The ancient practice of yoga has morphed over the years into the yoga we know of in the West today. Yoga’s intricate and deep history is difficult to unravel and understand, but we do know that the practice dates back thousands of years.
The exact roots of yoga are unknown, but it is thought that yoga was originally transmitted orally, from teacher to student.
Most scholars agree that the first written evidence of the term yoga is found in ancient India’s earliest-known scripts – known as the Vedas – dated at around 1500BC. During this period, it is thought that priests who were extremely self-disciplined conducted sacrifices in poses that are probably precursors to the yoga poses practised today.
At first, yoga was a term more associated with spiritual and religious practices, and it is thought to have become an accepted idea within Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions in around the 5th century AD.
During the medieval era (500-1500 AD), the term hatha yoga was used in Buddhist texts. This type of yoga – a combination of poses, mediation and breathing – is closer to what Westerners call yoga today.
In the 1890s, yoga was brought to Europe and the US, probably by a Hindu travelling monk, and it grew in popularity throughout the 1930s, '40s and especially in the '80s. It became seen less as a spiritual practice, and more as a form of exercise.
The term "yoga" today means many different things, and there are many different forms of yoga, some of which focus on the spiritual side of yoga, others that focus more on the physical movements, and others that have varying combinations of these and other elements.
Trying to decide which type of yoga is right for you can feel daunting, but with a little experimentation and some persistence, you should find a class that suits you. The style you decide to go for depends on what you want to get out of your practice, and on your past experience of yoga (if any). You’ll also find that the way classes are taught differs even within each style, so just because you didn’t enjoy a class in one style, doesn’t mean that you should disregard that particular type of yoga.
The term “hatha” refers to either "will" or "force", or "the sun" (ha) and "the moon" (tha) – meaning that this type of yoga is associated with balance. In the West, most yoga classes come under the umbrella of hatha yoga as the term simply means that physical postures will be involved in the practice. Usually, classes marketed as hatha are gentler than other types of yoga, and also slower. If you want a basic introduction to yoga to relax and loosen up your body without sweating too much, this type of yoga is for you.
Ashtanga is a vigorous style of yoga that follows a sequence of postures that are always done in the same order. These poses are held for five breaths and are punctuated by half sun salutations. This type of yoga is suitable for those with high fitness levels, or people who have some experience of yoga, as it is physically demanding.
Vinyasa means 'flow' in Sanskrit (the primary sacred language of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism) and classes in this style are usually dynamic and fluid, as students move from one pose to another in rapid succession. Unlike ashtanga yoga, the poses and sequence of poses differ from class to class. This type of yoga is also sometimes called 'vinyasa flow', 'dynamic yoga' or 'flow yoga'. Like ashtanga yoga, you will likely work up a sweat in a vinyasa class.
Bikram classes are held in a heated room or space; so expect to sweat profusely in one of these classes. This type of yoga involves a set sequence of 26 poses, although this sequence is not the same as the one in ashtanga yoga. A similar type of yoga is 'hot yoga', which is almost the same as Bikram, but the sequence differs slightly from the official Bikram yoga sequence.
Yin yoga is a slow-paced form of yoga, where the poses are held for between one and ten minutes. This meditative yoga uses seated postures to target the connective tissue in the hips, pelvis and lower spine, with the idea being that gravity should do the work for you. A passive and relaxing form of yoga, yin is good for those with overworked joints (e.g. athletes) and anyone who wants to relax.
Iyengar yoga classes involve props, which can include things like blocks, straps, chairs, blankets bolsters and rope walls. These props help students find the proper symmetry and alignment for each pose, and once that alignment has been found, the student stays in the pose for longer than in some of the other types of yoga. This type of yoga is suitable for all abilities, though it is fairly challenging; those with injuries may also find it beneficial.
This type of yoga is fairly slow-paced and is based around 12 sun salutation poses. Sivananda teachers also stress the importance of combining exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
In a restorative yoga class, you’ll do four or five simple poses and stay in each one for around 20 minutes. Props such as blankets and bolsters are used to get you into position, and the eye pillows make this a particularly relaxing form of yoga.
Other types of yoga include: