Yoga is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise and rehabilitation with an estimated 18 million people now practicing in the United States. In June 2010, the Army’s surgeon general recommended yoga as one of several alternative modalities for treating soldiers in pain. But before you jump on the bandwagon and head to the nearest yoga class, you should realize that all modern styles of yoga are not created equally. Taking some time to assess your specific needs and goals, speak with local teachers, and understand variations in yoga styles will lead to an appropriate yoga practice that is safe for your body.
Yoga, which means union, is an ancient philosophy and practice for achieving a balanced state of body, mind, and spirit that developed in India an estimated 5,000 years ago. Originally designed to prepare the body for long periods of meditation, many modern styles of yoga focus on the physical postures (asanas), along with breathing exercises (pranayama), and short periods of meditation (dhyana), without an emphasis on the spiritual observances (niyamas), ethical restrains (yamas), withdrawal of senses (pratyahara), concentration (dyarana), and absorption (samadhi) of the full eight-fold path of yoga. Practicing yoga with attention to slow and deep breathing, inward focus, and finding the edge of stretch or effort without pain, strain, or fatigue results in a safe, effective practice. People who practice yoga report feeling better physically and also discover that yoga helps them feel more peaceful and centered. Regular practice leads to making healthier decisions in all areas of life.
Benefits of Yoga
Regular yoga practice offers numerous benefits including
- Increasing flexibility through gently holding poses at the edge of comfort—never into pain or discomfort
- Strengthening and toning muscles and internal organs through prolonged holding of poses
- Improving respiration by breathing deeply during practice, which opens the chest and lungs and strengthens the diaphragm
- Improving attention and concentration through mindful movement and awareness of the body and breath
- Releasing body tension and calming the nervous system and emotions through the combination of gentle stretching, deep breathing, meditation, and guided relaxation
- Promoting overall health through exercising the mind and muscles, along with massaging glands and organs, increasing circulation, improving digestion, and eliminating toxins
While all modern styles of yoga stem from the ancient traditions, classes vary widely from gentle therapeutic and beginning classes to more rigorous aerobic approaches. If you’re young and physically fit, you might like more vigorous styles such as Bikram, Asthanga, or Power Yoga. If you’re dealing with an injury or chronic illness or are in your later years, restorative or therapeutic classes might be more appropriate. LifeForce Yoga for Anxiety and Depression focuses on poses and breathing techniques to bring the emotions into balance while Lakshmi Voelker Chair Yoga is appropriate for practicing while sitting down. Kripalu and Anusara Yoga focus more on transformation and spiritual awakening, while Iyengar Yoga focuses on strict alignment principles.
To find an appropriate class, speak with local teachers to find out their style and approach to yoga, as well as their credentials and experience. Sample several classes and trust your body, mind, and spirit to choose the right class. If you’re hesitant to jump in alone, bring a friend or start at home with a DVD. Even if you consider yourself fit and athletic, start with a beginning class until you learn the basic principles and correct alignment of poses.
With regular practice, you’ll reap yoga’s many benefits, finding balance not only in your body, mind, and emotions, but also within your family, work place, and community.
About Lori Batcheller
Lori Batcheller, CYT, MPT, MA, is a certified professional-level Kripalu Yoga teacher, licensed physical therapist, and freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. She is the co-author, with Mark Whitwell, of the forthcoming book Real Yoga for Real People. Visit Lori online at www.lbcreative.com.