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Streching Primer

Updated on March 23, 2010

Why and how should you stretch or yoga?

Stretching your mind and body


Yoga is often seen as the holistic answer to all your well-being concerns, but how true is this?
With celebrities praising its virtues, it seems that yoga has become the exercise fad of the decade. But fashionable as it is, what does it offer you beyond other forms of exercise?


The roots of yoga

Yoga has moved into center stage because it can promote a sense of calm and well-being if practiced regularly. Originating in India, yoga is an ancient psycho-physical discipline that has been practiced for around 5,000 years. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word 'yug' for 'union' - and this is its key. It is a holistic form of exercise that promotes an integrated approach to mind and body control by focusing on the four key areas of flexibility, strength, stamina and concentration.

Benefits of yoga

Yoga is ideal for people who are turned off by the idea of high-impact aerobics or weight lifting. Yoga exercises are gentle and designed to progressively strengthen muscles and increase flexibility. So as a form of physical exercise, yoga is particularly good for muscle tone and can also aid weight loss. Additional benefits include helping with stress1, insomnia and asthma, as well as relieving minor problems such as menstrual pain and tension headaches. Also, learning the stress management and meditation techniques practiced in yoga may reduce arteriosclerosis - the hardening of arteries associated with heart disease and strokes2.


Different styles

One aspect of yoga that often bewilders novices is the wide range of yoga styles. No single style is necessarily better than any other; it's more a question of what will suit you. However, if you are double-jointed or particularly loose-limbed (an easy test is to see if you can touch your toes without difficulty), you should get medical advice before you take classes as increased flexibility may increase the risk of joint instability and ligament problems. The most popular yoga styles are derived from the Hatha or physical branch of yoga. They include ashtanga and Iyengar and are good classes for beginners.


How should I start?

While you can practice yoga independently, it is much safer to learn poses and techniques with an experienced yoga instructor at first. Try several different classes to see which ones you are most comfortable with. Once you have learned the basic poses you can schedule them into 10- or 20-minute slots in your day. Practicing yoga first thing in the morning, for example, is an excellent way to start the day. As with all exercise it's wise to consult your doctor if you have any ongoing medical conditions, particularly high blood pressure, as some of the poses may not be right for you.

Sources

  1. British Medical Journal 1996 313: 745-748
  2. Stress at work; Julia von Oncuil
  3. Research published by the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

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