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YOGA THERAPY DESCRIPTION
Best known in the West as a form of gentle exercise consisting of body postures and breathing techniques, yoga is in fact a complex system of mental and physical training, originally developed as preparation for spiritual development. It has been practiced for thousands of years in India as part of Ayurveda, and has now become popular around the world. In the West it is valued more for its physical than spiritual benefits, such as its ability to increase suppleness and vitality, and to relieve stress. Yoga has now been incorporated into a number of Western health regimes.
MAIN USES OF YOGA
Stress, fatigue, CFS. Headaches, migraines. Circulatory disorders. Asthma, bronchitis. Rheumatoid arthritis. Digestive disorders. Back pain. Menstrual problems, including PMS. Improved mobility.
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HISTORY OF YOGA
The word "yoga" (from the same root as the English "yoke") is Sanskrit for "union." The system originated over 4,000 years ago in India, where it was traditionally practiced by Hindu ascetics, or yogis. Patanjali, the father of yoga, defined the path of the yogi as his Yoga Sutras (or aphorisms) in the 3rd century B.C. Yoga was introduced to the West in the 19th century, when scholars translated ancient Hindu religious texts. Initially it attracted few followers, but has grown enormously in popularity since the 1960s, along with many other Eastern disciplines promoting well-being. By 1996, 500,000 people in the UK alone were doing yoga. It is part of some American health care programs, such as Dr. Ornish's regime for reversing heart disease.
Improving the diet and lifestyle of people with coronary heart disease has shown promising results. In the US, Dr. Dean Ornish has devised a program to reverse heart disease without surgery or drugs. It consists of a high-fiber diet, in which only 10 percent of calories come from fats, exercise three times a week, group therapy, and stress management techniques. In one study, 82 percent of Dr. Ornish's patients experienced improved arterial blood flow and a reduction in chest pain, while symptoms grew worse in 53 percent of the control group.
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Yoga postures develop physical flexibility and controlled relaxation to harmonize the body and mind.
In its purest form, yoga is a fully integrated system controlling all aspects of life. In the "Eight Limbs of Yoga," the yogi Patanjali described a series of increasingly spiritual stages on the path to enlightenment. These begin with ethical guidelines, including healthy eating habits and high levels of personal hygiene, and progress through the practice of asanas (physical postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques) to meditation and, eventually, withdrawal to the supreme level of pure consciousness.
Today there are many types of yoga, including yoga therapy to maintain health and help specific medical conditions, and ashtanga, or power yoga. While meditation is central to some forms of devotional yoga, the most popular form in the West is hatha yoga, using asanas and pranayama. Breath is seen as the outward form of prana ("life energy"), and controlled breathing regulates prana in the body.
Hatha means "balance," reflecting the balance of mind and body; a serene mind produces regular breathing and a relaxed body. Conversely, a relaxed body promotes steady breathing and a calm mind. Asanas are designed to benefit both mind and body; performed slowly and deliberately, they are coordinated with the breathing. Each asana has an individual shape and it is important to maintain these shapes correctly. Regular practice is preferred, since it helps to maximize the benefits of performing the asanas.
THE THEORY OF YOGA
Yoga asanas and relaxation techniques were developed to bring physical and spiritual benefits. Asanas are designed to have an impact on the physical body, stimulating nerve centers and organs. Spiritual benefits are derived from using breathing techniques and meditations to influence the flow of prana, or life energy, which flows through the "subtle" (non-physical) body in invisible "energy channels," known as nadi. When mind and body are in harmony, the individual can focus on spiritual goals by practicing the higher discipline of meditation.
In more esoteric yoga teachings, the chakras are centers of life energy, situated in the subtle body - seat of the senses, emotions, and intellect. Seven chakras ascend in order of spiritual refinement along a central channel, the Sushumna. Chakras are linked to nerve centers along the spinal cord and, like them, are thought to be influenced by asanas. Each chakra is symbolized by an exact number of lotus petals and, according to some schools of yoga, is associated with a specific mantra or sound, such as "Om" or "Ram." These are used in meditation and breathing exercises to act on the chakras.
The 7 chakras are symbolically represented as floral-petaled patterns on this ancient Hindu manuscript from Nepal.
A system of 72,000 nadi, or "energy channels," transverse the body's energy centers. The nadi distribute prana, a form of life energy which is outwardly represented by the breath, to all parts of the body. Focusing on the chakras during yoga and meditation is said to regulate the flow of prana, removing blockages in circulation that could otherwise lead to physical or mental disturbance.
1. CROWN CHAKRA - The seventh and most purely spiritual, is depicted as a 1,000-petaled lotus, the symbol of infinity, and is linked with the pineal gland.
