Yoga is a practical philosophy emphasizing all aspects of human life. There are no requirements to practice yoga, no specific believes or physical attributes. It´s content is universal and vast in techniques. That is probably why yoga has become so popular and also why there has been so much misunderstanding in our society and with religious authorities. Yoga is not a religion and it does not oppose religion. Yoga is one of the six Indian systems of thought. As such it is described in the text “Yoga Sutra” (500BCE-500CE) although the word yoga and its practices are found across older texts with some scholars placing its origins around 9000 years ago.
The confusion comes from the wide variety of schools that teach yoga. Many of these schools come from a monastic tradition and teach yoga from within the perspective of a specific religion or philosophy, that tend to focus on a limited type of practices. These may range from physical exercises, to meditation, support groups, community service, chanting, drawing, etc. The difference is not in the yoga itself but in the belief system that the teacher or school has. In the west there are many schools coming from a monastic tradition but the majority come from a family lineage that teach yoga without mixing other perspectives allowing the student to develop the yoga practice within his/hers own believe system.
Simply put Yoga practice develops a state of mental clarity from which we act. These actions lead us to and help maintain a state of deep inner happiness. In order to bring these about there are many techniques and variations. You can learn you either in group classes or by working individually with a teacher. In group classes the most common techniques used tend to be physical postures to bring equilibrium and health to the body and promote mental stability. Breathing exercises to work the mind more directly to develop emotional stability and the meditation process to sharpen the mind and go beyond it.
When working individually with a teacher the practice is developed taking into consideration how you are physically, mentally, spiritually and what your purpose for the practice is. If all you want is to deal with back pain the practice may, involve simple physical postures to balance your body physically and energetically and simple mental exercises. If you would like to develop your body and mind to their full potential then your practice will develop into more complex techniques that would not be possible within the general group setting. Yoga can help as a complementary therapy with many issues (e.g. weight loss, stress, depression, concentration, physical pains, constipation, poor digestion, anger, etc).
The benefits of yoga are tremendous but highly dependent of what you do and how you do it, it is not a simple formula that you apply to every person. My suggestion is for you to try different classes or teachers and choose the one you connect better with at this moment in time. Group classes have great energy and allow you to develop a support group while individual sessions really optimize your potential regardless of your starting point.
Ivan P.B.doAmaral (Originally published article in Aνατολή newspaper in Greek)