TABLE OF CONTENTS
History of Yoga
Yoga has a rich history dating back over 5,000 years, originating in the Indus Valley civilization, an area now known as Pakistan. Dozens of towns were established along the fertile lands of the Sarasvati River, including the Harappan tribe, a matriarchal society that provided the first evidence of the practice and philosophy of yoga. Although their scripts were never deciphered, it is believed that they practiced Yama Ahimsa and Niyama Saucha; two of the five Yamas in yogic philosophy.
The Harappan tribe vanished around 1800 BC, but not before encountering the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans, a nomadic tribe that migrated to the Indian subcontinent and the Indus Valley.
The Vedas, the world’s first books, were written by the Aryans, and they contain sacred scriptures where the term Yoga was first mentioned. For generations, Hindu traditions and rituals were passed down orally before being recorded in the four-book series over a thousand years. The word “Veda” means knowledge or wisdom in Sanskrit.
The Upanishads were the last written layer of the Vedas, composed between 800 and 500 BC. Upanishad means “sitting near,” referring to sitting at the feet of a guru to engage in spiritual instruction. Written at a time when the ancient Vedic religious order was starting to be questioned, their focus shifted from external rituals and sacrifices to the quest for connection with the divine.
The Upanishads explore and explain key concepts of ancient yogic philosophy, including Samsara (reincarnation), karma (action), dharma (duty), and moksha (liberation). Yoga is one of the six philosophical schools of Hinduism and influenced Buddhism and Jainism.
- Yoga has countless benefits, including stress reduction and increased physical strength
- Yoga originated as a meditative practice and the physical prominence followed later
- To live a yogic lifestyle means to follow the Yamas and Niyamas
- Yoga is a practice for everyone and there are many different styles
- The ultimate goal of yoga is to achieve balance and harmony between the body, mind, and spirit
Yoga is a holistic practice that has existed for thousands of years. It encompasses many physical and mental practices and aims to achieve balance and harmony between the body, mind, and spirit. This article provides a comprehensive guide to the history, styles and practices associated with yoga and demonstrates how you can incorporate it into your life and enjoy its many benefits.
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means “to attach, join, harness, yoke.” Yoga is a synonym of “yoke” in Sanskrit and is nowadays more commonly translated as “union.”
You may have heard yoga described as a union of body, mind, and soul, which is an inaccurate modern twist on the true meaning of yoga. The union refers to the connection with the divine or the universal consciousness. The various yoga practices are designed to take us toward the union of the Self with God.
Yogic philosophy is one of duality, where two realities coexist. Purusha is pure consciousness, and prakrti is our physical reality, thoughts, and emotions. Purusha is the witness of prakrti, it is unmanifest and unchanging. Yogis believe that this physical reality exists for the realization of pure consciousness, and the practice aims at returning to the state of pure consciousness or uniting with the divine.
Karma, dharma, and moksha are key concepts in the yogic philosophy. Karma refers to the results of our actions. Actions originate in the mind and manifest externally. Therefore, mental actions also have an equal reaction – an imprint in the mind called samskara.
Samskaras are the impressions left by the sense experience, like memories. They take the form of likes and dislikes, fears and desires. Every action of moral worth creates a karmic baggage, an equal reaction immediately or in the future. According to Hinduism, karma operates not only in this lifetime and lifetimes.
Dharma can be understood as the cosmic law of the universe. It derives from the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning “that which holds.” It is the idea that the universe is governed by law and rules to prevent chaos.
At the individual level, dharma means the righteous path, following the cosmic law that protects the universe from chaos. Following our dharma means being in accordance with the universe or following our true nature and calling. This path leads to Moksha.
Moksha means emancipation and freedom. It is the liberation of the soul from the bondage to Prakriti. Moksha is a state of perfection where the mind has overcome attachments and desires and is released from karma. This state of perfection is the goal of the practice. We can reunite with the divine by realizing our own infiniteness and perfection. This union is the true meaning of yoga.
Yoga has gained global popularity and attracts thousands of new practitioners every year. The modern approach is primarily centered on asanas, or postures, which involve holding positions for varying periods.
Initially, asana practice was to prepare the body for meditation, providing sufficient strength and flexibility to remain seated for extended periods in stillness. However, asanas have evolved over time to promote physical health and vitality.
Yoga encompasses more than just physical postures and includes techniques such as pranayama (breath control), mudras (gestures and hand seals), meditation, prayer, and chanting.
In contemporary times, yoga is widely practiced for its benefits in reducing stress, promoting peace, improving flexibility and strength, enhancing overall health, and reducing pain.
How does yoga actually work?
A typical modern yoga class involves a short meditation, sometimes some yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), a series of physical yoga postures, and ends with relaxation (savasana).
