Over the last decade yoga has exploded as a trend across Western culture. Companies like Lululemon have helped cultivate yoga into a mainstream practice and everyone from celebrities to teenagers and even grandparents have embraced it. Yoga has become its own genre of fitness. But how does a method of exercise and relaxation evolve into a phenomenon?
Yoga is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke. The practice of yoga refers to the “yoking together” of the spirit and physical body. While the current postures of yoga have only been around a couple hundred years, the philosophy of yoga andthe seated mediation dates back 5,000 years.
Rob Thomaes, co-owner and instructor of Moksha Yoga London has seen the positive effects of yoga in his clients. “We’re more stressed than ever and yoga has helped me and it’s helped thousands of people I’ve worked with,” he says. “It’s really come back to the essence of being human again.”
While most yoga is based off a style called hatha, there are many variations of yoga—anything from a physically demanding style like ashtanga or slower, deeper movements in the yin style. There’s even anti-gravity, an aerobic form of yoga practiced in hammocks.
But yoga is probably best known for reducing stress. What aspect of the practice that achieves this? According to Thomaes, it’s all in the breath.
“Generally, people in society breath from their mouth into their chest and what that causes is a stress response in the body because that’s short-shallow breathing,” he says. He explains this breathing activates the body’s “fight or flight” response, so it releases cortisol into the blood stream, which is a stress-inducing hormone.
Fourth-year political science and French student Neha Chandrachud can attest to Thomaes’s claim. “The most important aspect of yoga for me is the breathing. The techniques slow your heart rate down and relax your entire body.”
“When the breath is calm that cortisol is shut off and that’s where you really see a lot of the stress reduction and kind of shutting [down] of that chemical,” Thomaes adds.
Daphne Nolasco has been teaching yoga for over a year in the Greater Toronto Area. When she feels stressed, she immediately focuses on a three-part breath called square breath. Each time you inhale, you do so only a third of the way—first inhale into the stomach, then into the ribcage and then up into the chest. When exhaling, you reverse this so you exhale slowly out of the upper chest, the ribcage then finally deflate the stomach.
Despite yoga’s emphasis on the breath, it can be a demanding physical workout. An increasing number of professional athletes turn to yoga for strength building and endurance training. Thomaes explains that yoga helps athletes become quick, agile and fast, but most importantly injury resistant. “We work with the London Knights and the London Majors. These [athletes] are choosing to make this a part of their training regimen.”
While yoga is known for its calming effects, people like Chandrachud are turning to it as a high-powered workout. “I typically do hot yoga because I enjoy the challenge,” she says. “I prefer doing more intense yoga because of the strength training and core exercise.”
Thomaes notes that men can build muscle through yoga and become more flexible and prevent injuries and women can gain strength. “There’s always been this resistance to [yoga] but as a guy it has helped me immensely,” he says. “Some of our classes have more guys than girls in them. And that’s why [yoga] has exploded.”
Nolasco says that yoga itself is a great way to increase flexibility and strength when practiced on its own, some yoga can still give you the cardio workout you need. But she explains if building muscle mass is what you want, then you’d still have to work on weight training.
Yoga has become a trend, and companies like Lululemon have promoted the yoga lifestyle through their products. “Westerners tend not to do something because it’s good for them—they tend to do something because somebody else is doing it, Thomaes explains. “And I think that the explosion of “yoga-wear” has made people maybe look at their lifestyle and that’s fine.”
Yoga as a practice embraces the old saying “mind over matter.” And while it encourages full awareness of your body, this mind workout has a calming effect, according to Chandrachud. “Although it may sound like a lot of thinking and work, yoga allows for me to refocus my train of thought purely on my body rather than different stresses in my life.”
Thomaes urges that yoga will have a profound impact on your health and Chandrachud agrees.
“It’s amazing how many changes you’ll see in your behaviour once you start doing yoga consistently, she says. “The biggest change I saw within myself is how I’ve learned to handle stressful situations. When something unexpected occurs, I am much less anxious.”
Yoga has taught Nolasco a lot about herself. “As I progressed through my practice, I’ve realized that it’s so much more than [a physical practice],” she says. “It’s helped me get through a lot of things in my life, and it’s provided me with practical tools to help deal with stressful situations.”
Despite the huge market for yoga-wear and the business around it, yoga’s success may be because it caters to people of all ages, body shapes and physical ability.
“People are stressed and they are finding that this is working for them,” Thomaes says. “They see things changing in their lives and they realize that the practice is now going from a physical level to a spiritual or emotional or psychological level.”