Treatment

If you have a medical condition for which you are receiving treatment, yoga should be considered an additional therapy, not a replacement. Talk to your health care professional if you have arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia or other serious medical conditions. Many places offer special classes designed just for people with these conditions.

Even if you don't need a specialized class, you need to be aware of certain warnings before starting a class. For instance, high blood pressure, glaucoma or a history of retinal detachment or heart disease may mean that you should not perform certain exercises or positions (the ones that turn you upside down, like a handstand). Again, talk to your health care professional first.

For the vast majority of women, yoga is an ideal way to improve overall health. It requires little advance preparation, so once you find a class, you can jump right in.

What To Expect

Wait at least two hours after eating before starting your yoga workout. Don't worry about the "proper" outfit. Wear something comfortable that will allow you to move—leotards or yoga pants are good choices, but you can wear a T-shirt and shorts, too. Some instructors may not want you to wear baggy clothes because they want to be able to watch your form as you practice the postures. Also, baggy tops tend to fall up over the head during semi-inverted poses. Most people practice yoga in their bare feet.

The session will probably start with gentle warm-up exercises, probably a series of breathing exercises and gentle stretches. From there, the instructor will take you through several postures (asanas). You may hold these positions for a few seconds or a few minutes. Depending on the specific posture, you will start from a seated, standing or prone position.

You may already know some of these movements—for example, the cross-legged seated Lotus position. Others will feel like the shoulder rolls or stretches you may already do. Some will be unfamiliar, though.

Don't worry if you can't do each posture perfectly—as long as you keep it safe and mindful, the pose is always perfect. Yoga is about the process itself. You don't have to do everything the class does. Go at your own pace. Eventually, you will perfect your form. Remember, the point isn't to push beyond your limits.

During the process, be sure to breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm and move gently. Take breaks as often as you like, and never do anything that causes any genuine pain or discomfort.

Most yoga classes will end with a final relaxation or "corpse pose." There may also be a short meditation.

Classes generally last 60 to 90 minutes, and you may attend class once or several times a week. It's important to develop a daily practice. This means doing yoga on days you aren't in class—shoot for about 30 minutes. If that sounds daunting, start with five or 10 minutes and work up. If your schedule doesn't allow for daily practice, try for four times a week for about 45 minutes.

Aside from your regular practice, you can work on some of the seated postures during the day while at the computer. And you can practice the deep, diaphragm-based breathing techniques anywhere.

The time of day you practice depends not only on your schedule, but on your goals. In the morning, a yoga routine may energize you and prepare you for the day. That's the preferred time of day for many folks. In the evening, relaxing poses can lead to better sleep.

Many yoga classes offer a gentler workout. While yoga is not like an aerobics class, it will still be challenging. There is a great increase, too, in the number of physically strenuous, faster-paced classes on schedules these days. Regardless of which experience you choose, when you finish, you shouldn't feel exhausted. You should feel refreshed, relaxed and energized.

There are no negative side effects to yoga, but as with any exercise program, it's always possible to hurt yourself, especially if you try to explore advanced postures before you are ready. While you are practicing yoga, always listen and respond to what your body is telling you. One of the fundamental concepts in yoga is nonviolence or "ahimsa," and it begins with the self. This mindfulness will help you reduce the chances of injury, and it's really at the heart of yoga.

At first, it's natural to feel a little sore, especially if you haven't been exercising lately. But if the soreness is severe or persists, talk to your instructor. If you feel pain in your joints, talk to your instructor right away. A reasonable amount of muscle soreness is normal; joint pain is not. If the joint pain persists, talk with your regular health care professional.

It's always advisable to check with your health care professional before embarking on any exercise program, particularly if you are out of shape, over 65 or have serious health problems. You definitely need to do so if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, arthritis (particularly rheumatoid arthritis), spinal disk injuries, a history of retinal detachment or heart disease, or if you are pregnant. And be sure to inform the yoga instructor, too. If you have any of these conditions, it may be a good idea to begin your journey with one or more private sessions so you can better understand how to tailor the practice to accommodate your needs.

You may notice that your general health improves as you continue to make yoga a regular part of your life. But no matter how good you feel, don't stop your regular treatments. Continue to take any prescribed medications until your health care professional advises otherwise.

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