Updated: Jun 19, 2020
What even is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient and complex practice, rooted in Indian philosophy, that originated several thousand years ago. Yoga began as a spiritual practice, as a way of reaching enlightenment, but in Western culture it has become popular as a way of promoting physical and mental well-being.
Although classical yoga also includes other elements, yoga as practiced in the West typically emphasizes physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dyana). Popular yoga styles such as hatha, iyengar, bikram, and vinyasa yoga focus on these elements. Several traditional yoga styles encourage daily practice with periodic days of rest, whereas others encourage individuals to develop schedules that fit their needs.
Why should I do yoga?
I mean, if you're asking me... I would say "why shouldn't you do yoga?!". Not only is it a physical practice and counts as exercise, it is simultaneously a mindfulness practice rooted in philosophy that just makes you self-reflect and be a better person*.
(*my personal experience)
National survey results from 2012 show that many people who practice yoga believe that it improves their general well-being.
If you want more hard evidence; there is beginning to be evidence that it actually may help with certain aspects of wellness including stress management, positive aspects of mental health, promoting healthy eating and physical activity habits.
Yoga may help relieve low-back pain and neck pain.
There’s promising evidence that yoga may help people with chronic diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Yoga may help people with diabetes . control their blood sugar.
Growing evidence indicates that yoga may help women manage both physical and psychological symptoms of menopause.
Yoga may be helpful for anxietyor depressive symptoms associated with difficult life situations.
Yoga may help people to manage sleep problems.
Yoga may be helpful for people who are trying to quit smoking.
Yoga-based interventions may help overweight/obese people lose weight
Is yoga safe?
Yoga is generally considered a safe form of physical activity when performed properly, under the guidance of a qualified instructor.
Serious injuries are rare, however, as with other types of physical activity, injuries can occur. (My honours student, Zoe Toland, is currently working on a systematic review of the yoga literature to investigate the most common forms of yoga injuries as reported by physiotherapists, yoga teachers and yoga practitioners - we'll keep you updated with the results!).
The most important thing to remember, as with any exercise, is to listen to the feedback your body gives you and modify and adjust what you're doing accordingly. We want to push ourselves, and whilst feeling some level of discomfort is okay (think muscle burn and high level of challenge), but pain is our bodies way of saying 'probably best to not do this'.
People with certain health conditions, older adults, and pregnant women may need to avoid or modify some yoga poses and practices. These individuals should discuss their specific needs with their health care professional/yoga instructor and may be better suited to more clinical yoga classes.
What happens in a yoga class?
Sometimes the biggest thing that stops us from trying something new is not knowing what to expect and fearing we'll be the awkward newbie! So let's go through what you can expect from a yoga class (or at least one of mine!).
Yoga mats and all the props you will need (a block, a strap, a bolster, a towel) are provided, but you can always bring your own if you would prefer.
The teacher will introduce themselves and talk about what the focus of the class will be; this could be a range of things from a certain postural focus, or an attention focus, or it could be a focus on the pace of movement.
Classes start with slow, controlled, warm-up type movements and typically move into some more challenging series of movements; you can expect challenges that target strength, balance, range of motion, focus, stability, control and your attitude toward the practice
Depending where you go, and what style of yoga you're practicing, you may get some spiritual or philosophical talk. Sometimes chanting.
In Clinical Yoga classes we keep things pretty neutral so that absolutely anyone feels comfortable to attend.
We're not dissing the spiritual talk, but we prefer to focus on your physical and mental alignment in class.
Basically, anything that's not evidence-based within the scientific literature, won't be included in our classes (e.g., chakras, lifestyle choices)
How often should I practice yoga?
The recommended frequency and duration of yoga sessions varies depending on the condition being treated.
In general, studies examining yoga have included weekly or twice weekly 60- to 90-minute classes. For some studies, classes are shorter, but there are more classes per week. So whilst the research evidence isn't clear how much is best, we think that any form of exercise that is challenging strength through range of motion, and providing you with a form of mindfulness is a great addition to your weekly activities!
Our recommendation: as much or as little as suits your body's needs and fits in with your weekly schedule and makes you happy.