December 13, 2010
People have been practicing yoga for more than 5,000 years And when you look at how popular it is these days, it seems yoga for health, fitness, and stress control will be around for a long time to come, too.
To see how "into" yoga people are lately, just look at the newspaper or do a quick online search. Chances are you'll find more than one yoga studio or class just about anywhere you happen to be.
So what is this thing that has so many people getting bent into shape?
At its most basic, yoga is different breathing exercises and poses or postures, called asanas, which, when done right, work to build muscle tone, strength, balance, and help lower stress through steady breathing. Asanas are often named after things in nature – The Cobra, The Mountain, The Half-Moon, or The Tree are all examples of common yoga asanas.
And asanas are only the beginning. There are also many styles of yoga; it really does have something for everyone. Doctors may prescribe Hatha or Iyengar yoga for older people to help them get better balance, therapists may send people to Iyengar or Vinyasa yoga to help them heal after an injury, and many health experts agree that all types of yoga seem to help with pain, depression, anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate, fatigue, weight problems, and even cancer.
About.com's Yoga Style Guide lists some of the more popular kinds of yoga. Here's a short list:
And then there's Pilates, which isn't yoga but is often offered alongside it. The biggest difference is that this method uses Pilates machines. While Pilates works your whole body, its main focus is to strengthen your "core" - your spine and abdominal muscles. Pilates is seen as a good way to get stronger, fitter, better balanced and more flexible with less impact.
So now you've heard that yoga can be good for your body's strength, balance, flexibility, and even cardiovascular fitness. Why do people think yoga is also good for your mind?
An article by the Mayo Clinic says it comes down to one simple thing: stress. Basically, stress can cause health problems, and because (yoga) works to control your breathing, it can help reduce stress - which helps get rid of health problems.
The link between yoga and stress management is so interesting, the U.S. National Institutes of Health is conducting a clinical trial about whether yoga can help with sleep problems, known as insomnia.
It only makes sense. Yoga teaching holds that controlling your breathing is the main way to calm your mind. And because much of yoga is built around movements that make you be focused and precise, it can also be a good way to take your mind off other things.
While you can do yoga on your own at home, it really helps to go to a class or two to get started. Just find a yoga studio that offers beginner or Hatha classes close to where you live and give them a call. When you talk to someone at the yoga studio, find out what you need to bring — or in most cases, what you don't need to bring. Since yoga is often done barefoot, comfortable, breathable clothes and a class fee are often all you'll need. (Note: it's best to wear a top that fits fairly well so it doesn't flop over your head during any of the downward-bending poses.)
If you're in a class that needs a yoga mat, the studio can often rent you one, and if you decide yoga is for you, you can buy your own. (They usually cost about $20 to $60).
Be sure to tell the yoga teacher you're a beginner - before the class starts if you can.
"Warm up" by doing a few light stretches at home for a few days before your first class.
Watch other people in the class to see how they change poses for their physical situations.
Don't give up too easily! It takes a little practice to get the hang of the poses and the rhythm of the class. And remember: everyone was a beginner once.
Finally, if one style of yoga isn't for you, another one might be. There are probably other classes at the studio or at another studio nearby.
Finally, be safe. If you have a chronic illness, check with your doctor before trying yoga, just as you should before starting any fitness program
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