What is Yoga?
Most people understand yoga as physical exercises comprising bodily twists, bends, stretches and topsy-turvy poses, all together called asana.
Although asana is an important part of yoga, it defines yoga only in a very general sense, and not in the complete sense.
In fact, yoga is a way of life, a culture to live and live happily.
"Yoga is the ultimate tool for evolution. It heals the body, and transforms it, and integrates the mind-body-soul factor. It does not just mean asana. It begins in thought, ideology and philosophy and goes into the physical form. It starts at the subtle, and ends at the gross, making it superior to any other discipline," says holistic health guru, Mickey Mehta.
Yoga is one among the six ancient philosophical schools of thought in India, the other five being Vedanta, Sankhya, Nyaya, Mimansa, and Vaisheshika. It is a fully developed science based on the deep inner study of human body and intense self-experiments and practices of our ancient Rishis.
Our body is nature’s marvel, a master design having highly complex machinery with sophisticated monitoring, control and safe guarding systems.
The Rishis in their deep meditation understood the intricate physical, physiological, and the psychological systems of the human body. They devised various yogic disciplines like asana, pranayama, relaxation, meditation and other techniques for enhancing the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well being of mankind as a whole. These techniques, highly scientific, very practical and effective, originated in India many centuries ago, some how got dropped along the way, but now again are becoming popular all over the world as proven methods of holistic health management.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root "Yuj" which means to unite, to merge, to add, and to integrate. In one context, it is unity of man with God, communion with the Universal Spirit.
It is uniting people of different cultures, nationalities, and religions together in universal brotherhood.
It is unity in diversity. Yoga represents integration of all positive life forces.
It is the integration of body, mind and spirit to live a healthy, prosperous, happy and peaceful life.
In another context, yoga has been described as harmony, balance and wisdom in work or skillful living amongst hectic activities.
Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as the skill in work.
Yoga represents moderation, a balanced approach, or a middle way, avoiding extremes. These extremes may be in eating, sleeping, working, drinking, emotional reactions, and overindulgence in other sensory enjoyments. Yoga teaches us how to discriminate these extremes, moderate them, and follow a middle path.
"Yoga is not possible for him, who eats too much; or for him, who does not eat at all; or for him, who sleeps too much; or for him, who is always awake.
Yoga becomes the destroyer of pain for him who is moderate in eating and recreation; who is moderate in exertion in actions; who is moderate in sleep and wakefulness," says Bhagavad-Gita.
"Yoga is not a physical, mental or psychic feat. It is life itself; not the kind of restless life swinging constantly between the two extremes of exhilaration and depression, indulgence and denial, sensuousness and asceticism, but the harmonious flow of the divine will along the wise middle path â?¦.In gluttony there is pain, as also in abstention. Pleasure is invariably followed by pain. Vanity is accompanied by fear or injured pride. The yogi who pursues the middle path is blissfully free from all these," says Swami Venkatesananda.
Since yoga developed in India, it got associated with Hinduism and its philosophy.
However, if you see with an open mind, you will find that yoga is independent of any religious doctrines or dogmas. It never accepted any specific religious, social or political belief system.
It is essentially a science of personal growth, and any person irrespective of his color, creed, sex or religion can practice it.
Yoga does not discriminate any person or belief. It is a way of life, and it’s not at all contradictory to what your faith holds for you. On the contrary, yoga may help to strengthen your own belief.
Scientific development, during the last few decades has drastically changed the entire spectrum of our life.
Thanks to consumer technology, we have every gadget in the home to make our life comfortable. We live in luxury, air-conditioned skyscrapers from where a car on the ground looks like a tiny toy. Our sleek, luxury cars run at more than 100 kilometers an hour, and supersonic jets take us nonstop from one corner of the world to the other, in less than 15 hours. Cell phones have changed the way we communicate. We do business, and chat with friends on Internet at the other corner of the world. Man has conquered space, landed on the moon, and the day is not far off when he will set his feet on other planets. Everyday new discoveries in medical sciences take place, and numerous wonder drugs are advertised that promise to prolong life, and make it more comfortable.
All this and much more that we have today is wonderful indeed. But are we happy? No.
On the contrary, we are the unhappiest lot, in spite of having everything at our disposal. Obsessed with a culture based on consumerism, comfort and convenience, we are running a rat race to acquire ever more things, forgetting the basic purpose of life, which is to seek everlasting happiness.
To cope up with modern living, we have to be more informed, knowledgeable, fast, competitive, aggressive, challenging and resourceful. In the process, day by day our life is getting more and more distressed, restless and devoid of pleasure, peace and happiness.
Civilized we may be, but we are not happy.
