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Saturday, 27 October, 2001, 00:18 GMT 01:18 UK
Is yoga good for you?
Sting and Trudie Styler
Sting and his wife Trudie are devotees
Madonna is a big fan. So is Sting. They are just two stars who are devoted practitioners to the discipline of yoga.

An increasing number of people have taken up the ancient eastern health and fitness practise. But in the UK there is still a degree of scepticism among health experts.

Oona Mashta talks to yoga practitioners and doctors to find out whether it really is good for you.


When Shri K Pattabhi Jois, the foremost exponent of Ashtanga yoga, visited London this month hundreds of people flocked to his classes.

Pattabhi Jois, who is now in his eighties, developed and refined Ashtanga yoga after translating ancient texts on the technique.

The technique, which is the most vigorous form of yoga, has become increasingly popular throughout the Western world.

Pattabhi Jois who still teaches daily at his research institute in Mysore, India has said that yoga is mind medicine.

Shri K Pattabhi Jois
Shri K Pattabhi Jois developed Ashtanga yoga
"Ashtanga yoga is helping many people throughout the world to balance the mental, physical and spiritual pressures and stresses posed by the modern world we live in today," he said.

The basic premise of Ashtanga yoga is that it produces an intense internal heat through synchronising movement with breathing while practising a set sequence of postures.

Pattabhi Jois says that this heat purifies the muscles and organs, expelling unwanted toxins as well as releasing beneficial hormones and minerals which can nourish the body when the sweat is absorbed back into the skin.

Flexibility

Yoga practitioners claim that all forms of the discipline offer health and physical benefits - from lowering blood pressure to improving flexibility.

Often the first basic lesson of a yoga class is deep, rhythmic breathing, which practitioners say can help to relieve respiratory complaints including asthma, as well as feeding more oxygen to the muscles to boost their strength.

It also helps to improve posture by teaching relaxation of the neck, shoulders and upper back, easing tension that can trigger aches and pains in the back.

Certain postures can also help to lengthen and strengthen the spine.

Yoga practitioners also claim that specific postures such as abdominal twists gently massage internal organs including the kidneys to improve their efficiency while forward bends can stimulate the digestive processes to help ease indigestion problems.

The inverted postures such as the head and shoulder stands, boost blood circulation and therefore improve skin tone.

The deep relaxation exercises normally practised at the end of a class can also relieve stress and anxiety, they claim.

Brain treatment


Yoga works on the subconscious which has a powerful effect over the body

Tim Naylor
Tim Naylor, a therapist at the Yoga Therapy Centre at Royal Homoeopathic Hospital, London, uses yoga to treat conditions that involve the brain.

He explains: "A lot of people deny that the brain is involved in their medical condition but often for example lower back pain can be caused by mental tension which leads to stiffness in the neck or back.

"Yoga works on the subconscious which has a powerful effect over the body.

"It can get into the subconscious, which might be holding tensions caused by stress, and help to let them go in a controlled safe fashion and eventually the medical or health problem that was caused by the tension will disappear.

"But yoga is a complementary therapy and should therefore be used in conjunction with conventional medicine."

Aerobic exercise


People who sit at a desk all day and the only exercise they get is walking to their car, need to do more vigorous exercise than yoga

Mandy Belch
But Dr Mayur Lakhani, vice-chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, advocates exercise over yoga.

He said: "There is a lot of strong evidence based research that proves regular aerobic exercise can help to prevent heart disease, so that is the model GPs promote.

"Twenty to 30 minutes of exercise that increases the heart rate, including a brisk walk, swimming and cycling, done three times a week can help people to lose weight and prevent heart problems.

"There is no research evidence to support the claims that yoga can relieve any medical conditions. Doctors would need to see evidence to substantiate them before promoting yoga which might in fact be unsafe and harmful for some people to do."

Mandy Belch, a physiotherapist with the Scottish Institute of Sport in Glasgow, said: "People who sit at a desk all day and the only exercise they get is walking to their car, need to do more vigorous exercise than yoga."

But Ken Simmons, chairman of the British Wheel of Yoga, the governing body of yoga in the UK said: "Everyone can benefit from practising yoga as it's a holistic discipline that helps the body, mentally, physically and spiritually."

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