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The power of yoga

Developed 5,000 years ago, yoga has finally reached the Western World and is taking it by storm. Most yoga practices in the United States focus on physical positions called "asanas", breathing exercises called "pranayama", and on meditation. Many Americans have found that yoga not only improves their physical health, but also offers mental clarity, stress control, and promotes an overall feeling of well-being. Below, two experts in the discipline of yoga discuss some of its basic principles.
What is yoga?
DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: It's a very ancient Indian tradition, and it basically teaches how to use positions of the body and breathing to promote health.
Hatha yoga is what people generally think of when they think of yoga, which includes a series of physical poses. That's what people think of when they think of folding up into a pretzel. There are also breathing practices, and yoga also includes meditation and often deep relaxation. Some yoga styles include chanting.
Can anyone do yoga?
DEBORAH MATZA: Yoga can be adapted for really almost any individual. The idea is to help promote flexibility in the body. So if you're not limber, it's a perfect place to start. It helps to stretch and tone the muscles of the body and it helps to align the joints and the spine. It is excellent for flexibility.
What is restorative yoga?
DEBORAH MATZA: A lot of people don't know about restorative yoga here in the West. It's based on the work of someone named B. K. S. Ayangar, who was a revered yogi in India, and he actually started the Yoga Therapy Institute for Healing in India. It's a style of yoga where we use bolsters and pillows and blankets to position people in poses, and with the help of these tools, it's very gentle and very safe. People who normally couldn't participate in yoga can participate in Ayangar, because they're very supported.

What sorts of medical conditions might restorative yoga address? DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: You might have an older person who had some fairly significant arthritis that was limiting their mobility, and a gentle but ongoing yoga approach could help them maintain flexibility and deal with their pain problems.
Pregnant women can take prenatal yoga classes, which help with the increasing burden of carrying a pregnancy. The breathing work in a yoga practice can help with delivery, as well. There are actually very good research studies looking at people with asthma who practice yoga. Learning some yoga breathing techniques can decrease people's medication needs. So there's a whole range of specific conditions that you might use it for.

DEBORAH MATZA: In yogic science, there's something called prana, which is believed to be a subtle energy that flows throughout the body. It's very similar to, in Chinese medicine, the principles of chi that flows along certain meridians. The chakras are believed to be focal points of energy, or energy vortexes that are aligned throughout the body. That's how it relates to yogic practice. It's believed that by doing some of the asanas and some of the breathing practices, you can actually release some blockages in the chakras, so that the prana can flow more freely.

What does a yoga class often include?
DEBORAH MATZA: There is a fair amount of variation, and it depends on the setting. Health clubs, more often than not, use yoga as a very energizing, almost aerobic practice, and often they will have some meditation at the end. In the yoga practice that I teach, we start with doing the physical movements and then we lead people through a deep relaxation, through meditation, and also through breathing practices.

How do people feel after a yoga class?
DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: There are some yoga practices that are very vigorous and you come out sweating and really feeling like you had a workout. There are others that are more meditative. Everybody who has had a good experience with a yoga class is going to come out feeling more relaxed, more connected to their body, more like their feet are on the ground and they're fully connected to themselves. I think that's what you're striving for, and that, in a lot of cases, is where the health benefits are going to come from. What you really need to learn how to incorporate it into your daily practice, the way you brush your teeth and you do other things that are important to your health. When people are able to bring it into their life from day to day, that's where you really see people experiencing very, very significant benefits.

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