The Benefits of Yoga: Transform Your Mind, Body and Spirit


| March/April 2005



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Although yoga has been around for centuries, reaping its rewards doesn’t take long at all: Just a few minutes of practice at the end of a long day can help stretch and relax sore muscles. Practiced regularly, yoga can be a powerful way to relieve anxiety and cope with everyday stress. Over time, it also can transform your body, building stronger muscles while it improves flexibility and joint mobility.

Though many people think of yoga as a fitness exercise, it actually is a comprehensive life philosophy that originated more than 5,000 years ago in India. The word “yoga” means “to unite” and refers to the fusion of body, mind and spirit through meditation, breathing and physical postures. The postures, also called asanas, belong to a branch of yoga called hatha yoga. They were developed to strengthen the body, improve health and prepare for meditation. In a modern yoga practice the postures may serve any or all of these purposes. Many different styles exist within the hatha branch of yoga, ranging from gentle, meditative forms like kripalu yoga to the fast-paced ashtanga style. (For a list of styles, see Page 54.)

Shape Up with Yoga

Just about everyone can benefit from the physical exercise of a yoga practice. Yoga is noncompetitive and easily adapted to different ability levels. If you haven’t exercised for a while, yoga can be appealing because it emphasizes the quality rather than the quantity of movement. Many fitness experts, including the American College of Sports Medicine, recommend a balanced exercise program that includes aerobic activities such as running, biking or walking that build endurance, along with strength and flexibility training activities. Pairing a yoga routine with an activity that gets your heart pumping (such as running, walking or biking) will improve your overall level of fitness.

Many competitive athletes incorporate yoga into their workout programs to take advantage of the flexibility training, which among other benefits, helps reduce risk of injury. And the more you practice, the more strength and flexibility you can build. Practicing a more vigorous style of yoga, such as ashtanga yoga, which keeps your heart pumping and includes challenging, stamina-building postures, also will quickly increase your level of fitness.

Holistic Healing

Practicing yoga can improve both your physical and mental health. “Yoga creates a healthy climate in your mind and in your body,” says Tess Lorraine, a Boulder, Colorado, certified yoga instructor. In addition to calming the nervous system, the systematic stretching of yoga postures releases muscular tension. Lorraine says yoga also helps increase circulation, enhances digestion and helps eliminate toxins more efficiently. These physical benefits make yoga a useful tool for treating a variety of health conditions.

“I frequently recommend yoga to my patients for a wide range of problems,” says Robert Rountree, M.D., also in Boulder. “I find it especially helpful for people with chronic anxiety and insomnia.” Rountree says he also has observed that, in some patients, yoga seems to alleviate symptoms of asthma, high blood pressure and fibromyalgia — a painful rheumatic condition that affects the joints, muscles, tendons and other soft tissues (For information on other treatments for fibromyalgia, please see “Case Studies” on Page 16). Darci Frankel, a yoga instructor in Kauai, Hawaii, has worked with clients dealing with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. She says she has seen yoga help those individuals get more energy — sometimes immediately — if they start slowly and build up. Yoga can be an effective treatment for anxiety and pain, and it also can help people handle everyday stress. You may find that practicing a more meditative form of yoga has emotional and spiritual benefits, but even the physical act of performing yoga postures can reduce your stress level.





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