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While many think of the physical “stretching exercises” as a definition of yoga, the practice goes far beyond developing body flexibility. The actual word “yoga” means “a union” or a joining together, and according to ancient texts, it means the quieting of the changing states of mind. In practicing yoga, we join together body, mind and spirit. While the origin of yoga is debated, the benefits of yoga practice should not be. Most people live in a tornado of thought and activity, filled to the brim with ideas, emotions, obsessions, etc. The complete practice of yoga, which unites the physical postures, known as asana, with breath, inquiry and mindfulness, helps remind us to not react to the storm even while living in its eye.
Types of Yoga
In the west, the most practiced yoga styles are based in hatha [pronounced ha – ta] yoga. These are some of the common variations of hatha yoga: power vinyasa, ashtanga, jivamukti, iyengar, anusara, bikram. Each one has its proponents and will naturally attract certain students. Some are athletic, some are slower in pace and others are more meditative. The most important thing to understand when beginning yoga is to remember that yoga fits every body. If at first you do not like the style or teacher you have first visited, try another style or another teacher. There are endless combinations and one will feel right for your unique needs.
One common misconception about yoga is that one class can fix all of your issues. Yoga is a process. Use it as a vehicle to other greater things. The biggest mistake to be made when thinking about yoga is not beginning or giving up after a first class because you are not cured. Also remember that yoga is not a religion, but a tradition and a way of being. Most importantly, know that yoga is good for young and old, flexible and inflexible.
Benefits of Yoga
While modern western yoga practitioners use yoga as a wellness tool for lowering stress hormones, namely cortisol, ancient yogis used it as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Living a moral life, stretching, strengthening, breath awareness and meditation were all practiced as part of a path to higher levels of consciousness. Whatever your reason for practicing yoga, you will find many benefits such as increased strength, enhanced flexibility, better sleep, enhancements to the immune system and increased mind control and focus.
Studies are showing that yoga can help in maintaining health and wellness, addressing many areas such as: PTSD, addictions, anxiety, asthma, cancer , carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, diabetes, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, heart disease, IBS, infertility, insomnia, menopause, MS, plus many more.
Yoga for Athletes
As an athlete, yoga poses such as the full splits may never be within your reach but focus, strength, agility and clarity of mind should be at the top of your agenda in order to achieve continually aggressive goals. Athletes are at a competitive DISadvantage nowadays if they don’t practice yoga. Many individuals (Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James are a few) and teams (Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Nuggets for example) are finding their way to yoga for its benefits in increasing strength and flexibility and creating acute mental focus.Your yoga practice should always be centered around your ability and training cycle and target your unique needs.
Bernie Violand, a master’s runner who has been competitive in the sport for almost 20 years, says “Yoga has been instrumental in helping my running career. It has improved both my flexibility and strength tremendously, especially my hamstrings, lower back and hips.” Violand attends class four to six times a week and attributes much of his running longevity to yoga. “Yoga has also demonstrated to me how to focus and relax at the same time, and if I could only do one type of exercise the rest of my life it would be yoga.”
How to start
It is easy to incorporate some simple yoga poses that take no more than 10 or 20 minutes to complete after a workout. These don’t need to be done every day, but you will realize the best results when practicing four or five times a week over time. Yoga can help you get more in tune with your body, overcome nagging injuries and restore your body and mind. There is no need to be flexible nor familiar with yoga to attend any class, but seek a qualified instructor who works with beginners and athletes.