Yoga

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History of Yoga

As in fashion, there are trends in exercise too, that seem to come and go. From aerobics to Tae-bo to spinning, the list is endless. But one exercise regime that has withstood the test of time like no other and has endured through the ages is yoga.

Yoga started nearly 6,000 years ago, developed by the Hindu swamis of India as a way to unite the body with the mind, and it’s been handed down from teacher to student ever since. The earliest written records documenting yoga as a health practice are recorded in the Vedas, sacred texts from India dating back at least 3,000 years. Other ancient texts have documented the philosophy and teachings of yoga as well. However, yoga did not emerge as a fully developed practice until 500 B.C. In its traditional form, yoga is considered a complete lifestyle that provides a path to spiritual enlightenment. As well as improving your body’s skills, yoga acts on your emotions and provides a complete philosophy of living.

Yoga teaches the principle of mind/body unity: if the mind is agitated, the health of the body will suffer, and if the body is in poor health, mental strength and clarity will be compromised.

The practice of yoga came to the United States in the 1890s as a result of the teachings of a guru named Swami Vivekananda. It gained popularity in the 1960s because of a rising interest in, and cultural acceptance of, alternative modalities and mind-body therapies. Today, yoga is often practiced as an exercise form separated from its traditional spiritual roots. In this form, yoga exercise is taught at local YMCAs, health clubs, and yoga centers, and is often part of disease prevention and management programs in hospitals, such as stress-reduction courses for people with high blood pressures and heart disease.

What is Yoga ?

Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning "union," is a philosophy that connects the body, breath, and mind to energize and balance the whole person. This mind-body therapy involves physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to improve overall well-being. Although yoga is a spiritual practice to many, the majority of Westerners who practice yoga do so as an exercise and fitness routine or to reduce stress. The study of yoga encourages you to expand your potential on mental and spiritual levels, as well as the physical.

Daily practice of yoga can restore your natural balance and harmony, bringing positive good health to all parts of your life.

By gaining mastery over your mind, and so being able to counter effectively the stress resulting from the frenetic pace of modern life, you can do much to help prevent physical disease.

Divisions of Yoga

Classical yoga is divided into eight “limbs” that provide a basis for spiritual, physical, and mental health by outlining a means to bring the mind and body into harmony, then into deeper stages of meditation.

The eight limbs are:

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Pranayama (breathing)

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Asana (postures)

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Yama (restraint)

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Niyama (healthy observances)

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Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)

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Dharana (concentration)

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Dhyana (meditation)

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Samadhi (higher consciousness)

Types of Yoga

As the different connections between the mind and body were explored, various branches or paths of yoga developed. These include:

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Bhakti Yoga : This form of yoga aims to take all of the love in one's heart and direct it toward the divine. By seeing God in all of creation, the person who practices regularly becomes filled with respect for all life and is encouraged to be sacrificial and to treat others generously.

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Hatha Yoga : This the most commonly practiced form of yoga in the West today. Emphasis is placed on physical postures or exercises, known as asanas, with the goal of balancing the opposites in one's life. During Hatha yoga sessions, flexing is followed by extension, a rounded back is followed by an arched back, and physical exercises are followed by mental meditations. Hatha yoga includes a variety of physical postures that are further divided into two categories: meditative and therapeutic.

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Jnana Yoga : This form of yoga emphasizes deep contemplation. Practitioners seek Jnana, or "wisdom," through meditation. The goal is to be one with God.

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Karma Yoga : This form of yoga is based on the philosophy that "yesterday's actions determine today's circumstances." Practitioners of Karma yoga make a conscious decision to perform selfless acts of kindness. By making today's actions positive, they hope they can improve tomorrow's circumstances for both themselves and others.

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Raja Yoga : This form is known in India as "the royal (raj) road to reintegration." The goal of this type of yoga is to blend the four layers of self: the body, the individual consciousness, the individual sub consciousness, and the universal and infinite consciousness. Raja yoga, being most concerned with the mind and spirit, places its emphasis on meditation.

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Tantra Yoga : Like Hatha yoga, practitioners of Tantra yoga seek to balance the opposites in their lives. They also try to break free of the "six enemies" (physical longing, anger, greed, vanity, obsession, jealousy) and the "eight fetters" (hatred, apprehension, fear, shyness, hypocrisy, pride of ancestry, vanity of culture, egotism) by using discipline, training, and rituals.

Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga, the style most Americans practice, is often a general term used to describe many different types or styles of yoga. If a class is simply termed "Hatha yoga," it will probably be relatively gentle and include both breathing and physical exercises (postures). Other styles of yoga can be more intense. Among the more popular styles of yoga are:

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Ashtanga or Power yoga - a more physically demanding workout, vigorous, fitness-based approach to yoga involving constant movement from one posture to another ("flow"). Power yoga is a recent phenomenon and was developed in the 1990’s by Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest. The term was coined so as to differentiate it from the gentle stretching and meditation that the western world associated with yoga. Power yoga consists of a series of intense flowing movements with an emphasis on strength and flexibility. Power Yoga is designed so as to appeal to the younger generation who want quick and tangible results. It will appeal to people who enjoy exercising and want a minimal amount of chanting and meditation with their yoga. The older generations however, might want a slower approach to this discipline and prefer to choose a more traditional approach to Yoga.

