Yoga can take some getting used to. Finding the right teacher is hugely important, but before that you need to find the right style for you. The right amount of spirituality versus physical activity. Whether you want to de-stress or work out. To ‘om’ or not to ‘om’.
Yoga has been incorporated into the western world to suit our western tastes, but all classes are still based on fundamental yogic traditions.
What is yoga?
In Sanskrit yoga means ‘yoke’, from the root ‘yuj’, meaning to unite. It is an ancient Hindu discipline that unites your mind (through focus and attention), energy (through breathing exercises) and body (through movement and postures). Yoga in the west is usually Hatha yoga, the physical ‘limb’ of the discipline that refers to a series of exercises and postures. ‘Ha’ and ‘tha’ are ‘sun’ and ‘moon’, and the practice works to balance and unite the opposites in your body, allowing energy to flow freely. The benefits can be felt physically, mentally and emotionally, from lowering blood pressure and increasing metabolism to strengthening and toning muscle. It is thought that yoga is the only way to really counteract the damage we are doing to our spines by sitting at desks all day long. The postures gently stretch muscles and joints, which not only improves flexibility, but also massages glands and organs for an internal detox. Mentally, yoga provides an opportunity to pause for a moment and be calm, to reflect and relax. It reduces levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, which creates a nice chilled feeling of contentment.
Under the umbrella of Hatha yoga, there are nine internationally recognised styles: Ashtanga, Bikram, Integral, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Kripalu, Kundalini, Sivananda and Viniyoga.
These are the most popular…
This is the most athletic and physically demanding form of yoga. It involves synchronising movement with breathing while performing a sequence of postures, explains Jonathan Sattin, Managing Director at triyoga in London. ‘There are six series of postures and the body becomes heated internally through the practice, so be prepared to sweat!’ This internal heat purifies the muscles and organs, expelling unwanted toxins and releasing beneficial hormones and minerals which nourish the body. triyoga has four centres in London which offer over 250 classes a week, including Ashtanga yoga (www.triyoga.co.uk). A deviation of Ashtanga is Power yoga, where the series are not so strictly adhered to and the movement flows from one pose to another at a fast pace.
Taking heat to a whole new level, Bikram yoga is practised in a 40 degree room which allows for a loosening of tight muscles and profuse sweating, which is thought to be cleansing. In the 1970s, Bikram Choudhury developed a series of 26 postures performed over 90 minutes, but not all hot classes make use of this method. Yogahaven in Clapham offers an alternative, less spiritual, more athletic, but still hot version. The unique style is called ‘Leela yoga’ (meaning ‘play’) and it includes more postures than Bikram for an all-over body work out. ‘The heat raises the heart rate’, explains Allie Hill, one of the owners of Yogahaven. ‘This means that you get a cardiovascular workout as well as a stretch. Also, like metal in fire, the heat makes your muscles more pliable so you can stretch deeper.’ She says that in her experience of teaching, hot yoga has three main benefits: easing back problems from the many hours we spend sitting; relieving stress, as you release toxins through your sweat and receive a boost of seratonin; and weight loss, because the practice helps to balance your metabolism and makes you less likely to crave unhealthy food and drink. The heat does takes some getting used to – Allie recommends Yogahaven’s introductory offer so that you can take a few classes, building up gently – and like anything, it takes a little while to begin to feel the full benefits (www.yogahaven.co.uk).
Devised by B.K.S Iyengar, this type of yoga is less spiritual and more practical with a strong focus on performing each pose correctly and holding it for a period of time. A variety of props, such as the wall, chairs, blocks and straps are used to compensate for for a lack of flexibility so that everyone can perform each pose correctly and comfortably. Iyengar is the ideal style of yoga for beginners.
Something a bit different…
Incorporating light weights into the yoga practice stimulates muscle toning and strength as well as building core stability, bone density and balance. In yoga, you usually work with just your body weight, so using the light hand weights makes you work harder and burn more calories.
Yoga for Runners
Laura Denham-Jones offers classes that are grounded in biomechanics, sports psychology and yoga philosophy. ‘I teach postures and variations that target typical runners’ tight spots, such as hips and hamstrings,’ she says, ‘as well as building core and leg power, and upper body strength.’ Laura avoids extreme yoga poses, as many athletes, although aerobically fit, have little to gain from these and would risk injury. ‘Runners spend a lot of time being dynamic, vertical and on their feet so yoga gives also them a chance to slow down and recover. A typical class will include standing poses, upper body, core work and slow, floor-based postures which release tension – yoga’s answer to a sports massage!’ www.yogaforrunners.co.uk.
New yoga styles and classes are evolving all the time. There are special pre- and post-natal yoga sessions, and classes tailored to other specific sports, including yoga for cyclists and for golfers. And if you want something really different, look out for laughter yoga, shadow yoga or naked yoga… namaste!