2. BROW CHAKRA - Known as the "Third Eye," is connected with the production of hormones.
3. IDA NADI - Carries prana down the left side of the body.
4. PINGALA NADI - Carries prana down the right side of the body.
5. SUSHUMNA - The central nadi, runs from the base of the spine to the top of the head.
6. THROAT CHAKRA - Is linked to the thyroid gland and the body's metabolic rate.
7. HEART CHAKRA - Generates pure emotions such as love, and is linked to the heart and immune system.
8. THIRD CHAKRA - Is the store of prana. It corresponds to the solar plexus and the pancreas, which regulates blood sugar, the body's fuel.
9. SECOND CHAKRA - Governs sexual nature and activity and the reproductive organs.
10. BASE CHAKRA - Is linked with a person's Kundalini, or psychic potential, and with the adrenal glands.
Hatha yoga has a physiological effect on muscle tone and circulation. Various asanas are believed to affect the autonomic nervous system and endocrine glands, which regulate internal functions, including heart rate and hormone production.
Twisting may ease back pain and help improve mobility. It may also influence the autonomic nerves, helping to stimulate digestion and the lymphatic system.
Veins carry blood back to the heart. Arteries carry blood out from the heart.
Headstands relax the heart by allowing blood to flow from the legs to the upper body. Meditative asanas such as this are said to improve circulation and stimulate the brain.
Back muscles are thought to affect the spinal nerves.
Bending forward with the head down lengthens the spine, stretches the back muscles, and increases the supply of oxygen to the brain.
EVIDENCE & RESEARCH
Most research has been carried out using gentle forms of yoga; so far no medical evidence exists to substantiate claims for more advanced forms. Some reputable studies have, however, confirmed that yoga can benefit a range of conditions. One well-known study from the 1960s was done at the Menninger Foundation in Texas, where researcher developing biofeedback techniques found that yoga meditation clearly affects the heart and circulation.
A 1990 study in The Lancet showed that yoga breathing reduced the frequency of asthma attacks, and at Oxford University in 1993, psychologists found yoga breathing more effective for restoring energy than relaxation or visualization. In the British Journal of Rheumatology, a 1994 study indicated that yoga therapy could benefit people with rheumatoid arthritis.
CONVENTIONAL MEDICAL OPINION
The medical establishment is skeptical of some of the claims of yoga (for example, that yoga can affect the nervous system and hormone levels), but most conventional health care providers would not object to it as an exercise or relaxation technique, and many would acknowledge that it deserves closer examination as a treatment for conditions such as heart disease. The development of yoga therapy, which uses specific asanas and pranayama to treat medical complaints, is likely to be followed with considerable interest.
A qualified yoga teacher will correct any errors in your postures and help you to improve your relaxation techniques and powers of concentration.
CONSULTING A PRACTITIONER
Most people find it helpful to join a beginner's class before continuing on their own. It is advisable to attend classes given by a qualified teacher. You should bring lightweight clothing to wear during class (leotards and tights or cotton shorts and tops are fine). It is not necessary to wear sneakers, since yoga is best done barefoot. The class should be held in a warm room with no drafts. You may need a rug or blanket to cover yourself while in the relaxation posture, and a mat if the floor is hard or slippery.
Most yoga classes last 40 to 90 minutes. After guiding you through gentle warm-up exercises, your yoga teacher will show you the correct way to perform yoga asanas, or postures, which you will then be asked to practice with the other pupils in the class. Sitting and standing asanas are held for between 20 seconds and 2 minutes and are designed to stretch and strengthen the body. Inverted postures, such as head or shoulder balance, can be held for longer. You will be encouraged to relax physically and mentally throughout your practice, to be conscious of your breathing and not to hold your breath.
Class sizes vary widely, but around 5 to 20 people is common. The atmosphere in the class should be focused but relaxed. When practicing the asanas, you should never be tempted to push yourself too far or to compete with your classmates.
If practicing yoga for medical reasons, always consult a teacher who is trained in yoga therapy. Certain asanas and breathing exercises have proved effective in relieving individual medical conditions, but it is important that you do the right ones.
People of all ages can benefit from yoga, which may be helpful in relieving age-related conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, and enhancing posture and poise in children.
LEARNING BASIC ASANAS
During the early stages of training, your yoga teacher will show you how to perform basic asanas suitable for beginners. the "warrior stretch" demonstrated below is intended to strengthen the spine, increase mobility, and improve posture. It should be practiced on both sides of the body, and held for a little longer each time it is performed.
1. Warrior Stretch: With feet wide apart, right foot facing forward, left foot to the side, and arms outstretched, exhale and bend the right knee. Breathing should be coordinated with the movements. Knee should be kept straight.
