Body and mind
Yoga. The word may bring to mind pictures of people holding seemingly impossible poses. But it's about more than just flexibility. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yog, meaning "union" (it's related to English yoke). The practice of yoga is meant to be a union of the body and mind. This harmonious union helps the individual try to reach a peaceful and calm state of being.
Yoga relies on your body's ability to move through a series of poses that require concentration and stability and, in the process, help you to stretch and tone your muscles. It requires no bulky equipment, which means you can practice it almost anywhere: in a class, in the calm comfort of your home, or even while you're on vacation.
Over time, people who practice yoga notice physical, mental, and possibly even spiritual benefits. Healthy rewards include:
- more energy
- lower blood pressure levels
- less stress or anxiety
- improved immunity
- increased flexibility
- increased range of motion
- improved concentration
- better cardiovascular health and endurance
- toned and strengthened muscles
- better respiratory capacity
- improved posture
- possible weight loss
For many people, yoga provides a stress release and allows time for relaxation and meditation. It also helps you become more aware of your body and its potential to evolve.
Is yoga for you?
Young and old alike can choose yoga as a form of exercise. Even people with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and asthma can benefit from increased range of motion, muscle strength, and endurance through yoga.
In the treatment of osteoporosis, a combination of diet and performing weight-bearing exercises is beneficial. Because you bear your own weight during a yoga session, this low-impact form of exercise is perfect for people who cannot enjoy jogging, running, or other high-impact activities.
Pregnancy is an exciting time to incorporate yoga into an exercise program. Stretching and toning muscles and learning breathing techniques can help expecting moms prepare for labour. And after birth, yoga is an excellent way to relieve stress and increase energy levels.
Origins of yoga
Yoga was born in the Indus valley civilization of South Asia over 5000 years ago. The ancient practice of yoga was often a solitary study in forests, where masters passed knowledge of asanas (poses) and breathing techniques to the students. After several changes through pre-classical, classical, and post-classical phases, yoga as we know it today finally arrived in North America in the late 1800s.
What does it involve?
A typical yoga class includes performing a number of poses and ends with members of the class lying on their mats in quiet meditation (focusing and calming the mind and body, not necessarily a religious observance). A class is usually 60 or 90 minutes in length with a qualified instructor teaching a group of people.
Class members perform various poses while standing, sitting, and lying to lengthen and strengthen various muscles. The instructor describes and demonstrates the pose and talks you through proper breathing technique, inhaling at a certain point during the pose and exhaling at another point. Breathing helps you to focus on the stretch and relax into the pose. Proper breathing also helps you to focus when trying to maintain a position that requires stability. Overall, breathing and concentration are key to becoming aware of your body's limits and its potential strengths.
As one experienced yoga enthusiast acknowledged, you should be prepared to feel frustrated and off-balance during the first few workouts.
Myths about yoga
Myth #1: You have to be really flexible to begin yoga.
Myth #3: Yoga is boring.
You might think that you need to be able to bend yourself into a pretzel in order to do yoga, but this is not true. Why teach flexibility only to people who are already flexible? In fact, having poor flexibility is an excellent reason to take up yoga. As you begin to learn and practice the basics of yoga, your body becomes more flexible. Over time, you will see an improvement in your ability to do the various poses. There are many levels, so there is always the right amount of challenge for everyone.
Myth #2: You don't get a workout with yoga.
Most people don't think of a cardiovascular workout when they think of yoga. Although you are not doing fast movements, and there is no booming music pulsing through the room as with many aerobics classes, the challenge in yoga is certainly enough to increase your heart rate. In a class, you perform poses that require concentration and the ability to maintain the pose, and this can give your muscles a good workout – imagine holding a sit-up halfway up for a minute. It also helps your heart and lungs. Learning to inhale and exhale properly allows you to get the most out of each pose and has shown to increase lung capacity.
Nonsense! Yoga is fun and challenging. More and more people are starting to enjoy this ancient form of exercise. If you like competition sports, consider this: you're competing against your own limitations to reach your full potential.
What are the risks?
Even though yoga is a class in which individuals aim to move smoothly from one pose into the next, injuries can occur. Risks involved with yoga include:
- cartilage tears
- muscle and ligament sprains
- neck and back pain
- repetitive strain injuries and overstretching (can happen at the wrists, shoulders, neck, spine, pelvis, hamstrings, and knees)
With the right precautions, you can minimize your risk of injury. Just follow a few simple tips:
- Go at your own pace. Don't try to be a show-off – it'll backfire.
- Listen to your body. Recognize the difference between pain and discomfort. If you feel pain, do not force yourself to hold the pose.
- Be careful bending your back if you already have back problems.
- Do not eat a meal less than 2 to 3 hours before doing yoga.
- If you have any injuries or medical conditions, tell your instructor before you start the class.
Check with your doctor if you a serious medical condition, since yoga may or may not be right for you.
Who ever said yoga didn't have style? In fact, there are so many different styles of yoga that choosing one may seem overwhelming. Which one will be right for you? You will want to do some research - and you may want to try more than one style before making a final decision.
Here are a few of the best-known yoga styles:
Hatha - This is a classical approach to yoga that emphasizes stretching and strengthening. Perfect for beginners, this style focuses on increasing flexibility, breathing techniques, and maintaining the poses.
Ashtanga - This style of yoga is more energetic in its movements. Beginners are not advised to start out with this type of yoga due to its physical demands.
Iyengar - Created by one of the most celebrated yoga teachers, B.K.S. Iyengar, this style of yoga requires proper alignment of the body in each pose and, in some cases, the use of props to perform the poses.
Kundalini - This widely practiced form of yoga focuses on breathing techniques and meditation along with the poses.
Bikram - If you like it hot, this style of yoga may be right for you. Class members sweat through a series of poses in a warm environment that is meant to help the muscles of the body stretch more easily. Bikram Choudhury founded this style of yoga.
Beginning a new exercise program is exciting and challenging. You will be amazed at what your body can do once you get started.
Finding a class
Within your community, there are likely several yoga clubs. Check out your city's parks and recreation listing or search on the Internet for a class. Make a list of a few clubs that interest you and call to ask if a free introductory class is available. This allows you to monitor your comfort level in the class before investing your time and money in a number of lessons. You may also want to ask about the instructor's experience in teaching yoga.
If you would rather practice at home, videos and DVDs are available for many levels of yoga.
How to prepare
Being prepared for yoga helps you enjoy your experience. Consider these tips before going to a class:
- Practice on an empty stomach if possible and drink water during the class if needed. Eating a meal increases blood flow to the digestive system and thus reduces blood flow and oxygen to your muscles.
- Wear light, comfortable clothing. A T-shirt and leggings are appropriate.
- Bare feet are the way to go, so don't worry about specific footwear.
- Get there at least 15 minutes early to sign in and change, and do some warm-up activities like simple stretches.