An Introduction to Yoga for Wellbeing
Yoga has many benefits to our mental and physical health. Despite being widely accessible through gym classes, fitness studios, online resources and private lessons, many people are put off by the incorrect belief that it is only for ‘bendy’ people or that it has a religious bias.
In reality, yoga is practised by people of every background, shape, size and physical ability. Once people have experienced how a well-taught yoga session can make you feel, very few ever look back and it becomes a lifelong routine.
This page will give you some background to yoga, its many benefits, and how you go about choosing the right class or teacher for you.
Many of us lead busy and hectic lives and don’t always manage to take the time out that our body and mind needs to stay healthy. When we don’t look after ourselves, the relentlessness of work, rushing around, caring for others and running a household can become exhausting and overwhelming. Stress can take many forms and too much can affect our mental and physical health in numerous ways. It is important that we find time for activities that give us relief from the causes of stress. This page will demonstrate how practising yoga can achieve this.
You may also find our pages on Dealing with Stress, The Importance of Exercise and Relaxation Techniques useful.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline originating in ancient India. The Yoga Sutra is a collation of philosophical statements believed to have been compiled around 2000 years ago, and still serves as the foundation for modern yoga practitioners.
The Sanskrit scriptures outline the eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints or abstinences), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The sutra offers a framework for spiritual growth and personal mastery over the physical and mental body. It is rather like a roadmap or guidebook, and it is intended that by following it we will eventually be guided towards samadhi (liberation, enlightenment).
Is Yoga religious?
There is a common misconception that yoga is a religious discipline. Yoga does occasionally refer to other philosophies such as Hinduism or Buddhism, but it is not necessary to study those paths in order to practise or study yoga, nor is it necessary to modify your own religious beliefs. In fact the majority of yoga classes in the West contain little or no reference to spiritual philosophy.
What are the benefits of yoga?
Today, yoga classes have become commonplace in gyms and studios everywhere. The emphasis in these settings is often on the physical practice (the third limb), through a series of poses or postures (asanas), which increase strength, flexibility and physical wellbeing.
However, yoga reaches far beyond physical exercise, not just because asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga, but also because the physical practice is not simply ‘stretching and fitness’. Yoga connects the movement and flow of the mind and body with the rhythm and control of the breath. This causes us to focus inwards, increasing our physical and mental awareness.
Pranayama (the fourth limb) is the practice of breath control, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force. The synchronisation of the breath with asana is integral to all physical yoga practice, but pranayama is also a distinct breathing practice on its own. It has the power to sooth and calm a busy or stressed mind and to revitalise and relax a tired or tense body.
Although today most yogis or yoginis (male and female yoga practitioners) do not fully study all eight limbs in depth, even a superficial appreciation of yoga through a gym class can offer countless benefits. Through the practice of yoga you are likely to not only experience an increase in your physical strength and flexibility, but also a sense of clarity and calmness in your conscious mind. Yoga is referred to as a practice rather than an aim or a mission, because of the growth of our awareness, rather than our completion or attainment of a goal.
You would be forgiven for thinking that talk of ‘prana’ and ‘asana’ is all a bit inaccessible, or even intimidating, to the yoga novice. However the proven benefits of yoga, as with any other physical exercise or relaxation techniques, are manyfold:
Increase in muscle strength, joint flexibility and spinal movement gives protection from chronic conditions such as joint stiffness, back pain and arthritis, while improving posture, coordination and balance.
Weight-bearing yoga poses or postures, particularly those that require load to be taken through the arms, strengthen bones, increase bone density and help protect against osteoporosis.
Yoga can help your circulation, especially in hands and feet, increasing oxygen levels in your cells. Inverted postures, such as legs up the wall, shoulder stand, handstand and headstand, encourage blood flow from the lower parts of the body back to the heart, which can alleviate leg swelling and other circulatory problems.
Any form of exercise that gets your heart pumping, including yoga, can improve cardiovascular health. More strenuous aerobic exercise, which includes some more vigorous forms of yoga (see later), is well documented in its ability to reduce risk of heart disease. But studies have shown that even yoga practices such as restorative yoga or meditation (see later), that don’t raise your heart rate significantly, can lower your resting heart rate and reduce blood pressure.
