The beauty of yoga exercise is that it can be enjoyed by all. No matter your age or fitness level, this gentle, yet powerful discipline offers a completely balanced workout, allowing you to develop strength with flexibility, while reducing stress and tension. Practicing yoga has been shown to improve overall health and cardiovascular fitness. And practitioners agree: this ancient art may slow and possibly even reverse the aging process.
First popular in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s, yoga has now re-entered the mainstream. People today are rediscovering what yoga practitioners have known for thousands of years-that yoga’s simple stretching exercises provide the opportunity for a lifetime of radiantly good health and inner peace. Health professionals now recognize that yoga’s preventive, healing benefits can be the perfect antidote to the stresses of the modern world.
YOGA THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Yoga is an ancient philosophical system that originated in India over 5,000 years ago. Yoga means “to yoke” or “union” in Sanskrit-a bringing together to make whole the body, mind, and spirit. In approximately 2 A.D., the great Hindu sage, Patanjali, wrote down the principles of classical yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Since that time, yoga has evolved into four philosophical branches: Bhakti Yoga (cultivating devotion), Jnana Yoga (developing wisdom), Karma Yoga (the way of action), and Raja Yoga (inner concentration). The stretching exercises familiar to Westerners are hatha yoga, a small branch of Raja Yoga.
YOGA’S HEALTH BENEFITS
While a small dose of hatha yoga can result in a heightened sense of well-being, a regular regimen will reward you with a body that’s lighter and more flexible. Scientific studies confirm many of yoga’s benefits. In an article in Medicine, Exercise, Nutrition, and Health Journal, a team of Georgia Tech researchers concluded that a 32 minute yoga routine was a more efficient cardiovascular exercise than the same amount of time spent walking on a treadmill. According to the research team, yoga’s cardiovascular value, along with its ability to enhance flexibility, strength, and coordination, qualifies it as an important form of exercise.
A plethora of healthcare providers, hospitals, and insurance companies confirm yoga’s preventive benefits. Having a flexible lower-back and hamstring muscles can reduce your chances of becoming one of the millions of Americans afflicted with back pain, says physician and yoga teacher Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D. In her best-selling book, Back Care Basics, Dr. Schatz advocates a program of therapeutic yoga exercises for the prevention and rehabilitation of back pain. Studies on yoga exercise, relaxation and meditation techniques indicate that it can relieve high blood pressure, help chronic pain and illness, and neutralize the toxic stress of modern life. Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s largest healthcare providers, offers a therapy program that teaches patients how to incorporate yoga and meditation into their daily lives.
Daily yoga practice, meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques, and a low-fat vegetarian diet, are key components of Dr. Dean Ornish’s innovative program for the non-surgical treatment of heart disease, described in his book, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Random House, 1990). Dr. Ornish’s program has proven so successful that medical insurance companies now reimburse individuals who participate in it.
YOGA POSTURES (Asanas)
Yoga stretching for flexibility has been recommended by exercise specialists to prevent injury and improve sports techniques. Exercise physiologists Dr. Frank Katch, Ph.D., and Dr. William McArdle, Ph.D., authors of Introduction to Nutrition, Exercise and Health, strongly suggest that yoga stretches be performed slowly, with each position held for at least 10 seconds to fully extend the muscle.
Over the centuries, different yoga poses have been developed to efficiently stretch every muscle in the body slowly and gently as a type of moving meditation. While weight training improves dynamic strength–in which muscles become shorter and thicker as a result of moving the weight they work against-holding yoga poses develops isometric strength. Muscles with this kind of power turn long, lean, and limber from pushing against resistance from a fixed position.
There are hundreds of yoga postures, called asanas, which belong to one of five basic movement categories: forward bends, backbends, twists, standing and inversions, as well as meditation poses. A balanced yoga class should have a series of postures that includes all five movement categories. Although yoga can be practiced at home, it’s a good idea for beginners to attend a class to learn how to safely and properly perform the postures. If you have a medical condition, always consult your health professional before beginning an exercise program.
Whether you’re 9 or 90, you can enjoy the many benefits of yoga. Its requirements are minimal: all you need are 30 minutes each day, a mat or blanket, and a small exercise space. Yoga addresses a wealth of different needs: it can teach children to quiet their minds while promoting strength and flexibility; provide healthy ways for senior citizens to slow down the aging process; and serve as a natural beauty aid by creating a more limber, graceful body and serene demeanor. Hatha yoga practice provides each of us an opportunity to reach our full potential physically, mentally and spiritually.
BREATHING AND MEDITATION
In yoga philosophy, prana is life force energy. Pranayama breathing is the conscious regulation of the breath that circulates revitalizing prana throughout the body. Research indicates that breathing slowly and deeply sends a message to the body and mind that all is well, thereby interrupting the stress cycle. Many different controlled breathing exercises are available in hatha yoga.
The following simple exercises can be performed anytime to promote calmness–
Sit comfortably in a chair, or on the floor in a cross-legged or half-lotus position, keeping your back straight and your neck and head aligned with your spinal column. Gently place both of your hands, fingertips touching, below the bellybutton. Then slowly breathe in and out from your stomach. You should feel your belly calmly rise and fall with each breath. Continue this basic breathing technique for ten breaths, allowing yourself to derive a joyous serenity.
Triange-Standing Position: (stretches and strengthens legs and lower back) Stand with legs three feet apart, right foot pointing right, arms extended out to the sides. Reach out with the right arm extending torso until right hand reaches right leg. Grasp the right leg as far down as you can (between the knee and ankle) while extending left arm upward. Turn head to look up at left hand. Hold the pose for 30 seconds. Come up slowly and repeat on the opposite side.
Sphinx-Backward Bending Posture: (back and abdominal stretch) Lie on your abdomen with legs hip distance apart. Bend down elbows and place beneath your shoulders, arms straight forward. Keep the shoulders down from your ears while tightening the buttocks. Hold the pose for 5 seconds.
Pose of a Child-Forward Bending Posture: (stretches the back, neck and shoulders) Sit on your heels with knees bent touching the floor together. Slowly bend your torso forward until stomach rests on thights and forehead is centered to floor. Place arms alongside your body, palms upward, and hands close to ankles. Relax deeply, breathing comfortable. Hold pose for up to one minute.
Half Candle-Inversion: (stretches and strengthens the back, shoulders, and arms) Do not do this pose if you have high blood pressure or are menstruating. Lay on your back then slowly raise your legs into the air, lifting the hips. Support the back of your hips with your hands, while your elbows are securely braced on the floor as close together as possible. Keep the legs straight with your feet at a 45 degree angle above your head. Hold the pose for 30 seconds.
Simple Twist-Twist: (stretches and strengthens the back muscles and spine) Sit on the floor in a cross-legged position keeping the spine straight. Slowly rotate your torso to the right and place the right hand on the floor behind the right hip. Grasp the right knee with the left hand and look over the right shoulder. Hold the pose for 10 seconds. Repeat the twist to the left.
Meditation Posture-Half Lotus (stretches hips, knees and ankles, improves posture) Sit cross-legged, right leg in front of the left, keeping the spine straight. Do not force this position, or it may injure the knees. Gently grasp the right foot with both hands and slowly bring it high up on the left thigh. Extend arms out to sides of knees, touching index finger to thumb, palms facing up. Breathe deeply and hold the pose for 10 seconds. Repeat with the left foot.
Written by: Elaine Gavalas