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Yoga is a philosophy and practice that connects 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.
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 to many, most Westerners practice yoga for exercise or to reduce stress.
History of yoga
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 thanks to the teachings of a guru named Swami Vivekananda. Yoga grew popular in the 1960s because of growing interest in mind-body therapies. Today, yoga is often practiced as a form of exercise, separated from its traditional spiritual roots. In this form, yoga is taught at local YMCAs, health clubs, and yoga centers. It is often part of disease prevention and management programs in hospitals, such as stress-reduction courses for people with high blood pressure and heart disease.
Types of yoga
Different branches or paths of yoga developed, including:
Hatha yoga is often a general term used to describe many different types or styles of yoga. If a class is called "Hatha yoga," it will include both breathing and physical exercises or postures. Other styles of yoga can be more intense. Among the more popular styles of yoga are:
How yoga works
Scientists don't know exactly how yoga works for good health. Some say it reduces stress like other mind-body therapies, and others believe that yoga promotes the release of endorphins, natural painkillers and mood elevators, from 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 have been shown to improve health in many ways:
A typical yoga session
Most people learn yoga by taking a group class with an experienced instructor, but one-on-one sessions are available. These private or semi-private sessions cost more. Classes usually last from 45 - 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 generally end with deep relaxation or meditation. Throughout the class, the teacher instructs you on breath control and proper body alignment.
Your instructor will encourage you to practice at home to get the most from yoga.
The benefits of 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 therapies to help treat a wide range of health problems, but it is not a cure for any particular disease.
Studies show that yoga may help the following conditions:
In addition, yoga postures that stretch and strengthen the joints in the upper body may improve grip strength and reduce pain among people with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Some people may feel stiffness as their bodies get used to different postures. As with any physical activity, yoga may lead to an injury if not done properly. It’s important to practice yoga with a trained teacher is important.
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 physical activity. 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. 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.
International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) -- www.iayt.org
Yoga Alliance -- www.yogaalliance.org
Yoga Journal -- www.yogajournal.com
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Review Date: 1/26/2011
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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