What is yoga?
Yoga is the name of a group of originally Indian physical, mental and spiritual practices and disciplines. It represents one of the six traditional orthodox philosophical Hindu schools.
There is a great variety of currents of thought, techniques and yoga goals, which are rooted not only in Hinduism, but also in Buddhism and Jainism. In the western world, the term “yoga” is associated with a modern form of “Hata” yoga, which includes the physical practice of certain postures / figures called “asanas”.
At this point we need to know why yoga is good for your health!
Meaning of Yoga
Yoga is the balance of the soul, which looks at existence with an equanimous point of view, in all its aspects. As a well-cut diamond has many facets, each of which reflects a different tone of light, so the term yoga reflects a meaning and reveals different aspects of the whole range of human effort aimed at achieving inner peace and happiness; remain quiet in the face of success or failure.
Yoga is the method by which restless mind calms down, while vital energy is constructively directed. Like a powerful river harnessed with dams and canals that creates a vast water tank, prevents famine and provides a great deal of energy for industry, so too, when controlled, it provides a reserve of peace and generates abundant energy for human elevation.
Yoga is not a lifestyle for those who eat too much or too little, nor for those who sleep too much or too little; it is for everyone and aims to eliminate all pain and pain by using moderation in eating and resting, regulating activities and harmonising sleep and wakefulness.
Taken from “Theory and practice of Yoga” B.K.S. Iyengar.
If we exclude the Asian Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions, the term “yoga” is synonymous with its asanas (postures) or with exercise. This attitude was adopted as a real cultural trend both in Europe and North America, starting from the first half of the twentieth century.
However, the path of this discipline in the West has not always been easy; to its disadvantage, critical periods have occurred, collectively almost paranoid. In the 1960s, western interest in Hindu spirituality peaked, giving rise to many neo-Hindu schools that catered to western users.
During this period, most of the most influential Indian yoga masters came from two lineages: Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963) and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989).
The two Hatha Yoga teachers who practiced in the west were B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014) and K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), both students of Krishnamacharya, Swami Vishnu-devananda (1927-1993) and Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002). Yogi Bhajan brought Kundalini Yoga to the United States in 1969. Baba Hari Dass (1923-) popularised Ashtanga Yoga, Samkhya, subtle body theory, Fitness Asana and tantric elements in the USA and Canada.
Then in the 1980s the second “boom” of yoga occurred, when Dean Ornish, a follower of Swami Satchidananda, linked yoga to heart health, legitimising it as a purely physical and disconnected health system with any religious denomination. Numerous asanas seemed of modern origin and overlapped strongly with the traditions of the exercises conceived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Since 2001, the popularity of yoga in the United States has expanded further. The number of practitioners of any form of yoga has gone from 4 million (in 2001) to 20 million (in 2011). He gained the support of world leaders, such as Barack Obama, who claimed (in translation):
“Yoga has become a universal language of spiritual exercises in the United States, crossing religious and cultural barriers … every day, millions of people practise yoga to improve their health and general well-being, which is why we are encouraging the community to take part in the PALA (Presidential Active Lifestyle Award), then show your support for yoga and meet the challenge”.
The American College of Sports Medicine supports the integration of yoga into the exercise protocol of healthy individuals.
The college promotes yoga and all its benefits, as “deep mental, physical and spiritual awareness“, a technique for improving muscle flexibility (similar to stretching), as strengthening the “core” and developing breath control.
Asanas or common yoga poses
The most common positions of yoga correspond to the so-called 12 queen asanas or basic asanas. Let’s see them briefly – in order, original name and English name:
- Sirsasana? – Headstand
- Sarvangasana – Shoulderstand
- Halasana – Plow Pose
- Matsyasana – Fish Pose
- Paschimottanasana – Sitting Forward Bend Pose
- Bhujangasana – Cobra Pose
- Shalabhasana – Locust Pose
- Dhanurasana – Bow Pose
- Ardha Matsyendrasana – Half Spinal Twist Pose
- Kakasana or Mayurasana – Crow Pose or Peacock Pose
- Pada Hasthasana – Standing Forward Bend
- Parkinson – Triangle Pose
How you do it
Modern yoga practice
Modern therapeutic yoga means a form of low-impact exercise and relaxation to maintain or improve general health.
Yoga, in this sense, often occurs in association with meditation, relaxation techniques (e.g. visualisation), breathing and relaxing music.
