Believe it or not, according to Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa, a Kundalinin yoga teacher in New York City, there was a time when people confused yoga and yogurt. This was in the 1970s, when both were new to most Westerners. The Firefly. The Lotus. The Half Lord of the Fishes. The names of yoga poses were as foreign sounding as, well…Chobani or Dannon.

However, what was once a quiet and esoteric practice—a boutique industry that catered to the more mystical and spiritually inclined fitness enthusiast—is now a multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, yoga is a premium wellness lifestyle with self-promoting celebrities, upscale retreats, high-end apparel and accessories. The fitness industry is famous for its fads and fair weather trends, but yoga has stood the test of time. This ancient form of exercise helps you become more flexible and more self-aware.

Start your journey into mindful exercise with this beginner’s guide to practicing yoga.

What is Yoga?

Yoga can be traced back over 5,000 years. The word “yoga” is Sanskrit for “divine union.” Traditionally, the aim of yoga is to quiet the mind and help one achieve enlightenment. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a foundational text of ancient yoga philosophy, outlines an eight-fold path to enlightenment. Asana, the physical practice of postures, is one of the paths. Other paths to enlightenment include turning inward, meditation, concentration and mindful breathing.

While yoga still emphasizes its deep spiritual roots, many modern classes are designed for increased flexibility, stability, sports performance and stress-relief. Still, it’s important to remember that yoga is more than a health and fitness routine. It’s a way of life, a wellness culture and spiritual discipline that transcends difficult physical poses and pushes you to find the inner connection between body, mind and spirit.

What Are the Health Benefits of Yoga?

Millions of people wouldn’t twist their bodies into pretzel-like poses if yoga didn’t have a litany of health benefits. Research indicates that the ancient Indian practice is as effective as cycling or brisk walks in reducing a heart attack or stroke. And that’s only the beginning. The following health benefits should be enough to get anyone on the mat.

  • Better Sleep. Yoga helps you slow down the mind and deal with stress, and this, in turn, enables you to sleep better at night. Researchers from Harvard found that eight weeks of daily yoga improved sleep quality for people with insomnia.
  • Terrific Toning Technique. Yoga is a strength training routine and whole body workout. As you move from one posture to the next, you’re exercising different muscle groups. Yoga’s postures and poses sculpt the body the same way that push-ups and crunches do. In fact, Crow, Crescent, and Plank are the ultimate muscle-building asanas.
  • Relieve Stress. Yoga calms, quiets and clears the mind. It’s a relaxing antidote to the mental overload that many people feel. From looking inward to mindful breathing, yoga employs several relaxation techniques. It allows you to slow down and find stillness through repetitive movements. Yoga trains the mind to better deal with stress.
  • Boost Immunity. Yoga provides extra support for the immune system. Studies conducted by the University of Oslo indicate that yoga causes changes on a genetic level that boosts immunity. In other words, forget antibiotics and cold medicines, yoga is a natural immunity booster.
  • Improved Bone Health. Yoga is a weight-bearing activity, and these types of activities are often recommended to people with bone loss. According to Dr. Loren Fishman, a physiatrist at Columbia University, yoga puts more pressure on your bones than gravity. “By opposing one group of muscles against another, yoga stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells,” says Dr. Fishman.

What Kind of Yoga Classes Can You Take?

To get the most out of a yoga class, you need find a style and teacher that suits you. There are yoga styles that emphasize fitness and working out, as well as styles that help you get in touch with your spiritual side. There are as many branches and niches of yoga as there are gyms and studios offering classes. Test your Zen with one of these yoga styles.

  • Bikram. Bikram yoga is a sequence of 26 poses practiced in a heated room. It’s designed to improve flexibility, build muscle and “cleanse” the organs of the body. Bikram is a favorite for anyone who likes to sweat.
  • Hatha. Hatha is a gentle style of yoga. It focuses on the physical side of the ancient practice—the asanas—and bypasses the spiritual components such as chanting and meditation. Hatha is one of the most popular styles of yoga in gyms and studios across North America.
  • Kundalina. Kundalina yoga features postures, meditation, chanting and ancient breathing techniques. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to breathe using alternative nostrils, Kundalina is your road to enlightenment.
  • Yin. Yin yoga focuses on calming the mind and stretching the body. In Taoist tradition, yang creates heat in the body, and yin finds coolness. Yin yoga is slow paced; it’s practiced sitting or lying on the floor. Gentle lunges and backbends are held for long periods of time. There are no plank or warrior poses.
  • Rooftop Yoga. According to CNN, it’s the latest trend in cities around the world. Rooftop yoga is an alternative way for urbanites to connect and stay fit. It’s also a great way to appreciate the panoramic view of a city. Who says yoga needs to be practiced in candle-lit and incense-filled rooms? Rooftop yoga is part vacation, part workout. It sounds inspiring, doesn’t it?

What Do You Need for Class?

Yoga is an inexpensive activity. All you need is a good mat and some comfortable, loose-fitting clothes (focus, discipline and a willingness to learn come in handy, too). Many gyms offer yoga classes as part of their membership fee. At the same time, the cost of yoga classes can vary greatly at private studios. High-end sportswear is not a necessity for yoga, despite the current trend for popular “athleisure” brands. Fancy yoga pants and designer leggings are not part of yoga’s eight-fold path to enlightenment. Keep it simple.

Grab your mat, take a deep breath and start finding your balance. Health and happiness are only a Lotus pose away. Namaste!

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