- What Is It?
- Does Yoga Work?
- Yoga for Everyone
- Seniors Yoga
- Prenatal Yoga
- 6 Health Benefits
- How to Start
- Yoga Class
- Is It Safe?
Imagine an activity that increases your flexibility, strengthens your muscles, centers your thoughts, and relaxes and calms you. Yoga does all that and more! In this article, I will review a brief history and the philosophy of yoga, how yoga works, the different types of yoga, the health benefits, prenatal yoga, modern yoga, senior yoga, kid yoga, the equipment you need to do it, where to do it, and how to get started.
What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient physical and spiritual discipline and branch of philosophy that originated in India reportedly more than 5,000 years ago. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke, join, or unite. The Iyengar school of yoga defines yuj as the "joining or integrating of all aspects of the individual - body with mind and mind with soul - to achieve a happy, balanced and useful life." The ultimate aim of yoga, they claim, is to reach kaivalya (emancipation or ultimate freedom).
Who invented yoga?
There is no written record of who invented yoga because it was practiced by yogis (yoga practitioners) long before any written account of it could have come into existence. Yogis over the millennia passed down the discipline to their students, and many different schools of yoga developed as it spread. The earliest written record of yoga, and one of the oldest texts in existence, is generally believed to have been written by Patanjali, an Indian yogic sage who lived somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutras (sutra means "thread" in Sanskrit), which are the principles, philosophy, and practices of yoga that are still followed today. Although many schools of yoga have evolved over the centuries, they all follow these same fundamental principles. Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual traditions use many of the yoga techniques or derivations of those techniques.
How does yoga work?
Yoga uses asanas (postures), focused concentration on specific body parts, and pranayama (breathing techniques) to integrate the body with mind and mind with soul.
Yoga asanas (postures or poses) help condition your body. There are thousands of yoga poses, and in Sanskrit, these poses are called kriyas (actions), mudras (seals), and bandhas (locks). A kriya focuses on the effort necessary to move energy up and down the spine; yoga mudra is a gesture or movement to hold energy or concentrate awareness, and a bandha uses the technique of holding muscular contractions to focus awareness.
Yoga focuses on the mind by teaching you to concentrate on specific parts of the body. For instance, you may be asked by the instructor to focus deeply on your spine or let your mind go and have your body sink into the floor. This awareness keeps the mind-body connection sharp and doesn't allow a lot of time for external chatter (like worrying about what you're going to have for dinner or the presentation at the office that you're preparing for). Instead, the focus is internal, between your head and your body. An example is savasana (the corpse pose), which is practiced by virtually all schools of yoga. During savasana, you lie on your back with your eyes closed and just let your entire body sink into the floor. The idea is to not fight any thoughts you have but to let them come and go while the instructor leads you through visual imagery to help you focus on how your muscles feel. The desired and often obtained result is to drift into a peaceful, calm, and relaxing state. Savasana is generally the final pose of a yoga session before final chanting and/or breathing exercises.
Yoga uses controlled breathing as a way to merge the mind, body, and spirit. The breathing techniques are called pranayamas; prana means energy or life force, and Yama means social ethics. It is believed that the controlled breathing of pranayamas will control the energy flow in your body. It is my experience that controlled breathing helps me focus on muscles that are working, and during savasana, it slows down my heart rate, calms my mind, and leads to a deep, inner calm and sense of relaxation.
What are the types of yoga?
There are dozens of types, or schools, of yoga. They evolved over the centuries as different yogis developed their own philosophies and approaches and taught them to eager students, who then passed them on to their own students and disciples. For instance, Hatha yoga, arguably the most popular type of yoga taught in the U.S., was developed by Yogi Swatmarama in India in the 15th century and described by Swatmarama as (1) "a stairway to the heights of Raja yoga (Raja being one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, outlined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras) and (2) a preparatory stage of physical purification that renders the body fit for the practice of higher meditation." Likewise, Kundalini yoga, which is reported to be more than 5,000 years old, was introduced to the west in 1969 by Yogi Bhajan when he traveled here from India.
Fundamentally, all yoga types strive for the same outcome, a unification of mind and body and spirit, although they may differ in their philosophy and even in the asanas. For instance, I took a yoga class yesterday that the teacher called Anusara, which she described as "opening the heart." I have never taken this type of yoga class, but the asanas were familiar (with just slight variations), the savasana at the end of the class was the same as other classes, and I left feeling the same as I do when I take Hatha or any other; that is, I felt calm, relaxed, stronger, and virtuous for having done it.
I did a quick search for yoga types and compiled the following list (certainly not all-inclusive):
- Jnana, Bhakti,
- Kali Ray Tri,
- Kundalini, and
There's also yoga on the physioball (truly an American invention), and I even found nude yoga! Some of the most popular in the U.S., and the ones you are most likely to find in yoga and fitness centers, are
- Astanga (or Ashtanga),
- Bikram, and
Your local center may teach other types, so you should contact the center if you are curious. I will briefly describe the most popular types of yoga in the U.S. Many of the others are searchable online.
