Since the late 19th Century, when Yoga was introduced to the Western hemisphere from its Indian homeland, it has undergone various adaptations. Today, Yoga is practiced for five reasons:
As a method for physical fitness and health maintenance
As a sport
As body-oriented therapy
As a comprehensive lifestyle
As a spiritual discipline
Yoga as fitness training
The first approach, fitness training, is the most popular way that Westerners practice Yoga. It's also the most radical revamping of traditional Yoga. Yoga as fitness training is obviously targeted at the physical body — its flexibility, resilience, and strength. This is how most people start Yoga training. Fitness training is certainly a useful gateway into Yoga, but later on, some people discover that Yoga also includes moral and spiritual practices that they want to explore.
Yoga as a sport
This approach to Yoga is especially prominent in some Latin American countries. It is also widely controversial. Its practitioners, many of whom are excellent athletes, master hundreds of extremely difficult Yoga postures to perfection and demonstrate their skills and beautiful physiques in international competitions. But this new sport, which also can be regarded as an art form, has drawn much criticism from the ranks of more traditional Yoga practitioners. They feel that competition has no place in Yoga. Still, there is nothing wrong with good-natured Yoga competitions as long as self-centered competitiveness is held in check.
Yoga as therapy
Yoga as therapy attempts to restore health or full physical and mental functioning. Although the idea behind Yoga therapy is very old, its name is fairly new. Yoga therapy is, in fact, a whole new professional discipline, calling for far greater training and skill on the part of the teacher than is the case with ordinary Yoga. Commonly, Yoga is intended for those who don't suffer from disabilities or ailments requiring special attention. Yoga therapy, on the other hand, addresses these special needs. For example, Yoga therapy may be able to help you find relief from chronic back pain, asthma, rheumatism, and many other ailments.
Several insurance companies now offer coverage for Yoga therapy. Other insurance companies will no doubt follow suit before long.
Yoga as a lifestyle
This enters the proper domain of Yoga. Yoga as fitness training, sport, or therapy certainly have their places, but you unlock the real benefits of Yoga when you adopt it as a lifestyle. This means living Yoga, and practicing Yoga every day, whether it's physical exercises or meditation. Above all, it means applying the wisdom of Yoga to everyday life. Yoga has much to say about what and how you should eat, how you should sleep, how you should work, how you should relate to others, and so on. It offers a total system of conscious and skillful living.
Don't think that you have to be a yogic superstar to practice lifestyle Yoga. You can begin today by making a few simple adjustments in your daily schedule and keeping your goals vividly in front of you. Whenever you are ready, make further positive changes — one step at a time.
Yoga as a spiritual discipline
Lifestyle Yoga centers on healthy, wholesome, functional, and benevolent living. Yoga as a spiritual discipline adds to that the traditional ideal of enlightenment —that is, discovering your spiritual nature.
The word spiritual has been abused a lot lately, so here's how it's used here: Spiritual relates to your ultimate nature. In Yoga, it is called the atman (pronounced aht-mahn ) or purusha (poo-roo-shah).
According to Yoga philosophy, the spirit is one and the same for everyone, all beings and all things. It's formless, immortal, superconscious, and unimaginably blissful. It is transcendental because it exists beyond the limited body and mind. You discover the spirit in the moment of your enlightenment.
What all approaches to Yoga have in common
The five approaches to Yoga share at least two fundamental practices: the cultivation of awareness and relaxation.
Awareness is the ability to pay close attention to something, to be consciously present, to be mindful. Yoga is attention training.
To demonstrate, try this: Pay attention to your right hand for the next 60 seconds. That is, feel your right hand and do nothing else. Chances are, your mind is drifting off after only a few seconds. Yoga consists in reining in your attention whenever it strays.
Relaxation is the conscious release of unnecessary and therefore unwholesome tension in the body.
Without bringing awareness and relaxation to Yoga, the exercises would be merely exercises — not yogic exercises.
Conscious breathing is often added to awareness and relaxation as a third foundational practice. Normally, breathing happens automatically. In Yoga, awareness accompanies breathing, which then makes it into a powerful tool for training the body and the mind.