Benefits of Yoga
Once an obscure Eastern practice, yoga is now well
integrated into our culture. Tens of millions have had at least
one personal experience with it.
A Sanskrit term, “yoga” can be translated
to mean many things, including a yoking, an art form, fitness, meditation,
and contemplation. The most widely accepted translation for our
purpose, however, is "union.” Here, it refers to a “union
of mind and body" that practising yoga can cultivate.
Originating in ancient India perhaps as much as 6000
years ago, it was developed over many generations by spiritual seekers
who would sit and meditate for many hours at a time. These spiritual
pilgrims needed a means of keeping their bodies strong, healthy,
and flexible for their endeavours and through centuries of experimentation
and practice, what emerged were the physical movements and postures
most often associated with yoga: the asanas.
The practice of asanas continued to develop over
the ages and this is no less so today. Yoga caught on in the West
during the 50's, accelerated in popularity in the 60's, and enjoys
an explosive popularity today. It has also been estimated that there
are more yoga practitioners in California alone than in all of Mother
India. With this growth came the development of the many forms of
physical yoga being taught in studios around the world.
So, to what does
yoga owe its great appeal ? In its fullness, yoga can be
a primary means to mental, physical, and spiritual development and
well-being. At this level of practice, the asanas are only a part
of a more comprehensive set of meditative, personal, and social
practices that form a highly tuned prescription for the good life.
For most who might venture to try yoga, however, their interest
is not likely to press beyond the physical asanas, and perhaps meditation.
The benefits of meditation is discussed in a separate article, so
from here I’ll highlight some of the benefits of the asanas
Yoga is one of the finest and most effective means
of inducing relaxation. Mental and physical tension flow hand in
hand: a tense body leads to a tense mind and vice versa. Conversely,
a relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind. The gentle stretching of
yoga releases physical tension. When practised with a soft mental
focus on the pleasurable sensations generated and with non-attachment
to the drift of thoughts, yoga can induce a state of deep, harmonic
relaxation that can last for many hours beyond the practice. Further,
a heightened awareness of body tension is part of the “physical
intelligence” that results from regular yoga practice. With
this greater awareness come the ability to detect and respond to
tension early, thereby enabling the practitioner to prevent tension
build-up. This is stress management at its finest.
2. Personal Development:
The practice of yoga tunes your awareness inward
and allows greater sensitivity to thought, feeling, and intuition.
At the same time, it promotes a gentle detachment from each of these,
enabling them to be experienced in the purest form. In many traditions,
such ability is the cornerstone of enlightenment and personal development.
With continued practice, this can lead to greater inner intelligence
3. Physical Wellness:
Perhaps most controversial because it often appears
to conflict with Western medicine, many yogis and yoginis assert
that the varied asanas have healing effects on the diseases of the
body. The explanations for yoga’s healing properties often
refer to renewing the flow of energies through the body and the
stimulation of the glands, and organs.
Though such explanations tend to raise the eye-brows
of Western thinkers, the fact that yoga is perhaps the most ancient
healing and wellness practice known, that it has flourished for
millennia, would argue for an open mind. In the least, it seems
unlikely that combining Yoga with Western medicine in the treatment
of disease would result in harm.
Flexibility is a function of the ability of muscle
groups to lengthen. With injury and age there is a tendency for
flexibility to decrease, leading to stiffness, loss of mobility
and agility, and a greater proneness to injury. Picture in your
mind, if you will, the litheness of a typical 22 year old with the
stiffness of a typical 72 year old. It’s a stark comparison
to make. The good news is that this is not inevitable: much of this
crippling its is due to the sedentary nature of modern living. To
compensate for the elimination of natures way of keeping us strong
and flexible throughout our years (i.e., the need to frequently
use our bodies rigorously for survival), special efforts can be
made to give the body the mechanical nourishment it requires. Yoga
has stood the test of time as a means for this.
Changes in the stretchability of the connective tissue, or fascia,
in and around our muscles account for most of the changes we see
in our flexibility with disuse, injury, and age. The muscle tissues
themselves tend to retain their stretchability while tendons and
ligaments should not be stretched. Regular stretching is the only
known means of retarding and reversing this leathering process.
sort of stretching is best? Research and practice indicate
that a gentle but firm stretching for 90 to 120 seconds results
in enduring changes in the pliability of connective tissue and hence
our flexibility. Yoga is the most effective, comprehensive system
of stretching the whole body known. Do note, however, that the more
vigorous forms of yoga practised in urban studios these days are
popular because of their aerobic and strength building qualities.
These forms can increase one’s flexibility, but the slower,
gentler yoga forms that focus on holding the asanas for a time will
be more effective.
In summary, yoga is an ancient path
to greater wellness that has stood the test of time, and can be a core ingredient to an integral lifestyle. It’s
benefits have just been touched on above and it is the form of exercise
that I most often recommend to clients and patients. It is important
to realize that yoga is about doing. Like brushing your teeth, most
of the benefits come from doing yoga on a regular basis, even for
short periods. If you brush your teeth once a day, why would you
not take the time to do something each day that will take care of
the rest of your body? If you’d like to learn more about yoga
and it’s benefits, check out the Yoga
Journal Online. Happy stretching!
Stephen Renfrey, Ph.D
Words of Wisdom:
“You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire, so is your will. As your will, so is your deed. As your deed, so is your destiny.”
-Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.5