Next time you discover a new body ache or mental anguish, remember the ancient practice of yoga. Dating back before the Mona Lisa and even the Colosseum, yoga’s origins precede the pyramids of Giza which were built circa 2550 BC! So, why has the practice of yoga endured through time? What are the benefits of yoga?
In Sanskrit, yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. The goal of yoga is to bring about the experience of union. To do so, many types of yoga use physical poses, called asanas, and intentional breathing, called pranayama. When practiced together, poses and breathing help focus, calm and concentrate the mind. While there are many different types of yoga, all yoga is malleable, so it can be adapted to fit your unique needs.
Perhaps the most well-known type of yoga, Hatha yoga, uses flowing postures and intentional breathing. It’s called the yoga of balance, which is denoted by its name: Ha (sun) and tha (moon). Many other well-known types of yoga, including ashtanga, lyengar, vinyasa, and power yoga, are all forms of Hatha yoga.
Another type of yoga, Raja yoga, builds on Hatha yoga. It emphasizes meditation. Raja yoga teaches an ‘eight-limbed’ or eight-pronged path. In Raja yoga, the eight limbed path includes teachings of the self-restraints, observances, physical practice, breathing, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and subconsciousness.
Other types of yoga do not involve physical postures at all. These include Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti yoga.
Jnana yoga is a practice devoted to studying the spiritual texts. Known as the yoga of wisdom or knowledge, some find it to be the most challenging form of yoga. It’s intent is to help practitioners transcend their ego and merge with their divine soul.
Karma yoga is a practice focused on devotion. It emphasizes the path that leads to salvation through action. The Bhagavad Gita describes this as a spiritual yoga. Karma yoga’s intent is to find purpose and meaning in life.
Bhakti yoga emphasizes union through love and devotion. Some American Bhakti yogis practice devotion to the traditional Hindu deity. Others practice Bhakti yoga devotion to their personal belief of who or what God is. Bhakti yoga pursues a path toward positive energy, goodwill, and trust. Bhakti yoga teaches that something greater than yourself deserves worship and will guide you.
Have you ever felt sick to your stomach before an important meeting or class? While many people may describe that feeling as “nerves,” or “intuition”, yogic philosophy believes that feeling can be chalked up to an imbalanced chakra.
In yoga, chakras are energy centers in the body. There are seven chakras which can be imagined as “spinning wheels” of energy that are situated along your spine. When you have a blocked or imbalanced chakra, your mental and physical health can become compromised. Symptoms of an imbalance depend on which of the seven chakras are blocked, but may include digestive issues, fatigue and anxiety. The practice of yoga helps to balance your chakras.
Although scientists may not refer specifically to chakras, there is a growing body of evidence that supports yoga’s mental and physical health benefits. Practicing yoga relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, increases concentration, and calms the nervous system. Yoga improves mental and emotional health, sleep, and balance. Promoting an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits are additional benefits of yoga.
In a 2016 study, yoga was investigated for its therapeutic effects on cognitive enhancement. In the study, participants with dementia were divided into two groups. One group practiced yoga and meditation while the other group participated in the standard mind enhancement training (MET). Researchers concluded that yoga and mediation are at least equally as effective as MET in protecting older adults against cognitive decline.
A 2019 study demonstrated that an intensive yoga regimen improved physical and psychosomatic symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is a chronic inflammatory condition which affects approximately 1.3 million Americans and has no cure. The lead author of the study, reported, “Our results provide evidence that yoga positively modifies the pathobiology of autoimmunity at cellular and molecular levels by targeting mind-body communications.”
Currently, there are several ongoing studies investigating the effects of yoga on cardiovascular illnesses as well as stroke rehabilitation and chronic neck/back pain. As science further elucidates the benefits of yoga, it becomes increasing clear why yoga has endured for over 5,000 years.
Yoga is for every body, regardless of age, gender, or fitness level. Yoga is also portable- it can be practiced almost anywhere at anytime. In addition to yoga studios or gyms, there are dozens of yoga apps that can lead you through a practice in your very own living room. If you haven’t tried yoga yet, perhaps you should stretch your comfort zone and give it a go.