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Dispelling Myths: Yoga is More than Just Stretching

Dispelling Myths: Yoga is More than Just Stretching

If you’ve been following my past blogs, you’ll note that I’ve briefly discussed in my Maintaining Life Balance article what my yoga practice means to me. In this article, I’d like to discuss in greater detail fundamental principles of a yoga practice that ultimately make each respective individual’s practice unique and definitely more than just a popularized stretching session.

What is Yoga?

The root of the word yoga is roughly translated into the act of yoking. The traditional practice of yoga incorporates a meditative component; thus, what is being yoked through a given practice is body and mind. This occurs most commonly in modern yoga via poses/postures (or asanas) and exercising the breath (or pranayama).

Hatha (which translates to force) yoga refers to challenging of the physical practice (or external aspects) to build control of the mind (the internal aspects). It is one of the six original branches of yoga and therefore is one of the most fundamental and original teachings (much like physics are to science), so its basic principles are built into all core principles of the yoga practices we commonly see nowadays.

The other five original branches of yoga include Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, and Mantra. These all contain guiding principles for further spiritual development but are less prevalent through what is regularly seen today in western society.

Ashtanga / Vinyasa Yoga

Ashtanga / Vinyasa yoga, popularized by Pattahbi Jois, has a guiding principle of linking movement to breath. This particular style of yoga, upon which my personal yoga practice foundation was built, emphasizes flow, moving from pose to pose in conjunction with each inhale and exhale. Each component separately (asanas and pranayama) can individually be used to build heat; accordingly, combining the two can be all the more challenging, and learning to control them naturally constitutes a terrific mental challenge.

Bikram Yoga

Bikram yoga, a source of certain controversy partially or perhaps especially related to its figurehead Bikram Choudhury, takes traditional hatha yoga principles and adds heat. It is often interchangeably known as hot yoga, but it is actually more specifically a series of 26 postures.

If I may step on my soap box temporarily, I must admit I am far from a proponent of heated yoga. As I mentioned above, a trained practitioner can build heat internally simply by meditating on his/her breath. Providing external heat is arguably the impetus that has led to the trend of getting people to sweat more via heated classes, thus disregarding certain fundamental principles associated with traditional practice.

Iyengar Yoga

Iyengar yoga, founded by BKS Iyengar, has a great emphasis on precise alignment. The principles of this form of yoga are largely utilized in a multitude of classes but in a traditional Iyengar class, very deliberate transitions and possibly longer holds will be utilized to achieve desired shapes and angles within a given pose along with emphases for vectors of motion of particular limbs and/or core/center/spine (along with props as needed to facilitate such). Drishti, or the gaze, is also relevant for balance and alignment.

Yin Yoga

Yin yoga has a Taoist basis and aims to allow for prolonged static stress to be applied to the connective tissue systems in the body. Sometimes termed as more of a restorative style, postures are held for a prolonged period of time in this style in a relatively more passive manner, largely allowing gravity to do the work for you.

What does all of this mean for you?

Ultimately, that depends on your respective condition and goals. Like I said at the beginning, yoga practice is different and personal to each individual because every body is unique. If you are relatively pain and injury-free, consider the foundational concepts I’ve discussed above and previously (melding physical and mental / spiritual aspects, with regards to the former, focusing on building flexibility as well as muscle endurance and strength).

Tips for Beginning Your Yoga Practice

  • Recognize your limitations and challenge your comfort zone, but don’t feel pressured to push past your boundaries. Teachers are trained to cater to a wide variety of levels of yogis, so they will offer numerous variations and alternatives throughout class. View them as suggestions and find what works for you.
  • Let the teacher know that you are new so that they may guide you more effectively / attentively. But also recognize that you are the only one who has lived with your body all your life. If the modification doesn’t work for you, scale it back.
  • Physically speaking, tune into what parts of your body are working in a given pose; recognize differences between your two sides; find what’s more difficult to do, and learn where there’s room for improvement.

Ultimately, yoga is a simple practice with a complex many aspects that make it truly a practice, as there is always something to improve upon. As such is the case, practicing yoga can be highly beneficial if done correctly.

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Charles Wang, PT, DPT
Charles’s primary hobbies include playing badminton, playing modern tabletop (board) games, hiking (especially if there’s a water destination along and/or at the end of it), and participating in cooperative interactive challenges such as escape rooms. He also values practicing yoga and swimming as well as more interactive physical activities like playing basketball and rock climbing with friends. He has been known to dabble periodically in obstacle course race events. Eating food is certainly one of his favorite things to do, too.