Yoga originated in India some five thousand years ago, and is a physical and mental discipline that aims to improve both body and mind. Yoga practitioners claim that it increases physical strength, stamina and flexibility as well as enhancing mental clarity and calmness.
Yoga consists of a combination of body postures and breathing exercises. Some branches of yoga also emphasise the benefits of meditation, chanting and visualisation, all of which are intended to reduce stress and anxiety and produce a sense of inner peace and harmony.
Most beginners attend classes so that they can learn from a properly qualified yoga teacher. Classes (which may be for men or women only, or for a mixed group) usually begin with some very gentle stretching exercises. (Make sure that you wear loose, comfortable clothing.) Once the students have ‘warmed up’ the yoga teacher will take the class through a series of movements and breathing exercises.
Classes usually last for forty to sixty minutes and finish with five or ten minutes of complete relaxation lying on the floor in the ‘corpse position’ – called the savasna. There are many different branches or schools of yoga, and it’s important to choose the branch which suits you best. Ashtanga yoga is sometimes referred to as power yoga, and is very energetic and physically demanding.
Kripalu yoga focuses on postural alignment and the weaving together of breath and movement. Lyengar yoga is a gentle form of yoga which is good for beginners, and people who haven’t exercised for some time. Kundalini yoga focuses on chanting, meditation and visualisation as well as breath control and body postures. Hatha yoga is, probably, the best known and most widely practised form of yoga in the UK. This style focuses on flowing body movements and can be as gentle or as powerful as you choose.
Yoga is beneficial for people of all ages, from children to people in their 80s and 90s, and all abilities, from athletes to people with illnesses such as arthritis and muscular sclerosis which affect their flexibility and mobility. Yoga is good for the respiratory system and blood oxygenation, aids relaxation, helps to strengthen the spine, increases suppleness and flexibility, and aids mobility.
Yoga can be used to reduce and control anxiety, depression and other stressrelated conditions. Studies have shown that it can also help with a number of ailments including high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, headaches and migraine, arthritis, hay fever and asthma, sinusitis, digestive disorders and pain.
Be sure to choose the branch of yoga that is suitable for your level of fitness. Before the class starts, talk to the teacher and inform them of any health problems you may have – for example, heart problems or neck and back conditions. Never, ever force your body further than it can comfortably go.
This means not paying attention to what other people are doing, but simply allowing your body to move in a way that is comfortable for you. Yoga is not about pushing yourself to your limits; instead it’s about achieving a balance between mind and body. Always make sure that your yoga teacher is fully qualified and, if you have any concerns about your health, check with your own doctor before you start.
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