Movement of the whole body through a series of yoga postures causes the stretching and contraction of muscles, which in turn increases lymphatic drainage and increases the efficiency of your immune system.
Meditation and relaxation can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has benefits such as the relief of stress, anxiety and depression, better immune function, downtime for the nervous system, improved sleep, reduced blood pressure and even, reportedly, the retention of bone calcium levels (reducing the risk of osteoporosis).
An increase in mental focus can increase cognitive function, concentration levels, reaction speed and memory.
But I’m not bendy enough to do yoga!
Let us dispel the myth that you are not flexible enough, or fit enough, or slim enough…
ANYONE can take part in yoga practice. The key is to find the right level and style for you.
Many gyms and private yoga teachers offer beginner courses, or classes solely for relaxation or meditation. However if you are a dedicated fitness fanatic and want to find a yoga class that compliments your training regime, then a class focussed on building strength and flexibility might be for you. Or perhaps you want a more aerobic workout? Dynamic styles of yoga can offer this too.
As well as finding the right style, you also need to think carefully about the teacher and environment that you choose. Many gyms offer exercise classes that use elements of yoga and other disciplines such as Pilates and tai chi (e.g. ‘body balance’), which are taught by trained fitness instructors who are not usually specific practitioners in any one discipline. These classes might offer you all you need in terms of a physical workout, but if you are looking for something that encompasses a greater depth of yoga philosophy (and in doing so offers mental as well as physical health benefits), then it is better to go to a class taught by a trained and registered yoga teacher.
You can check out your teacher’s credentials by looking them up online. Check for any accreditation, such as ‘RYT’ (Registered Yoga Teacher) and whether their qualification is accredited by the Yoga Alliance, British Wheel of Yoga, European Union of Yoga, or other accreditation authority. This will ensure that your teacher is not only knowledgeable, but has reached a required level of experience. A good teacher will tailor their teaching to your level of ability or experience. Many offer one-to-one or small group sessions, which can be a good idea if you feel self-conscious or lack confidence in a larger class.
It is perfectly acceptable to try a few different styles and teachers before you find what suits you best. Above all, be kind to yourself and don’t feel demoralised if it is hard work to begin with. A good teacher will encourage you to challenge yourself without making you feel that you are out of your depth.
There are so many types of yoga, how do I know what is right for me?
There might seem to be an incomprehensible and infinite range of yoga classes available in gyms, health clubs, dedicated yoga studios and online platforms. The sheer number of choices can be enough to prevent a yoga novice from taking the plunge. This section outlines nine of the main different types and styles of yoga, which will help give you the confidence to make that choice.
The Sanskrit term "hatha" is a generic term for all physical postures of yoga and refers to any style of yoga that is based around physical poses or postures.
Almost every type of yoga class taught in the West is therefore technically a form of Hatha yoga, but often you will come across classes described specifically as ‘Hatha Yoga’. This usually means that it is a more classic style of class taught around the fundamental postures, varying from the most basic and gentle to the more challenging. The postures are usually static, held for a period of time with the breath, and then released. These classes do not usually include the more physically demanding elements of dynamic flow styles of yoga, but may include, for example, ‘salutation to the sun’, which is a short series of repeated postures often used in class to warm the body up. These classes are appropriate for beginners and while the classes may sometimes include more advanced postures, a good teacher should provide two or three alternative options of varying complexity, so a student can choose to challenge themselves if they wish.
Iyengar yoga was developed B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1960s. Iyengar is a purist style of yoga, with meticulous attention to proper alignment in a pose. This is achieved with an array of yoga props, such as blocks, bricks, straps and bolsters, which allow a student to make adjustments without over-stretching or going beyond their physical capability. This style of yoga is quite slow and methodical, but can be physically and mentally challenging to hold the postures for a sustained period of time. Iyengar teacher training is particularly rigorous, so if you have an injury, these classes are a good choice. They are equally beneficial for beginners and advanced students.
