The joy of flex: w hy the church are right to be worried by yoga
Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual exercise with a style and teacher to suit everyone, writes Katie Byrne
Ryan Giggs credits yoga with extending his career. Colin Farrell says it changed his life. David and Samantha Cameron spent last Easter at a yoga retreat in Lanzarote while Barack and Michelle Obama host a "yoga garden" in the White House as part of their Easter Egg Roll festivities.
Yoga is now practiced in schools, prisons, hospitals and just about every community centre in the country. Despite, or perhaps because of this, a priest from Glendermott parish in Derry recently warned that yoga practice could leads towards "the bad spiritual domain" and "Satan and The Fallen Angels".
But it's doubtful that his caution will dissuade the legions of loyal followers. This 2,000 year old practice is no mere trend, and with proven health benefits that include lowered blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety and increased flexibility and strength, it's easy to see why.
Yoga, which means "to unite", is a physical, mental and spiritual practice that integrates mind, body and spirit. As the body becomes stronger and more flexible, so too does the mind - yoga was thousands of years ahead of what psychologists now call "embodied cognition".
It wasn't so long ago that yoga was only practiced by vegetarians and drawstring hemp pant wearers. In fact, it's only in the last decade that it has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. But even with the surge in popularity, misconceptions still abound.
Some think flexibility is a prerequisite - on the contrary, that comes over time. Others assume the practice is slow and gentle - practitioners of the Ashtanga and Vinyasa styles could tell a different story.
As for those who reckon yoga is only for women? They might be surprised to hear that the practice is part of the training programs for many men's rugby and GAA teams.
Yoga classes can be energising and challenging or relaxing and restorative. It's about finding a style - and a teacher - to suit you. Beginners should commit to practicing for at least an hour each week to experience the benefits, although two classes a week is preferable.
Here we outline some of the major styles and the dispositions and fitness levels they suit.
Ashtanga is a vigorous style of yoga in which a series of poses, all linked to breath, are performed in sequence. Poses are held for five breaths and interspersed with a "sun salutation" which keeps the body heated and energised.
Many Ashtanga practitioners eventually go on to practice Mysore. Students practice at their own pace during Mysore classes. This allows teachers the time to offer one-to-one guidance and suggest adjustments.
Best for: Those who like a challenge and who believe it's not a work-out unless you sweat.
Practiced by: Madonna.
Vinyasa is a blanket term for any yoga practice that is flowing. Flowing yoga moves quickly and fluidly from pose to pose using rhythmic breathing. Ashtanga is practiced in the vinyasa style, as are classes that are described as 'Vinyasa Flow' and 'Dynamic Yoga'.
Best for: Those who are a little more experienced at yoga.
Practiced by: Adam Levine of Maroon 5.
Hatha is another generic, blanket term, this time for yoga that is taught in the West. A Hatha yoga class is generally gentler and the sequence is not flowing or challenging like Ashtanga and Vinyasa. Hatha classes tend to focus more on the postures and less so on ritualised sequences.
Best for: Those who would like a gentle introduction to yoga and those recovering from injury.
Practiced by: Ryan Giggs.
Iyengar yoga focuses on precise alignment and is often considered the practice of yoga purists. It is often practiced with props such as belts, blocks and bolsters. BKS Iyengar, the eponymous founder, died last year at the age of 95. Anusara yoga is a modern form of Iyengar.
Best for: Those who want to improve their posture or hone their alignment for other forms of yoga.
Practiced by: Jennifer Aniston practices an Iyengar-based form of yoga.
Kundalini yoga is influenced by Hinduism and classes include breathing techniques, meditation and chanting alongside postures. It is designed to awaken "dormant" energy in the spine. Kundalini is a potent form of yoga and research is recommended before you partake in a class.
Best for: Those who want to deepen their yoga/spiritual practice.
Practiced by: Al Pacino and Miranda Kerr.
Bikram is a very new style of yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s. The Bikram sequence consists of 26 poses performed in a 40 °C environment. Choudhury holds the copyright for this sequence. 'Hot' yoga is the same as Bikram yoga, save for some variations to the sequence.
Best for: Those who like to sweat and those whose approach to fitness borders on the masochistic.
Practiced by: Lady Gaga.
YIN YOGA AND RESTORATIVE YOGA
Yin yoga and restorative yoga are focussed on relaxation and letting go. The poses are generally seated and held for longer. Yin yoga increases flexibility, in particular around the hip area. It stretches and therefore strengthens the connective tissues. Restorative yoga - which relies on props such as pillows and straps - is the more relaxing of the two.
Best for: Those recovering from injury to the connective tissues such as the ligaments, tendons, fascia and cartilage, and those seeking a deeper form of relaxation/meditation.
Practiced by: Yin yoga is practiced by Khloe Kardashian.