Yoga is often used for stress relief, increasing strength and flexibility, and promoting health. It is utilized by approximately 6 million Americans as part of their healthcare / workout regime. So what is yoga? How does it work? And what does it help?
Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning “union”. It is a spiritual practice that uses the body, breath, and mind to energize and balance the whole person. Originally it began years ago as part of the Hindu healing science known as Ayurveda.
How does yoga work?
Scientists don’t know exactly how yoga produces its healthful effects. Some say it works like other mind-body therapies to reduce stress, and others believe that it promotes the release of endorphins (natural painkillers) from the brain.
Yoga includes three major techniques: breathing, exercise (asana), and meditation. These three techniques have been shown to improve health in many ways:
- Breathing lessons – in yoga, breathwork is known as pranayama. Pranayama increases blood circulation, which brings more oxygen to the brain, and enlarges lung capacity, as lung tissue becomes more elastic and the surrounding muscle more flexible. Getting ample air into our lungs helps us to feel alert and focused.
- Asanas – known to enhance strength, flexibility, and balance. Some asanas are designed to massage the internal organs, improve circulation, hormone function, digestion, and other body processes. The Plow, for example, is a basic posture used in Hatha yoga in which you lie on your back (arms at sides, palms down) and stretch your legs overhead until your toes touch the floor. This posture is believed to stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid glands, enhance the flexibility of the back, stretch the nerves and muscles of the back and legs, improve posture, relieve constipation, and reduce body fat.
- Meditation – has been shown to reduce blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, cholesterol levels, and substance abuse.
What does a yoga session entail?
Hatha yoga sessions are usually group classes that last from about 45 minutes to an hour. Each session begins with a gentle warm-up exercise and proceeds on to the three yoga disciplines: breathing lessons, asanas, and meditation. The therapist will first focus on breathing technique and he or she may guide you through several breathing exercises. The therapist will then direct the class through a series of yoga postures. Each posture will be practiced from one to three times. As you hold postures, you may be instructed to perform certain breathing techniques. After three or four different postures, you’ll be allowed to rest. Once you’ve completed the exercises, there is usually a period of physical relaxation combined with meditation.
How many sessions will I need?
Classes may be taken once a week (or more, if desired) for as long as it is helpful to you. Your yoga therapist may also ask you to practice asanas at home to improve your flexibility.
What is yoga good for?
Yoga improves fitness, lowers blood pressure, promotes relaxation, and reduces stress and anxiety. People who practice yoga tend to have good coordination, posture, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, sleep habits, and digestion. Yoga is a complementary therapy that has been used with traditional therapies to treat a wide range of conditions, including cancer, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, migraine, and AIDS. Yoga alone is not an effective cure for any particular disease.
Is there anything I should look out for?
When done properly, yoga is not stressful or tiring, but some people may experience stiffness as their bodies adapt to different postures. Avoid yoga if you’ve had a recent back injury and be sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or arthritis. Some postures are not recommended during pregnancy, but special classes are available for pregnant women. Some postures should not be practiced during menstruation-ask your instructor. Be sure to tell the instructor and contact your doctor if any exercises cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, or severe pain in your back, legs, or joints.