What is yoga?

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Yoga is a physical and mental practice that involves the body, mind and spirit. The practice, which originated in India, is designed to:
  • enhance awareness
  • create a mind-body-spirit balance
  • cleanse, heal and strengthen the body
  • liberate the true self
  • and, as practiced today, improve fitness
The most common form practiced in the United States is hatha yoga, which includes specific movements or postures (asana) and various breathing techniques (pranayama) and is often complimented with meditation (dhyana).

No one seems quite sure when yoga began, but it goes back thousands of years. Stone carvings in India's Indus Valley depicting yoga positions date back more than 5,000 years.

Traditionally, yoga was a spiritual practice, its goal being union with the absolute or the divine. The various exercises we associate with hatha yoga were performed to prepare the body for long periods of meditation. The word "yoga" means to join or bind together, and the practice joins together the body, mind and spirit. On a spiritual level, it can refer to the union of the individual with the absolute truth or true self (Atman). It's often associated with Hinduism, but yoga predates the religion. Hinduism has incorporated elements of yoga into its practices, as have other religions.

Yoga is not a religion, but many of its elements are incorporated into various religious traditions. Practicing yoga won't interfere with your religious practice -- and it might enhance it.

Yoga is now practiced around the world for its psychological, physical and spiritual benefits. Americans have practiced it for more than 100 years, but it gained popularity in the 1960s as young people developed a taste for all things Eastern. According to results of a 2012 survey, 20.4 million Americans, or 8.7% of U.S. adults, are believed to practice yoga.

Yoga practitioners generally maintain that the best way to learn is in person. If you are homebound, there are countless books, websites and DVDs available. Just remember that the best and safest way to learn is with a teacher guiding you.
Yogi Cameron Alborzian
Alternative & Complementary Medicine

When we encounter an adverse situation, we typically react from a place of anger, sadness, resentment, or another unpleasant emotion. This disturbed emotional state then eats away at us and causes an ongoing state of personal turmoil or suffering. For many of us, this is the extent of our life: something bad happens, and we feel bad in response. But what if this didn't have to be the case?

Thousands of years ago, the ancient sages of India devised a process by which we could train the mind to no longer exist in a state of this suffering. Rather than change our circumstances, we change our mind's reaction to those circumstances. We alleviate our suffering by training the mind.

This forms the basis of the tradition we now know as Yoga: a system of tools we use to train the mind so as to not be disturbed by its many fluctuations and episodes of turmoil. We may begin by living a life in line with certain ideals before then embracing outward practices like postures and breathing exercises. We may vow to serve others selflessly through acts of charity and good will. When we successfully train the mind to no longer react from a place of turmoil and suffering, those adverse situations no longer seem so problematic. Indeed, what was once adverse now simply is.

Yoga is a mind-body practice that typically combines physical postures and breathing techniques. Many styles are available, ranging from slow and gentle to athletic and vigorous. Regular yoga can help combat stress and improve your body awareness, strength, flexibility, and balance. A study found that regular yoga practice may help to minimize weight gain in middle age.
Yoga is an ancient practice meant to unify mind, body, and spirit through the use of poses, meditation, breathing, chanting and study of the self. It was created in India using the principles of both Buddhism and Hinduism. The Western practice of yoga typically focuses on poses and has become a popular form of exercise.
William B. Salt II., MD
Gastroenterology
Yoga is a combination of exercise and mental relaxation. It is really a form of moving meditation and conscious breathing. Yoga is a superb, low impact form of stretching, exercise and breathing that yields phenomenal health benefits for your mind, body and spirit.
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Yoga refers to several disciplines, some of which are strictly philosophical or spiritual. Most commonly here in the West, however, when we think of yoga, we think of that series of postures -- asanas -- breathing exercises, and deep concentration that develop flexibility and strength and focus the mind.
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The word yoga is a Sanskrit (East Indian language) word meaning "union", and is most commonly described as the union of the mind and the body through a practice which integrates physical movement (postures or asanas), breath, and meditation. It is an ancient science and discipline dating back thousands of years, and can be defined in many different ways due to various age-old yoga traditions throughout the world. In the United States it is conventionally practiced and known as a stretching-based exercise performed on a mat that promotes many health benefits. You will hear common names as well as the East Indian, or yogic language, Sanskrit, names for the postures (asanas in Sanskrit). For example, the popular Downward Facing Dog is also Adho Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit. Yoga teachers refer to postures both ways depending on their style. Also, it is important to be aware that the same yoga pose may be referred to as one name in one tradition and a completely different name in a different tradition. While most people are drawn to yoga for the physical side, they soon learn that it can be much more than moving the body around in funny looking poses. According to one of the most important yoga texts, The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda, yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, or specifically cited, "the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga." To explain further, through the discipline and practice of physical postures, breath techniques, meditation, and yogic philosophy, you begin to learn how to be present in everything that arises in your life which leads to liberation from unnecessary suffering. Whether it be pain or joy, failure or success, you observe it without labeling it good or bad, you begin to learn to take your experiences without attachment and learn to accept what is reality instead of resisting what is reality. It is said that this leads to ultimate liberation. This also gives you an opportunity to harness your energy in the most efficient way. For example, this type of thought pattern will save you wasted energy that may have been spent on over-reaction to particular events or items arising in your life, but through the liberating action of looking at things with more acceptance rather than resistance you will reduce worry, anxiety, over-thinking, and simply learn to be present with what shows up without all the added suffering.
Sadie Nardini
Alternative & Complementary Medicine

Beyond the Down Dogs and Sun Salutations we're more familiar with, yoga, simply put, is the practice of living in balance within any and all aspects of daily life such as how you exercise, what you eat, which relationships you choose, and how you deal with stress. There are as many yoga styles and opinions about what yoga is as there are people who teach it. I see yoga, at its root, as a personal path of making the choices that move you towards health in any way possible. Since a strong, fit and relaxed mind and body can lead towards constructive shifts in the rest of your life, I recommend trying a variety of yoga classes and teachers until you find the one (or more!) that's right for you now. You'll learn more about moving from center on all levels the longer you practice.

Yoga includes asanas (physical poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises). Many types of yoga are practiced in the United States of America, and different teachers emphasize different aspects. Some teach yoga as a form of exercise, while others emphasize breathing. Some practices are entirely secular, while others incorporate a religious and spiritual aspect. People with back pain often find yoga helpful, and studies have shown that yoga can also benefit those with osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

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In the Vedic tradition, each person can choose four paths that arise from feeling, thinking, acting, and being. Each path is called a Yoga, the Sanskrit word for "union," because unity -- merging with one reality -- was the goal. Over the ages, the four Yogas have come to define specific paths that suit the kind of temperament a seeker has, although in truth you can follow several or all at once. Bhakti Yoga leads to unity by loving God. Karma Yoga leads to unity through selfless action. Gyana Yoga leads to unity through knowledge. Raj Yoga leads to unity through meditation and renunciation.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.