Why do we do yoga, after all?
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
You've heard your friends talk about how amazing they feel after a yoga class. You are following some yoga accounts on Instagram and are inspired (or threatened) by the poses they do. Maybe you've been to a class and liked it, or maybe you're a regular at your neighborhood yoga studio. But you're asking yourself, what is all the hype about? What are those chakras and what does it have to do with chanting "om"? Let's run through some basics of yoga.
1. The Meaning and History of Yoga
"Yoga" means union between body, mind and spirit. The physical practice has been developed as a way to align the body with the mind (concentration, freeing yourself from the monkey mind) and spirit (breath). It was used as a way to detoxify and balance the energies in the body, before meditation. Hence, for advanced yogis or spiritual seekers, it is what comes before meditation, helping to reach a deeper meditative state.
It is believed that it started in India, but the exact place and time is a debate. The teachings of yoga have their roots in Sanskrit writings called "Vedas", written by wise sages called "Rishis". These vedas are mantras explaining enlightened truths that the sages realized. Between 200 and 500 BC, a highly conscious Indian man called Patanjali compiled the teachings of yoga into a system called "Ashtanga eight limbs of yoga" (nothing to do with the Ashtanga practice), which is a complete path to enlightenment. He is regarded as the father of yoga.
Back 1000 years ago, Yoga was not a practice, it was a way of life. People chose it as a lifestyle, in a similar way that priests chose their life. They chose to dedicate their life to becoming enlightened, and yoga was a way to reach that state - through the 8 limbs of yoga.
In the late 1800, Yoga was brought to America by an Indian man called Swami Vivekananda. Later, in the 1920s, it was widely spread by Yogananda (watch Netflix documentary) and others followed from there. Slowly, studios started opening all around the United States and the rest of the world, different types of yoga emerged and it became what it is today.
2. Modern Yoga - difference between styles
If you've checked the "menu" of a yoga studio, you probably encountered names such as: Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga or Bikram/ Hot yoga. What does each one entail?
Hatha Yoga: hatha means practice of physical postures. All other yoga styles have their roots in hatha, which encompasses the general yoga poses. A hatha class is usually a bit slower, although it doesn't have to be, with focus on alignment, breath and sequence.
Vinyasa Yoga: vinyasa means flow, hence this is a hatha practice with more flow in the transition from one pose to the other. Generally faster and focused on pairing breath with movement.
Ashtanga Yoga: predetermined set of postures (asanas), generally more physically demanding. Ashtanga students are encouraged to practice 6 days a week and Ujjay breath is encourages throughout the entire class.
Iyengar Yoga: making use of props, belts, chairs etc. Spending a lot of time in each posture. Set of 200 postures and 14 breathing techniques.
Bikram Yoga: 26 postures from Hatha always done in the same sequence and style, practiced in a heated room of 40 degrees Celsius. It was invented by a man called Bikram Choudhury and only studios affiliated with him can use the name, otherwise they need to call it Hot Yoga.
3. The Breath - Pranayama
If you've been to a yoga class, you know that the teacher always mentions "inhale and exhale" with every move, plus many stress the importance of keeping the flow of and focus on your breath throughout the practice. This has to do with the mind, body, spirit (breath) connection.
Yoga is also closely linked to a practice called "Pranayama", which is one of the limbs of yoga (one of the paths to enlightenment). Pranayama means "expanding the life force energy into the body". It is said that all around us there is energy, life force. When we breathe, we take this life force (prana) into our bodies.
There are several breathing techniques (Pranayama), aimed at detoxifying the body, freeing the mind, creating energy, and connecting with the inner/ outer universe such as to reach higher consciousness. For mortals, Pranayama has great health benefits and even if the breathing done in a typical yoga class only scratches the surface, it is a thousand times better than not doing it.
Some practices ask you to do Ujjay breath during the entire class. Ujjay breath is a breath that goes through your throat and sounds like the waves of an ocean. It is a Pranayama technique and it can be very fiery on the body if practiced too much, hence I don't recommend it for a whole class.
Generally, remember to breathe in when you expand, and breath out when you contract during poses. That's an easy way I learned it.