Modern yoga classes for therapeutic purposes usually consist of the practice of asanas (postures used as if they were stretching exercises), pranayama (breathing exercises) and relaxation in savasana (lying position).
The physical asanas of modern yoga belong to a vein of Hatha yoga that dates back to at least the 11th century, however hardly practiced before the 20th century.
The more classic approaches of modern yoga, such as Iyengar yoga, have a freer style, they attach great importance to correct alignment and execution, while maintaining the asanas for a longer time. They aim to gradually improve flexibility, balance and strength.
Other approaches, such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and its derivatives such as Power Yoga, move quickly and energetically between the asanas.
Contemporary approaches to yoga invite practitioners to greater self-control, awareness and personalisation, prompting them to become instructors of themselves.
Types of Yoga
What are the most common types of yoga?
The most common types of yoga are:
- Below is a brief description.
Kundalini yoga is a physical and mental path that should encourage the conquest of a higher consciousness. As the name suggests, this form of yoga is based on the concept of Kundalini or Shakti, which is the ancestral creative energy that animates life.
In its ordinary form, Kundalini yoga affects the whole body, since it is based on life force.
At the base of the vertebral column, in correspondence of the sacred bone, the point of greatest “sleeping” reserve is identified which is assumed to resemble a “snake coiled on itself three and a half times”.
This energy represents the full potential of human awareness and it is this spiral of energy that unleashes when the Kundalini is awakened.
This can happen in many ways, such as doing asanas, singing or meditating. In some cases, awakening can occur spontaneously, for example when you come into contact with the right Kundalini master or have a near-death experience.
When the Kundalini is released, it runs to the brain through a conduit located near the spinal cord called Sushumna.
While heading to the central nervous system, according to Swami Vivekananda – cit. of his book “Raja Yoga” – energy progressively unlocks the levels of consciousness by freeing it from its previous negative karma, originating positivity.
Ultimately, the complete yogi frees himself from the bondage of ordinary earthly identity and reaches Samadhi, complete union with divine consciousness.
Kundalini is a different form of energy, which cannot be measured as is normally the case for nerve conduction. For those who believe it, an excess of energy could also damage the neural network, therefore kundalini yoga should be practiced with caution and, in the beginning, without exaggerating.
Excess Kundalini energy could be diverted into the lateral channels that line the spinal cord, known as Ida and Pingala (spiritual emergency), which give rise to negative symptoms.
In her book “Energies of Transformation”, Bonnie Greenwell describes experiences very similar to a psychotic breakdown – it is indeed quite common for long repressed memories of childhood trauma to be unlocked in such circumstances.
Kundalini yoga could be defined as a process of transformation, which implies the dynamism of powerful energy currents which affect the body, mind and spirit.
To avoid problems, the transformation should be led by a qualified yogi.
Bruce Greyson, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioural Sciences at the University of Virginia in Eastern Traditions, writes: “Kundalini would be ideally activated at the appropriate time by a guru who can properly guide the development of that energy. If awakened without proper guidance … Kundalini can be raw, destructive power loosed on the individual’s body and psyche “.
Translation: Kundalini should be activated at the appropriate time by a guru who can correctly guide the development and channelling of that vital energy. If awakened without proper guidance … Kundalini can have destructive power over the mind and body of those who practice it.
Hatha Yoga is actually a generic term for physical yoga practice. Hata literally means “strength” and, not surprisingly, Hata Yoga refers to the sequences of various asanas.
The main goal is to find the right balance between strength and flexibility.
This highly physical practice aligns the body so that internal energy can flow freely.
It also stresses the importance of staying conscious and focusing on breathing despite the movements. Depending on the instructor, the steps may be slower or faster.
Vinyasa yoga is a way of doing yoga. Also called “flow”, it requires slow and conscious movements, essential for changing from one pose to another without stopping.
Vinyasa practice requires some control of breathing, balance, strength and flexibility.
It can be a stimulating and physically demanding practice, for example by requiring the execution of multiple asanas (such as sun salutation. It can however be adapted to all levels. The focus of this practice is the correlation between breathing and body movement.
Ashtanga and Power yoga are considered Vinyasa-style yogis.
AntiGravity Yoga is a new type of training conceived by Christopher Harrison, a former Broadway gymnast and choreographer.
It involves performing a series of exercises inspired by yoga, pilates, rhythmic gymnastics and aerial acrobatics using a particular hammock-like apparatus, in order to obtain effective training for the whole body.