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Bikram, or Hot, yoga - a series of 26 asanas (postures) practiced in a room that is 95 to 100 degrees in order to warm and stretch the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and to purify the body through sweat.

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Integral - a gentle type of yoga that may include breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation.

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Iyengar - emphasizes great attention to detail and precise alignment, and holding poses for long periods of time.

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Kundalini - emphasizes the effects of breath on the postures, with the aim of freeing energy in the lower body to move upwards.

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Viniyoga - adapts postures to each person's needs and abilities, and synchronizes breath and postures (breath leads the body into each posture).

Late/Latest Entrants

There have been a few modifications of late in yoga as well. A new entrant is AcroYoga. It was first developed in San Francisco in 2003. It is a practice that combines Yoga, Partner Yoga, Acrobatics and Thai Massage done in the spirit of trust, connection and playfulness. AcroYoga is a dynamic healing therapy that encourages scrutiny of trust, connection and playfulness. It is based on the belief that when you align with the breath, you find your true divine nature. Through the practice of AcroYoga, you experience a deepening trust in yourself as well as others, and come to realize that by working in partnership, you are able manifest more than you ever could alone.

How Yoga Works

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 yoga promotes the release of endorphins (natural painkillers and mood elevators) from the brain. Studies show yoga can lower heart rate and blood pressure, increase muscle relaxation, and increase breathing capacity.

All branches of yoga mentioned in this report incorporate three major techniques: breathing, exercise (asana or postures), and meditation. These three techniques have been shown to improve health in many ways:

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Breathing Lessons – In yoga, breath work is known as pranayama. Pranayama increases blood circulation and reduces oxygen consumption, which brings more oxygen to the brain, and improves the efficiency of oxygen use in the body. Also, as lung tissue becomes more elastic and the surrounding muscle more flexible, the practice of pranayama can also increase lung capacity. Getting ample air into our lungs helps us feel alert and focused. This, it achieves by focusing on regulating breathing {regulating flow of prana (energy)} to calm the mind and prepare for meditation, a state of concentration that may result in a heightened sense of awareness and relaxation. This is the essence of yoga-both as a preventive therapy and as a curative.

Pranayama, through its influence on the hypothalamus, helps the obese to re-establish the lost balance between food intake and expenditure of energy.

The two most well known pranayamas are:

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Bhastrika or Ballast Breathing increases the flow of air into the body to produce inner heat at the physical and subtle level. It activates and invigorates the liver, pancreas, spleen and abdominal muscles, thus toning the digestive system and improving digestion. If you are resorting to weight loss pills it is sure to give you some side effects. Bhastrika is probably one of the safest options for losing weight as it ensures no side effect.

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Suryabhedana or Right Nostril Breathing helps with many aspects of health, particularly weight loss and stress reduction. It is not a quick fix, but can be an excellent long-term approach to losing excess weight – and keeping it off. Within its ability to create total well-being, lies its ability to reduce excess weight through boosting metabolism and burning calories.

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Asanas (Postures) provide a gentle-to-intense workout that enhances strength, flexibility, and balance. Some asanas are designed to massage the internal organs, improve circulation, hormone function, digestion, and other body processes. These meditative postures deal with bringing the mind to a state of relaxation through spinal alignment and proper blood flow, while therapeutic postures focus on improving physical health and well-being. These poses, or asanas, can make your body stronger and more flexible, relax and tone your internal organs, promote better breathing and circulation, improve your sense of balance and boost your energy. These asanas work at a much deeper level than mere stretching exercises and also release the flow of energy within you. Today, the medical doctors also agree that the regular practice of these ancient poses and stretches, which are done in conjunction with deep breathing, can help prevent and treat a range of ailments.

The regular practice of yogasanas helps to keep weight off and improve overall performance of the body and mind. Some of the best physical postures to keep off the fat are:

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Surya Namaskar or the Sun Salutation - The amount of calories a person will burn by practicing this will vary depending on the person's weight and the intensity and duration of the yoga session. On an average a 130-pound person will burn approximately 240 calories for a light to moderate yoga session. A 130-pound person will also burn approximately 400 calories per hour participating in an intense yoga session.

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Sarvangasana or The Shoulder-stand is called the Queen of all asanas as it benefits the whole body. It is particular for blood circulation and stimulating the thyroid gland by throwing it open. This asana increases fat metabolism thereby converting fat to muscle and energy. This is like killing two birds with a single stone. You will not only lose fat but also have a better muscle tone and vitality.

