Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Understanding Yoga Fitness

If you are brand new to practicing yoga you will probably find that understanding its historical background will give you a good context around yoga fitness and why you are doing it. By understanding that yoga is not just physical activity but also a full lifestyle approach you'll come to appreciate its complete health benefits.

No one really knows who first developed yoga except for the fact that it seemed to have originated somewhere in the Indus Valley regions of Northern India. References to yoga first appeared in both archaeological and written references about 3000 to 5000 years ago. The first compilation of yoga practices seems to have appeared about 2200 years ago with the publication of a book called the 'Yoga Sutras' by the author Patanjali.

The Yoga Sutras are a compilation of 196 yoga principles and philosophy that are meant to be memorized and incorporated into one's lifestyle. These principles have become to be known as the foundation of Raja Yoga with a primary focus on the mind taming the body and enhancing the spirit.

The Raja Yoga discipline as described in the sutras is divided into eight steps - otherwise known as the eight 'limbs'. Each step focuses on aspects around lifestyle, purity, body, breathing and meditation. Here is a high level description of each:

1. Yama - abstentions for living virtuously such as truth, non-violence and continence
2. Niyama - observances and disciplines for mind and body
3. Asana - bodily postures for meditation
4. Pranayama - regulated breath and control of the life force
5. Pratyahara - sensory withdrawal of the mind from the physical world
6. Dharana - meditative concentration on an object - knowing you are meditating
7. Dhyana - meditation with no consciousness of the act of meditation
8. Samadhi - enlightenment

As you probably noticed modern yoga, as it is typically practiced today, is heavily influenced by steps three and four - the Asana and Pranayama limbs. Most modern yoga fitness programs are related to the practices of Raja Yoga in the form of Hatha Yoga which is a system focused on physical purification to assist the later meditative effects of steps five through nine. Hatha Yoga is comprised of a large number of bodily postures designed to develop balance, poise and strength.

Today, the mainstream instruction of yoga includes many body positions and breathing exercises that have been found to be extremely beneficial to personal well being, fitness and health. Practiced over time yoga can become a path to improving anyone's lifestyle. By combining this practice with the additional Raja 'limbs', yoga can lead you an enlightened life change.

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