Yoga: a 5,000-year-old health movement

December 13, 2010

Yoga improves overall well-being

Want more balance in your life? Try yoga

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.

What's your style?

About.com's Yoga Style Guide lists some of the more popular kinds of yoga. Here's a short list:

  • Hatha Yoga — The term "Hatha" actually covers many of the physical kinds of yoga. Hatha style often means a class will be slower-paced and more gentle, making it a good introduction to the basic yoga poses.
  • Vinyasa Yoga — Like Hatha, Vinyasa is a general term for many different classes. Vinyasa, or "breath-synchronized movement," tends to be more lively because the movements are matched to your breathing. A Vinyasa class will often start with a number of "Sun Salutation" poses to warm up, with more intense stretching and movement at the end of the session.
  • Bikram ("Hot") Yoga — Pioneered by yoga master Bikram Choudhury, "Hot Yoga" is done in a hot room (about 95 to 100 degrees), which loosens tight muscles. It also causes heavy sweating, which is thought to be cleansing. The Bikram style is made up of 26 poses, though not all hot classes use all 26.
  • Ashtanga and "Power" Yoga — Ashtanga, which means "eight limbs" in Sanskrit, is a fast-paced series of poses that are always done in the same order. The goal is "flow," which means a constant movement from one pose to the next, and makes it very energetic. Power Yoga is based on Ashtanga Yoga, though it may not follow all the Ashtanga poses.
  • Iyengar Yoga— B.K.S. Iyengar invented this style to focus on body alignment - that is, the exact way your body should be held in each pose to get the most out of it while not getting hurt. Rather than flowing quickly from one pose to the next (as in Ashtanga and Power Yoga), Iyengar is usually about holding poses over long periods. Iyengar also uses props like blocks, straps, and yoga blankets to help the body's alignment.
  • Kundalini Yoga — Here it's all about breathing in line with physical movement; the idea is to free energy in the lower body and let it move upwards. While controlling the breath is important to all styles, Kundalini explores the effects of the breath on the postures.

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.

Improving your mental strength, too

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.

Things to know before you "yo"

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).

The ABC of Yoga Web site offers lots of good basic yoga and health details, as well as information to help you get started.

Here are a few other notes:

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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