Few fitness disciplines meld relaxation and strength-building like yoga. Read on to learn about its surprising origins and incredible diversity.
1. In Sanskrit, yoga means “union.” (The word shares a root with the English word “yoke.”) The things being united are the mind, body, and breath, as practitioners use motion to guide the thoughts toward peaceful awareness and away from the funny-looking dog walking past the studio window.
2. Historically, strength and flexibility were probably just side benefits. In fact, some of the first Indian yogis to arrive to the U.S. explicitly rejected asanas, or postures, as a distraction from meditation. Recent research by yogi and scholar Mark Singleton indicates that, starting in the 1920s, a Scandinavian fitness system known as Primitive Gymnastics became wildly popular in India, and began to meld with far older yoga traditions that were more concerned with breath and focus. Around the same time, other teachers in India traveled the country teaching strengthening and combat techniques under the guise of yoga, in the hopes of preparing to rise against British rule. This complex stew of influences eventually produced the blend of movement and meditation most Westerners recognize as yoga today.
3. Today an estimated 20–30 million North Americans practice yoga. What that looks like in practice is wildly diverse—everything from sweaty, tolerance-testing hot yoga to quick-flowing vinyasa yoga to “laughter yoga,” which combines yogic breathing with deliberate laughter to ease stress. One of yoga’s greatest virtues is its adaptability: props make classes accessible to older students, and prenatal classes teach pregnant women poses that take into account their extra-stretchy ligaments and tendency toward lower-back pain.
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