Yoga – Its Ancient Roots and Various Modern Styles of Yoga Existing Today

Yoga – Its Ancient Roots and Various Modern Styles of Yoga Existing Today

When anybody thinks of yoga today, they most likely imagine exercises, breathing practices, people sitting crossed legged on mountains and beside streams, or group yoga classes as conducted across the world. However, Yoga is much more complex in nature. Dating back to at least two thousand five hundred years, yoga is so old that even its earliest mention has not been conclusively established. It is mentioned across ancient Indian texts, including the Rig Ved and the Upanishads, and is one of the six philosophical traditions of Hinduism. Yes, yoga is much more than an exercise – Yoga is a lifestyle, a set of mental states, spiritual beliefs, and physical exercises, that together aim to bring peace and balance into the life of the practitioner, while also opening their eye to the larger truths of the universe.

Today, yoga is universally recognized as a practice that can enhance both the mind and body and the harmony between them, too. Scientific research has shown wide-ranging benefits of yogic exercises ranging from alleviating the symptoms of depression and stress to reducing physical ailments such as back pain and controlling chronic problems such as diabetes. But is all yoga really the same? No, of course not. Over time, there have been many different forms and styles of yoga that have emerged, each with its own focus, goals, and pioneers. Here are some of the most prominent types of yoga today, and what makes them different from each other – 

  • The First Wave Yoga and Its 5 Pillars – Sivananda Yoga 

Developed by Swami Vishnudevananda, Sivananda Yoga is named after its founder’s own Guru. Swami Vishnudevananda had been involved in the yogic lifestyle from an early age, and due to his proficiency in the language and the treatise he had written on Yoga and Vedanta (another of the 6 school of Hindu philosophy that reflects on the ideas contained in the Upanishads), he was regularly requested by western authorities to visit their countries and bring the practice and knowledge of yoga and philosophy there. With the blessing of his guru Sivananda, he began touring the west in the 1950s, thus becoming responsible for first taking yoga outside of India. 

The aim of Sivananda yoga is to not just bring yogic knowledge to the world but to also encourage the message of world peace – indeed, Swami Vishnudevananda was known not just for his expertise in yoga, but also for undertaking daring and at times dangerous ‘peace flights’ over conflicted regions across the world to spread the message of peace. Seeking to encourage unity in diversity, self-realization and health, Sivananda yoga seeks to promote global health and harmony by working on the individual and community levels. Sivananda yoga functions on five major pillars, which include proper exercise, breathing, diet, relaxation, meditation, and positive thinking. Thus, Sivananda yoga seeks to promote the ‘authentic, Vedantic tradition’ of yoga, one which focuses on all aspects of life. For the portion of the exercise, it contains 12 asanas identified as a basic core, along with breathing exercises and the Surya Namaskar. 

  • A Modern Spin on the Classic – Ashtanga Yoga

Developed by K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga yoga is said to be a modern take on classical, traditional yoga. More energetic and synergized, this form of yoga links breath and movement, and the asanas are punctuated by vinyasas or transitions. Meant to be practised as a group, Ashtanga yoga emphasizes the discipline of the group and the memory of the individual, with the teacher only meant to facilitate and assist. Starting with a few rounds of the Surya Namaskar, followed by a set series of exercises. Meant to be practised in a linear format, most centres of Ashtanga yoga today only allow students to practice new poses when the old ones have been mastered.

Asthanga vinyasa yoga follows three main principles, which includes tristhana or the three places of attention and action which include breath, posture, and looking place. Next is the vinyasas, or the transitions that allow smooth flow between the asanas. This is supposed to ‘cool’ the blood and purify it, while also ensuring a smooth yogic session. Lastly, the third principle is breath, and a general principle of steady inhales and exhales is followed. Ashtanga yoga continues to flourish in many places inside and outside India, despite some concerns about the injuries that may result from the asanas practised here. Ashtanga yoga has also become the launching pad of a number of other styles of yoga, notably the ‘Rocket Yoga’ and the ‘Power Yoga.’

  • Yin Yoga 

As the name suggests, Yin yoga contains elements of the Chinese tradition, fusing two powerful cultural heritages to create a novel way of working the body and mind. According to Chinese philosophy, yin denotes the passive, female, and dark side of the universe – but these words do not have negative connotations. Instead, they symbolize recipiency, passivity, and relaxed nature, which is exactly what Yin Yoga is all about. In Yin Yoga, the asanas are held for a longer period of time and are meant to stimulate meridians or nadis of the body, the Chinese and Indian words for the path of energy flow in the body. This form of yoga applies subtle stress to the joints and ligaments of the body with the aim of increasing circulation. Founded by American martial arts expert Paulie Zinks, the aim of this more meditative and relaxed approach to yoga is to encourage inner silence and harmony. Some practitioners, however, consider yin yoga to be a part of a larger practice that students should be taught.  

A major distinction between Yin yoga and the ‘traditional’ yoga is that the former is considered to be more relaxed and subtle, with lesser stress placed on the body as a whole. It thus becomes especially appealing for those recovering from ailments, those who are new to yoga, and those who while being physically fit, seek mental harmony. 

