Yoga: origins, benefits, all techniques

Yoga: origins, benefits, all techniques

Yoga was declared an Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by Unesco in 2016, due to its enormous and positive influence on different aspects of Indian society: from health to medicine, from education to the arts. Let’s discover together the origins and characteristics of this ancient discipline.

Yoga, origins, benefits and practices

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Although today yoga is very often described and portrayed as a physical practice, reserved for mostly athletic and flexible bodies, its roots lie millennia ago in a system of knowledge that concerns the body, mind and spirit in an interconnected way, in order to lead to self-realization.


  • The myth behind the birth of yoga
  • The meaning of the word “yoga”
  • Origins and description of yoga
  • Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
  • What is yoga
  • Benefits of yoga
  • How the body changes with yoga
  • How many minutes of yoga a day
  • Contraindications and risks of yoga
  • Types of yoga
  • Yoga positions: some examples


The myth behind the birth of yoga

The birth of yoga is very ancient and even today scholars are wondering about the possibility of exactly dating the origin of this discipline . A legend has it that thousands of years ago the god Shiva , sitting on the shore of a beach, was instructing his wife Parvati on the practice of yoga, when he noticed a fish, Matsya, who was listening to him enraptured by her words. The little fish vanished quickly and swam for kilometers and kilometers, making use of the teachings stolen from Shiva, until it crossed all the stages of the evolutionary path and transformed into man.

His name, from then on Matsyendra (or “fish became man”), is remembered as that of the first yogi, to whom we owe the teaching of the science of yoga .


The meaning of the word “yoga”

The meaning of the term Yoga, which derives from the root yuj- , in Sanskrit is “ yoke or union ”. We can therefore speak of yoga as a path to achieve the union or harmonious integration of man with himself , with the Whole or with the cosmos , through the recognition of the nature that unites the individual, the Self, with the divine. , the microcosm with the macrocosm, Atman and Brahman.


In the same way yoga are also the techniques to reach or move to the discovery of this awareness, indicating in practice both the means and the end of a personal and spiritual search aimed at connection.

Origins and description of yoga

Yoga has its roots in India several millennia ago. Some excavations carried out by Sir John Hubert Marshall in the early 1900s in the Indus valley, around the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, brought to light signs of a civilization dating back to the period between the fourth and second millennium BC and, thanks to the discovery of terracotta statuettes and seals depicting individuals in yogic positions of meditation (eg siddhasana or sukhasana), they made us think of the knowledge of these practices well before the Vedic culture (1700-800 BC).


The first written mention of yoga, however, is found within the Rgveda , one of the sacred texts of Vedic culture , dedicated to the ceremonies and rites of the civilization of the Arii, which reads ” man must yoke himself like a horse willing to obey “.


The other Vedas properly called Samaveda , Yajurveda and Atharvaveda , were dedicated respectively to hymns and mantras , to sacrificial formulas and to psychic and supernatural powers, and it is in this last text that yoga returns, this time linked to the concept of control of the breathing ( pranayama ).


Subsequently, in the Upanishads , born as commentaries on the Vedas and initially transmitted only orally, many other concepts related to the practice of yoga are described, including those of prana, chakra, meditation, samsara, karma and a hint of practical aspects, such as the asanas .


It is necessary to wait for the development of Swami Goraknath’s Hatha Yoga (12th century), for the asanas and breathing techniques to be developed as real psychophysical exercises to maintain control over the cosmic energy present in man.


You can learn more about  how to become and what a yoga teacher does


Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Patanjali , an almost mythical figure of Indian culture, is considered the systematic father of this discipline.

The Yoga Sutras ascribed to him, written between the 4th and 5th centuries AD , are 196 aphorisms in which the practices, techniques and knowledge related to yoga and known up to that moment only by ascetics and mystics.

Over four chapters, called Pada :

  1. Samadhi
  2. Sadhana
  3. Vibhuti
  4. Kaivalya

Patanjali explains the path that the sadhaka , or practitioner, must take to achieve liberation, moksa.

Patanjali indicates eight stages  ( asthanga , “eight limbs”) of this path:

  • Yama , social norms of behavior;
  • Niyama, personal codes of conduct;
  • Asanas, postures or physical positions;
  • Pranayama, techniques for governing breathing and the flow of energy (prana);
  • Prathyara, retraction of the senses;
  • Dharana, concentration;
  • Dhyana, meditation or deep contemplation;
  • Samadhi , union with the object of meditation.


What is yoga 

One of the best known aphorisms and which best reveals the original meaning of the practice of yoga, as theorized by Patanjali, is ” yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ “: yoga would therefore be the way to quiet, direct or calm the vortexes or fluctuations of the mind . 


Practice as it is often understood today , as the mere execution of asanas and breathing exercises, is only an initial step : fundamental for the journey of research and ascent , but not exhaustive of what yoga really represents.


Over the centuries, approaches, traditions and different lineages have given rise to very different practices, some more physical, others more meditative, others still dedicated to the devotional aspect: we will therefore speak of

  • Hatha Yoga ,
  • Kriya Yoga ,
  • Kundalini Yoga ,
  • Tantra Yoga ,
  • Raja Yoga ,
  • Bhakti Yoga and others.

