Everyone knows yoga gives you lean limbs and a bendy back. But significant new research shows that it can supercharge your mind and emotions too. In a recent Oxford University study on prisoners, yoga not only showed its usual stress relieving and mood improving effects, it was found to help inmates to dampen down impulsive behaviour, making them more likely to think before acting. Another study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health showed that just 20 minutes of yoga followed by breathing and meditation significantly improved concentration and memory.
Yoga teachers point out that yoga was never intended as a simple workout: its original purpose was to prepare for meditation. So it’s hardly surprising that it has profound effects on the mind and emotions. Some go as far as to say that it’s tantamount to therapy.
‘Yoga is a systematic approach to living with awareness and sensitivity,’ says international yoga teacher Tashidowa. ‘Can yoga be an alternative to seeing a therapist? I think so, but it’s also a great complement to therapy. It’s not uncommon for someone to feel tears flow during class as the process of stretching, twisting and moving the body reveals and opens our emotional, psychological and energetic blocks. We can be surprised by what we find lurking in our bodies and minds.’
The Harvard Mental Health newsletter suggests that yoga can be an excellent way to deal with depression, anxiety or stress, without recourse to counselling: ‘The evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health.’
Yoga teacher Helga Himmelsbach, who practices in Country Clare, Ireland, agrees. ‘I believe that yoga is a type of psychotherapy. You can question yourself about how you feel in class. Do you compare yourself all the time to others? Can you only accept yourself when you’re the ‘best’ in the class? What happens when you’re challenged? Yoga is a path of self-discovery and self-realisation on a par with other methods of psychotherapy.’
One of the surprising ways it does this is by tapping directly into our memories, at a cellular level. ‘Our muscle cells retain memories, which can be released through movement or by bringing the body into particular positions, such as the asanas,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘Some forms of psychotherapy work with that and yoga does the same – by bringing the body into different positions, we can tap into cellular memories and release them.’
However not all yoga is created equal and, just as there are various types of psychotherapy, there are many different types of yoga. When choosing a class, it could be worth considering your emotional needs, not just your physical ones. We asked the experts about six different types of yoga – so you can find the one that most suits your mood.
…if you’re depressed try: uplifting Anusara yoga
What is it? Anusara yoga has taken a lot from Iyengar yoga but adds a far more spiritual element. It’s been called ‘Iyengar with a sense of humour’ and rather than trying to get everyone to perform exactly the same postures, you’re guided to express yourself to your best ability and in the way that feels most right for you. It’s a newcomer on the yoga scene, started in 1997 by American yoga teacher John Friend. Anusara translates as ‘flowing with nature’ or ‘following your heart’.
Key words: Heartfelt. Accepting.
What the experts say: ‘A very strong, focussd physical practice which works a lot with ‘heart opening’,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘I have felt a real shift by attending an Anusara class,’ says Tashikawa. ‘It would be my choice if I was feeling a bit disconnected or isolated. The language is inspiring and uplifting.’
Find out more: http://www.anusarayoga.com/
…if you find it hard to concentrate try: eclectic Jivamukti yoga
What is it? It’s impossible to be bored in a Jivamukti class. The physical element is extremely physical and challenging, focusing on vinyasas (flowing sequences of postures). But there is also a very strong spiritual element and each class has a theme. Expect to go way beyond postures into chanting and music (nada yoga), meditation, readings and devotional affirmations. Another relative newcomer to the yoga world (it was created in New York City in 1984), Jivamukti translates as ‘liberation while living’.
Key words: Strenuous, diverse
What the experts say: ‘It’s a very physically challenging practice that combines postures with chanting, meditation and yogic philosophy,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘I have felt stimulated and inspired when I’ve attended a class,’ says Tashikawa. ‘It’s not my first choice if I’m feeling strong and self sufficient but when I need the uplifting effect of sound and affirmation it’s a supportive practice, not to mention fun and challenging.’
Find out more: http://www.jivamuktiyoga.com/
…if you’re stressed try: vigorous, aerobic Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga
What is it? Ashtanga is famed for its swift-paced tough aerobic sessions. It follows very specific sequences of yoga moves, flowing rapidly from one pose to the next in line with the breath. You start with a primary series and then, with experience, move onto the second and third series. Sessions are highly structured.
Although ashtanga seems the very antithesis of a soothing yoga practice, sometimes if we’re over-stressed, it’s impossible to relax into more meditative practices. The physical discipline of ashtanga gives the mind a break and can also help push stress hormones back to resting levels after practice.
Key words: Energetic, athletic.
