Yoga is many things to many people: a form of exercise, a means by which to relieve pain, comedic fodder, big business, a road to moksha, etc. Its definition at large is easily enigmatic. Despite its mystique though, or perhaps even because of it, yoga is everywhere—especially now. Not more than a few decades ago it seemed that it, though still popular, was largely relegated to the patchouli crowd; now, it is universally vogue. Trendy yoga studios are peppered throughout the urban world, and yoga apparel and accessories are available at any given department store.
In 1981, my grandparents gave me a “yoga for kids” book for my birthday, which regrettably I no longer have. Its impact was significant enough, however, that I can still recall every page of it to this day. It had a hideous orange cover, a slightly weak spine (ironic perhaps), and forty-two spreads of kids in striped tube socks and polyester gym outfits posing as trees and frogs. The book was undeniably cool, indubitably sharing literary parity with the likes of The Fountainhead, and The Catcher in the Rye. I frequently—almost daily—called on it throughout my childhood. Now, some thirty years later, I can deftly execute tree and frog poses with the best of them—cocktail party favorites for sure. Alas, I struggle a bit with “adult” yoga though.
Belying my relative inadequacy at it, I have actually done a fair amount of yoga over the last few years—an Ashtanga class here and there, myriad videos, P90X Yoga X, Bikram, etc. I am practiced enough to know that I both love and hate yoga—a dichotomy that is arguably a good representation of my “yin / yang” balance. I love the way it makes me feel—how it refreshes my mind and muscles. I hate that my body craves it; and, quite simply, I hate that I am not more proficient at it. My temperamental relationship with it aside, I highly recommend yoga practice to everyone. There is just no reason not to do it. In the following text I offer both an overview of yoga, and a look at some of its popular styles.
An Overview of Yoga
We know yoga originated in ancient India; however, the exact time period is speculative at best. Archaeologists have discovered seals dating to the mid-third millennium BCE that suggest a possible precursor to yoga was in practice in the Indus Valley Civilization days—the Bronze Age. Specifically, one of the seals shows a presumptive early version of the God Siva (iconographers still debate this proto-Siva interpretation) in a distinctly yogic posture. More conclusively though, yoga’s primitive history is associated with early Buddhism. The word “yoga” first appeared in the middle Upanishads around 400 BCE.
In its earliest form, yoga was a focus on understanding the world at large. As it evolved though, its focus moved to “self.” Moksha, or “enlightenment,” became the ultimate goal of its practitioners. Around the sixth century BCE, yoga picked up the more traditional elements we currently associate with it—poses and meditation. Today, yoga is based on five principles: proper relaxation, proper exercise, proper breathing, proper diet, and positive thinking and meditation.
A Look at Some Popular Yoga Styles
There are many styles of yoga in practice today. Though they all have their own focus, they ultimately draw from the same set of poses, or “asanas.” Popular styles include:
Anusara: Anusara Yoga is based on the Tantric philosophy of “intrinsic goodness.” Practitioners of Anusara Yoga express themselves by performing fluidic “heart aligning” asanas to the best of their abilities. Many consider Anusara to be a fun, less rigid style of yoga where postural perfection is not the primary goal.
Ashtanga: Ashtanga Yoga is an established set of sequential asanas. Practitioners begin with a sun salutation and then move fluidly, using vinyasas, through a number of postures. The term “vinyasa” refers to the alignment of breath with motion, and to the specific movement done between static poses. The ubiquitous “Power Yoga,” developed and popularized Beryl Bender Birch, is based on Ashtanga.
Bikram: Bikram Yoga, created by Bikram Choudhury, calls for a set of twenty-six poses to be done (usually twice) in an environment that is roughly 105 degrees and forty percent humidity. Bikram Yoga is often referred to as “Hot Yoga.”
Hatha: Hatha is one of the original six branches of yoga. It can be described as “general yoga,” in that it includes myriad classical yogic postures and breathing exercises that form a basis for derivative styles such as Anusara and Iyengar.
Iyengar: Colloquially known as “Furniture Yoga,” Iyengar Yoga places emphasis on precise postural alignment and sequencing. It is common for Iyengar practitioners to use props—blocks, belts, etc.—as aids.
Viniyoga: Viniyoga is an adaptive style of yoga in which teachers work one-on-one with students to develop specialized programs based on age, physical condition, and overall health.