What is Yoga?

The word "yoga" means union, and the practice integrates mind, body, and soul together. It is used to care for the entire body, and is beneficial for overall health, along with many different illnesses and conditions. While it has long been practiced in India, its popularity in the western world has grown over the past century.

Yoga is a form of mental and physical training that was originally developed in India over 4,000 years ago as a spiritual practice, making it one of the oldest known health practices in the world. A subset of Ayurvedic medicine, it commonly consists of postures called asanas, breathing techniques called pranayama, and meditation. While most yoga focuses on relaxation and gentle poses, some practices are very physically demanding.

History of Yoga

The word "yoga" was first mentioned in an ancient Hindu text called the Rig Veda. Vedic priests and yoga masters refined the postures and techniques of yoga over time as a way to use the body to reach enlightenment. Their alterations to the original practice became what is now known as Hatha yoga, which is the style most people think of when they think of yoga.

Today, yoga's popularity has spread throughout the world, making it one of the fastest growing forms of alternative health.

Principles of Yoga

  • Yoga is part of the Hindu religion and a way of life for many people. The essential goal of yoga is to achieve peace in both body and mind. For some, this includes a strict diet, high levels of personal hygiene, meditation and spiritual practice along with the asanas, but many people choose just to practice the breathing, stretching, and postures.
  • The theory behind yoga centers on the flow of life energy, or prana. This life energy is influenced by meditation and breathing as it flows through invisible "energy channels," which cross and connect chakras, or "energy centers."
  • The pranas, or poses, are designed to influence the physical body as they stimulate nerve centers, muscles, and organs.
  • When both mind and body are in balance with each other, yoga teachings say that spiritual enlightenment may be reached.

Chakras and Yoga

There are seven chakras, which line up along the vertical center of the body.

According to yoga teachings, they ascend in order of spiritual refinement, from the base chakra, up to the crown chakra. Each chakra governs a certain quality and is connected to a specific organ or bodily function.

  1. The first chakra, or base chakra, governs psychic potential and is thought to be connected to the adrenal glands.
  2. The second chakra governs sexual activity and is thought to be connected to the reproductive organs.
  3. The third chakra, or power chakra, governs the flow of energy, or prana, and is thought to be connected to the solar plexus and to the pancreas.
  4. The fourth chakra, or heart chakra, governs emotions and is thought to be connected to the heart and immune system.
  5. The fifth chakra, or throat chakra, governs communication and creativity and is thought to be connected to the thyroid gland and the body's metabolic rate.
  6. The sixth chakra, or brow chakra, governs sight and is thought to be connected to the production of hormones.
  7. The seventh chakra, or crown chakra, governs consciousness, self-awareness, and thought and is thought to be connected to the pineal gland.

Different Forms of Yoga

There are a number of different styles of yoga that are currently practiced today. While all of them focus on postures and meditation, they each have a different concentration.

  • Hatha yoga is a slow-paced, gentle yoga that is very popular in the Western world today. It aims to unite mind, body, and soul through easy poses and breathing techniques.
  • Vinyasa yoga is a fast-paced style of yoga that places an emphasis on breathing. Each pose is balanced by a counter-pose, and many include intense stretching.
  • Ashtanga yoga is a fast-paced yoga that follows a set pattern of postures, synchronized with breathing techniques. Ashtanga yoga is physically demanding and requires stamina, flexibility, and strength.
  • Kundalini yoga focuses primarily on the breath. Instead of holding poses for long periods of time, individuals practicing kundalini yoga will perform a series of quick postures, often accompanied by chanting, or a call and response sequence.
  • Bikram yoga, or "hot" yoga, is done in a room heated to 95-100 degrees and follows a set of physically demanding postures. The idea behind Bikram yoga is to cleanse the body through profuse sweating and release tension by loosening tight muscles.

Health Benefits of Yoga

  • Yoga has a positive effect on muscle tone, flexibility, and circulation.
  • Certain postures have been found to affect the nervous system and endocrine system, regulating heart rate and hormonal production. 
  • Yoga can also help with conditions such as stress, anxiety, and addiction. The breathing exercises and meditation techniques have been shown to focus the mind and relax the body, easing the stresses of everyday life.
  • Yoga for Health 

Additional Information


Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine. Time, Inc.
Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies by Anne Woodham and Dr. David Peters.
Alternative Healing: The Complete A-Z Guide to more than 150 AlternativeTherapies by Mark Kastner, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., and Hugh Burroughs. Henry Holt and Company: 1996.