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If you want to take a major step in reversing whatever problem ails you, sign up for a yoga class and stick with it. There are now classes in virtually every community large enough to have paved roads. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere, you can get your lessons on videotape. However, the people who teach and attend yoga classes are some of the nicest on our planet, and sometimes good health (and other good things) comes about by being around nice people.
There’s little not to like about yoga. It’s inexpensive, safe, and there are no pills to swallow. You won’t have to deal with health insurance and most people don’t need a referral from their doctor (though if you’ve had a joint replacement, ask your doctor if yoga is permitted). You need no special equipment except your body in some loose comfortable clothing and a “sticky mat” to keep your hands and feet from sliding around.
The very best part of yoga is that within a few weeks, your friends will remark how good you’re looking, and how calm and peaceful.
Yoga is not simply a series of exercises, but rather a philosophy of life. It’s been around as long as acupuncture–at least 6000 years–arriving in the US a little more than 100 years ago.
The word yoga itself means “yoke” or “union” in the ancient language of Sanskrit, and the ultimate goal of yoga is to achieve a state of harmony (a union) among mind, body, and spirit. It’s no cult or religion, but rather a way of looking at life in a more spiritual and meditative way. Whatever your religious beliefs, they’ll likely be enhanced by a yoga perspective.
The written description of yoga first appeared in a book from the second century BCE called The Yoga Sutras (a sutra is a teaching or precept) and provided a multi-fold path to spiritual enlightenment. The techniques to enlightenment included meditation, breathing techniques, and physical exercises. The Sutras describe four paths of yoga. Karma yoga brings a union with supreme spirit by performing right actions with no thought of reward. Bhakti yoga asks that you willingly surrender yourself to the divine. Jnana yoga tells of union through the quest for knowledge of the external world. Hatha yoga is a system of postures, called asanas, which, when regularly practiced, are part of the path to enlightenment. And although each of the four paths is of interest to an advanced yoga student, it’s the last of these, the asanas, that concern us the most.
Most yoga classes teach Hatha yoga, and the instructor will guide you through some asanas in each session. Astonishingly, there are more than 1,000 asanas, ranging from simple quiet sitting to positions that seem so impossibly contorted that photographs of famous Yogis doing their stuff appear computer generated.
In addition to Hatha yoga, there are now many other 21st century forms of yoga available in larger cities, but all remain Hatha-based. Iyengar yoga adds some nifty props, like chairs, blocks, and belts. Kripalu yoga emphasizes breath and meditation. Ashtanga, or power yoga, is a strength and muscle builder. Viniyoga, the precursor of Iyengar and Ashtanga, is tailored toward a person’s body type, and stresses a sense of harmonious healing. And definitely not for the faint-of-heart or under-hydrated, Bikram yoga practices its 26 asanas in a room heated to 105 degrees. If you’re not in such great shape, think twice about Ashtanga or Bikram yoga, as these are physically very challenging.
Next time: getting started.
David Edelberg, MD