Yoga: A Path to Well-Being
The physical aspect of yoga is only part of the 3,000-4,000-year-old story.
The word "yoga" (of Sanskrit origins, meaning "to join" or "to yoke") has become ubiquitous in our culture. Yoga is everywhere now. Whether you're in a large city or a small town, you will find there are yoga classes being offered. It may seem like yoga is somewhat of a "new" thing on the social landscape. In this country, yoga has been steadily growing for the last 50 years. Still, relatively speaking, that's fairly new. The origins of yoga, however, are believed to go back some 4,000-5,000 years.
OK, so yoga has been around for a while. But what is yoga?
I think many of us associate yoga with exercise, something we do at a gym or a spa or a yoga studio where we get an hour or so workout. This is true, as this is how yoga is often practiced (and, actually, has evolved) here in the US and western countries in general. But yoga, traditionally speaking, is more than just physical exercise — an activity addressing the well-being of the body. Yoga is also about the well-being of the mind.
That yoga came about as something to help both the body and mind was described by one of my yoga teachers this way: Around 2,000-3,000 BCE, the ancient Vedic wise men of the Far East started to notice a change in people's behavior. These ancient "physicians" began to notice that people were behaving in strange ways and that their physical and mental health seemed to be deteriorating. This was at a time when people were starting to live in large groups (think small "cities") and were starting to do specialized tasks that came along with the domestication of animals and grains (think "agrarian revolution"). They noticed that people seemed less at ease (think "stressed") and were behaving more erratically. In other words, people seemed to be going a little crazy. These "scholars" of the time came up with yoga (and other practices) to help people regain a sense of well-being in their lives — a practice that would help them both physically and mentally.
How do we know this is what yoga is all about? While the word yoga appears in various ancient Vedic texts, the practice of yoga was written down and formalized by Patanjali in what is known as the Yoga Sutras. Here we have yoga succinctly outlined. Patanjali outlines what he called "ashtanga," or the eight limbs of yoga. These eight practices consist of:
- Yama, our conduct with the outer world;
- Niyama, our conduct with ourselves;
- Asana, discipline of the body through postures;
- Pranayama, control of life-force energies through the breath,
- Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses;
- Dharana, meditation on a single object;
- Dyana, connection with an object in mediation; and
- Samadhi, oneness with the object of meditation.
The two things to notice here are, first, that "asana" (the physical practice of yoga) is only one of the eight practices. In modern yoga, we have come to think of yoga as being only asana, which is not the case. Second, we can see that meditation, an activity primarily of the mind, plays a large role in yoga practice. In fact, the word "asana" means "to sit." Traditionally speaking, asana is simply means to prepare the body for meditation.
While we see a lot of emphasis on the physical part of yoga these days, no two yoga instructors approach yoga in the same way. If you go to a yoga class or, more interestingly, if you go to a few and compare the way the instructors present yoga, you'll find that each is different, with some emphasizing asana while others including (or emphasizing) breath work and meditation. This is good; this means lots of choices for us to match what we would like to get out of a yoga practice with an appropriate class.
What we know for sure is that yoga improves health. Recent studies have shown this to be true. For example, in a study at University of Illinois, it was shown that just 20 minutes of yoga can improve cognitive function as well as increase mental focus and working memory. A University of Pennsylvania study found that people who suffered from hypertension had lowered blood pressure levels as a result of yoga practice. Interestingly, compared to those who participated in a walking/nutrition/weight counseling program, the group practicing yoga was found to have lower blood pressure levels.
A recent Boston University study showed that 12 weeks of yoga could effectively reduce anxiety and increase gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels in the brain; low levels of GABA have been linked with depression and anxiety disorders. In another study, published in 2011 in Diabetes Care, making yoga a part of a typical diabetes care regimen seemed to help steady blood sugar levels. In 2009, in a pilot study working with older adults, it was apparent that practicing yoga improved bone density. The list goes on with research showing how yoga is good for our health and well being, both in body and mind.
What this seems to suggest is that there's an "intelligence" to yoga in the ways it's able to address and benefit human health on many levels. It's my thinking that, while this "ancient knowledge" has been practiced in Eastern cultures for the last 3,00-4,000 years, we in the West are only now starting to take notice and take (very) seriously what yoga offers in the way of improving one's health. This is also good.