Starting With Some Easy Exercises - Yoga

An introduction to yoga can do little more than sketch some of the main features of this Eastern system of body control and movement. An estimated 300 or more books of relatively recent vintage deal with the subject in greater or less detail. More than 60 authors have written on hatha (physical, or force) yoga alone.

The claims made for yoga cover a broad range. Where one exponent may proclaim yoga's reducing or weight-control merits, another may stress its capacity to restore youth and vitality. A third may emphasize that yoga relieves stress and tension as no other discipline can. A fourth may swear that yoga eliminates low-back pain, straightens shoulders, and cures a multitude of other disorders.

Unquestionably, yoga can do much for the faithful practitioner. But the question for the person seeking total fitness is simple: can yoga help me?

With some qualifications, the answer is Yes.

Some Background

Yoga began in India some 5,000 years ago. It represents much more than a system of body control. Yoga promises the faithful student that he can, in time, achieve union with the source of all knowledge. The student will thus be awakened to the farthest reaches of his intellectual and spiritual potential.

Yoga means union. It has been described as one of the six main schools of Hindu philosophy. At least 16 systems of yoga have come into currency in Western countries. The 16 promote different paths to similar goals. But of them all, hatha yoga stands out as the form most concerned with revitalizing the body, improving physical health, and providing relaxation. Hatha yoga promises to do these things by teaching a variety of asanas, or postures. The student also learns breathing control. He achieves mental control as well by concentrating on the postures and on their effects.

A brief listing of some of the purposes of yogic postures suggest how broad is the possible range of objectives. Included are postures especially for weight control, sagging abdominal muscles, or back trouble, exercises for women, for relaxation, and for general self-help. Persons over 60 can benefit from specially adapted routines.

Yoga Can Help

The logic of many asanas is readily apparent. They call, for example, for progressive flexing of the curving segments of the spine from the neck on down through the upper back, lower back, and spinal base. Flexing is accompanied by strengthening. Every joint and ligament undergoes the systematic stretching process. Pressure may also be applied to specific areas of the body to promote improved circulation of the blood. By degrees, the body becomes conditioned to increased demands.

While in various postures, the yoga student learns to practice deep breathing. Deep breathing, properly done from the diaphragm, can encourage relaxation. If it is correctly performed, both the stomach and the chest expand during inhalation and recede during exhalation. A session may close with a final extended relaxation period. Meditation makes it possible to replenish inner resources while absorbing the full benefit of the asanas. The asanas promote correct deep breathing and thus provide a means of relaxing that can be important to a fitness program. For the fitness worker who wants to learn deep breathing as a road to relaxation, here are two multistep exercises derived from yoga.

The First Breathing Exercise

1. While lying on your back, draw up your knees. Your feet should be placed slightly apart. Inhaling deeply, allow the stomach to relax, then expand. Exhale, at the same time pulling the stomach in so that the diaphragm rises to the point where it presses against the rib cage.

2. Continue to breathe diaphragmatically. First slowly fill the lower portions of the lungs, then try to fill the middle and upper parts.

3. Exhale. Try to picture the air slowly leaving the upper, then the lower, parts of the chest cavity.

4. Continue to breathe in this fashion. Breathe slowly and deeply. Let your breathing become very slow. Your body should relax completely.

The Second Breathing Exercise

1. Start by sitting on a chair with your hands on your thighs and your elbows at your sides. Straighten your spine. Do not lean back against the back of your chair—or touch the back at all.

2. Breathe in and out rapidly through your nose. Repeat about 12 times, keeping a wood-sawing rhythm.

3. Exhale slowly through your nose until you have emptied your lungs.

4. Inhale to the count of seven. Pause for one second, then exhale. Pause again for a second. Repeat until you have completed seven breathing cycles.

An Overall Assessment

Yoga has been found to be useful in a total fitness program, but it can effect only a limited range of improvements. While it cannot substantially benefit muscular endurance, it does build flexibility and grace. The postures and breathing exercises help to induce relaxation, and may in that process reduce high blood pressure. But evidence indicating that it helps to improve blood circulation is minimal. Yoga does not build muscular strength, but it can help to firm up specific muscle groups. It does not produce a smooth, taut skin despite claims to that effect. Finally, its value in weight control has been questioned. The beginner should take those factors into consideration when deciding whether to schedule yoga sessions into the basic fitness program.

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