Yoga, You would be crazy not to!
By Anthony B. James DM (p), ND, MDAM and Katie McAllister CTP
We could talk about the “top 10” reasons to do yoga, all the health benefits, the scientific studies, the ancient literature. We could try to convince you, step by step, point by point, of the value of incorporating a yoga practice in your life. We could entice you with words about change and self-transformation, of all the things you will experience if you give yoga a try. We could do this, yes, but let’s be blunt. You’ve read so many top tens. So many fads of diets and exercise programs and pills that are going to “make you into what you want to be” (in no time flat!). All we want to say about yoga is that you would be crazy not to give some attention to the practice of this ancient system of healing. We are not talking fitness buffs in stylish spandex, with a brand-name mat, towel, water bottle, block, strap etc… all stuffed into a yoga studio and sweating to the oldies (rather, Ram Dass). No doubt the physical practice of yoga has become a fad in Western culture. Magazines like Yoga Journal (which I still do read) have become almost as bad as Cosmo in their propagation of some ideal that yet another group of people is trying to conform to. It’s the American way of the yogi and yogini- the ten question quiz to determine your dosha, the supplements you must have, the latest in yoga fashions, the newest cleanse for your toxic body, the right way to eat. The problem is that there is no right way, because it is impossible for any one thing to be right for everyone. This is how we get into a world of trouble by trying to heal our bodies with snippets of advice that bombard us at every turn on the internet, in the media, from our friends, from magazines and books. It is here that we must turn inward and ask how much of this advice is applicable to our own reality, and just because it is natural does not mean it is safe. Of all the blogs and all the message boards where we seek information about options in natural health, we must learn to be more skeptical, we must understand where the information comes from. Are these professionals we are listening to or are they just opinions, and how do we learn to heal ourselves without feeding into over-rated hype about how we are supposed to look and feel?
Yoga is not merely a physical practice, though this aspect is very important for some people and can have extraordinary benefits. Yoga is a way of life and a state of mind, where we practice Ahimsa (nonviolence), meaning, just like the Hippocratic oath that has been severely compromised in the practice of Western medicine, to do no harm. This does not mean to walk on eggshells so we don’t kill all the little bugs on the ground (though this is a practice for some), but Ahimsa begins within, where we learn not to do harm to ourselves. We learn to distinguish between the mental chatter that clicks on, like “The Song that Never Ends” from Lambchop and to learn to hear how we can be our own worst enemies, setting goals and sabotaging ourselves because we never believed we could do it from the get-go. It’s the voice that can click on during a yoga class as we constantly compare our bodies to others, as we judge ourselves for our limitations and wonder why we get stuck. I know you know that voice! It comes from years of programming, from our parents, teachers, and the media, and it has the ability to control us and our actions more than we think. Call it the Ego, the false personality, call it what you will, but understand that when we have constant frenetic activity in our minds that is negative, we are causing harm to ourselves and it can spill over into all aspects of our lives including our interactions with others.
In an interview at the beginning of his book, Desikachar, the well-known Indian yoga scholar, son of Krishnamacharya, says, “Yoga is primarily a practice intended to make someone wiser, more able to understand things than they were before. If asanas [postures] help in this, terrific! If not, then some other means can be found instead. The goal is always bhaki or, to put it in my father’s words, to approach the highest intelligence, namely, God.”(XXI, The Heart of Yoga, TKV Desikachar) Yoga is a very gradual practice, and there are many places where we can begin. Jhana yoga is the yoga of the mind, the intellectual part of yoga. Jhana yoga includes study, deliberation and conversation or “the yoga of inquiry.” Jhana yoga includes psychology and the development and expansion of the mind. Bhaki yoga is the yoga of devotion, the yoga of prayer and meditation, the practice that helps you find a way to make every act an act of devotion. Karma yoga is the yoga of self-less service and work, where we participate in things like community service, working with no expectation of anything in return. Hatha yoga is the physical practice, where our main goal is to link the body and the breath. The breath is what reveals to us our limitations and helps us move through them. If we recognize the breath as our teacher then our practice will progress at the pace that is most suitable for our individual needs. Raja yoga and Kriya yoga each have a different emphasis as well.
An important point here is that the practice of yoga does not discriminate age, religion, gender, or state of health. If the idea of “approaching the highest intelligence…God,” makes you uncomfortable, then start small. In yoga, you can always begin from where you find yourself. The practice of yoga evolves slowly and “… like many things in life, we can never know in advance the full impact something is going to have on us. Reasons for our initial involvement may pale and lose importance as we move deeper. We change and learn, often in unexpected ways.” (Erich Schiffman, Moving into Stillness, http://www.movingintostillness.com/book/yoga_benefits_of.html)
So, like we said in the beginning, the purpose of this article is not to convince, but to help you to understand that yoga is a blessing, yoga is an incredible complement to your life, no matter what state your life is in. It will help bring you to a new level that you have been unable to access. Now we will discuss some actual benefits- physical, emotional, and spiritual, that you may experience as a result of practicing yoga.
