Though developed in India and considered part of more than one spiritual tradition, yoga has become a widespread practice without religious overtones. It is a form of exercise that is appropriate for almost everyone.

The term is a derivation of a Sanskrit word that means union. In its more common usage, the term refers to the poses or asanas that are one of the means to achieving a sense of well being. The poses combine stretching with controlled breathing. There may also be meditative segments and guided imagery.

Choosing yoga means committing to a regular schedule, diligently followed. This doesn’t mean that beginners are excluded. With a mat and some comfortable clothing, anyone can get started. Fitness and flexibility are not required because there are many ways to modify the poses. Qualified instructors can be found at yoga studios, health clubs and community centers.

Not all classes are the same. There are several different branches, each with its own level of intensity and variation on sequences of poses. While experimenting can help a beginner find the style that best suits his or her body, it is best to start with a slower, easier version like Hatha.

Whatever branch is chosen, control of breathing combined with guided stretching can lead to relief from difficulties caused by asthma or PMS. Yoga may also be a powerful tool in stress reduction. Because the body becomes relaxed yet energized and the mind is required to focus on breathing, the effects of anxiety and stress are often diminished.

The cat pose is a good asana to try for a moment of stress relief as long as there are no back problems. It is a basic pose that will increase awareness of centering the body and help coordinate breath and movement. Start on hands and knees on a padded surface. Make sure the hands are below the shoulders and the knees are below the hips. Move slightly forward and back and check to see whether the spine is straight and the body is balanced. Once at that place, pause and inhale slowly. On the exhale, tighten the abdominal muscles and lift them up. As they approach the spine, curve it upward. Lower the head so that the line from the bottom of the spine arches gracefully to the top of the head. Inhale and return to the neutral position.

Developing a yoga practice requires commitment and discipline. However, it is well worth the effort. Not only will the body become stronger and more flexible, the mind will be more relaxed and resilient.

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