What unites the world today across sectors, countries, continents, and communities is the motivation to keep oneself healthy and fit by both body and mind. Uniting the global community on this aspect is an age-old traditional Indian practice, ‘Yoga’. The therapy of the exercise system for health and fitness, improved physical and mental health are the natural consequences of yoga. From its beginning till date, it has changed forms and procedures, but the final objective of it is still the same, i.e. alignment of an individual self with cosmic, irrespective of religion or social beliefs, for the achievement of the peak of insight and harmony.
‘Yoga’ is a word derived from the Sanskrit noun ‘Yog’ or ‘Yuj’ which means to attach. Though there is no specific chronology available on the development of yoga, folklore says it was the Adiyogi, Lord Shiva, who had first practised it and then bestowed this insightful knowledge to the legendary Saptarishi (The Seven Sages). These sages then conveyed this amazing yogic science to various parts of the world. The first mention of the word Yoga was seen in one of the hymns of Rigveda, the oldest and one of the holiest books of Hinduism, though no detailed description was stated. The details of the practice and positions of yoga were first found in the scripture called Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the earliest Hindu Upanishad. Also, several seals and fossils found from the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization (2500 – 1700 BCE) show figures performing positions described as yoga. The inclusive perspective of yoga is about linking the mind, body, and spirit together.
Yoga has sub-paths; some say three, some four, whereas some say it has six. Sub-paths are like branches of a tree that have the exact source of origin, i.e. the essence is identical. The only thing that distinguishes is the aspect involved, like emotional, spiritual, or intellectual. The sub-paths are known as Hatha yoga (physical and mental path), Raja yoga (adherence to discipline), Karma yoga (path of service free from negativity and selfishness), Bhakti yoga (route to cultivating acceptance and tolerance), Jnana yoga (developing wisdom and intellect), and Tantra yoga (path of rituals and ceremonies). In 2015, as a tribute and recognition of this great practice, 21st June was declared International Yoga Day.
From within the Indian subcontinent, yoga has, today, reached across the globe – thanks to the strong advocacy for yoga by Swami Vivekananda during his Europe and the United States in the 1890s. Modern age yoga focuses on exercise, strength, agility, and breathing. It is practised to boost physical and mental well-being. Contemporary yoga styles include Ashtanga yoga, Bikram yoga (also called Hot yoga), Hatha yoga (asana or postures are part of hatha yoga), Iyengar yoga, Kripalu yoga, Kundalini yoga, Power yoga, Sivananda yoga, Vini yoga, Yin yoga, Prenatal yoga, Restorative yoga, etc. The style a person selects depends on the expectations they have from yoga and their level of physical agility. The ultimate goal of practising yoga is moksha or liberty.
Chakra in Yoga
In the yogic philosophy, chakras or the rotary wheels are the centre points of energy, beliefs, approaches, and the carnal body. These chakras regulate how people experience actuality through emotions, desires, aversions, confidence, fear, or other physical and mental effects. Physical, mental, or emotional imbalances are seen when the energy gets blocked in any of the chakras.
There are seven major chakras in our body. Sahasrara chakra, also called the crown chakra, controlling the head and symbolizing spiritual connections. Ajna chakra or the third eye between the eyebrows controlling intuitions. Visshuddha, or throat chakra, is responsible for immunity and communication. Anahata or the heart chakra in chest governing relationships. To note, any imbalance in this chakra will affect oxygen, hormones, organ control, etc. Next is the Manipura chakra at the solar plexus, which regulates confidence, wisdom, and discipline. Then is the svadhisthana chakra below the belly button controlling pleasure, well-being, and vitality. Last is the mooladhar/muladhara or the root chakra at the base of the spine controlling sciatic nerves and nervous system.
It is said that one can practice yoga and do asana to free the blocked energy and stimulate the imbalanced chakras. Thus, there are bountiful benefits of yoga.
Pranayam and Yoga
The art of controlling breath is called Pranayam. It is a combination of two Sanskrit words, ‘Prana,’ i.e. breath or vital energy, and ‘Ayama’, meaning control. With pranayama, one can control the rhythms of energy to achieve a healthy body and mind. Pranayam is one of a small part of the yogic science, as mentioned by sage Patanjali in his scripture Yoga Sutra. It describes pranayama as a means of attaining higher states of awareness, a healthy mind, and a fit body.
