In the Western world, yoga was once considered the province of New Agers and students of Eastern philosophy. However, the 2005 "Yoga in America" survey, conducted by Yoga Journal, shows that the number of practitioners in the US increased to 16.5 million with the 18-24 age group, showing a 46% increase in one year. Many celebrities and fitness experts have brought yoga into the spotlight by incorporating it into their regular fitness routines.
Now yoga has been added to mainstream workouts for stress relief, increased flexibility, and strength training. Highly successful commercial fitness programs often include “power” yoga for fat-burning and weight loss. Televised yoga sequences are available to run beginners through basic sets of poses. Many primary and secondary schools use yoga poses in their physical education curricula.
Libraries and bookstores are filled with yoga books for practitioners of all skill levels, including young children. Almost every fitness center offers some type of yoga class. There is Ashtanga yoga for meditation and visualization; Hatha yoga for physical strength and well-being; and Raja yoga for stress-relief and clarity of thought.
Some of the latest yoga trends include “hot” yoga, which is performed in a sauna or other humid atmosphere, and nude yoga, which is performed without clothing of any kind. Fans of hot yoga believe that the increased output of sweat helps to cleanse the body from the inside out. Nude yoga practitioners are quick to defend their unusual discipline, insisting that it is a legitimate way to forge a connection between the body and spirit, and does not involve voyeurism or sex of any sort.
Health Benefits of Yoga
Different asanas are recommended by practitioners to cure or prevent problems ranging from constipation to cancer. Yoga is known to reduce stress and other mental worries. It can be most helpful for people who find it difficult to focus their thoughts, or those who are plagued with depression or anxiety. Different poses focus on different areas of the body, so it is easy to design a personalized yoga sequence to address your medical concerns.
Yoga teaches us the valuable lessons of stepping away from everyday stresses and taking a moment to look inward. It encourages us to be mindful of our bodies and what we put into them. Rather than engaging in mindless eating or using chemicals to numb emotional pain, yoga practitioners learn to pay attention to the true needs of their bodies and souls.
Chronic stress can lead to obesity, heart disease, and depression. It can worsen the symptoms of certain diseases, such as diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. Yoga, being a very calming art, has a beneficial effect on stress levels. The breathing and meditative techniques are especially prized for their ability to induce a relaxed state of being. This relaxation translates into tangible medical benefits such as lower pulse and blood pressure, improved circulation, a fortified immune system, and increased pain tolerance.
Because many of the yoga postures require you to flex your limbs or torso in new ways, or to hold the position for a number of breaths, they cultivate joint flexibility, good posture, and improved muscle strength. Strong joints and muscles can ward off conditions such as arthritis and even osteoporosis. Persons suffering from chronic pain often experience a marked improvement after practicing yoga.
Yoga has many “invisible” health benefits as well. Studies have credited yoga with lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels, thus lowering the risk of heart disease. Patients with gastrointestinal problems are frequently advised to begin practicing yoga for its soothing effects. Some patients find that yoga helps regulate their blood glucose levels as well.
Yoga has earned a reputation as an effective weight loss aid. Because it stimulates the metabolism, yoga helps practitioners burn fat at a faster rate. Its mindful approach to the body helps you differentiate between true hunger and stress-induced cravings. Some speculate that yoga stretches the muscles in a way that prevents the accumulation of cellulite. Yoga also promotes heightened energy levels. This is especially helpful for those who are normally too tired to exercise.
Because yoga carries a very low risk of injury, it is appropriate for people of all ages and fitness levels. Children can use yoga to improve their balance, core strength, mental focus, and awareness of their bodies. Elderly individuals can use yoga to improve and maintain muscle tone, keep their joints supple, and improve their balance to prevent fall-related injuries.
Athletes commonly add yoga to their workouts to develop greater strength and flexibility. Swimmers, runners, and other athletes use yoga to help them tone their bodies and visualize success. Wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists strengthen their cores and develop a deeper awareness of their bodies through yoga exercises. Dancers use yoga to become much more flexible, and to learn flowing, graceful movements.
Couples yoga has gained popularity for the intimacy it brings to relationships. Couples who practice yoga together report increased energy, better awareness of their bodies, and an overall improvement in the quality of their lovemaking. Yoga is also beneficial for pregnant women, who often experience back and hip pain due to the extra weight in their abdomen. Poses that flex the spine can prevent this sort of pain from happening, or decrease existing pain dramatically.
A Typical Yoga Session
A yoga session begins well before you start the actual exercise. Some yoga practitioners start their preparations early. They avoid eating heavy foods, preferring to practice on an empty or mostly empty stomach. Some use neti pots to clear their sinuses so that they can perform their breathing exercises unhindered.
Yoga sessions typically begin with a warm-up phase. This is a series of stretches and gentle poses which prepare the joints for more rigorous postures. A proper warm-up will stretch the spine, shoulders, limbs, and core. This is an important step which should never be disregarded, because pulls and sprains can result from practicing yoga with stiff joints and muscles.
Next come the standing poses. These poses are designed to continue warming up the body while building muscle strength and improving your balance. Many involve stretching the arms above the head, or bending at the waist. These are some of the best poses for weight loss.
After the standing poses come the sitting poses. The seated poses help you focus on your breathing. They also stretch the legs and hips, and many of the poses stretch the spine as well. Seated poses are highly adaptable for all skill levels. You can start out with basic poses, then move on to intermediate or advanced as your strength and balance improve.
Next come the twist poses. They build on the spine stretches that began in seated posture, flexing the spine even more and relieving muscle tension that causes backaches. By twisting the body to each side in a variety of ways, you increase your blood flow and circulation, both of which are important for vertebral health and overall rejuvenation.
