Alternative Medicine - Yoga

Although many people today are embracing yoga solely as a form of exercise, yoga is actually considered to be a system of health, such as homeopathy or reflexology. In the United States, yoga has slowly grown in popularity; however, in Eastern cultures, such as India, yoga has always been a common practice.

The term yoga means "union" in the Sanskrit language, and it refers to the relationship of physical, mental, and spiritual energies that enhance all facets of an individual's well-being. Dating back to the second century B.C. , when a writer named Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, one of yoga's primary philosophies is that the health of the mind and the body are linked together and that one cannot function properly if the other does not. Proponents of yoga claim, then, that its practices can restore this balance between body and mind and promote overall health.

Yoga Postures

Yoga postures are known as asanas (often categorized as Hatha yoga). In Sanskrit, the word asana means "ease." Asana refers not only to postures but also to exercises that revolve around these postures to promote positive change in the body. Asanas often entail a limited amount of movement from participants, but at all times the body and the mind remain engaged, working together to achieve a state of simultaneous energy and relaxation.

When an asana is done correctly, it is designed to create a perfect balance between movement and stillness. Two types of asanas used today are meditative and therapeutic.

MEDITATIVE ASANAS. Meditative asanas are used to properly align the head and the spine. In turn, they also promote a state of relaxation that may be influenced by the improved circulation these postures elicit. This means that while the mind is at rest, the body's major organs and glands are enjoying a great deal of energy.

THERAPEUTIC ASANAS. Initially used to introduce the body into a relaxed state prior to meditation, therapeutic asanas (which include the popular shoulder stand and lotus positions) can also be used to ease pain in the back, joints, and neck. In fact, holistic practitioners often prescribe these positions to their patients as a way of alleviating such pain. Therapeutic asanas were originally referred to as cultural asanas; however, their applicability to pain reduction has contributed to the change in their name.

Breathe Easy

Controlling one's breathing in yoga is called pranayama, which refers to the control of prana, or the life force/life energy. Breath control is practiced in yoga to help yogis (experienced practitioners of yoga) regulate their autonomic

Meditation is best done in a quiet place where a person can feel comfortable and relaxed. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Meditation is best done in a quiet place where a person can feel comfortable and relaxed. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

physical functions (heart rate, for example). Yoga philosophy suggests that controlling one's breathing to make it slow and steady results in having a relaxed mind. Therefore, yogis try to perfect their breathing using smooth motions that promote an evenness of breath. It is believed that this, in turn, promotes a serenity (calmness) of the mind and raises concentration and energy at the same time. This is why breath control is integral to the practice of meditation.

Meditation is Concentration

Once a yogi has mastered his or her breathing and the appropriate postures, the yogi can move on to meditation. Meditation refers to a state of heightened concentration in which many practitioners enjoy feelings of peace and awareness. Meditation creates a state in which yogis can focus fully on the balance between the mind and the body.

Expert yogis strive to achieve the final stage of yoga, known as samadhi. In this stage, the yogi is believed to realize a state of awareness (consciousness) that is above those states of dreaming, sleeping, and wakefulness. Samadhi is the fourth stage of consciousness.

Yoga's Benefits to the Body

Yoga's benefits to the body are numerous, according to proponents of the practice. Like any type of physical activity, yoga promotes a certain degree of muscle strength. Even more so, yogis enjoy a great deal of flexibility, and flexible muscles lead to improved posture. In fact, a common trait in yogis is their exceptional posture that resonates from the top of their heads down to their feet. While yoga is not considered to be an aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise, people engaging in yoga often break a sweat and, like any activity, yoga does burn calories, which further promotes fitness.

Yoga has also been credited with diminishing symptoms of and suffering from certain physical conditions. Specifically, many studies have been built around yoga's positive effects on reducing the blood pressure in those suffering from hypertension. Other physical conditions thought to be improved by yoga, according to the Yoga Biomedical Trust survey (1983–1984), include back pain, arthritis and rheumatism, migraines, menstrual disorders, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), asthma and bronchitis, hemorrhoids, cessation of smoking, and obesity.

Yoga's Benefits to the Mind

It is only natural that yoga has direct benefits to a person's mental health and well-being since the practice centers around unity between the body and the mind. Because it employs breathing techniques and meditation, yoga helps reduce people's overall stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Furthermore, advocates of yoga claim that it improves concentration as well, allowing individuals to focus clearly and easily on a thought or a task at hand.

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