Yoga: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s Health
Yoga may be as old as 5000 years, according to some. One of the six schools of Hindu philosophy and very much a living tradition today, it antedates other major religions of the world. Its wisdom is timeless and its perspectives on health and wellness prescient.
Yoga, like all major religions and religious philosophies explores the relationship of mind, spirit and body. The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”), written perhaps between 400 and 100 b.c.e., defines four major branches of yoga. Each is focused on an aspect of mind, spirit or body and explores their relationship from a different perspective.
* The first, Karma yoga, is the yoga of action in the world.
* The second, Jnana yoga, is the yoga of wisdom and intellectual endeavor.
* The third, Bhakti yoga, is the yoga of devotion to God.
* The fourth, Dhyana yoga, is the yoga of meditation.
Hatha yoga, a system of yoga introduced by Yogi Swatmarama of the 15th century is based on the yoga of Patanjali, who wrote sometime between 200 b.c.e. and 300 c.e. Patanjali’s eight-step yogic system is a form of Raja yoga, meaning it presents meditation as the path to the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Hatha yoga is the style most well-known in the West today. It focuses on purification of the physical as the path to purification of the mind and prana (vital energy). In this respect, it is very different from Patanjali’s yoga in that Patanjali’s yoga focuses on the purification of the mind as the path to purification of the prana and body.
In viewing the body as the path to the mind and spirit, yoga is similar to those western religions: which emphasize ritual practices as the path to spiritual understanding.
Hatha yoga practices Yoga applies a broad holistic approach that teaches people a different way of being in the world. Hatha yoga teaches this approach by way of a series of asanas, or positions. Asanas should be “steady but comfortable, firm but relaxed”, according to the teachings of classical yoga. A first step is to learn rhythmical yoga breathing (pranayama) and to maintain this rhythmical breathing throughout a posture.
For this reason – that is maintaining good breath – one of the first postures that is taught is savasana, or “the corpse” pose. Savasana is a supine asana. Lying on the back, one lets the arms and legs fall naturally at about a 45-degree angle from the body. Starting with the toes and moving upward through the body, one concentrates on each body part, feeling the rhythm of the blood moving through that part. The effect is to produce alert relaxation and regular deep breathing.
Asanas include standing exercises, sitting exercises, exercises which start from a position lying on one’s back, exercises which start from a position lying on one’s stomach and twisting exercises. Each position is held for a few moments. Early on in the practice of yoga, there may be a tendency to become so relaxed that one falls asleep. The proper state, however, is one of relaxed alertness. While doing the exercise, one should check that breath remains rhythmical throughout – and also that muscles which are not the current focus of the stretch remain relaxed.
Health effects of yoga practice: Yoga concentrates on the spine, which we know today is the sheath, which protects the central nervous system and thereby controls all parts of the body as well as mood and mental functioning. Indeed, manipulation of the spine for the benefit of health is the basis of chiropractic, with which many in the West are very familiar.
In a survey conducted by Yoga Biomedical Trust in 1983-84, 3000 individuals who engaged in yoga to treat a particular condition were asked how beneficial the treatment was. It was reported as most effective for back pain, benefiting 98% of respondents. It was also reported to be 96% effective in cases of nerve or muscle disease. In regard to heart disease and anxiety, respondents reported 94% improvement. And finally, with regard to alcoholism, respondents reported a whopping 100% improvement.
Based on chiropractic information, we can safely assume that yoga might be directed toward treating specific physical issues like, for example, thyroid dysfunction. If the T6 (thoracic) vertebra is affected in such a way as to impinge on the nerve that goes to the thyroid, it will affect thyroid function. Conversely relieving this stress on the nerve, if appropriate yoga practice is introduced early enough, can reverse the problem.
Yoga nutrition Yoga nutrition emphasizes foods that promote prana, or vital energy and to eat them in such a way that these foods have the maximum opportunity to do their work. This means that, according to yogic principles, one should eat small quantities of the best quality foods – those that produce the minimum of toxins and in quantities such that the body is not overtaxed through the process of digestion. These foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
According to yogis, the best food is fruit, which contributes most to life force. It is a source of energy, which, all else being equal, does not produce toxins in the process of digestion. Yogis emphasize freshness and raw foods. A food, which must be approached with great caution, is meat, which does produce toxic waste products as it is metabolized in the body.
Interestingly, these principles are those which modern medical science is demonstrating are valid today. Drs. Roizen and Oz, in The Owners Manual Diet, recommend eating when hungry, not famished and including at least two snacks. Foods to eat on a daily basis and the foundation of the diet are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. This diet goes hand-in-hand with a program of physical activity directed toward flexibility and strength, as is the yoga “diet”.
Conclusion On a recent Oprah show, Dr. Roizen indicated that the next important medical development will be a greater focus on “energy” medicine, bringing us full circle to the perennial puzzle, the one with which we began: the connection between mind, body and spirit and how we integrate between them to reach our fullest potential as human begins. This is the question that hatha yoga addresses, and the teaching is that by learning to speak with our body, we address our minds and souls, increasing the clarity and strength of each.
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