- Unlike many celebrity fads, yoga could hardly be described as being flash-in-the-pan fashion. It's been around for thousands of years - the discipline is mentioned in the 3000-year-old Vedic texts - the most ancient written record of Indian culture, and has been flourishing as a fully fledged discipline since around 500BC. It is still highly regarded as a science in the country of
- its origin, and there is even a 'yoga university,' Bihar Yoga Bharati, in Munger, India.
While a belief in the power of yoga is not so widespread in the West, there is no doubt that people turn to the discipline for a number of reasons; to reduce stress, avoid illness - and sometimes just to get a flatter stomach.
How does yoga work?
Yoga is taken from the Sanskrit word 'yuga' to join. It aims for the perfect union of body, mind, and spirit, through a system of postures, breath control, sounds, meditation, and other practices.
Yoga classes are often longer than other exercise classes, and typically last between one and three hours. During your session, your teacher will guide you through a series of moves. Many of the positions that you will learn in yoga have simple names, such as the Cat, the Plank, the Warrior. In comparison to other exercise classes that you may have tried, yoga is based on precision and exact alignment, and you may spend a great deal of time perfecting positions.
Some yoga teachers will use other terminology during lessons, and your first sessions may seem awash with terms such as pranayama, pratyahara and asana. Try not to be put off by this, because mastering 'yoga speak' is not central to good practice.
One of the really beneficial aspects of yoga is that many forms are suitable for almost everyone. The discipline is practised by people of all ages - there are even mother-and-baby classes available. It is very non-competitive, so it can be an excellent way to get back into exercise if you feel intimidated by the thought of high-energy aerobics classes.
What kind of class should I choose?
There are numerous types of yoga, but you'll find some keywords and styles are mentioned more frequently than others. There may well be variations between classes that are branded as having the same style - but some understanding of terms is helpful. No type of yoga is inherently 'harder' than the rest; just check how experienced your class is before you join in.
-- Hatha yoga - 'Hatha' is a blanket term for the 'physical' element of yoga within the discipline as a whole. It covers nearly all types of yoga, but if your class is actually called 'Hatha Yoga,' you can generally expect a balanced, moderate intensity session. During a class you'll do posture and breathing exercises.
-- Iyengar yoga - This branch of Hatha yoga style focuses on understanding the body and how it works. Students focus on symmetry and alignment, sometimes using props - such as straps, wooden blocks, and chairs - to achieve postures. Each pose is held for a longer amount of time than in most other yoga styles.
-- Astanga yoga - If you want a physically demanding workout, Astanga yoga offers a fast-paced series of sequential poses beginning with sun salutations. Students move from one posture to another in a continual flow and link movements from breath to breath. This physically demanding yoga was developed to build strength, flexibility, and stamina. It often helps to be reasonably fit before you start a class.
What are the health benefits of yoga?
The primary benefit of yoga is an increase in suppleness. Yoga aims to increase the flexibility of your muscles and tendons, which will decrease your chance of injury in other sports. However, apart from astanga yoga, where you leap from pose to pose in a flowing movement, yoga does not increase aerobic fitness, so you are best to combine your sessions with exercise that gets you out of breath, such as brisk walking or jogging.
Because yoga is a 'whole body exercise,' there are few people who pursue yoga purely to increase fitness. The emphasis on controlled breathing and meditation means that stress reduction is a principal reason why people take up this exercise. While it is debatable whether meditation per se is qualitatively different from other forms of deep relaxation, how many of us do actually take time out to relax properly? If you live on the hectic side of life, then taking regular time out to practice yoga may be very helpful.
Does yoga have medical benefits?
Yogis claim that yogic practices can be tailored to help treat specific mental and physical disorders. According to the UK charity Yoga For Health Foundation (YHF), many people use yoga to alleviate problems presented by many chronic illnesses.
Although there is little scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of yoga for specific medical conditions, it is likely - at the very least - improve your general wellbeing and is unlikely to do any harm.
Of course, yoga should never replace conventional medicine and you should talk to your doctor before taking up yoga if you have a serious medical condition.
Yoga will never be everybody's cup of herbal tea, but it is an excellent form of exercise that has been around for millennia for a number of good reasons. Don't expect it to be a panacea - but with regular practice it will improve your flexibility and general wellbeing.
- Can yoga make you fit?
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