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Yoga has been popular at health clubs for a while, used as a method for making tight muscles more supple. Yet those who practice it say it is beneficial for the entire body including the skeletal, nervous, glandular, and circulatory systems. It helps improve specific health conditions as chronic low back pain and heart disease.
"A lot of the movements that are generally prescribed by the physical therapist are similar to some of the yoga exercises. The only difference is that in yoga, you do the exercises with a very precise breathing technique and meditation to quiet the mind," says Patricia Rockwood, a yoga instructor and spokeswoman for the American Yoga Association in Sarasota, FL. People also practice yoga to manage stress, anxiety, and anger because it is very relaxing.
Most adults can do some small movement no matter their physical condition or at least the breathing and meditation, says Rockwood. The association has an Easy Does It Yoga program with adapted yoga techniques for people with severe physical limitations. "There are movements people can do in a chair or even in bed," she says. (To learn how yoga is incorporated into The Place of Wellness at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, see "Cancer patients find relief in yoga," in this issue.)
People who decide to try yoga should know that it’s important to do the exercises at their own pace and never model their movement after the teacher or another individual. The yoga exercises must be done with the limitations of each person’s body in mind. Choose a teacher who has a small enough class that he or she can work with each student, advises Rockwood.
A class should have all three components of yoga, which include the exercise movements, breathing, and meditation. "The meditation is almost like a wrap-up. You have done some exercises and breathing, your mind is starting to get still, and then when you let everything go for a few minutes, it makes it all work better," says Rockwood. The term yoga means to yoke, or join the mind and body.
Before signing up for a class, students should make sure the teacher has practiced yoga for a couple years and studies under a teacher as well. "You never get so far advanced that you lose your need to have a teacher," says Rockwood. A teacher should practice every day, because he or she can’t be a good teacher if it is only a hobby, she says. While many teachers practice Hatha Yoga, there are over a hundred different schools of yoga, according to the American Yoga Association. These include Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Karma Yoga.
Every teacher is trained in the tradition of the particular organization he or she belongs to, and each has its own standards and requirements for certification. Some organizations certify teachers after a two-week training course, while others require several months or more of training. There is no national standard for yoga teachers; therefore, it is important to learn the criteria used for certification by the organization the teacher selected to train under, says Rockwood. (To learn the American Yoga Association’s criteria for selecting a yoga teacher, log onto their web site at www.americanyogaassociation.org.)
Books and videos are a great supplement to classes because they can be used as a reminder of the various postures taught by the teacher. If a person is not practicing with a teacher, most of the books and videos are designed for self-study.
Items needed to practice yoga can be found right in people’s own homes. The movements can be done barefoot and wearing any type of exercise clothing. "We suggest that people put on a pair of socks when they meditate because their body temperature drops during that time and they won’t want to become chilled," says Rockwood.
Many think that they need a special mat for the exercises, but a beach towel or old blanket works well. However, it should be dedicated to yoga practice because in that way, it will begin to help the person get in the mood, says Rockwood. A foam mat is necessary if practicing on a wood or concrete floor and should be one of the sticky mats found at sports stores so that it won’t slip. If doing seated breathing exercises, a couple throw pillows help take the pressure off the lower back, she says. Breathing techniques also can be done sitting on the edge of a chair.
One of the most important things people should know before beginning yoga is that it must become part of their daily routine if they want it to be effective. It works best with at least 20 minutes of practice each day. "The ideal is to make it a habit just like brushing your teeth every day," says Rockwood.
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