There are various types of exercise/wellbeing routines that have been popular over the years, but yoga is a practice that has become ever more popular and the benefits explored more scientifically in recent times. The purpose of this blog is to demystify the practice of yoga, explain where it came from, reveal the health benefits, and confirm that you do not need to wear sandals or have Madonna’s body to contemplate practising yoga in your own life. Hopefully, answering the following common questions that people tend to ask about yoga will help:
What is yoga – and where did it come from?
Yoga was developed up to 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It is an ancient form of exercise that focuses on strength, flexibility and breathing to boost physical and mental wellbeing. The main components of yoga are postures (a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility) and breathing. Yoga is becoming more commonplace as a recognised practice for improving wellbeing and is practised by people from all walks of life and of all ages.
What are the health benefits?
Dozens of scientific trials of varying quality have been published on yoga and it is now a commonplace practice in leisure centres, health clubs, schools, hospitals and surgeries.
While there is scope for more rigorous studies on its health benefits, most studies suggest yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity - especially strength, flexibility and balance.
There's some evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains – including lower back pain – depression and stress.
Yoga is popular with people with arthritis for its gentle way of promoting flexibility and strength. Some research suggests yoga can reduce pain and mobility problems in people with knee osteoarthritis. However, some yoga moves are not suitable for people with the condition – this is something that can be modified by a good instructor.
Activities such as yoga and tai chi are also recommended for older adults at risk of falls, to help improve balance and co-ordination.
Recent studies also show an association between yoga and decreased stress hormone levels, as well as enhanced immune function, in healthy individuals. Apart from reducing stress, yoga practice promotes feelings of relaxation and enhances subjective well-being. Yoga’s physical postures and breathing exercises improve muscle strength, flexibility, blood circulation and oxygen uptake which not only benefits general physical health, but also mental health, while also helping the practitioner become more resilient to stress.
Do I need to be flexible?
Not necessarily. Yoga will improve your flexibility and help you go beyond your normal range of movement, which may make performing your daily activities easier.
What type of yoga would be good for me to try?
There are many different styles of yoga, such as Ashtanga, Iyengar and Sivananda. Some styles are more vigorous than others, while some may have a different area of emphasis, such as posture or breathing. Many yoga teachers develop their own practice by studying more than one style.
No style is necessarily better or more authentic than any other. The key is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level.
Find a teacher who understands any medical or musculoskeletal issues you may have and can adapt movements for individual needs, especially if you have replacement joints. Always check with a doctor or physiotherapist to find out if there are any movements to avoid.
You can join a class suitable for your fitness level. For example, to join a mixed-ability yoga class, you would need to be able to get up and down from the floor. However, some yoga classes are chair-based.
It's advisable to learn from a qualified yoga teacher (see below) and choose a class appropriate to your level.
I already do lots of sports – how would yoga help me?
Yoga is a discipline that has become an essential part of professional sports player’s training regimes – think Rugby, football, tennis etc. Consistent yoga practice will improve strength, balance, and flexibility and teach the concepts of body control, alongside focus of the mind, which will result in improved overall performance.
The balance poses in yoga promotes focus that will translate to the field. The focus needed to balance allows the student to focus on the physical and mental goals needed to be successful. Controlled breath practices are also taught to maintain focus.
Through the philosophies and practices of yoga, an athlete can learn how to focus and concentrate the mind through the withdrawal of the senses and meditation. The breathing techniques are used as a way of centring an athlete to handle pressure and nerves, keeping the mind from wandering and staying in the present. Positive self-talk is encouraged through yoga philosophies, which help increase confidence and self-esteem. Visualisations/mental imagery can be introduced during relaxation to develop performance outcomes. While ‘positive intentions’ are set during yogic sleep, which can equate to goal-setting.
What is the difference between yoga and Pilates?
Many people place yoga and Pilates into the same exercise category. While they both emphasise a body-breath connection and utilise low-impact movements on a mat, they are totally distinct practices, rooted in very different histories. In summary, there are 5 main differences:
1/ The Origins:
Yoga originated in South Asia thousands of years ago. It has spread into many different locations and evolved with many different cultures. Today, there are many different types of yoga styles.