Kapalbharti, meaning the shining forehead, is one of the most commonly practiced Pranayam. It is the method of fast inhaling (Parna) and exhaling (Aparna) of breath that enables cleansing of the respiratory system.
Another highly practiced pranayam is Anulom Vilom. It is a specific type of controlled breathing where one nostril is closed while inhaling the breath, then holding the breath as much as one can and finally exhaling it only from the other nostril, which was closed during inhaling. This process is reversed and repeated several times.
Benefits of Yoga Asanas / Postures
Asana or body postures is one of the eight essential elements of classical yoga. It states that while practising, the body poses should be steady yet comfortable, firm but relaxed. Asana provides both spiritual and mental benefits. Recent studies have shown an enormous improvement of flexibility, strength, and balance in body and mind by regularly practising asana.
Though more than 1000 different postures are considered asana today, the original Yoga Sutra had mentioned 84 different postures. The few important asanas along with a brief on their posture and benefits, are as below:
Padmasana or the lotus position is a sitting position where both the feet are on the knees of each other. Closed eye sitting in this position calms the mind.
Vajrasan is another sitting position with bent knees taking off all the body weight from the knees. This posture helps one to be strong and also improves the digestive system.
Sirshasana, the kind of all asana, is a position with head on floor and legs in the air, taking all the weight of the body on the head. It helps improve concentration and increasing memory.
Sarvangasana, as the name suggests, helps tame all parts of the body. The weight of the body is rested on the head and shoulders, which are on the floor, and hands holding the back upright with legs in the air. Sarvangasana improves the functioning of the thyroid gland.
Halasna or the plough posture helps to keep the whole spine youthful and loosens the hamstring. Here keeping a sleeping position, legs are pulled back over the head and rested on the ground with both hands flat.
Matsyasana, imitating the shape of a fish, requires one to lie on the back and then lift the back upwards with both hands. This position improves the functioning of the heart and gives strength to the cervical and thoracic region.
Paschimothanasna is a sitting position where the toes of the legs need to be caught by the hands without bending the knees and then resting the head on the knees. Paschimothanasna not just improves body posture but keeps the spine and the joints flexible and the internal organs toned.
Bhujungasana is the snake position where, by lying on the abdomen, the toes are touching the ground, and the upper body is raised from the waist with the help of both hands. This asana improves flexibility, revitalizes spinal nerves and improves blood supply.
Dhanurasana, or the form of the bow, is done lying on the abdomen, lifting the head, chest, and legs, and then holding the legs with arms like a string. This position is beneficial for improving the digestive system.
Chakrasana, also called the wheel pose, is a back-bending pose where the body’s entire weight is rested on palms and feet. As this asana engages most body parts, it gives strength to the arm, legs, spine, and abdomen, opens the chest muscle, and provides more flexibility to the entire body.
Pawanmuktasana is a powerful pose helping improve the digestive system. Knees are bent in the way they touch the abdomen and the chest, and then the head is lifted to touch the knees. This asana releases the unwanted gas from the body.
Trikonasana, or the triangle pose, is a standing posture where the body is bend from the trunk, sliding one hand touching the thigh and reaching the foot, and stretching the other hand over the head as much as possible. This asana stretches and strengthens several muscles of the body at the same time.
Additional Benefits of Yoga
Research has shown that practising yoga regularly has immense benefits over body, mind, and feelings. Yoga reduces stress by controlling the stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. It also helps in reducing depression caused due to cortisol. Yoga helps relieve anxiety and improves mood by producing more brain chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), responsible for anxiety and moods. Yoga also enhances mental flexibility, memory, etc., by stimulating brain functioning.
Not just mind, regularly practising yoga enables a flexible body, improves strength and balance in the body, gives a better body posture, enhances sleeping habits, reduces joints, muscles, and back pain prevents heart diseases, eases arthritis, and many more.
The Closing Bell
In today’s busy life full of responsibility, stress, long working hours, and balancing work life and personal life, one neglects their health and happiness. It is vital to spare some time in the day for ownself to stay fit and cheerful. If included in the daily routine, yoga will become a powerful tool to stabilize and improve physical and mental disciplines, improving the body and mind. It is not necessary to attend classes for practising yoga. One can do it through self-learning or learning under expert advice through good online sources.