“Now class,” your instructor chants, “plant your feet on your mat and sweep your arms to the sky. Turn your face to the sun like a giant sunflower and feel the stretch from your heels to your neck!” You do as he instructs, and pretty soon you feel it: the delicious feeling of relaxation and invigoration all at the same time.

This is yoga, and if you’ve ever practiced even a pose or two, you’ve had a taste of how it can breathe new life into your day or even your entire life. But, it can be intimidating to learn and practice, and it’s easy to wonder if all those health claims it makes are true. Let’s take a closer look at this ancient practice to learn more about its origins, its benefits, and how to know if it’s a good choice for you.

Why Is Yoga So Darn Popular?

When we’re learning all about yoga, it’s important to realize that while we all know that it is a spiritual practice originating out of India, our modern interpretation of the practice has only developed in the last 150 years or so. Yoga as we know it wasn’t practiced thousands of years ago.

The Very Beginning

What is yoga? Historians debate when the practice first surfaced, but it’s safe to assume sometime before 1500 BCE. The term “yoga” was found in the Vedas, India’s earliest known Vedic Sanskrit writings of Sanskrit literature and Hinduism.

The word “yoga” means yoke or chariot, and some surmise that yoga is the process of a warrior dying and being lifted into heaven by his chariot. Vedic priests at this time were extremely self-disciplined and would conduct sacrifices in poses similar to those that we’ve come to know as poses or asanas.

Fast forward all the way to the 5th century, AD, and we see yoga becoming a much wider, loser notion that’s been adopted by more than just Hindus. Buddhists and also Jains now involve yoga in their spiritual and meditation practices. In the next thousand years, schools of practice would develop, including Tantra.

We’re Getting Closer

While we think of Tantra as sexual today (and it did include sexual elements then), Tantra was dedicated to achieving self-deification. Tantra yoga was the nursery for Hatha yoga, and Hatha yoga is closest to our current Western ideas of yoga, with poses such as the child’s pose, warrior pose, and cat pose.

Yoga in America

Yoga practices were introduced in the mid-1900s in the United States, but it wasn’t until the 60s that it began to catch on. Hindu spirituality and other new age practices became common and accepted practices, with Indian teachers touring the United States.

Thanks to its reported health benefits, yoga is now wildly popular. It’s estimated that over 20 million people practiced the exercise in 2011 alone, leading to tons of classes, videos, yoga articles, consumer goods, and so much more.

About Those Health Benefits…

Popular yogi Mehtab Benton is fabulously reported as saying, “Do yoga once a week, change your mind. Do yoga twice a week, change your body. Do yoga everyday, change your life.” That may, in fact, be close to the truth. The ancient practice is known today for having a very wide range of benefits. We’ll explain later how and when to be cautious (turns out, yoga is not the panacea some would have you believe), but here are just a few of the benefits you might expect to enjoy:

1. Anxiety Relief

It’s estimated that anxiety affects 40 million Americans every year–but only 40% of those seek treatment, in part because of the stigma around mental health disease. Fortunately, one very accessible way to relieve your anxiety symptoms might just be regular yoga practice.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA is a neurotransmitter that is vital for helping your body suppress neural activity. In short, GABA helps your body to chill, creating delightful calming side effects that don’t require a single drug.

Yoga breathing exercises and stretches increase your body’s GABA production, which makes it an alternative to regularly prescribed anti-anxiety medication (please note: do not stop medication without your doctor’s approval!) that often have side effects such as insomnia or even seizures.

Next time you feel anxious, reach for your mat and start stretching!

2. Bone Density

More than a million hip and spinal fractures occur annually in the United States, and bone density loss, especially for seniors, plays a large role. Can yoga help to prevent this? A key 2005 study by Dr. Loren Fishman shows that it might.

Dr. Fishman was able to show improved bone density in the spines and femurs of the nearly 230 study participants who did their daily yoga exercises, in contrast to those who did not. Because of how yoga moves one group of muscles against another, the bone-making cells (also called osteocytes) are stimulated to begin production.

Perhaps even more impressive, the participants (which had had over 100 fractures before the study and were largely diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia), after more than 90,000 hours of yoga by the time of the study’s publication, had absolutely no fractures or serious injuries. If that’s not a reason to sign up for local practice, we don’t know what is!

3. Relieve Back Pain

Lower back pain can be extremely common, and a common reason why individuals are prescribed painkillers or steroids, which might have harmful or unwanted side effects. Yoga, however, might be the perfect alternative therapy to help relieve that pain. Here are three studies that show its impact:

  • A study of 90 people funded by the NCCIH found that people with chronic low-back pain experienced a significantly lowered amount of disability, depression, and pain after six months of practicing Iyengar yoga.
  • Another study funded by the NCCIH (this one in 2011) showed that yoga was more effective than a self-care book at helping adults with chronic low-back pain improve their muscular function and reduce their symptoms.
  • Another 2011 study resulted in the study authors recommending a twelve-week yoga class for better function in adults with chronic or recurring back pain.

The Yoga Poses You Need to Know

There are ten or so poses that comprise the most basic yoga run-through. Below, we’re sharing a few of the most popular. These take a small amount of time (though, as with any yoga pose, the goal is awareness, not just checking off a set of exercises, so you can essentially take as long as you need or want) while providing maximum benefits. They’re also the simplest, though any good yogi will tell you that you can easily take a lifetime to master.

An Important Note

Something important first, before we begin: it’s vital that you listen to your body. It’s common for yoga teachers to push their students (and themselves), but it’s also incredibly important to listen to the signs of distress coming from your body. Most poses were developed by people in different cultures who moved differently than most Americans do.

We sit all day and are inflexible; they squatted and walked all day long. Be very, very cautious, and always be careful not to hyperextend your neck or place undue pressure on it, as doing so can cause significant trauma to your brain.

Child’s Pose

If you’re starting a yoga practice to gain more peace and less anxiety, you will love this stretch. It is a great default between other stretches and anytime you feel overwhelmed. It will also stretch out your back, hips, thighs, shoulders, and neck.

Kneel on your mat and fold your body over on itself, relaxing completely into the pose as you breathe deeply. You can part your knees if you find that more comfortable; you may also extend your arms and stretch them forward on the mat or drop them to your side.

Cobra Pose

Cobra is a great pose often used outside of yoga practice for people with lower-back pain. It helps strengthen your back and shoulder muscles and stretch your core and spine. It also feels fantastic.

Lay on stomach and place your hands flat on the mat at your shoulders. Slowly curl your head and shoulders backward, as if you were peeling a banana. Do not tighten your rear and do not push too far. Stretch slowly while you breathe deeply.

Downward Dog

Downward dog is probably the quintessential yoga position, and for a good reason. It’s another reliever of pain and increaser of flexibility; this one will help ease pressure through your legs (including hamstrings, calves, and the arches of your feet). Again, be careful not to stretch too far; your heels can come off the ground, and you can bend your knees as necessary.

Stand squarely on your mat, and bend down slowly so that your hands are flat on the mat. Slowly walk your hands forward until your body is in an inverted v shape. Breathe deeply and stretch into your shoulders and wrists.

Yoga feels great, and as it turns out, it is great for you. These poses will get you started, but there’s a whole world of stretches out there, just waiting for you. Enjoy!

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