Yoga and Health: Uniting Body, Mind and Spirit
Learn how this ancient practice may help your health, and ease stress.
By Margie Schmidt, Editor
Yoga was first practiced by Hindus in India more than 5,000 years ago.
The word yoga means union, or to join, in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. In modern times, it has been taken to mean to join body, mind and spirit. Yoga is a mind-body exercise that combines physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation or relaxation. Some people turn to it to help ease stress.
Various yoga styles have evolved over the centuries. The most common school of yoga is hatha yoga. The various styles of hatha yoga include Iyengar, Kundalini, Bikram and Ashtanga. Hatha yoga emphasizes postures, movement, meditation and breathing exercises.
Yoga moves are meant to be gentle. Most people of any age can do at least a modified form of yoga. There are both sitting and standing postures, and many can be done in a wheelchair. Many yoga classes have been modified for the needs of the participant. There are classes for pregnant women, seniors and people with disabilities. While each class is different, most start with poses to get you warmed up and end with relaxation and meditation.
Before you begin
When the body is controlled through yoga's careful positions and stretching movements, muscles relax and circulation improves. This in turn can release tension and stress, improve your focus, increase your energy and lighten your mood.
If you are physically inactive or have a health condition such as arthritis, diabetes or heart disease, or if you are pregnant, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. He or she can tell you what types of activities are safe and suitable for you. Some people with certain medical conditions should avoid some yoga poses. Those conditions include pregnancy, heart disease, extremely high or low blood pressure, risk of blood clots, glaucoma, sciatica and severe osteoporosis.
Yoga books, DVDs, CDs and websites are common, but it’s best to start by taking a class with a qualified instructor. A well-trained yoga instructor will be able to teach proper form, adjust postures to your personal condition and help avoid injury. Many health clubs employ yoga instructors, as do some hospitals. There may also be yoga studios in your town with qualified instructors.
Health benefits of yoga
Promising research has been done on the benefits of regular yoga practice. Some hospitals even offer yoga therapy as a complementary treatment.
In addition to potentially reducing stress, some studies show the benefits of yoga may include:
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Reduced pain
- Improved function
- Reduced heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased depression
- Reduced anxiety
- Decreased muscle tension
- Improved mood
- Increased energy levels
- Improved focus
A few more tips
- Start slowly. Flexibility takes time.
- Do the warm-up exercises, even if you come late to class. Cold muscles, tendons and ligaments are ripe for injuries.
- Investigate the type of yoga that is right for you. Don’t sign up for one that is too strenuous.
- Wear clothes that allow you to stretch properly.
- Ask appropriate questions of the instructor. Don’t move forward on a pose until you understand it and you think it is safe for you.
- Set appropriate limits for yourself. If a pose is painful, stop.
- Drink fluids to stay hydrated
While yoga may help ease symptoms of a host of ailments, there is no evidence that it cures any disease. If you are seeking yoga as therapy, it should be to enhance — not replace — any treatments your doctor prescribes.