With Americans facing an obesity epidemic, more and more individuals are looking for simple, effective ways to exercise. At the same time, people want activities that are relaxing and which reduce the amount of stress they have in their lives. Yoga is a means to combine these needs for improved health.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient Hindu art or way of life designed to join an individual to a higher sense of spirituality or the divine. It strives to bring a person to enlightenment. Yoga makes use of physical poses known as asanas to discipline the body. Meditation (dyana) and breathing techniques (pranayama) also are found in Yoga.
Yoga got its start as early as 3,000 B.C.—stone seals show evidence of Yoga poses from this time. Experts think the art is traceable to early Shamanism. Much of what is taught in Yoga has roots in the Vedas, a scripture tied to Brahamnism, the basis of Hinduism. Additional scriptures called the Upanishads expand on Vedic concepts. The Lord’s Song, a hymn devoted to Yoga created around 500 B.C., stressed opposing evil. The Classical period of Yoga is notable for the creation of yet more scriptures, the Yoga Sutra, which tried to place some standardization over the art. Following this period, the emphasis in Yoga moved from liberating the self to handling th aaasdasde reality of life and the world to live positively in the present. Although practiced in the East for thousands of years, Yoga did not migrate to the West until around the 19th century. Today, people from all walks of life practice the art, including celebrities (e.g., Jennifer Aniston).
The overall goal of Yoga is to allow people to cope with their world and become connected to a greater spirituality, improving mental and physical health. Through this vein, people use Yoga primarily to reduce stress, tone muscle and improve balance and posture, as well as to increase flexibility and range of motion. It also is connected to treatments for various ailments such as premenstrual syndrome, high blood pressure, arthritis and even migraines.
What is it like to practice Yoga?
A typical Yoga session is around 20 to 30 minutes. During this time, individuals move through various poses, meditations and breathing exercises—these often are selected based on specific physical or mental challenges facing the practitioner. The difficulty of the elements progresses as the individual becomes more physically fit and mentally disciplined. For example, some movements such as the “Rag Doll” (bending over while cupping the elbows with the hands) are simple and entirely appropriate for beginners. Others (e.g., “Shoulder Stand”—bringing the legs, buttocks and lower abdomen upward over the shoulders while on one’s back) are much more advanced and require a fairly significant amount of strength. Regardless of level, a great emphasis is placed on balance and keeping the spine supple.
Who can practice Yoga?
Virtually anyone can practice Yoga. In fact, some practitioners have developed “mommy and me” Yoga, comprised of easy poses parents can do with very young children for exercise and fun. The art is especially ideal for those who cannot handle high-impact exercises. It is also good for those who want to firm up their bodies or lose weight in a relaxing way while not drastically increasing bulk. Although the art is especially popular with women in the West today, males also benefit, with some of the best known yogis (Yoga practitioners) being male.
Although Yoga can have tremendous mental, spiritual and physical benefits, the fact that a major part of Yoga is physical movement means that, similar to any exercise regimen, individuals should get clearance from their doctor before starting a Yoga program. While medical conditions do not necessarily mean that a person cannot practice Yoga, they may mean that a person should not attempt particular poses. For example, prenatal Yoga eliminates poses that do not accommodate the extra weight of the growing baby and which may place unnecessary stress on the spine.