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Yoga 101

September 19th, 2011 Healthy Living

You may have heard about the many health benefits of yoga, but unless you're familiar with the exercise, you may not know exactly why it is good for you. Brush up on the history of the practice and the several forms that are popular today.

The exact beginnings of yoga are unknown, but it originated before humans started keeping written records, according to the American Yoga Association (AYA). Stone seals found in India from 3000 B.C. depict figures of people doing yoga poses, so the practice had begun by this time. Contrary to popular belief, yoga didn't originate out of Hinduism, which was established much later and borrowed some of yoga's common themes.

Yoga has been passed down between teachers and students for thousands of years, and the oldest known text was written by a scholar named Patanjali around 2,000 years ago. The book was called Yoga Sutras, and it discussed the eight limbs of yoga. These limbs are:
1. Yama, which means avoiding activities like violence and stealing.
2. Niyama, which means observance and remembrance.
3. Asana, which are physical exercises.
4. Pranayama, which are breathing techniques.
5. Pratyahara, which means preparing for meditation by withdrawing from the senses.
6. Dharana, which focuses on concentration.
7. Dhyana, which is meditation.
8. Samadhi, which is the realization of the nature of the self.

Yoga began to be practiced in the U.S. in the 1800s, but became widely known in the 1960s when the youth began focusing on Eastern culture, the AYA notes. As it became increasingly popular, the physical benefits and stress-relief methods of the practice were embraced and are now even recommended by doctors.

The different types
Exercise, breathing and meditation are the three main aspects of yoga. Combining these areas is meant to help those who practice yoga to integrate their bodies, minds and spirits while uniting personal consciousness with universal consciousness. There are numerous branches of yoga that employ these techniques, including the following popular forms, as listed by ABC of Yoga.
1. Hatha yoga. An extremely popular branch of yoga, Hatha focuses on improving health and spirituality through physical poses (Asana), breathing techniques (Pranayama) and meditation.
2. Bhakti yoga. This branch is widely practiced in India, and teaches the practitioner to embrace the "One," or the Divine, in everything and every one through love and acceptance.
3. Raja yoga. This path is based on the eight limbs of yoga and is usually practiced by members of religious orders. It focuses on discipline and self-control.
4. Jnana yoga. This branch focuses on the mind and intelligence. Practitioners seek to gain knowledge through many avenues.
5. Karma yoga. Emphasizing service, this path encourages having a good attitude now in order to change your soul and eventually your destiny.
6. Tantra yoga. This path focuses on using rituals to experience what is sacred by focusing on what is special about everything.

Physical benefits
Many studies have shown that practicing yoga has a direct positive impact on your health. Here's a list of just some of the beneficial physiological effects, as noted by ABC of Yoga.
• Decreases blood pressure
• Increases cardiovascular efficiency
• Improves the range of motion in joints
• Increases energy levels
• Improves sleep patterns
• Improves breathing
• Develops hand-eye coordination.

Mental benefits
As if the physical benefits weren't enough, yoga also has a positive effect on brain function and can improve your mood. According to ABC of Yoga, you may experience:
• Decreased anxiety and depression
• Improved attention levels
• Better social skills
• Improved concentration and memory
• Increased self-awareness and acceptance
• Better learning efficiency.

If you're looking to get started on one of the paths of yoga, do some research online or check out a local class. You'll learn more about different postures, breathing methods and meditation techniques that can improve your well-being.