Of all the activities available in the pursuit of fitness, the alpha (beginning) and the omega (end) are relaxing the muscles. Stretching is the usual way to prepare for strenuous exercise, and the best way to cool down afterward.
Extending and flexing all parts of your body will keep you fit and trim. An Eastern practice that has been popular for centuries is also very popular in the west: yoga.
The good news is that you can do yoga at home. Or not. The choice is yours.
The word “yoga” comes from ancient Hindu philosophy in India. Yoga means union. It can refer to the union of the self with the Supreme Being or ultimate principle. Another meaning is a course of physical and mental disciplines to attain liberation from the material world and union of the self with the Supreme Being or ultimate principle.
In this article, the term yoga signifies any of the methods or disciplines prescribed, especially a series of postures and breathing exercises practiced, to achieve control of the body and mind, tranquillity – and self-union.
There are lots of kinds of yoga – so many that no one will say exactly how many there are. Suffice it to say that, no matter what kind of day you are having, there is some type of yoga to suit your state of mind and being.
The friendly folks over at YogaTrail have provided this comprehensive decision chart to guide you to your first move:
I particularly like the square labeled, “Are you overwhelmed by this chart?” The arrow leads to a speedy exit with Hatha Yoga.
Let’s run down three of the most popular types of yoga practice in America, shall we?
Hey, the chart said this was the easy way out – so why not start here?
Hatha yoga combines slow-paced and gentle “asanas” (stretching postures) with “pranayama” (breathing exercises) to calm and unify the mind and body.
This sounds a lot harder than it is. For example, try this on for size: Stand straight with your arms extended out to the sides, palms up. Without twisting your body or arms, turn only your head to the left and breathe in deeply. Exhale all the air as you turn only your head to the right. Repeat several times.
Congratulations. You just did some Hatha yoga.
Simple stretches like a seated forward bend where you touch your toes – or feet, calves or knees – can all be yogic postures if you focus on your breathing.
So don’t be afraid to head over to YouTube for a beginner’s video to use in the comfort and privacy of your own home, or find a local school or instructor if you prefer the moral support of a friendly group of fellow health-seekers.
Take Hatha yoga, add some dynamic breathing techniques, chanting mantras (repeated words or phrases) and meditation, and you get Kundalini yoga.
Named for the energy at the base of the spine, the objective is to “raise” the Kundalini force – visualized as light or fire – up the spinal column, through the seven chakras. The ultimate goal is to activate the Crown Chakra, at which point enlightenment is said to occur.
Regular practice of Kundalini yoga leads to freedom from Karma (the lasting effects of past actions) and a new understanding of one’s life purpose. Doesn’t that sound awesome?
A Kundalini exercise is called a “kriya” and it is usually both repetitive and synchronized with the breath.
Gaia explains that “Kundalini Yoga is a blend of Bhakti Yoga (the yogic practice of devotion and chanting), Raja Yoga (the practice of meditation/mental and physical control) and Shakti Yoga, (for the expression of power and energy).”
Another technique often employed in Kundalini yoga is alternate nostril breathing (pinch one nostril shut to breathe in, hold a moment, then breathe out the other nostril). This cleanses the “nadis” (subtle channels and pathways) to help awaken Kundalini energy.
If you sign up for a traditional Kundalini yoga class, wear your whites – or stick out like a sore thumb. Why? This from Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini yoga to the west:
“Colors create an uncontrollable action in your subconscious mind of inspiration, productivity and expansion. Colors have an effect on consciousness. We wanted to develop a very fast, progressive, spiritual and technical method of all the colors, so we have adopted the one color of the seven colors, which is white.”
“Some like it hot, and some sweat when the heat is on.” Not only the lyrics from a Robert Palmer song, if you like to cook, Bikram yoga might appeal to you.
Bikram yoga is nothing but predictable. No matter where you roam, a class in this style features “the same, copyrighted twenty-six postures and two breathing techniques, in the same order for ninety minutes, in a room heated to 105°F (40.6°C), with a humidity of 40%,” according to DoYogaWithMe.
The heat in the sauna-like Bikram yoga room promotes flexibility and promotes rapid detoxification. It would be nice if you took a shower afterward…for the rest of us.
Bikram yoga relieves stress, tones the body, and heals chronic pain such as arthritis, joint aches, knee injuries, and back problems.
Yogis (men) and yoginis (women) in a Bikram yoga class listen to the instructor, who leads a moving meditation without demonstration. This allows the mind to focus within, rather than on the external guide.
If you feel brave enough to try Bikram yoga, here are some survival tips: drink plenty of fluids (water, preferably) and don’t eat for two hours before the class. Oh yes, and wear light-weight clothing. Perhaps a sweatband on your forehead is in order?
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No matter which style – or styles – of yoga you choose to embrace, the secret to success with all physical and mental disciplines is to “keep on keepin’ on.” Regular yoga sessions will pay off with increased range of motion, better balance, straighter posture, slower breathing, better sleep, and increased energy levels.
If you doubt the benefits of yoga, check out this amazing 5-minute video about “Arthur’s Inspirational Transformation!”
I wouldn’t be stretching the truth if I said that yoga has changed lives for the better, for people of all ages and backgrounds. Release is relief. Feel better with yoga.