Frequently Asked Questions

Yoga in Nature

What is Yoga?

Developed in India, Yoga is a psycho-physical discipline with roots going back about 5,000 years. Today, most Yoga practices in the West focuses on the physical postures called "asanas," breathing exercises called "pranayama," and meditation. However, there's more to it than that, and the deeper you go the richer and more diverse the tradition becomes. The word "Yoga" means union. Linguistically, it is related to the Old English "yoke." Traditionally, the goal of Yoga is union with the Absolute, known as Brahman, or with Atman, the true self. These days the focus is often on the more down-to-earth benefits of Yoga, including improved physical fitness, mental clarity, greater self-understanding, increased self esteem, stress control and general well-being. Spirituality, however, is a strong underlying theme to most practices. The beauty of Yoga is in its versatility, allowing practitioners to focus on the physical, psychological or spiritual, or a combination of all three.

How many types of Yoga are there?

Many. There are four paths of Yoga: 1) Jnana, the path of knowledge or wisdom; 2)Bhakti, the path of devotion; 3) Karma, the path of action; and 4) Raja, the path of self control. Hatha Yoga, which includes postures and breathing, and is the form most popular in the West, is actually part of Raja Yoga, the path of self control. The path most followed in India is thought to be Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion. Within Hatha Yoga there are many styles, such as Iyengar, Astanga, Integral, Kripalu and Jiva Mukti, to name a few. These Yogas all share a common lineage back to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, a text outlining the basic philosophy and practices of Classical Yoga. It was written sometime between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.

Is Yoga a religion?

No and...maybe. It depends on how you define "religion" and how the Yoga practitioner approaches his or her practice. The physical and psychological benefits of Yoga are real and don't discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, political persuasion or any other way people like (or dislike) to categorize themselves. The benefits also don't depend on chanting Om. On the spiritual side, most mystical traditions -- East or West -- draw similar maps of the spiritual path. So in that respect, Yoga is mainstream. Like Shakespeare said, "A rose by any name would smell as sweet." For these reasons, many people feel they can practice Yoga without conflict with their religious beliefs. However, Yoga is connected to the Hindu tradition and draws on many Hindu beliefs -- karma, dharma, etc.

Has it been "proved" that Yoga is good for you?

Yes. Western science has been studying Yoga for nearly 50 years, and the evidence shows numerous physical and psychological benefits from Yoga. Interestingly, there seems to be something about Yoga -- vs. exercise and controlled breathing -- that is beneficial. For example, a recent study with heart patients showed that those who followed a stress reduction program that included many Yoga practices did better than patients who exercised or did nothing. Further, preliminary studies in the United States and India suggest that Yoga maybe helpful for specific conditions, such as asthma, epilepsy, anxiety, stress and others.

What's the best way to get started, especially if I'm out of shape?

One-on-one interaction with a teacher is invaluable experience. It is important to consult with a certified Yoga instructor, explain your health history, concerns, goals and ask what classes would be appropriate for you. Private lessons are a great way to get acquainted with the postures that are specific to your particular needs. However, books and videos have their place, too. Remember, there is a Yoga level for everyone, regardless of physical condition.

Is Yoga aerobic exercise?

Yes and...maybe. Aerobic exercise is simply exercise that improves oxygenation of the blood through an increased heart rate and deeper breathing. Yoga can do that, especially those styles such as Astanga and ViniYoga that have a strong focus on the flow of one posture to another.

Is Yoga a New Age practice?

Yoga is an ancient practice with a written history going back thousands of years. It is not New Age, although various New Age movements have adopted and adapted elements of Yoga. In addition, Yoga and New Age movements share a focus on mind/body development.

What's the difference between Yoga and just plain stretching and normal exercise?

Traditional exercise is goal oriented: How many pushups can I do? Can I touch my toes? I'm going to do 10 more crunches today than I did yesterday. Yoga, by contrast, is a process. The idea is to focus your awareness on what you are doing now and how you feel as you perform the postures. In exercise, you fail if you miss your goal. In Yoga, you succeed by trying. There's also a difference on the physical level. Weight training, for example, makes you stronger by breaking down and rebuilding muscle tissue. It's this breaking down and rebuilding that results in the bulky muscle look. Yoga increases strength by toning the muscles.

