Stretching toward improved physical and spiritual health

People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons, including fitness, stress management, and relief from physical or emotional pain. September is National Yoga Awareness Month, and a good time, with the holidays and colder weather rapidly approaching, to look into yoga’s spiritual and physical healing properties. Regardless of your motivation, most yoga enthusiasts credit yoga’s meditative component — as well as the physical training and discipline — with allowing them to reach a deeper, more spiritual place in their lives while helping them relax and improve their overall health and wellness.

Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, and approximately 11 million Americans enjoy its health benefits. The traditional series of yoga poses, called asanas, work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use, which may cause stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. Additionally, yoga increases the range of motion in joints and stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles.

No matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time, though you should seek guidance from an experienced yoga teacher to help avoid possible injury and to learn how to get the most value. The greatest gains typically are in shoulder and trunk flexibility. Yoga includes postures (asanas), energy and breath control (pranayama), meditation, music, philosophy and other approaches. While many people equate the word Hatha with a particular style of yoga, the word actually refers to the physical aspect of yoga — to the asana and pranayama practices.

Meditation is important to all styles and traditions of yoga but is often the least understood aspect of yoga. The art and science of transcending one’s thoughts and liberating the mind, meditation may involve simple breath awareness, chanting or movement. For some, it is the heart of the practice, for others it is integrated with the asanas, often at the beginning and the end of the class.

Common styles of yoga

The following are some common styles of yoga:

Gentle yoga: Gentle yoga can be as dynamic as some of the more vibrant styles, yet is gentle on the body. Classes are often multi-level and do not assume prior yoga experience. They include breathing techniques, warm-ups and basic postures to increase mind-body connection, self-awareness and self-confidence.

Yoga flows: Yoga flows are more invigorating. Postures are linked in a flow and provide some aerobic components while also improving strength and coordination. The classes assume a participant begins with a certain degree of strength and endurance.

Power yoga: This dynamic yoga style includes specific sequences designed to build strength and stamina. These classes are often recommended for people with some familiarity of the basic postures.

Fitness yoga: Fitness yoga is a newer expression designed to incorporate traditional yoga postures in a form common to most fitness clubs. Students warm up, practice more strenuous postures and then cool down. They tone the body, especially the core, and increase flexibility, balance and mind-body awareness.

Specialty yoga: Yoga can also be customized for the special needs of a broad spectrum of groups including expectant mothers, seniors and children, as well as for those battling life-threatening diseases or debilitating chronic conditions. Specialized training is important for teachers who work with these groups.

Spiritually-oriented yoga: Originally, Hatha yoga was primarily a tool for spiritual growth as well as for physical well-being. Modern styles that emphasize the spiritual dimension of yoga practice tend to involve slower movement and often include meditation practice.

Therapeutic yoga: Yoga therapy is the adaptation and application of yoga practices and techniques to help those facing health challenges manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality and improve attitude.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!