Yoga has existed for thousands of years as a mind-body practice that focuses on mindfulness, physical well-being, and healing both body and mind. The religious elements of its roots have become less and less prominent as teachers have begun to share yoga practices around the world. To many people, yoga is just stretching to ambient music, or sitting in a painful looking twisted position, sometimes while praying to some higher power. Some people are intimidated, thinking that they have to have a particular athletic and spiritual background in order to start attending yoga classes. But just like meditation, yoga practice today is studied as a very powerful healing tool, or a form of exercise, and you do not have to be a master athlete, or believe in any higher spirit(s) or god(s), to embrace the benefits of yoga.
WHAT IS YOGA?
Yoga is not just stretching, yoga is not just breathing, and yoga is not just sitting still and finding peace in your mind. Yoga is a combination of three major components: physical movement, controlled breathing, and meditation. These three aspects combined is what makes yoga practice so different from other traditional forms of exercise where the emphasis is on physical exertion. We go running to improve our endurance, we lift weights to become strong, we stretch to increase our mobility and flexibility. But we don’t do yoga to be better at exercise – we do yoga to be better at life, to feel good, to heal, to connect. Luckily for us, it often manages to improve our athletic performance and functional strength in the process.
Postures you create with your body during a yoga practice are called asanas. There are many asanas, each with various modifications and expressions. Some are more physically challenging, some focus on mobility, some are more restorative, others stimulate the flow of lymphatic fluid in the body, and some help to ease pain or improve digestion. You can set your own pace as you transition from one asana to the next, sometimes spending several minutes resting in a single pose, and other times moving through the poses with the rhythm of your breathing. You are more than welcome to modify every asana to suit your own fitness level or medical condition; slight discomfort is not a bad thing to experience, but it is not meant to be painful. There is a distinct difference between pain and the discomfort of something that feels new and awkward. As a famous yoga teacher says: “Find what feels good.” Yoga postures are put together by yoga teachers to create a flow or sequence that can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a full hour (or longer, there is no limit), but even five minutes of mindful yoga in the morning still counts as a practice and is beneficial!
Pranayama is what we call controlled breathing. There are several pranayama techniques that are taught in yoga, like Ujjayi or Lion breathing, bringing our focus to the breath, finding ease in challenging postures by controlling our breath, and learning to calm down the body and the mind by using these mindful breathing techniques. Some forms of Pranayama are designed to be practiced prior to beginning an asana sequence, and they serve to focus or clear the mind, or to prepare the body for the coming movements. It might be challenging at first to connect and synchronize the movement with the breath (especially if you have a condition like POTS), but with regular practice, it will become easier, and you can learn to actually control your movement by using your breath; getting deeper into a posture just by breathing mindfully, and bringing calm to a stressed mind (we’ll talk more about stress relief in a moment).
Meditation is such a rich topic that we’ve given it its own post, which you can read here! Mindfulness is a practice which encourages being aware of your thoughts and feelings, maintaining full attention and being present in that moment. It can cause anxiety to think of needing to completely empty your mind, so it can be helpful to instead think of practicing watching your thoughts go by like a train, rather than jumping on board the train and letting them carry you away. If you learn to be mindful during your yoga practice, you will soon experience an improvement not only in your mobility and flexibility, but also in your overall well being; you will begin to notice and pay more attention to what is happening in your body. You will learn to find stillness and calm within both body and mind, and you will potentially begin to find a new love for yourself and your physical body. One of the root teachings of yoga is that it is the cessation of the association with the fluctuations of the mind; better put, you are not your thoughts, but the observer.
WHY WOULD I WANT TO MAKE TIME FOR YOGA?
Yoga has been studied as beneficial for a number of health conditions, both mental and physical, including asthma, depression, obesity, and diabetes, and has also been shown to be very helpful for pregnant women, cancer patients (as an addition to their medical treatment, not instead of it) or elderly people with sleep problems. However, yoga is probably best known as a wonderful stress-relief tool.
