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What is yoga?

Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning "union," is a spiritual practice that uses the body, breath, and mind to energize and balance the whole person. Yoga began nearly 5,000 years ago as part of the Hindu healing science known as Ayurveda. Today, approximately six million Americans practice yoga regularly.

As the different connections between the mind and body were explored, various branches of yoga developed. These include:

bulletRaja Yoga—known in India as "the royal (raj) road to reintegration." The goal of this type of yoga is to blend the four layers of self: the body, the individual consciousness, the individual subconsciousness, and the universal and infinite consciousness. Raja yoga, being most concerned with the mind and spirit, places its emphasis on meditation.
bulletHatha Yoga—the most popular form of yoga practiced in the United States today. Emphasis is placed on physical postures or exercises, known as asanas, with the goal of balancing the opposites in one's life. During Hatha yoga sessions, flexing is followed by extension, a rounded back is followed by an arched back, and physical exercises are followed by mental meditations.
bulletJnana Yoga—emphasizes deep contemplation. Practitioners seek Jnana, or "wisdom," through meditation. The goal of this form of yoga is to be one with God.
bulletKarma Yoga—based on the philosophy that "yesterday's actions determine today's circumstances." Practitioners of Karma yoga make a conscious decision to perform selfless acts of kindness. By making today's actions positive, they hope they can improve tomorrow's circumstances for both themselves as well as others.
bulletBhakti Yoga—the goal of this form of yoga is to take all of the love in one's heart and direct it to God. By worshiping God, the practitioner becomes filled with respect for all life and is encouraged to be sacrificial and to treat others generously.
bulletTantra Yoga—like practitioners of Tantra yoga seek to balance the opposites in their lives. They also try to break free of the "six enemies" (physical longing, anger, greed, vanity, obsession, jealousy) and the "eight fetters" (hatred, apprehension, fear, shyness, hypocrisy, pride of ancestry, vanity of culture, egotism) by using discipline, training, and rituals.

How does yoga work?

Scientists don't know exactly how yoga produces its healthful effects. Some say it works like other mind-body therapies to reduce stress, and others believe that yoga promotes the release of endorphins (natural painkillers) from the brain.

All of the branches of yoga previously mentioned include three major techniques: breathing, exercise (asana), and meditation. These three techniques have been shown to improve health in many ways:

bulletBreathing lessons—in yoga, breathwork is known as pranayama. Pranayama increases blood circulation, which brings more oxygen to the brain, and enlarges lung capacity, as lung tissue becomes more elastic and the surrounding muscle more flexible. Getting ample air into our lungs helps us to feel alert and focused.
bulletAsanas—known to enhance strength, flexibility, and balance. Some asanas are designed to massage the internal organs, improve circulation, hormone function, digestion, and other body processes. The Plow, for example, is a basic posture used in Hatha yoga in which you lie on your back (arms at sides, palms down) and stretch your legs overhead until your toes touch the floor. This posture is believed to stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid glands, enhance the flexibility of the back, stretch the nerves and muscles of the back and legs, improve posture, relieve constipation, and reduce body fat.
bulletMeditation—has been shown to reduce blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, cholesterol levels, and substance abuse.

What does a yoga session entail?

Hatha yoga sessions are usually group classes that last from about 45 minutes to an hour. Each session begins with a gentle warm-up exercise and proceeds on to the three yoga disciplines: breathing lessons, asanas, and meditation. The therapist will first focus on breathing technique and he or she may guide you through several breathing exercises. The therapist will then direct the class through a series of yoga postures. Each posture will be practiced from one to three times. As you hold postures, you may be instructed to perform certain breathing techniques. After three or four different postures, you'll be allowed to rest. Once you've completed the exercises, there is usually a period of physical relaxation combined with meditation.

How many sessions will I need?

Classes may be taken once a week (or more, if desired) for as long as it is helpful to you. Your yoga therapist may also ask you to practice asanas at home to improve your flexibility.

What is yoga good for?

Yoga improves fitness, lowers blood pressure, promotes relaxation, and reduces stress and anxiety. People who practice yoga tend to have good coordination, posture, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, sleep habits, and digestion. Yoga is a complementary therapy that has been used with traditional therapies to treat a wide range of conditions, including cancer, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, migraine, and AIDS. Yoga alone is not an effective cure for any particular disease.

Is there anything I should look out for?

When done properly, yoga is not stressful or tiring, but some people may experience stiffness as their bodies adapt to different postures. Avoid yoga if you've had a recent back injury and be sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or arthritis. Some postures are not recommended during pregnancy, but special classes are available for pregnant women. Some postures should not be practiced during menstruation—ask your instructor. Be sure to tell the instructor and contact your doctor if any exercises cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, or severe pain in your back, legs, or joints.


How can I find a qualified yoga practitioner?

For helpful information on how to find a yoga practitioner in your area, visit the Yoga Research and Education Center Web site at or call the International Association of Yoga Therapists at 707-928-9898. You can also contact the American Yoga Association (on the Web at or by phone at 941-927-4977) for additional information on yoga specialists.

©2000 Integrative Medicine Communications