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.)
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.
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.
“Yoga encourages you to breathe deeply and slowly, and it changes your emotional response to life,” Lorraine says. “Add slow, rhythmic movement in correlation with the breath, and you’re able to quiet the mind, balance the body and calm the nervous system.” If you’re feeling tense at home or at work, a simple five-minute break for yoga may be enough to make you feel more relaxed.
You won’t need high-tech equipment to practice yoga — the only must-have for a serious practice is a yoga mat, made of rubber with a sticky surface that improves foothold. If you take a yoga class, mats may be provided. Some styles of yoga (Iyengar, for example) utilize props, such as bricks and bands. If you decide to purchase these items, look for a kit that includes the mat and props, which is generally cheaper than buying them separately. (Mats cost about $20; a kit costs about $30.) Workout clothes for yoga can be anything comfortable that allows freedom of movement. Plan to practice in bare feet to get the full benefit of the tacky mat.
Most experts recommend that beginners find a class to attend. “If you’re not aware of bad postural habits, a video or book will only reinforce them,” says Lisa Anderson, a certified yoga instructor in Naples, Florida. “A teacher will tune into these habits and help change them.” Some yoga instructors offer private sessions, but you’ll probably find it more economical to start with a yoga class. In some areas of the country you’ll have many choices of yoga classes to attend; if you have options, be sure to seek out a class that fits your specific needs. Consider the type of yoga being taught: If a morning class fits into your schedule but it’s a rigorous style, you may be unlikely to continue if you’re looking at yoga as a chance to relax and meditate. “One of my fellow instructors often says yoga is a lot like music; there’s jazz, classical, rock and so on,” Anderson says. “You need to find the one that resonates with you.”
For the sake of convenience, you may choose to start practicing yoga at home with a book, video or DVD. Many books explain basic yoga postures. If you’re interested in the history or the spiritual side of yoga, a book also can provide helpful background information. You should be able to find books on any style or aspect of yoga that interests you. If you’re looking for a yoga video or DVD, try to find one for beginners that gives detailed information about how to practice the postures. Ideally, you’ll be able to view a tape before purchasing it; check your local library and video rental stores first.
Here’s a rundown of some of the more popular styles of yoga:
Ashtanga. These fast-paced yoga classes can be quite a cardiovascular workout; power yoga is based on ashtanga. Participants often jump from one posture to the next to build strength, flexibility and stamina.
Bikram. Thermostats are turned up to about 100 degrees, and participants perform 26 postures in a prescribed order to warm and stretch muscles, ligaments and tendons. This physically demanding style requires constant movement and produces profuse perspiration, which cleanses the body and helps release toxins.
Iyengar. The focus of this yoga is the precise alignment of each posture. Participants use props such as belts, blocks and chairs to help them achieve more accurate postural alignments. The slow pace and attention to detail in this yoga practice make it an excellent choice for beginners; it’s also recommended for those recovering from injuries or suffering from chronic pain.
Kripalu. This gentle style combines meditation with movement. Students focus on alignment and breathing as a means to develop greater spiritual consciousness. At an advanced level, this yoga practice becomes a series of spontaneous movements.
Kundalini. The goal of this style is to awaken the energy at the base of the spine to open and clear the chakras, which are energy centers that connect the body and soul. This style of yoga combines postures and breathing techniques with chanting and meditative mantras.
Viniyoga. Combining breath work with a focus on alignment, this yoga style focuses on an individual’s needs and abilities. It is typically taught one-on-one.
One key to sticking with a yoga class is connecting with a good instructor: Ask friends or relatives who practice yoga to recommend their favorite practitioner. Before your class begins, speak to the instructor about your physical limitations or health problems, and find out if he or she can tailor the postures to meet your needs. Don’t be surprised if you find you have sore muscles, or what many instructors call “heightened awareness,” when you first begin your yoga practice, but be aware of your limitations and never perform a posture if it generates “bad pain.” If a particular posture creates a sharp, stabbing pain — especially in the neck, knees or lower back — tell your instructor immediately so he or she can recommend an alternate position; otherwise, assume a rest position until the class moves on to something less rigorous.
How much and how long you practice is a personal decision, but to improve flexibility and to tone your muscles, you’ll need to do yoga on a regular basis. For starters, try practicing at least three times a week. “Ask yourself what your intentions are,” Frankel says. “Your intentions formulate your experience, so if you can focus on what you want, you’ll get it.”
Kelli Rosen is a certified personal trainer and has been a fitness professional for 11 years.