The exercises we call yoga today, are in fact hatha yoga, a discipline intended to prepare the body for the pursuit of union with the divine while simultaneously raising a practitioner’s awareness of creation to a higher, keener state. Controlled breathing, prescribed postures (called asanas), and meditation are combined in one’s effort to enhance the prana(life force) that resides in each of us. The regular practice of yoga in intended to achieve and maintain a balance and harmony between body and mind.
A typical Yoga session includes three disciplines: breathing exercises, body postures, and meditation. Usually gentle warm up exercises begin the session. Quiet, deliberate breathing patterns are established, and a series of postures or poses are subsequently established and held for seconds to several minutes each. The goals of the postures are to allow mild stretching of all muscle groups in the body while simultaneously allowing gentle squeezing of internal organs. The postures follow a specific order to maintain a balance in the muscle groups. Throughout the Yoga session, gentle movements, controlled breathing, and quiet, meditation continue, so one should leave a session with a relaxed body and mind.
There are at least six branches of yoga and numerous styles. In the United States, the most commonly practiced are:
Hatha yoga. It’s the most popular form of yoga taught in the United States and focuses on poses and postures, including controlled breathing. It emphasizes concentration, endurance, flexibility and strength.
Kundalini yoga. It incorporates chanting, meditation, and guided relaxation through breathing.
Kripalu. It is more free-flowing yoga, and holds poses gently.
Iyengar yoga. It focuses on detail and precise body alignment, holding poses for longer amounts of time. It adapts the physical poses and meditative breathing of hatha yoga into a rehabilitative discipline. In patients with specific mechanical back problems, this form will be the most beneficial with a knowledgeable instructor.
Yoga offers a variety of proven health benefits. Though it is not, in itself, a cure for any medical ailment, it can be used as supplemental therapy in a variety of health problems including: cancer, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and AIDS. Heart and lung efficiencies are increased, with a resultant decrease in blood pressure and respiratory rate. And the meditative, relaxing qualities of Yoga benefit a host of stress and anxiety-related ailments. . .ranging from migraines and depression to panic attacks and insomnia. Additionally, the methodical stretching of muscles and other body tissues serves to improve posture, coordination, and flexibility. Even digestive function is improved in most practitioners since the posturing and deep, deliberate breathing create a kind of internal massage as well.
Yoga can be performed by disciplined children and adults of all ages. Appropriate floor coverings and loose, comfortable clothing are the only needed ‘equipment.’ Though sessions generally last an hour, blocks of 15 minutes can generate benefit. And group or solitary sessions can achieve the same wonderful results in mental and physical balance. Though beginners might suffer a little stiffness or soreness as bodies adapt to postures, the ultimate benefits of Yoga sessions should leave you rested and relaxed. In fact, many seasoned Yoga practitioners begin their days with solitary sessions. They stretch and warm their muscles while the controlled breathing and quiet meditation prepare them psychologically for whatever rigors might await them.
If you’ve had recent back injury or surgery, you should avoid yoga or wait until medical clearance. Instructors should be aware of any specific medical conditions you have, so that postures can be tailored or avoided accordingly. For example, certain arthritic conditions might preclude some asanas, and some positions might need to be avoided in patients with slipped discs or hypertension. Generally, the character of Yoga classes reflect the individual styles of the instructors–and can range from mildly taxing to extremely strenuous. Observing a class before you sign up might be the best way to pick a program that’s right for you. And, some experts recommend that you look for an instructor who remains an active student himself and practices Yoga daily.
Although in this country, the yoga we know today is practiced mainly for its health benefits, it is rooted in Hindu religious principles 5000 years old. The word, Yoga, is derived from a Sanskrit word for “union”, and through its combined disciplines, a practitioner is ultimately brought closer to God. Regardless of religious beliefs, most regular practitioners sense increased mental and physical energy and a renewed lust for life. In quiet, mindful appreciation for one’s body, and ‘the moment’, yoga can enhance one’s appreciation for the present. In the Vedic tradition, delight(ananda) exists in the essence of everything. The regular practice of yoga reinforces one’s concept that happiness depends not on what we have but rather what(who) we are. What a wonderful benefit from mindful postures!
Stephen L. Hines, M.D.