Molded by over 10,000 of spiritual revelations and experiences, yoga is one of the oldest spiritual traditions alive today. While innumerable texts have been composed regarding the practice of yoga, a general overview of the yogic tradition can give insight into the development of this ancient spiritual science. Yoga change from mystics to medical has made it one of the most dynamic systems for human spirituality as well as human health care, welfare, and general well-being. In this article the author describes the tradition of yoga from past to present and reveals the history of yoga that has been maintained by countless spiritual dovotee, enlightened saints, and ashram communities both in India and throughout the world.
There is no right or wrong system of yoga as the each possesses their own distinct characteristics that accommodate the needs of various characteristics and personalities that exist among human beings. Each system is designed to accommodate a different personality type, and yoga has developed into a broad reaching system that can be practiced by nearly anyone who is interested in pursuing a spiritual life.
A practice like Jnana yoga is ideal for someone who is philosophically minded whereas the practice of bhakti yoga is good for someone who is emotionally perceptive and inclined towards a sense of devotion. In this article we will be reviewing the more mainstream practices of yoga which are derived from the tradition of yogic spirituality. These traditions of yoga are as young as 500 years and as old as several thousand years. While there are many modern practices of yoga which have been defined by various teachers, the systems we will be discussing are traditional systems which have been in existence throughout many generations.
Characteristics of Yoga
Let’s take a look at some of the chief characteristics of Yoga.
1) Yoga is not an exercise
To understand the concept of Yoga one must keep in mind that the positions in Yoga are not exercises but bodily stretches and maintenance of stretches. You may describe Yoga in terms of Yogic stretches or Yogic practices. Acquiring a body position by stretching the muscles and then maintaining this position as long as one’s body allows, that is what Yogic stretches are. Yoga requires very smooth and controlled motions and a slow steady tempo. To achieve this one needs to have total concentration of mind while doing Yoga. The movements in Yoga are smooth, slow and controlled. Comparison with others is greatly discouraged. Doing something beyond one’s capacity just out of competition generally results in hurting one’s body and hence is greatly discouraged. Breathing in Yoga remains steady unlike many aerobic exercises. Yoga is also Isotonic unlike bodybuilding exercises, which are isometric in nature. In isotonic stretches, length of the muscles increases while tone stays the same as opposed to the isometric exercises in which length of the muscles stays the same while the tone changes. In Isotonic stretches, body is stretched in a particular manner and maintained that way for some time.
2) Longer maintenance and fewer repetitions (as per the body’s capacity)
Benefits of Yoga are enhanced with the maintenance of a body stretch. Longer the maintenance better will be the effect. However one cannot force oneself into maintaining the stretch longer than the body can bear. Each and every position is pleasant and stable (Sthiram Sukham Asanam). Sthiram means steady. Sukham means pleasant and Asanam means a body posture or position. The right position for you is that in which your body remains steady (sthiram) and which is pleasant and comfortable to you (sukham). The moment a stretch becomes unbearable and uncomfortable and the body starts shaking, one needs to come out of that position in a very slow, smooth and controlled manner. There will be more repetitions and shorter maintenance for a beginner. With more practice, the repetitions will be fewer and maintenance will be longer. After doing Yoga one should only feel pleasant and fresh and nothing else. If you feel tired or fatigued or any part of your body aches, it only means that you have tried beyond your capacity.
3) Trust your body
Yoga insists on apply minimum efforts and stress on body. With the practice of Yoga, you also learn to trust your body’s capacity to progress in terms of flexibility without conscious efforts. As long as the aim is in mind and the body is stretched only to its current capacity, the flexibility develops on its own. One needs to just focus on breath, focus on the present state of the body pose and enjoy that pose as long as it feels comfortable. ‘Prayatnay Shaithilyam’ means minimum efforts. Although there is an ideal position described and desired for each asana, no one is forced into attaining the ideal position. Yoga is done with the trust that flexibility is acquired after a continuous and regular practice. There is a message here and that is to have faith in the unknown. This message along with the improved endocrine function, better muscle tone, calmer mind and increased positive outlook can be enormously beneficial for recovery from any illness.
4) Focused stretching
The ability to stretch or pressure one muscle group while relaxing the rest of the body is called focused stretching. For example if a particular Asana is based upon stretching the stomach as the main muscle group (the pivotal muscles), then the rest of the body is relaxed while the stomach is stretched or pressured. One has to watch for unnecessary straining of those muscles that are supposed to be relaxed. Initially this is hard to follow nevertheless it becomes easier with some practice. This habit of differentiating between different muscles for the pressure becomes very useful in other areas of life too. It enables you to relax better while driving during rush hour. While doing normal daily tasks it makes you aware of the unnecessary tension on different parts of your body. You are watchful even while talking to someone or while brushing your teeth or when stuck in a traffic jam. You learn to ask yourself, ‘Am I holding my breath, are my shoulders tense, is my neck stiff, are my fingers curled?’ etc. These acts are unnecessary and they dissipate energy. Yoga teaches you how to relax and gives you time free of worries and regrets, impatience and anxieties.
Monitoring your breathing is an integral part of Yoga. Common mistakes such as holding of breath or breathing deliberately occur during Yoga. Both these mistakes must be avoided. Holding back on breath gives headaches, fatigue and thus the benefits of Yoga are lost by improper or inadequate breathing.
