Yoga is much more than just exercise for keeping the body fit it’s also about balancing the mind. Yoga is based on a series of exercises or poses as they are called and it takes a lot of perseverance and practice to master. Practicing yoga on a daily basis will improve your health; strengthen your resistance and Develop mental awareness.
Doing yoga requires that you study and learn different sets of poses. Each pose is done slowly and requires you to control both your body and mind. For the beginner it is easier to learn the various poses one at a time until you know it off by heart before moving onto a new pose.
Types of Yoga Poses
Warm up routine
As with any form of exercise getting into the habit of performing a warm up routine is essential, the poses of yoga require your body to be supple and warming up before hand is essential. Warming up exercises for yoga consists of performing various poses, each of these poses have names as do the yoga exercises themselves.
The standing poses in yoga consist of the triangle pose, Hands to feet, the Side standing stretch pose, Stand spread leg forward pose, Warrior pose ,tree pose and sun Salutation.
This set of warm up poses can be done whilst sitting down They consist of spread leg forward pose, Hero pose, seat forward bend and The child pose.
These poses are excellent for strengthening the back and will also tone abdominal muscles and improve digestion.
This set of poses is done lying down, face up. They consist of the leg reclining lunge, legs raise, legs pulls and wind relieving poses.
Inverted posture and balance poses
Shoulder stand, head stand and plough poses help increase the circulation, stimulate the brain and help with relieving pressure on the abdominal organs. They also help Enhance the glandular system.
Backbend yoga poses help to strengthen the arms; Legs, abdomen and stomach. They also help to keep the spine supple.
The corpse pose, savasana and final corpse pose are the cooling down poses in yoga, they allow the body and mind to relax and focus at the end of the yoga routine.
Types of Yoga Styles
Just as there are different poses to be learnt in yoga there are also different styles, though each style has common grounds they all have there own unique features.
Hatha yoga is one of the most popular styles of yoga and it from this style that other styles have originated such as Power yoga, Kundalini, ashtanga yoga and Bikram yoga.
This form of yoga focuses on awakening our Kundalini; this is energy which is found at the base of the spine.
These types of yoga focus on breathing techniques know as the “Breath of fire”.
For those who like an intense workout then this is the style of yoga for you, it consists of a challenging set of poses which focus primarily on breathing.
This is a challenging set of poses which are both physically and mentally demanding which are said to help connect you to your inner power.
Yoga Health Benefits
We know the benefits that regular exercise has on our well being and yoga is especially beneficial as it brings the mind, body and spirit together and when this occurs it is thought that our body is in perfect harmony. Yoga is a therapeutic form of exercise which helps you to become more aware of your body’s posture and alignment, practicing yoga on a daily basis will make your body more flexible and help you to relax easier after the most stressful of days.
People who practice yoga on a daily basis are said to feel more energetic, more at peace and happier in general. Yoga has many benefits on your health and these benefits can be divided into three main categories:
The physiological benefits of yoga
- It helps to stabilise the nervous system therefore making it easier to relax.
- Respiratory and pulse rates will decrease.
- People suffering from high blood pressure found that blood pressure lowers.
- Cardiovascular efficiency is increased.
- Respiratory efficiency increases.
- Flexibility in the joints increase.
- Hand to eye coordination increases.
- Reaction times increase.
- Overall posture is improved.
- Strength and resilience to illness improve.
- Energy levels increase.
- People with weight problems have found that their weight evens out.
- Sleep improves.
- Balance improves which is particularly helpful for the elderly.
Psychological benefits of yoga
- Overall mood and sense of well being improves.
- Anxiety and depression decrease.
- Concentration and attention span improves.
- The ability to learn increases.
- Social skills improve.
- Self acceptance and confidence improves.
- Depth perception increases.
Biochemical benefits of yoga
- Glucose and sodium levels decrease.
- The cholesterol level decreases.
- Haemoglobin increases.
- The total white blood cell count decreases.
- The vitamin c level will increase.
- Serum proteins in the body increase.
