The True Meaning of Yoga

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Yoga provides exercises and experiences that allow you to experience life more fully and vitally. This means that the breathing exercises, stretches, calisthenics, abdominals, standing poses, back-bend, inversion, spinal twists, and hip-openers that you do during a yoga class are pretty useless by themselves. The idea is that they free you up inside to be present to everyday life and can therefore appreciate everything a little bit more and make you healthier to enjoy them. I think this is why looking at pictures of people doing yoga can feel so hollow, there is so much going on in that simple picture and you can’t really see the after effects of what the yoga is doing.

A human being performing an asana, or a positive postural alignment of their body is an incredible thing, if simply because the human being is alive and functioning in the compromised position, especially if they are doing ujjayi breathing. When you start to combine muscular stretches and skeletal alignments to focused the consciousness of that human in asana, postures can assist their body in realigning, strengthening, increasing flexibility and endurance. Yoga does this by innervating muscles that may not normally be flexed or contracted and distributing weight evenly among muscle groups while inversions provide your circulatory system with some much-needed filtration and release from gravity’s constant pressure. Yoga can help your body to recover from intense exercise and to stay young by keeping the fluid systems functioning properly.

Yoga is much more than an ancient Indian philosophy because it has evolved alongside American culture in today’s world, even if it is very romanticized in much of the western world’s culture of yoga studios, classes, teachers, etc. It is a part of the West’s culture now in a way that people really do appreciate and take advantage of in a good way. It is also a part of Hinduism and may be very old in India.

From science we have learned that the biggest benefits of yoga are usually the stress releases. Yoga is a powerful tool for mental and physical sensitivity, meaning that it gives you a good idea of how functional parts of your body are and how much endurance you have. It is especially useful in aligning nerves, which is why lots of people with sciatica find relief in yoga. We are just beginning to explore the effects of exercises such as headstand, shoulderstand, back-bends like camel pose, reclined hero pose, wheel pose, bow pose are all extremely powerful postures that science still has a lot to learn about. But it seems to have huge effects on nearly every system in the body because of the controlled levels of stress input and release and overall stimulation and fitness of the body’s muscular systems.

Yoga becomes an aspect of appreciating life. Sometimes yoga may come and go and I really think everyone experiences a little of this from time to time and that it isn’t a big deal. Sometimes life is just good and we are very happy and yoga can be in the background for a while, especially if everything is really good. But yoga is something that doesn’t really leave you. When you stand up straight, when you stretch your back while standing in line, the yoga is still a part of how you do things if you internalize it. The #yogaeverydamnday hashtag is kind of funny because I don’t think anyone does yoga 365 times a year. Even Ashtangis are supposed take the full moon of every month off.

Yoga doesn’t have to be something very formal, we don’t even really know much about the origins of what we practice now. Its not super religious, or ultra sacred, or anything more than what you want to make of it. You can practice in small quantities by yourself at home to really get things moving for your body in terms of flexibility and mobility. Teachers are good for more advanced things like inversions, breathing exercises, or advanced arm balances and advising you on how to advance in your practice. But its also something you can learn on your own and that can provide stability or whatever you may need it to be.

3 reasons why you should start practicing yoga

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Yoga has changed western lifestyles for a reason. It is a powerful healing and rejuvenation system that cleanses the nervous system, cardiovascular and circulatory systems, the respiratory system, and the digestive system of the human body. With new techniques of Yin yoga, originally brought to the West by Paul Grilley, the development of the Ashtanga series by Patthabi Jois brought to the West by David West, and the spread of yoga through systems created by modern-day teachers like Bikram and Baptiste in the Americas, yoga has become a powerful tool for mastering the body and mind. The West has gotten some potent and powerful exposure to the healing art that originated in India, but we are in the infancy of using yogic techniques to target and heal different parts of the body.

I once heard yoga described as the most advanced form of physical rehabilitation. I like that. Yoga takes the body beyond its current limits by enhancing neurological, muscular-skeletal, and circulatory efficiency. Essentially, yoga heals disruptions and stagnation in the circulation of the bodily systems through alignment. This creates more efficient pathways for  the body to recycle energy and to operate at full efficiency, especially the muscular-skeletal system.

