The term yoga comes from a Sanskrit word that means yoke or union. Traditionally, yoga is a method joining the individual self with the Divine, Universal Spirit, or Cosmic Consciousness. Physical and mental exercises are designed to help achieve this goal, also called self-transcendence or enlightenment. On the physical level, yoga postures, called asanas, are designed to tone, strengthen, and align the body. These postures are performed to make the spine supple and healthy and to promote blood flow to all the organs, glands, and tissues, keeping all the bodily systems healthy. On the mental level, yoga uses breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dyana) to quiet, clarify, and discipline the mind. Yoga is not a religion, but a way of living with health and peace of mind as its aims.
The purpose of yoga is to help individuals in all age groups improve strength and flexibility, rejuvenate the body, and work toward greater integration of soul and body as well as better physical health. Yoga can also be used as a complementary therapy for such disorders as osteoarthritis, lower back pain, depression, chronic headaches, high blood pressure, and asthma.
Although yoga originated in a culture very different from modern America, it has been accepted and its practice has spread relatively quickly. A 2008 Roper poll, commissioned by the Yoga Journal, found that 11 million Americans do yoga at least occasionally and 6 million perform it regularly. Yoga stretches are used by physical therapists and professional sports teams, and the benefits of yoga are touted by movie stars and Fortune 500 executives. Many prestigious schools of medicine have studied and introduced yoga techniques as proven therapies for illness and stress. Some medical schools even offer yoga classes as part of their physician training program.
Yoga originated in ancient India and is one of the longest surviving philosophical systems in the world. Some scholars have estimated that yoga is as old as 5,000 years; artifacts detailing yoga postures have been found in India from over 3000 BC. Yoga masters (yogis) claim that it is a highly developed science of healthy living that has been tested and perfected for all these years. Yoga was first brought to America in the late 1800s when Swami Vivekananda, an Indian teacher and yogi, presented a lecture on meditation in Chicago. Yoga slowly began gaining followers, and flourished during the 1960s when there was a surge of interest in Eastern philosophy. There has since been a vast exchange of yoga knowledge in America, with many students going to India to study and many Indian experts coming here to teach, resulting in the establishment of a wide variety of schools. Yoga is thriving, and it has become easy to find teachers and practitioners throughout America.
The other types of yoga show some of the remaining ideas that permeate yoga. Raja yoga strives to bring about mental clarity and discipline through meditation, simplicity, and nonattachment to worldly things and desires. Karma yoga emphasizes charity, service to others, nonaggression, and nonharming as means to awareness and peace. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion and love of God, or Universal Spirit. Jnana yoga is the practice and development of knowledge and wisdom. Finally, tantra yoga is the path of self-awareness through religious rituals, including awareness of sexuality as sacred and vital.
A typical hatha yoga routine consists of a sequence of physical poses, or asanas, and the sequence is designed to work all parts of the body, with particular emphasis on making the spine supple and healthy and increasing circulation. Hatha yoga asanas utilize three basic movements: forward bends, backward bends, and twisting motions. Each asana is named for a common thing it resembles, like the sun salutation, cobra, locust, plow, bow, eagle, and tree, to name a few. Each pose has steps for entering and exiting it, and each posture requires proper form and alignment. A pose is held for some time, depending on its level of difficulty and one's strength and stamina, and the practitioner is aware of when to inhale and exhale at certain points in each posture, as breathing properly is another fundamental aspect of yoga. Breathing should be deep and through the nose. Mental concentration in each position is also very important for improving awareness, poise, and posture. During a yoga routine there is often a position in which to perform meditation, if deep relaxation is one of the goals of the sequence.
Yoga routines can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 or more hours, with 1 hour being a good time investment to perform a sequence of postures and a meditation. Some yoga routines, depending on the teacher and school, can be as strenuous as the most difficult workout, and some routines merely stretch and align the body while the breath and heart rate are kept slow and steady. Yoga achieves its best results when it is practiced as a daily discipline, and yoga can be a life-long exercise routine, offering deeper and more challenging positions as a practitioner becomes more adept. The basic positions can increase a person's strength, flexibility, and sense of well-being almost immediately, but it can take years to perfect and deepen them, which is an appealing and stimulating aspect of yoga for many.
Yoga is usually best learned from a yoga teacher or physical therapist, but it is simple enough that one can learn the basics from good books on the subject, which are plentiful. Yoga classes are generally inexpensive, averaging around US$20 per class, and students can learn basic postures in just a few classes. Many YMCAs, colleges, and community health organizations offer beginning yoga classes, often for nominal fees. If yoga is part of a physical therapy program, the cost may be reimbursed by insurance.
Many different schools of yoga have developed in America, and beginners should experiment with them to find the best-suited routine. Hatha yoga schools emphasize classical yoga postures, and raja yoga schools concentrate on mental discipline and meditation techniques. Beginners should search for teachers who show respect and are careful in their teaching, and should beware of instructors who push them into poses before they are ready.
Yoga can be performed by individuals of any age and condition, although not all poses should be attempted by everyone. Yoga is a very accessible form of exercise; all that is needed is a flat floor surface large enough to stretch out on, a mat or towel, and enough overhead space to fully raise the arms. It is a good activity for those who can not go to gyms, who do not like other forms of exercise, or have very busy schedules. Yoga should be done on an empty stomach, and teachers recommend waiting three or more hours after meals. Loose and comfortable clothing should be worn.
Beginners should use care and concentration when performing yoga postures, and not try to stretch too much too quickly, as injury could result. Some advanced yoga postures, like the headstand and full lotus position, can be difficult and require strength, flexibility, and gradual preparation, so beginners should get the help of a teacher before attempting them.
In yoga, it does not matter how a person does in comparison with others, but how aware and disciplined one becomes with one's own body and limitations is important. Proper form and alignment should always be maintained during a stretch or posture, which should be stopped when there is pain, dizziness, or fatigue. The mental component of yoga is just as important as the physical postures. Concentration and awareness of breath should not be neglected. Yoga should be done with an open, gentle, and uncritical mind; when one stretches into a yoga position, it can be thought of as accepting and working on one's limits. Impatience, self-criticism, and comparing oneself to others does not help in this process of self-knowledge. While performing the yoga of breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dyana), it is best to have an experienced teacher, as these powerful techniques can cause dizziness and discomfort when done improperly.
Some people have reported injuries by performing yoga postures without proper form or concentration or by attempting difficult positions without working up to them gradually or having appropriate supervision. Beginners sometimes report muscle soreness and fatigue after performing yoga, but these side effects diminish with practice. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends that anyone considering any form of yoga practice should consult their healthcare provider before starting the program. They should not use yoga as a substitute for conventional medical treatment, and they should not postpone seeing a doctor about any health problem they already have. It is important to ask the instructors at a yoga studio about their training and certification and about the physical demands associated with the type of yoga taught in the studio.
Yoga has been used to alleviate problems associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, migraine headaches, asthma, shallow breathing, backaches, constipation, diabetes, menopause, multiple sclerosis, varicose veins, and many chronic illnesses. It also has been studied and approved for its ability to promote relaxation and reduce stress. However, some researchers are now questioning claims that yoga is beneficial for such conditions as carpal tunnel syndrome.
The use of yoga is increasingly recommended for dysmenorrhea (pain during menstruation), premenstrual syndrome (physical or emotional symptoms that typically begin about one week before menstruation), and other disorders in premenopausal women in Europe and the United States.
Meditation has been studied and approved for its benefits in reducing stress-related conditions. The landmark book, The Relaxation Response, by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, showed that meditation and breathing techniques for relaxation could have the opposite effect of stress, reducing blood pressure and other indicators. Since then, much research has reiterated the benefits of meditation for stress reduction and general health. The American Medical Association recommends meditation techniques as a first step before medication for borderline hypertension cases. Some studies indicate that yogic meditation by itself is effective in lowering serum cholesterol and blood pressure.
Modern psychological studies have shown that even slight facial expressions can cause changes in the involuntary nervous system; yoga utilizes this mind/body connection. That is, yoga practice contains the central ideas that physical posture and alignment can influence a person's mood and self-esteem, and that the mind can be used to shape and heal the body. Yoga practitioners claim that the strengthening of mind/body awareness can bring eventual improvements in all facets of a person's life.
See also Asthma ; Bikram yoga ; Blood pressure and exercise ; Flexibility tests ; Vinyasa yoga .
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Douglas Dupler, MA
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD