What Facts Should I Know about Yoga?
Yoga is a gentle way to improve your posture, balance, and coordination.
Yoga is a systematic practice of physical exercise, breath control, relaxation, diet control, and positive thinking and meditation aimed at developing harmony in the body, mind, and environment. The practice entails low-impact physical activity, postures (called asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), relaxation, and meditation. Most people are familiar with the physical poses or yoga positions but don’t know that yoga involves so much more.
What are the benefits of yoga?
In the health fields, yoga techniques are being applied in health promotion programs, substance abuse treatment programs, and as a complementary treatment for diseases such as anxiety disorders, depression, coronary heart disease, cancers, and HIV/AIDS. Yoga is a low-cost self-help approach to well-being.
The origin is a Sanskrit word Yog meaning union. Yoga is a union of the organ systems in the body with the consciousness in the mind. Philosophically, yoga produces a union of body, mind, and energy (or soul or spirit) to bring about a state of equanimity (calmness). Progressing to an even more advanced state, blending science and philosophy, one experiences a union of body, mind, internal energy, and the all-pervading cosmic energy, resulting in better physical health, mental control, and, ultimately, self-realization.
What Is the History of Yoga?
The origins of yoga are shrouded in the mists of time. The ancient wisdom known as “the supreme science of life” is believed to have been revealed to the great sages of India several thousand years ago.
Yoga is an ancient system of physical and mental practices that originated during the Indus Valley civilization in South Asia. The fundamental purpose of yoga is to foster harmony in the body, mind, and environment.
Yoga professes a complete system of physical, mental, social, and spiritual development. For generations, this philosophy was passed on from the master teacher to the student. The first written records of the practice of yoga appeared around 200 BC in Yogasutra of Patanjali. The system consisted of the eightfold path or Asthangayoga.
In the West, several schools of yoga are popular and use some or all limbs of Asthangayoga described by Patanjali. The eight limbs are as follows:
Yama: rules for successful living in society
Niyama: techniques for managing and purifying self
Asaana: posture techniques for physical and mental balance (what most people think of as yoga)
Pranayama: breathing techniques for physical and mental balance
Pratihara: techniques for detaching the mind from the senses for mental balance and calm
Dharana: concentration techniques for mental balance and calm
Dhyana: meditation techniques for mental balance and calm
Samadhi: ultimate advanced meditation techniques and psychic procedures attained after regular practice for universal consciousness
The process involves the arousal of the Kundalini Shakti, or serpent power, believed to be located at the base of the human spine. As one practices the various techniques, this power/latent energy rises through a series of centers or Chakras corresponding to various endocrine glands. When this power reaches the highest center, which is associated with the hypothalamus gland regulating the hormonal secretion of the endocrine system, control over the hypothalamus results. In this way, secretion of hormones from various endocrine glands can be regulated. This mechanism may explain the importance of yoga as a stress management technique.
For more on yoga terms, see Yoga Glossary of Terms.
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Several schools of yoga exist and use all or some of the eight limbs.
The traditional practice of yoga was quite rigorous. A lifelong devotion to the practice and adherence to strict sacrifices was expected. Later-age yoga teachers have modified the techniques, and various paths emerged:
Bhakti yoga: the path of devotion
Gyana yoga: the path of knowledge
Raja yoga: the path of wisdom to self-realization and enlightenment
Karma yoga: the path of action
Other techniques such as hatha yoga (path of physical self-discipline), mudra yoga (the path of channeling life force), and chakra yoga (the path of energy forces) have also gained popularity.
Today, many schools of yoga have simplified the techniques and made them easy to practice for working people.
The system of yoga is in the process of developing as an organized science. Various techniques have developed and become popular throughout the world, particularly in the West, which are, in comparison with the old methods, simpler and less time consuming. Examples of popular systems in the West include kriya yoga and Simplified Kundalini Yoga.
Kriya yoga became popular in the West because of the efforts of its founder, Paramhansa Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship in the United States. The word kriya is derived from the Sanskrit root kri meaning “to do,” “to act,” and “to react.” This method involves a psychophysiological method by which human blood is decarbonated and recharged with oxygen. This extra oxygen is converted into life current to rejuvenate the central nervous system, lessen and prevent the decay of tissues, and enhance evolution of the mind.
One well-evolved school of yoga is kundalini yoga, or a system of primordial energy unification. The hallmark of this school is that it starts from the seventh step in Asthangayoga that of Dhyana or meditation.