Combining yoga movements, breath, and relaxation has physical benefits and helps regulate the nervous system. The practice supports the student to be fully present in the moment and reach deep states of calm.
What are the main benefits of yoga?
The practice of yoga offers a multitude of benefits for physical and mental health. Practitioners can improve strength, flexibility, balance, and overall well-being by incorporating specific postures, breathing techniques, and mindfulness practices.
Improved heart health
One of the physical benefits of regular yoga practice is its ability to reduce heart rate and promote cardiovascular health. Regular practice can lower the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, and increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers heart rate and promotes relaxation.
Reducing back pain
Yoga can also alleviate upper and low back pain by strengthening the muscles supporting the spine, increasing flexibility and range of motion, and reducing stress and tension in the body. Specific postures, such as downward-facing dog and child’s pose, can improve posture, reduce inflammation, and increase blood flow to the affected area.
Improving mental health
Yoga can reduce stress and anxiety by promoting relaxation and mindfulness for mental health. Breathing techniques and mindfulness meditations can calm the mind and regulate the nervous system, reducing the release of stress hormones and symptoms such as mood swings.
Specific postures, such as backbends and inversions, can stimulate the release of endorphins and improve mood and overall well-being.
Yoga can improve breathing capacity and respiratory health by incorporating specific breathing techniques. Pranayama exercises can increase lung capacity, improve oxygen intake, and reduce stress and anxiety.
Yoga can enhance sleep by effectively targeting stress reduction, body relaxation, and mental tranquility. Various postures, such as forward bends and twists, release tension and prime the body for a restful night’s sleep. Incorporating pranayama, a set of breathing techniques in yoga, can also soothe the nervous system and promote relaxation.
Be mindful that certain poses and breathing exercises can stimulate the nervous system and should be avoided before bedtime to prevent energizing the body.
Furthermore, practicing yoga can increase the production of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle and promotes restful sleep. Adequate levels of melatonin are essential for maintaining a healthy sleep pattern, which can positively impact overall health and well-being.
Heightened stress levels increase the sensitivity of pain receptors and the perception of pain, creating more stress. Yoga can help manage chronic pain by reducing stress levels and increasing blood flow to affected areas by strengthening muscles and improving flexibility
Yoga postures such as cat-cow and pigeon pose effectively release body tension. Additionally, practicing yoga can help to increase the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals.
Hormonal balance management
In addition to promoting relaxation and reducing chronic stress, regular yoga practice can help balance the hormones in the body. Chronic stress can disrupt the endocrine system, leading to hormonal imbalances with a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms.
However, specific postures like shoulder stands and fish pose can stimulate the thyroid gland, which is crucial in regulating hormone levels.
Incorporating yoga into your daily routine can promote hormone balance, improve sleep quality, and experience a sense of calm and relaxation that can benefit your physical and mental health in countless ways.
Yoga: Lineages, path, methods, types, goals, and risks
Yoga involves mind-body exercise. Several styles incorporate body postures, breathing techniques, and meditation/relaxation. The yoga practice uses movement and meditation to enhance mental and physical health. Over the centuries, it has evolved into several branches using varying tools, approaches, and disciplines.
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Four Main Paths of Yoga
Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. It is to put ourselves to the service of others selflessly and without expectations of return. It underlines that the divine is in each of us and that by serving others, we serve God.
It cultivates surrender and detachment from the fruit of our actions. Karma Yoga suits an outgoing nature, seeking connection with others and showing an open heart.
Seva is one of the key concepts at the heart of Karma Yoga. The act of selfless service or voluntary work, performed without any expectation of personal gain or reward. Seva is considered a way of cultivating compassion and contributing to the well-being of others. It helps practitioners to overcome their ego and focus on the needs of others.
Jnana Yoga uses the intellect to inquire and connect to one’s most authentic nature. It discriminates between what is and the veils of perception, breaking ignorance and seeking the ultimate truth to connect with the ultimate reality of the divine. Jnana Yoga is suitable for one with an inquisitive nature.
Raja Yoga is the “Royal Path” of yoga. Considered the highest form of yoga, it offers a comprehensive method to control the mind by transcending the physical, pranic, and mental bodies.
The keystone of Raja Yoga is meditation, which prepares the body and mind for this practice. Raja Yoga is also known as the eight-limb path of yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga, and is suitable for all. More modern forms of yoga developed from Raja Yoga, including Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, etc.
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion. One can develop a profound relationship with God by practicing prayer and worship. Bhakti Yoga involves chanting, prayers (kirtan) and rituals, and displaying unconditional love and faith. This style is suitable for one with deep emotional nature.
What are the most popular types of Yoga?
The style known as Hatha was the first to prioritize the physical aspect of yoga practice through Asanas or yoga postures. Hatha means “force,” and aims to preserve, harness, and expand one’s vitality. This style incorporates various yoga techniques, including Mudras or seals, and pranayama, which are breathing practices, to promote physical purification and overall health as a foundation for spiritual development.