Supine poses are done while lying on your back. They primarily strengthen the core muscles, including the back and abdominals. A strong core improves your balance and helps you move more easily and efficiently. These poses are wonderful for relieving tension in the stomach area as well.
Inverted poses and balance poses help the experienced practitioner build their strength and balance. These poses build on the skills learned in simpler postures. Good coordination is required for most of these poses. Because they require intense concentration, inverted and balance poses also give the practitioner a mental workout that sharpens the mind by teaching them to drown out distractions.
Backbend poses are advanced spine stretches that relieve tension throughout the front of the body, hips, and pelvic region. They are also believed to have a beneficial effect on the adrenal glands and the kidneys.
The session winds down with relaxing finishing poses. These poses cool down the body and slow the heart rate. Some practitioners follow this up with meditation. An entire yoga session takes about 30 minutes, but health benefits can come from as few as 15 minutes of yoga daily.
Getting Started with Yoga
Yoga is an excellent exercise for beginners. There is no need to purchase special equipment, and yoga routines can be done at home or in any comfortable, relaxed environment. There is a wide variety of postures, many of which are easy for beginners. There are also enough challenging poses to keep the practitioner from becoming bored over time.
While no special gear is required, you will need to have loose, comfortable clothing that allow you to move freely. Yoga is often practiced barefoot, but you can use soft shoes or non-slip socks as well. A yoga mat can be helpful, but a thick towel or blanket can work, too. If you have limited range of motion due to age or injury, you might want to invest in some foam yoga blocks. These blocks help you assume poses that might otherwise be too difficult at first.
Next, you will need to decide where you will practice yoga. Most gyms and health clubs offer yoga classes in a group setting. These are useful for familiarizing yourself with the basic principles of yoga, and offer you the opportunity to ask questions if you are uncertain about a technique. Such classes can become expensive; if you want to try a group yoga class for a more affordable price, consider community, senior, or recreational centers. Many college campuses offer quality yoga programs at a reduce cost.
If you prefer to practice alone, you have many options. You can check out instructional yoga books and DVDs from your local library. That will give you the chance to try yoga and decide if you want to make it a part of your life, without any cost whatsoever. You can purchase yoga tutorials and DVDs at book stores or online. There are literally thousands of titles to choose from, so look for ones that have received numerous positive buyer reviews.
A Web search for “yoga tutorial” will turn up hundreds of sites featuring pictures and video clips that teach you basic poses. Many of these sites have communities of yoga fans who can answer your questions and give you advice.
Next, consider the location where you will practice. If you plan to take a group class at a gym or recreation center, this problem is already solved for you. If you opted to do yoga at home, you will need to find a quiet spot free of noise and visual distractions. This could be your bedroom, living room, or even outdoors in your back yard. If noise is a problem, invest in some comfortable foam ear plugs, or an MP3 player and headphones. Soothing music could make your home yoga sessions even more fulfilling.
Finally, you can decide whether to follow a pre-recorded yoga session or design your own. Again, this is not an issue if you are taking a group class with an instructor. They will help you follow the routine they designed. But if you’re practicing at home, you can use a book or DVD, or create your own routine.
Instructional materials are very useful for beginners. Become acquainted with the theory and practice of yoga before you create your own routine. This will ensure a balanced regimen and proper form, both of which are important for overall health.
Like many yoga practitioners, you might want to modify your eating habits by avoiding heavy food for 2 to 3 hours before your yoga session. If you grow hungry, eat something light and easily digestible, like fruit. If necessary, use a gentle salt water rinse to clear your throat and nostrils. This will make it easier to perform the deep, relaxing breathing techniques.
Begin your sequence with attunement exercises. Practice your breathing while lying in a supine position. Then flow through Child Pose and Cat Pose to give your back a gentle stretch. After a few minutes, rise to your feet and begin your warm-up poses. Stretch your limbs and perform forward bends to warm up and loosen your back and spine.
You can create a sequence of standing poses for yourself, or go through the traditional sun salutation sequence. The sun salutations are a series of 12 postures that stretch and strengthen. The poses are performed as one graceful sequence, with one pose flowing into the next as you breathe deeply and regularly. Most beginner yoga guides contain instructions for the sun salutations, and you can also find illustrated guides online.
After you’ve finished the standing poses, move on to a balance pose. Choose one or two to focus on during your routine. As your balance improves, you can run through several of these poses in one sequence. Choose poses that require you to stand on one foot, such as Tree Pose, or those which allow you to remain near the ground, such as Balancing Cat. You will be holding these poses for quite some time, so choose the ones most comfortable to you.
Next, add an inverted pose like Dead Bug. While it has a funny name, this posture is useful for stretching the groin and toning the abdominal muscles. Boat Pose is another good posture for developing balance, core strength, and toned abs. After you’ve gained some experience, you can add advanced twists and backbends to your routine.
Finish up with gentle stretches and cool-down postures. Choose supine poses that help you focus on your breathing, such as Knee-to-Chest Pose. Do these for at least 3 minutes at the end of your sequence.
After you have designed your sequence, run through it a few times to make sure it suits your needs. Remember, yoga is a flowing art. Each pose should flow easily into the next, with transitional poses in between if needed. The entire sequence should be between 15 and 30 minutes long. As you become more skilled, you can extend your routine to 45 or 60 minutes.
Always check with your doctor before beginning a yoga routine. You will probably get the go-ahead, since yoga has so many health benefits. But your doctor might advise you to avoid putting stress on certain parts of your body. There are plenty of poses to choose from, so even if you are advised to avoid some of them, you will still be able to do more than enough poses to get serious benefits.