From relieving carpal tunnel to helping cancer survivors with recovery, yoga's benefits have made news in various medical publications, including the Journal of the American Medical Association. Nearly half of the hospitals surveyed for the American Hospital Association provide an Eastern method of exercise or therapy, including yoga. Even some insurance companies have gotten on board, helping their clients pay for classes.
As rosy as the yoga scene looks, the future holds even more promise. "As younger people see the difference in mobility between older people who have practiced yoga and those who haven't, yoga will continue to grow in popularity," predicts Sandy Blaine, a 14-year veteran teacher, cofounder of the Alameda Yoga Station in Alameda, California, and author of "Yoga for Healthy Knees." "We've started to see yoga crop up in schools and PE classes; perhaps we'll someday witness a widespread acceptance of its philosophical foundation."
With millions of Americans practicing yoga -- these days, it's not so much a question of who does yoga, but who doesn't -- it may just be a matter of time. From preschoolers to senior citizens, new moms to Navy SEALs, everyone seems to find something to like in this ancient Eastern discipline. Some expect (and get) a deeply spiritual experience, enriched by chanting, prayer, and meditation; others are in it for the ripped abs and glutes of steel. Regardless of what draws a person in initially, yoga has a way of delivering rewards that go well beyond the expected. "The key," says Faulds, "is learning how to enter the practice in a way that works for you."
What's Your Style?
The many variations of yoga all derive from a common tradition, so there's no "right" way to practice. Some will suit your personality and intentions better than others. Don't be afraid to experiment. The right yoga for you is the one that keeps you coming back.
Open Your Heart
This practice is steeped in a thorough understanding of biomechanics, but Anusara doesn't forgo the spiritual. "Once you set your physical foundation -- the correct placement of your hands and feet -- you can let go of everything and open up to something greater than yourself," explains Bobby Lane, an Anusara teacher and owner of Align Performance Health and Fitness Center in Dallas. A brief incantation begins the class, after which your teacher will present a theme for you to reflect on as you move through a variety of asanas, each of which begins with a heart opener. Expect the instructor to offer frequent adjustments to your body as the class moves along.
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You're looking for hands-on instruction; you need a healthy boost to your self-esteem.
Bring a towel for this revitalizing style. "Ashtanga is based on a set sequence of postures connected through flowing movement and breath," explains respected Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, author of "Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual." This one-breath-to-one-movement approach creates internal heat, resulting in improved circulation -- and lots of sweat. As a side benefit, you'll rid your body of toxins, say Ashtanga proponents, helping you approach life with a clean slate. Anticipate flowing movement and not much time for hands-on adjustments. Because it's taught in a series that increases in difficulty, beginners should try starting with a class called "Mysore-style," which offers one-on-one instruction. ashtanga.com
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You'd like a challenging workout for both body and mind.
Known as "hot" yoga, Bikram classes take place in rooms heated to at least 105 degrees. The rationale behind the sauna-like atmosphere? It increases muscle flexibility, removes toxins, and boosts heart rate. Granted, whether you're a recovering couch potato or a star athlete, you may find the heat oppressive at first. "Bikram confronts you with the shock of the heat and with all of the things that are not working right within your body," affirms Emmy Cleaves, principal of the Bikram Yoga College of India. "It does require endurance. That's where the challenge lies." For those who swear by this 26-posture sequence (and there are many), the benefits make it worthwhile. To build up your tolerance and familiarize yourself with the poses, your studio will recommend that you attend class every day for a week. bikramyoga.com
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You benefit from a set routine -- and you like to sweat.
Build the Basics
With more emphasis placed on alignment and technique than other forms of yoga, Iyengar shows how to execute each pose from a depth of anatomical understanding. "If you study Iyengar, you can go into any other style and protect yourself from injury," explains Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., author of six books on yoga, including "A Year of Living Your Yoga." Not that it's easy, she notes. The teacher will explain each asana at length, so expect to hold some of your poses for an extended period of time. Use of props is encouraged, making this a great choice if you have a physical condition that warrants extra care. bksiyengar.com
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You'd like to gain a precise understanding of the poses.
Rather than just whip you into shape, Kripalu inspires you to listen and respond to your body's needs. "You're the expert when it comes to your own body, not us" explains Faulds, "so you choose the right level of intensity." At the start of class, you'll take a moment to center yourself and adjust your breath, followed by a gentle warm-up. As you go deeper into the poses, you'll be invited to flow into stretches that naturally emerge as you move through the practice, an experience called meditation-in-motion. kripalu.org
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You're looking for an individualized practice that allows your intuition to inspire you.
Often associated with the image of a serpent, Kundalini aims to uncoil the energy that sits at the base of the spine and bring it up through the various chakras. "It's primarily about raising consciousness," says Guruatma Singh Khalsa, M.Ed., stress consultant for Tufts University and also co-owner of Franklin Yoga in Franklin, Massachusetts, "so that the student can discover her own personal truth and purpose." The movement within each posture is more repetitious than other forms of yoga, and class begins and ends with chanting. The teacher will often include meditation and deep or rhythmic breathing. 3HO.org
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You desire a spiritually empowering practice.
Power Yoga emphasizes getting into shape as a means of boosting both your physical and emotional well-being. "The practice is really based on the balance of strength and flexibility," explains Baron Baptiste, founder of Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga and author of "Journey into Power." "It's challenging, but it also respects your level of fitness." Classes vary, but count on an aerobic workout -- as with Ashtanga, you'll move through asanas at a quick pace -- and, often, a heated room. baronbaptiste.com
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You're eager to get into serious shape -- and to let that inspire other aspects of your life.
Known as the "yoga of synthesis," Sivananda narrows the vast teachings of yoga down to five main principles -- exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet (that means vegetarian), and positive thinking -- which aim to help you achieve peace of mind. You'll start with relaxation, warm-up, and breathing exercises (performed over an 8- to 10-class series) as you're slowly introduced to the 12 basic postures. As Srinivasan, director of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne, New York, explains, "One of the biggest steps for the beginner is to be centered, relaxed, and aware. This depth of awareness brings immediate joy and clarity, and encourages the student to continue with his or her practice." sivananda.org
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You seek spiritual fulfillment.
3 Styles with Unique Rewards
Integral incorporates a variety of yogic methods, including the repetition of mantras, meditation, relaxation, cleansing practices, self-exploration, and spiritual discussion, to help the student achieve peace in mind and body. iyiny.org
Jivamukti combines both the physical and spiritual. The New York City studio where the practice was created, for instance, offers artist and activist lectures and meditation and Sanskrit classes. You can find a jivamukti-certified teacher near you online. jivamuktiyoga.com
Viniyoga integrates yoga therapy, offering a practice that applies the various methods of yoga to address the needs of each individual student. viniyoga.com
Text by Abbie Barrett