Yoga, as it exists today, is an ambiguous and ever-changing term. Its definition, goals and benefits differ from person to person, making yoga a multifaceted form of self-exploration and empowerment. For some, it is a means of spiritual liberation, for others simply a form of physical exercise. Yet all who practice yoga unanimously agree that it is a task for both the body and mind, requiring a heightened focus, steadiness and awareness. Yoga is the art of living in the present moment, which gives it the power to help us improve other aspects of our lives.
In the Western world, yoga is often seen as synonymous with a healthy, active and clean-eating lifestyle. Yogis are thought of as juice-cleansing raw vegans or fitness fanatics. But in its Eastern origins, yoga is seen primarily as a spiritual practice. A Sanskrit word, yoga translates literally as “union”. In its original forms, yoga was used to seek unity and a connectedness with the Divine. Acting out asanas, or poses, combined with a meditative breath was seen as preparation for the afterlife, by disconnecting from the world of the physical and the desires, wants and needs of the body. Since yoga made its way to the West in the 1970s, the spiritual elements have been slowly diluted or adapted, so that yoga is now often used as an exercise in flexibility and strength for the body, rather than the spirit.
In our modern world, our lives are mostly void of real, life-threatening dangers so that our stress responses and anxiety are heightened and often disproportionate to the daily threats we face. As a result, everyday, mundane tasks have a power over us to cause feelings of fear and stimulate adrenaline. Many people experience dread when faced with answering a phone call or have irrational phobias that govern their lives. Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, and yoga may be the answer for many of us.
Countless reports have been published on the health benefits of yoga, praising it for reducing depression, anxiety and fatigue, with some suggesting it is far more beneficial than psychological therapies such as CBT or counselling. Yoga requires the individual to do the work themselves, to practice inner reflection in tune with physical action, giving it a unique status as a practice for the body and mind. Yoga requires an awareness of breath as the breath must be matched to the action. This focus on breath filters out external distractions as well as inner turbulence. It is a skill which takes practice, though it holds the potential for holistic healing.
There is evidence to suggest that yoga can lower the heart rate and blood pressure, which can moderate the symptoms of numerous physical conditions. One piece of research indicates that individuals who practised yoga had reduced inflammation and a strengthened immune system, as well as a more positive outlook and lower rates of depression. Through yoga, physiological stress and mental health are worked on in unity; the awareness, presence and breath help to reduce physical symptoms, whilst bringing a sense of self-awareness that can help work towards a healthier mind.
Though yoga for the sole purpose of physical exercise has numerous benefits, its original spiritual elements hold useful tools for cultivating peace and contentment in our busy lives. Even if we do not believe in a God of religion, yoga can be used to find an inner power, sometimes referred to as a personal god. This concept may sound somewhat eccentric, but taken abstractly it gives the individual the hope, grounding and peace that religion can bring without the need for a Divine Being. Yoga and meditation can give practitioners a sense of closeness to themselves, this inner personal god beyond the physical body, which is a calming and empowering notion.
Forms of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that desires and attachment are the sources of anger and discontent. We all know the feeling of wanting something we can’t have, whether it be the newest iPhone, a relationship or the chance to be someone other than who we are. Even daily desires such as feeling hungry and wanting food or needing ten more minutes in bed can negatively impact our moods when other things get in the way. Feeling like something is lacking, or there is something more out there to be had, seems to be at the core of our discontented emotions. Though this might be something we recognise in ourselves and already wish to change, it is fundamentally difficult to detach from wants and desires. Whilst telling yourself to be happy won’t actually change how you feel, yoga can provide a means of bringing that thought into action.
In the practice of traditional Hindu yoga, as described in the Bhagavad Gita, we are required to focus on the action itself, rather than the desired results. So in the enactment of an asana, we try to bring the thoughts to the perfection of the pose itself, rather than dwelling on the strengthening of the muscles or calmness it may bring. This essential skill is what makes yoga so valuable; it hones the ability to be fully present. In detaching from future desires, yoga becomes a method of purification. The future and past no longer have the power to distract us from what we are trying to achieve in the present. This skill of detachment can then be transferred to all elements of life.
It seems intrinsic to human life to have insecurities. All of us battle with our identities and how we fit into the wider picture, which is where religion often comes in as an answer. For those of us without religion, it becomes difficult to have any sense of closure on questions of our purpose and place in the Universe. Yoga and meditation, therefore, can offer us a chance to find answers for ourselves, reflecting without the dogma of a religion or opinions from others. In the practice of Jhana yoga, we are required to reflect on our nature, asking ourselves difficult questions about who we are and what we are. Through this, we may find a connectedness with a higher power, a collective spirit or a sense of belonging to a community. In any case, the simple act of reflection is a moment of space and distance from the stresses of the outside world. By taking time in the day to reflect in solitude, subconscious or unconscious queries and doubts can be addressed in a place of tranquillity.
Regardless of your religious belief, yoga can be practised to develop self-knowledge and achieve a more mindful existence. In plainer terms, yoga is a way of practising reflection, meditation and giving full attention to the present moment, whether this involves a spiritual element or not. By fully embracing yoga, practitioners can cultivate a more positive attitude towards themselves and build a greater awareness of their own body and mind. Yoga teaches compassion, self-love and presence, which are undeniably beneficial.
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