Please note that all Internet resources that we site are meant to help you further your understanding on these topics. The authors do not adhere to all opinions in each source and neither should you (this article included!) We have sourced articles from both allopathic medicine and holistic medicine. Please be sure to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. If you disagree and decide to leave yoga by the wayside, we may call you crazy but we certainly won’t be offended! ;)
YOGA IS FUN! There is tremendous value in having fun and experiencing a bit of joy while engaging in any healing practice. In yoga you may find that you are slowly getting to know your own body better, and your time on the mat can be playful as well as reflective and healing. Just as children are very in tune with their own bodies and tend to be more playful than adults, yoga can help us tap back into our playful nature. Yoga practice can help you begin to see the best version of your self, the truest version. It is helpful to find a yoga class, because any class that requires some effort in a loving and supportive environment is quite fun. Yoga classes exist in a variety of forms such as laughing yoga (a potentially ridiculous and wonderfully beneficial practice). You may also find that your self-esteem increases, and issues that relate to body image decrease as you develop your practice, like it did for these women: http://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/2242
A funny yoga video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajgeGvnxLoQ
STRESS RELIEF. Yoga reduces the physical, mental and emotional effects of stress on the body by encouraging relaxation, reducing antagonistic muscle tension (internal resistance to your body’s movement and circulation) and lowering the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Regular yoga practice has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, increase oxygen uptake, enhance both arterial and veinous blood circulation, reduce edema and fluid retention, improve digestion and boost the immune system, as well as ease symptoms of conditions such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, asthma and insomnia. In yoga we also believe in the therapeutic benefits of having fun, which is a great way to reduce stress.
Please see this great article by Ellen Serber for more information on yoga and stress: http://www.will-harris.com/yoga/yoga_and_stress.html
Yoga can ease pain. Yoga can also reduce and or eliminate the original causes of many types of pain and pain syndromes. Practicing yoga asanas (therapeutic postures) and meditation has reduced pain for people with conditions such as fibromyalgia
(see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101014083119.htm), spasm, cancer, multiple sclerosis (http://www.yogasite.com/ms.htm), auto-immune diseases and hypertension as well as arthritis and other chronic conditions. Regular yoga practice has proved to be a miracle for many people suffering from knee, hip, back, shoulder and neck pain. Here is a short video of simple yoga exercises for neck pain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjwHL8-b-VM.
Knee pain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIAi5BHA9q4
Lower back pain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06WYKCfdAn4
BETTER BREATHING: Through the incorporation of Pranayama (the art of breathing) Yoga teaches you how to breathe. Yoga coaches people to bring awareness and intention to the breath both in and out of practice sessions. Breathing slower and deeper improves the exchange of both vital oxygen and elimination of Carbon Dioxide waste gas. It is immediately relaxing and brings clarity to the mind. Proper or improved breathing improves lung function, enhances circulation and stimulates the proper functioning of the immune system. Article: Why is Oxygen so Vital? http://www.holisticonline.com/yoga/hol_yoga_breathing_Importance.htm#WhyIsOxygenSoVital
The breath is understood in yogic philosophy to be the source of our Prana, or life force. “Ancient texts such as the Yoga Yajnavalkya tell us that someone who is troubled, restless, or confused has more prana outside the body than within. The amount of prana outside the body is greater when we feel unwell; at those times the quality of prana and its density within the body is reduced. Too little prana in the body can be expressed as a feeling of being stuck or restricted. It can also show as a lack of drive or motivation to do anything; we are listless or even depressed. We may suffer from physical ailments when prana is lacking in the body…Our state of mind is closely linked to the quality of prana within. Because we can influence the flow of prana through the flow of our breath, the quality of our breath influences our state of mind and vice versa. In yoga we are trying to make use of these connections so that prana concentrates and can freely flow within us.”(54-55 The Heart of Yoga)
FLEXIBILITY, RANGE OF MOTION AND POSTURE: Yoga schools, teachers and practitioners have devoted entire lifetimes to mastering the mechanics of motion and stretching. No one knows how to stretch the body better! Regular yoga practice will improve overall flexibility and mobility, increasing range of movement and internal resistance to the body’s motion. Better range of motion will reduce aches and pains as well as reduce the potential for injury when you do move. Yoga helps to improve posture and body alignment. Improved posture and alignment has been shown to be helpful in everything from back pain to mental attitude!