2. Warrior Stretch: Breathing evenly, place the right hand palm down on the floor, keeping the arm straight. Stretch the left arm out and turn the head up. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Head is turned up along the line of the extended arm. A diagonal line is created from foot to fingertips.
THE SUN SALUTATION
This sequence was traditionally practiced facing the rising and setting sun, and was intended to relax and focus the mind, and to increase flexibility and strength in the body. Used as part of a daily yoga routine, it makes an excellent warm-up exercise. The 12 asanas should be performed as a series of gentle, flowing movements, synchronized with the correct breathing patterns. While the Sun Salutation may be performed up to 12 times a day, it should not be attempted during pregnancy or menstruation, or if you have back pain, high blood pressure, or blood clots.
1. With back straight and body relaxed, exhale as you place your hands in the Prayer Position in front of the chest.
2. Inhale as you stretch your arms up over your head, then gently arch your body backward.
3. As you exhale, bend forward, keeping your knees as straight as possible. Place your hands flat on the floor beside your feet.
4. With both palms on the floor, inhale as you bend your knees. Stretch your right leg back as far as possible.
5. Bring your left leg back and straighten it, placing both feet together. Hold your breath while you maintain this "push up" position.
6. Exhale and let your knees, chest, and forehead touch the floor while keeping your hips up.
7. Inhale as you drop your hips and arch your head and chest back. Keep your palms flat and elbows bent.
8. Exhale as you raise your hips high. Keep your arms and legs straight, your head down, and your hands and feet flat on the floor.
9. Inhale as you lift your right foot up between your hands, dropping your left knee to the floor.
10. Exhale, bringing your left leg up, feet together, and palms down. Straighten your legs as much as possible.
11. Inhale and raise your arms up, stretching them back over your head as in step 2.
12. Exhale and straighten your body. Inhale and relax before beginning the sequence again.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q: How long does a session last? A: A minimum of 30 minutes and an optimum of one hour of practice a day is recommended.
Q: How many sessions will I need? A: Yoga's effectiveness depends on regular and continual practice, even if only for a short period each day.
Q: Will it be uncomfortable? A: Asanas should never cause prolonged or severe pain, though some may be more difficult initially. Beginners should avoid advanced asanas such as the Lotus position.
Q: Will there be any after effects? A: You may experience a slight stiffness of the joints when starting to practice yoga.
STRESS-RELATED ASTHMA - A PATIENT'S EXPERIENCE
William, a 47-year-old salesman, suffered from chronic, stress-related asthma: "I was taking endless courses of antibiotics. Each year my asthma became worse and medication less effective until my health care provider was about to put me on steroids. At that point I started classes with a yoga therapy teacher and it helped right away - enough to keep me off the steroids. Every morning I do 45 minutes of yoga, starting with exercises to synchronize breathing and movement, then "held" postures, and finally relaxation techniques. My asthma has gradually improved until now, three years later, I have a mild attack only a few times a year."
When practicing yoga by yourself it is important to progress gradually and not to force your body into postures - especially advanced asanas - before you are ready. Whether or not you are attending a yoga class, you should aim to practice for at least 20 to 30 minutes daily. Find a regular time, either before breakfast or before the evening meal. Regular daily practice should increase energy and stamina, tone muscles, improve digestion, enhance concentration, help you to deal with stress better, and give you a greater sense of control. Always allow at least five minutes in which to relax after a sequence of asanas.
Allow 2 to 3 hours after a meal before exercising. Take care if you are practicing yoga during pregnancy or menstruation. Certain asanas, such as the headstand, should be avoided during pregnancy and, according to some experts, during menstruation. Headstands and some other asanas are not advised if you have a neck or back injury, high blood pressure, circulatory problems, heart disease, or disorders of the brain, ears, or eyes.
GENERAL ALTERNATIVE THERAPY PRECAUTIONS
Consult your health care provider before embarking on any non-conventional form of treatment if you have any medical condition or symptoms of illness. Do not stop taking any prescribed medication without first consulting with your health care provider. Tell your complementary practitioner about any prescribed medication you are taking, and any other complementary treatments you are receiving. Tell your health care provider about any complementary treatments you are taking. This includes herbal remedies and nutritional supplements as well as treatments. Do not embark on vigorous exercise without first consulting with a health care provider if you have any serious medical condition, such as back pain, high blood pressure, or heart disease, or if you are pregnant. Do not begin a course of complementary therapy without first consulting with your health care provider (or midwife) if you are pregnant, or if you are trying to conceive. Advise your practitioner if you have any sexually transmitted disease. Consult your health care provider before allowing babies or infants to receive complementary treatments, since some treatments, such as enemas and certain herbal remedies, are unsuitable for small children. See your health care provider if symptoms persist or worsen.
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