Hatha yoga is the most widely practiced type in the U.S. and is excellent for beginners. It is gentle with slow and smooth movements, and the focus is on holding the poses and integrating your breathing into the movement. It's a great introduction to yoga as it incorporates many different asanas, as well as pranayamas and chanting. Hatha yoga will prepare you for other yoga types that might be taught at your yoga center. Hatha is a great way to stretch, work your muscles, get in touch with your body, relax, and decrease stress.
Iyengar yoga is a form of yoga that uses poses similar to Hatha, but it focuses more on body alignment and balance, holding poses longer, and using props such as straps, blankets, and blocks. It's also a good choice for beginners.
Kundalini yoga emphasizes rapid movement through the poses and emphasizes breathing, chanting, and meditation. It has a more spiritual feel than Hatha and focuses on energy balance in your body. You might find Kundalini physically and mentally challenging if you're a beginner and unfamiliar with yoga poses, chanting, and meditation, and so Hatha or any beginner class is probably a better way to go.
Bikram yoga is derived from traditional Hatha yoga but is practiced in a room (sometimes unventilated) heated to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The objective is to loosen muscles and sweat to cleanse the body and remove symptoms of disease and chronic pain. To my knowledge, there hasn't been any research on the safety or efficacy of Bikram, and so I don't recommend it because of the potential risk of dehydration, hyperthermia (overheating), blood pressure changes, and cardiac problems with exertion in such an inhospitable environment. This is particularly so for individuals who may have an existing heart problem or high blood pressure but don't know it. Bikram has grown in popularity, and some people swear by it. I recommend that you speak with your physician first if you are determined to try it.
Ashtanga yoga, or power yoga, is an ancient system of yoga taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. In the U.S., it is taught as an aggressive workout where you move quickly from one pose to another to build strength and endurance. There is little emphasis on meditation with Ashtanga, and at the end of the session, you will feel more like you have completed a traditional weight-training or callisthenic workout than you would with any other type of yoga. Ashtanga is for you if you're looking for a tough, physically challenging workout.
As I said, there are many other yoga types, and you can find information about all of them online.
Who should do yoga?
Apparently, many people are practicing yoga.
- According to a 2003 survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, an estimated 13.4 million Americans practice yoga or other mind-body exercises such as tai chi.
- Of those, an estimated 1.6 million were 55 or older.
- According to data published in 2004 in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, an estimated 15 million American adults have used yoga at least once in their lifetime, and individuals interviewed for that study reported that they used yoga for wellness (stress reduction, quality of life), health conditions, and specific ailments like back or neck pain.
- And 90% felt yoga was very or somewhat helpful.
Yoga for kids
Studies show that kids are getting less physical education today than ever before.
- Yoga for kids may be just the activity to help alleviate the problem.
- Kids can learn how to experience their physicality and learn how they move with yoga.
- It can also be fun! I encourage all parents to look for kids' yoga in your area and enroll their children.
Yoga for seniors
It's well known that balance, posture, and other elements of fitness and health diminish as we age. What if yoga could help? I'm not aware of yoga studies that specifically target seniors, but there may be hope.
In a study of balance and tai chi (a Chinese martial art that uses slow, controlled poses to promote health) in 256 physically inactive adults aged 70 to 92 who practiced tai chi three times a week for six months, it was found that tai chi helped decrease
- the number of falls,
- the risk of falling, the fear of falling, and
- it improved functional balance and physical performance.
Although tai chi isn't yoga, there are similarities, and one could speculate that yoga might yield similar benefits.
Health benefits of prenatal yoga
Although I am not aware of studies to prove how yoga can help expectant women, prenatal yoga is popping up all over the place; in classes, books, and exercise videos. Ads for prenatal yoga claim that expectant moms can alleviate symptoms associated with pregnancy, such as
- problems with digestion,
- the asanas will prepare them for labor,
- delivery, and
- postpartum recovery.
On the spiritual side, claims are that prenatal classes will inspire mothers to deeply connect with their babies and prepare them for their new journey together. Whether any of this is true or not is hard to say, but it certainly does make sense that conditioning the muscles and connecting with your body in anticipation of labor and delivery could have a positive effect. If you're pregnant and your doctor approves of yoga, then I think a prenatal class where the teacher is trained and knowledgeable could be a great thing to do.
Is yoga just another fitness fad?
I don't think so. It has been around for thousands of years, and its popularity worldwide and in the U.S. continues to grow.
What are the health benefits of yoga?
