How Yoga Works

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According to a 2008 poll commissioned by a leading yoga magazine, 15.8 million Americans practice the discipline each year [source: Billard]. And yoga is big business in the United States -- every year, these yogis and yoginis spend almost $6 billion on classes, retreats, clothing and DVDs [source: Billard]. You can find yoga offered everywhere from gyms to community centers to retirement homes. When celebrities are asked how they keep in shape and stay sane amongst the craziness of Hollywood, they usually mention yoga. There are yoga classes specifically for dogs, babies, nudists, couples and punk rock aficionados. Your doctor might recommend that you take a few classes at your next check-up, and there's talk of making yoga an Olympic sport. So how did yoga come to be so popular in the U.S.?

A typical yoga class in the U.S. might involve a series of postures, known as asanas. The postures, which comprise forward bends, back bends, lunges and twists, have names like downward-facing dog, pigeon, camel, crane and eagle. Throughout a typical class, you'd also practice some breathing exercises and you might do a guided meditation followed by a "namaste". If you were to ask the people leaving such a class what they got out of it, their answers would probably differ. Some might say that they get a great workout that helps them fit into their jeans, while others might say that they feel calmer and more relaxed. Some might be confused why a doctor wanted them to listen to such nonsense for an hour. But this type of class only represents a very small window into the entire world of yoga.


Yoga is an ancient tradition that was first mentioned in the Vedas, a set of scriptures written 5,000 years ago. The word "yoga" is usually translated as "union" or "yoke," and early writings about the practice talk about a union between the body and mind that will help an individual develop a union with the universal. Yoga was praised in the Bhagavad Gita, thought to be written in 300 B.C., as a means of freeing the mind from the physical world, but the ancient text makes no mention of an exercise regimen. Rather, the Bhagavad Gita outlines three types of yoga: karma, bhakti and jnana. Karma yoga was based on selfless action, bhakti yoga was a form of devotion and prayer and jnana yoga referred to scholarly pursuits and the study of philosophy and knowledge.

So how do students working on their downward-facing dogs link to these ancient Indian texts about devotion and philosophy? On the next page, we'll consider yoga's long journey to the Western world.


Highlights of Yoga History

The Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita praised yoga as an important spiritual element, but the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written sometime in the second century B.C., provided the first real how-to text. The scholar Patanjali wrote that there are eight limbs, or steps, of yoga:

  1. Yama refers to the ethical standards of yoga, such as not harming others and being truthful.
  2. Niyama refers to guidelines of self-discipline, including cleanliness and study of yogic philosophy.
  3. Asana refers to physical exercise.
  4. Pranayama refers to breath control as a means of linking mind and body and releasing internal stores of energy.
  5. Pratyahara refers to transcending the physical world and drawing attention within one's body.
  6. Dharana refers to concentrating on just one thing.
  7. Dhyana refers to meditating on nothing at all, a step beyond focusing on just one thing.
  8. Samadhi refers to the ultimate goal of yoga -- a state in which a person transcends the self and realizes interconnection with the divine and all other living things.

Modern-day yogis may recognize asana and pranayama among those limbs, as they're the ones that form the basis of a typical yoga class. But Patanjali's text doesn't include much information on the asanas that we practice today; the only posture he wrote about was a seated meditation pose. Though he wrote that physical exercise would help students prepare their bodies for concentration and meditation, he didn't provide much information about how to perform those exercises. That information seems to have been handed down orally from teacher to student in India, and if it was in writing, those texts have been lost.


So how did yoga become about handstands and lotus pose? The history of hatha yoga, or yoga that emphasizes physical exercise, jumps to the 1800s and the Mysore Palace. Mysore is considered one of the birthplaces of modern yoga due to the royal family's enthusiasm for ancient Indian arts. In the early 1800s, a Mysore prince wrote the Sritattvanidhi, one of the first yoga manuals to include physical postures that has been located.

A century later, the Maharaja of Mysore installed a yoga school in the palace and invited T. Krishnamacharya to teach there. Krishnamacharya had traveled India, studying with many master yogis, and was renowned for his mastery of asanas. When he started studying at Mysore in 1931, he began developing and teaching ashtanga yoga, an athletic form of yoga that involves linking many postures rhythmically. At Mysore, Krishnamacharya taught K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar; Jois would continue studying ashtanga and popularize it around the world, while Iyengar developed the form of yoga that emphasizes precision and alignment and bears his name. These types of yoga are among the most popular in the U.S., and on the next page, we'll examine how they arrived from Mysore.