Ashtanga is based on ancient yoga teachings, but gained wider popularity in the 1970s. It's a strenuous, dynamic style of yoga that follows a specific sequence of postures. It is similar to Vinyasa yoga, with each posture flowing into the next with movement and breath. The difference is that Ashtanga always performs the same sequence of postures, whereas in Vinyasa the sequence can be choreographed into a varied flow. The physically demanding nature of this practice means that it is definitely not for beginners.
Vinyasa yoga is one the most strenuous and vigorous dynamic yoga styles. Similar to Ashtanga, movement and breath are synchronised as you transition in a fluid motion from one pose to the next, often holding the pose for a period of time.
Vinyasa styles can vary depending on the teacher and the sequence of postures can be varied from a wide range, unlike Ashtanga, which is the same sequence every time. This class is suitable for students with some experience who enjoy a physically challenging practice.
Bikram or Hot Yoga
This style of yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s and is based around a series of 26 postures, practised in a studio heated above blood temperature. As in Ashtanga, a Bikram class always follows the same sequence, but the Bikram sequence is different from the Ashtanga sequence. Due to the dynamic nature of the class and the extreme heat, it is a particularly demanding form of practice. A class described as ‘hot’ yoga is similar to Bikram yoga, but does not necessarily use the same sequence of postures and cannot therefore be described as ‘Bikram’.
Kundalini yoga has both a physical and spiritual focus, derived from the practise of activating the body’s kundalini energy, which lies at the base of the spine. This practice combines invigorating physical postures (similar to Hatha yoga), with the chanting of mantras and meditation. Classes can be an intense experience and are suitable for beginners and advanced students alike.
Restorative or Yin Yoga
Restorative yoga, or Yin yoga, focuses on relaxing your mind and body. Classes typically use bolsters, blocks and blankets, which allow students to deeply relax into passive postures. The body therefore experiences the benefits of the pose without physical effort. A good restorative class should leave you feeling calm, relaxed and rejuvenated.
Prenatal or Antenatal Yoga
Prenatal yoga is carefully adapted for expectant mums and is tailored to women in all trimesters of pregnancy. This type of very gentle yoga focuses on pelvic floor work, breathing, and preparation for labour and delivery.
Pranayama and Meditation
Some teachers offer classes in pranayama (controlled breathing exercises) and meditation. These are often late in the evening and are designed to relax the whole body and mind. They are usually conducted in a seated or lying position and, unlike restorative yoga, do not involve moving through physical postures. For more on this, see our page on yoga for relaxation.
Online and Virtual Yoga
During times when yoga studios and gyms are not able to open, many yoga teachers have taken their classes online. Face to face live classes online have many of the benefits of teaching ‘in person’, but teachers are not able to physically adjust or ‘tweak’ your yoga postures if you are slightly out of alignment, or would benefit from a slightly deeper stretch. If you are new to yoga and would like to try an online class, discuss any health conditions with your teacher and work carefully within your capability so you don’t accidentally injure yourself by over-stretching or misaligning your position.
There is a wealth of yoga classes and videos on streaming services, consoles, mobile apps, YouTube and DVD. Even gyms are filling gaps in their class timetables with big-screen virtual studio classes, which are becoming increasingly popular. However, these types of class are not live and interactive, so you do not have the benefit of your teacher’s feedback. They can be great fun and offer many of the health benefits of a live class, but you run the risk of physical injury if you embark on a session that is too advanced for your level of experience. It is always advisable to go along to some face to face classes with an experienced teacher before using virtual resources. If you suffer from any health conditions, then it is advisable not to do a virtual class alone.
Arguably the greatest benefit of yoga apps is the guided relaxation and meditation resources, and there are many apps designed specifically for this. If you are wanting to fit a short restorative yoga session or 10 minutes of meditation into a busy and stressful day, these apps are ideal as you can take them anywhere and use them at any time. They generally offer a range of choices, depending on your needs and available time. For a typical guided meditation, see our page on yoga for relaxation.
If you are considering yoga as an activity for exercise, stress relief and other health benefits, then the information in this page will help you make an informed choice about the right type of yoga for you. Whether you choose to practise every day or every now and then, you should find you feel more relaxed, mentally calmer and physically looser afterwards.