Often associated with Hinduism, yoga actually is older. It is the oldest physical discipline in existence. The exact origins of yoga are unknown, but it is thought to be at least five thousand years old. The earliest evidence of yoga can be traced back to about 3000 B.C. The original purpose of the postures and breathing exercises was to bring stability and relaxation so practitioners could prepare for the rigors of meditation, sitting still and alert for long periods of time.
The word yoga has its roots in the Sanskrit language and means to merge, join or unite. Yoga is a form of exercise based on the belief that the body and breath are intimately connected with the mind. By controlling the breath and holding the body in steady poses, or asanas, yoga creates harmony. Yoga is a means of balancing and harmonizing the body, mind and emotions and is a tool that allows us to withdraw from the chaos of the world and find a quiet space within. To achieve this, yoga uses movement, breath, posture, relaxation and meditation in order to establish a healthy, vibrant and balanced approach to living.
Modern scholars have defined yoga as the classical Indian science that concerns itself with the search for the soul and the union between the individual, whose existence is finite, and the Divine, which is infinite.
Yoga is one of the original concepts which today would be labeled as holistic. That means that the body is related to the breath; both are related to the brain; in turn this links with the mind, which is a part of consciousness.
The essence of yoga is to be in the driver’s seat of life. Control is a key aspect of yoga: control of the body, breath and mind.
The secret of yoga practice lies in a simple but important word: balance. In every area of our life, yoga represents balanced moderation.
The system of yoga used most often in the West is called Hatha yoga. The word Hatha is a composite of Ha, which means sun and Tha which means moon. Yoga is the union between them, suggesting that the healthy joining of opposites – in this case, the mind and body – leads to strength, vitality and peace of mind.
Hatha yoga is the physical aspect of the practice of yoga. Hatha yoga emphasizes asanas (practice of postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and dhyana (meditation). It aims to balance different energy flows within the human body. As a form of exercise, hatha yoga consists of asanas or postures that embody controlled movement, concentration, flexibility, and conscious breathing. About half of the nearly 200 asanas are practiced widely in the West. The postures range from the basic to the complex, from the easily accomplished to the very challenging. While the movements tend to be slow and controlled, they provide an invigorating workout for the mind and body, including the internal organs.
Yoga exercises are designed to ease tense muscles, to tone up the internal organs, and to improve the flexibility of the body’s joints and ligaments. The aim of proper yoga exercise is to improve suppleness and strength. Each posture is performed slowly in fluid movements. Violent movements are avoided; they produce a buildup of lactic acid, causing fatigue.
Hatha yoga is a complete fitness program and will release endorphins in the brain as well as any regular exercise program. Yoga postures stretch, extend, and flex the spine, while exercising muscles and joints, keeping the body strong and supple. When done in conjunction with breathing techniques, hatha yoga postures stimulate circulation, digestion and the nervous and endocrine systems. As a workout, yoga can be intense, easy, or somewhere in between.
It can be practiced by anyone, regardless of age, to achieve a more limber body, increased physical coordination, better posture, and improved flexibility without incurring the potentially negative effects associated with high-impact forms of exercise. Hatha yoga remains different from newer or more modern types of exercise. It does not aim to raise the heart rate (although variations such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga, or the flow series taught by Bikram Choudhury may) or work on specific muscle groups.
Overall, the postures release stiffness and tension, help to reestablish the inner balance of the spine, renew energy and restore health. Some postures provide the added benefit of being weight-bearing which helps sustain bone mass (very important for women). Relaxation and breathing exercises produce stability and reduce stress and put you in touch with your inner strength. In addition, regular practice of hatha yoga can promote graceful aging.
Whether you are learning yoga singly or in a group, it is a good idea to be supervised by a qualified teacher. A teacher will demonstrate how to ease your body gently into and out of the yoga postures. He or she will ensure that you do not strain your limbs and will help you align your body in the asanas.
According to a recent Roper poll, six million Americans now practice hatha yoga. Furthermore, yoga’s visibility and viability as an effective exercise program has been increased by the endorsements of celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, Sting, Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton, Kareem Abdul Jabar and Evander Holyfield.
Yoga also is increasingly embraced by the medical community. Popular health practitioners who possess mainstream medical credentials and are open to alternative practices include Andrew Weil, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., Joan Borysenko, M.D., and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Such practitioners have long encouraged patients and clients to take up yoga. Yoga is also an integral part of many stress management programs endorsed and paid for by HMOs and insurance companies. In fact, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center includes gentle yoga postures and breathing techniques to aid the recovery of patients with heart disease.
Yoga asanas can be practiced by young and old alike. While there is no one who should be excluded, you should check with your doctor before you begin a course if you suffer from a medical condition or have any doubts. If you have any concerns about your health or fitness, consult your physician, qualified health practitioner or yoga teacher before undertaking a yoga practice, especially with these specific health problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, back or neck injury or recent surgery.
Yoga does not meet the traditional definitions of a religion. Rather than broadcasting a philosophy or doctrine of its own, hatha yoga is a physical and psychological discipline that combines the learning and practice of asanas, pramayama, and meditation.
Because of its roots in Eastern religion and mythology, hatha yoga has often been associated with the Hindu religion. While both Hinduism and yoga have their roots in India, yoga is an independent tradition. Its separate physical and psychological processes have no connection with religious beliefs. Additionally, dedicated hatha yoga practice has been found to enhance the religious practice or beliefs of practitioners, whatever their current beliefs.
While yoga is not a religion, there are, however, a set of ethics associated with it which complements the practice of hatha yoga. This set of yoga ethic principles include five yamas which are: non-violence; truthfulness; non-stealing; chastity; and non-greed. Also there are five niyamas which are: purity; contentment; self-discipline; self-study; and centering on the Divine.
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