Pilates is named after its creator Joseph Pilates, who had suffered from several diseases that limited his mobility as a child. He developed the Pilates exercises in the early 1900s for rehabilitation and strengthening. In the 1960’s he moved to New York and opened his own studio. High profile dancers and ballerinas became attracted to his exercise routine to build their strength, stamina, and flexibility and brought Pilates into the mainstream exercise trend.
2/ The class content:
Yoga classes can range from gentle, slow-paced, relaxation sessions to sweaty, powerful workouts. Some types of yoga, like Bikram and Ashtanga, are more consistent day to day because they have an established sequence of poses. Other types, like Vinyasa or “Flow,” leave the sequence up to the creative freedom of the teacher, with an infinite amount of variations and combinations of poses.
Pilates classes are more consistent day to day. Typically, Pilates exercises are performed lying on a mat on your back, front, or on your side and consist of low-impact muscular strengthening and flexibility exercises with minimal equipment (although some specialised Pilates studios have some assistive machines).
There are different levels of Pilates from beginner to advanced, however, unlike yoga, there are no different styles within Traditional Pilates.
3/ The aim of the class:
The diverse variety of yoga poses will work your entire body. In yoga, each pose is complemented with a counter pose to work the opposite muscle group.
Pilates exercises are based on the principle that every movement originates from the core. The exercises are typically small, isolated movements, and are repeated in sets. The goal of a class is to focus on spinal alignment and strengthening the core, in order to have total body control over your movements.
Breath work in yoga is given high importance. Breath is considered a source of energy and life that channels through your body. The goal of breath work is to cultivate and control this fundamental life force, using various techniques.
In Pilates, practitioners are encouraged to be aware of their breath throughout the entire class—inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Unlike yoga, different breathing techniques are not used and there are no specific sections of class devoted to breath work. Breathing is a consistent and constant effort.
In yoga, spirituality is inextricably intertwined into the practice. This is due to the historical roots of yoga.
Yoga poses have evolved from a simple cross-legged pose to sit and meditate, into an infinite amount of standing, seated, arm-balancing, twisting, and back-bending poses. Still, each pose is grounded in meditation.
The slower pace of a Pilates class may have stress relieving effects for many participants; however, Pilates does not create a distinct spiritual experience.
Does yoga conflict with my spiritual/religious beliefs?
In a word – “no”. As yoga has its roots in the Hindu culture of India, there is a popular misconception that yoga is a religion. Yoga is not a system of faith or worship. The practice of yoga does aim to foster a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself and through this, yoga fosters spirituality in a way that is compatible with many different religious beliefs. If you don’t have religious beliefs, this connectedness could be considered to be grounding yourself with nature and the world around you.
Do I need to attend a class – or can I just follow a DVD?
If you are not sure whether yoga is for you – or are feeling a bit shy about attending a class at first, it can be useful to try a basic DVD or browse some online instructional videos. You can get a taste of the different styles of yoga and find specific programmes aimed at addressing different aspects of physical or emotional health
A good instructor in a class or one to one setting will be able to modify your exercises and correct any poor techniques, as needed. If you have any musculoskeletal problems, they will be able to advise alternative positions or provide aids, such as blocks, straps, cushions or even chairs, to enable you to perform an exercise comfortably.
There are online sample instructional videos available – even provided by the NHS:
Where can I find out more information?
No specific qualifications are required to teach yoga in the UK. However, it would be advised that you seek out a teacher who has had appropriate formal training and they should be insured. Some teachers may have a teaching certificate and accreditation from a yoga association.
The main UK yoga associations are:
British Wheel of Yoga (BWY), the Sport England-recognised governing body for yoga – this is generally the widest accepted qualification acknowledged by Health Professionals and is the body that collaborates on large pieces of research looking into the benefits of yoga with organisations such as the NHS and Arthritis UK.
Independent Yoga Network
Iyengar Yoga (UK)
Yoga Alliance Professionals