If you aren’t one of the millions of people globally who have taken at least one yoga class, you’ve almost certainly heard of it. Yoga, which blends stretching poses with mindful breathing, has exploded in popularity over the past decade. It’s gone from a little-known traditional practice to a mainstream pastime, with devoted practitioners and dedicated studios popping up in virtually every city.
But where did yoga originate? And why is it so effective at reducing stress, increasing fitness, and boosting mental health? In today’s post, we’re going to dive into the history of yoga, the art of practising, and the solid science behind its efficacy.
The Birthplace of Yoga
Yoga Basics explains that some scholars believe yoga originated almost 10,000 years ago in Northern India. “The word yoga was first mentioned in the oldest sacred texts, the Rig Veda,” they explain. “The Vedas were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras, and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests.”
Over the next few thousand years, yoga shifted, evolved, and gained in popularity, with the practice eventually making its way to the West in the late 1800s. And although thousands had been practicing yoga for centuries, it gained popularity as a pastime in mainstream culture when a Russian-born woman and yoga devotee, Indra Devi, opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947.
Devi was one of the first women to practice yoga and many now refer to her as the Mother of Western Yoga.
The practice of yoga involves moving through a series of postures, called asanas, often with guided breathing. Some types, like Vinyasa yoga, ask you to move through postures fluidly one after the other, while others like Ashtanga yoga ask you to hold postures longer and move through a set of movements repetitively.
Bikram yoga is performed in a heated room, which is thought to increase muscle flexibility and help participants sweat. There are also variants of yoga practice for relaxation (often called yin yoga) and prenatal yoga classes specifically designed to avoid risk to pregnant yogis.
All you need to practice yoga is comfortable clothes (many choose fitted leggings and tank tops for ease of movement) and a yoga mat to increase the traction of your palms and feet with the floor. If you’re doing a fast-paced or challenging type of yoga, you may also want a small towel and water bottle.
The physical benefits of yoga are hard to ignore, especially if you’ve ever taken a class. It’s common to emerge from a class experiencing that blissful post-yoga feeling of loose limbs, stretched muscles, and a light sweat. But how exactly does yoga benefit our bodies?
Vox Magazine analyzed over 50 studies to establish whether there are proven, measurable physical benefits of a regular yoga practice. Their analysis discovered that the popular practice works to “help alleviate lower back pain, improve strength and flexibility, and reduce inflammation in the body — which, in turn, can help stave off chronic disease and death.”
Among the most important studies they analyzed were:
2005: The Annals of Internal Medicine established that yoga was an excellent treatment for chronic lower back pain and began to be recommended as a course of treatment for those suffering from low-back pain.
2013: The Journal of the American College of Cardiology states that yoga can have a positive effect on conditions like atrial fibrillation, which is a pattern of abnormal heartbeats that worsens over time.
2014: The Journal of Clinical Oncology established that yoga can have health benefits for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
Given these studies, it seems that a lovely relaxed feeling is just the beginning of the many health benefits of yoga – and there are also significant benefits for your mind, too.
One of the reasons yoga has jumped in popularity in recent years is that it offers a meditative, mindful quality missing from many other exercise routines. Along with strengthening your body and stretching your muscles, yoga can also calm the mind and ease stress.
In fact, the Harvard Medical Journal states that yoga can “reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression”.
By working to harness the power of mindfulness, yoga can calm the arousal system – lowering heart rate and blood pressure. That feeling of calm after a good yoga class isn’t just in your mind!
A Powerful Combination
When you blend the mind-body benefits of yoga together, you’re looking at not just another way to work out, but a powerhouse practice that can have lasting benefits for your physical and mental health.
Choosing to establish a daily 30-minute yoga routine means that you’ll be able to work towards easing lower back pain, reducing stress and tension, increasing muscle tone, and helping to manage anxiety and depression. It’s one of the best habits you can choose to adopt!
If you can’t shell out for a yoga studio membership, don’t worry. While the class atmosphere can definitely help motivate and create a feeling of community, there are thousands of free yoga class tutorials readily available for you to follow along with online.
With yoga, wellbeing is literally at your fingertips.