Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years as a life philosophy to join the individual self with what practitioners call the Divine, Universal Spirit, or Cosmic Consciousness. However, very few individuals in the United States as of 2004 practiced yoga in this way; rather, yoga is performed as part of an exercise program to increase general health, reduce stress, improve flexibility and muscle strength, and alleviate certain physical symptoms, such as chronic pain . Because yoga is a low-impact activity and can include gentle movements, it is commonly used as part of physical therapy and rehabilitation of injuries.
Clinical and psychological studies have demonstrated that performing yoga has the following benefits:
Physical postures strengthen and tone muscles, and when performed in rapid succession, can provide cardiovascular conditioning.
Meditation and deep breathing can reduce stress, thereby lowering blood pressure and inducing relaxation.
Mind/body awareness can influence mood and self-esteem to improve quality of life.
In addition to exercise and stress reduction, yoga is also used therapeutically to help children and adolescents with medical conditions. Yoga instructors experienced in adapting yoga postures for individuals with special needs teach yoga to children and adolescents with Down syndrome , cerebral palsy , seizure disorders,spinal cord injury , multiple sclerosis, cancer , autism , Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychiatric disorders, learning disabilities, and other disabilities to help improve physical and mental functioning. Many physicians may recommend yoga for patients with hypertension , asthma , stress-related disorders, and depression. Growing interest in alternative and complementary medicine has increased the popularity of yoga in the United States and spurred research into its medical benefits. Many hospitals offer alternative or integrative medicine centers that include yoga classes.
Some yoga instructors have even pioneered yoga for infants and toddlers, practiced with one or both parents. Yoga for infants and toddlers can improve sleep , ease digestive problems, facilitate neuromuscular development, strengthen the immune system, deepen parent-child bonds, serve as an outlet for creative play and self-expression, and reduce stress and anxiety for both parents and children.
Yoga originated in ancient India and is considered one of the longest surviving philosophical systems in the world. Some scholars have estimated that yoga is as old as 5,000 years; artifacts detailing yoga postures have been found in India from over 3000 B.C. A recent poll conducted by Yoga Journal found that 11 million Americans do yoga at least occasionally and 6 million perform it regularly.
Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced branch of yoga in the United States, and it is a highly developed system of nearly 200 physical postures, movements, and breathing techniques. The yoga philosophy maintains that the breath is the most important facet of health, as the breath is the largest source of "prana," or life force, and hatha yoga uses "pranayama," which literally means the science or control of breathing.
A typical hatha yoga routine consists of a sequence of physical poses, called asanas, and the sequence is designed to work all parts of the body, with particular emphasis on making the spine supple and increasing circulation. Each asana is named for a common thing it resembles, like the sun salutation, cobra, locust, plough, bow, eagle, tree, and the head to knee pose, to name a few. Poses named after animals are especially appealing to children, and children's yoga programs focus on those poses that mimic animals and trees. Each pose has steps for entering and exiting it, and each posture requires proper form and alignment. A pose is held for some time, depending on its level of difficulty and one's strength and stamina, and the instructor cues participants when to inhale and exhale at certain points in each posture, as breathing properly is a fundamental aspect of yoga postures. Breathing should be deep and through the nose. Mental concentration in each position is also very important, which improves awareness, poise, and posture. During a yoga routine there is often a position in which to perform meditation, called dyana, if deep relaxation is one of the goals of the sequence.
Yoga routines can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two or more hours, with one hour being a good time investment to perform a sequence of postures and a meditation. For children, 30 minutes may be the maximum span of attention for practicing yoga. Some yoga routines, depending on the teacher and school, can be as strenuous as the most difficult workout, especially those called ashtanga, or power, yoga. Other routines merely stretch and align the body while the breath and heart rate are kept slow and steady. Power yoga is only appropriate for children and adolescents who have practiced yoga for some time, or who are engaged in advanced athletic activities. Yoga achieves its best results when it is practiced as a daily discipline, and yoga can be a life-long exercise routine, offering deeper and more challenging positions as a practitioner becomes more adept. The basic positions can increase a person's strength, flexibility, and sense of well-being almost immediately, but it can take years to perfect and deepen them, which is an appealing and stimulating aspect of yoga for many.
Injuries have been reported when yoga postures were performed without proper form or concentration, or by attempting difficult positions without working up to them gradually or having appropriate supervision. Beginners sometimes report muscle soreness and fatigue after performing yoga, but these side effects diminish with practice.
Asana —A position or stance in yoga.
Dyana —The yoga term for meditation.
Hatha yoga —A form of yoga using postures, breathing methods, and meditation.
Meditation —A practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.
Pranayama —The yoga practice of breathing cirrectly and deeply.
Yogi (female, yogini) —A trained yoga expert.