What is Yoga and What Are the Benefits?

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Yoga, by definition, is the union of the body, the mind and the spirit. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj”, which means “to yoke” the spirit and physical body together.

Most of us are accustomed to looking outside of ourselves for fulfillment. We are living in a world that conditions us to believe that outer attainments can give us what we want. Yet again and again our experiences show us that nothing external can completely fulfill the deep longing within for “something more.” Most of the time, however, we find ourselves striving toward that which always seems to lie just beyond our reach. We are caught up in doing rather than being, in action rather than awareness. It is hard for us to picture a state of complete calmness and repose in which thoughts and feelings cease to dance in perpetual motion. Yet it is through such a state of quietude that we can touch a level of joy and understanding impossible to achieve otherwise.

History of Yoga

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No one knows exactly when Yoga began, but it certainly predates written history. Stone carvings depicting figures in Yoga positions have been found in archeological sites in the Indus Valley dating back 5,000 years or more. There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism’s religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga. (Other religions throughout the world have also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga.)

The tradition of Yoga has always been passed on individually from teacher to student through oral teaching and practical demonstration. The formal techniques that are now known as Yoga are, therefore, based on the collective experiences of many individuals over many thousands of years. The particular manner in which the techniques are taught and practiced today depends on the approach passed down in the line of teachers supporting the individual practitioner.

One of the earliest texts having to do with Yoga was compiled by a scholar named Patanjali, who set down the most prevalent Yoga theories and practices of his time in a book he called Yoga Sutras (“Yoga Aphorisms”) as early as the 1st or 2nd century B.C. or as late as the 5th century A.D. (exact dates are unknown). The system that he wrote about is known as “Ashtanga Yoga,” or the eight limbs of Yoga, and this is what is generally referred to today as Classical Yoga. Most current adherents practice some variation of Patanjali’s system.

The Eight Steps of Classical Yoga Are:

1) yama, meaning “restraint” — refraining from violence, lying, stealing, casual sex, and hoarding
2) niyama, meaning “observance” — purity, contentment, tolerance, study, and remembrance
3) asana, physical exercises
4) pranayama, breathing techniques
5) pratyahara, preparation for meditation, described as “withdrawal of the mind from the senses”
6) dharana, concentration, being able to hold the mind on one object for a specified time
7) dhyana, meditation, the ability to focus on one thing (or nothing) indefinitely
8) samadhi, absorption, or realization of the essential nature of the self. Modern Western Yoga classes generally focus on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th steps.

Yoga probably arrived in the United States in the late 1800s, but it did not become widely known until the 1960s, as part of the youth culture’s growing interest in anything Eastern. As more became known about the beneficial effects of Yoga, it gained acceptance and respect as a valuable method for helping in the management of stress and improving health and well-being.

Yoga Has Many Benefits

Physical: The movements of yoga will carve out a long, lean, strong, and confident body.

Mental: All those deep breaths reset your mind back to its natural state: calm, focused, and sharp.

Psychological: All the focusing inward illuminates our behaviors and tendencies. The same habits we have on our mat are the ones we have in our lives. We see this, and we gain the freedom of choice. Who do I want to be? We get to create or re- create ourselves each day. Regular practice gives you a clear mind and the inspiration and courage to be constantly expanding and improving your life.

Neurological: When your brain is “on yoga” your neurological system is brought back into balance and is conditioned to steer you naturally toward a healthy lifestyle. Our bodies are constantly rewired to make whatever we practice get easier. When we practice healthy, balanced living we get more healthy, balanced living.
Intuitive: When there is tension in the body and mind, your intuition gets buried and your body switches to survival mode. Your yoga practice makes space in your body physically, releases tension, and calms your mind, making room for your intuition to float to the surface and guide you.

Creative: Creative juices start to flow when your body and mind begin to release mental blocks. Creativity doesn’t like to come out when there are stressors, whether from physical tension or mental cloudiness. When the stress melts away, creativity can come out to play.

Connected: Yoga is the practice of getting connected. However you choose to view your spirituality, when you practice yoga, you remember that we all are connected, here to help each other, and that we have so much potential when we are kind to others.