Today, Hatha is often associated with physical yoga or yoga exercises, with a particular emphasis on postures.
Postures are held for several breaths with the practice including standing and sitting poses, supine yoga stretches, and savasana. Most Hatha classes also include pranayama at the beginning and end.
Hatha Yoga has influenced many other physical yoga styles that are practiced today.
Krishnamacharya created Vinyasa Yoga in the 1940s as a physical yoga practice or exercise. This style involves a sequence of yoga postures connected through transitions and breath in movement. The term Vinyasa in Sanskrit translates to “placing in a specific way,” referring to the sequence of yoga poses.
Following the teaching of Krishnamacharya, the yoga sequences are adapted to the yoga students. Vinyasa Yoga classes are typically active yoga practices, often constructed around a theme and using breath and transition to create a flow.
Ashtanga Yoga is credited to Pattabhi Jois, a student of Krishnamacharya. Unlike Vinyasa yoga, where the sequences are adapted and modified following the creativity of the yoga teacher, Ashtanga Yoga involves fixed sequences of yoga postures typically held for five breaths. They interlaced with Vinyasa transitions, based on the Sun Salutation yoga sequence.
Ashtanga classes typically teach the Primary Series, a yoga sequence designed to promote physical health.
Ashtanga is practiced in two different manners: In the Mysore style and, alternatively, in a more teacher-led style. In Mysore classes, the student must master a posture before progressing further in the sequence.
Practitioners, therefore, practice at their own pace the portion of the sequence corresponding to their progress, with the supervision and assistance of the teacher. In contrast, in Ashtanga Yoga-led classes, a teacher guides the group of yoga students through the entire sequence.
Kundalini Yoga is a school influenced by Shaktism and Tantra schools of Hinduism. It aims at awakening kundalini energy through the vigorous practice of mantra, tantra, yantra, yoga, or meditation.
As the “yoga of awareness,” the philosophical purpose of Kundalini is to awaken our Higher Self. A Kundalini class combines spiritual and physical practices, incorporating movement, dynamic yoga breathing techniques, meditation, and the chanting of mantras.
Named after B.K.S Iyengar, its founder, Iyengar Yoga is a form of Hatha that emphasizes detail, precision, and alignment in the asana and pranayama. Poses in an Iyengar Yoga class are held for a long period and often modified with props to achieve optimal alignment in the spine and the body.
Each class covers only a few asanas performed under the strict instructions of the teacher. Strength, mobility, stability, and vigor are gained through the practice.
Although dating from the Vedic period, Tantra Yoga still finds its many adepts in today’s world. The word tantra translates to “technique,” meaning skill or craft. Tantra yoga is to weave together many yoga practices, other spiritual styles, and teachings to connect with others and the universe.
Tantra is a yoga practice that accepts all: feminine and masculine, light and shadow. The focus is on the body and a wide range of modalities that aim at connections: Relationships between the body and other aspects of the world and the cosmos are achieved through the Tantra Yoga practice.
Tantra can enhance a general state of health and bring energy levels up through body and breathwork.
Different Formats of Yoga Practices
Sivananda Yoga is a form of traditional hatha yoga founded by Swami Vishnudevananda based on the teachings of his beloved guru Swami Sivananda.
A Sivananda yoga class includes 12 basic postures performed to mimic the evolution from birth to death. It also follows the five points of yoga: Movement/Exercise (Asana), Breathing (Pranayama), Relaxation (Savasana), proper Diet (Sattva), Positive thinking, and meditation (Vedanta & Dhyana). Sivananda is said to promote endocrine health.
Jivamukti Yoga is a modern style involving active physical yoga and transition between postures, similar to the Vinyasa yoga practice. Jivamukti yoga additionally emphasizes the integration of physical postures with spiritual teachings, chanting, and music. The practice aims to promote self-awareness and compassion toward all beings.
Yin Yoga was created by martial arts expert and Taoist yoga teacher Paulie Zink, who combined the teachings of Hatha Yoga with the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qi energy. This style of yoga typically involves a series of floor poses that are held for three to five minutes.
The poses aim to increase circulation and improve flexibility by stretching and exercising the joints and connective tissue.
Holding poses for longer facilitates a meditative state and encourages practitioners to become more aware of their bodies and breath. Yin has gained popularity in recent years as it complements and balances the more active, muscular styles of yoga.
Power Yoga refers to any form of vigorous physical practice or practice that emphasizes core strength. A power yoga class is often similar to a Vinyasa Yoga Practice, with postures held for longer to build muscle strength.
Restorative Yoga is a gentle therapeutic practice focusing on relaxing and stretching to open the body gently. Props are used to support the body in each position and allow the muscles to release and relax while holding poses for several minutes.
