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A Beginner's Guide to Yoga

by Biff Mithoefer

The origins of yoga lie shrouded in the ancient land of the Indian sub-continent. Although we have no way to be sure, there is evidence that yoga has been practiced by seekers for over 5000 years.

The word Yoga comes from ancient Sanskrit, and means to link or bring together. It refers to the union of all the parts of our lives, the physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual. It’s about bringing balance to our lives. This aspect of yoga is shared by all yoga practices that are done with attention and mindfulness.

The early forms of yoga were practiced as meditations, ways of allowing one the time and space to see life more clearly, to feel what is true and not just what we are all told should be true. Like all manifested things, yoga has changed with time and place, limited only by the human imagination. A practice once reserved for ascetics in the hills of India is now practiced in many different forms by everyone from Madonna to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Human beings are a diverse species and as the practice of yoga has spread, it has taken on many forms, each serving a different need and reflecting the individual life experience of it’s creator. This presents yoga practitioners and those who are interested in beginning a yoga practice with a wonderful array of possibilities, but with all these choices, it sometimes seems confusing and over whelming.

In order to help those who think they would like to begin a yoga practice but are confused by the number of choices they see on the bulletin board at your local health store, I’ll try to list some of the practices that may be available in your area and some of the benefits of these practices. Since my space is limited (to say nothing of my knowledge) I know I will leave out many wonderful practices for which I apologize.

Hatha Yoga

In Sanskrit the word Hatha literally means Sun/Moon, and represents the idea of the importance of bringing balance to our lives. It is usually a gentle practice with attention to asana, (physical postures), pranayama (attention to the breath) and often includes some meditation. Many of the practices we find today incorporate the basic concept of Hatha.

Iyengar Yoga

This form of yoga was developed by the Indian teacher B.K.S. Iyengar. It emphasizes precise alignment in the postures and uses props such as blocks, cushions and belts to adapt postures to each individual. Iyengar yoga can be practiced by almost anyone and when guided by an experienced teacher can be very beneficial for those recovering from injury or suffering from chronic disease.

Integral Yoga

Integral Yoga was developed by Sri Swami Satachidananda and combines aspects of a number of classic yoga styles, including Hatha. There is special attention paid to ethical practices and devotion to God or our higher potential.

Anusara Yoga

The word Anusara means, "flowing with grace". It was created by John Friend and combines Hatha Yoga’s attention to alignment with the tantric philosophy of an open heart and the natural goodness of the human spirit. It can be an appropriate practice for all levels.

Kripalu Yoga

Kripalu Yoga was founded by Amrit Desai and incorporates asana meditation and special attention to breath. It is a gentle practice based on Hatha principles and is suitable for practitioners of any level.

Interdisciplinary Yoga

Don Stapleton PhD started Interdisciplinary yoga after many years at Kripalu where he was a teacher and director. He has trained in Iyengar, Astanga, Siddha Samadhi and Oki Do yoga styles. Interdisciplinary yoga combines all these styles with special attention to each practitioner’s unique needs. It is suitable for all levels of practitioners and includes asanas, pranayama, meditation as well as physical movement.


Astanga Yoga is based on ancient teachings and was brought to the modern world by Sri Krishnamacharya. It is based on a set of movements linked to the breath called vinyasa. This linking of breath to movement is part of other practices such as Kripalu and Interdisciplinary, however Astanga uses a specific sequence of vinyasas, which are repeated in a precise sequence. It is a good strengthening practice, but can be very challenging for beginners or those who are not very flexible or strong

Bikram or Hot Yoga

Bikram yoga was developed by Beverly Hills Yogi Bikram Choudhury and is practiced in a room heated to around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. It includes 26 specific postures and several breathing exercises. It is led by teachers who use a very specific dialog and therefore is difficult to tailor to individual students. It can be useful for weight loss and strength training. Beginners should be aware that they might not get individual guidance and need to be aware of their own limitations.

Kundalini Yoga

In the Indian tradition, the word Kundalini refers to the concentrated life force called Prana, which lies waiting to be awoken within the body. To help awaken this energy, Kundalini Yoga uses movement, attention to posture, chanting, mental focus and attention to breath. Great benefit can be found in this practice of energizing the body, however it may be a bit challenging for many beginners.

Yin Yoga

Yin Yoga has been made popular by U.S teacher Paul Grilley. Unlike most yoga practiced today, which is based on Hindu philosophy, Yin Yoga is based on a Taoist view of the world. The word yin refers to that part of us that is more accepting rather than our yang nature, which urges to strive. All the postures in this practice are done on the floor and are held for periods of around 5 minutes. It is a very meditative practices that helps restore the flexibility of the deep tissues around the lower back and hips. It is a suitable practice for all levels of practitioners.

Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga is about relaxation. The postures are done on the floor and are fully supported by cushions and blankets. The postures can be held for long periods of time as the body lets go of stress. It is a wonderful practice for those who have trouble letting go of the stress of everyday life and although it doesn’t create muscle tone or stretch the body as most other yogas do, it is a very nourishing addition to any more physical practice. It can be done by almost anyone and is a powerful healing tool for those suffering from physical challenges.

These are very general descriptions of only some of the yoga styles you may find in your area. They range from the more physical practices of Bikram and Astanga to the gentler Yin and Restorative with others combining elements of each. Once you decide what you need more of, activity, relaxation, or a little of both, then the most important thing is how you feel when you walk into the studio, does it seem like you’ll get the individual attention that you need from a qualified teacher? Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and if you’re not comfortable with the answers or with the person giving them, try somewhere else. There are many wonderful studios with well trained teachers waiting to become an important, nourishing part of your life.

Biff Mithoefer Teaches Yin Yoga at Omega Institute, throughout the U.S. and Internationally. He is 500 hour certified Yoga Alliance teacher and has trained in Yin Yoga with Paul Grilley and trained in and taught Interdisciplinary Yoga with Don and Amba Stapleton. He is the author of The Yin Yoga Kit, and co-author of The Therapeutic Yoga Kit. Biff is a founder and director of the Jamtse Sponsorship Project, for the support of Tibetan refuge children. He lives with his family in Dorset, Vermont.

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