Yoga is a mind and body practice with a long and rich history. It originated in India thousands of years ago, and has since spread around the world. Yoga is often associated with physical postures (āsana), but it is so much more than that. Yoga is a holistic practice that encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual aspects.
Practitioners can, of course choose to practice any one of the composite parts of yoga, several of them, or – indeed – all of them. Any amount & type of yoga practice makes one a practitioner, whether you never do more than get on a mat, or even if you never step foot into lycra and on a mat (not that you have to wear lycra to make the shapes with your body, of course).
The word “yoga” is typically thought to come from the Sáṃskṛta word “yuj,” which means “to yoke” or “to unite”. Yoga is a way of uniting the body, mind, and spirit, and is a practice of self-awareness and self-regulation. Yoga can therefore help us to improve our physical health, mental health, and emotional well-being.
The earliest evidence of yoga practice can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished in India from 3300 to 1900 BCE. Yoga was further developed by the Vedic and Upaniṣadic traditions in India. The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, a classic text on yoga philosophy, was written in the 2nd century BCE.
The philosophy of yoga is based on the idea that we are all connected to a larger, universal consciousness. Yoga teaches us how to still our minds and connect with this higher power – however we may wish to perceive it.
The physical postures of yoga are called āsana. Āsana are designed to improve flexibility, strength, and balance. They also help to calm the mind and promote relaxation.
The breathing exercises of yoga are called prāṇāyāma. Prāṇāyāma helps to regulate the breath and improve the flow of prana, or life force energy.
Meditation, or dhyāna, is a practice of focusing the mind on a single point. Dhyāna can help to quiet the mind, reduce stress, and improve concentration.
There are many different styles of physical yoga practice, each with its own focus and approach. Some of the most popular styles include haṭha yoga, vinyāsa yoga, Iyengar yoga, and aṣṭāṅga yoga. ‘Haṭha’ is a general term for any style of yoga that focuses on the āsana. It would be fair to say, then, that the majority of yoga classes are haṭha yoga. Vinyāsa yoga is a flowing style of yoga that links breath with movement; Iyengar yoga is a precise style of yoga that always uses props to help students achieve correct alignment; whilst aṣṭāṅga is a vigorous style of yoga that follows a set sequence of postures.
No matter what style of yoga you choose, you can expect to experience a number of benefits from a physical practice, including:
- Improved physical health: with consistent practice, yoga can help to improve flexibility, strength, & balance; it can also help to reduce pain and improve circulation
- Improved mental health: yoga can help to reduce stress, anxiety, & depression; as well as helping to improve focus & concentration
- Improved emotional well-being: yoga can help to increase self-awareness, self-acceptance, & self-love; and help to promote a sense of peace & well-being.
Yoga is a powerful tool for improving our physical, mental, and spiritual health. It’s a practice that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities.
In response to the question “But isn’t yoga just stretching?”, the answer is no: yoga is much more than that. It’s a holistic practice that encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. While physical postures are an important part of yoga, they are not the only thing that yoga is about. Yoga is about uniting the body, mind, and spirit, and it can be a powerful tool for improving our overall well-being.