on your heels. Separate your knees in front of you so they’re as wide as your hips. Exhale and lay down so your torso is resting between your thighs. Widen your pelvis while narrowing your hip bones so they nestle into your inner thighs.

Pull your tailbone away from the back of your pelvis and lift your skull away from the back of your neck. Place your hands on the floor beside you with palms facing up and then let your shoulders hang to the floor. Stay here for at least 30 seconds to enjoy this resting pose.

Moutain Pose

This pose is considered the foundation for most others, and it’s effective at improving your posture and increasing your balance and stability. Begin by standing straight on your mat with your feet hip-width apart. Lift your toes up and spread them before placing them back on the floor. Pull up your knees and squeeze your thighs so your hips are directly over your ankles.

Man Doing Yoga Mountain Pose

Inhale and lift your body up, trying to imagine the crown of your head straining to reach the ceiling. Exhale and let your body drop back down and try to reach your fingers to the floor as you stand. Inhale and bring your arms up and into an H position with your palms turned out.

Exhale and relax your shoulders down while you keep the crown and fingers stretched up. Hold this pose and breathe for 4-8 breaths. Exhale and bring your arms down to your side again.

Four-Limbed Staff

This pose is ideal for building upper body strength, improving your core, and can also lengthen your spine. For those with lower back pain, this pose is great for finding relief. Start in a push-up position down on your mat and spread your fingers far apart on the floor. Keep your tailbone tucked under so that your entire body is a straight line and push the crown of your head forward.

Woman Doing Four Limbed Staff Yoga Pose

Exhale and keep your body straight as you slowly lower yourself to about four inches above the floor. Keep a 90-degree angle in your elbows and make sure that your shoulders are at the same height as them. Hold the pose for around four breaths and exhale to take yourself all the way to the floor. Alternatively, you can inhale yourself up and into plank pose to finish.

Yoga Poses For Rehabilitation

If you’re using a yoga ball to work out, you’ll know that it has amazing powers for physical rehabilitation. These balls can help you to achieve poses in a gentler way, and even be added to increase the challenge of certain poses. Here are a few exercises you can use for rehabilitation with your yoga ball.

Seated Stork Pose

The seated stork pose can not only improve your balance and posture but also open up your hips and strengthen your arms and legs. It’s ideal for a low impact exercise that reduces strain on the body while having an effective workout on your muscles.

Couple Doing Stork Yoga Pose

As you sit down on the yoga ball, cross your left foot over your right knee. Keep your back up straight and then bring your palms together in front of our chest. Inhale and draw your hands up and over your head, then lead forward into your pose. Hold this move for three breaths and then return to sitting position.

Scissor Kicks

This exercise works at conditioning your core without too much intensity, and although not traditionally a yoga move it can be added to most of your poses for an added challenge.

Woman Doing Scissor Kicks Yoga Pose

Lay with your torso down on the top of the yoga ball and slowly roll yourself forward with your hands until you’re resting on forearms. Your legs should be straight behind you and flexed as you open them slowly and then close them again. Try to imagine a scissor opening and shutting slowly as you keep your abs contracted.

Spinal Rotation

For anyone suffering from back pain, this is a simple exercise you can do to improve its strength without putting too much strain on your body. These rotations are commonly referred to as spinal twists in yoga.

Man Doing Spinal Rotation Yoga Pose

Sit on top of the ball with your legs straight out at the front and arms down to your sides. Keep your posture tall and face forward. Rotate your torso to the right and take your left arm towards your right foot. Come back to the center and swap sides, performing the move again.

Tips on How to Do Yoga At Home

Although there are many great yoga studios available, some people may prefer to practice at home. As yoga can be a very spiritual experience for some, they may prefer to do this in privacy and in a space where they feel comfortable and safe. For those practicing yoga at home, here are some tips that you can use to ensure you’re getting the best from your session.

Create Your Own Space

While it’s not necessary to have your very own yoga studio at home, it’s important to have a space in your house that is just for this ancient practice. Some people prefer to work outside in nature or others indoors, but wherever you set up your mat needs to be a calming and safe place for you to practice.

Woman Doing Yoga in Living Room

Have The Right Equipment

Before starting your yoga session, ensure that you have all of the relevant equipment ready. You don’t want to get half way through and find that your strap is missing, so get everything organized beforehand so you don’t have to give it a second thought.

Choose Your Routine

Before you start a session, have a clear understanding of the poses and sequences you’re going to follow. Whether you’re using an instructional video or relying on your own methods, it’s best to go into it with a defined routine that you’ll follow.

Don’t Push Yourself

When you’re not with others or an instructor, it can be easy to push yourself too hard. Take your time with difficult poses and understand that you will get better with time, knowing that yoga isn’t just about achieving the physical aspects alone.

Woman Doing Yoga in The Lotus Position

Relax And Practice Savasana

You should always enjoy yoga, so take your time to relax and get into it. Once you’ve finished with your session, always end with Savasana as a chance to take a final relaxation and end the yoga practice correctly.

Practice Regularly

Yoga isn’t something that can be mastered in just one lesson, so ensure you are putting in regular practice. Just like anything that is worth learning, yoga will take time and patience to understand all of the principles, breathing techniques, and poses.

The Diversity of Yoga

There truly is no other exercise system on earth as wonderful as yoga, and it offers one of the most diverse workouts of all. Yoga can be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds, spiritualties, ages, sizes, and fitness levels, for a truly universal workout of both body and mind.

Woman Practicing Yoga at Sunset

Although there may be a bit to learn with all of the different poses, techniques, and beliefs, the rewards found with yoga are simply phenomenal. No other exercise system has the ability to bring you such a diverse range of mental and physical benefits, so it’s worth your time and patience to learn.

Whether you’re just starting out and want to try some poses at home or are interested in joining your local yoga study, there’s so much diversity to be found with this ancient method. As the most popular exercise system in the world, it will be immediately easy to see why it’s gained so much praise.

Performing yoga for health and wellness is one of the most rewarding exercises you can do, so whatever your reasons are for enjoying this activity they’re sure to be shared by millions of others too. Whether you’re just starting out or have many years of practice behind you, the journey that the yoga practitioner takes is never without a challenge or enjoyment.

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