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Yoga - an alternative way to manage stress

by Anne Blomberg

Feeling stressed and out of energy? The holidays can do that to everyone. So can tax time. But students have extra stress: There are reports to hand in, homework to be done, not to mention, as summer term winds down, all the semester projects and final exams followed by one day of rest (hah!) and the sudden beginning of the fall term.

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It’s important to keep one’s head clear and not be overwhelmed. Too much stress, or badly handled stress, can damage one’s health. Yoga provides several techniques to restore calm and preserve the balance of mind and body that provides the energy needed to fulfill all of life’s obligations.

Yoga can be practiced by anyone, at any age, with any physical condition, depending on individual needs and purposes. For example, athletes and dancers can practice Yoga to restore energy and improve stamina. Students can use it to give a break to overworked minds. Children can use it to discipline a wandering mind. Seniors can practice it to improve strength and memory. Everyone can use it to tone muscles and improve memory and concentration.

Yoga breathing techniques (Pranayama) work as a tonic to reduce stress, alleriate headaches, end insomnia, restore emotional imbalance, etc. Yoga is, therefore, potentially beneficial for all ages from five to as long as we live.

   

Yoga, which originated more than 5000 years ago, is the world’s oldest system of personal development. Developed by the ancient sages of India as a complex way of achieving nirvana, or union with the divine, yoga has been modified through generations as it spread around the world. Today, in the western world, the most commonly practiced form of yoga is hatha yoga, which emphasizes a physical means of achieving balance in body, mind, and spirit.

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Yoga, a Sanskrit word meaning “union,” refers to the experience of wholeness or union with one’s inner self. This union is the mind uniting with the body through the breath in order to attain a higher level of consciousness. The integration of mind and body allows greater self-control and leads to ultimate health and happiness through the achievement of mental peace and tranquility.

Yoga combines a series of postures, or asanas (including a relaxation posture), and coordinated breathing techniques. The postures are designed to help one develop strength and flexibility and reduce the effects of physical and mental stress by utilizing all the muscles in the body, increasing circulation, and stretching and aligning the spinal column.

Asanas are usually performed in sequence, although they can be done in any order, as a group or alone, to form a personal routine. Each asana has three steps: entrance, hold, and exit. It is best to do the sequences, for these normally balance one another: for every twist to the right there is a twist to the left; for bend forward, there is a bend backward, and so on.

   
Stretching Asanas, often called yogasanas, help relax body and mind together. Stretching helps relax and tone the muscles, to improve circulation and restore energy or vital force. These also help one to lose or gain weight, feel and look young, and improve concentration. They can also relieve conditions such as back pain, headaches, high and low blood pressure, insomnia, and depression.
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Some of the Yogasanas are easy to practice and yet very powerful. The Dwikonasana, also called “The Double Angle Pose,” is a full body stretch that is used to strengthen almost every muscle in the body. It is one of many Yogasanas in which one’s head is bent in a downward position, allowing better blood circulation towards the brain. Improved blood circulation creates many mental benefits and is responsible for the pose’s revitalizing effect.

The Dwikonasna can be practiced at any place, at almost any time of the day to refresh oneself and to release mental fatigue. Start the exercise by standing straight, with legs approximately six to 12 inches apart. Interlock your fingers behind your back, with palms facing upwards. Breathe in from the diaphragm while stretching backward holding the arms straight. Then breathe out, and bend forward stretching as far as possible.

Stand and breathe normally. Then repeat the sequence. Keep your legs locked unless you feel undue strain on the hamstrings and hips. To reduce this strain, bend the legs slightly at the knees. Try not to strain and use force while stretching. Holding the pose comfortably is what helps relax the muscles. For quick relaxation, stay in this position for 15 to 30 seconds. To relieve the tension and to condition the body, repeat the exercise two to three times or stay longer in the last position.

   

Breathe Another element of Yoga is Pranayama. Prana refers to air or vital energy, and yama is the control and direction of that energy. Pranayama, therefore, is the control and direction of vital energy via steady breathing. Steady breathing increases the prana in the body, resulting in good health.

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Many forms of yoga also emphasize meditation, the practice of mindfulness, a wholehearted focus on awareness, of paying attention to everything, down to the smallest things that needs to be done in life. Meditation is not practiced to achieve blank space or a blank mind by blocking, suppressing, or neglecting our concerns.

It is rather practiced to achieve heightened awareness, and its goal is a feeling of happiness, fulfillment, contentment, and peace within which, when we close our eyes, we can integrate our body, mind, and spirit.

 
Meditation Meditation is crucial to yoga and can actually be quite hard to master. By letting oneself go into a deep state of relaxation, one allows the energy of body and mind to integrate, and all kinds of subtle benefits accrue. One simple exercise, which combines meditation and breathing, is to slowly lean back from a sitting position with the legs stretched out.
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Keep the feet a foot apart and stretch the spine out, vertebra by vertebra, by leaning towards the floor until the head is resting on the floor. Let the hands hang loose a few inches from the sides of the body, palms facing the ceiling. Also let the feet be relaxed and gently tuck the chin against the chest. Take three deep, long breaths through the nose, and exhale through the mouth, while letting go of both mind and body.

   
Then gradually work up from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head relaxing the body and mind by becoming aware of sensations of energy in each limb and organ. Gradually you will begin to lose interest in the senses and the brain will become relaxed. You may fall asleep, but if you stay aware you will find yourself slipping into an inner world where a strong sense of wholeness prevails. Sometimes a sense of light may arise.
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This is natural and should be enjoyed. When coming back from this state, into the world of the senses, be gentle with yourself. Take a few deep breaths, acknowledge that the exercise is over, and get up slowly. Try to avoid any activities for a few minutes, and certainly avoid strenuous activity. If possible, allow 30 minutes before eating or drinking.

   

When doing this exercise, avoid lying on a hard floor. It can be done in bed before sleeping, and is an effective means to avoid insomnia. Use a blanket for warmth if necessary. It is important to practice yoga with the full mind. The best time to practice is either in the morning or in the evening. Beginners find it easier to practice in the evening because the body is more supple, but it is best to practice at a time that best suits your schedule, as long as the stomach is empty prior to the practice.

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For more information about yoga, consult www.exercare.com or http://members.tripod.com. Advertisement for yoga courses can be found in the Honolulu dailies, and listings of free classes can often be found in the calendar section of this newspaper.

 

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