Our bodies respond to stress with an instant reaction of the sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). We know this reaction as fight, flight, or freeze. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative stress situation that triggers this bodily response; even looking forward to an exciting job interview, first date with a new potential partner, or planning a wedding is somewhat stressful for the body. Our heart rate goes up, our breathing rhythm changes, our senses are sharper, blood sugar is released into the bloodstream for a boost of immediate energy, the adrenal glands start producing adrenaline (epinephrine), cortisol levels increase, and our body is ready to either fight the potential danger or run away from it.
Once we get out of the stressful situation, our nervous system returns to a calmer state we call the rest, repair, and digest response, where the parasympathetic part of the ANS calms our body down, and balances hormones again by lowering cortisol levels and heart rate. This is a natural stress response is part of how our bodies evolved to survive, and this adaptation served us well when we needed to run away from a wild animal. In the modern world, the bears have been replaced with boardrooms, financial strain, and stressful relationships, and we find ourselves in fight or flight mode more often than we should, without there actually being immediate danger (at least not the kind that endangers our lives). Chronic stress leads to a number of health issues, including overworked adrenal glands – resulting in a condition known as adrenal fatigue – as well as unwanted weight gain, and chronic exhaustion. Chronic stress can also contribute to the onset of various autoimmune conditions, including Celiac disease.
Controlling our breathing during yoga helps to reduce the sense of stress in the body. Deep, slow, and mindful breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, provoking the rest, repair, and digest response. When paired with gentle body movement in a calm, quiet, safe environment (maybe with some calming music in the background, or possibly some soothing aromatherapy with calming scents like lavender, or the soft light of beeswax candles) it creates a safe environment for us to relax, breathe, stop worrying about potential threats, and even forget about our problems for at least a short period of time. Carving out this time to be fully present with ourselves in a supportive environment can also be incredibly helpful in addressing trauma, and creating a sense of safety in your own body. It’s a powerful tool for stress management. During a restorative yoga class, it might seem like you are not doing much by staying in a specific asana or pose for ten minutes and breathing slowly and mindfully, but you are actually doing a lot for your body and mind. By using breath control, you can learn to calm the body in even the most physically and mentally stressful situations. Once you have trained the body to respond in this way in a controlled setting (such as a yoga studio), it becomes possible to activate the same response in the body when you are in the midst of a stressful situation. By pausing to take a deep breath before responding to the person bringing stress into that moment, you can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and respond with a sense of calm and clarity, rather than fighting back and escalating the situation.
Improved mobility and flexibility are among the benefits of yoga practice, especially for people who live with chronic body aches and joint pain. If you experience any stiffness in fascia, joints, or issues like back pain, sore feet, or tired wrists, yoga can help you to relieve these symptoms by increasing mobility, muscle elasticity, and most importantly, strengthening muscles to support the joints more effectively. As a person living in a hypermobile body, for me it is important to focus on cultivating strength within the limit of safe ranges of motion for my joints, rather than stretching to my limits. When I do this regularly, I find that it significantly reduces pain, and I have more strength and energy to tackle the tasks of daily living. Yoga alone will not heal any underlying inflammation in the body that can cause these issues, but it is a powerful tool to help managing these symptoms. The combination of bringing the body into the rest, repair, and digest state along with improved muscle tone can have wonderful results, even improving markers of disease and inflammation in the blood, as was documented in the Last Best Cure. I also highly recommend reading these two amazing posts, where autoimmune patients share their personal experience with yoga – here and here.
HOW DO I START?
Where you start will depend on your personal preferences, current physical abilities, and goals. While we all will have our own unique goals, most can be summed up in wanting to be the healthiest versions of ourselves and living with the highest quality of life possible. Yoga is not a cure all, but I do believe it is a very powerful tool that can be used by most people. There are many different types of yoga that have been developed over thousands of years, some are better known than others, but they all have one thing in common: they are meant to support healing. Let’s take a closer look at the most common types of yoga you are likely to encounter, whether you choose to attend group classes in a studio or practice alone at home.
VINYASA YOGA – The word vinyasa can be translated as “arranging something in a special way,” and in yoga, it simply represents asanas or poses arranged in a grouping that flows well from one to the next. In Vinyasa classes, you perform a sequence of postures and synchronize them with your breath as you transition between them. Vinyasa is also used to describe a specific sequence of asanas (for example Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog to Downward Facing Dog).
