First, What is Yoga?
Yoga literally means union, to unite body mind and spirit as the ultimate goal of a yoga practice.
For many who strive to achieve such an accomplishment, the process takes a lifetime. But for those of us who are merely seeking more balance and thus a happier, more fulfilling life, yoga can help.
Yoga is a dynamic practice, it changes with our bodies, as they release and open the pose changes. But it’s more than the physical, the true yoga resides in staying in touch with the breath.
As a moving meditation, yoga isn’t meant to be just another exercise. While their are extensive physical benefits, people often see yoga as something for thin flexible people who adhere to new age spiritual philosophy.
More than anything, yoga is about finding a connection to our deeper selves, even if its a bit uncomfortable at times and moving through it.
While yoga is derived form Hinduism in India, it’s various western representations have created something different all together. There are so many types of yoga that it can be hard to keep up.
I’ve heard of everything from chocolate yoga (literally you eat chocolate during class) to yoga with your dog, hot yoga to kundalini and many more.
Whichever modality, the principles remain the same, remember to breathe, keep proper alignment and accepting ourselves for where we’re at.
Yoga has been shown to help reduce stress and relieve anxiety and depression (1) perhaps because of the immense feeling of connection it bodes.
Other studies show that yoga is therapeutic for relieving low back pain (2), helping people quit smoking (3), improving fatigue in breast cancer survivors (4) and as a treatment for chronic pain and fibromyalgia (5).
Breathing and Prana
Prana is the life force flowing through us, our breath, ever in motion, yet rarely observed. Pranayama is the practice of observing the breath and using the power of our minds to lengthen and bring higher quality to our breathing.
This is how we harness the monkey mind during our yoga or meditation practice. To many, learning to breathe sounds ridiculous, if we didn’t know how to breathe we wouldn’t be here would we!
Yet most of us don’t pay any attention, the breath becomes a passive thing which just occurs without any effort. For most of us, daily stressors result in shallow short breaths where we aren’t utilizing the ultimate and optimum potential that richly oxygenated blood provides.
In other words, when we breathe deeply and focus on the breath as life-force then we energize our beings, we take our thoughts and actions in to the present moment and we expel more carbon dioxide.
Deep breathing practices also help us to release tension and slow the heart rate (6).
Tapping Into Our Inner World
So often we are forced to live in the outer world, the world of the physical and concrete, logic and materialism.
This is a stressful place to be all the time, it wears us down and creates a rift or imbalance with the other, more ethereal aspects of being human.
Getting down to the root of our true desires, most of us care more about cultivating feelings of happiness, abundance and clarity than anything else.
How do we cultivate positive feelings? Certainly not by being in a stressed out mentality most of the day.
Practicing yoga can help us to rewire our brains to attract the core desired feelings we strive for in life.
The deeper sentiments that aren’t always so easy to express, can be explored in a slow languid yoga practice.
We can break down barriers in the psyche which hold us back in our everyday lives. Taking a step back and focusing on the present moment is key to achieving bliss and balance.
It’s a process, like anything but I firmly believe when we practice yoga and stick to it we gain clarity in all areas of our lives (8).
I’ve talked a lot about inflammation in the past, most people experiencing illness are in a chronic state of inflammation.
This is caused by a multitude of factors, stemming from lifestyle choices predominantly. The more ways we can reduce inflammation, the longer and better quality of life we can achieve.
Amazingly one study found that through a consistent yoga practice researchers measured participants cytokines, blood markers which indicate inflammation.
“Blood tests before and after the trial showed that, after three months of yoga practice, all three markers for inflammation were lower by 10 to 15 percent.
That part of the study offered some rare biological evidence of the benefits of yoga in a large trial that went beyond people’s own reports of how they feel.” (9)
There have also been studies which show yoga and pranayama to be of benefit to those suffering from type-2 diabetes (10).
Hypertension or high blood pressure can be significantly reduced from practicing yoga. Over time the practice embeds itself in the psyche and practitioners have greater ease and control in monitoring heart rate variability (11).
Other physical benefits of yoga include treating asthma (12), rheumatoid arthritis (13), and even weight loss (14).
Yoga for Weight Loss
Yoga helps with weight loss in a number of ways (15). The most obvious being the physical exercise it entails (16) though I would say this is the least important aspect of how yoga can help a person lose weight.
One of the main reasons we have a hard time losing weight is because of stress. When we have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol our bodies are stuck in fight or flight mode.
Our bodies literally can’t differentiate between a small insignificant stress like losing your car keys versus being hospitalized after a panic attack.
We can’t tell the difference, so when we’re stuck in a state of chronic stress we are basically in survival mode.
If our bodies literally think we might perish, they aren’t going to be willing to let go of excess fat.
That fat is there to help us survive and stress is a big reason why so many of us are overweight (17). Since yoga is so effective at stress reduction it makes sense that it would in turn help with weight loss.
Eliminating toxins from the body in an ever increasingly toxic world is crucial to being in good health.
Both the breathing practices utilized in yoga as well as the physical asanas or poses have many cleansing effects. Twisting asanas compress the organs and stimulate better energy flow when released.
Pranayama helps expel excess carbon dioxide and bring more oxygen into the body. The physical asanas massage the organs in a gentle and natural way to encourage the release of stored toxins.
