1. 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, 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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, however, because they increase the flow of blood to the head, as do inversions. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 everyday -- 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.

9. 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. In fact, in a recent survey by the Yoga Site only about one out of every three Yoga practitioners was a vegetarian.

10. 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, Tree, Standing Squat and Symbol of Yoga.

11. Are there any specific ages that should not participate in a yoga practice?

Answer: No. Although, there are more appropriate ways to practice depending on age and mental & physical ability. For example, for very young people (kids), yoga might be turned into games to help maintain their interest. For older people (seniors), the physical practices may be modified to fit their abilities as well as their specific needs.

12. Do yoga and weightlifting work well together?

Answer: I don't think it's a marriage made in heaven, so to speak, but I don't see why they can't coexist together if practiced consciously. The thing is, it's really hard to practice asana fully and maybe even correctly if the muscles are too fatigued from a weight lifting work out. So, I recommend not stressing your muscles to the point of total fatigue and maybe using lighter weights.

13. What if I'm not that flexible?

Answer: I know it might be hard to believe due to our assumptions about yoga because of the few images we've glimpsed at (like that guy on that TV show "That's Incredible" who tied himself up in a knot and stuffed his body into a box for the duration of the show). Yet, you know what happens when we assume. But yoga really has nothing to do with being flexible. Then why do all the poses seem designed to create flexibility? This is an important point! The poses really are not created to promote flexibility. They are created to heal or maintain the health and vitality of the places they expose. Yes, if you are carrying a lot of tension in an area a pose exposes, the tension will release, and your range of motion will increase. Yet, if there is no tension in the area, there is no need to release any, and the pose's job is now to maintain its tension free status as well as create stimulation, which facilitates circulation which promotes oxygenation which is a prerequisite for regeneration as well as flushing out toxicity. Remember, the goal is to maintain vitality, not to create flexibility. After all, too much flexibility creates a state of instability and that's not healthy. Just like we have different faces and personalities, we have different hips and different length hamstrings. We are not all supposed to get our head to our legs in forward bends. We all need to find our own place in each pose. That way the pose becomes ours. We are not supposed to look the same in every pose. The beauty of the human race is the differences among us all. It would be boring if everybody looked the same in every pose. Let's flourish in our differences. Plus, I don't believe there is any proof that looser people are healthier or happier, so what's the point? Isn't the goal Health and Happiness? So, no, you don't need to be flexible. All you need is the time to breathe and move! Amen!

14. Should I consult a doctor before starting Yoga?

A: If you have no serious physical problems, then no, you don¡¯t need to consult a doctor before starting Yoga practice. But be sure to tell the teacher if you have any aches or pains, especially in your back, neck, or knees, before the class begins. The teacher really should ask you first about any injuries. He¡¯ll then be able to modify the postures (or avoid certain ones altogether), if necessary, to suit your needs.

However, if you have difficulties with your blood pressure or equilibrium, if you have recently had an operation (for example, on your heart, spine, or knee), if you regularly take medication, or if you are pregnant, then just to be on the safe side, check in with your doctor before starting a class. Many Yoga schools offer classes in restorative or gentle Yoga and prenatal Yoga for people with these conditions. You might also call the teacher of the class you want to start. Tell him about your condition, and see if he has some idea about how to work with you intelligently.

15. Can I practice Hatha-Yoga when I have the cold or a flu?

A: Yes, you can, but whether or not you will feel like it is a whole other question. Patanjali (Yoga-Sûtra 1.30) lists nine obstacles (antarâya) to Yoga practice, and the first hindrance among these is ¡°disease¡± (vyâdhi). He recognizes that it is pretty hard to practice when you have a runny nose, a hacking cough, or a headache. If you are really sick, then it might be best just to take the day off and go to bed. But if your symptoms are milder, then you might want to work up a restorative routine that will help get you back on your feet. You can get some good ideas for such a routine from Relax & Renew by Yoga teacher Judith Lasater (available from Rodmell Press, 800-841-3123).

16. What does yoga have to offer me?

Yoga builds useable strength, increases flexibility, teaches how to focus your attention, and relieves stress.

17. Can I start yoga if I'm stiff/overweight/out-of-shape/old?

Yes. Yoga is a process. You begin wherever you are.

18. What are the benefits of yoga?

The health benefits of yoga are just beginning to be investigated by the mainstream medical community. Initial trials have shown that yoga can help people with asthma, cardiac risk factors, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and more. But essentially, a regular asana (posture) practice can create flexibility, build strength, and develop stamina. In addition to affecting the musculoskeletal system, the postures can assist internal body functions. Most postures increase circulation, which can positively affect the respiratory and nervous systems. Other systems of the body, as well as the organs, can benefit from yoga, depending on the pose. Bringing the systems and organs of the body into balance naturally has a positive effect on your mental well-being. And specific breathing exercises can either stimulate or pacify your mind.

19. Can kids do yoga?

Yoga can benefit kids just as much as it helps adults. It can increase their flexibility, strength, coordination, body awareness, and concentration. With school, sports, peer pressure, and demanding social activities, a kid's world can be stressful. Yoga can help relieve the stress and encourage relaxation. Many yoga studios have yoga for kids or "Mommy and Me" programs. If you're familiar with yoga and planning on teaching it to your kids at home, you're not going to be able to mimic an adult class. Kids love to move, play, and talk, so be sure to incorporate all three when creating a home practic.