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I had been telling my patients for years about the benefits of Yoga but there was one problem, I didn't practice it myself. I had just heard that it was good for spinal support, balance and posture so it was easy for me to recommend.

About two years ago, I took up the practice on a regular basis and cannot explain the wonders it has done for not only my spine, but also for my mental well being.

I had always had the notion early on that yoga was too gentle and that it couldn't possibly help me with strength and endurance like weight lifting and cardiovascular exercise could but that was so far from the truth. True, yoga may not be for everybody but for most of us, if you're interested in things like improved posture, increased strength, lowered blood pressure and weight loss, then it's something that you want to seriously consider.

There may be some initial apprehension if you have never done it before or if you think you're not flexible enough, so that is why a beginner's class is always a good start.  Let's talk about the essentials of Yoga:

What is Yoga?

The classical techniques of Yoga date back more than 5,000 years. In ancient times, the desire for greater personal freedom, health and long life, and heightened self-understanding gave birth to this system of physical and mental exercise which has since spread throughout the world. The word Yoga means "to join or yoke together," and it brings the body and mind together into one harmonious experience.

The whole system of Yoga is built on three main structures: exercise, breathing, and meditation. The exercises of Yoga are designed to put pressure on the glandular systems of the body, thereby increasing its efficiency and total health. The body is looked upon as the primary instrument that enables us to work and evolve in the world, and so a Yoga student treats it with great care and respect. Breathing techniques are based on the concept that breath is the source of life in the body. The Yoga student gently increases breath control to improve the health and function of both body and mind. These two systems of exercise and breathing then prepare the body and mind for meditation, and the student finds an easy approach to a quiet mind that allows silence and healing from everyday stress. Regular daily practice of all three parts of this structure of Yoga produce a clear, bright mind and a strong, capable body.

Types of Yoga

There are over a hundred different schools of Yoga. Some of the most well known are described below:

Hatha Yoga: The physical movements and postures, plus breathing techniques. This is what most people associate with Yoga practice.

Bikram Yoga: Commonly known as "hot" yoga.  Bikram Yoga's goal is toward general wellness and experts claim the heated studio facilitates deeper stretching and injury prevention, while reducing stress and tension. Bikram claims that his system stimulates and restores health to every muscle, joint, and organ of the body.

Raja Yoga: Called the "royal road," because it incorporates exercise and breathing practice with meditation and study, producing a well-rounded individual.

Jnana Yoga: The path of wisdom; considered the most difficult path.

Bhakti Yoga: The practice of extreme devotion in one-pointed concentration upon one's concept of God.

Karma Yoga: All movement, all work of any kind is done with the mind centered on a personal concept of God.

Tantra Yoga: A way of showing the unseen consciousness in form through specific words, diagrams, and movements. One of the diagrams that is used to show the joining of the physical and spiritual bodies is two triangles superimposed upon one another. The downward-pointing triangle represents the physical body, or the female aspect having to do with work, action, and movement; the upward-pointing triangle represents the spiritual body of support, energy, and vastness.

Kashmir Shaivism: This Yoga system states that everything in the universe has both male and female qualities. In Kashmir Shaivism, these male and female principles form an equal partnership, so interdependent that they cannot be separated. The attraction between them produces the ultimate union of opposites, creating the immense complexity of the universe that we enjoy and celebrate. Unlike other philosophies, Kashmir Shaivism is based in emotion rather than intellect. In fact, Shaivism says that intellectual understanding by itself will never lead us to the realization of the summit of Yoga. The system's great exponents teach that the egotistical intellect blocks our ability to fully experience our individual power.

History of Yoga

No one knows exactly when Yoga began, but it certainly predates written history. Stone carvings depicting figures in Yoga positions have been found in archeological sites in the Indus Valley dating back 5,000 years or more. There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism's religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga. (Other religions throughout the world have also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga.)

The tradition of Yoga has always been passed on individually from teacher to student through oral teaching and practical demonstration. The formal techniques that are now known as Yoga are, therefore, based on the collective experiences of many individuals over many thousands of years. The particular manner in which the techniques are taught and practiced today depends on the approach passed down in the line of teachers supporting the individual practitioner.