4. Chakras & Emotional Release
Chakra means disk, referring to a wheel of energies at specific points in the body. Chakras are energetic points in our bodies, where nerves intersect and energies get stored. Each chakra corresponds to a specific major part of the body and consequently rules specific emotions associates with that part. For example, the root chakra, Mooladhara, which is located at the base of the spine, is connected to our survival instinct and preservation of self. An unbalanced root chakra can create emotions of fear, thoughts of not deserving to live. Manipura chakra is located at the navel and rules our power, our will. Hence, the emotions you feel in your stomach when you are both confident and powerful, or insecure and weak. A balanced Manipura chakra translates in a sense of "i have the right to have". The higher you go in the body, the closer you are to connecting with the universe (metaphorically). Hence, the second to highest chakra is the Agya chakra, located at your third eye (in between your eyes on the forehead) and rules intuition, creativity, imagination. The higher people reach into their personal development, the more they can access energy from their higher chakras. The highest chakra of the seven is Sahasra, located on the top of the head and handling awareness and consciousness.
Chakras are a beautiful metaphor for the connection between body and universe, human and higher consciousness. You can look at them from a physical perspective, as they correspond to nerve connections and emotions in the body, but you can also look at them in the relation with your spirit.
5. The Om Chanting (Aum)
Om is considered a very powerful sound, spiritually and creatively charged. It consists of the sounds a, u and m, which are the basics of every sound. It is believed to be the sounds of the internal and external universe, the primordial sound, and when we chant it, we align our energy to the vibration of the universe. The vibration of the sound "aum" has the same frequency as the sounds intercepted in the universe.
In some classes, you will hear teachers chanting. The chants all have spiritual meanings, and apparently have been developed in such a way that the vibrations of the sounds are also healing to the body, mind and spirit.
6. The Nervous System
Yoga has been proven to have numerous health benefits. From the obvious physical ones, caused by the systematic movement of our bodies, to energetic ones, caused by detoxifying the blood and regenerating our cells, to balancing your hormones and increasing your flexibility. But there is one major benefit that is little talked about in the mainstream. The influence on the nervous system, which links everything together.
Our nervous system consists of central nervous system (spinal cord, brain etc), peripheral nervous system (the motor and sensory nerves) and the autonomic nervous system, which controls the involuntary actions such as heartbeat, digestion or immune system.
This autonomic nervous system is divided between sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and restore) nervous system. Yoga activates our parasympathetic nervous system and works to regulate our internal processes of restoring. Hence, people who practice yoga regularly see an improvement in many health areas, from reversing or preventing grave diseases (due to a good functioning of the immune system), to looking younger for longer, dealing better with daily stresses or improving your bone mass.
8. Male and Female Energies
In Chinese philosophy, they talk about Yin and Yang. Two halves of a whole. In Yoga, we talk about male and female, same two halves of a whole. Each person has both male and female energies inside. Female energies are nurturing, male energies are providing Female is being, while male is doing. When these energies are in balance within our bodies, we feel whole. We can act with confidence (male) while embracing life's beauties (female). Same in relationships, if both people have their yin and yang in balance, they can have a beautiful exchange of energies and grow together. When they are out of balance, there can be power struggles, incapacity of accepting or giving love, or insecurity in our actions.
The practice of yoga aims at balancing these energies and honoring them in yourself and in others.
7. It's all Connected
The human body is like complex machine. You cannot treat it in bits and pieces and expect it to function as a whole. Your physical fitness is closely related to your mental health, your mood, your beliefs, your environment, your breath, your digestion, your blood sugar, or the hairs on your head. One influences the other. Yoga touches on all of them. Even if you do it for the physical aspect of it (for example, staying or getting fit by doing complicated inversions and flexibility marathons), you cannot help but realize the effects on your mood, your energy, or your overall health.
That is why I love the asana practice of yoga. Because it is a perfect me time. On that mat, I get to detox my body, build my muscles, tend to my internal organs and immune system, all while releasing emotions, balancing my energies, connecting to my deeper self and to the ones around me. And as we've seen, yoga is not just what you do on the mat. But the mat is a great start. Once you start feeling the benefits you get by showing up on your mat, you learn more about the benefits and philosophy of yoga, and you slowly find yourself incorporating these beautiful teachings of love, non-harm and gratitude in every area of your life.