The benefits of yoga against other exercise routines
- A lower risk of injury during exercise.
- Effort is minimal with maximum benefit to be gained.
- More relaxing.
- Can be done anywhere without any special equipment.
- People of any age can yoga in some form.
- Focusing on the meditation part of yoga makes sure boredom doesn’t set in as it can do with other forms of exercise.
- Balanced activity within all muscle groups.
- The brain gets a workout as well as the muscles.
Yoga when undertaken on a daily basis is thought to help people of all ages with a variety of medical problems; it is especially helpful for treating people with depression as yoga is one of the most relaxing forms of exercise that can be done.
The meditation part of yoga is particularly helpful for people suffering from anxiety, with techniques learnt especially for dealing with stress related problems. People suffering from respiratory problems can easily take part in yoga without getting breathless as they might from other exercise plans and the relaxation side to yoga benefits the asthmatic due to the breathing exercises.
Older people can take part in classes and find that their joints and spine are more supple, yoga also helps with the balance and concentration in older people and studies suggest that the elderly are less prone to falling when practicing yoga on a daily basis.
The System of Yoga
Breathing, poses and meditation
The practice of yoga is built upon a system which includes the series of yoga poses or postures, breathing and meditation. The theory behind yoga is that the body and mind become as one, it is thought then when this happens the individual can achieve perfect health.
Following yoga first starts with the mind for the mental choices we make strongly affect our body and health, traditionally in India yoga includes diet, exercise and meditation while in the modern world yoga primarily focuses on posture through a series of poses, breathing exercises and meditation.
Yoga used in western medicine can help with enhancing and treating chronic illnesses as well as helping us to deal better with stress and aiding in relaxation. In today’s world we are constantly feeling stressed and anxious, this leaves us tired, depressed and we easily fall victim to illnesses. The first priority of yoga helps us to achieve a more relaxed state of mind this is achieved by yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation.
The yoga postures
Yoga postures are a series of gentle stretching movements which are designed to help balance the body and mind; they work by increasing the blood supply to areas and stimulating those areas. Most of the poses work on more than one area of the body at the same time and they produce beneficial effects on the organs in three ways.
- The position of the pose increases the circulation of blood to the specific organ or gland.
- The position of the pose gives a slight squeezing effect to the organ or gland therefore massaging it.
- Deep breathing and focusing visually on the organ sends prana to the organ or gland.
Yoga breathing techniques or pranayama
These are specially developed yogic breathing techniques which are aimed at producing a huge store of energy in the solar plexus area. This is said to give the body more vitality and help with resistance to diseases, yogic breathing also helps improve concentration and memory.
Meditation and positive thinking
The benefits of the yoga poses can be increased by concentrating on the healing action to the parts of the body that need it. This is achieved by affirmations, visualization and concentration meditations.
An affirmation is a positive statement about your self repeated over and over again, this could be for example I have reached my desired weight for those on a diet, my lungs are clear and healthy for those who want to quit smoking, I am alert and full of energy as an overall affirmation.
Visualization techniques can also be used; this is where we focus on a picture in our minds, for example picturing your self a few pounds lighter, picturing your lungs clear and breathing easier or picturing your whole body glowing with energy.
The most effective yoga therapy is when you combine all of these together, the poses, the breathing and the meditation. The yoga poses strengthen the body; the breathing techniques promote chemical and emotional balance within the body and the meditation encourages positive thinking about our selves.
Following A Yoga (Ayurvedic) Diet
In order to gain full benefit from yoga you should eat a yoga diet along with the yoga exercise poses, a yoga diet is essential to the practice of yoga for eating a well balanced diet ensures your mind and body are energised throughout the day. There are several important aspects of the yoga diet, these include:
- The three Gunas
- A proper diet
- Changing your diet
The three Gunas
It is thought that energy has three qualities, these qualities – sattva, rajas and tamas together are called Gunas.
