What one activity increases flexibility, strengthens the muscles, centers your thoughts, and is relaxing and calming? If you guessed yoga, then you are correct. Let's explore some of the history and philosophy of yoga, a few of the different types, and several benefits.Yoga is an ancient physical and spiritual discipline, originating in India over 5,000 years ago. It literally means the joining or integrating of all aspects of the individual: body with mind, and mind with soul. Its goal is to achieve a happy, balanced and useful life. The ultimate goal is to reach kaivalya, which means "ultimate freedom." Yoga began, of course, long before written language, so the first recorded mention is of Yogis already practicing it. It has been passed down through the millennia from teacher to student. Over time, many different schools of yoga developed. Patanjali, an Indian Yogic sage who lived between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, wrote the earliest texts. He is credited with writing the Yoga Sutras, which are the principles, philosophy, and practices of different types of yoga to this day. Yoga uses postures, focused concentration on specific body parts, and special breathing techniques that are thought to integrate the body with the mind and spirit. The idea is that controlled breathing will control the energy flow in your body. The different postures help condition your body, and there are literally thousands of poses. Yoga focuses the mind by teaching how to concentrate on specific parts of the body. The focus is internal, and the idea is to not fight any thoughts you have, but to let them come and go freely while an instructor leads you through different positions. The practitioner drifts into a peaceful, calm, and relaxed state. There are dozens of types of yoga, evolved as different yogis developed their own philosophies and approaches. Kundalini Yoga is perhaps the oldest discipline dating back over 5,000 years, and was introduced to the West in 1969 by Yogi Bhajan. Hatha Yoga is the most widely practiced type taught here in the United States, and is typically where beginners start. It originated in the 15th century, and is gentle with slow and smooth movements. The focus is on holding poses, chanting, and integrating breathing with movements. It is a great way to stretch, work the muscles, get in touch with your body, relax, and decrease stress. Here in the United States, there are roughly 15 million practitioners of yoga or other Eastern disciplines. It has become a very popular exercise for children, for whom lack of exercise has become a national crisis. It's a hugely sought-after class in my daughter's public high school, and yoga classes now appear in senior citizen centers and retirement facilities; it's not only beneficial for the mind but also helps to prevent falls and to improve balance and overall physical performance. Although Western medicine has not fully studied the full range of benefits claimed by yoga, with consistent practice the following gains have certainly been supported: lowered blood pressure, lowered stress and tension, lessened fatigue, better balance and fewer falls, better focus and concentration, better posture and flexibility, improved lung capacity, decreased blood sugar levels, better strength and flexibility, and fewer asthma symptoms. Certainly the list will grow with more studies. Clearly yoga is not for everyone. Those with underlying health issues such as heart disease, uncontrolled hypertension and various orthopedic conditions should consult their doctor before undertaking any exercise program. Should you choose to pursue yoga, you may be very pleasantly surprised at how it helps you feel. The only way to be certain of all that yoga can do for you is to give it a try. I wish you all safe, healthful and spiritual exercise! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and current chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: November 13, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 30