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Image of people doing yoga

The lowdown on yoga

Patsy Westcott discovers why this 2,000-year-old fitness practice is more popular than ever.

Barely a week passes without some celebrity popping up in the press or on social media extolling the benefits of yoga. Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, Mia Farrow, Russell Brand, Rod Stewart and Andy Murray, to name but a few, are all allegedly fans. And it seems thousands of us agree.

Growing fan club

'Between 300,000 and 460,000 people practise yoga in the UK,' observes celebrity personal trainer Nicola Addison, owner of London's Equus Gym. And if the US, where the market is growing by 25 per cent year on year, is anything to go by our appetite shows no sign of waning anytime soon.

But how is it that a practice which started more than 2,000 years ago in India, is so popular in the West in the 21st century? Nicola explains: 'its focus on flexibility, strength and breathing is a great way to boost not only physical but also mental wellbeing.'

A great 'all-rounder'

Indeed, according to Harvard Health, yoga is 'the one tool' that improves strength, balance, and flexibility, while helping to dial back negative self-talk and ruminations; stress from deadlines; financial issues; relationship struggles, and other problems all at the same time - an assertion backed by a growing number of studies.

The good news, is that contrary to popular opinion, you don't have to be young and fit to reap the rewards that yoga offers. 'There is a perception that it is only for 20-somethings who look good on Instagram. But in fact, yoga is a lifelong journey for anyone of any ability,' says Jenny King, spokesperson for the British Wheel of Yoga.

Getting started

With so many classes on offer it's easy to get started. You don't even need any special kit. Loose trousers, leggings or shorts and a t-shirt are fine, although, if you get bitten by the bug, you may want to invest in your own mat!

Hatha yoga - a catchall for all types of physical yoga - is your best bet if you're new to the practice or haven't done it for a while. With an emphasis on postures - also known as asanas - together with breathing and relaxation, it's suitable for all ages and levels of ability. Classes usually involve slow-paced stretching with some simple breathing exercises and meditation.

If you have health issues or are looking for a tailor-made programme 'viniyoga', a type of hatha yoga, could be a good choice. 'An experienced teacher works with you individually to come up with a personalised programme based on your age, health, fitness and needs,' explains Jenny King.

Once you are familiar with the basics you may want to try some different practices, more specific to your health or lifestyle needs.

Iyengar yoga, with its emphasis on postural alignment as a way of deepening relaxation, is the most widely practised style of yoga worldwide. 'It teaches a correct way to do each pose - sometimes through the use of props - such as blocks, straps, pillows and chairs.

Thanks to greater time spent in each asana and the ability to tailor poses to individual's needs, iyengar yoga can also provide therapeutic benefits to tight, unstable or injured areas, says Jenny.' Indeed, BSK Iyengar, the founder of this style of yoga, used it to help ailments ranging from high blood pressure and depression to chronic neck and back pain.

Want a more physically demanding workout? Astanga yoga could be for you. It involves a fast flowing, dynamic sequence of 75 poses, which take around an hour and a half to two hours to complete, with a focus on breathing.

'It is usually best for those with quite a high level of physical fitness who want a more athletic workout,' says Jenny.

Hot yoga, which includes Bikram yoga, performed in a heated room, could be another option, although it certainly won't be for everybody! The rationale is that heat increases pulse rate and metabolism, allowing blood vessels to become more flexible and circulation to flow more freely.

Safety first

Anyone can set up as a yoga teacher so choose classes carefully:

  • Check out what's on offer in your area (bwy.org.uk/find-a-teacher-class) and pick a class.
  • 'If you don't like a particular style or don't connect with a particular teacher, try another until you find one that suits you,' advises Jenny King.
  • Teachers certified by the British Wheel of Yoga have been through a rigorous training process and know how to modify poses for common conditions, such as bad backs, high blood pressure and arthritis.

Patsy Westcott MSc is a freelance writer specialising in health and nutrition, and writes regularly for various print and online publications. She has a Master's degree in Nutritional Medicine and has contributed to more than 40 health and nutrition books.

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