Yoga is an ancient discipline of mental and physical training, concerned with developing a holistic, healthy and harmonious lifestyle.
What can Yoga treat?
Yoga relies on Western medicine for diagnosis and should not be regarded as a cure-all. Yoga techniques should only be practised with medical approval where there is doubt. Then, once a nationally-qualified teacher is found, Yoga can be particularly beneficial for a wide range of ailments including:
- back pain (back rolls, for example, stretch the lower back and massage the spine)
- respiratory disorders such as asthma, hay fever, bronchitis, colds and coughs
- digestive complaints such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome
- remedial Yoga can help with specific illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, ME, asthma, heart disease, menstrual problems, hormonal problems, high blood pressure and arthritis
- conditions associated with age
- stress-related conditions such as fatigue, headaches and migraines, depression
- poor circulation
- increasing the flexibility, relaxation and concentration of those with disabilities
- those with multiple sclerosis and other neuro-muscular disease
- keeping fit and supple
It is thought that Yoga originated in India over 5,000 years ago where it was practised by ascetics or yogis. The word ‘Yoga’ is Sanskrit for ‘union’ and the practice is intended to lead to a better balance of body, mind and spirit. It was introduced to England in the nineteenth century and became particularly popular in the Sixties. Ultimately, the aim of Yoga is self-enlightenment but, in the West, Yoga is often used more for its physical benefits. Its combination of physical and mental exercises help maintain suppleness, increase stamina and strength, improve posture and concentration and reduce stress. Yoga works on all levels through a balanced combination of asanas (physical postures), pranayamas (breathing exercises), deep relaxation and meditation.
Asanas are designed to benefit both mind and body and should be performed slowly and deliberately, in co-ordination with breathing. Each asana works on a specific area of the body, gently stretching and contracting the muscles. Each has an individual shape which it is important to maintain correctly and to practise regularly. Advanced asanas can take up to two years to perfect, if at all.
Spiritual benefits are derived from using breathing techniques and meditation to influence the flow of prana, life energy or the vital force that permeates and motivates life in all its forms. In traditional Yoga, pranayama is a means of purifying body and mind in preparation for self-realisation. Today, it is used by practitioners to improve health and control over both bodily and mental functions. Deep mental and physical relaxation is also vital for the practice of Yoga – those who learn to relax properly often speak of an increased feeling of well-being and vitality. Traditional Yoga uses meditation to achieve this relaxation.
There are several formal schools of Yoga available in the West today including Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Schools of Yoga have developed around particular teachers such as Iyengar, Ashtanga and Sivananda. Yoga therapy is a specialised form of therapy which retains Yoga’s basic aims but tailors the approach and method to the individual and his or her particular condition.
Consultation and treatment
Yoga can be taught in a class or one to one. During your first visit, you may be asked for a detailed case history and given an assessment from which tailored Yoga practices are developed and taught. Most classes begin with basic stretching. Muscle relaxation helps release built-in tension. Your Yoga teacher will then demonstrate or instruct the correct way to perform asanas, which you will be asked to practise. Asanas are normally held for between 20 seconds and 2 minutes. The class may also include techniques of deep relaxation, meditation and some pranayamas. Yoga normally takes place in a quiet, well-ventilated but warm environment. The body should be clothed lightly and comfortably. Classes last 60 to 120 minutes and asanas should be practised for a minimum of 20 minutes a day.
Fees vary according to where you live.
Self-help is essential for maximum benefit and exercises should be practised at least 20 minutes a day. There are many books available but it is best to attend classes as correct instruction and individual guidance is very important. When practising by yourself, do not to force your body into postures before you are ready. Always allow at least five minutes to relax after a sequence of asanas.
How to find a practitioner
Contact your local Adult Education Authority and enrol in one of their classes or, for a list of qualified teachers, contact the British Wheel of Yoga. Its Teaching Diploma is recognised by all UK Education Authorities and by Health Authorities that have incorporated Yoga into their rehabilitation programmes. The Yoga Biomedical Trust runs a two to three-year part-time Diploma Course in Yoga Therapy. Trainee therapists work with conventional specialists to understand medical conditions and gain practical experience in how different conditions respond to Yoga. The Sivananda Centre runs a one-month residential courses. Yoga for Health runs nine-month part-time courses and 18-month remedial Yoga courses. Contact them for a list of teachers or courses.
Everyone can benefit from Yoga but certain asanas should be avoided at certain times. Those with serious conditions, for example, those taking medication or suffering from a heart condition, back pain or joint problems should seek the advice of their GP before beginning or continuing with Yoga and find an appropriate class or suitable teacher.
Although some postures must be avoided during pregnancy (in fact, Yoga should be avoided during the first three months of pregnancy if the mother has not practised it before), mothers have been found to gain great benefit from the regular practice of Yoga, which can also help with birth preparation. Some teachers specialise in Yoga for pregnancy; others adapt existing classes for pregnant women.
Headstands and some other asanas are not advised if you have a neck or back injury, high blood pressure, circulatory problems, heart disease, or disorders of the brain, ears or eyes.
Make the effort to find a good teacher as some problems such as back pain can be aggravated through poor teaching. No strain should be experienced at any time during an asana. Always stop an asana if it becomes painful and let your teacher know.
Allow three hours after a meal before exercising.