The benefits of yoga practice can impact both mental and physical health.
Yoga — a centuries old art and science designed to support health, healing and happiness for people of all abilities and backgrounds — is now practiced by over 36 million people in the U.S. According to the 2016 Yoga in America study, another 80 million residents are interested in trying yoga for the first time. And the numbers are likely to grow.
What is yoga?
While there are many variations and practices of yoga, all share a common intention: to help an individual realize their full potential as a human being. For some, yoga is a physical practice that helps build strength, increase flexibility, release tension and heal from injury or illness. For others, yoga is training for the mind, and helps to improve concentration, reduce stress and bring balance to our emotional states. Still others view yoga as a practice for the soul, nourishing the aspects of ourselves that help us become more generous, kind, compassionate and giving.
Functionally, yoga is a life philosophy that supports humankind, not a religion, and is thus complementary to any faith or belief system. The practices of yoga come from ancient and modern India. Yoga was introduced widely to America in the late 1800s and became popular when a wave of Indian teachers came to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Since that time, U.S. yoga has continuously evolved and found new ways to reach more people. Beyond the settings of studios, homes and community centers, yoga can now be found in schools, hospitals, senior centers, universities, prisons, offices and organizations.
What is the appeal of yoga?
Each person comes to yoga with unique intentions and yoga is intended to meet every person exactly where they are in life. Because there is no “right” or “wrong” way to practice yoga, it is welcoming to everybody who wants to try it. Yoga is also widely accessible. Most people report that they practice yoga in their homes, and you really don’t need any fancy equipment, a gym membership, a studio pass or even a yoga mat to participate (though a qualified teacher is essential). Also, there are so many different styles and types of yoga that one is likely to fit your individual needs. For example, if you want to do yoga postures as just a workout, there are a variety of ways to practice “asana” ― the postures ― to help you move your body. If you want to improve your ability to manage stress, there are breathing practices, mindfulness exercises and relaxation techniques that can be used instead of, or in addition to, the postures. And if you want to sing, chant, study texts or otherwise work to open your heart to your loved ones and all those around you, there are practices that will inspire, elevate and nourish your soul. But what makes yoga different from basic exercise, dance class, Pilates, barre or simple deep breathing? The magic of yoga lies in the linking ― the union of bodily movement with the breath and with non-judgmental self-awareness, and with an attitude of self-discovery.
What are the benefits of yoga?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses may reduce lower back pain and improve function. Other studies also suggest that practicing yoga might improve quality of life; reduce stress; lower heart rate and blood pressure; help relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and improve overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility. Many yoga practitioners have shared that an added benefit of yoga is feeling part of a community of positive, kind and compassionate people. While the effects of yoga are distinctly different for every practitioner, the most important thing to remember is that yoga is about the experiment, and not the outcome. The best thing to do is try it for yourself, and see what it does for your own body, mind and spirit.
How to choose a class that is right for you
First, find a well-qualified teacher. As the National Institutes of Health says, “Yoga is generally low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor.” Yoga Alliance is the widely adopted field leader in yoga credentialing and a student should look for a Yoga Alliance-registered teacher. Do your research and make sure that your teacher has a legitimate credential from a reputable school. Next, choose a style or type of yoga that feels right for you. If you want a practice to help you find balance in life, try Hatha Yoga. Want more of a workout? Try vinyasa yoga, hot yoga or power yoga. Need relaxation? Try Yin Yoga, restorative yoga or yoga nidra. And here is a helpful hint for many: If you normally like high-impact cardio or weights, doing an aggressive physical style of yoga may not be the best thing for you. Try a gentle or restorative class to balance out your hard workouts. And if you are more sedentary and need to move your body, you may initially enjoy gentle yoga, but may be better served by trying a vinyasa flow class to really get your body and breath in motion. Yoga really is your chance to experiment, so try different classes, teachers, types and styles of yoga and see which one resonates for you. And be sure to consult your physician or health care provider before starting any physically based practice.
The greatest benefit of all
In the end, practicing yoga in a yoga class teaches us how to navigate the inner world so that we can bring those lessons “off the mat” and into our relationships, communities and families. In class, we practice moving our bodies, training our minds and nourishing our spirit so that we can show up in life as our true selves, which are already perfect and whole.
Yoga teaches us kindness, compassion, gratitude and love toward ourselves so that we may then share that with those around us. For that reason alone, yoga is a philosophy that can help heal our world, and the best thing to do is to try it for yourself and see what happens.
SOME TIPS FOR CHOOSING A TEACHER AND PLACE TO PRACTICE:
- Practice space should be clean, well-ventilated and free of odor.
- Look for a studio or practice space where the staff, teachers and students are friendly, helpful and kind; if people are acting competitively, being territorial about mat space, or you feel rushed in and out of class, perhaps look for another studio. Yoga teaches patience, tolerance and acceptance. If those traits are not apparent in your space, the yoga there may not be working and you should move on. The best yoga spaces are truly welcoming to everybody.
- Class descriptions should be explicit about whether each class is suitable for beginners.
- Teachers should use inclusive and non-harmful language to ensure all class participants feel welcome and safe.
- Studios and teachers should be clear about what style of yoga they teach in each class; yoga does not need to be mysterious. Look for studios and teachers that are open and honest about what they teach and what they don’t. If they don’t have time to explain things to a newcomer, move on to a studio that comes from a place of service and heart.
- Teachers should always ask before offering hands-on assistance.
- The best teachers care about you as an individual; even in group classes, listen for an acknowledgement that every body, every breath and every person is different and unique. What is right for you may not be right for the person next to you. So look for invitations to modify and adapt practices to meet your life circumstances.
David Lipsius is President and CEO of Yoga Alliance, the largest international not-for-profit organization serving yoga teachers, yoga schools and practitioners, and the Yoga Alliance Foundation, dedicated to introducing the art and science of yoga to underserved populations. He is a yoga teacher and values-based not-for-profit leader who has studied yoga, Ayurveda and meditation for 17 years.