If you've ever breathed deeply while stretching, focused on your muscles, and felt yourself stretch just a little farther than you ever had before, you've experienced one of the basic pleasures of yoga. So what's keeping you from taking a class? Still searching for a yoga that's just your type?
"With so many styles and teachers to choose from, anyone can find just the right yoga class for their personal taste," says Nolan Baer, founder and director of New York City's Bodymind Healing Arts, who's been studying yoga for 29 years.
First, some background. As the story goes, 2,200 years ago in India a man named Patanjali wrote down the basic principles of yoga. "No one knows just how long those teachings had been around for (and passed down orally) before he codified them, but most researchers believe thousands of years," says Baer. "The yoga that we now know of and practice is a mere fraction of that original yogic tradition."
Hatha yoga, the predominant form of yoga in the U.S., cultivates a focused mind through the practice of postures or "asanas." While there are numerous styles of hatha yoga, explains Baer, the benefits are basically the same—namely, increased flexibility, energy, concentration and,perhaps that greatest of all treasures, peace of mind. "Just keep in mind that all styles of hatha yoga have the same general goal: to help you focus your concentration, and, ultimately, become free of all suffering—both mental and physical."
Yoga training can even help your game. "Any athlete can expect to greatly improve his or her performance by practicing yoga. Your concentration level is so heightened that your mind stops wavering," says Baer. "If your mind is focused, you'll never miss that free throw—no matter what's going on around you. You'll stay on that balance beam, nail that tricky putt and perfectly place your puck."
To help you decide which yoga method is right for you, take a peek into these popular styles of hatha yoga:
Sivananda What happens in a typical class: It begins and ends with some Sanskrit chanting. There's a brief period of "pranayama" or yogic breathing and then a routine of 12 different asanas is offered. A Sivananda lifestyle also includes close attention to breathing, meditation, proper diet, relaxation and positive thinking.
Astanga What happens in a typical class: Expect rapidly flowing movements. You're often jumping from one pose to another. Astanga classes are also known to build up strength quickly because many of the poses require you to support your own body weight. These classes are physically intense. Lots of heat, lots of sweat. A real workout.
Iyengar What happens in a typical class: This style of yoga looks deeply and precisely at the postures. You may only work on one or two poses the entire class (especially if you're a beginner), but both your concentration—and your teacher's attention—will be acutely focused on your body's anatomy, posture and alignment. This is a great style of yoga for anyone who needs to rehabilitate an injury or wants to avoid one.
Bikram What happens in a typical class: The basic philosophy behind Bikram yoga is that you are less likely to injure yourself if your muscles are warm. That's why all Bikram-style classes are done in a room heated at 100 degrees or higher. In that toasty environment, you engage in breathing exercises and a sequence of muscle-stretching asanas.
Kundalini What happens in a typical class: Kundalini yoga classes combine a rapid breathing technique—the "breath of fire"—with the postures. This intense flow of air in your body is said to create internal heat and help loosen your muscles as you practice poses. There is often a beautiful spiritual atmosphere associated with this style.
Kripalu What happens in a typical class: Kripalu yoga is very dance-like and relaxing. The transitions from one pose to another are graceful. This gentle style of yoga focuses on self-reflection and stress reduction.
Baer's best tips for beginners:
1. Respect your body's limits—don't force a pose or movement if your body isn't ready for it.
2. Understand that yoga isn't just about postures; it's a holistic way of life that integrates proper breathing, exercise, diet, meditation and relaxation. Find an instructor who understands this concept.
3. Tell your instructor if you have an injury. He or she can then modify the postures accordingly.
4. Try a few different styles of yoga to find the one you like.
5. Don't wait. Find a teacher and do it now! You'll be happy that you did.