Ah yoga. You see the Lululemon ads, your doctor tells you it’s “healthy,” your best friend swears by it. You are willing to concede that it could be good for you, but you are not ready to take the step onto your mat. Perhaps the idea of wearing yoga pants and doing “downward dog” in a room full of strangers sounds like the stuff of nightmares. We are here to shed some light on what yoga is, what it is not, and why your doctor keeps telling you to try it.
What Yoga Is
Yoga originated in India and dates back to 3000 B.C. The ancient practice of yoga is meant to bring harmony between mind and body with the ultimate goal of self liberation/enlightenment.
There are 8 limbs of yoga according to The Sutras (writings) of Patanjali, and when practiced each of these branches are designed to help you live a more balanced, disciplined life.
Here’s a brief overview of the 8 branches:
Yamas- Moral vows, restraints
Niyamas- Positive personal behavior
Asana- Posture (in ancient practice this meant mastering the body to still for meditation)
Pranayama- Breathing techniques
Pratyahara- Sense withdraw (allows your mind to focus and not wonder when meditating)
Dharana- Focused concentration
Dhyana- Meditative absorption
What Yoga Is Not
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is not all about exercise. In the West we frequently equate the word “yoga” to mean “super bendy poses.” While many yoga classes do center around physical postures, it is important to remember that the postures are just one of many tools to help you develop a lifestyle of balance and discipline.
To take a yoga class you do not have to be thin, flexible, or young (but you can be). You do not have to wear skin tight pants (but you might choose to). You can do yoga on the ground, on a chair, even hanging from the ceiling. When you first start yoga you might find yourself looking around and comparing yourself to the person in the corner folded into a pretzel; but you will soon find that each person in the room is on their own journey and that journey is not about how you match up to your neighbor. What is important is that you turn your focus inward with a goal of increasing balance and presence in your everyday life. You don’t have to be able to smell your kneecaps to do that.
Not all yoga classes are created equal. Some classes are comparable to sweaty bootcamp sessions; while others are slow meditative classes. Below is a brief outline of some of the classes you might see advertised near you.
Ashtanga- A physically demanding and fast-paced style of yoga derived from ancient yoga teachings that is centered around a progressive series of the same sequence of postures linked with breathing techniques.
Anusara- A less physically demanding and more spiritual style of yoga focused on community, movement, breathing, and Tantric Philosophy.
Bikram- In a Bikram class you can expect for the room to be heated to 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. You will move through the same sequence of 26 postures each class. This type of yoga is good for flushing out toxins and the heat allows you to go deeper into physical poses.
Hatha- Hatha yoga is a term that applies to any type of yoga that teaches physical postures which applies to most yoga taught in the West.
Restorative- The focus is relaxation and unwinding after a long, stressful day. It is less physically demanding as you are able to use blocks or bolsters to assist you in poses; allowing you to gain the benefits of a pose while not exerting much effort.
Vinyasa- In vinyasa you will flow through a sequence of poses and coordinate your breath with movement. There is not a set sequence of poses for the teacher to follow so you can explore and test your limits learning new poses and postures.
Why Your Doctor Tells You To Do It
So, why does your doctor tell you to do yoga? There have been multiple studies proving the physical and mental benefits of yoga and the overall balance it brings to people’s lives. According to an article by the American Psychological Association, yoga has been shown to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, attention deficit, and sleep disorders such as insomnia. Researchers say it is the relaxation response that results from the mind and body practices learned through yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques. This learned response increases your self-awareness and allows you to be better equipped to handle life’s daily stresses. Yoga also proves to be physically beneficial because it lessens chronic pain such as lower back pain or arthritis, increases flexibility and muscle tone, and improves our energy and vitality.
One caveat is that yoga can bring you in touch with deep seeded and difficult emotions. While this can be quite healing for some, it can be overwhelming for others. If you have a history of trauma it is important to consider your readiness for a practice that is “opening” and perhaps you would benefit from working with a psychotherapist prior to starting a yoga practice. Therapists can help assess your readiness for such a practice, and teach you coping techniques to manage potential triggers and set healthy boundaries. You may also look for specific Trauma Sensitive or Trauma Informed yoga classes where the teachers are trained to provide an environment and practice conducive to healing.
If you have made it this far in the article, you just might be ready to take your first step. Google local studios, check out the teachers and the classes, and don’t be afraid to start with a beginner’s class. Remember that there is a class out there for everyone, and as one yoga teacher Lorraine Horine put it, “if you can breathe, you can do yoga.”
Bailey C. Bryant, Psy.D., Owner of Hello Mental Health
Jordan Wheeler, B.A., Guest Writer
This publication is designed to provide general information prepared by a professional in regard to the subject matter covered. It is not intended to provide psychological or clinical advice. Although prepared by a professional, this publication should not be utilized as a substitute for professional service in specific situations. If mental health advice or other expert assistance is required, the service of a professional should be sought.