What's the difference between a yogi, a guru and a swami?

A yogi is someone who practices Yoga. A yogin is a male Yoga student, a yogini a female student. A guru is a teacher. "Swami" is a title of respect for a spiritual master.

What is Om?

Om, also spelled "Aum," is a sacred Hindu sound symbolizing the Absolute. It often is used as a mantra during meditation. Although often pronounced as if it rhymed with "home," it is also pronounced "ah-oo-mm. Sanskrit the ancient Indian language is the language of Yoga. Literally translated, Sanskrit means mathematically and scientifically exact language.

How many times a week should I do Yoga and for how long?

Most schools teach a practice session that lasts 60-90 minutes. If you can do that every day -- great. If not, try and do that much a few days a week, including a class or two, and fill in with shorter sessions on days when you don't have as much time. Any Yoga is better than no Yoga, and 20 to 30 minutes a day is better than 90 minutes once a week.

Has there been any formal research into the benefits of Yoga?

There's been quite a lot of research, particularly in India. The Yoga Site's Yoga Therapy Report covers some of the latest studies reported in research journals. In addition, it includes a list of some of the major organizations researching Yoga therapy.

Do I have to be a vegetarian to practice Yoga?

Although the traditional Yoga diet is vegetarian, you don't have to be a vegetarian to practice Yoga.  

How can Yoga help children diagnosed with ADD?

Depending on the age of the child, Yoga may help him/her get a better sense of control of both mind and body. There's an organization called "Yoga for the Special Child" that may be able to offer specific help.

Will Yoga help me lose weight and which style is best?

Yoga can make you look and feel better, regardless of your weight. That said, Yoga can help you slim down in a couple of ways. First, the exercises will help you burn calories. In addition, they'll help tone your muscles and improve of your posture. Yoga is also about healthy living, which includes a healthy diet. That doesn't mean you have to become a vegetarian, just that you should be conscious of the foods you eat, sticking with natural, fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, etc. as much as possible while limiting your intake of junk food and foods high in fat, like red meat. Any of the basic Hatha styles will help. The important thing is to practice daily (or at least 4-5 days a week). If possible, try and find a teacher. Books, videos and website can be a great help, but nothing beats a live instructor. 

What is the most physically challenging form of Yoga?

Any one of the basic styles can be physically challenging. It depends on what you do and how you approach it. Some styles focus on holding postures for a long time, which can be very challenging, while others link a series of postures into a single flow, which results in physical workout. Ashtanga, Bikram's, Iyengar and Power Yoga are probably the most physically focused forms of Yoga.

I see that there are so many styles of Yoga out there. How do I know which style is most beneficial to me?

Your certified Yoga instructor can help you decide what type of Yoga is best for your body type, current life situation, age, and health history and life goals.

Is it okay to practice Yoga while pregnant?

It's okay to continue practicing Yoga while you are pregnant as long as you were practicing before conception. Yoga is a great way to keep fit during pregnancy. In particular it can help strengthen the pelvic area, normalize thyroid functioning and blood pressure, and help keep you calm and relaxed -- all of which is good for the baby, too. In general, however, you want to avoid strain, compressing the belly or abdomen and inverted postures, especially in the later stages. Ask your doctor what they recommend and always choose a class geared for your stage of pregnancy or take private lessons. 

Yoga during menses?

Mostly it's a matter of personal preference. Some women don't want to do Yoga during their period; many don't mind and continue to practice during menses. For women who do choose to practice, it is suggested that they avoid inverted poses, abdominal strengtheners, extended holding of any pose, or energizing breaths (kapalabhati). The issue is that these practices might interfere with the downward flow or cause discomfort.

Can Yoga control high blood pressure?

Sometimes. Studies have shown that certain Yoga practices can help some patients control their high blood pressure. In general, Yoga promotes health, a sense of calm and relaxation. In addition, it teaches you to be aware of your body and to listen to the signals it sends -- all of which can be very useful. 

