I've decided to take a few classes myself.
Yoga: Minimize stress, maximize flexibility and even more
Your kids are demanding the latest video game, your boss wants that report done yesterday, and your spouse wants to know what's for dinner. Stress is everywhere.
If it's getting the best of you, you might want to make like a downward-facing dog or a cobra and try yoga. This series of postures - sometimes named for mammals, fish or reptiles - and controlled breathing exercises have become a popular means of stress reduction.
Though the practice of yoga has been around for thousands of years in India, its popularity in the United States has grown steadily only over the last 100 years or so. Today yoga classes teaching the art of breathing, meditation and posing are offered nearly everywhere from trendy health clubs in big cities to community education classes in small towns.
What is yoga?
Yoga is part of the Hindu religion and a way of life. The ultimate goal of yoga is to reach complete peacefulness in your body and mind. While traditional yoga philosophy requires that students adhere to this mission through behavior, diet and meditation, chances are you aren't looking for a complete change in lifestyle but rather increased flexibility, relaxation or stress relief.
If that's the case, then like most people in the United States, you're interested in hatha yoga - a style of yoga designed to encourage a more flexible body and a calm mind.
Hatha yoga: The most popular form of yoga
Hatha yoga focuses on physical poses and controlled breathing. Several versions of hatha yoga exist. Which version you choose depends on your personal preferences. But all varieties of hatha yoga include two basic components - poses and breathing.
In a typical hatha yoga class, you may learn anywhere from 10 to 30 poses. More experienced yoga students might know many more, including more-advanced poses that require advanced stretching and twisting. Poses range from the seemingly easy, such as the corpse pose, which involves lying on the floor, completely relaxed, to the most difficult poses that take years of practice to master.
Remember that you don't have to do every pose your instructor demonstrates. If a pose is uncomfortable, or you can't hold it as long as the instructor requests, don't do it. Good instructors will understand. Spend time sitting quietly, breathing deeply until your instructor moves the class on to another pose that's more comfortable for you.
Controlling your breathing is an important part of yoga. In yoga, breath signifies your vital energy. Yoga teaches that controlling your breathing can help you control your body and gain control of your mind.
You'll learn to control your breathing by paying attention to it. Your instructor might ask you to take deep, loud breaths as you concentrate on your breathing. Other breathing techniques involve paying attention to your breath as it moves into your body and fills your lungs, or alternately breathing through one nostril.
Yoga, stress relief and other health benefits
Yoga offers a good means of relaxation and stress relief. Its quiet, precise movements focus your mind less on your busy day and more on the moment as you move your body through poses that require balance and concentration.
Other health benefits of yoga include:
Increased flexibility. As you learn and refine new poses- such as touching your toes - you'll find that each time you practice, you can reach a little farther.
More range of motion means you'll be less likely to injure yourself in other physical activities.
Management of chronic health conditions.
The breathing and relaxation methods used in yoga might help you if you have asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, low back pain, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis of the knees or memory problems.
Yoga can also be helpful when combined with other therapies for heart disease and high blood pressure. Yoga, when combined with a vegetarian diet, aerobic exercise and medication, has reduced cardiovascular disease rates and blood pressure levels.
Weight loss. If you're overweight, yoga may help you make the healthy lifestyle changes necessary to drop those extra pounds.
Balance. Yoga classes tailored for elderly adults can help them stay steady on their feet and avoid falls and hip fractures.
Coping with cancer. People with cancer and their caregivers who practice yoga may improve their quality of life and sleep better at night.
Alzheimer's caregiver stress and fatigue. Yoga practice may help family caregivers by boosting their mood and ability to cope and manage stress.
While you shouldn't expect yoga to cure you, it can help some health conditions when combined with treatment recommended by your doctor. And if you're perfectly healthy, yoga can be a good way to supplement your regular exercise routine.
Yoga, overall, is considered safe if you're generally healthy. Some yoga positions can put significant strain on your lower back and on your joints. See your doctor first if you have any joint problems or a history of low back or neck pain. You might want to avoid certain yoga positions depending on your condition.
Also see your doctor before you begin a yoga class if you have any of the following conditions, as complications can arise:
High blood pressure that's difficult to control
A risk of blood clots
Eye conditions, including glaucoma
If you're pregnant or nursing, yoga is considered generally safe. But avoid any poses that put pressure on your uterus, such as those that require you to twist at the waist.
Some yoga classes are specifically tailored for pregnant women. Check with your obstetrician if you have any questions whether yoga is right for you and your baby.
How to find a yoga class
If you've decided to try yoga, look around for classes in your area to see what's offered. You can also learn yoga from books and videos. However, individualized attention to your specific needs won't be available with these teach-yourself methods.
When you find a class that sounds interesting, call and ask questions to get an idea of what to expect, including:
What are the instructor's qualifications? Where did that person learn yoga, and how long has he or she been teaching?
Does the instructor have experience working with students with your needs or health concerns? If you have a sore knee or an aching shoulder, can the instructor help you find poses that won't aggravate your condition?
Is the class suitable for beginners? Will it be easy enough to follow along if it's your first time?
Also find out what you need to bring to class. Some classes require you to bring a mat or towel to sit or stand on while doing poses. Other classes will provide this.
At the end of a yoga class, you should feel invigorated, yet calm. If this isn't the case, talk to your instructor. He or she might have suggestions for you. Otherwise there may be another yoga class better suited to your needs.