Yoga is an ancient method for inner development of man, which originated in India about 5000 years ago. In many books about yoga, but generally as a basic text, reference is made to the Yoga Sutra compiled by a Master called Patanjali, who lived in southern India about 2500 years ago. The goal of this method is to calm the mind by giving an opportunity for people to relax, experience their inner silence and thus find a deeper connection with reality which is not conditioned by concepts, ideas and prejudice. In the West, Yoga is generally known for its physical part (Yoga Asana) which is often seen and practiced as a simple exercise for the body. In fact, the methods of Yoga are holistic and work on the person as a whole. According to the standards, there are eight stages to achieve relaxation and peace, it is in this sense that Yoga described by Patanjali is defined as Ashtanga Yoga (Yoga by eight stages). This method of yoga involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures- a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs.
According to Patanjali, the path of internal purification for revealing the Universal Self consists of eight spiritual practices namely Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. The first four limbs - yama, niyama, asana, pranayama are considered external cleansing practices. However, defects in the internal cleansing practices - pratyahara, dharana, dhyana are not correctable and can be dangerous to the mind unless the correct Ashtanga yoga method is followed. The first two steps toward controlling the mind are the perfection of yama and niyama. However, it is not possible to practice the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles. A person must first take up daily asana practice to make the body strong and healthy. With the body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steady and controlled. With mind control, one is able to pursue and grasp these first two limbs. To perform asana correctly in Ashtanga yoga, one must incorporate the use of vinyasa and tristhana. Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. Tristhana refers to the union of three places of attention or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. Instruction in pranayama can begin after one has learned the asanas well and can practice them with ease. Pranayama means taking in the subtle power of the vital wind through rechaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation), and kumbhaka (breath retention). The four internal cleansing practices - pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi bring the mind under control. When purification is complete and mind control occurs, the six poisons surrounding the spiritual heart - kama (desire), krodha (anger), moha (delusion), lobha (greed), matsarya (sloth), and mada (envy) will go completely, revealing the Universal Self.
Derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, Yoga means union of the individual consciousness or soul with the Universal Consciousness or Spirit. Yoga is a 5000 year old Indian body of knowledge. Though many think of yoga only as a physical exercise where people twist, turn, stretch, and breathe in the most complex ways, these are actually only the most superficial aspect of this profound science of unfolding the infinite potentials of the human mind and soul.
While studies of yoga’s impact on health are at an all-time high, experts say that much of the research is still in the early stages. But the quality is improving, says Sat Bir Khalsa, a Harvard neuroscientist who has studied yoga’s health effects for 12 years. It’s likely, he says, that the next decade will teach us even more about what yoga can do for our minds and bodies. In the meantime, the patterns beginning to emerge suggest that what we know about how yoga keeps us well, may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Yoga shows promise as a treatment for relieving certain kinds of chronic pain. When German researchers compared Iyengar Yoga with a self-care exercise program among people with chronic neck pain, they found that yoga reduced pain scores by more than half. Examining yoga’s effects on a different kind of chronic pain, UCLA researchers studied young women suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, an often debilitating autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints. About half of those who took part in a six-week Iyengar Yoga program reported improvements in measures of pain, as well as in anxiety and depression.
Kim Innes, a Kundalini Yoga practitioner and a clinical associate professor at the University of Virginia, recently published a study on how yoga may benefit people who have a variety of health risk factors, including being overweight, sedentary, and at a risk of type 2 diabetes. Forty-two people who had not practiced yoga within the previous year took part in an eight-week gentle Iyengar Yoga program; at the end of the program, more than 80 percent reported that they felt calmer and had better overall physical functioning. “Yoga is very accessible,” Innes says. “Participants in our trials, even those who thought they ‘could not do yoga’, noted benefits even after the first session. My belief is that once people are exposed to gentle yoga practice with an experienced yoga therapist, they will likely become hooked very quickly.”
Much attention has been given to yoga’s potential effect on the persistent dark fog of depression. Lisa Uebelacker, a psychologist at Brown University, got interested in examining yoga as a therapy for depression after studying and practicing mindfulness meditation. Because depressed people tend to be prone to rumination, Uebelacker suspected that seated meditation could be difficult for them to embrace. “I thought yoga might be an easier doorway, because of the movement,” she says. “It provides a different focus from worry about the future or regret about the past. It’s an opportunity to focus your attention somewhere else.” In a small study in 2007, UCLA researchers examined how yoga affected people who were clinically depressed and for whom antidepressants provided only partial relief. After eight weeks of practicing Iyengar Yoga, three times a week, the patients reported significant decreases in both anxiety and depression. Uebelacker currently has a larger clinical trial under way that she hopes will provide a clearer picture of how yoga helps.
It has taken the development of modern technologies like functional MRI screening to give scientists a glimpse of how yogic practices like asana and meditation affect the brain. “We now have a much deeper understanding of what happens in the brain during meditation,” says Khalsa. “Long-term practitioners see changes in brain structure that correlate with them being less reactive and less emotionally explosive. They don’t suffer to the same degree.” Scientists at the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that’s associated with positive moods, equanimity, and emotional resilience. In other words, meditating regularly may help you weather life’s ups and downs with greater ease and feel happier in your daily life.
Many studies have suggested that yoga can fortify the body’s ability to ward off illnesses. Now one of the first studies to look at how yoga affects genes indicates that a two-hour program of gentle asana, meditation, and breathing exercises alters the expression of dozens of immune-related genes in blood cells. It’s not clear how the genetic changes observed in this study might support the immune system. But the study provides striking evidence that yoga can affect gene expression—big news that suggests yoga may have the potential to influence how strongly the genes you’re born with affect your health.
One-fifth of those who have high blood pressure don’t know it. And many who do struggle with the side effects of long-term medication. Yoga and meditation, by slowing the heart rate and inducing the relaxation response, may help bring blood pressure down to safer levels. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted one of the first randomized, controlled trials of yoga for blood pressure. They found that 12 weeks of Iyengar Yoga reduced blood pressure as well as or better than the control condition of nutrition and weight-loss education.