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The Yoga Way

by Margaret Cullison

There are as many paths along the yoga way as there are people who practice this ancient meditative exercise.  Like spiritual belief, each one of us brings her individual ability and interpretation to the practice.  Some people can bend into extreme poses or asanas as if they were soft pretzels while others move their bodies into less extreme angles but are able to stay in the postures longer.  Comparisons among students are never made in yoga class.  Each person progresses at her own speed and in her own time.  A single certainty prevails, that women of all ages and at all stages of practice can count on yoga to help them feel better, move with greater flexibility and balance, and think with keener focus and awareness.
    Yoga has become increasingly popular in recent years, with women who recognize its benefits gathering in classes and practicing at home throughout the United States.  Development of this traditional East Indian practice began over 2,000 years ago as a way to search for the soul.  Yoga means both the path of that search and union with the soul.
     The philosophy behind the practice encompasses principles designed to harmonize the body with mind and spirit, and the asanas are designed to move us towards this ultimate achievement.  Yoga is based upon the ethical principles and personal discipline that are the basic tenets of all civilized cultures.  The genius of the practice lies in a physical exercise that brings the yogi to a higher level of psychological well being as she learns this intricate balance of mind, body, and spirit.
      Daily practice of yoga can lead to a longer and healthier life.  While this may seem like an impossible promise, yoga is firmly founded on the proven principles of energy movement.  The asanas were developed to stimulate the flow of prana, the energy of life force, through the body.  Prana activated by yoga postures stimulates the body's major nerve plexuses and endocrine glands.  A harmonious flow of energy keeps the healthy person well and helps to heal the sick or damaged parts of the body.  Yoga students learn the value of deep breathing while performing the asanas.  If a student feels discomfort while holding a posture, she breathes deeply and concentrates her mind on the area of tension, sending energy to the spot, thus releasing the stress and relieving the discomfort.  At no time should she stay in a position that causes pain.  Progress towards greater flexibility is made gradually and gently rather than by forcing the body to the point of pain.  Regulation of the breath helps to quiet the mind so that more complete concentration on the postures is realized, and the possibility for healing optimized.  Yoga teachers remind their students that doing the postures without conscious breathing and mindful focus is the same as not practicing yoga at all.
      The asanas affect all aspects of a person's life.  The postures and their after-effects can help you get going in the morning, relieve stress at mid-day, and relax you into sleep at night.  These are valuable reprieves in a day that is usually overloaded with activities and obligations, the average day for most women.  Unlike other forms of physical exercise such as cycling, jogging, or skiing, the practice of yoga can truly become a way of being even when you aren't engaged in the practice.  The feelings associated with yoga - peace of mind, relaxation, strength, and ease of movement - are carried with you into the rest of the day.  Yogis find that they don't get as uptight in traffic jams.  They are less impatient looking for a parking space and not as irritated by people who complain or gossip around the office water cooler.  They don't mind waiting for a table at lunch or standing in line at the grocery store.  Indeed, they take these opportunities to practice the basic sitting or standing yoga poses that encourage balance, concentration, and alignment of the spine.  In all of these instances, the simple shift to deeper, more mindful breathing helps to calm the perceived distress of the moment.
      Yogis seem to perform other sports with less effort and greater agility.  Awareness of breath and body movement helps prevent injuries that often occur in more "active" sports such as tennis or skiing.  If injury does happen, the damage can be less severe and recovery faster because yoga conditions the entire body.  The yogi knows how to listen to her body and not to force it into situations that might be harmful. 
     Yoga builds upper body strength, which women will want to maintain, as they grow older.  Leg muscles develop so that greater balance and leg strength are realized.  Because energy flows smoothly through a yogi's body, she has greater stamina and endurance.  Flexibility and focus help to build confidence for skiing down the most difficult slope or hiking that extra mile to catch a spectacular view at the top of a ridge.
     A woman who practices yoga can be easily identified by her upright and relaxed posture.  She holds her shoulders back and chest open, metaphorically opening her heart to the world around her.  Yoga is a powerful weight bearing exercise that keeps her bones supple and strong, guarding against osteoporosis.  The practice improves cardiovascular health, digestion, and respiration.  A yogi doesn't catch as many colds or other infections and, if she does get sick, the illness is usually less severe and recovery more rapid than for those who don't know her secret.
    All of these advantages combine to significantly improve a yogi's quality of life and to extend it.  The exhilaration of feeling good and moving with a light step is not reserved exclusively for the young, although that's the conventional wisdom.  Yoga is a way to both maintain and increase the qualities of physical youth while you enjoy the new clarity of mind and spirit that your lifes experiences and yoga help bring to you.



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