One of the earliest texts having to do with Yoga was compiled by a scholar named Patanjali, who set down the most prevalent Yoga theories and practices of his time in a book he called Yoga Sutras ("Yoga Aphorisms") as early as the 1st or 2nd century B.C. or as late as the 5th century A.D. (exact dates are unknown). The system that he wrote about is known as "Ashtanga Yoga," or the eight limbs of Yoga, and this is what is generally referred to today as Classical Yoga. Most current adherents practice some variation of Patanjali's system.

The eight steps of Classical Yoga are 1) yama, meaning "restraint" - refraining from violence, lying, stealing, casual sex, and hoarding; 2) niyama, meaning "observance" - purity, contentment, tolerance, study, and remembrance; 3) asana, physical exercises; 4) pranayama, breathing techniques; 5) pratyahara, preparation for meditation, described as "withdrawal of the mind from the senses"; 6) dharana, concentration, being able to hold the mind on one object for a specified time; 7) dhyana, meditation, the ability to focus on one thing (or nothing) indefinitely; 8) samadhi, absorption, or realization of the essential nature of the self. Modern Western Yoga classes generally focus on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th steps.

Yoga probably arrived in the United States in the late 1800s, but it did not become widely known until the 1960s, as part of the youth culture's growing interest in anything Eastern. As more became known about the beneficial effects of Yoga, it gained acceptance and respect as a valuable method for helping in the management of stress and improving health and well-being. Many physicians now recommend Yoga practice to patients at risk for heart disease, as well as those with back pain, arthritis, depression, and other chronic conditions.

Yoga and Religion

Yoga is not a religion. It has no creed or fixed set of beliefs, nor is there a prescribed godlike figure to be worshipped in a particular manner. Religions for the most part seem to be based upon the belief in and worship of things (God or godlike figures) that exist outside oneself. The core of Yoga's philosophy is that everything is supplied from within the individual. Thus, there is no dependence on an external figure, either in the sense of a person or god figure, or a religious organization.

The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries. Ancient seals unearthed in the Indus Valley provide clear evidence of widespread Yoga practice earlier than 3,000 B.C.E. The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions. Yoga is a system of techniques that can be used for a number of goals, from simply managing stress better, learning to relax, and increasing limberness all the way to becoming more self-aware and acquiring the deepest knowledge of one's own self.

The practice of Yoga will not interfere with any religion. Many American Yoga Association students who have practiced Yoga intensively for many years continue to follow the religious traditions they have grown up in or adopted without conflict.

Who Can Practice Yoga?

Yoga is suitable for most adults of any age or physical condition. Because of the nonstrenuous nature of our approach to exercise, even those with physical limitations can find a beneficial routine of Yoga.

Benefits of Yoga

Yoga, as we all know, is aimed to unite the mind, the body, and the spirit. Yogis view that the mind and the body are one, and that if it is given the right yoga kit and tools and taken to the right environment, it can find harmony and heal itself. Yoga therefore is considered therapeutic. It helps you become more aware of your body's posture, alignment and patterns of movement. It makes the body more flexible and helps you relax even in the midst of a stress stricken environment. This is one of the foremost reasons why people want to start Practicing Yoga - to feel fitter, be more energetic, be happier and peaceful.

Physiological Benefits of Yoga

· Stable autonomic nervous system equilibrium

· Pulse rate decreases

· Respiratory rate decreases

· Blood Pressure decreases

· Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) increases

· EEG - alpha waves increase (theta, delta, and beta waves also increase during various stages of meditation)

