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A Little History About Yoga

ashtanga eight limbs iyengar power yoga yoga yoga history

The Difference Among Various Styles of Yoga

So, you've decided to start going to yoga classes. This is a very important commitment; a commitment that will bring you great rewards if you maintain a steady and consistent practice. You can look forward to feeling better physically, mentally, and emotionally. But now that you've decided to practice yoga, which class do you go to?

There are many styles of yoga and it can be a challenge determining which one is right for you. It may be helpful, then, to describe some of the more popular and well known styles so that you can make the appropriate decision. Let's start with a little history.

Yoga is an ancient practice and philosophy that dates back at least 5,000 years from the northern region of India. In its earliest written forms, it was designed more for study: something like a philosophical course you might study at a university, for example. These writings were documentations of earlier spiritual rituals that encouraged and taught about self-knowledge, personal action, and wisdom. Due to the many different writings about these lessons, the ideas of yoga became confusing and contradictory. A more systematic way of understanding of yoga was needed. Patanjali is said to be the "father of yoga." He re-interpreted the wide and varied lessons of yoga and wrote the Yoga Sutras as a newly organized document to describe a person's path toward enlightenment. The Sutras, probably written over 1,700 years ago, can be considered a guide or manual of sorts that details yoga as steps called the "eight limbs" of yoga. These limbs are the branches to obtain enlightenment in this human experience. It was from this re-interpretation that strongly influences what we know as yoga today.

As yogis of the time studied these eight limbs, a shift occurred. Not only were people merely studying yoga, but a focus on the physical body became a growing trend. The body, not just philosophical thinking, was being seen as a vehicle toward achieving enlightenment. The thought was that cleansing the mind AND body of impurities would create a clear path toward a more spiritual way of living and being. As a result, Hatha Yoga was born. With its focus on healing and well-being, this style of yoga combined the awareness of the mind and body. The very nature and definition of Hatha Yoga has ancient roots. The first part of the word “HA” refers to the “Sun” and the second part “THA” means “Moon,” As a whole, it refers to the balance within all of us. Hatha Yoga is essentially a path toward creating a holistic balance and it eventually made its way to the West as a prominent style of yoga practice. One can think of Hatha Yoga as the base or foundation for many other styles of yoga that came afterward: Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Power, and Bikram to name a few. Let's take a closer look at what each brings to the table.

Iyengar Yoga

As mentioned, this branch of yoga focused on overall health and healing. A very popular style of yoga that was developed in the earlier parts of the 20th century was Iyengar Yoga. Named for B.K.S. Iyengar, an influential Indian yoga instructor, brought precision to the physical practice. He developed a collection of over 200 yoga poses that focused on the alignment of the body, mind, and breath. He saw the importance of developing the whole self (body, mind, and spirit) by bringing greater strength, mobility, and stability to the practitioner. Iyengar introduced the use of props (i.e. straps and blocks) to assist the student toward greater health and healing. When one practices Iyengar Yoga, the student typically holds postures longer, accompanied by breath, to enhance that healing and holistic factor.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

Borrowing from the earlier teachings of the eight limbs, and influenced by the holistic value of yoga, Pattabhi Jois introduced another style of Hatha Yoga called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. (Ashtanga in Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, means 'eight limbs.') In the late 1940's, Pattabhi Jois opened the Ashtanga Yoga Institute where the practitioner developed strength, stamina, flexibility, mobility, stability, and awareness through the interconnected movements and motions of the body. Rather than holding postures as seen in Iyengar Yoga, students used vinyasa (flow) to move from pose to pose through a series of established yoga postures. His intention, much like the founding fathers of yoga, was to move toward enlightenment. He sought that transformation through the physically challenging flowing practice.

When one goes to an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga class, it is a very disciplined practice. Often practiced individually, with the guidance of a qualified instructor, students move through a series of set postures. The poses and sequences are always the same when you go to this style of class. The idea is to allow the body to "master" each pose and transition before progressing to the next set of stylized postures.

Power Yoga

This style of yoga is a derivative of Ashtanga Yoga. It takes the intensity of the stylized flowing sequence of asanas (postures) and makes them more creative. That is, the yoga instructor may use the postures often seen in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and develop an entirely new sequence to meet the intention of strength, stamina, and flexibility. Power Yoga came onto the scene when health and fitness clubs were becoming more popular. People wanted to attend fitness classes that contributed to overall physical health. Power Yoga was developed to suit those individuals in a gym setting.

Bikram Yoga

This popular style of yoga is often called the original hot yoga practice. It is taught in a studio that can be anywhere between 106 and 112 degrees. It is a style of yoga named after Bikram Chourdhury, an Indian yoga teacher, that combines traditional yoga poses with breath. The style, much like Ashtanga, features the same set of 26 poses in each class. The added heat, however, adds the challenge of stamina, discipline, dedication, and consistency.

Now that you know a little history about where yoga came from and some of the styles that are practiced today, the question remains: which one to I practice? One thing to remember is that yoga, no matter the style, has a specific intention: greater mindfulness and connection to the whole self: body, mind, and spirit. How you achieve this greater awareness and connection is up to you. You may choose a style in which you hold yoga poses for a longer period of time (Iyengar). Or perhaps you're looking for something that is more structured and systematic that will help your body obtain greater mobility and strength (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga). If you're looking for something that will compliment a "gym-like" experience, but has a freer flow to it, maybe Power Yoga is the style for you. If you're wanting all of the above with the added challenge of heat, then attend a Bikram Yoga studio in your neighborhood. Find the practice that suits your individual needs.....or try them all!

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