As studies continue to reveal yoga’s many health benefits, this centuries-old Eastern philosophy is fast becoming the new fitness soul mate for workout enthusiasts. Contemporary devotees range from high-powered execs trying to keep hearts beating on a healthy note to image-conscious Hollywood stars striving for sleek physiques. Even prominent athletes are adding yoga to their training regime to develop balanced, injury-free muscles and spines.
Yet to applaud yoga for its physical benefits alone would only diminish what this entire system has to offer as a whole. By practicing yoga on a regular basis, you may be surprised to find that you’re building much more than a strong, flexible body.
“Americans are usually drawn to yoga as a way to keep fit at first, but the idea behind the physical practice of yoga is to encourage a deeper mind-body awareness,” explains New York yoga teacher and author Beryl Bender Birch. “Healing and balancing the physical body helps bring clarity and focus to the mind as well.”
Initially, the sole purpose of practicing yoga was to experience spiritual enlightenment. In Sanskrit (the ancient language of India), yoga translates as “yoke” or “union,” describing the integration of mind and body to create a greater connection with one’s own pure, essential nature.
Classes that have gained popularity in the United States usually teach one of the many types of hatha yoga, a physical discipline which focuses mainly on asanas (postures) and breathwork in order to prepare the body for spiritual pursuits.
To get started on your individual yoga quest, it’s helpful to begin with a list that clearly prioritizes what needs you want to fulfill: Are you looking to sweat your way into a lean form, or does a gentler, more meditative approach sound more appealing?
“Not all practices fit into nice little cubby holes,” warns Bender Birch. “There’s a great deal of crossover among the various yoga schools, and there’s even a diversity in teaching approaches within each discipline.”
Try attending a few different types of classes, and you’ll quickly discover the right match to suit your needs. Below you’ll find brief descriptions of some of the hatha yoga disciplines that are being practiced in the United States.