Yoga Comes to the United States

Marilyn Monroe performs the bow pose in 1948.
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Current yogis owe a debt of gratitude to the Maharaja at Mysore for yoga's popularity around the world. Not only did the Maharaja fund the school at which Krishnamacharya taught his students, who would go on to be influential in their own right, he also paid for these talented yogis to travel around India demonstrating yoga. People from the West began traveling to Mysore to study with these masters, and the gurus began going west themselves, starting in the late 1890s.

Pierre Bernard and Indra Devi are two people who worked hard to entrench yoga in the U.S. Bernard was a showman who relied on some of the more mystical aspects of yoga to draw a crowd; he would claim to feel no pain as doctors stuck needles in his body, thanks to yogic training. He traveled the world giving speeches on yoga's benefits, and then he set up a yoga retreat center on the Hudson River that taught the celebrities of the early 1900s.


Devi rejected that yogic mysticism and put the influence solely on the physical benefits of yoga when she opened her studio in Hollywood in 1947. Devi, who had studied with Krishnamacharya at Mysore, realized that movie stars would be effective prosthelytizers for yoga, and she recruited Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe to come to her classes. After working with Devi, Monroe gave credit to yoga for her great legs [source: Mishra].

In the 1950s, Richard Hittleman continued what Devi had begun: repackaging yoga as a physical exercise regimen while minimizing the spiritual, meditative parts. Hittleman taught yoga on television and sold many exercise books with his methods. During the 1960s and '70s, when hippies reigned, there was a brief resurgence of interest in the more spiritual aspects of yoga, but those quickly dropped away in the early 1990s, when yoga became a workout for mainstream America. Since then, we think of yoga as "hatha yoga," all exercise with a modicum of spirituality.

Some yoga purists and Hindu groups are angry that yoga in the U.S. has lost that spiritual element; they point out that these exercises were only done to prepare the body for the kind of concentration and meditation that would be necessary to understand the divine. Others might point out that Americans approach yoga as physical exercise but soon discover the mental and emotional benefits that these traditional yogis associate with the practice. It seems that the battle over what yoga means, and what it should mean, will continue in the U.S. While some yogis bemoan the rise of the $100 pair of yoga pants and the competitions that seem to go against all the self-acceptance and mental clarity that true yoga stands for, other yogis claim that yoga's evolution in America is nothing new, that yoga has always been more about change and adaptation than unyielding tradition.

One thing is for sure -- yoga isn't going away anytime soon. But not all yoga is the same -- on the next page, we'll consider what types of yoga are commonly practiced.


Types of Yoga

Ask about the type of yoga an instructor will be teaching before taking the class.
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As we mentioned, hatha yoga, or yoga based on physical postures, is the most common type of yoga in the United States. But many types of yoga fall under the hatha yoga banner, so it's important to investigate what type of class you might be getting at a studio or gym.

People who want an aerobic-type workout tend to be drawn to ashtanga and power yoga. With these styles of yoga, you flow quickly from one pose to the next. You'll probably work up a sweat with ashtanga or power yoga, but if you'll definitely perspire if you choose to practice Bikram yoga or hot yoga. In a Bikram class, you'll perform 26 postures twice in a room that's upwards of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius). The high temperatures are supposed to make your body more flexible and speed the removal of toxins from the body.


There are plenty of yoga options if you'd like to take things a little easier, though. One popular style is Iyengar yoga, which uses many of the same postures as ashtanga yoga. However, the positions are held for a longer period of time, and there's a greater emphasis on alignment. You might use props like blocks, belts, chairs and blankets to go deeper into the pose.

Jivamukti yoga delves deeper into some of the spiritual elements of yoga. While a typical class will include ashtanga-style poses, it will also include meditation, chanting and spiritual readings. You can also expect to chant and meditate on mantras if you explore Kundalini yoga, which is aimed at waking up a coil of energy at the base of the spine. Ananda yoga involves performing poses while meditating on a specific affirmation for each one.