HATHA YOGA – Hatha is the name for basically every yoga practice that consists of several asanas performed in a flow. The word hatha is translated as a yoga of balance, where ha means “sun” and tha means “moon.” Power yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and Iyengar yoga are all classified as Hatha, so this is more like a family of yoga practices than a specific type on its own.
YIN YOGA – Yin yoga is designed as a more passive practice to increase connective tissue mobility around joints (especially the hips, pelvis, knees, and spine). It is not very dynamic and it usually consist of just a few asanas performed for a few minutes at a time while using support tools like blocks, blankets, bolsters, and pillows. This is a very meditative type of yoga, perfect to do on those days when you don’t feel your best or you feel sore. These classes might be especially ideal for a flare day, when we don’t feel like stretching dynamically or moving vigorously, but still want to get some mindful movement in. It is also perfect as a ritual to unwind before bedtime. When you perform these long, relaxing asanas on your bed, you can easily fall asleep during the practice.
RESTORATIVE YOGA – Restorative yoga is very similar to Yin Yoga. The flow usually involves just a few poses held for the longer period of time, even 20 minutes or longer. You support your body with props just like in Yin yoga, and it is very gentle and relaxing. Restorative yoga was first introduced by B.K.S. Iygenar, who is known as the Master of Asana in the yoga world. This type of yoga is especially helpful for stress management and for patients with depression or anxiety, while Yin yoga is generally more used for increasing mobility and easing pain.
POWER YOGA – Power yoga is a vinyasa practice with a “fitness” kick to it. It is usually very active and dynamic, more strength and balance oriented, with a focus on core strength, stamina, and breath. Some people have problems with holding a pose for too long, like Yin yoga does; it can be challenging physically, for others it can be boring and they tend to rush to the next asana as fast as possible. If this sounds familiar, Power yoga is perfect for you. It is quite a workout, but because it is so active, it is usually over before you even realize you have been doing it for 30 minutes already!
HOT YOGA – Hot yoga is basically any yoga class that is performed in a room that has been heated to a higher temperature (85-105°F or 29-40°C) in order to sweat more, with the intention of releasing more toxins from the body. This style of yoga includes Bikram yoga, Forest yoga, and Baptist yoga. Also, it is generally easier to increase mobility as joints and muscles tend to work better after a good warm up and the risk of injury is lower. Those with conditions like POTS are likely to struggle with this form of yoga.
KUNDALINI YOGA – Kundalini yoga is probably the most spiritually focused type of yoga. It combines physical movement with dynamic breathing techniques, meditation, and repeating mantras to create consciousness along with physical vitality. One of the common mantras used during Kundalini is Sat Nam – “I am truth”. Kundalini yogis often use some calming, meditative music as a background for their mantra chanting.
WHERE DO I PRACTICE?
The best way to find the type of yoga that will work for you is to try several styles that appeal to you, and then pick your favorite. You don’t have to focus on one specific type though; you can easily mix and match them and focus on whatever you feel like doing that day. Many yoga studios offer a first class or two for free so you can try different classes and studios in your local area to find the perfect one for you, before you commit to pay for a longer membership. If you aren’t a fan of group classes, individual classes are available in some studios as well, just do a little research to find out what is available in your area.
If you are short on time or/and you feel the most comfortable in the safety and environment of your own home, (or you live somewhere that appropriate classes aren’t offered) you can simply try an online class! This is what I personally do and I love it. There are plenty of yoga resources online that are worth the investment; they offer individual support, downloadable materials, free trials, and very often daily or weekly newsletters. SoMuchYoga.com recently created an in-depth review of several popular online yoga courses, their quality, price range, suitability for beginners, and other important criteria. Check out their post before you subscribe to a site so you know in advance what you are paying for.
