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Table of Contents > Treatment Options > Yoga

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 disease.

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 meditations.
  • 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 yogamake 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 meditation.
  • Tantra Yoga -- like Hatha yoga,practitioners of Tantra yogaseek 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 therapiesto 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 and focused.
  • 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 body processes.
  • 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 yoga.

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
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • 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 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 maintains directories of yoga teachers and offers books and vidotapes.

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Review Date: December 2002
Reviewed By: Constance Grauds, RPh, President, Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists, San Rafael, CA; Jacqueline A. Hart, MD, Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Boston, Ma and Senior Medical Editor A.D.A.M., Inc.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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