An ancient Indian practice thought to help maintain health and improve focus and spirituality. The word yoga is Sanskrit for “union.” The practice is believed to have originated in India over 4,000 years ago. Even though yoga was popularized in the United States in the 1960’s and 70’s (and is undergoing another wave of popularity today), it was first introduced here back in the 1890’s.

There are many specific types of yoga, but the most commonly known styles in the United States stem from hatha yoga, which is built around poses or postures called asanas. Some of the better-known variations of hatha yoga include ashtanga, bikram, iyengar, kripalu, and kundalini. All of these styles involve movement into postures, attention to body alignment, and proper breathing. However, which feature is emphasized, and how, varies from style to style, so that some yoga classes are gentle and meditative while others are physically demanding.

There hasn’t been a lot of research about yoga, but there are a few studies showing that it can decrease pain, improve mobility, and reduce stress and anxiety while improving mental focus. It may also be a good first step for people who want to begin a fitness regimen.

There are a number of ways to learn more about yoga, including many books on the subject with illustrations of the postures. By far the best way to get involved is to take a class. Many hospital wellness programs offer yoga classes suitable for people with arthritis—that is, classes with a slow pace and with an experienced, well-trained teacher who can suggest pose modifications for people who need them. Classes offered by YMCAs, community centers, and senior citizen centers may also be suitable.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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