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What Is Yoga?
The literal translation of the word “yoga” from Sanskrit (which is recognized as the original language of yoga) is “union,” says Sherwin. ( 2 ) And that’s an apt basis for defining yoga as we know it today, she explains. “We define it as bringing together the mind and the body by use of the breath.”
Many people have come to know the physical benefits of yoga and think of it as a type of workout, says Sherwin. But yoga is way more than that. “It’s really an entire lifestyle; the postures are only one piece of it,” she says.
Yoga began in India and has been around for about 5,000 years, says Sherwin. “Originally it was taught one-on-one and only to men of the highest caste,” she says.
Though yoga, traditionally, is a system to foster well-being on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels, it is not generally thought of as a set of religious beliefs. ( 3 ) Yoga can be practiced in a completely secular manner, and it's practiced by people of all faith traditions, as well as people who are agnostic and atheist, according to the Yoga Alliance. ( 4 )
Yoga is thought to have first come to the United States at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. One critical moment was when Swami Vivekananda spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. ( 5 ) Another milestone in yoga’s spread in the west was Paramahansa Yogananda’s book, Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946 and still read by many yoga students, Sherwin says. (5) In the first half of the 20th century, it was more common for yoga instructors to travel from city to city to teach a yoga class or give a yoga lecture rather than teach in a studio (as is the case today). (5)
Notably, changes in U.S. immigration policy starting in 1965 allowed more South Asian immigrants to come to America (including yogis from India, where the practice was more established). ( 6 ) By the 1970s, yoga studios and books could be found more widely across the United States.
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They’ll make you want to Downward-Facing Dog and Chaturanga, stat.
Does Yoga Count as Exercise?
Yoga’s origins aren’t rooted in exercise , but some styles have been adapted into workouts that focus very much on the physical parts of the practice, says Edward Laskowski, MD , a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and the codirector of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. “There are different goals that people have coming into yoga. Some may do yoga for the contemplative or meditative part of it and some people might want more of the exercise and activity part.”
More on Exercise
Anything that elevates our heart rate for a consistent period of time is beneficial to overall fitness, he says. “The heart is a muscle and when you challenge it by elevating your heart rate you make it stronger,” says Dr. Laskowski.
Yoga probably isn’t in the same category of aerobic exercise as running or biking, says Laskowski. But the amount of aerobic benefit a person could get from yoga depends a lot on the style and pace of the type of yoga you’re doing, he says.
Yoga can also help build strength, Laskowski says. Certain positions and poses where a person must hold up part of their body weight will challenge a muscle and make it stronger, he says.
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It’s a good way to get your resistance training in, because yoga builds functional strength (meaning you get stronger by using multiple joint and muscle groups together rather than strengthening a specific muscle in isolation, like you might do in weight lifting ). “That’s good because that’s what we do in our daily life,” he says.
Learn More About When Yoga Counts as Exercise
Health Benefits of Yoga
“The benefits of yoga are different for different people,” Laskowski says. “Overall, it has components that can help with flexibility , strength, balance, and stability.”
Research has shown it can also help with specific measures of health, like eating habits, weight loss and weight loss maintenance, and cardiovascular health . ( 7 )
A review that looked at the impact of practicing several types of yoga that was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in 2014 found that people who practiced yoga (the researchers included any type of yoga practice in the study) saw improvements across several measures of health, including: weight loss, blood pressure reduction , and lowered LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. ( 8 )
A meta-analysis published in March 2019 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that yoga interventions helped middle-aged people with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher to lower their blood pressure. The benefits were greater when the yoga intervention included breathing techniques and meditation . ( 9 )
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And findings from a 2012 National Health Interview Survey found that yoga motivated nearly two-thirds of people to exercise more and 40 percent of people to eat healthier. ( 10 )
There is also evidence that yoga may help people with certain health conditions and chronic diseases manage pain and other symptoms, and with overall quality of life. ( 11 )
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Vinyasa yoga is one of the most popular kinds of yoga in the United States, says Jen Fleming , a yoga teacher manager and lead trainer at YogaWorks in Atlanta, who is certified by Yoga Alliance. Although vinyasa can be a set sequence of poses that never changes, as in ashtanga vinyasa, flow vinyasa classes will be different every time, she says.
