By Justin Benson
In our Western society we are constantly being bombarded with being healthy, whether that is to be strong, thin, flexible, agile, faster, smarter or in any way better. However, though all these messages are constantly being thrown at us, we as a society are never really given a way to achieve this goal. Yes, we are offered different things from power drinks to keep us awake, drinks to make us lose weight, drinks to make us smarter, and more pills to fix any other growing problem. It is really at this point that it should be argued that these healthy things that our society wants from us are in no way impossible to achieve, but are rather simpler to fix than could have ever been imagined and that is why I am going to present the argument for “Yoga as the optimal health system for all”. I can hear some of the critics now, I am too young, old, inflexible or manly, too busy etc., but Yoga can deal with all these worries and anxieties and more. Yoga is no longer just an Eastern science, but a science that is now available to everyone from the young to the old; it offers meditation techniques to combat stress and high blood pressure, ways to stay physically fit and healthy, ways to stay mentally fit and able to face everyday challenges, and even rounds it off with the ultimate exercise which is a spiritual one. From everything mentioned above it is just as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali says, “From contentment one gains supreme happiness” (Patanjali 2: 42) which is what Yoga can offer us all.
The young are one area that the world should take time to slow down and truly examine. Our family units usually have both caregivers working which does not allow for as much time for moral and ethical instruction, and because of this the young are turning to television, movies and video games for answers, and unfortunately, they are oftentimes coming to the horrible conclusion that the world is not a beautiful place but one to fear which in turn breeds aggression and hatred. These fears have become so great that we are now seeing children on drugs rarely given to the young some 20 years ago ranging from anti-depressants to more severe mood altering drugs. However, this does not have to be the case, and that is why Yoga is a great thing to teach to the young. In Patanjali’s Yoga sutra he writes, “By abiding in nonviolence, one’s presence creates an atmosphere in which hostility ceases” (Patanjali 2:35). With this statement alone the doubters of Yoga should really stop and reflect on his words. The youth of this world would no longer fear because of the peacefulness which surrounds them and which is generated by them, and what’s more is that when people view these young students, especially those their own age they are going to stop and wonder what it is that is going on, and by doing so they will further advance the science which is Yoga; which will in turn continue to create a world with fewer fears, anxieties and hatreds that lead to the overmedicating problems of today.
Perhaps there are some that would argue that it is solely the young that suffer these anxieties and fears. But if that were true we wouldn’t have the news we have or the wars that are still ongoing, and not to mention on a smaller scale the fear of losing our job, being overworked, overtired, filled with worries and anxieties that range from the simple to the extreme whatever they may be. Yoga again can help with all of this as well, and the first thing it can help with is poor alignment. So many people today spend a lot of time in front of a computer, television or some other form of entertainment that causes the body to slouch, and by doing so the body develops poor balance, poor health, all of which can lead to weight problems. Yoga can help with these problems as well by correcting poor body alignment and stiffness while at the same time giving the practitioner the added bonus of expelling old air from the lungs and filling you with new air or prana (life energy).
As for the fears, anxieties and worries Yoga will help with these as well. No, it will not dispel them, but it will allow one to step back, breathe evenly and accept the problem while not becoming overwhelmed by it which causes the muscles to tighten and chronic ailments to set in because of stress.
Imagine at this point that you have been practicing Yoga since you were young (and I hope this trend takes off) and now find yourself in old age. Unlike what you expected to happen you now find yourself with a “proper curvature… to increase its flexibility by stretching the anterior and posterior longitudinal ligaments” (Swami Vishnu-devananda 55) because of Yoga. Yes, you are no longer the stereotypical old person who is hunched over; you, because of your long commitment to Yoga stand tall in old age- imagine it. What is even better than this is that Yoga has taught you how to breathe properly which in turn has led you to have fewer or no problems with illness which at one time would have been thought to be commonplace. Finally, if this were not enough, Yoga offers one of its greatest gems and that is the release from the fear of death, no Yoga cannot save you from death as great as Yoga may be, but it can offer something far greater, and that is through a stunning eye opener that allows the practitioner to understand the true meaning of the self which is the same as the universe which has no beginning or end.
