A form of hatha yoga, sivananda yoga is based on the teachings of Swami Sivananda and focuses on overall wellness and health as well as relaxation and breathing techniques, rather than taking the more athletic approach of some yoga schools. Sivananda yoga works to optimize the health and overall function of the body through five major principles: breathing techniques, or pranayama; exercise through performing asanas, the various yoga poses; relaxation through use of a particular asana called savasana, also known as the corpse pose; proper health through a yogic diet; and positive thinking, or vedanta, achieved through meditation, or dhyana. All of these principles practiced together form the basis of sivananda yoga and are said to help increase the effectiveness of the immune system and prevent premature aging and excessive illness.
Like all forms of yoga, sivananda yoga finds its origins in various beliefs of Hinduism, although one is not required to follow the Hindu religion in order to participate in yoga classes or to derive benefits from yoga practice. Introduced to the United States in 1957 by Swami Sivananda's student Swami Vishnu-devananda, sivananda yoga was one of the first forms of yoga practiced in the West, and it has maintained its popularity. A typical sivananda yoga session lasts about 90 minutes and begins in savansana, then progresses to sun salutations and continues with a set of 12 major asanas, or poses. Mastery of sivananda yoga involves mastery of these poses, some of which — such as the shoulder stand pose — are fairly advanced.
Though many who practice various yoga styles also follow a yogic diet, sivananda yoga puts more emphasis on this aspect of yoga than other schools do. A yogic diet essentially is vegetarian and focuses on balance among different types of foods based on how quickly those foods are digested and the kind of energy they are believed to produce in the body. Foods are divided into the categories of sattvic foods, rajasic foods and tamasic foods. Sattvic foods — vegetables, nuts, grains, fruits, beans and certain herbs and spices — are the easiest to digest and provide the most readily available energy. Rajasic and tamasic foods are "slower" foods and generally should be avoided because they are believed to interfere with the body's overall function. Though it might seem extreme to some, this approach to vegetarian eating is quite healthy for most people and can help maintain heart health, lower cholesterol and assist in weight loss.