Specific techniques that may be helpful controlling high blood pressure include diaphragmatic or belly breathing, which has been shown to reduce stress and induce relaxation, and a pranayama (controlled breathing) technique called Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, which also helps reduce stress and induce relaxation. Moreover, there have been a number of studies that show meditation can be a great help in controlling high blood pressure. 

Certain Yoga postures should be avoided, however, if you have high blood pressure, including the shoulderstand, headstand and downward dog. There are also a number of postures that you should approach with caution and not hold for extended periods of time (more than a few breaths). These include Warrior I and II, Mountain, Triangle, Half Moon and Tree.

Can Yoga help cure migraines?

Migraines are caused by the sudden constriction and then dilation of blood vessels to the brain. No one knows what causes the blood vessels to behave this way. It could be genetics, stress or a something else entirely. Regular practice of Yoga, including postures, pranayama (breath exercises) and meditation can help relieve some of the suffering and make the condition more manageable. Postures will help improve blood circulation and also relieve physical tension and stress, which may be a contributing factor to migraines. The book "Yoga for Common Ailments" suggests that you avoid excessive forward bends and back bends. In addition, breath work and meditation will help balance the emotions and relieve mental stress and tension. As part of a regular Yoga practice, try the neck and shoulder exercises described in Head & Shoulders Yoga. 

To relieve the effects of a migraine, lie down and close and cover your eyes. Practice savasana the corpse pose. If possible, try a progressive relaxation exercise while in savasana. Simply bring your awareness to a specific area of the body and relax that area, allowing the muscles to grow soft and release their holding. Begin at the feet and work your way up through the ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, stomach, chest, back, shoulders, neck, face and head. Take a few breaths at each area to explore where the holding may be. Repeat the exercise. Also, if you're are in pain, lie in savasana with your eyes covered. Use the breath to relax as much as possible. Once your breath is steady and deep, use it to soften the pain. As you inhale, imagine the breath going to the center of pain and soothing that area, cooling it and releasing its grip. As you exhale, imagine the breath expelling the pain from your body. Always breathe slowly, deeply and gently.

Is there a Yoga program for tendinitis of the wrist?

Rest and relaxation are the best treatments. If you can make slow gentle movements without causing pain, do those to help prevent the wrist from becoming stiff. During the episode, relaxation, meditation and visualization may help ease the pain. It is important to breathe diaphragmatically, i.e. belly breathing, to trigger the relaxation response. Set aside some time to practice. During the session, use the breath to help soothe inflamed area. As you breathe direct the cool incoming breath to the tender spot and then exhale away the inflammation. Spend at least 5 minutes a day doing the exercise, and try to extend it to 10 or 15 minutes. As the episode recedes, search the Yoga Journals website for articles and exercises for carpal tunnel. They may help prevent a recurrence. Like carpal tunnel, tendinitis is caused by repetitive stress. Examine your work habits and see if there is a more ergonomic way to function.

I suffer from social anxiety, despite trying several kinds of medication, nothing really helps me. Can Yoga help?

In general, the combined practice of Yoga postures, meditation and pranayama breathing helps reduce stress and anxiety levels. It also helps build feelings of confidence and well-being and creates a stronger sense of self, all of which can help reduce levels of social anxiety. In addition, some of the practices -- such as Nadi Shodhana and other breathing techniques -- can help alleviate the symptoms of an anxiety attack. Yoga also teachers greater self awareness of mind and body. With practice, you may begin to sense the conditions that lead up to an attack and deal with them before they get out of control. It's important to start and maintain a regular practice. You should feel some immediate temporary relief, but it may take several months before you notice significant change.

Can Yoga get rid of varicose veins?

Varicose veins, the enlargement and discoloration of veins, cannot be cured (surgery and injection treatments can improve their appearance, though). However, yoga can help alleviate the symptoms and mitigate complications. The book "Yoga for Common Ailments" recommends a classic Yoga asana routine, especially inverted posture. Also, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a practice to make sure that there is no danger of blood clots.