Health Take-Away: Achieve balance in your life with yoga

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It's no secret. Life can be incredibly stressful, especially in this modern technological age, when we're surrounded by expectations of virtually immediate response to our daily challenges, whether it's work, family or other personal responsibilities. The effects of that stress are compounded when the body is not exercised. Muscle tension builds, breathing becomes constricted and the mind has no relief valve from the pressures that feed our deepest anxieties. There's a back-and-forth link between physical and mental tension.

So, we often find ourselves struggling for balance, seeking some semblance of sanity and serenity in a world that demands so much of our physical and emotional time and energy.

The good news is that one pathway to alleviating that stress and achieving balance is far more readily accessible than most people may realize. A powerful answer lies in the ancient art of yoga, a mind-body practice that combines physical poses, controlled breathing and relaxation to achieve personal peace and physical resilience. Centuries of experience and modern clinical evidence shows that yoga can reduce stress, relieve mental and physical tension, lower blood pressure, improve heart function and enhance mood and well-being.

The core components of most general yoga classes are:

- Poses. Yoga poses or postures are a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. Many people mistakenly think of yoga as contorting the body into impossible-looking configurations. But it's not about that. There are many simple, easy poses that deliver the benefits of yoga for every level of ability. If you want to advance to more complicated poses, you can, but it's certainly not required or expected. Yoga also requires no special equipment, so you can do it almost anywhere, anytime.

- Breathing. Controlling your breathing is an essential aspect of yoga. It can help you control your body and quiet your mind. When we're mindful of our breathing, it brings us to the present moment, increases our self-awareness, and creates a sense of calm. Yoga breathing uses specific rhythms and techniques to bring us numerous benefits on the mental, emotional and physical levels.

- Meditation or relaxation. You may incorporate meditation or relaxation into your yoga practice. Meditation can help you learn to be more mindful and aware of the present. It's not about erasing your thoughts; it's just noticing and accepting the present moment for what it is, letting your thoughts come and go with ease. A great way for beginners to start is by simply focusing attention on their breathing, slowly counting to five or 10 breaths. You can also concentrate on a specific object or establish a point of focus, with the eyes either opened or closed. Silently repeating a word or phrase, reciting a prayer or chant, visualizing an image, or focusing on an object such as a lighted candle are all commonly recommended points of focus.

In addition to stress reduction, the potential health benefits of yoga include:

- Improved fitness. Practicing yoga can improve balance, flexibility, range of motion and strength. Yoga poses are great exercise and can help loosen up the tense muscles in your body. The areas of the body that tend to carry the most stress are the neck, shoulders and back. But other parts of the body (like the face, jaw, fingers, or wrists) also can benefit from simple yoga stretches.

- Management of chronic conditions. Yoga can help reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Yoga might also help alleviate chronic conditions, such as depression, pain, anxiety and insomnia. Yoga is generally considered safe for most healthy people when practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor.

People who do a little bit of yoga each day often find they're better able to handle things when life gets hectic. Practicing yoga builds your ability to stay calm, focused, physically balanced and relaxed.

Shannon Ashcroft is a Registered Yoga Teacher and Certified Personal Trainer with Berkshire Health Systems.

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