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Physiological Benefits of Yoga

·    Stable autonomic nervous system equilibrium
·    Pulse rate decreases
·    Respiratory rate decreases
·    Blood Pressure decreases (of special significance for hyporeactors)
·    Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) increases
·    EEG – alpha waves increase (theta, delta, and beta waves also increase during various stages of meditation)
·    EMG activity decreases
·    Cardiovascular efficiency increases
·    Respiratory efficiency increases
·    Gastrointestinal function normalizes
·    Endocrine function normalizes
·    Excretory functions improve
·    Musculoskeletal flexibility and joint range of motion increase
·    Breath-holding time increases
·    Joint range of motion increase
·    Grip strength increases
·    Eye-hand coordination improves
·    Dexterity skills improve
·    Reaction time improves
·    Posture improves
·    Strength and resiliency increase
·    Endurance increases
·    Energy level increases
·    Weight normalizes
·    Sleep improves
·    Immunity increases
·    Pain decreases
·    Steadiness improves
·    Depth perception improves
·    Balance improves
·    Integrated functioning of body parts improves

Psychological Benefits of Yoga

·    Somatic and kinesthetic awareness increase
·    Mood improves and subjective well-being increases
·    Self-acceptance and self-actualization increase
·    Social adjustment increases
·    Anxiety and Depression decrease
·    Hostility decreases
·    Concentration improves
·    Memory improves
·    Attention improves
·    Learning efficiency improves
·    Mood improves
·    Self-actualization increase
·    Social skills increases
·    Well-being increases
·    Somatic and kinesthetic awareness increase
·    Self-acceptance increase
·    Attention improves
·    Concentration improves
·    Memory improves
·    Learning efficiency improves
·    Symbol coding improves
·    Depth perception improves
·    Flicker fusion frequency improves

Biochemical Benefits of Yoga

·    Glucose decreases
·    Sodium decreases
·    Total cholesterol decreases
·    Triglycerides decrease
·    HDL cholesterol increases
·    LDL cholesterol decreases
·    VLDL cholesterol decreases
·    Cholinesterase increases
·    Catecholamines decrease
·    ATPase increases
·    Hematocrit increases
·    Hemoglobin increases
·    Lymphocyte count increases
·    Total white blood cell count decreases
·    Thyroxin increases
·    Vitamin C increases
·    Total serum protein increases

Yoga Health Benefits

·    Parasympathetic Nervous System dominates
·    Subcortical regions of brain dominate
·    Slow dynamic and static movements
·    Normalization of muscle tone
·    Low risk of injuring muscles and ligaments
·    Low caloric consumption
·    Effort is minimized, relaxed
·    Energizing (breathing is natural or controlled)
·    Balanced activity of opposing muscle groups
·    Noncompetitive, process-oriented
·    Awareness is internal (focus is on breath and the infinite)
·    Limitless possibilities for growth in self-awareness

Exercise Benefits

·    Sympathetic Nervous System dominates
·    Cortical regions of brain dominate
·    Rapid forceful movements
·    Increased muscle tension
·    Higher risk of injury
·    Moderate to high caloric consumption
·    Effort is maximized
·    Fatiguing (breathing is taxed)
·    Imbalance activity of opposing groups
·    Competitive, goal-oriented

Yoga Classes

In addition to practicing the poses, yoga classes may also include instruction on breathing, call and response chanting, meditation, or an inspirational reading by the teacher. The variety and amount of this will depend on the individual teacher and the yoga style in which he or she is trained. Typically, a yoga class at a gym will be more focused on the purely physical benefits of yoga, while one at a yoga center may delve more into the spiritual side. Some people find that the physical practice of yoga becomes a gateway into a spiritual exploration, while others just enjoy a wonderful low-impact workout that makes them feel great. Whatever your tendency, you will be able to find a yoga class in your area that suits your style

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Sources:

yogananda-srf.org
lululemon.com
abc-of-yoga.com
americanyogaassociation.org
yoga.about.com

 

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