May 14 09 10:25 PM

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By Helen Thomas


Yoga in Sanskrit means "union" and derives from the Hindu religion. It can be a spiritual practice that incorporates meditation and other mental exercises. A yoga session combined with mindful breathing can be a "moving meditation." There are many schools of yoga, but hatha yoga is the form most commonly practiced in Western countries, and classes and private lessons are available in health clubs, dance centers, yoga centers, and community centers. This form emphasizes physical postures called asanas and integrates them with breathing techniques.

Inactivity alone is responsible for much of the physical and mental deterioration I equate with illness, aging, and "feeling old." Practicing hatha yoga regularly not only relieves tension and pain in your joints and builds strength, flexibility, balance, and grace; it helps you reach a state of awareness, tranquillity, and well-being. Practicing yoga regularly helps balance your nervous, endocrine, reproductive, digestive, and circulatory systems. Yoga knows no age limit - you're never too young or too old, and adherents age seventy and over remain astoundingly strong and limber.

The calmness achieved during the practice carries over into the rest of your life. Yoga students and teachers tend to look and act younger than their chronological years, and new students of the practice say they feel more energetic after only a few weeks' time. Although it can be strenuous, yoga is highly adaptable to your abilities and is suitable for people of all ages. You can learn yoga from books and videotapes, but it's best to participate in yoga classes (or get individual instruction), especially if you're new to the practice.

The basic yoga routine described on the next few pages is called the Sun Salutation. It is a full-body exercise that works on all the major muscle groups and joints and massages the internal organs. It should be performed joyously by everyone every day. I will be recommending additional specific yoga postures.

Yoga is best performed on an empty stomach, in bare feet, while wearing loose or stretchy clothing, on a non-skid surface. There are special yoga "sticky mats" you can buy to prevent slipping and give you the most out of your practice. Breathing is an integral part of yoga because it is thought that prana, the vital life force, enters the body with each breath. As you practice yoga, coordinate your breathing with the movements: inhale during movements that stretch the spine and open the body; exhale during movements that involve bending or folding of the spine or limbs. Imagine that each breath is an extension of the pose, and keep your movements fluid and precise as you work to open up and extend your entire spine. Be conscious of your hands and feet as the foundation of each pose; imagine they are lotus blossoms, and spread your fingers and toes as if they were lotus petals.

I recommend that you perform the entire Sun Salutation sequence twelve times each morning. Begin slowly, with fewer repetitions, if you are new to yoga or physical activity. Gradually build up to twelve sequences,.Vata types should continue to do these movements slowly, pittas should move at a moderate pace, and kaphas should aim to do them rapidly.

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