The term “yoga” has been applied to a variety of practices and methods of physical, mental and spiritual practices or disciplines. The word “yoga” literally means “yoking together” as in a team of horses or oxen but came to mean the yoking of mind and body.
The origins of yoga are under debate, but suggested origins are the Indus Valley civilization (2600 – 1900 BCE), pre-Vedic north-eastern Indian and earliest accounts of yoga-practices are in the Buddhist Nikayas, recorded around 400 CE. Many satellite traditions of yoga began to develop in the Middle Ages and came to the western world through yoga gurus from India in the late 19th century. In 1918, Pierre Bernard, the first famous American yogi, opened the Clarkstown Country Club, a controversial retreat center for well-to-do yoga students in New York State. In the 1960’s several yoga teachers, most notably B.K.S. Iyengar became popular in the West.
In the 1980’s yoga became a popular system of physical exercise across the Western world as Dean Ornish, MD, a medical researcher, connected Hatha yoga purely as a physical system of health exercises unconnected to a religious denominations. This form of yoga involves holding stretches as a low-impact physical exercise, but focuses on both physical and mental strength building exercises and postures. Yoga classes may involve meditation, imagery, breath work and music.
A survey release in December 2008 by the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that Hatha yoga was the sixth most commonly used alternative therapy in the United States during 2007 with 6.1 percent of the population participating.
Both meditative and exercise yoga have been researched for specific and non-specific health benefits, including back pain, stress, and depression.
The continued practice of Hatha yoga aims to gradually improve flexibility, balance and strength. There is evidence that yoga may be effective in managing chronic but no acute low back pain. It may also improve the quality-of-life of cancer patients but does not have any effect on the disease itself. It is increasingly being used to train people involved in sports or athletes to maximize performance and minimize injury.
Preliminary research trials on the use of Hatha yoga for depression is showing encouraging results from both the exercise and mindfulness meditation. There is also some evidence that yoga practices may help people with dementia perform their daily activities.
Because regulation of physical moment is a fundamental priority of the nervous system, focusing on and developing an awareness of physical movement can lead to improved synchrony between mind and body. These therapeutic benefits of yoga have been discussed by Bessel van der Kolk in an interview with Integral Yoga Magazine in which van der Kolk describes how he uses yoga to treat those suffering from PTSD.
Some forms of yoga, such as the Buddhism and Raja concentrate on meditation with the aim to develop mindfulness, tranquility and insight. Other schools of yoga include Tanta, Shaivism and Jainism.
Aside from the spiritual goals, the physical postures of yoga are used to alleviate health problems, reduce stress and make the spine supple. Yoga is also used as a complete exercise program and physical therapy routine.