While Yin Yoga may encourage slight discomfort for greater opening, Restorative Yoga prioritizes comfort and relaxation in each posture, promoting ease and calm. This practice can help reduce stress and promote physical and mental rejuvenation by slowing down the body and mind.
Prenatal Yoga is a specialized practice that promotes physical and mental well-being during pregnancy.
Prenatal yoga classes aim at building strength, flexibility, and balance while promoting calm to support pregnancy and prepare the body for labor. Yoga postures and breathing exercises are selected and adapted to account for the particular symptoms and needs of each trimester of pregnancy.
Aerial Yoga is a modern physical yoga practice that uses a soft fabric hammock to support the body in various yoga postures, including many inversions. Using a hammock allows for greater ease of movement, flexibility, and support while providing a fun and playful element to the practice.
Hot Yoga is performed in a heated room, usually around 35-40 degrees Celsius (95-105 degrees Fahrenheit). The practice uses the heat with physical yoga postures designed to increase flexibility, strength, and balance while promoting detoxification and relaxation.
The heat is believed to help the body release toxins through sweat and increase blood flow and oxygenation to the muscles.
Hot yoga was once known as Bikram Yoga, where a series of 26 poses were practiced in temperatures above 30 degrees. However, over time, it has transitioned away from this style and now incorporates flows such as power and vinyasa.
Acro Yoga is a dynamic style of yoga that combines acrobatics, yoga, and Thai massage. It involves two or more people working together to perform a series of acrobatic postures that require strength, balance, and trust.
The practice incorporates partner yoga and flying, which involves one partner supporting the other in poses and transitions. This is a style that promotes trust and connection between partners.
Rocket Yoga is a dynamic and fast-paced style that finds its influence in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.
The practice includes a series of challenging postures arranged in yoga sequences that are variations of the traditional Ashtanga Yoga series. Compared to the fixed Ashtanga Yoga practice, Rocket Yoga allows practitioners to explore and play with their yoga practice.
Buti Yoga is a modern style that combines dynamic postures with cardio movements, tribal dance, and plyometrics. The practice aims to build strength, tone the body, and promote empowerment. Buti yoga incorporates elements of traditional yoga, as wellas African and Latin dance, and is often set to upbeat music.
Viniyoga is a therapeutic style of yoga that emphasizes the individual needs of the practitioner rather than a fixed set of postures or sequences.
The practice involves adapting the yoga postures, breathing techniques, and meditation practices to suit each student’s unique needs and abilities or to address specific physical or emotional issues. Viniyoga is typically taught in small, personalized yoga classes with individualized attention from the teacher.
Kripalu Yoga is a gentle, reflective style of yoga that emphasizes mindfulness, self-acceptance, and compassion in yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. The Kripalu Yoga practice encourages students to listen to their bodies, honor their needs and emphasizes non-judgment and self-care.
Face Yoga is a natural and non-invasive practice involving exercises and massage techniques designed to tone and strengthen the facial muscles, reduce tension and stress, and improve circulation and skin health.
The practice can target specific areas of the face, such as the forehead, cheeks, and jawline, and can help reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin. Face yoga also includes breathing exercises and mindfulness practices that can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation.
Goals of Yoga
Modern yoga comes in various shapes and forms but maintains a common goal of self-discovery. Through different tools, it helps to calm the mind and enables us to observe events in our lives without attachment, leading to freedom from the cycle of rebirth and death.
By practicing yoga, we gain clarity about ourselves and learn more about our identity. It also guides us to comprehend our thoughts and emotions, allowing us to alter what no longer serves us. Yoga can ultimately help us lead a better life, providing more joy, freedom, and better physical, emotional, and mental health.
Although yoga is generally considered a safe practice, it has its risks. Repeated movements and improper body alignment in yoga poses can stress the joints and lead to injuries ranging from tears and sprains to inflammatory conditions and bone fractures.
To prevent yoga injuries, one should practice under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher. It is also essential to adapt your own practice to your body’s specific needs and limitations, such as medical conditions, past injuries, and range of motion.
Yoga for everyone
With many styles and approaches, yoga truly is a practice for everyone. You can start experimenting with the combination of physical yoga exercises or opt for a more meditative approach.
The combination has hooked yoga teachers across the globe for hundreds of years and continues to do so. Don’t get irritated by yoga terminology, fancy classes, and difficult poses. Yoga is for all, and we don’t have to fit into a specific mold to reap its benefits.
Appropriate yoga practice
A Yoga class targeted at beginners covers basic yoga postures and emphasizes safe alignment. If you are looking to begin a yoga practice, this is the place to start so that you can build strong foundations that are rarely covered in classes offered to the general public.
Children’s yoga uses storytelling and play to promote physical exercise, mindfulness, and emotional regulation for kids. Classes are typically organized by age group, from toddlers to teenagers.
