Yoga is a system that benefits the body, mind, and spirit by teaching self-control through a series of exercises, as well as through breathing, relaxation, and meditation techniques.
The goal of yoga is to help the practitioner attain his or her complete physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual potential. Yoga also attempts to restore the whole person to balance and to improve and maintain good health.
Yoga is an ancient practice that has undergone a major revival in the late 20th century, especially in the West. The recovery of seals from the Indus Valley that date to around 2000 BC, showing people in recognizable yoga positions, suggests that yoga was practiced at least that early; however, some scholars believe yoga was practiced as early as 4000 BC. Yoga did not gain much attention in the United States until the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago when the charismatic Swami Vivekananda gave a much-publicized talk at the World Parliament of Religions. Interest in yoga has increased steadily since the 1960s; bythe 1990s, some aspect of yoga could be found as part of nearly all exerciseand fitness regimens.
The word "yoga" derives from the Sanskrit language and means "union" or "yoke." Altogether, there are six major yogic paths or schools: these are Hatha yoga, Raja yoga, Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga, and Tantra yoga. Despitethe different focus of each, all paths emphasize proper breathing techniquesand meditation, and all are grounded in the belief that internal balance of mind and body is essential to good health.
The most popular form of yoga in the West in Hatha yoga, which uses a seriesof physical exercises, called asanas, to help the student achieve emotional and physical balance. The asanas were originally developed to help the early yogis maintain long periods of sitting meditation. And because the respiratorysystem links the body and the mind, breathing exercises are an essential part of doing the asanas.
Reasons for the renewed interest in yoga in the West include the following:
- Yoga is an inner-directed regimen that does not emphasize performance or competition.
- Whereas many exercise programs are based on the concept of "no pain, no gain," in yoga, pain is taken as a message to stop and try a different position.
- Yoga teaches relaxation and alertness at thesame time.
- Yoga teaches concentration.
Many persons with physical, mental or emotional problems have found yoga beneficial. In 1996, the American Yoga Association identified fifteen separate conditions that that the asanas had been observed to help. They are as follows:
- Addiction, by flushing out toxins and stimulating the brain's pleasure-giving chemicals.
- Anxiety, by reducing the severity of panic attacks.
- Arthritis, by reducing stiffness and pain and maintaining jointmobility.
- Asthma and breathing disorders, by strengthening respiratory muscles and capacity.
- Back and neck problems, by healing, preventing injury, and improving flexibility.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome, byrestoring energy to the body.
- Depression, by counteracting feelingsof lethargy and poor self-esteem.
- Diabetes, by complementing neededlifestyle changes and improving circulation.
- Headaches, by relievingtension and migraine headaches by relaxation and stress-management techniques.
- Heart disease, by improving the circulatory system by stretchingmuscles, nerves, and blood vessels.
- Infertility, by improving the health of the reproductive system by relaxation.
- Insomnia, by improving sleep by bringing balance to life.
- Pain management, by reducing pain and serving as a distraction from it.
- Premenstrual syndrome and menopause, by reducing the discomfort of hormonal changes and toning the glandular system.
- Weight management, by toning muscles and improving concentration, willpower, and self-esteem.
Yoga should be considered as complementary to, rather than as a substitutionfor, medical treatment. Although most yoga exercise is safe for nearly everyone, certain positions should not be done by individuals with special physicalproblems. Those with health or fitness concerns should consult a qualified health practitioner before taking up the practice of yoga.