What the experts say: ‘Ashtanga is a strict rigorous physical workout with not much room for anything else,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘The motto for ashtanga is “98 percent practice, 2 percent philosophy.” ‘The poses are linked by a breath technique called Ujjayi which maintains a rhythmic flow throughout the 90-120 minutes of daily or regular practice,’ says Tashikawa. ‘This is a method which encourages self-sufficiency and focus; it’s physically demanding and takes commitment.’
Find out more: http://www.ashtangayoga.info/
…if you’re anxious and fearful try: soothing, mindful Vini yoga
What is it? Vini yoga tends to be taught one to one. It’s a gentle and highly individualised form of yoga that is tailored to your own needs, both physical and emotional. Students learn to adapt poses and goals and build their own practice. It works on the principle of warming up and contracting muscles before stretching, reducing the risk of injury. It fosters self-awareness but in a very structured, safe environment.
Key words: transformative, empowering
What the experts say: ‘Vini yoga is predominantly a one on one practice,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘It’s very safe, highly structured and can be very effective. I’d recommend it for people with conditions such as anxiety and depression in particular.’ ‘Instead of focusing on stretching to get strong and flexible this practice focuses on the unique condition, needs and interests of each individual,’ says Tashikawa. ‘It gives each person the tools to individualise the process of self-discovery and personal transformation. This is a very supportive approach for those with particular conditions and specific needs.’
Find out more: http://www.yogapractice.ie/
…if you’re unfocused try: precise Iyengar yoga
What is it? Iyengar is named after its founder BKS Iyengar and is a very precise form of yoga. It’s all about precise alignment and it uses a series of props (blocks, straps, even incline boards) to help ease you into the posture. The props have given it its nickname ‘furniture yoga’. It is slow and thoughtful. This is a great form of yoga for anyone who is put off by the more spiritual elements of yoga.
Key words: focused, disciplined.
What the experts say: ‘It’s very safe and effective,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘But some people might find it a little too slow and even tedious. It’s very helpful for back pain.’ ‘In an Iyengar class, poses are typically held much longer than in other schools of yoga, so that practitioners can pay close attention to precise muscular and skeletal alignment,’ says Tashikawa. ‘I’ve greatly benefited from my Iyengar teachers, they’ve taught me to concentrate, to strive for precision and develop skilfulness in my actions.’
…if you’re exhausted try: gentle nurturing Yin yoga
What is it? A slow meditative class in which you hold postures for some considerable period of time – often around five minutes or more. Because the postures are held for such a long time, they massage deep into the body, not just affecting the muscles and joints, but the organs themselves. Yin yoga is often used in programs that deal with addictions, eating disorders, anxiety and deep pain or trauma. Calming and balancing to the mind and body it increases mobility in the body, especially the joints and hips
Key words: contemplative, patient
What the experts say: ‘It’s wonderful for the joints and connective tissues,’ says Himmelsbach. ‘But it’s also very meditative. It has a strong connection to acupuncture as it works on the meridians.’ ‘This intimate and slow paced practice requires students to be ready to get intimate with the self, with feelings, sensations, and emotions,’ says Tashikawa.
Find out more: http://www.yinyoga.com/
Helga Himmelsbach teaches at www.burrenwellness.com
Tashidawa teaches at retreats worldwide: www.tashidawa.com
Yoga retreats to get you started
A week-long retreat can be a great way to get into yoga. All these retreats take complete beginners. For more information and first-hand reports on the retreats see the website Queen of Retreats – www.queenofretreats.com
Kaliyoga: Week long yoga breaks in Spain and France are more like healthy holidays, easing you into a yoga practice. Fun, lighthearted and sociable. www.kaliyoga.com
Silver Island: Authentic, peaceful yoga retreats in Greece with different teachers and styles most weeks. Silver Island has no wifi so you really do cut off from everyday life. www.silverislandyoga.com
Destination Yoga: A company that offers good yoga in various (stunning) locations around the world – from France and Italy to Bali and India. Most are suitable for beginners. www.destinationyoga.co.uk
Ard Nahoo: Quiet eco retreat in North Leitrim that offers dedicated yoga retreats. If you don’t want to commit to a full week, they also offer self-catering holidays with the option of the odd yoga class. www.ardnahoo.com
Satvada Retreats: Gentle, kindly yoga retreats in Morocco, France and the UK. Deeply relaxing and non-threatening for beginners. www.satvada-retreats.co.uk
Yobaba Lounge: Pristine hatha yoga for beginners and experienced alike, held in a stunning French village chateau. Life-changing. www.yobabalounge.com