Studies of the benefits of yoga are only beginning to accumulate and so the evidence is not overwhelming or conclusive at this point. One of the problems with the studies is that they are done with small numbers of subjects and so may not represent the general population, and many are conducted in India and published only in foreign medical journals, making it difficult to know what rigorous standards the journals place on the researchers. However, this is not to say that yoga isn't good for you, and the studies that have been done may indicate a trend toward, or the possibility of, benefit. Below is a brief review of some of the available yoga research.
- High blood pressure (hypertension): Many people believe that practicing yoga can help lower blood pressure by teaching breathing techniques and reducing stress. It is true that lifestyle changes like regular physical activity and stress management can help lower and manage blood pressure, but it doesn't do so in all cases. As for yoga, there hasn't been enough research to make firm claims. The American Heart Association Report on Prevention, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure does not mention yoga even once. However, there is some indication that yoga can help. In one study, small but significant reductions in blood pressure were shown in just three weeks of daily yoga, and in another study, one hour of daily yoga for 11 weeks revealed that both medication and yoga were effective in controlling hypertension. In one of the best quantitative studies, systolic blood pressure (the top number) decreased from 142 to 126mmHg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) decreased from 86 to 75mmHg after 40 days of a yoga regimen. These results do not mean that you should stop taking your blood pressure medication if you start practicing yoga (you should never go off medication without the approval of your doctor).
- Mood: After just one yoga class, men reported decreases in tension, fatigue, and anger after yoga, and women reported fairly similar mood benefits.
- Diabetes: There is some evidence to suggest that yoga may lower blood glucose. After just eight days of yoga in 98 men and women 20-74 years of age, fasting glucose was better than at the beginning of the study, but subjects in this study were also exposed to dietary counseling and other lifestyle interventions, so it's difficult to know if the yoga on its own was responsible for the changes.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: Individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome who did yoga twice a week for eight weeks had less pain in their wrists than people with carpal tunnel who wore a splint. The effect may be due to improved grip strength in the yoga subjects.
- Strength and flexibility: In one of the most persuasive yoga studies, men and women 18-27 years of age who participated in two yoga sessions per week for eight weeks increased the strength in their arms by 19% to 31%, and by 28% in their legs. Their ankle flexibility, shoulder elevation, trunk extension, and trunk flexion increased by 13%, 155%, 188%, and 14%, respectively!
- Asthma: There is some evidence to show that reducing symptoms of asthma and even reduction in asthma medication are the result of regular yoga. Again, this doesn't mean that you should stop taking your asthma medication if you start practicing yoga, but it does suggest that there could be some positive results, and you should ask your doctor if you have a question about it.
Independent of studies, I think it's fair to say that the majority of people who practice yoga regularly enjoy it and find it beneficial. The preliminary data from the studies reviewed seems to indicate that there is benefit from the regular practice of yoga. If your interest has been piqued and you have chronic medical problems, discuss adding yoga to your medical routine with your primary care physician.
What equipment and props are needed for yoga?
Mats: You don't need much to practice yoga, but in modern yoga studios with hardwood floors, you will need a sticky rubber mat to keep from slipping. In the good old days, there were studios with carpeted floors where you just brought a towel, but mats are now a necessity in most studios. You can find mats online from $20 to $60. You pay more for more sweat resistance, more padding, more stickiness, or different materials. The $20 dollar mats work just fine for most of the participants who use them. You can usually rent a mat from the yoga studio for $1 to $2 if you're just starting out.
Towel: Bring a towel to your first class. You don't know if they will supply you with one and you might want it to wipe away sweat, or even roll it up for support under your neck.
Blanket: Most studios supply these. A blanket is helpful to fold up and sit on if you have difficulty sitting flat on the floor with legs crossed like in a pose called sukhasana. A blanket is also useful to cover you when you lie still during savasana if the room is cool.
Blocks and wedges: Blocks are brick-sized pieces of foam that help with body alignment and getting into some of the poses. Most studios supply these, but if you want to buy your own, expect to pay $10 to $15 per block.
Straps: Straps are made of cotton and are useful for stretching and holding poses, particularly for poses with your legs. They come with a D-ring or quick-release buckle to adjust the length. Both work fine, the quick release is just a bit easier to adjust (you probably won't adjust your strap all that much, so either will do). They cost around $10, but again, check with your studio to see if they supply them. Order an 8-10 foot strap if you are taller than 6 feet.
It is probably best to speak with the studio or instructor to find out what they suggest you bring to a first yoga session. Also, keep in mind that borrowed or rented equipment may or may not be sanitary.
How do I go about getting started with yoga?
