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Madonna, Christy Turlington, Sting, Seinfeld, Nicholas Cage ….. these are just a few of the celebrities who promote the practise of yoga. But why are such icons of the contemporary world so enthusiastic about a 5,000-year-old system of belief?

As the world we live in becomes increasingly frenetic, people are becoming more aware of traditional ways of life and feel a need for a spiritual dimension. Yoga, with its low impact exercises and medical benefits, truly captures the spirit of our age, combining Eastern philosophy with today's ever more health (and body!) conscious society.

Yoga is not just a form of exercise, it is a whole philosophy. Far from just sitting in strange or near impossible positions, the system, which developed in India over 5,000 years ago, combines physical stretching exercises with diet, breathing exercises, meditation techniques and a set of ethics that when practised together will balance mind, body and soul and ultimately lead to a feeling of total well-being and spiritual enlightenment.

The ethical and moral code includes stressing the importance of qualities such as truth, moderation in all things and non-violence as well as being aware of the divine.

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word for union and its basic premise is that body, mind and soul are indeed united. Its integrated techniques are designed to maintain balance between all three, because the system advocates that if you lose this balance you will become ill.

Asanas are the physical postures that most people would talk of when asked what yoga was. However, although these stretching exercises help to increase the suppleness and muscle tone of the body, they also stimulate the nervous system and, as such, the body's organs.

Pranayamas are the special breathing techniques that yoga promotes. The vital life force known as Chi in many Eastern therapies is called prana in India and yogic philosophy advocates that by controlling your breathing, you can control the flow of this energy throughout the body. 

By practising both asanas and pranayamas together with meditation, you will be able to attain a higher level of consciousness and so gain many spiritual benefits. However, even at its most basic level, yoga is great for relaxation and for reducing stress and anxiety and it will also help to keep you strong and supple in a far more relaxing way than something like aerobics.

There are many types of yoga around today which are all part of the same tradition and designed to ultimately lead you to the same state of consciousness. However, some focus more on the spiritual side and some more on the physical. Here are a few of which you are most likely to hear:

Hatha yoga
Hatha means 'balance'. Probably the most popular form of yoga in the West, it uses asanas and pranayamas to regulate prana and so balance mind and body. It works on the premise that a relaxed mind produces a relaxed body and vice versa. In this way, yoga is the ultimate in self-control.

Astanga (or Ashtanga) yoga
Astanga translated means 'eight limbs'. In this system you will move through a series of postures and again combine them with breathing techniques and meditation. This form tends to be the most strenuous form of yoga as it is designed to produce both internal heat and detoxifying sweat to improve your circulation and cleanse the body.

Kundalini yoga
This form focuses on advanced meditation techniques which help you to release the powerful kundalini energy, or 'coiled serpent' that lurks at the base of the spine. Its movement up the spine to the crown of the head is said to be an overpowering force that then spreads throughout the body to increase spiritual awareness. This is also the energy that is exchanged during Tantric sex.

Sivananda yoga
This form summarises the philosophies of yoga in five principles:

  • Proper Exercise
  • Proper Breathing
  • Proper Relaxation
  • Proper Diet
  • Positive Thinking (and meditation)

Yoga is much more than just exercise, it incorporates a number of disciplines and other types focus more on these. For example, karma yoga focuses on service both to God and our fellow men and juana yoga centres on the study of sacred Hindu texts.

Yoga aspires to bring you to a state of total physical and mental well-being and in doing so bring you to full spiritual awareness. As such, it is a preventative therapy. However, independent of its belief system, yoga has been seen to provide many medical benefits and is seen as restorative in the following ways:

  • Increases flexibility, strength and stamina
  • Relieves tension and so reduces pain - particularly in the back and the neck
  • Reduces stress and anxiety which helps keep blood pressure normal and boost the immune system
  • Develops co-ordination and balance
  • Leads to better circulation which helps to cleanse the body
  • Also shown to relieve asthma and diabetes
  • Improves sexual performance (kundalini yoga)

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