Here is an article from WebMD about the benefits of yoga on flexibility, as well as other health benefits: http://www.webmd.com/balance/the-health-benefits-of-yoga
INCREASED STRENGTH: Yoga asanas (therapeutic postures) use isokenetic, isotonic and isometric tension to work every muscle in the body. These three specific types of exercises are scientifically shown to increase strength. The individual postures and the flow between them (Vinyasa) increase strength from head to toe. Unnecessary antagonistic muscle tension is released by alternating contraction, holding and release techniques.
NUTRITION AND WEIGHT MANAGEMENT: Regular Yoga practice can aid weight management and maintenance by reducing cortisol levels, as well as by burning excess calories and reducing stress. All good yoga classes teach and emphasize proper diet and food strategies appropriate for the individual. Over time this can have a dramatic effect on the overall health and well being of the practitioner. Yoga can be vigorous and one needs to eat appropriately for the increased activity level as well as for any specific health concerns that are being addressed in practice.
IMPROVED CIRCULATION: Yoga helps to improve all forms of circulation: Blood, Oxygen, Lymphatic Fluid, Interstitial fluids as well as the energy of Prana (vital life force).
CARDIOVASCULAR CONDITIONING: Regular Yoga practice can provide cardiovascular benefits by lowering resting heart rate, increasing endurance and improving oxygen uptake during exercise. Yoga flows or Vinyasa can be aerobic, sustaining elevated heart rate for long enough to create a cardio-conditioning effect. Better cardio-vascular health may reduce or eliminate risk of heart disease and adverse coronary events. It may also reduce other circulatory related issues such as "Restless Leg Syndrome."
BE HERE NOW: Regular yoga practice and its components of breathing, meditation, philosophy and therapeutic postures requires one to be present and attentive to the immediate moment. Having a greater capacity to be in the moment and to create a clear space when desired is helpful in every area of life. Yoga is a spiritually based holistic health system with an ancient heritage. Many people find that a regular Yoga practice enhances their practice in their chosen spiritual path.
THE REDUCTION OF NEGATIVE EMOTIONS: Earlier we mentioned the “mental chatter” that is such a common experience for most Westerners. This phenomenon has been spoken about through the ages, but in Western culture it is particularly harrowing because we are born into a very frenetic environment, constantly bombarded with external stimuli and lots of noise. Quiet is a very hard thing to find, even in sleep. We are growing up in a culture of excess, where we judge our freedom by our range of choices. The choices themselves can become limits, and can lead us to think we are free to choose when really we are constrained within a very narrow view of what our lives could be. We think we can choose, for instance, what foods to eat. That buying grapes from Chile is some kind of exotic choice we have. But what choice is there, really, when we cannot know where our food comes from, how it is handled, how it is shipped, what impact it has on the environment and other people before it reaches our shopping cart, before we place it on the conveyor belt to be scanned and pay for it with our paper and plastic? What choice is there when we live in a country with no regulations on labeling for GMO’s, where the word “natural” is misleading and vague, where poisons like aspartame and preservatives are put in our foods and we can’t even decipher the words on the labels? How is this a choice? How is a choice when farmers are struggling against multi-national corporations like Monsanto?
Not to get too far away from the point, for our disconnection to our food, though relevant, is another conversation. The point is that we have so many thoughts cycling through our heads on a daily basis (we call it stress) and many of us do not have to tools to deal with these thoughts, to calm the monkey mind. Steve Pavlina said it well when he noted how “incredibly frustrating” it is “to be betrayed by your own thoughts.”
When our thoughts are primarily negative our lives tend to follow suit. Thoughts are things, and as it happens “we don’t get what we want, we get what we focus on.”(Richard Fialo, Master Reiki teacher). Yoga can help us try to peel away those layers of negativity and find our core issues that define and constrict us. Both mental and physical exercise can bring these up, because the body is actually our most reliable recorder. Traumatic events and negative emotions are stored in our tissue, and accumulate over time. That is why there is often an emotional component to many injuries, especially chronic ones.
Through the study and practical application of yogic principles, we can come to know ourselves better, to dredge up the events and recognize the habits that are our limitations to fulfilling our capabilities as sentient beings on this planet. Essentially, yoga, like Ayurveda, is the art of living. What else is there?
So it begs the obvious question: Just how committed are you to a way of life, thought action and deed that is possibly counter-intuitive to your well-being? To a way of life lived without a sane possibility of physical, emotional and spiritual cohesion and better function? What is sanity and intelligence for if not to give us access to those ideas and methodologies which have proven to be able to consistently lift us out of our mire of mediocrity? You would be crazy not to at least consider yoga as one of those possibilities. We're just saying…
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You would be crazy not to... Copyright© 2011, Anthony B. James DM (P), ND, MDAM All rights reserved under International and Pan American copyright conventions. World rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Inquires should be addressed to: Anthony B. James, DM(P), ND, MDAM, 4715 Bruton Rd. Plant City, FL 33565 · http://www.ThaiYogaCenter.Com