In kundalini yoga, the fundamental meditation technique involves performing a “formless” contemplation at different points including the pituitary and the hypothalamus glands. In addition to the meditation, selected asanas, breathing techniques, and relaxation geared primarily toward muscular strain reduction, enhancing the vital capacity of the lungs, and balancing the endocrine and central nervous systems are also practiced. With this system of yoga, physical exercises are simplified.
The techniques of this school have been popularized by the Universal Peace Sanctuary (Erode, India) established in 1937 and World Community Service Centre (Chennai, India) established in 1958. Both these organizations have several branches all over the world and have taught several thousands of practitioners in these techniques.
A recent variation is called power yoga, in which practitioners take a more athletic approach and move rapidly from one pose to another.
What Are the Health Benefits of Yoga?
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The benefits of various yoga techniques have been professed to improve body flexibility, performance, stress reduction, attainment of inner peace, and self-realization. The system has been advocated as a complementary treatment to aid healing of several ailments such as coronary heart disease, depression, anxiety disorders, asthma, and extensive rehabilitation for disorders including musculoskeletal problems and traumatic brain injury. The system has also been suggested as behavioral therapy for smoking cessation and substance abuse (including alcohol abuse).
If you practice yoga, you may receive these benefits:
Improved body flexibility and balance
Improved cardiovascular endurance (stronger heart)
Improved abdominal strength
Enhanced overall muscular strength
Relaxation of muscular strains
Increased energy levels
Enhanced immune system
Relief of stress resulting from the control of emotions
Prevention and relief from stress-related disorders
Intellectual enhancement, leading to improved decision-making skills
Life with meaning, purpose, and direction
Inner peace and tranquility
A word of caution about the incorrect practice of yoga is necessary at this point. With the many benefits may come injury for new practitioners of yoga or those doing it without proper instruction. Over 36 million Americans are reported to be practicing some form of yoga, and health care professionals are seeing injuries such as muscle and ligament sprains, neck and back pain, and cartilage tears.
According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, about 86% of health clubs offer yoga.
A teacher-organized group called the Yoga Alliance recommends at least 200 hours of expert training, and nearly 5,000 instructors nationwide reportedly have satisfied that standard. But since there is no licensing or official certification required, untold numbers of teachers may have done little more than complete a weekend training program or correspondence course. Before taking a yoga class, ask about the credentials and training of the instructor. You may wish to sit in on a class and observe before committing yourself to a set program.
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What Are the Specific Health Conditions Improved by Yoga?
Rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1.3 million Americans — most of them are women. Yoga may help people with arthritis deal with pain and stiffness, improve their range of motion, and increase strength for daily activities.
Multiple sclerosis: Certain forms of yoga may help reduce fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to researchers at Oregon Health and Science University who adapted the Iyengar form of yoga for people with MS.
Individuals who are inactive or elderly: If you are inactive, yoga may be the ideal exercise for both mind and body to begin your activity life. Yoga also provides stress reduction in addition to strengthening the bones and muscles and improving posture as well as overall health and vitality. Because you don’t have to be in peak physical shape to practice yoga, it is the right activity for sedentary people and for seniors who might not otherwise exercise. Instructors can help modify yoga poses. You don’t have to get down on the floor or a mat to practice yoga. It can be started while you simply sit in a chair.
Ongoing research: The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health is evaluating yoga as a treatment for chronic low back pain, insomnia, and other conditions.
How Do I Get Started with Yoga Classes?
You don’t have to be flexible to practice yoga. In fact, yoga will help you become flexible. Because there are many different styles of yoga, ranging from gentle to vigorous, you will want to find a teacher and style that suit your needs, abilities, limitations, current physical condition, and class schedule.
Make sure the teacher knows about any health conditions and your level of fitness. Don’t force any movements or poses. Mastery will come with practice. Wear comfortable, stretchable, or slightly loose clothing and expect to take off your shoes.
A yoga class should make you feel invigorated, calm, and not in physical discomfort. Try to attend a yoga class twice a week or more. Classes usually last 60-90 minutes.
Some of the other guidelines for practicing yoga are as follows:
Remove contact lenses, wrist watch, and other accessories, and tie up long hair.
Do not attempt yoga on a full stomach.
Use a nonslip mat that is long enough for you to lie fully stretched on your back.
Do a warm-up session. The muscles need to be fluid for the complex stretches.
Practice in a quiet and peaceful environment.