The following notes are intended as help for Yoga teacher interns who seek to review and research all they learn in their level 1 texts.
Traditionally in the Western world health was viewed as the absence of disease, a definition which arose primarily from the Cartesian philosophy of man as a machine. However, in more recent years additional subtleties have been introduced into the definitions of health and disease, which has led to the recognition of the limitations of defining good health as merely the absence of disease.
Health was based in a broader context with the 1946 WHO definition which states that “Health is a state of complete physical, psychological and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This definition acknowledges that there may be multiple factors influencing health.
While the Western concept of health has expanded to include a broader spectrum of influencing factors, the Eastern view of health has traditionally included the subtler influencing factors on health. This is highlighted by the medical systems of countries such as China and India, where all elements of the person’s lifestyle, physical and energetic health are included in the diagnosis of disease and disharmony.
How does the practice of Yoga, which has been defined as the union of Brahman and Atman, the realisation of a non-dual existence and self realisation beyond the ego, affect health as defined above?
Even in the more restrictive Western concept of health, a strong relationship is recognised between Yoga and good health. There is an acknowledged beneficial effect on both the body and mind of the practitioner. On the most basic level, the physical practice of yoga – yoga asana, is world recognised as a therapeutic method for helping to maintain physical wellbeing. By ensuring that the whole body is stretched and exercised, blood-flow to all the organs, the skeleton, muscles and tissues of the body is increased hence ensuring all the cells have sufficient oxygen and nutrients to maintain optimum health. A well-balanced and fully rounded asana practice will also benefit a person’s posture and increase the body’s suppleness by ensuring that loose muscles are toned, and areas that carry habitual tightness and tension are gently encouraged to release and lengthen. Indeed many people are attracted to yoga simply to reap the physical benefits of the practice.
But the practice of Yoga differs greatly from general exercise, which can also benefit the body in the ways outlined above. There is a crucial difference in both the type and intention of movement between Yoga asana and general exercise.