  • Vinyasa Flow 

Vinyasa means to move with your breath and this emergent form of yoga appeals to people due to its fluid nature, where all poses are combined to form a single session. In other yogic schools, vinyasa actually forms the transition between asanas, but now, its healing, energizing and rejuvenating properties are being recognised on their own. Despite its novel attraction, Vinyasa has an ancient heritage and has been recognized in the same texts that lay down yoga. Fast-paced and focused on rhythm, no two vinyasa classes are alike. Unlike the sets or core asanas laid down by the other schools. Vinyasa has much more freedom. 

Philosophically, Vinyasa recognizes the temporary nature of things and encourages individuals to discover the deeper balance and truth that lies within themselves. This is an ideal yogic practice for those who like a more fun and creative take on exercise with plenty of options for modifications and rest available too. Don’t be fooled, however – its simplicity and freestyle nature does not mean that vinyasa is not a powerful workout. You will certainly find yourself reaching for a towel more than once, and along with stretching out your muscles, you will engage in some intense calorie-burning too. 

  • Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga is ‘yoga as an exercise’, and this is perhaps the most popular form of yoga practised today. Indeed, today yoga is simply understood to be physical exercise.  However, hatha yoga is more than just asanas – it involves anything and everything to do with physical techniques, and is a system which includes Shatkarmas or purifications, Mudras or manipulations of vital energy, Pranayama or breath control, and of course, Asanas. Thus, Hatha Yoga is not just exercise, it is a comprehensive exercise, that seeks to heal, revitalize and restore balance to all the physical systems of the body, along with its life force. 

Hatha yoga has long been associated with the Natha yogis who are a part of the Shaivism sect, an ancient ascetic group that revers the Hindu god Shiva, destroyer of the world and keeper of balance. Hatha yoga has been traced back to texts dating 11th century CE, and like other yogic schools, focuses on creating balance in the body and tuning the mind towards the bigger truths of the universe. 

Like Shivananda yoga, Hatha yoga is also much more than just physical exercise, and the Indian and Tibetan traditions see Hatha yoga as comprising of proper diet, posture, breathing exercises, cleansing, meditation, and spiritual development. The successful practice of Hatha yoga creates desirable characteristics in the practitioner, such as patience, courage, resolve, essence for knowledge, and a detachment from material mentality. Importantly, Hatha yoga recognizes that perfection takes time – you may not be able to assume postures or hold the asanas initially, but with time the postures become automatic, allowing normal breathing and meditation. 

  • Iyengar Yoga – 

First detailed by B. K. S. Iyengar in his book Light on Yoga, Iyengar yoga can be seen as a division of Hatha yoga as it too, focuses on yoga as a physical exercise. However, the focus of Iyenger yoga is the detail and precision of the asanas. Thus, this form of yoga often makes use of props such as bricks and belts, which allows novices and those with ailments to correctly assume the postures without injury.

Thus, Iyengar yoga has three major principles – one, the exact precision in every asana; two, the sequences of asanas is considered to be important for results; and three, props are not only considered suitable, but also important to both lead to correct pose and prevent injuries. Instructors play a much more hands-on role here, actively correcting and modifying student poses. Asanas are held for longer durations to both help the muscles loosen and strengthen and to help students know how to strike the correct pose. Despite its attention to detail, however, Iyengar yoga is very diverse and uses numerous asanas and sequences to develop the mind and body of its students. It is significant to note that unlike most other yogic schools, Iyengar yoga focuses solely on the exercises, leaving the rest of the lifestyle areas to the discretion of the practitioners. 

  • Power Yoga 

Developed in the west during the 1990s, mostly by Ashtanga yoga teachers and students (such as Larry Shultz), power yoga is, as the name suggests, an energetic, intense variant of vinyasa-style yoga. Vigorous and fitness-oriented, power yoga is essentially a westernization of traditional yoga, where calorie-burning, high-intensity workouts are favoured. Also called ‘gym yoga’, power yoga emphasizes stamina, flexibility and posture. Many believe that the school emerged as a way to counter the ‘laid-back’ view of yoga in the western world, where it was seen more as a form of stretching and relaxing than as a physical exercise. 

Power yoga is quite eclectic and is usually suited for those who are already at a level of peak fitness. This exclusive nature, along with the sole focus on body fitness as opposed to mind-body harmony, has called into question the legitimacy of power yoga as a true form of yoga. 

  • Hot Yoga

Created by Bikram Choudhary, hot yoga involves a fixed sequence of 26 postures that are practised in a heated room of 40°C to mimic the climate of India. The students are expected to adjust themselves as the practice progresses. The 26 postures include 24 asanas (many of which are not seen in other schools of yoga, such as Dandayamana-Janushirsasana), one breathing exercise, and one pranayama. 

While being massively popular at the turn of the 2000s, Bikram yoga has had a tremendous downfall in recent years, as the abrasive and abusive manner of the founder Bikram Choudhary has become common knowledge, and a recent documentary has made multiple allegations against him including sexual assault, racism, and homophobia. 

Jivamukti: Another type of yoga asana is Jivamukti. It stands for “liberation while living” and was founded in 1984. It is quite intense in the context of intellectuality and physicality. Most of the Yoga studios add music, scripture reading and chanting to these yoga sessions. If you are looking for a physical workout, then you should consider this practice.

Now that you know about the various styles of yoga, you can decide which works the best for you, your lifestyle and your goals. 

We would be adding details about –

Satyananada Yoga (Bihar School of Yoga), Isha Foundation and their Style and Sri Sri Yoga (Art of Living Foundation) soon.

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