Different styles of vinyasa yoga also include power yoga , Baptiste yoga, Jivamukti, and prana flow. These kinds of classes are among the most athletic and physically challenging classes, says Fleming.
It can be difficult to keep up with the pace of a vinyasa class if you don’t have yoga experience, adds Shala Worsley , the lead instructor for teacher-training programs at Asheville Yoga Center in Asheville, North Carolina, who is certified by Yoga Alliance. “If you want to try vinyasa yoga and you don’t have much experience, try to find a studio that offers a beginner or a slow flow class,” says Worsley.
Hot yoga is yoga practiced in a hotter-than-normal room, and the style of yoga offered can vary from studio to studio, says Samantha Scupp , the founder and a teacher at Heatwise, a New York City–based hot yoga studio, who is certified by Yoga Alliance.
Here are a few things to know before you try it.
How Hot Is a Hot Yoga Class?
In hot yoga , the room is heated to temperatures that can range from the high 80s to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, the latter being the temperature of a Bikram-style yoga class. ( 12 ) Not only can the temperature fluctuate depending on the studio (check the class description or call the individual studio to find out details), but the method of heating can be different as well, says Scupp.
Along with conventional heating, some studios use a humidifier to make the room feel warmer. Some studios, like Heatwise, use infrared heat that comes from electric heat panels that are placed on the ceiling or around the room, which can feel more natural than forced-air heat, she says. The size of the room, the weather outside, and how packed the class is can all be factors in how hot the room gets, Scupp says.
Not All Hot Yoga Classes Are the Same
A type of hatha yoga known as Bikram yoga bills itself as the “original” hot yoga. Founded by Bikram Choudhury, Bikram yoga has 26 poses that are always performed in the same way and in the same sequence. (12)
Vinyasa yoga or flow-type yoga practiced in a heated studio can also be called hot yoga. It would be a good idea to have some yoga experience before stepping into a hot yoga class, says Scupp. Depending on the studio, there may be a beginner level course offered.
Pregnant Women, People With Heart Conditions, and Some Others Should Check With Their MD Before Doing Hot Yoga
In general, hot yoga is safe for someone as long as they’re in good health, says Laskowski. If a person has certain preexisting chronic health conditions, previous heat injury, certain heart conditions, easily gets dehydrated, or is pregnant, i t may not be safe to do hot yoga , he says.
“It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor if you’re going to try an activity that could stress your body,” says Laskowski.
Learn More About Hot Yoga
What Are Other Popular Styles of Yoga?
There are about 20 major types of yoga, and certain kinds can appeal to certain individuals, says Laskowski. That’s because people often have different goals and reasons for wanting to do yoga, he says.
Depending on the part of the country you live in and the size of the yoga community, you may find several types of yoga offered at studios near you. Here a few of those types.
Hatha yoga (pronounced HAH-ta yoga; the second “h” is silent) encompasses several types of yoga, including ashtanga, vinyasa, and power yoga. Hatha classes tend to be slower-paced than vinyasa classes, and may not necessarily flow from pose to pose, says Fleming. Poses are typically held for several breaths before another pose begins. What is consistent across different types of hatha yoga is that the physical poses and postures are meant to be linked to your breathing patterns.
Ashtanga yoga is a physically demanding type of yoga that moves quickly from pose to pose. Unlike flow or vinyasa yoga, there are set sequences that are meant to be performed in a specific order. Ashtanga yoga can be practiced in a teacher-led class or in a Mysore format. Mysore is self-guided with an instructor present but not leading the class. In a Mysore format, students are expected to know the sequence and timing of the poses from memory, Fleming explains.
Kundalini yoga combines postures, breathing, meditation, and the chanting of mantras. Traditionally, kundalini yoga is meant to “awaken” the different energies inside each of us and heighten consciousness. ( 13 )
Yin yoga is a style in which there’s no flowing from pose to pose. You stay mostly seated on the ground or lying down on your back or belly, Fleming says.
It’s more passive and focuses on stretching. And the poses are held longer than in other types of yoga, says Fleming. “This kind of stretching can be good for the joints in a different way than active stretching,” says Fleming.
Yoga nidra is more of a meditation than a pose-filled yoga class. Students lie on their backs (a blanket or bolster can be used to add comfort) as the teacher guides them through focusing on and relaxing different parts of the body. People who practice yoga nidra are encouraged to “let go” and surrender to total relaxation and peace. It can be as relaxing and restorative as actual sleep , says Fleming.
Learn More About the Different Styles of Yoga
Basic Yoga Poses Every Yogi Should Know
The more you practice yoga, the more yoga poses and postures you’ll likely learn. But everyone starts with some of the same basic poses. Learn more about these beginner poses, which can offer big benefits, like easing back pain , stretching your hips, and improving balance.
Yoga Poses for Beginners
From Downward-Facing Dog pose to Sukhasana (“Easy pose”), try these postures if you’re just starting out.
Everything You Need to Know About Yoga Mats — and Other Yoga Props
There’s a misconception among some that props are designed for beginners or people who “aren’t good at yoga.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Props are used by newbies and seasoned yogis alike for all sorts of reasons, from comfort to deepening stretches to helping make a pose safer if you have an injury or limitation, says Carol Krucoff , an instructor certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance, and the author of the book Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less.
Props can be an equalizer to help make poses accessible to people of all body types, says Krucoff. Some people have shorter arms or a longer torso and using a block a yoga strap can help people get into a pose safely, she says.
Props can also be an important component of class, as in a chair yoga class , in which most (if not all) seated poses are performed in a chair rather than on the floor, says Krucoff.
Yoga for Beginners: What You Should Know Before Your First Class
New to yoga? Here’s what you need to know before trying out a class.
Check out the class first. Observe a class and interview the teacher if possible, says Judi Bar, the yoga program manager at Cleveland Clinic Wellness and Preventive Medicine, who is certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance. Even if the class is labeled as beginner , you may want to investigate further, she says. It may be that the class is beginner-level, but not intended to be the first class someone ever takes. “Sometimes beginner classes are designed for younger or fitter people or even people with a little yoga experience,” says Bar. If possible, talk to the instructor or watch a portion or all of the class before you take it.
Try a slower-moving class or one designed for beginners. Make sure the teacher encourages people to listen to their body. “You should feel supported in just doing what you feel comfortable doing on any given day, says Bar. You don’t want a class that feels like a competition, especially if you’re a beginner, she says.
Communicate with the instructor. Introduce yourself to the instructor before class starts and let him or her know it’s your first class. If have any injuries or chronic conditions, you should let your instructor know that too, says Laskowski. “They have training to help you modify the poses to help prevent injury,” he says.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember, everyone was a beginner at some point. “It doesn’t have to be complicated; you don’t have to have special clothing or props; it can be a very simple practice,” says Sherwin. “Yoga is about finding peace in the moment,” she adds.
Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine School of Yoga
Want to know more about how yoga can help with your specific health needs and conditions? Check out Cleveland Clinic’s School of Yoga at the Center for Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine. If you’re local, attend a class in person. You can also purchase instructional DVDs to start a yoga practice at home, and find several resources on the benefits of yoga on the center’s website.
Yoga Alliance is a nonprofit professional and trade association that represents the yoga community. Yoga Alliance certifies yoga instructors, as well as yoga schools. The organization also advocates for safe yoga practices and yoga education.
Favorite National Yoga Studios
CorePower Yoga offers yoga classes that provide a high-intensity workout, as well as a retreat for your mind. “We believe in working every muscle and every emotion” is the motto on the brand’s website. Get ready to work and sweat. Studios are open in 23 states and Washington, DC, and classes can be streamed online.
Yoga to the People
Yoga to the People is about yoga for everyone. Yogis of all levels, ages, and backgrounds are welcome, including those who have never taken a class before. And to live up to the studio’s founding principle of making yoga available to all, classes are either low-cost or donation-based. Studios are currently open in New York, California, and Arizona.
YogaWorks offers beginner-level yoga class through challenging advanced classes in all different styles of the practice. (Looking for vinyasa, yin yoga, ashtanga, Iyengar, or prenatal yoga? YogaWorks has them all and more.) YogaWorks studios are open in several states. The brand also offers yoga retreats. And classes can be streamed online.
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Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance Reveals Growth and Benefits of the Practice. Yoga Alliance . January 13, 2016.
Getting to Know the Language of Yoga: 108 Important Sanskrit Terms. Omega . October 10, 2013.