What is it?
Yoga means "union" in Sanskrit and was developed in India over 4000 years ago. The practice of yoga promotes a union of the physical, mental, and spiritual body. Yoga was brought to the West in the 1900's and is now a popular form of mind and body technique practiced in the United States.
The goal of yoga is to promote the free flow of prana or "life force" throughout the body. This concept is very similar to the concept of "chi" in Chinese medicine. If the prana is flowing freely, the body will be able to heal itself from disease and prevent future illness. If the prana is blocked and not flowing, the body will break down and illness and disease will develop.
Most people associate yoga with the gentle form of exercise and postures. In addition to the exercises, yoga practitioners focus on hygiene, diet, cleansing, detoxification, breathing, and meditation.
Yoga practitioners believe that our breathing patterns directly affect the way the prana moves through the body. Short, shallow, or tense breathing disrupts the smooth flow of prana and may lead to health problems. Slow, deep, and rhythmic breathing promotes the smooth flow of prana and may prevent problems caused by physical or mental stress.
Yoga exercises and postures are known as asanas. Many postures help stretch and strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Other exercises improve body mechanics, posture, and strengthen the bones. A third type helps to energize the organs and nerves.
Most yoga postures and exercises do not involve much movement. The postures involve bending, twisting, and holding positions in a specific way. Many postures look simple and easy to perform but are more difficult when doing them. Performing the postures promotes discipline, awareness, balance, and a relaxed but alert mind.
Initially, you may have difficulty performing the postures. After the first classes, you may also be sore and stiff. With time, your body will adjust and be able to perform the postures more easily.
Another aspect of yoga involves meditation. Meditation is a unique state of relaxation that decreases stress and tension. There are many meditation techniques but they all promote a slowing of the breathing and heart rate and the relaxation of tense muscles.
Yoga classes last 45 to 60 minutes and occur in a group setting. Classes are usually held once a week but instructors encourage you to practice at home. Daily practice helps to increase the benefits received from the exercises.
Each session begins with a set of gentle warm-up exercises. After the warm-up, the teacher may lead the group in breathing exercises and then begin the postures. Each posture is performed one to three times. Most instructors will demonstrate the posture once and then ask the class to perform the posture. During the postures, the instructor will ask you to inhale during certain movements and exhale during others. After about 30 minutes of postures, the instructor may lead the class in meditation to take advantage of the increased flow of energy and the relaxed state of the body.
There are different yoga schools. Most schools share the basic yoga concepts and differ in the intensity and type of postures emphasized. A good way to find a system that you like is to ask to observe a class before you join.
For more information:
- American Yoga Association (216) 371-0078.
- Himalayan Institute of Yoga, Science and Philosophy (800) 822-4547.
- International Association of Yoga Therapists (415) 383-4587.
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Last Updated: 1/4/2011