This 5,000-year-old Eastern discipline has grown popular in the West not only for its physical benefits, but also for its mental and emotional benefits. Yoga literally means “to join together.” The practice of yoga joins the body and mind together through movement, breath and meditation. It is estimated that 18 million adults now practice some form of yoga. Hatha yoga, a physical form of yoga, is the most popular form in the U.S. There are many different styles of Hatha yoga that range from restorative to strenuous. Some popular styles include Sivananda, Siddha, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kundalini, and Vinyasa yoga. Whatever style you chose, the goal in yoga is to restore the body-mind to its fundamental state of well-being, ease and alertness. Yoga can heal, strengthen, stretch and relax the skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, digestive, glandular and nervous systems.
Some of the physical benefits of yoga include:
- Increased strength
- Increased flexibility
- Decreased pulse rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased respiratory rate, increased respiratory efficiency
- Normalized or improved endocrine, gastrointestinal and excretory functions
- Improved posture
- Improved joint range of motion
- Normalized weight
- Improved sleep
- Increased immunity
- Decreased pain
- Improved balance
But if the physical benefits of a regular yoga practice alone aren’t enough to get you to the mat, you may also want to consider the mental and emotional benefits, which can include:
- Improved cognitive function and concentration
- Improved learning efficiency
- Improved memory
- Stress relief
- More energy
- Ability to relax at will
If you are interested in getting started with a yoga practice, you may want to visit a class, at least in the beginning. Experienced yoga instructors can help you perform the asanas (postures) safely and with the correct form. Once you learn the basics you can practice at home. There are also a number of good yoga videos available that can help support what you learn in class. Try different classes and instructors to find the style of yoga that is best for you. Beginners may want to try gentler forms, such as Kripalu or Ananda. Others may prefer a style that frees energy, such as Kundalini, or one that focuses on alignment, such as Iyengar. For those who want a physically challenging style, Ashtanga yoga may be the key. If you like it hot, try Bikram yoga, where the room is heated to 105° F to help your muscles and tendons stretch. It’s important to know that even the more demanding forms of yoga should feel gentle to your body. If practiced correctly, as you progress, you will gain strength as well as flexibility. In fact, a regular Ashtanga practice can replace running and weight lifting for many, as the Primary Series is exhilarating and has a significant weight-bearing component.
Yoga can be a great form of exercise even if you are not in the best of shape or you have some physical limitations, because most of the asanas can be modified. Make sure that any yoga instructor you learn from is certified and able to deal with the technical and philosophical fundamentals of teaching yoga. The Yoga Alliance registers teachers who have a minimum of 200 hours of training. Many styles of yoga have their own teacher training and certifications. Beware of gym yoga classes; while some are very good, many gym instructors become certified to teach yoga with only a weekend course. Be sure to ask the instructor about his or her training and personal practice before you take the class.
Here are a few things you should know before taking a yoga class:
- Expect to be touched. Good instructors are able to assess a student’s strength and flexibility and many will adjust you in a posture. This is to help you understand the posture better and derive the full benefits. It may feel strange at first. For example, an instructor may lie on top of you while you are in a seated forward bend, using his or her weight to help you move further into the stretch, or he may curl underneath you to support you in a back bend or hold you around your waist to support you in a standing balance pose. This is normal. Speak up if the adjustment doesn’t feel right or is too painful.
- Don’t eat before class. It is best not to eat for at least two hours prior to class. Inverted postures or postures that put pressure on your internal organs may make you feel sick if you have a full stomach. Feeling full can also take away from the lightness you will start to acquire as you practice.
- Tell your instructor about any injuries. Because everyone has different capabilities in postures, it is important to tell the instructor if you have any limitations, so that he or she does not make an adjustment that will injure you.
- Stop if you feel pain. Yoga should not hurt. If you feel pain, or are dizzy, light-headed, or nauseous while practicing, rest or stop.
- Expect some muscle soreness. As with any new form of exercise, your muscles are being asked to reshape themselves. This can result in soreness. If you find this to be too uncomfortable, try rubbing some homeopathic Arnica gel or Arnica oil into your muscles. Or, if you prefer not to wait for soreness to develop, you can take homeopathic Arnica prophylactically. I use 15x or 30x and take six pellets, 2 to 3 times per day. It works wonders for preventing soreness. Turmeric is also good for relieving soreness because it has analgesic properties. It is a good nutrient for the connective tissues because it helps to stabilize collagen fibers and prevent adhesion. It’s best to use the capsules, as the loose leaves can be bitter.
- Make your practice personal. Yoga is more than just a form of exercise; it is also a mental and emotional experience and should be personal rather than competitive. Be aware of what your body feels like and tune in to yourself while you practice. Don’t pay any attention to the inevitable “contortionist” in the other corner of the room.
Learn More — Additional Resources
- For more information on the many health benefits of yoga, visit the International Association of Yoga Therapists.