6) Ananta Samapatti (Merging with the Infinite)
Ultimate goal of Yoga is the amalgamation of self into the greater self. Yuja means to combine or to connect. A connection of Atma and Parmatma is the merging of the body and the spirit. Yoga is a way of life. It’s a total integration. According to Patanjali (founder of Yoga), two things define Yoga postures; a stable and comfortable body posture and Anantha Samapatti. Therefore you cannot separate bodily postures from meditation. In fact a body that has become flexible and steady through practice of various positions becomes a good basis for the ultimate transcendental state of mind (Samadhi). The kriya (cleansing processes) purify the body. Mudra and bandha bring the necessary stability of mind and concentration, initially on one’s breathing (pranadharana) and then on God (Ishwarpranidhana). Initially the mind wanders a lot and that’s o.k. One should let it wander. Later one should count his breaths and should observe the inner and outer flow of air through the air passages. (pranadharna). This will enable him to concentrate better on himself (sakshibhavana). In the beginning it will be difficult to concentrate since the body postures are not that steady. But with practice it becomes better and better. For this one must purposely take away his mind from body posture and focus it on to the breathing process (pranadharana).
Benefits of Yoga
If you follow the basic rules, several benefits can be reaped. Maintenance of body stretches makes the body supple, lean, flexible and stable. Breathing techniques purify the blood and cleanse nasal passages and sinuses. Stress relief is the greatest of all the benefits. Relaxing positions in Yoga teach you to relax your muscles and let the gravity work on your body. The ability to differentiate between tension on different parts of the body, i.e. to stretch one muscle group while relaxing all the others teaches you to relax and not waste energy during your daily routine. The part about concentration is important in providing relief to your mind from worry and stress of everyday activities. Here is a detailed look at some of the major benefits of Yoga.
1. Stress relief
Stress, tension, anxiety are the inevitable features of modern day life. Yoga offers many techniques to cope up with the stress and anxiety. A stress free mind reduces the chances of catching a disease to half, this has been widely known by now. Yoga teaches very effective breathing and relaxing techniques to achieve this. Yoga also helps you to feel relaxed quicker and raise your energy reserve by teaching you how to let the gravity work on your body. Half of the fatigue in any activity comes from improper and inadequate breathing and by holding breath unnecessarily. Yoga guides you, how to breathe adequately and how not to make your body tense and stiff while doing other daily tasks too. The principle of focused stretching teaches you how to not waste energy during your daily routine. It makes you aware of the unnecessary tension on different parts of your body. Yoga teaches you to relax fully and gives you time free of worries and regrets and impatience and anxieties. People having busy schedules who are used to being in action all the time, must understand that relaxing is not a crime or not a waste of time. On the contrary it gives you new energy to do your tasks better.
2. Feeling energized and refreshed
Adequate breathing plays a great role in rejuvenating and refreshing mind and body. Breathing techniques in Yoga provide abundant supply of oxygen to the lungs, cleanse nasal passages and sinuses and thus help feel refreshed. A body that has become lean and flexible with stretches and maintenance of the stretches gets purified by breathing techniques and becomes energized. Various Yoga stretches induce a balanced secretion of hormones, which subsequently rejuvenates the whole body and one feels refreshed and energized as a result.
3. Flexibility of mind and body
Apart from the relaxing effect, yoga also consists of many body stretches which when maintained for a few minutes give a wonderful flexibility to our muscles. One starts wondering, ‘Am I the same person who used to be so stiff?’ In many chronic disorders of the spine, Yoga has helped many people to reduce the frequency and intensity of the disorder such as spondylitis, arthritis etc. Maintenance of body stretches makes the body supple, lean, flexible and stable. In the process, not only your body but also your mind becomes flexible. The mind acquires faith that things can change favorably given enough time.
4. Relief from chronic disorders
Yoga is particularly good for having control over breath and spine. Breath and spine are like wild animals. You force them to do something they pounce on you. You coax them, be patient with them, they can be tamed to any extent. Many Yoga stretches make the spine strong and flexible. Time and again Yoga has proved to be a blessing for all kinds of disorders of the back. The technique of exhaling twice longer than inhaling (Pranayama) gives abundant supply of oxygen to blood and many impurities of blood are cured. The deliberate exhaling technique (Shwasanmargshuddhi) cleanse the nasal passage and the sinuses. They help get rid of chronic sinus trouble or clogging of nasal passage for many people. That makes the lungs and respiratory organs stronger. The abdominal breathing technique (Kapalbhati) helps people with asthma or weak diaphragm to breathe easily.
5. Focus of mind
Practice of Yoga helps in getting better focus of mind. Meditation, being part of Yoga, teaches you how to focus better and achieve more from any activity. Dharana, which means narrowed focus on a subject by restricting Chitta (mind) is one of the 8 limbs of Ashtangayoga. It teaches you to get rid of all other thoughts from the mind and focus on the target. People have benefited enormously in terms of focus of mind by doing meditation (Dhyana) and Dharana throughout all ages.
6. Benefits at not-so-perfect level
Even if one cannot achieve perfection in an Asana, the benefits of an Asana are still available at a not-so-perfect level such as calmer mind, better flexibility, better blood pressure, lower pulse rate and better endocrine function. Whatever state of Asana one is in, if one maintains the pose comfortably, body gets the necessary massage and stretch. There is a better secretion of endocrine glands as a result of the steady and sufficient stretch. The brain cells get the necessary signals and mind becomes calmer. Breath is more controlled and as a result feels refreshed. All of this happens regardless of the level of perfection. It’s the steadiness and level of comfort that’s more important than perfection.