Yoga exercises strengthen your body, mind, and spirit. Yoga is exercise, meditation, and relaxation all wrapped up into one. It’s a great way to support natural healing.
There are many forms of the ancient practice of Yoga. Here we focus on the most popular form in Western culture: Hatha Yoga. In India, “ha” means sun and “tha” means moon. Hatha Yoga translates to bringing union to the pairs of opposites.
Yoga exercises comprise a series of gentle stretching poses (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama) performed with focused attention or mindfulness.
Yoga exercises are so beneficial for health that most major medical centers offer them in their health programs and many athletes use them to maintain flexibility and help prevent injuries.
They’re a great way to get fit.
Yoga Exercise Benefits
There’s no question about the benefits of Yoga. Here ‘s just a sampling:
- Improved stamina
- Reduced pain of arthritis
- Increased handgrip strength
- Better range of motion in joints
- Better control of asthma and diabetes
- Greater versatility in learning new skills
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved sleep
- Reduced back pain
- Weight loss
- Help in late-stage-diseases
“How you do” Yoga is as important as “what you do.”
Yoga poses done properly help align the body supporting optimum function and relieving stress and pain. They coordinate with your breathing. Doing the perfect pose is not as important as the process of gaining awareness and balance of your body. Learning to focus on performing the poses and breathing fosters greater awareness—mindfulness.
This greater awareness translates to all areas of your life. For example, in studies performed at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute researchers found that yoga helped prevent the normal weight gain of middle age and promote losses in overweight people.
You can study the behavior of cats to prepare for yoga exercises. You’ll see them stretching. Many of their stretches look like yoga. They gently stretch as they wake up and repeatedly all day long.
They rest when they feel tired. A cat “tunes in” to its body responding instantly to its needs: no force, no time pressure, only the easy response to its body’s needs.
How to Prepare
- If you have medical concerns consult with you health practitioner before beginning. Some of the exercises involve placing your head below your heart, which can cause dizziness with some medical conditions.
- Wait at least 4 to 5 hours after a full meal. Allow your body time to digest the food and the pleasure of its full focus on the yoga exercises.
- Yoga exercise routines (series of exercises) take about 30 minutes. This allows time to rest at the end to benefit fully. Although, it all counts so if you only have time for one exercise, you will still experience its benefit.
- Wear lose comfortable clothing. Remove your shoes and socks.
- Invest in a few simple supplies such as a mat, straps, and blocks. They’re inexpensive and make a big difference for your practice. It’s a good idea to have a blanket and chair handy as well. We’ll explore how to use these props later.
- Always start with a few moments of focusing on your breathing, using diaphragmatic breathing.
- Set an attitude of respect for your body. Be present for your body, listen to its subtle signals, feel the comfort and pleasure of stretching in the poses.
- Coordinate your breathing with the slow gentle activity of the exercises, associating each exhalation with releasing physical tension. Breathe in air (inhale) as you begin the pose. Breathe normally during the pose and inhale as you end the pose.
- Some people find trying to focus on breathing and learning the poses at the same time is too confusing at first. If this happens to you just focus on the exercise being sure not to hold your breath. Then once you feel ready bring in the focus on breathing along with the poses.
- Let your body tell you how long to hold the pose. Although the beginning poses are usually held anywhere between 20 to 60 seconds, avoid counting seconds. Count your breaths instead as this allows your to focus inside on what is happening in your body.
- Keep your focus until you have completed the pose fully.
- Take time to feel the effects at the end of the pose.
- Pay attention to your body’s response and adapt the exercise to your needs. If a pose doesn’t look or feel right for you, don’t do it. You may want to explore it later when your practice is more mature.
- Remember yoga is gentle, smooth motions.
- Never force a stretch. If you find yourself forcing or bouncing, replace it with releasing tension and allowing the stretch to unfold. You should sense a quiet invigoration of the body not pain or strain.
- Never rush. If you lose your concentration, stop, take a few breaths, and return to the beginning of the exercise.
- Soak up all of the benefits from your yoga routine by resting five to ten minutes at the end. You can lie down or sit, tune in to your body noticing all sensations. Take some good diaphragmatic breaths.
The more you practice yoga the more your muscles remember this state of quiet strength and relaxation. You will more and more easily release physical tension in your body throughout the day with a simple stretch.
Yoga exercises don’t have to be serious. Explore, experiment, reconnect with your body in this new way. Watch your concentration improve allowing you to focus more on what’s happening in the moment.
Enjoy strengthening your body, mind, and spirit with yoga exercises. See related articles for specific exercises.
Sources and Resources
Herbert Benson and Eileen M. Stuart, The Wellness Book: The Comprehensive Guide to Maintaining Health and Treating Stress-Related Illness (New York: Simon & Schuster 1993)
Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall, Yoga for Arthritis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).
Rodney Yee, Yoga: The Poetry of The Body (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002).