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Paschimottanasana or head to knees pose is ideal for stretching the arms, hamstrings, shoulders, and spine. In the process it helps rid the body of excess fat.

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Marichyasana or sage Marichi twist pose gives immense benefits to the abdominal organs and spine. It helps increase abdominal fire and decrease fat around the waist and thighs.

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Meditation stills the mind and induces both physical and emotional relaxation. In doing so, it reduces blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, and cholesterol levels. Meditation is a powerful technique that can be used to coax the mind into doing what you want. Remember the saying, ‘Think thin and get thin’. Mind-body techniques offer a powerful set of strategies to lose weight easily, and for good. When you meditate, you concentrate on your breathing while dismissing any distracting thoughts. Fattening foods become less enticing, you begin to crave healthy foods and to desire to move around more, enabling you to reach the weight loss goals you've been yearning for so long.

Two other prominent techniques used in yoga are:

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Shatkarmas - Cleansing techniques

Cleansing techniques purify the entire system of toxins. People suffering from obesity and those of a flabby and phlegmatic constitution will find them especially beneficial. The two main yogic cleansers are:

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Dhauti is a cleansing technique specifically meant to cleanse the stomach. It consists of drinking as much water as you can then tickling the base of the throat and throwing it all out, thereby ridding the body of all excess fat and toxins.

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Shankha Prakshalana is another type of technique for cleansing the entire digestive system. Shankha means conchshell and Prakshalana means to wash. Just like washing a conch shell where you would pour water into the mouth and drain it out the opposite end of the shell, so also with the intestinal tract. It has the same benefits of Dhauti except that here the entire digestive tract is cleansed.

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Yogahar - Yogic Diet

Most illnesses are in some way linked to wrong food habits. A slight modification in dietary habits can rehabilitate the entire system. The yogic diet is a vegetarian one, consisting of pure, simple, natural foods which are easily digested and promote health. Simple meals aid the digestion and assimilation of foods. The yogic diet will help you lose weight and remain healthy. However, any change in diet should be made gradually.

Benefits of Yoga

Yoga helps to keep weight off and improve overall performance of the body and mind. Stiff neck, back pains, wrist pains and poor circulation – these are just some of the occupational hazards of a sedentary job. Add to that wrong diet, shallow breathing, poor posture, stress, and a work station that doesn't help you one bit. No wonder you end up putting on weight and feeling miserable.

Yoga may help in the following conditions:

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Improving general fitness

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Lowering blood pressure

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Anxiety and stress – Yoga controls your blood pressure and teaches the body how to rest deeply and release stress. This, in turn, reduces the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. This powerful hormone is secreted at times of high stress and fear.

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Yoga promotes relaxation and self-confidence, as also reduces stress and anxiety

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Provides good coordination, posture, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, sleep habits, and digestion.

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It is suggested that the static stretching being done in yoga asanas helps reduce muscle soreness after exercise. When tissues are injured during exercise or by bacteria, heat or toxins, they release chemicals that attract the immune system’s white blood cells to clear away dead or damaged cells. This process, known as phagocytosis, causes thousands of white blood cells to die.

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Yoga is extremely effective in reducing the risk of chronic lower back pain. The stretching asanas increase tissue body temperature, which in turn promotes muscle relaxation and reduce stress to the lower back.

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Stretching also speeds the transport of blood and nutrients directly to the muscles, resulting in a reduction in accumulated toxins.

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Another benefit of yoga is increased neuromuscular coordination. Stretching improves the nerve-impulse velocity (the time taken for a signal to travel to brain and back) which ultimately helps opposing muscle groups work in a more synergistic, coordinated fashion.

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Arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)

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Asthma

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Cancer (as an adjunct therapy to reduce stress and strengthen the immune system)

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Diabetes

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Heart disease, by lowering cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, lessening stress, and reducing the frequency and severity of chest pain (when combined with a healthy diet)

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Hormonal imbalances

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Irritable bowel syndrome

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Pregnancy

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In addition, yoga postures aimed at stretching and strengthening the joints in the upper body may improve grip strength and diminish pain among people with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Remember, increased flexibility also means enhanced enjoyment of physical activity. As opposed to some other demanding exercises that merely increase the flexibility, yoga helps relax both mind and body, thereby heightening your sense of well being.

Precautions

Some people may experience stiffness as their bodies adapt to different postures. In addition, as with any physical activity, yoga may lead to an injury if not practiced properly. This is why practicing yoga under the guidance of a trained professional is absolutely essential.

Be sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, or a recent back injury, as you would any physical activity. In addition, if you have any of these conditions, choose one of the gentler forms of yoga discussed earlier.

Some postures are not recommended during pregnancy, but special classes are available for pregnant women. Some postures should not be practiced during menstruation. Be sure to contact your doctor if any exercises cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, or severe pain in your back, legs, or joints.

Remember that yoga instructors are not doctors. Only you and your doctor can decide if a certain yoga posture is too strenuous or might cause you injury depending on your condition.