Yoga is a mind-body therapy that connects the body, breath, and mind to energize and balance the whole person. It uses physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to improve overall well-being.
Descriptions of yoga, the word means "union" in Sanskrit, appear more than 2,000 years ago, and yoga was practiced thousands of years before that. Today, millions of Americans of all ages and fitness levels practice yoga regularly. Although yoga is a spiritual practice for many, most Westerners do yoga for exercise or to reduce stress.
In its traditional form, yoga is considered a complete lifestyle that provides a path to spiritual enlightenment.
The dimensions of yoga are sometimes depicted as a tree with eight limbs:
The practice of yoga came to the United States in the 1890s with the teachings of a guru named Swami Vivekananda. Yoga became popular in the 1960s because of growing interest in mind-body therapies. Today, yoga is often done as exercise, separated from its traditional spiritual roots. In this form, yoga is taught at local YMCAs, health clubs, and yoga centers. It is often suggested by doctors to reduce stress in people with high blood pressure and heart disease, and to improve flexibility in people with arthritis.
Different branches or paths of yoga have developed, including:
Hatha yoga is often a general term that is used for many different types or styles of yoga. If a class is called "Hatha yoga," it includes both breathing and physical exercises or postures. Other styles of yoga can be more intense. Among the more popular styles of yoga are:
Scientists do not know exactly how yoga works for good health. Some say it reduces stress like other mind-body therapies, and others believe that yoga causes the release of endorphins, natural painkillers and "feel good" chemicals in the brain. Studies show yoga can lower heart rate and blood pressure, increase muscle relaxation, and increase breathing capacity.
All branches of yoga mentioned above use three major techniques: breathing, exercise (asana or postures), and meditation. These three techniques improve health in many ways:
Most people learn yoga by taking a group class with an experienced instructor, but one-on-one sessions are also available. These private or semi-private sessions cost more. Classes usually last from 45 to 90 minutes and start with warm-up exercises, move to a guided series of yoga postures designed to stretch and tone all areas of the body, and end with deep relaxation or meditation. Throughout the class, the teacher helps you with breath control and proper body alignment.
Your instructor will encourage you to practice at home to get the most from yoga.
Yoga improves fitness, lowers blood pressure, promotes relaxation and self confidence, and reduces stress and anxiety. People who practice yoga tend to have good coordination, posture, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, sleep habits, and digestion. Yoga is a complementary therapy that has been used with conventional medicine to help treat a wide range of health problems, but it does not cure any disease.
Studies show that yoga may help the following conditions:
In addition, yoga postures that stretch and strengthen joints in the upper body may improve grip strength and reduce pain in people with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Some people may feel stiff as their bodies get used to different postures. As with any physical activity, yoga can cause injury if not done correctly. It is important to practice yoga with a trained teacher.
Be sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, or a recent back injury, as you would with any exercise program. Choose one of the gentler forms of yoga.
Pregnant women may need to avoid some postures. Special classes are available for expecting mothers. Be sure to call your doctor if any exercises cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, or severe pain in your back, legs, or joints.
Remember that yoga instructors are not doctors. Only you and your doctor can decide if a certain yoga posture is too hard or might injure you depending on your condition. If you feel like a posture might cause injury, DO NOT do it or ask your instructor to modify it for you.
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Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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