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What is Yoga?

Yoga originated thousands of years ago in India as a technique to help people achieve spiritual enlightenment. Today, people practice Yoga to improve their physical, mental and/or spiritual well being. Most forms of Yoga involve physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation. The Yoga most Westerners know is a movement technique – a series of poses (called asanas) that emphasize stretching, attentive breathing, and relaxation. These comprehensive poses are part of a 5000 year old spiritual discipline and belief system.

Aren’t there different types of Yoga?

There are several different styles of Yoga, including Hatha, Iyengar, and Astanga, and each has a slightly different emphasis. Hatha Yoga, the style most commonly taught in the West, includes stretching and breathing exercises, poses, and meditation or relaxation techniques. Most Yoga classes focus on a few dozen Hatha poses – often borrowing from other styles as well. Iyengar Yoga is more vigorous and intense, with poses that develop strength and aim for precise alignment of the spine and limbs. And Astanga, or “Power Yoga,” incorporates poses from Hatha and other styles but is far more dynamic. Each pose is choreographed into a flowing sequence of moves that will definitely get your heart and muscles going. In fact, Astanga not only limbers you up but also provides a full blown aerobic workout.

What are the benefits?

Yoga strengthens and tones muscles, improves balance and flexibility, and increases blood flow and vitality. It’s also a great way to reduce stress. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found Yoga lowers chemicals in the blood stream associated with anxiety and triggers other physiological relaxation responses, such as reducing muscle tension and lowering heart rate.

Studies have shown that the attentive, controlled breathing cultivated in Yoga can help short–circuit your body’s fight or flight response, the keyed–up feeling you get during times of danger or stress. Regular Yoga practice can also lower blood pressure, help ease headache and arthritis pain, reduce anxiety, and combat insomnia and other stress related ills. What’s more, because all styles of Yoga make you more flexible, you’re more likely to avoid injury and you’ll be able to keep up a wider range of activities.

What can I expect during a Yoga class?

Most classes have 8 to 25 students and last 60 to 90 minutes. It’s best to wear loose, comfortable clothing. Pads or props needed to enhance or modify poses are usually provided. Once class starts, there’s not much talking or socializing because that interferes with concentration. Classes generally start with a series of poses, each one held for a specific period of time. Your teacher will probably move around the room to check each individual and suggest ways to improve their form. Classes typically end with a relaxation period to calm the body and clear the mind.

Does it matter that I’m not very flexible?

Not at all. A good instructor can adapt the poses to fit any level of student. Over time, your flexibility will improve.

Can I practice Yoga if I’m pregnant or have a health problem?

Yoga is a very safe activity if done correctly. Make sure to tell the instructor about any physical limitations or medical conditions (including pregnancy). An experienced instructor can teach you how to adapt poses to fit your situation.

How often do I need to practice Yoga?

You can benefit from as little as 60 minutes of practice a week. Practicing 2 to 3 times a week for 45 minutes to an hour is a good goal to work towards. Another alternative is to practice 15 minutes every day. The more you practice, the greater the benefit.

How safe is it?

Practicing Yoga is generally safe, but take it easy in your first few classes, there’s no reason to push beyond your limits. Also, if you have back, knee, or other physical problems, get the go ahead from your doctor first, since some poses can aggravate injuries. And tell your teacher beforehand about any limitations or concerns you have, so he or she can help you with alternate or modified poses.

Where can I learn Yoga?

The best place to start is by taking a class taught by an experienced Yoga instructor. Ask your friends and family for recommendations. It’s important that you feel comfortable with an instructor.