Born in the USA, AntiGravity Yoga is also making its way in other western countries.
The main physical benefits of AntiGravity Yoga are strength training, especially in sedentary people, and muscle flexibility as much as joint mobility.
Physical benefits of modern yoga
Modern yoga is used for postural purposes and to promote psycho-physical relaxation, to reduce stress and to improve various uncomfortable conditions.
This form of yoga is typically considered a low impact exercise, which can provide the same benefits as any other similar activity – for example Pilates – by reducing stress and improving the complications of a sedentary lifestyle.
It is promoted, in particular, as a routine motor therapy and as a system to strengthen and balance the organism. In this sense, the practice of asanas is certainly the most effective method and, moreover, it has an excellent impact on mental health.
A 2013 review supported the short-term efficacy of postural yoga applied against low back pain, and hypothesised moderate long-term evidence (Cramer, Holger; Lauche, Romy; Haller, Heidemarie; Dobos, Gustav (May 2013).
In 2015, the Australian Government’s Department of Health published the results of a review that assessed the suitability of health insurance coverage for alternative therapies.
Postural yoga was part of a list of 17 activities for which no clear evidence of efficacy was found. In 2017, postural yoga ceased to be qualified as eligible for insurance benefits.
A 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis found that yoga is effective in fighting metabolic syndrome.
Yoga “as exercise” is believed to be an excellent workout for children and teenagers, also because of its positive effect on breathing, concentration, awareness and stress.
Many schools have considered integrating physical education programs with yoga.
The district of Encinitas, California, has obtained the approval of the judge of the Supreme Court of San Diego for the use of yoga in physical education, in opposition to the parents who claimed that the practice is intrinsically religious, therefore it should not be part of a state-funded program.
Weak evidence supports the use of Hatha yoga as a complementary therapy for rheumatic diseases, without guarantees for its safety. Although one study found a small effect of yoga to lower high blood pressure, overall this evidence was considered too weak for any possible recommendations and did not provide safety information. Yoga practice had no effect on the basic mechanisms of cancer.
There is no evidence of benefit in the treatment of epilepsy or menopause-related symptoms.
Mental benefits of modern yoga
A review of the 2010 literature stated that “although the results of studies on the mental effects of yoga are encouraging, they should be considered as preliminary because the trials have suffered from substantial methodological limitations.”
A 2015 systematic review of the effect of yoga on mood and brain concluded that “yoga is associated with better regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, and a decrease in depressive and anxious symptoms in a wide range of populations. ”
However, the same review recommended greater methodological rigour for future clinical trials.
One review found little evidence to support the hypothesis that yoga can help people with dementia perform their daily activities, while another shows that there is no effect on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There was weak evidence that supported yoga as an alternative treatment for insomnia, with no evidence that yoga was better than general relaxation.
David Emerson and others from the Trauma Centre at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts developed the so-called “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga”.
The centre uses yoga along with other treatments to support recovery from traumatic episodes and to allow healing from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Bessel van der Kolk and Richard Miller studied how patients could “find comfort in their bodies, counteract rumination and improve self-regulation through yoga”.
Some clinical researchers have reported a positive outcome on an analysis of yoga as a complementary intervention in cancer patients, in order to reduce depression, insomnia, pain and fatigue, and to increase control of anxiety.
Risks in modern yoga
Some postural yoga practitioners may experience physical injuries in a similar way to what happens in other sports. A specific study found a certain incidence of back injuries caused by yoga.
An in-depth study conducted on yoga practitioners in Australia has shown that around 20% have suffered at least one physical injury while practicing yoga. In the 12 months preceding the survey, 4.6% had a sustained injury due to pain or that required medical attention.
Vertical resting on the arms, on the head and on the shoulders, lotus and half lotus (with crossed legs), forward bending, rear bending have produced the greatest number of wounds.
The negative effects of yoga are mainly caused by the lack of preparation of beginners and the excessive competitiveness of the instructors.
Certification to become a yoga instructor is often characterised by insufficient training. Not all newly trained instructors recommend the right caution and, in turn, beginner students tend to underestimate the danger of this activity.
Vertebral artery dissection, an injury to a vessel that supplies blood to the brain, can occur from hyperextension of the neck.
This is a very serious condition, which can also cause strokes, and is not unrelated to the practice of postural yoga.
The practice of yoga has also led to various forms of acetabular laceration, damage to the structure that joins the femur to the hip.