This is a pure diet and one that is suitable for only the most serious student of yoga; it nourishes the body and helps to maintain a peaceful state within the body. It also calms and purifies the mind ensuring your body can function to its maximum potential. Sattvic foods include:
- Wholemeal bread
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Fruit juices
- Butter and cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Honey and herb teas Rajastic foods
These are very hot, bitter, dry, salty or sour foods, these types of foods energise the body at the expense of the mind. Too much of this type of food over stimulate the body making the mind restless, eating in a hurry is also called Rajastic eating. Foods in this category include:
- Hot substances such as spices and strong herbs
- Coffee and teas which are stimulants
- Fish and eggs
The Tamastic foods benefit neither the body nor the mind they can withdraw energy and destroy resistance to disease. Over eating is also called Tamastic eating. Foods in this category include:
- Stale over ripe substances
The proper diet
Following a proper healthy diet consists of eating foods from within the following food groups:
- Wholemeal products
- Pasta, rice and potatoes
- Fresh fruit
- Fresh vegetables
- Fruit juices
- Milk, yogurt, butter and cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Honey and herb tea
The yogic way of changing your diet
The main principle behind the yogic diet is to change the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that you eat to an almost vegetarian diet, start by increasing the amount of fresh leafy green vegetables and reduce the amount of meat in your diet.
Make sure that your diet consists of enough sources of protein such as nuts, whole grains and cheese. Eat plenty of raw vegetables and cut back on the amount of junk food you eat every day and avoid foods such as flour, white bread and refined cereals.
Fasting is done to purify and physically clean your body; it also allows us to get rid of any toxins that have built up within the body. However a careful approach should be taken when considering fasting, here are some general rule:
- Start by fasting for a single day, this will make you realise that giving up food isn’t as hard as you might think.
- If you have always eaten three full meals a day with snacks in between then start by eating just one full meal a day around lunch time, making sure you drink plenty of water and fruit juices throughout the day.
- From the single day fast move onto more days, if you find it hard to fast for over three days then eat light foods such as soup for a day then go back to fasting the next day.
After about three continual days of fasting you will begin to see improvements such as increases mental energy, improved concentration and improvement in the senses. The longer you can fast the more improvements you will see and feel.
Following a yoga diet is about including more healthy food options in your diet but if you have any serious medical problems you should always consult your Doctor before making any radical changes to your diet.
Living a Yogic Lifestyle
Yoga as a form of exercise doesn’t only take into account our body and how we look it is also about the person as a whole, yoga deals with all aspects of life and it is said that when our mind and body are in harmony that we will achieve perfect health and be less prone to diseases.
This perfect health can be achieved by following what are called “The eight limbs of yoga”; these limbs are a guide to achieving harmony of the mind, body and spirit. Yoga takes into account a person’s physical, mental and spiritual well being as well as a person’s environment and relationships with others.
Practicing the eight limbs of yoga will bring you a deeper knowledge of yourself, teach love and respect towards others, gives you a better sense of well being and can make you a happier person. The eight limbs of yoga are:
Yamas are your attitude toward people around you and the environment around you, there is five different Yamas:
- Non violence or Ahimsa – This doesn’t only mean not doing harm to others it also means to be kind and thoughtful to others around you.
- Truthfulness or satya – This is about living a truthful way of life and thinking about your actions and how they can affect others around you, for example if the truth could hurt others then it might be better to keep silent.
- Don’t steal or Asteya – This doesn’t only mean possessions but also other peoples ideas and other forms of possession for example, using power for selfish motives or telling someone something that you were supposed to keep a secret.
- Don’t lust or Bramacharya – This means to keep self control or not wanting possessions just for the sake of having them without actually needing them.
- Non-possessiveness or Aparigraha – This is about being free from greed in your life and taking only what is needed, it is also about not taking advantage of someone or a situation.
Niyama is all about how you see yourself and there are five:
- Cleanliness or Sauca – This is about inner and outer cleanliness and using yoga to purify and detoxify your body, the mind must also be kept clean and the environment in which you live.
- Contentment or Santosha – you should be humble, modest and be satisfied with what you have and the person you are.