That said, I highly recommend Zenward yoga: an online school with comprehensive individual support, a large supportive community, and also 30 days of free beginner programs for those of you who have never tried yoga before. This way you can ease into the practice at your own pace, without the fear of those intimidating looking complicated postures you think you are not ready for yet. I can tell you that after 30 consecutive days, my body is so much more flexible and confident in each of the poses! It’s amazing to gain strength, balance, and confidence in your body’s abilities!
If you feel confident enough (or you have some experience with yoga already and feel like you know what you are doing), check out these awesome free resources: Do Yoga With Me, Do You Yoga, and Yoga With Adriene! From my own experience I know that nothing can substitute a personal assessment with a certified teacher in real life, but once you learn the basics and you find what feels good for you, don’t hesitate to practice in your own living room by yourself if that is your preference. There is a study showing that group classes have even larger benefits due to the community aspect though, so if you can, go out, meet people, connect with them, move with them, and you never know, you might find some amazing, new, like minded friends!
WORD FROM A YOGA TEACHER
As an instructor, a great degree of care is placed on creating a sequence of movements that will bring the student from a place of possibly sore, cold muscles, through a peak expression, and then winding back down for some rest, relaxation, and integration. Most people think of savasana as the part of class where you get to sleep, but most teachers would agree that this is the place you get to reap the greatest rewards of creating a dedicated yoga practice. It is the space where you get to quietly reconnect with the body, and take the time to let go of whatever narrative you have been carrying around either for the day, or maybe for many years.
The other thing I hear most often from friends and strangers who haven’t yet tried yoga, is a belief that you need to be flexible to be a true yogi. Yes, some of the advanced asanas are greatly aided by being a little extra bendy, but to reap the benefits of yoga, absolutely zero flexibility is required. That will come. With time and dedication to showing up to your mat, you will see immense changes in how your body moves and feels.
Once you make it into the studio, and onto a mat, be prepared to struggle. That’s the beautiful part of it! Sometimes the struggle is physical, and sometimes it’s all mental. Everyone gets to struggle together, and you’ve come to a space where all judgment is suspended. Leave it at the door. Your teacher is there to provide you with both verbal and physical adjustments, as well as instruction on how to use props to make the yoga asana accessible to every body, and make sure that you are staying safe while engaging in the practice. My favourite prop that I use almost every day at home is my bolster. Just know, that no matter what, when you step inside a yoga studio you will be supported.
My role is to use my training to assess what I am seeing in front of me, and provide cues on how you can deepen and strengthen your yoga practice. Some teachers will bring more of the Yoga Sutras (or teachings) into the class, some less. But the grounding principle for yoga is always going to be the bringing together of the mind, body, and spirit. “Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodha” = yoga is the cessation of (the association of) the fluctuations of the mind. Through the practice of yoga, you can learn to create a moment or space for pause, and move from reacting to responding to the world around you.
Each instructor brings something a little bit different to a class, so don’t be afraid to try out a BUNCH of different styles, studios, and teachers, until you find one who works for you. We’re human. We’re all unique. And that is a beautiful thing.
STRIKE A POSE!
You don’t need a fancy mat or gear to start doing yoga, and you don’t even need expensive clothes! I love my Gaiam mat, and I can’t say enough good things about these simple yoga blocks to elevate the earth closer to you if your flexibility doesn’t allow you to touch the ground yet. I have also use sofa cushions for support during Yin classes, but if you don’t have that option, bolsters are pretty inexpensive and they will go a long way in your practice, not just at the beginning. The only thing you need is a realistic plan, passion, and trust in the process. Even if you are not interested in any of the spiritual aspects of yoga or meditation, you will still benefit greatly from maintaining a regular practice. Yoga is more than just stretching, more than just moving with the breath. Yoga helps to create greater body awareness, to cultivate love and respect towards your body, and to give you the wonderful benefit of stress relief, which you most likely need if you are a human living in the 21st century! Step onto the mat and enjoy the experience. Rather than exercising because you hate the way your body looks or feels, instead cultivate a mindful yoga practice because you love your body and want what is best for it! You will be rewarded with functional strength, a feeling of groundedness and connection, and the opportunity to pause and take space from the frantic pace of life. If you love your body and treat it with love, care, and respect, it will absolutely love you back! Namaste!