What Is Yoga?

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’, meaning to join, yoke or to unite.  As per yogic scriptures the practice of yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with that of the universal consciousness, indicating a perfect harmony between the mind and body, Man & Nature.

Yoga is a spiritual, devotional practice and at the same time a physical practice that creates wellbeing. It’s an all-encompassing practice that looks to bring mind and body balance through different techniques, teaching us to live in harmony, not only with the world around us, but with the world within us.

A brief history of yoga

Yoga has a rich history although obscure due to its oral transmission and the secretive nature of its teachings, however it is widely accepted that it spans at least 5000 years, with some suggesting that yoga may even be up to 10,000 years old.

Vedic Period

The Sanskrit word ‘Veda’ means “knowledge”.  The Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharaveda) were said to have been revealed to sages or Rishis while in deep mediation. Originally the Vedas were spoken and passed on orally, from guru to student.

It’s this collection of hymns that contain the oldest known teachings about yoga, with the word yoga being first mentioned in the Rigveda.

Pre-Classical Yoga

Yoga is said to becoming more systemised during this period, with the beginnings of Buddhism, Jainism and the śramaṇa movement. Upanishads such as the Bhagavad Gita emerge furthering the concepts of Karma and Bhakti as a path for Moksha.

Classical Yoga

Defined as Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras, which describes the path of Raja Yoga.

Post-Classical Yoga

Yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life, embracing the physical body and a means to achieve enlightenment, developing Tantra Yoga, leading to the creation of Hatha Yoga.

Modern Period

Yoga masters began to travel to the West attracting attention and followers. Hatha yoga has since continued its traditional yoga practice and has also formed the basis of many other types of yoga practices today.

Yoga’s present day uses and achievements

Yoga is multifaceted in its approach with physical exercise, breath control, relaxation, massage, diet and meditation aimed at developing harmony in the body, mind and environment. As such, it has many physical and mental uses and benefits and is used as a complementary treatment for various ailments.

Yoga encourages one to relax, slow the breath and focus on the present, shifting from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic system. The latter is calming and restorative which lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs, helping combat anxiety disorders, depression and stress.

Yogic practices are shown to improve cardiorespiratory performance and plasma melatonin levels improving overall well-being, while regular practice improves the quality of sleep significantly.

Numerous studies show that asana and meditation can reduce pain and disability while improving flexibility and functional mobility in people with a number of conditions causing chronic pain.

While yoga is not a cure for a cancer it can reduce stress, promote healing, and enhance quality of life for patients.

In another study yoga was shown to have improved bone density.

There exists an indisputable connection between a person’s overall physical & mental health and the inner peace & well-being yoga is designed to achieve.

How does yoga work

Yoga aims to bring together all the various aspects of one’s being to work in harmony and stay balanced. As we expand our awareness through the practice of yoga, we become more capable to see the beauty that life offers and become able to deal with pressures/stresses in a more conscious manner.

Starting with the practice of kriyas to cleanse and stimulate our internal organs, we move on to the physical practice of asana, which helps to strengthen all the body systems.

After the physical practice, we move on to the mental aspects starting with pranayama. Pranayama is the science of the breath and its practice has a profound impact on our wellbeing, creating balance between mind and body and prepares us for meditation. Meditation aims to quieten the mind, inducing a heightened state of awareness, enhancing our meaning of life and purpose within it allowing us to find our true selves.

By practicing yoga we can purify our mind and body, clearing it of blockages which will allow us to live a more intentional, mindful and balanced life.

Circumstances where yoga would not be used

There are some general points to be kept in mind while practicing yoga.

  • We should avoid practice for at least 3 hours after eating a heavy meal and 1 hour after a snack – With a full stomach our body is focused on digesting that meal. It also creates discomfort with kriya practices and asana postures as they massage our internal organs.
  • Yoga should be practiced in a clean environment with fresh air – a clean and tidy space diminishes distractions and allows the body to move freely without hitting any obstructions. As we are mindfully breathing, we want to ensure we are inhaling clean air into our bodies.
  • When suffering from an illness or any surgery we should refrain from asana practice consulting a physician before resuming our yoga practice as asana practice can be too strenuous on a recovering body.
  • Inverted postures should be avoided if we suffer from high blood pressure or if women are on their menstrual cycle.
  • During pregnancy avoid strenuous postures.

Why do I practice yoga and how did I come to it

My yoga journey started in 2011 when my sister found an Ashtanga beginners’ course and suggested we do it together. From that moment a curiosity sparked that led me to try different styles of yoga over the years. My practice was very on-and-off for several years as other things in my life tended to take priority. This also meant that it took a while for me to be able to simply hear and follow instructions and not have to look at what others were doing. The moment I had enough vocabulary, I was able to close my eyes, follow the instructions of the teacher and finally be fully emersed in the practice.

It was then that I started to feel the benefits of yoga. As I became less aware of the people around me, I could then shift my gaze internally. Using breath in unison with asana I was able to be present in the moment, discarding my thoughts and worries, and allowing for calmness to wash over me. The practice of yoga allows me to find myself when I become lost or distracted.

How do I use yoga to take care of myself

Yoga, being the versatile practice that it is, allows us to practice it anywhere at anytime.

I am fortunate that where I work is located near an estuary, with unobstructed views of Nature. At lunch time I can go for walks and be with my thoughts or I can simply sit and watch the cows grazing farmland. This for me is very calming and focuses my mind.

On days that I find myself particularly rundown, I like to ‘escape’ to our spare room and close myself away for 10 minutes and meditate. This gives me time to reset after a long day at work and let go of any heavy feelings I may have been carrying with me all day. It puts me in a healthier mental space to allow me to enjoy the time that really matters to me, being with my husband and our cat.

My asana practice not only strengthens my body, but also balances me out. Working in an office, my challenges are all in my mind. I spend a lot of my time sitting at a desk problem solving. With asana practice, there are postures that I don’t particularly enjoy as they are challenging, however incorporating them into my practice strengthens my muscles and allows me to get out of my head and work through my physical struggles using my body. I feel that after asana, I am much more in balance.  Doing challenging postures and being able to hold them, reminds me that I am more resilient than I give myself credit for.

The changes I have experienced have been subtle over time, but I can say with certainty that I am not the same person I was a year ago and I know I won’t be the person I am today a year from now. Yoga gives us the opportunity to look inside ourselves, to listen and to learn. I am more resilient, being less prone to worry and stress thanks to yoga.

My view of the role yoga can play in the future

I believe that yoga is a powerful tool in many ways. It allows us to slow down in a society that praises always being busy, working and accumulating. We currently live in a world where our planet, our home, is getting more crowded with each passing year, where we are depleting its natural resources and living in an unsustainable way. We have become disconnected from our home by creating concrete jungles with very little green spaces, and as a species we have little regard for the other beings that live alongside side us.

The practice of yoga creates within us mindfulness, awareness of others and ourselves. We step away from thinking solely of ourselves (ego), but toward an inclusive, compassionate, altruistic way of thinking. Making space in ourselves to be more mindful of how we live our lives and how it impacts others and our environment. To become more connected with ourselves to really listen to ourselves, allows us to become more connected to the natural world and each other.

We live in a time where we mostly live a sedentary lifestyle, be it working in an office or sitting at home watching television. Incorporating physical exercise, and breath work in the form of asana and pranayama, allows us to experience greater range of movement, building strength and resilience that we can then take into our daily lives.

If we could all include movement, breath, mindful attention & relaxation using the framework of yoga our lives would be profoundly changed and we would become better humans in the process.

References

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