THE BENEFITS OF YOGA
Yoga is an ancient system of breathing practices, physical exercises and postures, and meditation intended to integrate the practitioner's body, mind, and spirit. It originated in India several thousand years ago, and its principles were first written down by a scholar named Patanjali in the second century B.C. The word "yoga" comes from a Sanskrit word "yuj" and means "to link" or re-connect with God.
In the contemporary West, however, yoga is more often regarded as a beneficial form of physical exercise than as a philosophy or total way of life. As of 2002, more than six million people in the United States were practicing some form of yoga, with 1.7 million claiming to practice it regularly.
Yoga has been recommended as an adjunct to psychotherapy and standard medical treatments for a number of reasons. Its integration of the mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions of human life is helpful to patients struggling with distorted cognitions or pain syndromes. The stretching, bending, and balancing involved in the asanas (physical postures that are part of a yoga practice) help to align the head and spinal column; stimulate the circulatory system, endocrine glands, and other organs; and keep muscles and joints strong and flexible.
Yoga programs have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and anxiety levels. The breath control exercises, known as pranayama, emphasize slow and deep abdominal breathing. They benefit the respiratory system, help to induce a sense of relaxation, and are useful in pain management. The meditation that is an integral part of classical yoga practice has been shown to strengthen the human immune system.
One additional precaution is often necessary for Westerners. Yoga is not a competitive sport, and a "good" practice is defined as whatever one's body and mind are capable of giving on a specific day. Westerners are, however, accustomed to pushing themselves hard, comparing their performances to those of others, and assuming that exercise is not beneficial unless it hurts— an attitude summed up in the phrase "no pain, no gain."
Yoga teaches a gentle and accepting attitude toward one's body rather than a punishing or perfectionistic approach. A person should go into the stretches and poses gradually, not forcibly or violently. Stretching should not be done past the point of mild discomfort, which is normal for beginners; frank pain is a warning that the body is not properly aligned in the pose or that the joints are being overstressed. Most people beginning yoga will experience measurable progress in their strength and flexibility after a week or two of daily practice.
Some of the benefits of following yoga practice are improved posture, lowered blood pressure, increased flexibility in the joints, higher energy levels, and a sense of relaxation.
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