Why yoga and meditation
Beyond the Asana
Yoga is more than simple exercise. It may include postures (asanas), energy and breath control (pranayama), meditation, music, philosophy and other approaches. While many people equate the word Hatha with a particular style of yoga, the word actually refers to the physical aspect of yoga that is to the asana and pranayama practices.
Classes described as Hatha yoga usually include asanas as well as other teachings. There is a tremendous variety of ways Hatha yoga can be practiced and taught. Common names you may come across will include Ananda, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Integral, Kripalu, Kundalini, Power, Sivananda and Vinyasa. Each style has unique characteristics.
Meditation is important to all styles and traditions of yoga but is often the least understood aspect of yoga. The art and science of transcending one’s thoughts and liberating the mind, meditation may involve simple breath awareness, chanting or movement. For some, it is the heart of the practice, for others it is integrated with the asanas, often at the beginning and the end of the class.
People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons - fitness, stress management, relief from physical or emotional pain. Regardless of their motivation, most credit yoga’s meditative component with allowing them to reach a deeper, more spiritual place in their lives.
Benefits of Yoga
The practice of yoga is well demonstrated to reduce the physical effects of stress on the body. The body responds to stress through a fight-or-flight response, which is a combination of the sympathetic nervous system and hormonal pathways activating and releasing cortisol, the stress hormone from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is often used to measure the stress response. Yoga has demonstrated to reduce the levels of cortisol in the body. Most yoga classes end with savasana, a relaxation pose which further reduces the experience of stress.
Yoga can ease pain. Studies have shown that by reqularly practicing yoga asanas (postures) and meditation, or a combination of the two has reduced pain for people with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, auto-immune diseases and hypertension as well as for arthritis, back and neck pain and other chronic conditions.
Yoga includes breathing practices known as pranayama. Changing the pattern and depth of breathing, can significantly affect the body’s experience and response to stress. By slowing down and deepening the breath, the body’s parasympathetic system or relaxation response is activated. Becoming aware of our breath may be one of the most profound lessons we can learn from our yoga practice. Pranayama will also improve lung function and reduce blood pressure.
A regular yoga practice will improve flexibility and mobility and increase the body's range of motion. Over time, the ligaments, tendons and muscles will lengthen.
Yoga asanas use every muscle in the body, increasing strength literally from head to toe. A regular yoga practice can also relieve muscular tension throughout the whole body.
While most of the evidence for the effects of yoga on weight loss is anecdotal or experiential, yoga teachers, students and practitioners across the country find that yoga helps to support weight loss. Many teachers specialize in yoga programs to promote weight management and find that even gentle yoga practices helps to support weight loss. People do not have to practice the most vigorous forms of yoga to lose weight. Yoga encourages the development of a positive self-image as more attention is paid to nutrition and the body as a whole. A study from the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that regular yoga practice was associated with less age-related weight gain. The lifestyle study of 15,500 adults in their 50’s covered 10 years of participants’ weight history, physical activity, medical history and diet.
Yoga helps to improve circulation by efficiently moving oxygenated blood to the body’s cells.
Even a gentle yoga practice can provide cardiovascular benefits by lowering resting heart rate, increasing endurance and improving oxygen uptake during exercise.
Yoga connects us with the present moment. The more we practice, the more we become aware of our surroundings and the world around us. It opens the way to improved concentration, coordination, reaction response time and memory.
The meditative effects of a consistent yoga practice help many cultivate inner peace and tranquility.