· EMG activity decreases

· Cardiovascular efficiency increases

· Respiratory efficiency increases

· Gastrointestinal function normalizes

· Endocrine function normalizes

· Excretory functions improve

· Musculoskeletal flexibility and joint range of motion increase

· Breath-holding time increases

· Joint range of motion increase

· Grip strength increases

· Eye-hand coordination improves

· Dexterity skills improve

· Reaction time improves

· Posture improves

· Strength and resiliency increase

· Endurance increases

· Energy level increases

· Weight normalizes

· Sleep improves

· Immunity increases

· Pain decreases

· Steadiness improves

· Depth perception improves

· Balance improves

· Integrated functioning of body parts improves

Psychological Benefits of Yoga

· Somatic and kinesthetic awareness increase

· Mood improves and subjective well-being increases

· Self-acceptance and self-actualization increase

· Social adjustment increases

· Anxiety and Depression decrease

· Hostility decreases

· Concentration improves

· Memory improves

· Attention improves

· Learning efficiency improves

· Mood improves

· Self-actualization increase

· Social skills increases

· Well-being increases

· Somatic and kinesthetic awareness increase

· Self-acceptance increase

· Depth perception improves

 Biochemical Benefits of Yoga

· Glucose decreases

· Sodium decreases

· Total cholesterol decreases

· Triglycerides decrease

· HDL cholesterol increases

· LDL cholesterol decreases

· VLDL cholesterol decreases

· Cholinesterase increases

· Catecholamines decrease

· ATPase increases

· Hematocrit increases

· Hemoglobin increases

· Lymphocyte count increases

· Total white blood cell count decreases

· Thyroxin increases

· Vitamin C increases

· Total serum protein increases

Basic Poses

Overview

Hatha yoga tries to achieve balance between body and mind by performing physical poses, or asanas. Asanas are physical poses that are meant to improve flexibility, posture, strength and balance. Combined with deep breathing, performing hatha yoga can calm your mind and help you to relax.

Sun Salutations:

Begin your one-hour hatha yoga routine by warming up your muscles with sun salutations, or vinyasa, for 15 to 20 minutes. A sun salutation is a string of any yoga poses that you enjoy in a faster than normal succession. For example, perform mountain pose, tree pose, downward dog and child's pose, then reverse back to downward dog, tree pose and mountain pose. This will elevate your heart rate, warm up your muscles and increase your coordination and flexibility.

Downward Dog:

This position will strength your shoulders, back, core and legs. To perform a downward dog, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and bend over and place both palms on the floor. Point your hips upward and point the crown of your head toward the ground creating an upside down "V" shape with your body. Work toward pushing your heels toward the floor and hold the pose for 30 seconds to three minutes.

Mountain Pose:

Mountain pose is the center of many standing poses because it's a basic standing pose with the big toes touching, heels slightly apart and the hands at the sides. Keep your spine elongated and weight distributed evenly when performing the mountain pose. Also, keep the shoulders relaxed, eyes focused on a fixed point and concentrate on your breathing. Raise your arms over head as you inhale and slowly lower them at your side as you exhale. Remain standing tall as you move your arms. Repeat this for 30 seconds to three minutes.

Tree Pose:

Tree pose begins by standing tall with your feet shoulder width apart and arms relaxed at your sides. Focus on a fixed position and shift your weight to you left leg. Lift your right leg and place the right foot on the side of your left thigh, you can use your hands to help. If you cannot raise your foot to the thigh then place it on the shin or ankle. Hold the pose for three minutes and repeat on the other leg.

Warrior One:

The warrior one pose begins in mountain pose then transitions into a lunge-like position as you step back with your left foot three to four feet and turn the foot 45 degrees. Be sure both hips are facing forward as you inhale and raise your arms perpendicular to the ground keeping your shoulder width apart and parallel to each other. Breathe deeply in this pose until you fill your lungs and slow exhale through the nose. Hold this pose for 30 seconds to three minutes then repeat on the other side.

Child's Pose:

Kneel on the floor. Touch your big toes together and sit on your heels, then separate your knees about as wide as your hips. Slowly lean your torso into your thighs and lay your arms by your side with the palms facing up. Engage in deep breathing as you hold this pose for the desired duration, anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes.

Corpse Pose:

Lie on the floor with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms at your sides with the palms facing up. Keep your head straight, your shoulders relaxed and your spine elongated as you breathe normally through the nose. Also, relax your facial muscles and close your eyes and listen to the rhythm of your breathing as you rest in this pose. Hold this pose for three to five minutes. Corpse pose is a great way to begin the cool down and meditation part of hatha yoga.

Cool down and Meditation:

It's important to set aside 15 to 20 minutes of cool down and meditation into your one-hour hatha yoga routine. Relaxation poses such as corpse pose, fetus pose and lotus pose require you to rest on your back, lie on your side and remain in a seated position as you close your eyes and take some deep breaths. This creates a calming environment that allows you to wind down after a busy day or clear your mind of the many tasks that await you in day-to-day life. Utilize hatha yoga to escape the grind of daily life and relax your mind, body and spirit.

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