Yoga is an ancient system of practices originating in India, aimed at integrating mind, body, and spirit to enhance health and well being. Yoga, which involves mental and physical practices, literally means "union," from the Sanskrit word yukti. Its principles were first set down systematically by Patanjali in the second century BC in the Yoga Sutras. According to a recent Roper Poll, more than 6 million Americans practice yoga, with 1.69 million practicing it regularly.
There are many different forms of yoga. In its original form, it was part of a larger philosophical and spiritual system, but yoga has proven beneficial to millions of practitioners who have not been grounded in the original traditions and meanings of yoga.
Hatha yoga is the most widely known form of yoga in the West, and the most closely allied with Ayurvedic medicine. It includes three practices that have been found highly beneficial for health. They are:
Asanas. Yoga asanas are a variety of physical postures and exercises. They help to align the spine and head, improve blood flow, induce a state of relaxation, energize glands and organs, and enhance well being. There are more than eighty-five postures.
Some asanas have been applied in the treatment of specific medical conditions. In Ayurvedic practice, specific asanas have traditionally been prescribed to rebalance the doshas by stimulating the organs associated with the prevailing dosha. For example, as Dr. Vasant Lad explains, vata is seated in the pelvic cavity, and so asanas that help stretch the pelvic muscles are good for vata individuals. These include the forward and backward bends, spinal twist, and shoulder stand.
Pranayama. Pranayama is the control of breath, from the Sanskrit prana, or life energy, and ayam, or control. Prana is the life force, and is roughly equivalent to such concepts as qi or chi in traditional Chinese medicine, or "vital force" in homeopathy. Yoga teaches that interruption of the flow of prana by such factors as stress, toxins, or improper diet can have a harmful effect on physical, mental, and spiritual health. Pranayama breathing exercises are intended to remove such blockages. Pranayama exercises often emphasize slow, deep abdominal breathing.
Meditation. Dhyana, or meditation, is a third aspect of classical yoga. Meditative practices have been demonstrated to induce a relaxed state in the autonomic nervous system, which has a beneficial effect on other systems, including the immune system. For more information, see Chapter Two on Mind Body medicine.
Yoga has proven beneficial in treating a variety of medical conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, breathing problems, asthma, musculoskeletal problems, stress-related illnesses, and mood disorders. Yoga is also helpful in the management of pain, for improving respiratory endurance and efficiency of breathing, for muscle strength, and for motor control. It helps prevent musculoskeletal problems and is beneficial for people with arthritis and those recovering from bone fractures.
Thousands of studies on yoga have been done in India, and more recently in the United States. Unfortunately, much of the research done outside America was poorly designed. Yoga first came to the widespread attention of researchers in the United States when the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, conducted biofeedback studies on Indian yogis who were found capable of controlling supposedly automatic physiological functions, such as heart rate or thyroid function. Although medical researchers in the West have been looking into yoga for only a few decades, the work that has been completed is certainly very promising. Yoga programs have shown the potential for helping to reduce heart disease by influencing such risk factors as blood pressure, anxiety, and unhealthy reaction to stress.
Yoga is an essential component of the cardiovascular program developed by Ornish and colleagues to manage and reverse heart disease. This program includes at least one hour of yoga a day. Researchers found that those who benefited most from the program were those who did yoga at least two hours a day.
Following are some selected studies conducted on yoga.
From THE BEST ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: WHAT WORKS? WHAT DOES NOT? by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier.
Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.
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Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier. All Rights Reserved.