Yoga is a complete system for improving the health of the body and the mind. Although many people begin to practice yoga for its physical benefits, they immediately begin to learn that yoga is much more than an exercise program. Yoga offers psychological benefits through the practice of the asanas and also through meditation, which may be part of all Yoga classes. Ultimately, Yoga moves beyond physical and mental health to include spiritual improvement and well-being. Yoga is so rich and complex that it is more correctly referred to as a way of life – a very healthy way of life.
On the physical side, yoga asanas are a gentle form of exercise that allows the gradual stretching of muscles: forward bends, back bends, twists and inversions from seated, standing and prone positions. The body itself provides resistance, so there is no need for additional equipment like the weights used in other exercise programs. Unlike the violent muscle movements advocated in other physical exercise programs, Yoga is non-violent and moderately paced. Bodies toned by yoga exercise are strong without overdeveloped muscles. They are supple from stretching in every direction.
Each of the asanas benefits one or more of the body’s systems: respiration, circulation, alimentation or elimination. As one performs the various asanas, circulation increases. Blood flows more freely throughout the entire body and circulatory problems may begin to correct themselves. If a practitioner has certain health issues, they can be addressed through the choice of asanas that are known to benefit that condition. For example, a number of asanas such as Knees to the Chest, Plough Posture (Halasana) and Child Posture aid digestion and help to correct constipation.
Yoga asanas can be done at any level from the most basic to the most advanced. As coordination and mobility increase and muscles become more flexible and supple, the practitioner can perform more difficult asanas. A number of asanas can be seen as a series of poses that move from less challenging to more challenging. For example, in Tree Pose (Vrksasana) at the easiest level, the hands are held in prayer position. Next, the hands are held over the head. Then Tree may become Toppling Tree as the practitioner becomes more stable moving about while balancing on one leg. From Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana), one may drop one’s legs into Plough Position and move through several variations of Plough before returning to Shoulder Stand. Head Stand (Sirsasana) may be done with vertical legs, spread legs, horizontal legs, folded legs, legs in Lotus Position, and body twists.
Many of the most difficult asanas are beyond the ability of those who have practiced for many years. The challenge never disappears. Although Yoga may prove endlessly challenging for the fit, it is also infinitely adaptable. Yoga can be adapted for practice with children, pregnant women and the aged. Yoga asanas may be adapted for people who have limited mobility, for example, people who are grossly overweight. They may begin a Yoga practice sitting in a chair. They may be able to do only the arm movements of the postures to begin with. They may use the chair to assist them with their balance in standing asanas. They may not be able to get up from being seated on the floor, but with aid of a chair to prop their legs on, they may be able to approximate some seated asanas. The success they achieve with these modified postures may inspire them to do more and eventually begin to tackle their most significant health issues. From children through adults, from pregnant women to those have impaired mobility to the aged, everyone benefits from the physical exercises including breath control. Yoga – like health – is a lifelong pursuit.
Breathing deeply and fully is one of the most basic elements of good health. Unfortunately, because breathing is accomplished automatically, unless people begin to practice yoga or meditation, they often remain unaware of how they breathe. The study of pranayama in yoga is critical to maintaining good health. Yoga increases our awareness of how we breathe. Once we become aware of how we breathe, we can begin to breathe consciously, aware of each inhale, each exhale and the pauses in between inhaling and exhaling. Yogis have determined that there is an ideal ratio for the phases of breathing. Exhalation should take twice as long as inhalation and the pause between inhalation and exhalation should be four times as long as inhalation. Thus the ideal ratio is 1:4:2. One is not expected to achieve this ratio instantly. As one begins to work with the breath, one can use a ratio of 1:2 for inhalation and retention, then move to 1:4. With exhalation the ratio can be 1:4:4 until one can manage 1:4:2. This way of breathing is far from the way we ordinarily breathe. It requires practice to fully breathe into the diaphragm, as most of us normally breathe into only the upper part of our lungs. We tend to ignore our diaphragms. Learning to breathe in Yoga is learning to breathe for the first time.
As people age and become less active, their breathing tends to become more and more shallow. If they do not exert themselves from time to time so that they have a reason to breathe deeply, their lungs are never fully inflated. The unused areas of the lungs become susceptible to disease and infections such as pneumonia. However, practitioners of yoga learn to breathe into the deepest parts of their lungs and keep oxygen flowing throughout the entire respiratory system.
