It's the hot trend: you've heard Madonna talk about it in her quasi-British accent; you've seen Woody Harrelson recite his lines while in a handstand. Aside from which, your Starbucks addiction is in full swing and you need something relaxing to balance it out. And with your work/classes/illicit affairs, some deep breathing might help, especially if you put down that cigarette. Plus, ever since your friends stopped having their annual Twister party (the game, not the movie), you've gotten a little tight in the hamstrings.

Still, you're not sure exactly what yoga means, or exactly what it will require of you. Well, let's see if we can help clear up some misconceptions and get you on the road to your first handstand.

If you're still concerned that reading about the downward-facing dog pose could put you in a compromising position, check out this yoga how-to video that will help you get on the right track.



Learn about the background of yoga

What is yoga? First off, yoga is not a bed sheet worn to Animal House party, nor is it a soft milky substance often served with fruit filling. And while you may think that word "Yogi" may have come to fruition in the mid-60s, along with the terms "Boo-Boo" and "Jellystone Park," you'd be wrong.

Yoga first popped up more than 3,000 years ago in what we now call India. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit word "yuj," which means "to bind, join, attach, and yoke." So now you're thinking: "Am I going to relax, or am I going to plow a field?!" Calm down, dammit! This whole SYW is about relaaaaaaaaxing. See, "yuj" also means "union, to direct and concentrate one's attention on, to use and apply." In other words, yoga is about concentrating on your mind and body to bind yourself to God. It's about disciplining yourself to balance your mind, soul, and emotions, so that you can connect with your individual spirit (your "jivatma"), which is in turn part of the Supreme Universal Spirit ("Paramatma," a.k.a. God). It's about focusing your energy into constructive channels. And the name of an individual who follows the teachings of yoga is known as a "yogi." You probably have a newfound respect for the spirituality of our pic-i-nic basket-stealing friend.

There are actually lots of different types of yoga; it is not strictly a term for the stretchy exercise we will be discussing. Just FYI, the term "yoga" can refer to any of these things:

  • karma yoga -- focuses on giving of oneself without expecting any reward (yawn)
  • jnana yoga -- a philosophical approach to unveiling the illusions of the world
  • bhakti yoga -- channeling emotional energy into one's spiritual practice
  • rhaja yoga -- focuses on concentration and mind control

It is within rhaja yoga that we find Hatha yoga, the physical practice, which is what you will read about here.

Learn about the different styles of yoga

As there are many styles of dance, so are there many forms of Hatha yoga. In fact, a new one might be developing right now, as a teacher puts his/her own stamp on a specific technique. Current popular styles include (but are not limited to):

  • Gentle yoga, which is sometimes also called by the generic name "hatha yoga" --this usage of "hatha" is debatable; some folks believe the term should only be used to refer to the general idea for all physical yogas, while others use it colloquially to refer to the gentler style. In Gentle yoga, the focus is on long stretches and flexibility, with slow, deep breathing (yogic breathing is known as "Pranayama"). This can be very soothing for the mind -- it is the kind of mellow style most people picture when they think of yoga.

  • Kundalini yoga, which works on the premise that the body has eight "chakras," and through use of "breath of fire" (rapid breathing), one can heat up the body from the bottom up, eventually "raising kundalini" to achieve a feeling of high enlightenment.

  • Power yoga, which is also known by the Sanskrit term Vinyasa yoga (a "vinyasa" is a series of rapid movements which warm up the body all over). This is a very active form of yoga, in which a person is moves quickly through the poses (called "Asanas"), not holding them as long as in other styles. It is virtually guaranteed that you will sweat a lot in this; it is not for the faint of heart and gives a real challenge to the muscles.