Yoga is well known in the West as a form of physical exercise. It is, however, an Indian philosophy dating back at least five thousand years, which includes recommendations for exercising, breathing, eating, behaving and thinking healthily.
The word 'yoga' literally means to 'yoke' or unite and at the core of this philosophy is the belief that we as human beings have both a physical form (human) and an animating energy (being). How happy and healthy we are depends on how much of this animating energy (known as 'prana') is able to circulate within us.
You may have noticed for example, how muscle stiffness (where circulation is restricted) can affect not only your mobility but your sense of well being too. Tension in the neck, can correspond with poor posture and shallow breathing which can in turn cause restricted blood flow to the head, an unhappy mood and headache. Lack of strength and mobility results in less efficient circulation, less prana and this over time, causes injury and disease.
Yoga philosophy believes that the mind, breath and body are constantly affecting one another and seeks to harmonise the functioning of all three in order to return the student to their natural state of optimum health and wellbeing.
Hatha Yoga is known as the science of purification. The word ‘hatha’ is formed from two beeja mantras, ‘ha’ meaning sun and representing prana – the vital force and ‘tha’ meaning moon and representing the mind or mental energy. The sun/moon analogy also refers to the energising and calming aspects of the nervous system. The collective practices aim to develop and evolve human consciousness through a series of steps known as ‘Kaya Sadhana’ or ‘The Spiritual Practice of the Body’.
The 'Hatha Yoga Pradipika' presents practical ways to purify the body/mind. These include:-
• Asanas – disciplined practice of physical postures to bring health and steadiness to both body and mind
• Shatkarmas or Kriyas – the purification of the internal bodily systems including neti, dhauti, basti, kapalbhati, trataka and nauli to promote the circulation of vital subtle energies
• Pranayama – breathing techniques which increase and regulate prana
• Mudras and Bandhas – energy locks which direct and contain prana
Then when both the body and breath have been prepared the student is ready to train the mind with concentration exercises and meditation (Raja Yoga). The aim is to remove false patterns of thinking to reveal our true blissful potential in order to eventually realise the ultimate state of 'Samadhi' or enlightenment.
So, despite becoming increasingly popular as a form of exercise, physical postures are merely the 'tip of the iceberg' and are designed to prepare the student for the increasingly subtle practices.
Asana benefits all the systems of the human body, at all levels of being. In terms of anatomy and physiology, the benefits are summarised as follows:
• The Skeletal System – can return bodily alignment to its original blueprint whilst protecting and lubricating joints to preserve their functioning. Also encourages proper functioning of tendons and ligaments
• The Muscular System – creates optimal balance between strength (density) and flexibility (length)
• The Respiratory System - releases muscular tension enabling the body to breathe efficiently. This in turn increases absorption of oxygen for improved functioning of every cell in the body.
• The Autonomic Nervous System – release of muscular tension along with breath awareness and mindfulness practices can aid the release of mental tension or stress so returning the nervous system to a balanced state. Asana can also stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, so increasing tolerance for stress in everyday life.
In addition, asanas can tone internal organs to aid proper functioning and can decelerate the aging process both anatomically through improved posture/mobility and physiologically by counteracting its drying and contracting effects. In “Light on Yoga”, BKS Iyengar describes the benefits of asana in the following way: “Asana brings steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. [Asanas] exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound and they keep the body free from disease. They reduce fatigue and sooth the nerves. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind.”
However, asanas form only one of the eight limbs of yoga as categorised in 'The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali' (see right) and a good class will sometimes incorporate other elements of these which have more subtle benefits. It is believed that Hatha Yoga can aid the metabolism of emotions which have be stored within the tissues of the body. Therefore, yoga can create a more positive outlook by releasing mental tension and repetitive emotional responses. It also offers psychological focus which helps to quieten the mind, giving the practitioner a glimpse of themselves without stress. Self-image and self-acceptance can be enhanced when practiced in line with the Yamas and Niyamas so increasing emotional intelligence (EQ).
the ashtanga (eight limbs) of yoga
1. Yamas (Principles or Moral Codes)
* Ahimsa - non-violence
* Satya - truthfulness
* Asteya - non stealing
* Brahmacharya - continence / celibacy
* Aparigaha - non possessiveness
2. Niyamas (Personal Disciplines)
* Shoucha - purity
* Santosh - contentment
* Tapa - endurance
* Swadhyaya- self study
* Eshwar Pranidhan- dedication
3. Asana - (Yoga Postures / positions) A stable and comfortable posture which helps attain mental equilibrium
4. Pranayama - (Yoga Breathing) Extension and control of breath (prana)
5. Pratyahara - (Withdrawal of Senses) Limiting external stimulus to increase the power of mind
6. Dharana - (Concentration on Object) Concentration of mind on one object/subject
7. Dhyana - (Meditation) State of focussed awareness
8. Samadhi - (Salvation) State of bliss/joy resulting from merging individual consciousness with universal consciousness