4 Basic Approaches to Yoga

Since Yoga came to the West from its Indian homeland in the late 19th century, it has undergone various adaptations. Broadly, you can look at yoga in four overlapping approaches.

  • As a method for physical fitness and health maintenance

  • As a body-oriented therapy

  • As a comprehensive lifestyle

  • As a spiritual discipline

The first two approaches are often categorized as Postural Yoga; it contrasts with Traditional Yoga, which generally encompasses the last two approaches. As its name suggests, Postural Yoga focuses (sometimes exclusively) on Yoga postures. Traditional Yoga seeks to adhere to the traditional teachings taught anciently in India.

Yoga as fitness training

The first approach, Yoga as fitness training, is the most popular way Westerners practice Yoga. It’s also the most radical revamping of Traditional Yoga. More precisely, it’s a modification of traditional Hatha Yoga. Yoga as fitness training is concerned primarily with the physical body’s flexibility, resilience, and strength.

Fitness is how most newcomers to Yoga encounter this great tradition. Fitness training is certainly a useful gateway into Yoga, but later, some people discover that Hatha Yoga is a profound spiritual tradition. From the earliest times, Yoga masters have emphasized the need for a healthy body — but they’ve also always pointed beyond the body to the mind and other vital aspects of the being.

If what motivates you is the prospect of having tighter buns or improving your golf game, you can certainly find that through Yoga. As you progress with a dedicated practice, your body will become stronger and more agile, and your buns will tighten, too.

As a “meditation in motion,” though, Yoga also can impact your performance on the green. The focus and coordination you develop on your Yoga mat will spill over to your swing — and to the rest of your life.

Yoga as therapy

The second approach, Yoga as therapy, applies yogic techniques to restore health or full physical and mental function. While the idea behind as a therapy is quite old, it’s growing into a whole new professional discipline. Different from even a highly experienced Yoga teacher, Yoga therapists have specialized training to apply the tools of Yoga to promote and support healing.

Commonly, Yoga is intended for people who don’t suffer from disabilities or ailments that require remedial action and special attention. Yoga therapy, on the other hand, addresses these special needs and enables people who cannot participate in a typical group setting to enjoy Yoga’s many fruits.

Yoga as a lifestyle

Yoga as a lifestyle enters the proper domain of Traditional Yoga. Although practicing Yoga only once or twice a week for an hour or so and focusing on its fitness training aspect is beneficial, you unlock the real potency of Yoga when you adopt it as a lifestyle — living Yoga and practicing it every day through physical exercises or meditation.

Above all, when you adopt Yoga as a lifestyle, you apply the wisdom of Yoga to your everyday life and live with awareness. Yoga has much sage advice about everyday living, including diet and sleep habits, how you relate to others, and where you focus your attention and energy. It offers a total system of conscious and skillful living.

In modern times, a Yoga lifestyle includes caring for the ailing environment, an idea especially captured in Green Yoga. Lifestyle Yoga, which emphasizes being kind to others and the planet, is a fundamental concept in Yoga. It’s where you begin. Just make a few simple adjustments in your daily schedule and keep your goals vividly in front of you. Whenever you’re ready, make further positive changes one at a time.

Yoga as a spiritual discipline

Lifestyle Yoga is concerned with healthy, wholesome, functional, and benevolent living. Yoga as a spiritual discipline, the fourth approach, is concerned with all that plus the traditional ideal of enlightenment — that is, discovering your spiritual nature. This approach is often equated with Traditional Yoga.

Different people understand the word spiritual differently. Spiritual relates to spirit, your ultimate nature. In Yoga, it’s called the atman (pronounced aht-mahn) or purusha (poo-roo-shah).

According to nondualistic (based in one reality) Yoga philosophy, the spirit is one and the same in all beings and things. It’s formless, immortal, superconscious, and unimaginably blissful. It’s transcendental because it exists beyond the limited body and mind. You discover the spirit fully in the moment of your enlightenment.

What most approaches to Yoga have in common

Most traditional or tradition-oriented approaches to Yoga share two fundamental practices, the cultivation of awareness and relaxation.

  • Awareness is the peculiarly human ability to pay close attention to something, to be consciously present, and to be mindful. Yoga is attention training.

    To see what this means, try this exercise: Pay attention to your right hand for the next 60 seconds. Feel your right hand, and do nothing else. Chances are, your mind drifts off after only a few seconds. Yoga asks you to rein in your attention whenever it strays.

  • Relaxation is the conscious release of unnecessary tension in the body.

Both awareness and relaxation go hand in hand in Yoga. Without bringing awareness and relaxation to Yoga, the movements are merely exercises — not Yoga.

Conscious breathing often joins awareness and relaxation as a third foundational practice. Normally, breathing happens automatically. In Yoga, you bring awareness to this act, which then makes it a powerful tool for training your body and your mind.

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