What is Yoga?

By Daysha Hampton      
                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Yoga means ‘union’ in Sanskrit, union with the inner soul and universe.  Yoga originated in ancient India and is still considered a timeless wisdom in India and around the world.  In approximately 400 B.C., Patanjali wrote the “Yoga Sutras,” but it has been determined that Kriya yoga existed long before the system was put into writing.  In India, yoga is a spiritual path starting with the Yamas and Niyamas which define social and personal moral conduct.  Next are the asanas which are the physical postures, referred to as “yoga” throughout the world today.  The asanas are followed by Pranayama, breathing techniques, Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, Dharana, concentration, Dhyana, meditation, and finally Samadhi which means ‘consciousness’ or the ultimate union. However, the “Yoga Sutras” are defined as a path to higher consciousness and are not affiliated with any particular religion.
 
Yoga is known to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve circulation and certain postures also have beneficial effects on internal organs, glands and their secretions, digestion, elasticity of the spinal chord, building core strength and especially mental focus. However, yoga reaches these ends through opposite means than most other forms of exercise, as one is to be comfortable, move steady and breathe deeply and continuously throughout the practice.  This actually relaxes the body and muscles, lowering stress, leading to a lower heart rate and blood pressure during and after the practice of asanas.  Surya Namaskar, Sun-Salutations, and some Vinyasana series were later additions to the Yoga Sutras, and in doing these series of poses, one’s heart rate will rise.  A raised heart rate is often incorporated, though yoga in its pure form can be practiced without increased heart rate.  It has been shown that even gentle yoga does give benefit to the heart and lungs with its deep breathing and Pranayama techniques. For this reason, yoga has wide acclaim as a way for all types of people to reach a better state of health and fitness without excessive exertion, strain and stress.
 
Yoga is a non-competitive practice, as one main focus in the Niyamas of the Yoga Sutras includes focus on reducing the ego.  Yoga should be practiced to benefit one’s individual body and mind. No two bodies are the same and the focus in practicing yoga should not be on attaining a difficult posture or being flexible in comparison to others, but on increasing one’s flexibility and fitness to benefits one’s body and mind at whatever one’s level may be.  It is likely that because our bodies are built differently some may find certain postures come more easily while others find them more difficult and vice versa.  Though, one should remember the type of postures one finds more challenging may be the most beneficial towards balancing strength and improving posture. (i.e. forward bends vs. backward bends & strengthening and balancing vs. flexibility building poses) Any increase in flexibility, strength, focus and balance will benefit one’s body and mind.  Please respect the body and how it is changing and feeling each day, staying within your body’s comfort zone.  Yoga is not a sport with fast or jerking movements where any one should anticipate facing injury, but a practice that should be done slowly and steadily without overstretching or pushing the body to any level of discomfort or pain.  There should be a focus on relaxing the muscles as a muscle flexing against the body in opposition of being overstretched is actually counter-productive to achieving greater flexibility.  Please remember that no posture should cause pain and if pain arises to slowly release the posture and relax your body.
 

As a focus during yoga practice, one should fix the mind on one’s relaxation, posture, breath and the benefits to one’s body and mind as well as achieving a one-pointed focus. One should also focus on releasing all outside thoughts, and staying in the present moment.