The greed for more and more has made us selfish, hardened our hearts, and corrupted our morality. We need pills to go to sleep, laxatives to move our bowels, and tranquillizers to make life bearable. But we are living!
Life is not just living, but living in joy, living happily.
What should we do to attain that peace and happiness, which is the core desire of everyone? Damn our progress – tear our books, put our scientists in jail, burn our factories, and go back to jungles and caves, from where we started? No. It is impossible, even not desirable.
Before we find ways to attain happiness, we must understand what happiness is?
Happiness is a state of being in perfect harmony of body, mind and spirit, called holistic health.
Holistic health is a combination of 3 Hs – Hands, Head and Heart. The hands refer to the physical or the bodily health; head, the mental health; and the heart, refers to the spiritual health.
Yoga, undoubtedly, is the most practical, effective, and appropriate discipline, which can guarantee us this holistic health and happiness, amid all the turmoil of modern life. No other discipline of exercise, philosophy, medicine or health-care can achieve that.
Yoga keeps us healthy and happy in a number of ways:
Â· It lowers high blood pressure, and raises the same if it is low.
Â· Yoga takes care of obesity, diabetes, arthritis, kidney disorders, sexual dysfunction, asthma, common cough and cold, and several other serious ailments.
Â· Yoga can relieve you from stress, anxiety and insomnia.
Â· Yoga increases our awareness. It is important to be aware of how we sit on a chair or floor, how we sleep, how we get up from the bed, how we walk, how we carry a bag or briefcase, how we talk and behave. Yoga makes us aware of what we should eat and what not.
Â· With yoga, our mind becomes more alert and clear. We will have more physical, mental and spiritual energy.
Â· Our inter-personal relationships, dealings with people will improve.
Â· Our perspective of life changes, we begin to look at problems differently, and every thing does not seem a big issue, even if it is.
Â· We become calmer, regardless of circumstances.
Â· Yoga sharpens our inner faculties so that we can discriminate what is right for us, and what is not.
Â· With yoga, we learn discipline, our life transforms, and we start getting the joy of living.
Yoga is not only twisting or bending different limbs here and there, as many people may think. It is a fully developed science of happy and long living that is based on deep inner study of human body, intense self-experiments, and practices of ancient Indian rishis.
Unlike other exercise regimes – cycling, swimming, gymnastics, athletics, jogging and others, yoga works not only on our skeletal muscles or bones, but goes deep into our glands, nerves and nadis.
The stretches, twists and bends of bodily postures, asanas; muscular locks, bandhas; attitudinal gestures, mudras; controlled breathing, pranayama; relaxation; and meditation greatly influence the various systems of our body. These yogic practices give us strength, vigor, stamina, flexibility, positive thoughts, and emotions that make our life happy and peaceful.
These are not mere tall claims and empty promises of what yoga can do for us. We can reap the numerous benefits of yoga with regular practice and faith.
Let us learn through yoga, how to reap these benefits. A caution here! Mere reading of theory and philosophy on yoga does not help. We need to practice it regularly. In the words of Swami Sivananda, the founder of Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, India, `an ounce of practice is better than a ton of theory’.
Proper yoga practice is a mirror of life itself, you can get out of it, what you put into it.
Yoga practiced sincerely and regularly becomes a way of life, not just a practice.
"At this stage, there is identification with and expression of nature, which is balanced, positive and optimistic, and one attains physical health, mental health and spiritual wealth," says swami Niranjananada, head of Bihar School of Yoga.
Most books on yoga that we have come across can be grouped into two categories. One category of books is too technical and overloaded with details of traditional yoga. They contain abstract philosophy, not well understood by a common aspirant, and prescribe practices which are too difficult, even frightening for beginners to try.
In the other category, either the books are too elementary, without any explanations and benefits of the practices prescribed, or they deal with only very limited aspects of yoga.
Most people today are educated, and do not easily accept as gospel truth, the various claims made for traditional yoga by our ancient rishis. They demand rational and scientific explanation of things put before them. In this book (Effective Yoga for Health and Happiness â?? Macmillan Publishers â?? cost Rs 245/-), we have tried to explain the various yoga techniques in a manner that would satisfy the reader’s scientific and reasoning mind, and motivate him to adopt yoga as a way of life.
The second, we want to dispel a common misconception among peoples’ minds that yoga is only for sadhus and spiritual seekers or recluses, who have lost interest in the materialistic world.
In fact, Yoga is no less important for householders, executives, businessmen, professionals, students and others who need it even more to live in peace and happiness, and still maintain the kind of speed required by the present day turbulent world.