Pranayama may be performed as a separate practice, or pranayama exercises may be included in a Yoga class. Additional pranayama exercises include breathing through one nostril, breathing in alternate nostrils, and breathing through alternate nostrils and retaining breath. After one does pranayama exercises, even though one returns to normal breathing, the element of increased awareness remains. If people can maintain healthy breathing habits, they can live fuller lives for a longer time.
Yoga advocates a healthy diet: fruit, nuts, grains, vegetables, pulses and milk products including butter, yogurt and cheese. The yoga diet does not include meat, poultry, fish, eggs or alcohol. According to Yoga, there are three categories of food. The food that Yogis consume is called Sattvic, or pure food. The category of food that contains meat, poultry, fish and eggs is called Rajasic. This category also contains spicy food and strong-flavored food. The third category of food is called Tamasic. This category includes foods that are rotten or overripe. This category is considered the worst category of food for people to consume. Unfortunately, for meat to become tender, it is often allowed to age, which is synonymous with beginning to rot. Eating meat in this case is not only Rajasic, it is Tamasic food.
If Yoga practitioners cannot become complete vegetarians, at least they can consciously limit the amount of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and alcohol they consume to a modest amount. Or they may consume small amounts of eggs and fresh fish and forego aged red meat. There are many possible compromises. Again, consciousness of our diet, like consciousness of breathing, enables us to control that aspect of our lives. Even in their diet Yoga practitioners are non-violent.Yoga practitioners are vegetarian because they believe it is a healthier diet and also because they abhor the violence of killing animals for food.
Because of their diet and breathing and exercise, yoga practitioners begin to appear differently. Their bodies respond to the physical demands of asanas, becoming thinner and more flexible. As they breathe deeply, they more fully oxygenate the blood that flows throughout their bodies and their skin looks healthier. Then physical changes connect to mental changes. The slow, thoughtful movements of yoga asanas promote a calming of the spirit. As our bodies adopt the rhythm of vinyasa – asana flow – and focus on pranayama – breathing – our minds become more centered. Calm, centered minds are better able to deal with the elements of stress we encounter in our daily lives.
The physical practice of Hatha Yoga leads naturally to the practice of Raja Yoga: meditation. A part of each yoga class can be devoted to meditation, either guided or unguided. As pranayama increases awareness of what is going on in our lungs, meditation increases awareness of what is going on in our minds. As we become aware of the incessant, unconnected thoughts streaming through our minds – the “monkey chatter” – we can learn to release those thoughts and, as a result, release our minds from the stress those thoughts cause.
When we practice Yoga meditation, we sit comfortably on the ground, legs crossed in a position we can maintain for the duration of the meditation. For some people this is the Easy Position, for others it may be Lotus (Padmasana) position. Those who are uncomfortable crossing their legs may sit with their legs folded underneath them in Thunderbolt position. Those who cannot sit on the ground can sit in a straight-backed chair with their feet flat on the ground. The important thing is to ground oneself – preferably in actual contact with the ground. The spine should be straight to allow energy to flow up and down unimpeded.
Yoga meditation requires concentration (Dharana), which may be on a point which one sees with one’s eyes, such as a candle flame or flower blossom in Trataka; on an audible sounds or series of sounds, as in Mantra meditation; or on a visual form such as a mandala in Yantra meditation. While we concentrate in meditation, our feelings of stress are suspended.
Some doctors believe that all physical illness arises from stress. According to Dr. Ben Johnson, “We’ve got a thousand different diagnoses and diseases out there. They’re just the weak link. They’re all the result of one thing: stress. If you put enough stress on the chain and you put enough stress on the system, then one of the links breaks.” As we relieve stress through meditation, we not only improve our mental health, we increase our potential for physical health. Yoga teaches us that our mental and physical systems are intrinsically linked: they are one.
The ultimate goal of yoga is to allow the practitioner to become one with God, Atman, Higher Consciousness, The Force. In that sense, physical and mental health are only by-products of the journey – but what valuable by-products they are!
Barbara J. Euser is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in Lakonia, Greece.