What is yoga?
Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning "union," is a spiritual practice
that uses the body, breath, and mind to energize and balance the whole person.
This mind-body therapy involves physical postures, breathing exercises, and
meditation to improve overall well-being. Yoga began nearly 6,000 years ago in
India as part of the Hindu healing science known as Ayurveda. Today,
approximately six million Americans practice yoga regularly.
What is the history of yoga?
While the practice of yoga started nearly 6,000 years ago, the earliest
written records documenting yoga as a health practice are recorded in The
Vedas, texts from India dating back at least three thousand years. There
have been other ancient texts documenting the philosophy and teachings of yoga.
However, yoga did not emerge as a fully developed practice until 500 B.C. In its
traditional form, yoga is considered a complete lifestyle that provides a path
to spiritual enlightenment.
The practice of yoga came to the United States in the 1890s as a result of
the teachings of a guru named Swami Vivekananda. It gained popularity in the
1960s because of a rising interest in and cultural acceptance of alternative
modalities and mind-body therapies. Today, yoga is often practiced as an
exercise form separated from its traditional spiritual roots. In this form, yoga
exercise is taught at local YMCAs, health clubs, and yoga centers, and is often
part of disease prevention and management programs in hospitals, such as
stress-reduction courses for people with high blood pressures and heart
Are there different types of yoga?
As the different connections between the mind and body were explored, various
branches of yoga developed. These include:
- Astanga or Power Yoga -- modern day variations of yoga
developed for people who prefer a physically demanding workout.
- Bhakti Yoga -- the goal of this form of yoga is to take all of
the love in one's heart and direct it to God. By worshiping God, the person who
practices regularly becomes filled with respect for all life and is encouraged
to be sacrificial and to treat others generously.
- Bikram Yoga -- a series of 26 asanas (postures) practiced in a
room that is 105 degrees in order to warm and stretch the muscles, ligaments,
and tendons and to detoxify the body through sweat.
- Hatha Yoga -- the most commonly practiced form of yoga in the
United States today. Emphasis is placed on physical postures or exercises, known
as asanas, with the goal of balancing the opposites in one's life. During
Hatha yoga sessions, flexing is followed by extension, a rounded back is
followed by an arched back, and physical exercises are followed by mental
- Iyangar Yoga -- emphasizes great attention to detail and
precise alignment. This often requires the use of props such as blocks and belts
while performing postures.
- Jnana Yoga -- emphasizes deep contemplation. Practitioners seek
Jnana, or "wisdom," through meditation. The goal of this form of yoga is
to be one with God.
- Karma Yoga -- based on the philosophy that
"yesterday's actions determine today's circumstances." Practitioners of Karma
yoga make a conscious decision to perform selfless acts of kindness. By
making today's actions positive, they hope they can improve tomorrow's
circumstances for both themselves as well as others.
- Raja Yoga -- known in India as
"the royal (raj) road to reintegration." The goal of this type of yoga is
to blend the four layers of self: the body, the individual consciousness, the
individual subconsciousness, and the universal and infinite consciousness. Raja
yoga, being most concerned with the mind and spirit, places its emphasis on
- Tantra Yoga -- like Hatha yoga, practitioners of Tantra
yoga seek to balance the opposites in their lives. They also try to break
free of the "six enemies" (physical longing, anger, greed, vanity, obsession,
jealousy) and the "eight fetters" (hatred, apprehension, fear, shyness,
hypocrisy, pride of ancestry, vanity of culture, egotism) by using discipline,
training, and rituals.
How does yoga work?
Scientists don't know exactly how yoga produces its healthful effects. Some
say it works like other mind-body therapies to reduce stress, and others
believe that yoga promotes the release of endorphins (natural painkillers and
mood elevators) from the brain.
All of the branches of yoga previously mentioned incorporate three major
techniques: breathing, exercise (asana or postures), and meditation. These three
techniques have been shown to improve health in many ways:
- Breathing lessons -- in yoga, breathwork is known as
pranayama. Pranayama increases blood circulation and reduces oxygen
consumption, which brings more oxygen to the brain, and improves the efficiency
of oxygen use in the body. Also, as lung tissue becomes more elastic and the
surrounding muscle more flexible, the practice of pranayama can also increase
lung capacity. Getting ample air into our lungs helps us to feel alert
- Asanas (postures) -- provide a gentle workout that enhancee
strength, flexibility, and balance. Some asanas are designed to massage the
internal organs, improve circulation, hormone function, digestion, and other
- Meditation -- stills the mind and induces both physical and
emotional relaxation. In so doing, it reduces blood pressure, chronic pain,
anxiety, and cholesterol levels.
What does a yoga session entail?
Although most people learn yoga by taking a group class with an experienced
instructor, one-to-one sessions with certain practitioners are available. Such
private, or semi-private, sessions tend to be quite costly. Classes usually last
from 45 to 90 minutes and begin with warm-up exercises, proceed to a guided
series of yoga postures designed to stretch and tone all areas of the body, and
generally end with deep relaxation and/or meditation. Throughout the class, the
teacher instructs you on breath control and proper body alignment.
How many sessions will I need?
Classes are generally taken once a week (or more, if desired). Your
instructor will likely encourage you to practice at home to get the most from
What is yoga good for?
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 therapies to help treat a wide range of health problems but it
is not, in and of itself, an effective cure for any particular disease.
Studies show that yoga may promote heart health in both the young and old. An
analysis of scientific studies found that yoga may help manage heart disease by:
- decreasing high blood pressure
- lowering cholesterol levels
- increasing resistance to stress
- reducing the frequency and severity of chest pain (if yoga is combined
with a healthy diet).
Still more research suggests that yoga may help people with asthma. For
example, people who practice yoga postures and breathing exercises tend to
breathe easier and more efficiently. One study also found that people with
asthma used their inhalers less often when they were practicing yoga.
Yoga postures aimed at stretching and strengthening the joints in the upper
body can improve grip strength and diminish pain among people with carpal tunnel
syndrome. Yoga may also be effective for managing pain and enhancing range of
motion in people with osteoarthritis.
Other conditions that seem to be responsive to yoga include:
- back pain
- feelings of sadness or depression
- helping to prevent type 2 diabetes
- before, during, and after pregnancy
Is there anything I should look out for?
Some people may experience stiffness as their bodies adapt to different
postures. Plus, as with a physical activity, yoga may lead to an injury if not
practiced properly. This is why practicing yoga under the guidance of a trained
professional is important. Avoid yoga if you've had a recent back injury and be
sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga if you have high blood
pressure, heart disease, or arthritis, as you would any physical activity. In
addition, if you have any of these conditions, choose one of the gentler forms
of yoga discussed earlier. Some postures are not recommended during pregnancy,
but special classes are available for pregnant women. Some postures should not
be practiced during menstruation. Be sure to contact your doctor if any
exercises cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, or severe pain in your
back, legs, or joints.
How can I find a qualified yoga practitioner?
For helpful information on how to find a yoga practitioner in your area,
visit the Yoga Research and Education Center Web site at
www.yrec.org or call the International
Association of Yoga Therapists at 707-928-9898. You can also contact the
American Yoga Association
or by phone at 941-927-4977) for general information on yoga or to locate a yoga
specialist. Also, the Yoga Journal at
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