We hope the readers will find the book handy and useful. You may find reflections of my engineering background at some places in the book, especially when it comes to working with our body.
Some understanding of human body is helpful to enjoy the full benefits of yoga. Our body is a marvelous gift of God, and we can only wonder to see the precision and perfection with which He designed and engineered it.
Human brain, the most powerful computer ever made; our heart, a highly sophisticated pump that never tires; our kidneys, the micro-filters that purify the blood; and our nerves like fiber-optic cables, carrying various signals to and from the brain, are just a few master pieces of His design.
I always fancy in striking similarities between engineering and medical sciences while studying anatomy and physiology of various organs and systems of the body. I wonder whether God used his unlimited faculties of engineering, or medical sciences to create our body. Probably, He used commonsense which is the basis of all the sciences.
And we too, need commonsense to understand how to maintain our body in the way He made it. This commonsense or awareness is the essence of all yoga.
Goals of Yoga?
Though the ultimate aim of yoga is to provide spiritual enlightenment to mankind, so that he can obtain moksha – freedom or liberation from ignorance, from the cycles of births and deaths, it offers many opportunities in the form of smaller goals, and milestones to those who may not be interested in the spiritual path.
The various techniques of yoga are helpful in realizing a variety of goals. What is your goal? What do you want from yoga?
Â· An immediate goal for someone could be getting cured of any serious ailment(s) – he may be suffering from.
Â· Many others may be looking for physical health and fitness.
Â· Increasing one’s energy level and efficiency at work, may be the objective for some.
Â· Your objective may be to improve inter-personal relationships, or getting rid of your negative emotions that make you unpopular in the office, home or society.
Â· Someone, tired of hustle and bustle of life may be looking for relaxation of body and mind.
Â· You may be fed up with materialistic world, and may like to lead a peaceful and tranquil retired life.
Further, your objective may not remain same over time.
You may have different goals as you grow in age or maturity. I remember when I started practicing yoga 20 years ago, my objective was to get relief from the chronic backache, which was troubling me a lot and affecting my professional career. At that time physical fitness was my primary concern, and any talk of meditation and spirituality etc. looked absurd. But over the period of time, my outlook to life has changed. Now spirituality and other higher level yogic practices look very relevant and interesting. Yoga, if practiced regularly and sincerely, can fulfill any goal that you may have.
Your Approach To Yoga
In the present materialistic world, very few people have spiritual end in view.
For most, maintaining health and well being in the increasingly stressful environment is the primary objective. Verily, every one may usefully practice yoga to achieve this objective.
Yoga, when practiced as a science of health and healing, should have the following three components to get maximum benefits:
Â· Hatha Yoga: Hatha yoga consists of practices of asana, pranayama and relaxation. These practices make the physical body strong, agile, flexible and relaxed. They increase self-awareness of any disharmonies and imbalances in the body. The increased awareness helps us overcome these imbalances through attention to correct postures, breathing, and relaxation while going about our daily activities. We become more faithful to our body, our best friend.
Â· Diet and Life-style: This concerns with the regulation of diet and daily habits of sleep, recreation, and work etc. To some extent, one becomes aware of the need for such changes automatically after practicing Hatha yoga for a couple of months.
Â· Meditation: Meditation or dhyana makes the mind calm, and improves our mental faculties – thoughts, emotions, and memory etc. Harmony and balance is restored in the various psycho-physiological functions of the body. This brings in a feeling of love, compassion, friendship, sharing, and other positive changes in our attitude and behavior.
Beginners often confine yoga to an hour’s practice of asana and prayanama generally done in the morning, and forget its relevance for the rest of the day. But as we continue our regular practice for a few months, our awareness about the environment, and ourselves increases, and we learn to apply the skills learnt from yogic practices throughout the day. Then yoga becomes a way of life, not a mere practice. If you undertake yoga in this spirit, you will find that yoga not only gives you relief from your problems, but also opens up new ways of enjoying your life. The Animal-man transcends to Man-man, Super-man and finally the Divine-man.
How do you measure the progress of a person on the path of yoga?
The signs of progress are health, a sense of lightness, steadiness, radiating face, beautiful voice, and sweet odor from the body, and freedom from craving.
Always peaceful and poised, contended, unselfish, friendly and ready to help others, are some behavioral changes that come in a person who practices yoga sincerely.
You will find similar changes in you after you practice yoga for a couple of months; this is our promise to you.
Yoga, overall, is considered safe if you’re generally healthy. Some yoga positions can put significant strain on your lower back and on your joints. See your doctor first if you have any joint problems or a history of low back or neck pain. You might want to avoid certain yoga positions depending on your condition.