Benefits of yoga

Among the benefits of yoga :

  • Improves posture , mobility and proprioception of the body
  • promotes correct and functional breathing
  • keeps the cardiovascular system and internal organs in good health
  • strengthens the immune system
  • reduces stress and brings the autonomic nervous system back into balance (sympathetic vs parasympathetic)
  • increases concentration and memory
  • helps manage emotions better
  • fights insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • improves self-esteem and self-confidence
  • restores the levels of vital energy and well-being


How the body changes with yoga

Dwelling on the ” physical ” aspect , which today is what initially attracts or pushes a person to start practicing , yoga has undoubted physical and mental benefits.

Yoga, however you experience it, is a discipline that through tools such as the breath, the body, the intellect, the senses, the heart, leads to a more direct and personal experience of reality .

And it is not uncommon that, even just the physical practice done with constancy , leads the practitioner to feel they want to deepen this discipline, to make different life choices and perhaps to observe changes in their approach to the surrounding world.

How many minutes of yoga a day

To get the maximum benefit from the practice of yoga , constancy is the most important key : in fact, even a few minutes a day are enough, perhaps in the morning as soon as you wake up or in the evening before going to sleep, to quickly notice a difference on the psychophysical level. .

To make it a healthy habit, you can start by dedicating 10 or 15 minutes of your day to the practice : depending on your goal, you can start with simple movements, to awaken and loosen the body or on the contrary to prepare it for relaxation; by techniques to improve breathing and concentration levels; or by more targeted hatha yoga exercises. 

In addition, it is useful to attend at least one or two lessons a week with a certified teacher, to learn the technique from the basics and avoid the risks of incorrect practice.


Contraindications and risks of yoga

As we have seen, the benefits of regular practice are manifold . However, there are some contraindications to yoga that should be taken into account.

One of the best known aphorisms of TKV Desikachar, one of the greatest masters of the 20th century, is “ Anyone can breathe. So anyone can practice yoga ”. While this is true, we must not forget the main teaching of yoga : that of listening to your body and your physical and emotional state, in the moment, to adjust your practice accordingly. 

All bodies are different , all conditions are different and therefore it is good not to strain and not to go beyond one’s limits. This means that one must gradually approach the practice and gradually the more complex positions and that it is useful to begin gradually to become familiar with the techniques of regulation of the breath and with the more subtle aspects of the practice, which, although less visible, are not they are less risky if taken too lightly. 

A good teacher has the task of guiding their students , modulating the practice so that everyone can obtain the maximum benefits and minimize injuries and risks of a hasty and superficial practice. 

Types of yoga

Although modern yoga can be generically inserted under the hat of Hatha Yoga (from “Ha”, Sun, and “-tha”, Moon), in the West many styles have spread and developed, which have some aspects in common (eg. the practice of asanas and the use of the breath) and differ in others. Among the best known and practiced worldwide, we can certainly mention:

  • Ashtanga Yoga by Sri K. Patthabi Jois (not to be confused with the eightfold path outlined by Patanjali);
  • Iyengar Yoga by BKS Iyengar;
  • Vinyasa Yoga by TKV Desikachar.


At first sight these are very distant practices, however, which developed from a common root : their founders were in fact all disciples of T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), to all intents and purposes considered the founding father of modern yoga.

These traditional styles are accompanied by more modern ones, such as:

  • Bikram
  • Dharma Forrest
  • Katonah Yoga .

Dynamic and fluid practices can be contrasted with others that are more static and passive, including:

  • Yin Yoga.
  • Restorative Yoga
  • Yoga Nidra . 

To all these are added more dedicated approaches and strands:

  • Acroyoga
  • Yoga for children
  • Yoga in pregnancy
  • Adaptive Yoga

And so on.


Yoga positions: some examples

Here are some examples to recognize the main differences between some different yoga techniques that we often hear about:

Hatha : we mean lessons with a rather classical approach and a rhythm, in terms of intensity and speed, not sustained. Hatha yoga classes require the positions to be held for an extended time and are often complemented by pranayama and meditation exercises.

Some positions, which are found for example in the Greeting to the Sun , are: 

  • Tadasana , the position of the mountain
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana , the Downward Dog Pose
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana , the face-up dog posture
  • Uttanasana , the standing caliper position
  • Chaturanga dandasana , the posture of the stick.

Vinyasa : the word vinyasa indicates the way to place the positions one after the other in a harmonious and gradual way. The main difference with respect to hatha lies in the fluidity and rhythm of the lessons : the vinyasa flow describes all the most dynamic practices in which the movements are accompanied by the breath, in a sort of active meditation.

Kundalini : kundalini yoga lessons focus above all on the energetic awakening of those who practice them, through pranayama techniques, purifications or kriyas, meditations, mudras and mantra chanting . Classes can be very intense, even if they don’t involve many standing positions.

Yoga for children : yoga classes for children are a great way to bring the little ones closer to the practice, exploiting their creativity and stimulating their coordination, attention, curiosity and empathy . The yoga moves that are taught are simple postures to perform, often reminiscent of animals and shapes that children can easily mimic or understand.

Antigravity : is a recent activity, which blends multiple disciplines , including yoga, fitness, pilates and dance. As the name suggests, this practice exploits the absence of gravity thanks to particular suspended structures similar to hammocks, which make movements more agile and free, helping to lengthen the spine and strengthen the muscles.
Such variety can at first glance confuse and distract , but on the other hand it has the advantage of allowing everyone to explore and experiment , to reap the benefits of the practice and to find their own tools to embark on the path of research that is yoga.

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