- Austerity or Tapas – you should keep your body on good condition by disciplining the mind and body, for example only eating when you are hungry or keeping good posture.
- Study of yourself or Svadhyaya – you should aim to get to know yourself better and examine yourself .
- Live with an awareness of the divine or Isvarapranidhama – we should let go of false sense of control and connect instead to that which gives us a sense of wholeness.
The physical poses of yoga or Asanas
Yoga poses are designed to relieve stress and anxiety and relax and energise the body and mind which in turn brings harmony to the mind and body; they should be performed with ease, alertness and comfort.
The breathing exercises or Pranayama
The breathing should be controlled through the practice of breathing exercises, inhaling, retention and exhaling is regulated with the aim of cleansing the nervous system and increasing the level of energy.
Withdrawal of the senses or Prathayara
This happens during mediation when you are focused on your yoga pose, meditation or breathing poses to the extent where you forget about outside situations and there is no distraction.
Concentration or Dharana
This is about focusing your mind intensely enough to forget about any distractions around you.
Meditation or Dhyana
This is focusing the concentration on one point and the aim is to heighten awareness and become one with yourself and the universe, this helps you to achieve a better mental health.
Enlightenment or Samadhi
This is the ultimate goal in yoga and the eight limbs of yoga, it is said to be a state of total ecstasy of complete peace and feeling of happiness.
Yoga Meditation (pranayama)
Meditation is one of five principles of yoga and this exercise is about the constant observation of the mind, it requires that you are able to focus your mind on one thing and keep it there without wandering off. The benefits of meditation are many, by meditating on a daily basis as part of your yoga routine you will benefit from a stronger sense of will, improved concentration, a clearer and more focused kind and will find that you are able to relax quicker and easier.
Meditation is all about focusing the mind on one subject and stopping it from wandering off; this however is easier said then done. It might be easy at first to clear the mind of thoughts but after a few minutes it can quite easily wander off to thoughts of what you’re cooking for dinner tonight, what you’re going to wear for that party you’re attending or any other daily event. There is however a few things you can do to prepare yourself for meditation:
- Find somewhere quiet where you won’t easily be disturbed.
- Turn off any background noise such as the TV or radio.
- Take the telephone off the hook while meditating.
- Make sure the clothes you are wearing are comfortable .
- Go to the bathroom before you start to mediate and empty your bladder.
- Do some warm up exercises or breathing exercises.
- Breathe deeply in and out and clear your mind.
Now that you are settled with no distractions and are relaxed you can begin your meditation session, with your mind clear of thoughts you now have to make sure those thoughts don’t come back it might be easier at first if you use an object to focus your mind on such as a candle. Focus on the flame and watch intently how it moves and flickers imagine putting your fingertip near to the flame and feeling the heat from it.
Meditation is difficult to master and at first you will find that your mind wanders away from the subject when this happens just bring the mind back to focusing on the chosen object and don’t worry about it. The more you practice the easier you will it becomes to empty your mind and focus and leave your daily troubles aside for the time you are meditating.
The benefits of meditation
There are numerous physical and mental benefits to meditation when practiced as part of your daily yoga routine.
- You get less anxious and depressed.
- Less irritable and moody.
- Increased memory and concentration.
- Increased self awareness.
- An increased sense of overall happiness.
- You are more creative.
- An increase in emotional stability.
- Higher resistance to skin diseases.
- Blood pressure normalises.
- Cholesterol levels drop.
- Improved flow of air to the lungs.
- A decrease in the aging process.
When we think of yoga we think of someone sitting cross legged or contorted into unimaginable positions in a semi trance like state, while some of the poses in yoga do take a lot of practice and require the person to be extremely flexible there is more to yoga than first meets the eye. Trying to define yoga is hard as it consists of a wide and varied range of practices, it is however a very spiritual form of exercise which is designed to increase self awareness and appreciation.
This leads to a more relaxed way of life and a less stressful one, Yoga originally stemmed from Hindu tradition but people of all cultures and races have realised the benefits of practicing yoga on a daily basis.