There are also a few less common yogic practices which help to remove toxins. In India it’s common to clear the sinuses for better breathing with a neti pot.
Neti pots look like magic genie bottles which are filled with warm salt water. This is a remedy for seasonal allergies, cold and flu or chronic nasal congestion.
The salt water is anti-bacterial and the after effect is a clear nasal passage to enable big energizing breaths.
How To Use a Neti Pot
Another yogic cleansing practice involves scraping the tongue, our tongues accumulate most of the bacteria and mucous in our mouths. Removing plaque coating the tongue helps reduce toxins and freshen the breath. (18)
Last but not least there are other more intense and advanced yogic cleansing practices which have a laxative or purgative effect. Most often they involve consuming cleansing Ayurvedic herbs or drinking salt water and performing certain cleansing asanas.
Cleansing the body is a core facet of yoga, there is a long line of traditions which work alongside this principle.
Diet is the main factor in cleansing the body of unwanted toxins. Staying away from all processed foods and not eating factory farmed animals (or none at all as many yogis adhere to).
A yogic diet also called sattvic is one which promotes peace in the body. It’s common knowledge that high sugar/ highly refined foods cause an excessive surge or short term energy in the body which isn’t sustainable.
Yoga is for Every Body
The great beauty of yoga, which often gets skewed in our culture, is that anyone can practice.
There are so many variations of any given posture that even the most inflexible senior citizen can still practice yoga in some way.
We are given the responsibility to respect our own boundaries. Only you know what feels safe and comfortable in your body and in yoga that is what comes first.
It isn’t about comparisons or touching our toes, the most important thing is how it makes us feel. No doubt it feels good to stretch and release tension whether we weigh 400lbs or 80.
Stress is one of the major causes of disease, and it leads to increased inflammation. Nobody likes feeling stressed but certain factors seemingly beyond our control often put us in that place.
The preliminary research on how poverty affects young children shows higher rates of learning disorders. When teachers in low income areas practiced yoga with the students they saw a marked improvement in the children ability to focus.
One major benefit of yoga is that once you learn a few asanas or poses, you can practice anywhere, any time, completely free.
As Henry Thoreau would say, “all good things are wild and free.” I would have to agree.
When researchers measured the salivary alpha-amylase, of surgical nurses who practice yoga they found a 40% decrease in the substance, a measure of the fight of flight response (19).
The Spiritual Side
Some people associate yoga with religion and are turned off for that reason. The word religion literally means to reconnect (20).
If yoga helps us to reconnect to our bodies and minds then perhaps there is a religious association. However, yoga is very much open to all denominations and all faiths, there is no classism or racism involved.
We can all gain something by exploring our connection to our bodies and breath. It’s up to you who you praise, if anything at all. Remember, the practice is more than anything inside of us, in our thoughts and patterns.
The Western version of yoga has many faces, in a way we’ve gone and made it our own.
Many of the original sanskrit terms for different asanas have been translated into english and much of the original mantras and incantations have been swapped for a simple ‘ohm’ or nothing at all.
Modern yoga has embraced the physical aspects more than anything, which is no surprise given the materialistic world we live in.
Yoga in India is quite different, mainly it’s slower paced and there’s more emphasis on breath work. That isn’t to say modern yoga has no merits.
I think it’s worked to make yoga more accessible to anyone and everyone, there’s less religious/cultural taboo involved in modern yoga. If the average person were to step back in time and go to a yoga class in ancient India it would likely feel like a highly religious affair.
Not so with modern yoga, we’ve stripped away the Hindu elements in most cases and made up our own names while still calling it yoga.
Hot or Bikram Yoga
Hot yoga was popularized by Bikram and has spread like wildfire through America. It’s useful because the hot room helps people to open up and allows us to move farther in a pose since our muscles are nice and warm (21).
It can be a really great way to stay in the present moment as the intense heat gives us no choice but to focus on surviving the next hour.
In India where yoga originated, you would never traditionally practice yoga in the heat of the day. Hot yoga is looked down upon as a sort of short cut and can have negative physical effects for people who aren’t used to that kind of stimulus.(22)
What Yoga Really Is and How it Brings Balance
Yoga is a meditation, an exercise, trial and error, an opportunity to witness our attachments, a practice, a chance to go within.
A chance to learn what feels right and wrong in our beings and to watch the monkey mind without partaking. Yoga is not about perfection or appearances, it’s an internal process to help us find balance.
After an over indulgent holiday packed to the brim with sweet treats, most of us will try and detox and rebalance by eating healthier or exercising.
Working too much?
Better take a vacation to reset all that stress. Didn’t sleep well for a week, time to catch up and go to bed early. Our conquests for balance show up in all situations in many different ways. Adding yoga into our routines gives us a stable practice to bring back balance and release stress and tension.
Reconnection with the breath, with out subconscious minds and our deeper selves opens us up. We start to create new neural pathways which stimulates more opportunity to fully live life (23).
In truth, we all want to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Inherent in yoga is the acceptance of oneness.
Our minds aren’t separate from our bodies which aren’t separate from our spirits, and you and I, we aren’t so different after all.
Imagine if such an experience of oneness were to really permeate throughout our culture.
The implications of such a shift would be monumental. For our own personal experience is only a microcosm of the bigger picture, and that my friends is how yoga brings balance and ultimately, bliss.