Yoga for seniors focuses on maintaining or increasing mobility, stability, and mental sharpness to promote a better quality of life. Chair yoga is an excellent style for seniors or people with less strength or mobility, as it allows movements and yoga postures in a fully supported way, reducing the stress on joints or the demand on the muscles.
People with reduced mobility can benefit from practicing as it promotes mobility in the body and mental well-being. Some yoga movements, yoga breathing exercises, and meditation are accessible yoga practices to perform in a wheelchair.
Yoga during pregnancy should be adapted to take into account the changes happening in the body. Prenatal Yoga classes are specialized yoga classes that promote well-being and prepare the mother for labor.
Yoga styles promoting mindfulness and stress release can greatly support addiction recovery. Look for yoga styles that are slower-paced and combine breath and movement.
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the most studied yogic text and foundation of the Raja Yoga path, the road to liberation is eightfold, known as the Ashtanga Yoga System (ashthu = eight, anga = limb).
Patanjali defines the practice as reducing the fluctuations of the mind or the afflictions of suffering. In this sense, the eight limbs act as guidelines to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline, mindful attention toward one’s wellness, and help us to acknowledge the spirituality of our nature.
Yamas, The Five Universal Principles of Right Conduct
The five Yamas encompass an individual’s ethical standards and integrity, directing attention toward behavior and how one treats others and their surroundings. These ethical standards remind us of the connection between our actions and their impact on our relationship with the world and ourselves.
1. Ahimsa: Nonviolence
Nonviolence is the practice of avoiding harm to oneself, others, and all living beings, including animals and the environment. Ahimsa is rooted in the belief that all life is sacred and interconnected. The practice of Ahimsa extends beyond physical harm and includes avoiding harmful thoughts, speech, and actions.
2. Satya: Truthfulness
Truthfulness is to think and speak our own truth. It involves being honest with others but also with ourselves, accepting and welcoming what is without prejudice.
3. Asteya: Non-Stealing
Non-stealing is not to take what is not ours, whether material or immaterial. Asteya invites one to think for oneself, to trust one’s ideas and who one is. In other words, it’s having the grace of not wanting what we are not yet ready for.
4. Brahmacharya: Continence
Continence means protecting and channeling our energy by avoiding overindulgence. This Yama has sometimes been interpreted as sexual abstinence. Yoga does not impose chastity but invites control of one’s attention and energy expenses.
5. Aparigraha: Absence of Greed, Non-Possessiveness
Non-possessiveness is adopting an attitude of detachment concerning things, thoughts, and emotions to avoid accumulating more than necessary. What we possess and identify with becomes an obstacle, a weight that prevents us from moving forward. Aparigraha is to let go of what we don’t need.
Niyamas: The Five Spiritual and Disciplined Observances of Yoga
Niyama, the second limb, relates to our relationship with ourselves. The five niyamas offer us a framework for self-discipline and spiritual observances, reminding us of the importance of our actions and thoughts.
1. Saucha: Cleanliness
Cleanliness means maintaining the purity of body, mind, and surroundings. Without this purity, the mind becomes distracted.
2. Santosha: Contentment
Contentment means accepting and appreciating what is without a feeling of lacking. Santosha is a call to modesty, appreciating who we are and what life presents to us. Further than acceptance, it is taking joy in this acceptance.
3. Tapas: Austerity
Tapas is derived from the Sanskrit verb ‘tap,’ which means “to burn” and evokes a sense of fierce self-discipline. Austerity means cultivating passion and courage to burn physical, mental, and emotional impurities.
4. Svadhyaya: Self-study, the study of the scriptures
By studying the self, one discovers the divine. Svadhyaya involves studying the wisdom of the scriptures and how they guide us to discover the divine within ourselves.
5. Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to the divine
The term’ Isvara Pranidhana’ is made up of two words; Isvara, which translates as “Supreme Being” or “God,” and Pranidhana, which means “fixing.” It means complete surrender to the divine, or in other words, to have faith. It is supported by the previous yamas and niyamas, where we unconditionally accept what is and let our trust enough to let our true self shine.
Derived from the root word as, which means “sitting”, asana refers to preparing the body for meditation. One cannot bring the mind to peace if there is physical suffering. Asanas, or yoga postures, allow the body to be strong and flexible to sustain long hours of meditation. With Hatha Yoga, the physical practice of asanas took greater importance in the spiritual pursuit.
The term Prana refers to “vital energy” or “life source.” It describes the very essence that exists in all things. Prana is also referred to as breath. The word Yama means “restraint”; therefore, the word Pranayama can be understood as “control of the breath.” With different breathing techniques, we can impact our vital energy to invigorate or relax and alter the states of the nervous system.
