Yoga - An Alternative Fitness Regime

Yoga - An Alternative Fitness Regime
Developed in India, yoga is a spiritual practice that has been evolving for the last 5,000 years or so. Most researchers agree that yoga's emergence as a full-fledged tradition, did not occur until approximately 500 BC.

Yoga is one of six fundamental systems of Indian philosophy collectively known as darsana, or way of seeing Although many people may view yoga as a New Age practice, it is an ancient practice with a written history dating back thousands of years. New Age movements have adopted elements of yoga, as both yoga and New Age practices share a focus on mind and body development.

Western women were first drawn to yoga because it was a gentle exercise for the mind, body and spirit. However, modern women today, are drawn to yoga for its strength and power and remain the primary teachers and practitioners of yoga in the West. This may have to do with the corresponding factor that a change in women and women's sports in general, has taken place. As women have gone from the role of passive onlooker to active participant in the world of sports, politics, business, education, health care and so on, women have been subject to greater tension. On all levels, women, like men, have developed a greater need for a strong antidote to the constricting stresses of life.

Yoga means union in Sanskrit, the classical language of India. The Sanskrit word Yug meaning to join or unite, is the root of the word yoga. Classically, yoga is defined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, one of the most significant of the yoga texts, as citta vritti nirodahah or the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Several ancient texts contribute to the body of yoga knowledge resulting in the existence of more than one yoga manuscript. Yoga is a process that helps an individual get in tune with themselves. It is a discipline, a path for physical, mental and spiritual growth. Although yoga begins with the body, it ends by transcending it through the means of meditation. Meditation is a process of focusing the mind on one point and blocking out all other thoughts from the mind. Concentration is the sixth limb of yoga, called Dharana, and leads to Dhyana meditation, in which the mind, through steady practice of concentration technique, will stay on one single thought.

There are eight limbs of yoga in total and they include the following:
  1. Yama (restraint)
  2. Niyama(observances)
  3. Asana (posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (super consciousness)

Meditation should be practiced for 20 minutes daily. Sit in a relaxed, comfortable position on a firm base, (either in a chair or on the floor), and if possible in a cross-legged posture. A triangular path helps to contain the flow of energy. Join two fingers on each hand. Sit up straight, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Inhale 1-2-3 and exhale 1-2-3. If you find your mind wandering, gently keep bringing it back to your breathing count. Proper breathing technique is very important when practicing yoga. Gently push your abdomen out as you inhale through your nose. Pull it gently in as you exhale through your nose. Make sure your inhalation and exhalation is even. Try to slow down and deepen the rate of breathing. Perhaps allowing a pause after you exhale.

Although yoga today is often taught and practiced as a pursuit for health and fitness, in order to accommodate our changing world, the spiritual roots still nourish today's authentic yoga teachings. The yoga path is a very precise and tangible metaphysical methodology for developing a greater clarity of the way in which we "see" and "know" ourselves. Within the yoga tradition, there are four general and distinct paths to the experience of self-realization. They include the path of knowledge jnana, devotion, action and the path of self control raja

Yoga can be practiced in any location under varied weather conditions, which is ideal for people who don't have much time on their hands for a hectic fitness regime. One workout develops strength, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, cardiovascular health as well as aiding in the reduction of stress, tension and tightness. Western science has been studying yoga for almost 50 years and the evidence indicates numerous physical and psychological benefits from practicing yoga. A recent study directed at heart patients showed that those who followed a stress reduction program that involved constant yoga practices, were healthier than patients who did little or no exercise at all. Further, preliminary studies in the United States and India suggest that yoga may be helpful for specific conditions, such as asthma, epilepsy, anxiety, back pain, blood pressure, chronic fatigue, depression, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and stress related problems.

A frequently asked question is, is there a difference between yoga and 'traditional' exercise? Traditional exercise is goal oriented. Yoga, in comparison, is a process. In exercise, if you miss your goal, you fail. In yoga, you succeed by trying. Then there is the major difference on the physical level.

Yoga exercise demands strong discipline as you regularly put your body in one position and remain there with relaxed, rhythmic breathing, for as long as you comfortably can. These postures have evolved over centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body.

Sit up straight and begin by gently allowing your head to roll toward the left shoulder, then backwards. Then to the right shoulder, then down to the chest and repeat three times. Keep the shoulders motionless, reverse directions three times. Next, roll your shoulder gently in circles anti-clockwise, then clockwise. Bend forward and let your arms hang down while you stretch your lower back.

There are many benefits that can be received by practicing yoga. Yoga improves muscle tone, flexibility, strength, stamina; reduces stress and tension; boosts self esteem; improves concentration and creativity, lowers fat, improves circulation, stimulates the immune system and creates a sense of well being and calm.

Although yoga can offer many physical benefits, often it is the mental benefits that persuade people to take up the practice of yoga. The ability to direct energy, concentrate on the present moment, and shut out noise and distraction is an essential skill that can be mastered over time. The "practice" of yoga is this actual effort to direct the mind towards one-pointedness, without distraction or interruption. It is in this state of focussed mind, which takes many years of yoga practice to achieve, that a greater clarity of vision and deeper understanding of "self" develops. While the goal of self-realization is rarely what most beginners in yoga have in mind at the onset, the steady and gradual awakening that comes from a regular and earnest practice brings change. This change often includes aspects of personal transformation, like improved health and an increased sense of well being and understanding. Most people initially take up yoga out of curiosity or purely as a physical pursuit of the yoga postures for increased fitness and flexibility. But as they become more involved in the practice, yoga ends up becoming a vehicle for emotional growth and spiritual adventure.

One of the most practiced styles of yoga is Astanga yoga and it is very popular among runners, cyclists, skaters, dancers, swimmers, tennis players, basketball and even football players; men and women alike. Astanga yoga is just one style that is part of Hatha yoga, the most popular form in the West. Within Hatha yoga, there are many other styles, such as Iyengar, Integral, Kripalu and Jiva Mukti, to name a few. Hatha yoga (Ha=Sun, Tha=Moon) represents polarities or the Yin/Yang principle. In healthy organisms, these two forces are balanced.

The mind, body and spirit are inseparable and work best through practicing five principles:
a) Proper rest and relaxation
b) Proper breathing
c) Proper exercise
d) Proper diet and nutrition
e) Positive thinking and meditation

It is in recent times that yoga has been introduced and extended into mainstream society as well as the traditional athletic community. More and more people are embracing the yoga practice, (including many celebrities like Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin) as an alternative to traditional fitness programs. The secret to success in yoga boils down to one thing - practice. Practice with earnestness; practice without a break and for a long period of time. Yoga allows people to feel in control of themselves. Practicing the postures, breathing exercises and meditation will lead to a healthier outlook in body, mind and spirit. Yoga practice lets you tune in, chill out, and shape up - all at the same time. Through yoga we can all learn to develop greater awareness of our physical and psychological states, get back in touch with ourselves and lead healthier, happier lives.

- Annemarie Failla