Many people who want to get into shape are unaware that there is more to fitness than well-toned muscles and a tight abdomen. There is no shortage of exercise regimes that strictly promote the perfection of the body. Centuries ago, Western culture lost its focus on the interconnectedness between the body and the mind or spirit, and how each of these has the power to affect the other. There are, however, many traditional fitness modalities from Asia that aim to cultivate the body and spirit together. Let’s look at yoga, one of the best-known.

What Is Yoga?

Yoga is the Sanskrit word for “union,” in the sense that the body and the vital life force, or “prana,” are expected to join in unity. Its various forms have been practiced in India for thousands of years. Yoga’s purpose is to strengthen the body and make it more flexible, as well as to calm the mind and awaken the spirit — in effect, to provide a physical, mental and spiritual system of health. It does this through physical poses, or “asanas,” breathing techniques and meditation practice.

The Vital Combination

The physical exercises are a series of slow, gentle and painless stretches that gradually may increase in complexity as the student becomes stronger and more flexible. These poses are accompanied by deep, steady breathing that soothes the nervous system, improves blood circulation and, it is said, helps the prana flow through the body. In addition, there is a practice of deep relaxation that uses guided imagery and visualization to bring a sense of well-being. The combination of all these elements leads to a calm, focused state of mind and a great feeling of vitality.

Fitness and Self-Healing

People of all ages can do yoga, and the asanas can even be adapted for people with disabilities or special needs. The poses enhance muscle strength, coordination, flexibility and agility, and can help a bad back feel better. According to the National Institutes of Health, when people actively seek to reduce the stress in their lives by quieting the mind, the body often works to heal itself. In this sense, yoga can be seen not only as a way to get into shape on several levels, but also as a tool for self-healing.

How to Get Started

Yoga is becoming very popular. You can find yoga classes in cities and towns all over the world. They are held in community centers, colleges and universities, senior-citizen centers and many gyms. There are also yoga schools, which typically have their own buildings. Check bulletin boards around town for notices of classes or look online. The ads in the back of your local newsweekly are another good place to locate a yoga class.

When you find a class that fits your schedule and seems convenient, try to meet with the instructor to tell him or her of any physical limitations you may have, and to discuss how you should prepare for class. For example, it’s important that you wear loose cotton clothing, and that you refrain from eating for an hour or two before the class. There are several levels of yoga instruction, and you’ll want to be sure that your class is designed for beginners. Teachers are usually very careful to start new students quite slowly and gently, so you don’t have to be afraid of being pushed beyond your abilities. There are lots of ways to work on your physical fitness. Few, however, bring as many benefits to the body, mind and spirit as yoga.