The classical techniques of yoga date back more than 5,000 years. At its heart, yoga is a science of self-transformation cultivated by a consistent practice of mindfulness, where a person grows in self-understanding, and learns to live to her highest potential while experiencing heightened states of well-being and optimum health.
The word yoga means “to join or yoke together” – it brings the body and mind together into one harmonious experience. The basic idea is that the breath in yoga practice becomes the intimate link between the mind and the body as the body moves through postures (a moving type of meditation), or as the person practices specific meditation techniques.
Meditation of many kinds has been proven to calm the mind, promote wellness, relieve stress, reduce suffering, initiate healing, improve function, and increase creativity and mental clarity – along with many other benefits.
This ancient discipline is a journey of ever-increasing mindfulness that supports the yoga practitioner in awakening the ability to carefully evaluate how her lifestyle choices affect her well-being.
It is important to emphasize that this ongoing self-evaluation is fostered by the student’s dedication to consistent practice. Through consistent practice, transformation occurs on a mental level, psycho-emotional level, and a physical level.
“The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in.“
— B.K.S Iyengar
Yoga offers both physical and mental exercises to promote health and healing and to support a healthy lifestyle. As such, yoga’s aim is to extend life and improve its quality. It is about developing oneself by rectifying, rehabilitating, and changing in order to enhance one’s life.
The physical exercises are specific postures, or asanas, that serve as mirrors to a deeper understanding of one’s body. The poses focus on different parts of the body, rendering increased strength, flexibility, balance, and muscle tone. These postures are typically designed in a sequence that maximizes their benefits as well as create specific results.
The asanas capitalize on the all-important principle of moving the body to promote health, as inactive lifestyles increase stagnation in the body. These areas of stagnation can and do become potential breeding grounds for illness and disease.
Movement facilitates the proper functioning of all physiologic systems in the body while supporting immunological integrity.
An integral part of the asana practice is the breath work or pranayama. Breath work augments the physical practice and brings a dimension of benefits that far outreaches the physical postures alone.
Breathing, especially the specific breathing exercises that pranayama offers, can be designed to produce different physiologic states. Prescriptive breathing techniques induce states of calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that promotes rest and repose. This is a huge health benefit, especially when a person is suffering from a disease that has the potential of provoking anxiety. Anxiety combined with the constant stress and pace of everyday life keep most people’s nervous system in the overactive mode, where they spend an inordinate amount of time in the sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight or flight nervous system. Sadly, far too much of our lives are spent here.
Humans were not designed to rely on our sympathetic nervous system on an everyday basis. This is where stress hormones and their subsequent reactions produce harm and dis-ease as well as increased mortality rates. Yoga with its unique movements and breathing, helps balance the autonomic nervous system.
In addition to physical and physiologic benefits, yoga offers meditation techniques to induce mental and psycho-emotional calmness and clarity, which further augment increased periods of time spent in the parasympathetic nervous system of rest and repose. The qualities of mental and emotional calmness and clarity, in particular, help an individual cope with the stress of an illness. This calmness is cultivated in meditation where the mind is trained to focus specifically on one object. This object is most often the breath (for beginning and intermediate students).
Some of the benefits of yoga include developing:
Strength: Many yoga poses require the individual to support their weight in new ways, including balancing on one leg (such as in Tree Pose) or supporting the body with the arms (such as in Downward Facing Dog). Some exercises teach very slowly in and out of poses, which also increases strength.
Flexibility: Stretching the body in new ways will help it to become more flexible, bringing greater range of motion to muscles and joints. Over time, practitioners will develop flexibility in the hamstrings, back, shoulders, and hips.
Muscle tone: As a by-product of getting stronger, one can expect to see increased muscle tone. Yoga helps shape long, lean muscles.
Pain Prevention: Increased flexibility and strength can help prevent the causes of some types of muscle skeletal pain. Breast surgery and radiation treatment can cause muscle skeletal tension and pain. Yoga also improves overall body alignment, both in and out of class, which helps prevent many other types of pain.
Better Breathing: Most people breathe very shallowly into the lungs and do not give much thought to how they breathe. Yoga breathing exercises, called Pranayama, focus the attention on the breath and teach how to better use the lungs, which benefits the entire body. Certain types of breath can also help clear the nasal passages and even calm the central nervous system, which has both physical and mental benefits.
Mental Calmness: Yoga asana practice is intensely physical. Concentrating so intently on what the body is doing has the effect of bringing calmness to the mind. Yoga also introduces individuals to meditation techniques, such as watching how one breathes and disengagement from distracting thoughts, which help calm the mind.
Stress Reduction: Physical activity is good for relieving stress, and this is particularly true of yoga. Because of the concentration required, daily troubles, both large and small, seem to melt away during yoga practice. This provides a much-needed break from stressors, as well as helping put things into perspective. The emphasis yoga places on being in the moment can also help relieve stress, as one learns not to dwell on past events or anticipate the future. Most leave a yoga class feeling less stressed than when they started.
Body Awareness: Practicing yoga helps develop an increased awareness of the body. Practitioners are often called upon to make small, subtle movements to improve alignment. Over time, this will increase the level of body comfort and lead to improved posture and greater self-confidence.
It is best to find a yoga instructor who is trained to give individually tailored prescriptive practices. If the practitioner is working through serious health conditions, the teacher will need doctor’s instructions (and any recommended movement limitations) to create a safe and beneficial yoga practice. On an emotional level, yoga provides an overall sense of well-being. It can also help people get reacquainted with their bodies, as it can be difficult to feel comfortable in the body post-surgery. Be aware that many doctors and physical therapists do not know much about yoga, so in an effort to keep a patient safe, they might tell the patient not to do anything physical at all. Use caution here of course, but realize the discipline of yoga has been around much longer than other forms of healing and wellness regimens.
More than a hundred variations of yoga are practiced in the United States. Some of these are slow and gentle, while other styles are active and fast-moving. Most Westernized yoga classes focus on learning physical poses, and usually include some form of breathing technique, and possibly a meditation technique as well. Some yoga classes are designed purely for relaxation. But there are styles of yoga that teach you how to move your body in new ways. Choosing one of these styles offers the greatest health benefits by enabling one to develop flexibility, strength, and balance. One of the most frequently practiced types of yoga is called hatha yoga, which uses physical poses and breathing techniques to increase strength and flexibility.
Click images below to access