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If the only exercise you get is carry groceries from the car to the house, don't try to run a mile around the track tomorrow. Try finding a once-a-week yoga class. Yoga improves posture, increases the intake of oxygen, and enhances the functioning of the respiratory, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, and elimination systems. Its effects on the emotions are equally beneficial: calming the mind, attuning us to the environment, and diminishing insomnia caused by mental restlessness. Yoga is highly recommended for people in competitive, stressful working environments, for those who suffer from headaches, back and shoulder aches, allergies, and asthma; and for anyone over the age of 40 (although the younger, the better). Yoga also works to unite the split between the mind and the body. Anyone with a compulsive behavioral disorder knows firsthand what agony this split can cause. Anyone who has ever had a nervous breakdown, suffered manic depression, or has only felt himself or herself functioning on 'half-power' understands this as well. The regular practice of yoga helps us to accept whatever physical or mental conditions we might be suffering from by increasing our immediate sense of well being, concentration, and calm. Much healing can be done, but it takes practice and consistency.

We all have the capacity to self-destruct, particularly if things go wrong. The yogi mentality is that life is a tremendous gift and we have to take responsibility for it. Yoga gives you the capacity to face up to life's challenges. Similarly, when you respect your body, you tend to do things that will enhance its vitality. Many people who practice yoga become vegetarians and follow a macrobiotic diet (the theory of promoting health and longevity by means of diet, especially whole beans and grains).

Part of yoga practice is deep breathing, which helps make the body more alkaline. The acid: alkaline ratio is crucial to good health. It should be 80 per cent alkaline, 20 per cent acid. Over-acidity can be harmful for bones and tissues, leading to fatigue, dulled mentality, headaches, depression and arthritis. Refined carbohydrates, animal proteins, coffee and alcohol, as well as stress and pollution are all acid forming.

Nothing prevents you from practicing yoga at home; there are many illustrated books on the subject. However, you will benefit far more, especially as a beginner, by joining a class. When you're starting up, you shouldn't do anything your body isn't ready for. No head stands, backward bending or forcing yourself into a cross-legged position. A typical beginners' class works on freeing up the spine, shoulders and hips and will consist of five or six standing positions, some floor positions, then relaxation and breathing at the end. A good class should have a structure: the teacher should explain a pose and then come and correct you if you are doing it wrong. When you come out of the class, you should feel good, whole and stretched, never strained.

There are so many facets of yoga; it can literally take a lifetime to learn and the process is slow. For the first couple of years, you'll repeat the same things over and over again. The poses, meditation and breathing are only a small part of the philosophy. It's a very profound subject and the exercises are hard work, but not grueling. It's gentle because your mind and heart are involved. The Iyengar method is a balanced system using a few basic standing poses. More important is being able to 'open up' the body, freeing the joints, stretching the muscles and allowing blood to circulate. It's very good for the spine, and keeps all your joints mobile.
Iyengar yoga works on a psychological level, too. In a yoga position, you concentrate on a total awareness of your energy and how it flows. You learn how body and mind works together. Here are some yoga-based stretches that will loosen your shoulders, stretch your spine and help you relax. (1) Standing on one leg. This helps you to focus. Stand tall and straight. Bend your right knee and place your foot as high as possible on the inside of your left thigh, toes pointing down. Extend your arms at shoulder level with palms facing downwards and stretch into your fingertips. Make sure your left leg is straight and strong, toes spread. Keeping spine straight and shoulders relaxed, bring your palms together in front of you, in a praying position, with elbows at 45 degrees. Take a few deep breaths then repeat on the other side. If you wobble too much, stand near a wall for better balance. (2) Whole body stretch. Lie on the floor with knees bent; back flat and tailbone tucked in. stretch your arms behind you to lengthen the upper back, stretching as hard as you can without arching. Straighten your legs. Hold for as long as you can, breathing normally. (3) Shoulder stretches. Tie a scarf or belt around your elbows, so when you push against it your elbows are as wide apart as your shoulders. Take your arms above your head, palms facing each other, keeping elbows straight. Push out towards the belt. You will feel the stretch in your shoulders. For the second stretch, link fingers then turn palms outwards and push hands in front of you. Bring arms up to shoulder level, elbows straight. Breathe out deeply and stretch arms up above your head. Stretch wrists, open palms. Repeat with the opposite thumb on top of your linked fingers. (4) Hip stretch. Lie on the floor with knees bent. Put the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall outward. Both knees should be the same distance from the floor. If your knees don't fall outwards easily, do this stretch with your feet raised on cushions. Stretch for a few minutes every day. While almost all exercise can be beneficial depending on the amount and body condition, practicing yoga ultimately leads you toward long-term health and well being.