Most yogic theoreticians would tell you that a large amount of the benefits of yoga actually come from the alignment of the respiratory system with the rest of the body; in the vast majority of studies breathing effects are shown to have profound effects upon the mind and body, in many cases even greater effects that the practice of asana by itself. However, all of the studies I have read included a ‘light’ form of yoga; as far as I know there hasn’t been an incredible amount of research on the primary series of Ashtanga and how the more advanced yoga postures effect the nervous system, or the true benefits of a rigorous yoga practice.

All yogis and yoginis will admit to the tremendous mental benefits of yoga: clarity, focus, calm, patience, rejuvenation, energy; Brian Kest is famous for describing the tremendous release of endorphins that yoga causes as a yoga ‘high’. It gets you kind of stoned. But with more clarity and focus. So if you like feeling good, yoga is probably for you. Think of being able to dive into the deepest muscles of your body and release tension after a long race; to be able to slow your breathing and take time to calm yourself after an intense discussion with a significant other; or just being calmer and less reactive during the course of your day. Reducing anxiety, stress, and depression are just a few of the clinically proven mental benefits of yoga; on top of that you can add more efficient sleep cycles, and major improvements in osteoporosis and arthritis. But those aren’t even the most beneficial reasons why you should start a yoga practice. Here are my top 3 reasons why everyone should practice yoga.

Reason #1 why you should start yoga now: Cardiovascular Benefits

Guess what the top killer in North America is? Heart disease. Stress. Yoga continues to be proven to contribute to a healthy heart and cardiovascular system and we are learning more as the studies surrounding the science become more and more regimented.

Reason #2: Respiratory benefits

Have you ever had a hard time breathing? Breathing is something that I don’t think the majority of people think about on a daily basis, but they should. Breathing affects both the heart and the mind in very integral ways: the heart is encased by the lungs and can absolutely contribute to accelerating or decelerating your heart rate (listen to the breath of someone in a panic attack, or after large dosages of stress; their breathing tends to be more shallow). Scientists also say that lifespan tends to be measured in terms of breaths rather than heartbeats or time. This is not new information, in Science News in 1981 you can find this quote on page 74:

Findings resulting from a 5,200 clinical study group observed over a 30 year span showed that pulmonary function measurement is an indicator of general health and vigor and literally the primary measure of potential life span.”

I’m not sure if you know, but Science News is kind of big deal. Breathing also has enormous unexplored and unproven mental benefits; the peace, appreciation, and tranquility that a yoga practice can bring to your life are nothing short of miraculous.

Reason #3: Mental Benefits

This is the final reason to practice yoga, and probably the most important. Internal peace can change the world, creating non-reactivity allows cycles of anger, violence, discrimination, and intolerance to end. Even in your own life, turning down the volume of stressful situations will help you to live longer.

Many people consider the brain to be the regulator of the body and this is absolutely the case; the entire body is mapped to different areas of the brain and all proprioceptive information flows through the spinal cord (which yoga also focuses on and is also intricately linked to breathing). Many scientists are uncovering that the origins of the vast majority of disease, some estimate as high as 95%, originate in the mind. By disciplining the body, the mind unveils itself and lends itself to be forged by meditation. The body creates consciousness (the brain is a part of the body) and the mind is not necessarily limited to the brain so tempering the body through breath leads to freedom from fluctuations in the mind (high and lows). With yoga, you can obtain a constant bliss, that bring awareness and appreciation to even the hard and crappy parts of life. But you can also do all of that without yoga, but it’s probably quite a bit harder.

When you consider the increased length of time for high-focus activity, freedom from distraction, calmness in the midst of high pressure situations, most high performance athletes and thinkers should consider and intensely personalized yoga practice. The benefits seem to be unending.

I’ve never participated in anything so physically and mentally challenging. Yoga will take you to places inside that don’t exist outside of your consciousness. It places you closer to your humanity and gives a holistic perspective of the world, society, and subjective consciousness’ place in the universe.  Give it a chance, you won’t regret it.