Pratyahara (pratya = to withdraw, and ahara = what we take in) is to disconnect from the sensory experience, to turn inward. To do so, we direct our attention internally, not giving meaning to the senses or not being distracted from our external environment.
Dharana means focused concentration. Dhar means “holding or maintaining,” and Ana means “other” or “something else.” Concentration uses one-pointedness of the mind to bring focus and prepare for meditation.
Dhyana is meditation when the mind becomes completely absorbed. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be similar, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state where one becomes one with the object of meditation.
Samadhi is made of sama, “even,” and dhi, “intellect”: a state of total equilibrium of the mind. Patanjali describes this eighth and final limb as a state of ecstasy, a state of bliss.
It’s the ability to “see equally” and without disturbance from the mind, without our experience being conditioned by likes, dislikes, emotions, thoughts, or habits. There, the ego ceases to exist, and one realizes a profound connection to the Divine and interconnectedness with all living things.
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18 Essential Yoga Poses for Beginners
The abundance of poses and their Sanskrit names can be overwhelming many new yoga enthusiasts. However, it is important to remember that yoga does not have to be complex. Additionally, keep in mind that yoga is a lifelong journey.
Plenty of basic yoga poses may already feel familiar due to the body’s natural form and flexibility. Start your yoga journey with simple postures and mindful breathing techniques. Don’t over-complicate things.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Mountain Pose, or Tadasana, is a foundational yoga posture representing a basic standing position. It is often used as a starting point for many other yoga poses and sequences.
To perform Mountain Pose, start by standing straight with your feet parallel, hip-distance apart. Ground down through the soles of your feet, evenly distributing your weight across all four corners of each foot. Engage your leg muscles, lifting the kneecaps and drawing the thighs towards the hips.
Lengthen your spine and reach the crown of your head towards the sky. Relax your shoulders and extend your arms toward the floor or ground, with your palms facing forward.
Maintain a neutral pelvis and keep your abdominal muscles engaged, drawing them gently towards your spine. Soften your gaze and breathe deeply, remaining in the pose for a few breaths or longer, depending on the practice.
Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
Urdhva Hastasana, also known as Upward Salute, is a beginner-level yoga posture that involves stretching the entire body with a gentle back bend from Tadasana.
From Mountain pose, inhale deeply and raise your arms overhead, reaching toward the sky. Interlace your fingers with your palms facing upward, or keep your palms facing each other with arms shoulder-width apart.
As you stretch, lift your gaze towards your thumbs or the space between your hands. Keep your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears, lengthening your spine. To release the pose, exhale and bring your arms back down to your sides, returning to Tadasana.
Downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Downward-Facing Dog is a foundational posture frequently used in many yoga sequences. Begin on your hands and knees with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
Spread your fingers wide, pressing down firmly through your palms and fingertips to ease pressure on the wrists. As you exhale, lift your knees off the ground and straighten your arms, pressing your hips up and back towards the ceiling. Your body should form an inverted V-shape.
Lengthen through your spine, reaching your tailbone towards the ceiling, and keep your head and neck relaxed.
Press your heels towards the ground and straighten your knees as much as possible. If your hamstrings are tight, maintain a slight bend in your knees.
Draw your shoulder blades down towards your waist and broaden across your collarbones, allowing your heart to melt towards the ground.
Cat-Cow Stretch (Chakravakasana)
The Cat-Cow Stretch is a gentle yoga flow involving moving the spine through two opposite movements, Cat and Cow. Begin on all fours with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
Inhale and gently arch your back, dropping your belly towards the ground, lifting your head, and tilting your pelvis forward. This is Cow Pose. For Cat, as you exhale, draw the tailbone under, round your spine towards the ceiling, and tuck your chin to your chest.
Move slowly and smoothly between the two poses, synchronizing your breath with your movements. Inhale to come into Cow and exhale to move into Cat.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Uttanasana is a yoga posture that involves bending forward from a standing position. You begin in Tadasana, standing with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your sides.
Inhale and lift your arms overhead, exhale, and fold forward from your hips, bringing your hands towards the ground. If you cannot reach the ground, you can rest your hands on blocks, a chair, or your shins. Keep your legs as straight as possible but not locked, and engage your quadriceps to support your knees.
Relax your neck and shoulders, allowing your head to hang heavy toward the ground. Stay in the pose for several breaths, lengthening through your spine with each inhale and releasing tension with each exhale.
Uttanasana helps stretch the hamstrings, calves, and spine while calming the body and mind, and reducing stress and anxiety. It can be used as a gentle warm-up before more challenging yoga postures or as a pose to release tension in the body after a long day.
Half forward bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
Ardha Uttanasana is a posture often performed as a transitional pose between other standing postures. Begin in Tadasana, inhale, and lift your arms overhead, reaching towards the sky.
Fold forward from your hips, bringing your hands towards the ground. Inhale and lift your torso halfway up, coming into Ardha Uttanasana. Your back should be parallel to the ground, and your hands can rest on your shins.