I remember my first yoga class. I wasn't concerned about being able to do the poses, but I was a bit skeptical about the chanting and the spiritual side of it. I remember sneaking a peek every few moments while all eyes were supposed to be closed to see what everyone else was doing. It turned out that the chanting and meditative breathing was a valuable part of the experience for me. It took a couple of sessions to get the hang of it, but once I did, it centered and calmed me and I felt great about it. I even remember sweating less while walking outdoors during the hot summer months as a result of just feeling calmer. To this day, I still do my favorite yoga exercise, sun salutation (surya namaskar), after every one of my runs, and if I am stressed, I will do a short one- to two-minute yoga breathing exercise with my eyes closed to capture the "yoga feeling" and calm me down. My experience with yoga is that, when I do it regularly, I am calmer, clearer, and feel good for having done it.
I recommend starting with a basic class. All yoga studios offer these, and all you need to do is call ahead or look at the schedule for beginner classes. I also suggest letting the instructor know if you are a first-timer so he or she can give you a hand when you need it. A helpful instructor will keep an eye on you and physically assist you with poses if you need it. It can make all the difference in the world if the instructor pays attention when you're struggling.
What should be worn during yoga?
Any clothing that is unrestrictive will work. Tank tops, T-shirts, leggings, tights, or shorts will do the trick. You will be bending, twisting, and possibly being upside down during your yoga session, so wear clothing that won't expose more of you than you are comfortable with.
You won't wear socks during your session, although you might want them handy for savasana at the end of your feet get cold.
Where can I try yoga?
Yoga centers are popping up all over. According to IDEA and the North American Studio Alliance, the number of facilities offering yoga has gone up from 31% in 1996 to 85% in 2002. Check the following Web sites to locate yoga near you: http://www.yogafinder.com/ and http://www.yogajournal.com/OnlineDirectory/.
You can also check the Yellow Pages (remember the Yellow Pages?) or even your local parks department Web site. There may be a dedicated yoga studio in your area or a local rec center, YMCA, or fitness center that offers classes.
Is it safe to do yoga?
You should discuss yoga with your doctor before starting if you have medical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetic eye disease (diabetic retinopathy), orthopedic problems (low back, neck, etc.), or any other medical condition that you think might be worsened by yoga.
Some of the poses may be unsafe, and your doctor can advise you. For instance, individuals with diabetic retinopathy should not do exercises where the head is below the heart,
- like a downward dog (adho mukha svanasana),
- forward bending (konasana),
- handstands (adho mukha vrksasana), and
- any of the other inversion poses (half plow [ardha halasana]; plow [halasana]; shoulder stand [sarvangasana]).
Some of you may have back problems, and that should definitely be discussed with your doctor and the yoga instructor before you start. If necessary, speak with the yoga instructor or studio manager and find out what poses will be used, and then if you have doubts, you can run it by your doctor. Although the yoga instructor may be trained, they are not doctors, so you should check with your physician about your medical concerns.
Go for it!
Yoga is a great complement to aerobic and resistance exercise, and I suggest that you might be completely surprised at the benefits you experience. I don't see how you have anything to lose, so I urge you to give it a try! I will leave you with a yoga chant that is occasionally used to end a yoga session.
Om Om Om
Asatho Maa Sath Gamaya
Thamaso Maa Jyothir Gamaya
Mruthyor Maa Amrutham Gamaya.
Om Shanthi. Shanthi. Shanthi.
Om Om Om
Lead me from unreal to real
Lead me from darkness to light
Lead me from death to immortality.
Om Shanthi. Shanthi. Shanthi. (Peace, peace, peace be to all.)
May the entire world be happy.
What resources are available for people interested in yoga?
- Hatha Yoga Manual I by Samskrti and Veda. It's out of print, but it's available used online and it's my favorite yoga book. It's simple and has pictures and descriptions of many of the poses you'll learn as a beginner. Manual II in the series is also worthwhile.
- YogaKids 3: Silly to Calm for Ages 3-6 (DVD)
- Prenatal Yoga Complete by Bodywisdom (DVD)
- Yoga for Pregnancy, Labor & Birth by Colette Crawford, R.N. (DVD)
- Yoga on the Ball: Enhance Your Yoga Practice Using the Exercise Ball by Carol Mitchell (Book)
- Yoga on the Ball by Candace Copeland (DVD)
- On the Ball: Yoga Workout for Beginners with Sara Ivanhoe (DVD)
- A.M. and P.M. Yoga for Beginners by Rodney Yee (DVD)
- http://www.yogajournal.com/ Yoga Journal
- http://www.yogafinder.com/ Yoga locator
- http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/ Yoga locator
- http://www.matsmatsmats.com/ Equipment
- http://www.yogajournal.com/newtoyoga/159.cfm Sanskrit dictionary
- http://www.yogajournal.com/OnlineDirectory/ Yoga locator
- http://www.yogaaccessories.com/Index.asp Equipment
- http://www.yogaprops.net/index.htm Equipment
Search online for "yoga DVDs" or "yoga videos" and you'll get lots of other resources.
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http://www.iyengar-yoga.com/yoga/ June 4, 2007
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