In its entirety, yoga is a very ancient, well thought out, tried and tested system of living which brings the mind and body into unity. The essential purpose of yoga is the integration of all the layers of life – environmental, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual.
“Your body is precious, it is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care”
From a purely physical point of view, yoga is one of the few forms of exercise that takes your body through its full range of movement each time it is practiced. Of the three important components of a balanced fitness program – flexibility, strength and cardiovascular conditioning – yoga directly provides the first two and has the potential to enhance the third depending on the style of yoga practiced. It strengthens, tones and sculpts the physical body helping to improve posture, flexibility and circulation. Regular practitioners of yoga achieve optimum health and well being surprisinglyquickly. Scientific studies on the health benefits of yoga have found that it can be useful in preventing, treating and controlling a wide range of conditions including, hypertension, asthma, depression, arthritis, heart disease, epilepsy and cancer.
It is a myth that to practice yoga you must be flexible to begin with – in fact extreme flexibility can be a student’s biggest weakness as we tend to move naturally into flexible joints but do not necessarily have the muscular strength to support this flexibility. This can eventually lead to serious issues in the more vulnerable areas of the body such as the ankles, knees, hips, lower back and neck. A regular yoga practice helps to align the body correctly, build muscular strength to protect and support the joints and will alleviate existing problems.
For students who find that they are very stiff and inflexible the opposite can be the case. Extreme tightness in the muscles is often a sign of strength, but range of movement is inhibited as the joints have become stiff and muscles such as the hamstrings and calf muscles become tight and short. Yoga works to gently encourage the muscles to lengthen and the joints to open as heat is built gradually from the core to the periphery of the body through correct use of the breath combined with both static and dynamic yoga postures. Even after a couple of classes the positive effects and the transformative nature of the physical aspect of yoga become apparent.
In the western world our bodies are affected hugely by the stress and pace of day to day living. Being seated at desks or in cars for long periods of time and dealing the pressures and stress of every day life takes its toll on the neck, shoulders, hips and lower back in particular, leaving many of us sore and stiff in these areas. Breathing is also affected as the chest area becomes closed through poor posture and we tend to breathe only into the upper chest space instead of using the full capacity of the lungs.
“Life itself is defined by the act of respiration – it is the breath that connects us to ourselves”
Connecting with the breath in a yoga practice has a very real and positive effect on us physiologically. The breath is ruled by two nervous systems in the body – the sympathetic nervous system and the para-sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system rules the unconscious functioning of the body. It acts on organ and blood vessels to prepare us to react to stressful situations. These nerves arise mainly in the thoracic (chest) segments of the spinal cord. If we are breathing unconsciously from our chest, we are in flight-or- flight mode. Many of us live in this place hour to hour, day in and day out and it results in a feeling of being constantly stressed and uptight. Breathing is shallow and erratic and the mind unfocused and chaotic.
The para-sympathetic nervous system operates in quiet non-stressful situations and its activity dominates when we are sleeping. These nerves arise in the brain stem and lower spinal chord. This is the nervous system that is activated when we are conscious of our breathing during a yoga practice. Becoming conscious of our breathing and using the full capacity of the lungs, shifts our experience of life from being controlled by the fight-or –flight sympathetic nervous system to being controlled instead by the chilled out, relaxed parasympathetic nervous system. This is why we often feel “blissed out” and present after a yoga practice in which we are fully breath conscious. Biologically we are experiencing a different and far more pleasant reality. Becoming more breath aware results in a clearer brighter mind, increased self confidence and a sense of inner calm and poise even when faced with huge challenges.
Each individual yoga posture has been specifically designed with an important under-lying function or principle in mind on both a physical, breath awareness and energetic level. There is a huge difference between “doing” yoga and being “in a state of yoga”. A common misconception for many students is that the more complicated and advanced postures they are able “to do” the better they are at yoga. This could not be further from the truth. To be able to move in the most simple way – to be in the most basic yoga posture with a deep connection to the breath, an inner awareness and a quiet mind is truly the practice of yoga. This means that there is no place for competitiveness in the yoga classroom. As soon as we try to compete with others or ourselves we are allowing our attention to be drawn outwards rather than keeping the mind focused on our own journey of exploration and self discovery. This makes yoga a refreshing and liberating practice for those who are involved in competitive sport or careers where they are required to always be at the top of their game and also for students who are unable to take part in other sports or activities due to restrictions and challenges in their bodies.
“We have what we seek. It is there all the time, and if we give it time it will make itself known to us”
The process of purifying the body of waste matter and toxins is known as “tapas”. During the practice of yoga asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques), heat builds gradually as prana(energy) begins to move around the body. Over time, blockages and resistance in both the physical and subtle body begin to clear and the body rids itself of harmful toxins and waste products by putting pressure on the glandular systems of the body and stimulating the processes of digestion and elimination. This purification process facilitates the free flow of the two main energies prana and apana through out the entire body.
The effect of this shift or movement of energy has a direct effect on the qualities or fluctuations of the mind “citta vritti”. A regular yoga practice helps us to become more open to every possibility without judgement or condemnation, the mind becomes quiet, the thought process clear and a true sense of inner calm and peace prevails. We are given the opportunity to embark on our own personal “svadhyaya” (self-study) which leads us towards the realization that all the answers to life’s deepest questions and mysteries are supplied from deep within us. We become more acutely sensitive to foods and lifestyles that are not good for us and more aware of what is required to keep both the body and mind healthy and free.
“Without self- knowledge, we cannot go beyond the mind”
If the practice of yoga provided only physical benefits, it would fully justify its place in our lives. However, at its core, yoga is much more than a system of physical fitness. It is a science of balanced living, a path for realizing full human potential. In these tumultuous times, yoga provides an anchor to a quieter domain of life, enabling people living in a modern technological world to stay connected to their natural humanity. Yoga offers the promise of remaining centered in the midst of turbulence.
According to yoga philosophy, yoga is the system of gaining knowledge through direct experience. Students who commit to a regular yoga practice initially to enjoy the physical benefits, very quickly realise that these are positive side effects of what is ultimately an ever evolving life-changing experience on many levels. They learn to reconnect to personal power and a deeper sense of self. The emotional, psychological and spiritual changes are profound and provide a well of understanding and wisdom which students of yoga can draw from as they move through the challenges that each new day brings.
“From here, what you see you become”