Perhaps that last statement above was a lot to take in, so lets draw back down to a more worldly level which has to do with physical ailments. Our world, which as stated earlier, is moving at a speed that would make most of us get quite dizzy, and this dizziness as it were brings many ailments with it. Our society now faces an increase in high blood pressure both in the young and old, an increase in insomnia caused by excessive worries, nervous tensions that are being dealt with through drugs rather than eliminating the problem, an ever continuing of people smoking though most if not all people are aware of all the chemicals, diseases, and death that smoking causes, and of course links directly to the last ailment that is rising drastically which is asthma. This list of problems is just some of the things that Yoga can deal with and that is because of a thing Yogins call “prana” or life energy if you will. If people who suffered from any of the ailments above were to take up Yoga they would soon find a “renewal of the body cells, and that disease is unlikely to gain hold on a body whose every body cell is permeated with pranic energy” (James Hewitt 123). Due to the fact that Yoga teaches body alignment and proper breathing through pranayama, those who practice find themselves free from the fetters of worries and troubles and because of this not susceptible to the many if not all of the ailments listed above.
Linked to the physical ailments of course would be its opposite, physical well being to which Yoga is greatly concerned. First and foremost, as mentioned earlier Yoga teaches the practitioner to breathe properly, and maybe up to this point you thought you did, but the true way to breathe which most of us have forgotten is with a ratio of 1:2. This ratio for Yoga breathing Swami Vishnu-devananda explains is that by making the exhalation longer than the inhalation one “is to get maximum control over the lungs so that old foul air in the air sacs can be squeezed out” (Swami Vishnu-devananda 238).Furthermore James Hewitt argues that the Complete Yoga breath “vitalizes; removes phlegm; tones the nervous system; purifies and enriches the blood; improves appetite; aids digestion; broadens and strengthens the thorax; massages the abdominal organs; and makes consciousness lucid and alert” (91). With this type of breathing and exercise in place ones body is fit and able to withstand the ailments and pressures of society which of course leads us to our next examination which is one’s mental well being.
With the use of proper breathing as taught by Yoga, one now has the capabilities to withstand the tensions which are placed on the mind by constant or unnecessary worries and anxieties which only lead to physical tension as mentioned earlier. Once a person has been trained in Yoga which will lead one to breathe better, a practitioner will soon find themselves able to slowly become calm by controlling the breath in stressful situations which will it turn make one be, “able to feel a kind of floating sensation, as if one were as light as a feather (which allows for one to feel) peace and joy” (Swami Vishnu-devananda 203).
Since we are now physically well and mentally well, that only leaves us now to become spiritually well as it were. As mentioned earlier death happens to us all, and even the notion of it scares most people so much that we find our culture saying things like “if I die” and “I don’t want to die” in both statements there is a certain error as it were; first of all it is not a question of “if” and secondly you do not have a choice. Perhaps this sounds a bit harsh but in fact what must be pointed out is a very interesting argument from a Yoga standpoint and that is that “man has become prey to all evil emotions of the mind by identifying himself with the body and mind, and the only sure way to free himself from its clutches is by asserting his real nature, that is, ‘I am pure consciousness or self’. This identification with the self completes the process of relaxation” (Swami Vishnu-devanada 203). How could a person at this point not find perfect peace as stated by Vishnu-devananda, for if you can accept his argument then you come to realize that you are immortal, that death is nothing to be feared but the wearing away of the body, and that whatever higher power you acknowledge, you are it.
Yoga, as argued is the best and optimal health system for all and is exactly as Patanjali put forward so long ago, “ Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life” (2:47).
Justin Benson is a certified Yoga teacher. He teaches Yoga classes in the Lewisporte, Newfoundland area.