Also see your doctor before you begin a yoga class if you have any of the following conditions, as complications can arise:
Â· High blood pressure that’s difficult to control
Â· A risk of blood clots
Â· Eye conditions, including glaucoma
If you’re pregnant or nursing, yoga is considered generally safe. But avoid any poses that put pressure on your uterus, such as those that require you to twist at the waist. Some yoga classes are specifically tailored for pregnant women. Check with your obstetrician if you have any questions whether yoga is right for you and your baby.
How To Safely Start A Yoga Practice?
Everybody can do yoga. If you’re starting out or just curious about this more than 2,000-year-old exercise tradition, here are some tips to help get your practice in swing.
Talk To Your Doctor
Grab a book with pictures of the yoga poses – called "Asanas" – you plan to do, and show it to your doctor. Some yoga poses are difficult to describe verbally, but a picture’s worth a thousand words – and aches and pains!
If you have certain medical conditions, they may rule out specific poses. If you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, a history of retinal detachment, or heart disease, for instance, your doctor may object to inverted poses such as hand-, head-, or shoulder stands, because they increase blood flow to the head and could aggravate any of those conditions. If your physician has no objections, you may proceed.
Find A Class That Fits
Once you’ve got medical clearance, decide on a class that best fits your abilities. Look for those billed as "senior" or "gentle" classes, and talk to prospective teachers before your first session. You need to know whether you can handle the program before you jump in.
If you enter a class where everyone else is doing the poses and you can’t, you may be discouraged from coming back. So find a level you’re comfortable with and stick with it.
There are many different types of yoga, and some may be more appropriate for you than others.
You should build up gradually before attempting classes in Bikram yoga, named after Beverly Hills yoga expert Bikram Choudhury, whose classes are conducted at room temperatures of between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Choudhury believes that the heat prepares muscles for intense stretching. Or get a few beginner classes under your belt before trying classes in ashtanga yoga or "power" yoga, which are vigorous, athletic forms.
Listen To Your Body And Be Realistic
Be aware of your physical ability. "You want to push yourself so you’re doing the work, but you don’t want to hurt yourself."
Alert the instructor to your newcomer status. "When you first walk into class, tell the teacher you’ve never done yoga before." "Sometimes we’re afraid to admit that we’re new. When our ego gets in the way and we’re not careful, we get hurt."
The At-Home Option
If you’re shy, extremely weak, or can’t find a class you’re comfortable with, there are many books, programs, and tapes you can use at home. These provide excellent verbal descriptions of the poses for beginners.
Try Private Lessons
Although it’s an expensive option, you may want to book some one-on-one sessions with a teacher in your area. Most yoga instructors offer private classes or can help you design your own program.
Bend With A Buddy
Even though you can practice by yourself at home, having a yoga buddy can’t hurt. As with any fitness program, injuries can happen. And it’s always nice to have someone to give you encouragement along the way.
Eat Lightly Before Practice
Wait at least two hours after meals before yoga class. An empty stomach is best, but if you’re too hungry to think, you won’t be able to focus on the poses or enjoy yourself during the relaxation or meditation exercises.
All that said, it’s time to grab your mat and a towel — and don’t be late to class!
Yoga – Stress Relief And Other Health Benefits
Yoga offers a good means of relaxation and stress relief. Its quiet, precise movements focus your mind less on your busy day and more on the moment as you move your body through poses that require balance and concentration.
Other health benefits of yoga include:
Â· Increased Flexibility. As you learn and refine new posesâ?? such as touching your toes â?? you’ll find that each time you practice, you can reach a little farther. More range of motion means you’ll be less likely to injure yourself in other physical activities.
Â· Management Of Chronic Health Conditions. The breathing and relaxation methods used in yoga might help you if you have asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, low back pain, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis of the knees or memory problems. Yoga can also be helpful when combined with other therapies for heart disease and high blood pressure. Yoga, when combined with a vegetarian diet, aerobic exercise and medication, has reduced cardiovascular disease rates and blood pressure levels.
Â· Weight Loss. If you’re overweight, yoga may help you make the healthy lifestyle changes necessary to drop those extra pounds.
Â· Balance. Yoga classes tailored for elderly adults can help them stay steady on their feet and avoid falls and hip fractures.
Â· Coping With Cancer. People with cancer and their caregivers who practice yoga may improve their quality of life and sleep better at night.
Â· Alzheimer’s Caregiver Stress And Fatigue. Yoga practice may help family caregivers by boosting their mood and ability to cope and manage stress.
While you shouldn’t expect yoga to cure you, it can help some health conditions when combined with treatment recommended by your doctor. And if you’re perfectly healthy, yoga can be a good way to supplement your regular exercise routine.