What Is Yoga?

Perhaps when you hear the word “yoga,” you envision women in spandex with Madonna-like biceps, sweating as they contort into pretzel positions. Or maybe, if you lived through the 1960’s, you think of the bearded Beatles, sitting around chanting with a guru in long robes. In fact, both of these caricature images of yoga have some basis in reality. Yoga can involve complex poses, or asanas. It can also include deep breathing and meditation. But it is much more accessible to most of us than these images suggest.

Yoga’s roots are in ancient India. The word “yoga” is usually translated to mean “union,” and yoga’s focus is on unifying the mind, body, and spirit. Yoga’s main goal is a spiritual one — to help individuals achieve true happiness, freedom, or enlightenment. But yoga also has several secondary goals, such as improving physical health and boosting mental and emotional well-being. It is usually these secondary goals that are the focus of yoga practice in the West. The emphasis is on poses, moving sequences, and breathing practices, as well as deep relaxation and concentration.

Like any tradition that has been around for thousands of years, yoga has evolved over time. Today, there are many different styles of yoga. Some are continuous and flowing, some are strenuous, and others are gentle and contemplative. Certain classes concentrate on proper alignment of poses, while some emphasize relaxation, and some have a more spiritual focus. Read on to find out more about yoga and how it can benefit you.

Why do yoga?

Those celebrities pictured doing yoga in magazines might just be on to something. Medical research has shown that yoga has many physical and psychological benefits. Among these benefits are increased strength, flexibility, and balance and a greater ability to manage stress and to relax. Yoga can help us breathe more efficiently, reduce anxiety or depression while improving positive feelings, increase energy, and reduce the symptoms of many chronic disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, low back pain, and multiple sclerosis. There is even some evidence that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or epilepsy can benefit from yoga. In fact, yoga’s benefits are so clear that, in addition to being offered at your local YMCA, yoga is now being practiced on professional football fields and even on military bases.

Who can do yoga?

A better question might ask who can’t do yoga! And it would be difficult to come up with an answer. It is very important, however, that each individual choose the appropriate type of yoga. To give a few examples, there are yoga classes for seniors in which participants sit in chairs the entire time. There are yoga classes for kids that are built around storytelling. There are yoga classes for athletes that are designed to help prevent injuries. There are yoga classes for executives who want to reduce stress and enhance their well-being. It is not recommended that a senior take a strenuous class for athletes, nor would a child be very interested in a relaxing class for executives. For yoga to be safe and effective for you, it is crucial that you find an instructor and a style of yoga that best meets your particular needs and limitations. (For more on appropriate styles of yoga, see “How can I do yoga that is safe for me?” below.)

Can yoga help people with arthritis?

Physical activity is recommended as part of comprehensive treatment for all people with arthritis. Exercise is beneficial for most people, but it is especially important for those with arthritis, who often have decreased muscle strength, energy, and endurance. Exercise does not increase joint pain or make the arthritis worse, and it may play a key role in promoting joint health. More than 100 scientific studies on yoga have been published in major medical journals. These studies have shown that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity that also offers important psychological benefits because of its meditative nature. These physical and psychological benefits may be especially helpful for people living with a chronic condition such as arthritis.

Only a handful of studies have looked at the effect of yoga specifically on people with arthritis (though several more are underway). However, these early studies have shown that yoga can bring about some improvement in joint health, physical functioning, and mental and emotional health. Perhaps most important is that yoga can affect quality of life for the better.

To sum up, for people who don’t like traditional forms of exercise such as aerobics or water exercise, yoga offers an enjoyable alternative. It’s also a good way to help reduce the stress and frustration that pain and disability cause and to increase positive feelings and well-being. Futhermore, the studies suggest that people with arthritis may enjoy yoga more than other forms of exercise, which means they may tend to stick with it longer.

How can I do yoga that is safe for me?

Yoga seems to be everywhere these days. It is likely that you’ve spotted yoga books in your bookstore, yoga videos in the video rental store, and yoga classes at every community center and fitness center in your neighborhood. And while they all have their place, the safest way to start practicing yoga is at a yoga studio with a well-trained and experienced yoga teacher.

Look for yoga teachers who are registered with the Yoga Alliance. They have undergone a required level of training and have had some education about anatomy and physiology that is particularly important when guiding people with medical conditions. Ideally, your instructor should have experience with people with arthritis or have specific training in yoga for people with arthritis or other mobility restrictions.

A small class size will ensure that you get enough individual attention, and starting with a beginner or gentle class is essential. Once you are familiar with the basics and have received proper guidance about modifications to protect your joints, you may want to supplement classes with home practice, using books or videos.

There are also some styles of yoga that are more suitable for people with arthritis. These include Sivananda and Integral yoga, which are gentle styles, and Iyengar and Anusara yoga, which emphasize alignment. Yoga that is taught at a quick pace, in a hot room, or with advanced poses (such as Vinyasa, Bikram, or Ashtanga yoga) is not recommended. Some locations also offer special yoga classes, such as chair yoga, yoga for seniors, or even prenatal yoga, that are gentler on arthritic joints. It is a good idea to contact your local yoga studio to find out more about the types of classes that are offered. Often, facility staff will be able to recommend the class that would be most suitable for you.

What do I need to get started?

You should wear comfortable clothing for yoga, but it is not necessary to buy special yoga clothes. Anything that allows you to move, such as shorts or sweats and a T-shirt, should be fine. You may get warm or cold during different parts of the class, so wearing layers or having socks with you is a good idea. (Yoga is usually practiced barefoot.) It is also important to have a water bottle so you can stay hydrated during the class.

Some facilities have yoga supplies for your use, such as mats, blocks, straps, or blankets. You should ask ahead of time whether you are required to bring your own mat or props to class. Blocks, wedges, and other props can be particularly helpful for protecting arthritic joints and accommodating any movement limitations you may have. You can buy yoga supplies at most sporting goods stores.

Should I talk to my doctor and my instructor first?

Absolutely! As with all physical activity, it is important to speak with your rheumatologist and/or primary care doctor to make sure that it is safe to begin exercising. Many doctors may be unfamiliar with yoga, but you can assure your doctor that you will be taking a gentle beginner class, and that you will receive proper guidance from a qualified instructor. If yoga is not suitable for you right now, your doctor may be able to suggest other activities that can keep you active and help improve your overall quality of life.

You should also make sure that the instructor is qualified and will be able to offer you individual suggestions as you begin learning. By speaking to the instructor, you can also get a sense of whether his or her approach and philosophy will meet your needs. The instructor can also answer questions or address concerns you may have about beginning yoga practice.

Steffany Haaz is a Project Director in the Arthritis Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a Doctoral Candidate in the university’s School of Public Health. She also provides consulting for workplace health initiatives and is a registered yoga teacher and personal wellness counselor.

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