With the neck long and the gaze slightly forward, create length between the crown of the head and the tailbone. Your legs should be straight but not locked. To release, exhale and fold forward again, returning to your fold. Then inhale and lift your arms back up overhead, returning to Tadasana.
Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Triangle Pose, or Trikonasana, is a yoga posture that involves standing with your feet wide apart while stretching the side body.
To stretch your left side: Begin in Tadasana and step your left foot back around three feet (a shorter stance than Warrior II). Turn the foot out 90 degrees so your toes point to the side of the mat. Inhale and raise your arms to shoulder height, with your palms facing down. Exhale and reach your right arm forward as far as possible to create space, hinging at your right hip and keeping your left hip facing the side mat.
When you cannot reach any further, place your right hand on your shin, ankle, or a block if needed, and extend your left arm straight up towards the ceiling.
Keep both legs straight and strong, engaging your quadriceps to support your knees. Raise your gaze towards your left hand or down towards the ground for more stability and ease on the neck.
To release the pose, inhale and return to standing with your arms at shoulder height. Step your left foot forward and repeat the pose on the other side, depending on the practice.
Garland Pose (Malasana)
The garland pose, or yogi squat, is a posture that opens the hips and strengthens the pelvic floor. From Tadasana, with your feet hip-distance apart, turn both feet outward towards the corners of the mat.
Exhale and bend your knees to come into a squat, bringing your heels as close to the ground as possible. Press your elbows against your knees, and join your palms together at your heart center, creating light pressure between the legs and the arms.
Lengthen your spine, keeping your chest lifted and your shoulders relaxed. Engage the feet firmly by pressing them into the mat. Focus on deepening the stretch in your hips and thighs with each exhale.
You can vary the position of your hands and arms in Malasana, such as reaching your arms forward and placing your hands on the ground or using your elbows to press against your inner thighs for a deeper stretch. To release the pose, inhale and straighten your legs, returning to Tadasana.
Extended side angle (Utthita Parvakonasana)
Utthita Parvakonasana, also known as Extended Side Angle Pose, is another posture working on the lateral body.
To stretch the right side, step right foot back several feet, bringing it parallel to the short edge of the mat. Point the left foot forward and bend the knee bringing your thigh parallel to the ground. Inhale and raise your arms to shoulder height, with your palms facing down.
Exhale and extend your torso to the left, bringing your left elbow down to rest on your thigh. Stretch the right arm overhead, creating a long line from the tips of the fingers and the back foot. Keep your right leg straight and strong, pressing firmly into the ground through the outer edge of your left foot.
Engage your core muscles to maintain stability in the pose, and lengthen through your spine with each inhale. To release the pose, inhale and return to standing with your arms at shoulder height.
Utthita Parvakonasana helps to stretch the hips, groin, and inner thigh muscles, while also strengthening the legs, core, and upper body.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Bridge pose can be practiced as both an active posture and a restorative one, making it a versatile heart opener and inversion in yoga. To start, lie on your back with both knees bent and the feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart, with the ankles under the knees or slightly forward.
Lift your hips off the mat by pressing into your feet and sending your heart towards your shoulders. Keep the back of your neck long by gently tucking your chin, and avoid turning your head while in this pose. For a restorative version, you can place a block or bolster under the sacrum and allow your body to relax completely.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
Low lunge is a yoga pose that can be practiced as a deep hip flexor or gentle backbend, depending on the alignment. To perform this pose, start on all fours and step one foot to the front of your mat. Slowly raise your torso to a vertical position and shift your weight forward into the hips.
Ensure to keep your navel pulled in to protect your lower back. Aim to keep the bent knee in line with the below ankle. For a more effective hip flexor stretch, maintain a neutral pelvis and point your tailbone down.
Plank Pose (Phalakasana)
Plank pose is a yoga posture that helps build core strength and enhance proprioception. Starting from all fours, spread your fingers and press your fingertips firmly to release the weight from your wrists.
Extend both legs back and plant your toes on the mat. Keep your body in a straight line, with your shoulders over your wrists, and ensure that your upper back is broad. You may place a rolled towel under your wrists for additional support. Engage the core and draw the belly button back toward the spine.
Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
Pyramid pose is a challenging stretch that enhances balance and stability. Begin at the front of your mat and step one foot back, ensuring that your hips and the back foot’s toes are facing forward. Inhale to lengthen your spine, and exhale as you fold over your front leg.
You can practice several arm variations in this pose, such as placing your fingertips on the floor or blocks, placing your hands on your hips, or bringing your arms behind your back and holding the opposite elbows. Alternatively, hands can be in a reversed prayer position to deepen the shoulder opening.
Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)
The Warrior poses in yoga represent strength and stability. Begin at the front of your yoga mat and step one leg back, ensuring that the toes and hips are facing forward. Bend the front knee so that it is directly above the ankle. With a vertical torso and the navel drawn inward, lift the arms overhead, keeping the shoulders relaxed and broad.
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Unlike Warrior I, where the hips face forward, Warrior II involves a lateral body opening. To perform Warrior II, start at the front of your yoga mat and step back with one foot. Turn the toes outward, aligning the back foot roughly parallel to the short side of the mat. Bend the front knee, ensuring that it remains in line with the front foot. Keep the front knee directly above the ankle.
Extend your arms to the sides at shoulder height while lengthening your fingers and keeping your shoulders relaxed. Maintain a vertical torso and neutral pelvis by gently lifting the chest and navel.
Hold this position for a few breaths, focusing your gaze on the hand in front of you.
Reverse Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana)
This yoga pose is a variation of Warrior II that provides a heart-opening and lateral stretch that enhances the flexibility of the rib cage. Begin in your Warrior II stance, then turn the palm of your front hand and elongate the side of your body.
As you arch your torso backward, bend laterally and bring your front hand overhead. The back hand can rest on the back leg. Remember to keep your front knee pointing forward throughout the pose.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
For Tree pose, stand on one foot and ground into the earth as you bend the other knee. Open the knee to the side and place the sole of the foot on the inner ankle, calf, or thigh of the standing leg, avoiding the knee. Make sure the hips remain facing forward to present torsion in the standing leg’s knee.
The hands can be at the hips, in a prayer position in front of the heart, or overhead like branches of a tree. To help with balance, gaze at a fixed point ahead of you.
Balancing poses strengthen postural muscles and promote focus and one-pointedness of the mind.
The purpose of Savasana is to allow the body to completely let go of tension and stress, and to enter a deep state of relaxation.
Savasana, also known as Corpse Pose, is a yoga posture typically practiced at the end of a yoga session. It is a relaxation position that involves lying flat on your back with your arms and legs extended and your palms facing up. The body is completely relaxed, and the mind is directed towards conscious relaxation.
Modern Yoga in the West
In Western cultures, the term “yoga” is primarily linked to the Hatha style. Unlike traditional yoga, which emphasizes inward spirituality, Hatha highlights postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, and physical fitness. Its primary aim is to improve physical health and well-being. Within this branch, several different styles exist such as Vinyasa and Yin, each with its distinctive approach.
While yoga used to be reserved for devotees in closed communities, today, anyone can practice. The modern yogi can combine the physical and spiritual practices of yoga with the demands of everyday life. They often integrate morning practice into their routine and live by yogic principles, or the Yamas and Niyamas.
Practice is not limited to the extreme ‘Instagram-worthy’ poses and acrobatic postures. Being a Yogi is about embodying yoga in all aspects of life: our relationship with ourselves and others, our routines and habits, our thoughts, and our diet. It teaches us to live a prosperous and peaceful inner life unaffected by the stress of our external environment.
Pursuing a career in the industry can be exciting and fulfilling for those who have experienced the impressive benefits of yoga. Becoming a teacher can offer many avenues of work, from taking studio classes to holding retreats and workshops.
Many choose to teach online while traveling, while some utilize their teaching skills to help them venture worldwide. There are endless opportunities, whether you fancy teaching in a luxurious resort or out of your own home.
In recent years, as technology has advanced, there has been an uptake in online Yoga Teacher certifications, primarily because of the convenience they offer. Students can complete the coursework at their own pace, in their own time and location, without the need to travel. This makes it easier for working professionals, parents, and others with busy schedules to pursue their goals.
Is Yoga a Religion?
How do other religions perceive the practice?
Because yoga is a spiritual practice developed hand-in-hand with Hinduism, it is sometimes confused with a religion. Instead of viewing it as such, we can describe yoga as a series of tools and practices to live a more spiritual and mindful life.
Can religious people practice yoga?
For those open to trying, yoga can beautifully support and integrate into a religious practice. It invites us to connect with the divine without giving it a particular name or form. I had the chance to teach students from many religious backgrounds, and all confirmed that yoga has helped them get closer to their God by giving them new tools to deepen their spiritual connection with the divine.
Yoga is a practice that offers immense physical, mental, and emotional benefits to the practitioner. Unlike other physical activities, it brings together spiritual and mindful elements that help regulate the nervous system on and off the mat.
Additionally, it offers the benefit of being accessible to all; regardless of age, gender, physical condition, etc… If you can breathe, you can do yoga.
It is, however, essential to start your journey under the guidance of a competent teacher. This reduces the risk of injury while instilling a sense of respect for one’s limits. Given practices such as pranayama, mantra, meditation, and asana can have such a profound impact on the body and nervous system, it is essential we approach them gradually and treat them with the gravity they deserve.