The benefits of yoga on our health
Practicing yoga as part of your daily routine will bring you a deeper understanding of yourself and how your body works in relation to your feelings and the environment around you. It will lead to a more relaxed and healthier way of life and helps in preventing diseases and the recovery of illness.
As you practice yoga you will learn how to release tension and the release of tension leaves you feeling more energetic and brings a sense of wellbeing. The series of poses in yoga are not done to force your body into unusual shapes but rather to explore your body and find out where tension lies within your body.
Gradually through continued practice of yoga you will be able to release these tensions more easily and find the poses easier to perform.
How do I learn how to do yoga?
For the beginner the easiest way to learn how to do yoga is by going to a yoga class, due to the varied poses and postures of yoga it is extremely hard to follow them through diagrams and words. Another alternative which is now widely available is yoga classes or lessons on DVD; these can be followed at your leisure at home.
How do I choose from the different types of yoga?
There are a wide range of types of yoga, some rely more on sitting meditation while others on the poses or breathing techniques, and some have a mixture of all three. Some of the yoga types can be done by people of all ages and some require a lot of strength and fitness, the best way to decide which particular type is suited to you is to go along to a class or retreat and see for yourself.
How long does it take to feel the benefit?
Some people say that they feel the benefit from yoga after a single session, this is probably due to them having aches and pains or feeling tired when they began and the routine revitalised them leaving them feeling more relaxed, less stressed and so their aches and pains were forgotten.
To have long lasting effects yoga should be practiced at least once a week for a few months and then carried on as part of your life. Regular short intense sessions are much better than prolonged and erratic sessions for feeling beneficial effects on the health.
A brief history of Yoga
We all have some understanding of what yoga is and the benefits it can have on our life and health, but to get a better understanding of yoga we have to appreciate its culture and tradition. The earliest time when yoga first came to light was around 3000BC, when stone seals were found which depicted yoga positions. Masters of yoga however believe that it was actually much earlier for yogis have traced its origin back to Stone Age shamanism.
Yoga and shamanism are thought to have similar characteristics particularly when it comes to improving our physical being. The history of yoga can be divided into four periods, the Vedic period, the pre classical period, classical period and the post classical period.
The Vedic period
The existence of the Vedas dominates this period; the Vedas is the sacred script of the Brahmanism, which is the basis of modern day Hinduism and is a collection of hymns which worship a divine power. It is the Vedas which contain the earliest recognition of yoga and yoga teachings, this is called Vedic yoga.
During this period people relied on Vedic yogis to teach them how to live in perfect harmony. Yogis were also thought to posses the ability to see reality through their intense spiritual practice. It was also during this time that the first recordings of yogis living in seclusion were noted, this is now related to yogic retreats in the modern world.
Pre classical yoga
The creation of the Upanishads mark this era, these are 200 scriptures which describe the inner vision of reality which resulted in total devotion to Brahman. There are three subjects, the ultimate reality, the transcendental and the relationship of the two. Yoga shares characteristics with Buddhism as during the sixth century BC, Buddha started teaching about Buddhism which relies heavily on meditation and the practice of posture.
This period is marked by yogi sutra which was written around the second century, it was the first real attempt to standardise classical yoga that we know today. It was made up of 195 sutras which are today called the eight limbs of yoga; Patanjali believed that we are made up of matter and spirit and that in order for the spirit to be cleansed the two have to be separated.
This however went against all belief of earlier teachings that brought together a union of the body and spirit. This concept was dominant for centuries and it was only much later that people began to believe that the body was a temple and focus again returned to the Asanas.
Post classical yoga
At this point in time more literature on yoga came to light with the aim of yoga no longer striving to liberate a person from reality but instead teaching a person to live in the moment. Yoga was introduced to the western world in the early 19th century and was first studied by Eastern philosophy for health and vegetarianism in the 1903`s.
By the 1960`s an Indian teacher by the name of Maharishi Mahesh popularised transcendental meditation. Right up to the present day yoga’s popularity continues to grow in leaps and bounds and its teachings have been spread worldwide.