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Yoga: from Ancient Practice Still Prevalent in Modern Society

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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The discipline of yoga originated in India 5,000 years. Creating a connection between mind and body is the ultimate goal of this tradition; the word yoga actually means “union of the individual self” (Iyengar 14). Millions use yoga to strengthen their bodies, and ease their minds. In America especially, the practice of yoga has become a trend, made popular especially by hollywood elite. But unlike other dangerous trends perpetuated by celebrities, yoga garners substantial benefits. More energy, reduced stress, and a stronger and more flexible body are only a few of the many positive effects. Yoga is an ancient tradition that yields tremendous benefits for those who practice it today. Yoga began in Northern India, in the Indus- Saravasti civilization. There is no record of exactly when this discipline began, and there is no one person to acknowledge for its invention. Patanjali, an Indian sage, is credited with writing the “Yoga Sutras”, the first known record of yoga, which outlines principles and practices of yoga that are still observed today (Weil 1). Yoga had been practiced for centuries, but it did not arrive in America until 1947 when the first yoga studio was opened in Hollywood. In yogic philosophy, the body is composed of three layers: the casual body, the subtle body, and the gross body, and five sheaths. Each “individual functions in mind, matter, energy, and pure consciousness through [these] sheaths”: the anatomical sheath, the life-force sheath, the psychological sheath, and the intellectual sheath (Iyengar 24). Once each of these five are addressed, one reaches the sheath of bliss (Iyengar 24). The practice of yoga encourages the integration of the layers of the body, with the five sheaths, to achieve a sense of oneness and completeness. The fundamental tenets of yoga are outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras; they are know as the “eight limbs” (Iyengar 29). The eight limbs are steps that an individual takes when he or she incorporates yoga into their life. The steps lead to the “ultimate goal of Astanga Yoga, that of emancipation of the self” (Iyengar 29). An individual must embrace each step fully, before reaching Astanga Yoga. The first two steps “yama, or general ehtical principles, and niyama, or self- restraint, prescribe a code of conduct that molds individual morality and behavior” (Iyengar 29). Yama itself has five principles: nonviolence, freedom from avarice, truthfulness, chastity, and freedom from desire. The next two steps are asanas, and pranayama, which are the postures and breathing techniques employed in yoga. Together, asanas and pranayama help “discipline the body and mind” (Iyengar 29). Pratyahara is next; it involves detaching oneself from the external world. Then there is dharana, concentration, and dhyana, prolonged concentration. It is these last two steps that allow an individual to achieve samdhi, the final aspect of the eight limbs. Samadhi is attained “when you lose the sense of your separate existence...nothing else remains except the core of one’s being: the soul”(Iyengar 29). Once an individual has completed all eight steps, he or she can access their “chakras.” In order to achieve perfect physical health, a person must activate the body’s chakras: coils of energy located along the spine (Iyengar 36). A chakra is not a tangible form of matter, it is only noticeable through the effects it has on the body. Yogic sages teach that there are 11 chakras, which, when awakened through asanas and pranayama, generate energy that circulates though the entire body. Energy is spread through nadis, or channels. Since one of the main goals of yoga is the awakening of divine energy in every person, the accessing of chakras is a very important aspect of any yoga practice. Similar to the body, the mind is categorized into five stages of being. The first three stages are negative: kshpita, mudha, and vikshipta, or disturbed, stupefied, and distracted. Kshipta and vikshipta both represent a mind that is hyperactive, unable to shut out external disturbances, and reflect. Mudha, on the other hand, represents a sluggish, lethargic mind (Iyengar 38). It is the final two stages of the mind that are the desired states of being. Ekagra is a tranquil state of mind. For many practicers of yoga, ekagra is the final stage that they will be able to achieve. It can be obtained through meditation, and through concentration practices. The true final stage of the mind, though, is Niruddha, but this stage is quite difficult to obtain. It is a rare state of being in which the mind is completely undisturbed by external sources. Yoga philosophy teaches that in this pristine state, we are able to discover the true nature of our souls (Iyengar 38). Today, yoga is practiced by a wide variety of people, whether to reduce stress, to increase circulation and flexibility, or to strengthen the muscles and bones. A 2003 survey found that 13.4 million Americans practice yoga, and a 2004 study found that 15 million Americans have tried it at least once (Weil 4). Although any exercise program will improve an individual’s health, yoga has the potential to go beyond physical fitness. There is evidence to support that yoga can help lower high blood pressure, by reducing stress through calming breathing techniques (Weil 5). Yoga can also alter mood, and increase a person’s energy level. Practicing yoga can stimulate a person’s lymph system, the network of vessels that run parallel to blood vessels, which carries waste products from cell activities and white blood cells (Corliss 2). Certain yoga poses are thought to massage the lymph system, and speed up the filtering process. Perhaps yoga’s most evident benefit is in strength and flexibility: a study done on a group of men and women, age range 18-27, found that the arm strength of the participants increased by 10%, and their leg strength increased by 28%, after participating in yoga sessions twice a week for eight weeks (Weil 5). Yoga, when practiced on a regular basis, can yield tremendous benefits. Though it is an ancient practice, dating back almost 5,000 years, yoga techniques are still effective to those who follow them today. Through poses and breathing techniques, yoga can help an individual strengthen his or her body, and become a more centered and calm being.

Corliss, Richard. “The Power of Yoga.” Times. Times, 15 April 2001. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health. Great Britian: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2001. Print.

Weil, Richard. “Yoga.” Medicine Net.” N.p. N.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2010.

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