One particularly gentle style of yoga is viniyoga. A viniyoga class will move slowly through the poses, and instructors will tailor the practice to a student's individual needs and abilities. Integrative yoga therapy is also specialized; this type of yoga was designed for patients with conditions like depression, AIDS and heart disease and focuses on the mind's role in healing the body.

Integrative yoga therapy provides an example of how yoga can help someone who is sick, but plenty of yoga practitioners go to class for the health benefits they receive even when they're well. On the next page, we'll explore how yoga purports to protect the mind and the body.


Health Benefits of Yoga

A woman performing boat pose.
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Yoga gets credit for a variety of health benefits, like improving flexibility, posture and endurance. These factors, in combination with stronger muscles, may help to prevent falls in the elderly. Yoga is thought to drain the lymph nodes of toxins and lower levels of stress hormones in the body, which can relaxes the mind and help the immune system remain strong enough to fight off infection.

Yoga lowers blood pressure and and eases constipation. It may also reduce hormones that cause depression while releasing the neurochemicals that prevent it. And yoga can relieve chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, back pain and arthritis. Some people who practice yoga claim it helps them work and sleep better, while plenty of people believe that yoga keeps them sane in the midst of this crazy world.


There are some studies that back up these health claims, but research into yoga's health benefits has been somewhat slow. In the United States, pharmaceutical companies fund many of the clinical research trials, and since the essence of yoga can't be condensed down to a pill, there's not much of an incentive to test it. Some of the studies that have been done only evaluate yoga as an adjunct to other treatment regimens, so it's impossible to tell the exact impact that yoga can have.

Many people say that we'll never be able to completely prove the health benefits of yoga, as the ways in which the mind and the body work together are too mysterious to unpack. But while yoga seems to cure a whole variety of ills, it can cause problems for students who push themselves too far. In 2006, approximately 4,500 people went to the emergency room after practicing yoga, with ailments ranging from strained muscles to back and neck injuries [source: Perrine]. That's why it's important to know what kind of yoga class you're getting yourself into, learn the proper alignment of each pose and listen to your body's limits during your practice.

If you'd like to learn more about yoga, there are plenty of links on the next page to check out.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Billard, Mary. "A Yoga Manifesto." The New York Times. April 23, 2010. (April 4, 2011)
  • Briggs, Tony. "Breathing Lessons." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Burgin, Timothy. "History of Yoga." Yoga Basics. Nov. 26, 2007. (April 4, 2011)
  • Carrico, Mara. "The Eight Limbs." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Carrico, Mara. "The Roots of Yoga." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Cook, Jennifer. "Not All Yoga is Created Equal." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Corliss, Richard et al. "The Power of Yoga." Time. April 23, 2001. (April 4, 2011),9171,999731,00.html
  • Cushman, Anne. "New Light on Yoga." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Dederer, Claire. "Why Americans Love Yoga." Slate. July 12, 2010. (April 4, 2011)
  • Eckel, Sara. "Is the Spirit of Competition in the Soul of Yoga?" The New York Times. Nov. 18, 2009. (April 4, 2011)
  • Hammond, Holly. "Yoga's Trip to America." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Isaacs, Nora. "Hot, sweaty and scandalous." Salon. April 4, 2003. (April 4, 2011)
  • Joiner, Whitney. "The yogification of America." Salon. May 2, 2010. (April 4, 2011)
  • Jones, Todd. "The Truth about Tantra." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Lipson, Elaine. "Yoga Works!" Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Yoga: Tap into the many health benefits." Jan. 16, 2010. (April 4, 2011)
  • McCall, Timothy. "Can You Prove that Yoga Works?" Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • McCall, Timothy. "Count on Yoga: 38 Ways Yoga Keeps You Fit." Yoga Journal. (April 4, 2011)
  • Mishra, Pankaj. "Posing as Fitness." The New York Times. July 23, 2010. (April 4, 2011)
  • Perrine, Jennifer Wolff. "Bad karma: When yoga harms instead of heals." Self via MSNBC. July 15, 2008. (April 4, 2011)
  • Powers, Ann. "American Influences Help Redefine Practice of Yoga." The New York Times. Aug. 1, 2000. (April 4, 2011)
  • Turlington, Christy. "Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice." Hyperion. 2003
  • Vitello, Paul. "Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga's Soul." The New York Times. Nov. 27, 2010. (April 4, 2011)