One form of stress reducing exercise that also helps people get in better touch with their body is yoga. It may sound a bit strange at first, but if reducing stress is your goal, especially if you have not found much help in other ways, it might be worth your time to try yoga. There are many physical benefits to yoga besides the reduction of stress. Among them, the sense of balance we tend to lose as we get older is often restored and a feeling of confidence and well being often comes to many other areas of our lives.

The Sanskrit word yog(uh) has two roots, to meditate and to join (as in combining human nature with forces beyond the body). The goal is to find a higher level of understanding of ourself and of the natural world around us. Yoga is not always easily accepted in the western world, as it extends beyond the limits of medicine as it is commonly practiced. What is not understood, or doesn't fit our usual pattern of knowledge, is often rejected.

Drawings illustrating yoga from 6,000 years ago have been found, but the full force of its influence on life in India goes back to about 300 BC. Yoga is not just the physical poses that most people associate with it, but it involves relaxation, breathing, diet and conscious awareness, a form of meditation.

In the western world many different groups have been interested in eastern ways of finding physical and emotional realization. Some have adopted yoga and given it religious significance, but yoga is not a religion in itself. It has been part of the search for understanding and inner peace by many beliefs, especially Hindus and Buddhists in the East.

There are four major forms of yoga. Physical mastery (Hatha) is most popularly associated with what most westerners know as yoga. In addition, there is mind discipline (Laya), focus of thought (Dhayna), and the control of knowledge, activity, psychic nerve forces and self-knowledge, leading to deep inner satisfaction (Raja).

Hatha yoga, as well as the other forms, has been found to aid in many physical problems. Instead of concentrating on only increasing muscle size and strength, yoga also looks at finding ways of relaxing and stretching muscles to become more supple and responsive. It is a form of meditation with movement, with conscious awareness always focused.

Yoga allows people who have health problems to regain a sense of the power of their body. When a person has an illness, injury or physical problem, there's a tendency to become afraid or unwilling to fully utilize the body. What starts as a behavior to protect the body from injury can become the entire way a person lives, shaping that person's self image. I can't do that because I'm out of shape is more a self-limitation, a lack of confidence (in mind and body) than an actual inability to do whatever it was. We've all heard of persons lifting impossibly heavy objects to free a child or loved one. At the moment of a life-and-death emergency that person forgets about all the limitations that were self-imposed and without hesitation can do what was thought to be impossible. Yoga lets us get back in touch with our body, and that allows us to free our thoughts and emotions from the limits we have mistakenly imposed upon ourselves.

Yoga is a gentle form of exercise. It is not normally aerobic, and does not place a strain on the heart or other organs. A wide variety of yoga positions can be done in bed, sitting down, lying on the floor or standing. Many wheelchair patients are able to use yoga and they find that it frees them from the disabled mentality that may have been holding back their recovery. Yoga becomes a rejuvenating process; the more it is practiced, the more energy is developed.

Yoga classes are available in most communities, some free and others for a small fee. Many adult education services, colleges and universities offer yoga. Classes are usually open to the general public as well as to students.

If these are not convenient for you, audio and video tapes provide carefully stepped introductions to the basic poses. To see if you might benefit from a video tape, a Jane Fonda Workout series low-impact yoga tape is available at many rental outlets. Some poses can place your back and body in alignment positions that you may not be used to, so it is best, at least in the beginning, to have an experienced yoga instructor guide you into the proper positions. It is possible to lose the benefits of the pose, and even to cause injury, if poses are done incorrectly. A list of selected training tapes and books about yoga is included in the Reference section.

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation