Yoga Benefits and History

It’s hard to open a women’s magazine today without seeing a reference to the benefits of yoga. Unfortunately, most of these articles focus on yoga as exercise, showing slim, 20-somethings twisted into seemingly impossible poses.

But that is not what real yoga is all about.
Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years. The word yoga means union: of the mind with the body, of yourself with nature. It is about setting aside the ego, finding compassion, and searching for the deep inner “you” that exists outside of the person who must strive to earn money, buy stuff, and try to find happiness in the material world.

The physical exercises, known as asanas, are a small component of yoga. Modeled after the movements of animals, their original purpose was to prepare yogis’ bodies to sit more comfortably for meditation and open all channels to spiritual enlightenment. The asanas are really a form of meditation in motion. Breathing is also an important component of yoga, an all-encompassing practice that results in strength, balance, and flexibility in mind, body, and spirit.

A counter to self-inflicted violence. Are you thinking of joining a yoga class? It is important to understand that yoga promotes non-violence in all things: thoughts, speech, and actions. This is a difficult concept for us to grasp because our culture is quite violent. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way we treat ourselves. We overwork ourselves; we beat ourselves up for not being richer, thinner, less bald, taller or shorter; we believe in ‘no pain/no gain. We ignore the ‘inner whispers’ that tell us to slow down, log off, go home, sit still, go to the bathroom instead of ‘holding it,’ eat when we are hungry, and rest when we were tired. We live anywhere but in the present moment, constantly planning for the future, rushing here and there to take care of our families, reacting to events. In this culture, we do not treat ourselves humanely, and this extends to our treatment of others.

Now, with the wisdom of half a lifetime behind us, perhaps we should begin channeling all of our ambition and resolve into becoming yogis. We know how important it is to make time for ourselves and to cultivate inner peace. We recognize the need to slow down for a moment and begin to realize the miracle of just being. If we do not do this now, then when will we?

A simple yoga exercise: You can start on this journey right now. Sit still, close your eyes, and just “watch” the thoughts that flow through your mind. How many of them carry some kind of judgment or criticism, such as “Oh, I’m probably not doing this right,” or “I should be thinking about what I’ll make for dinner instead of doing this”? How many are you vs. them” thoughts, such as “Linda thinks she’s so good at yoga, but she doesn’t have a clue”? Do you find it hard to stop running through your to-do list? Try this awareness exercise for just five minutes at first, then longer – ten minutes, then fifteen — after you do it a few times.

As you become aware of the scripts that your mind automatically plays, you will gain the power to change them. Already, you are planting seeds to attain inner strength, balance, and flexibility – to become a yogi.

Focusing on the breath. After you try the “watching” exercise above a few times, you can move on to another simple meditation to help you transform your negative thoughts into positive energy. This time, you will watch your breath.

Get comfortable. Sit either in a chair or on the floor. Keep your spine comfortably straight, without slouching or stressing. Rest your hands in your lap. Be aware of your body. Relax.

Soften your belly. Sucking in your gut will invoke a “flight or fight” response, adding to your stress. Instead, let it all hang out.

Watch your breath. That’s all. Just be aware of each inhalation and exhalation through the nose. Notice how each breath feels in your body. Don’t try to force or change anything. Each breath is different. It will come and go, just like your thoughts and emotions — and life itself. Are you feeling bored? Take a moment to consider where you’d be without these precious breaths.

Notice your thoughts. Your brain will resist. It will want to review events, imagine, and problem-solve. If your thoughts turn in this direction, gently, non-judgmentally bring them back to your breath. It may help to label each thought or emotion as it arises: “memory,” “plan,” “anger,” “fear,” etc.

Take control. Imagine your thoughts as clouds in a pure blue sky. As each one drifts into your mind, allow your breath to be the soft wind that blows them away. Then, patiently wait for the next thought to arise. If it’s negative, label it, and allow your breath to clear it from your mind before it turns into a storm of thinking.

Again, begin with a five-minute meditation and work up to as much as twenty minutes. This meditation is calming and soothing. You can close your eyes and use it before stressful events such as a business presentation or family gathering. You can even use it to help you fall asleep after a hectic day. The more you practice it, the more quickly you will relax.

Find a “real” yoga class. If you decide you’d like to add the asanas to your yoga practice (they will make you look and feel wonderful) it’s important to learn them from an experienced instructor; bending or twisting the wrong way can be hard on older bodies. Look for a beginner class that integrates opportunity for inner reflection, meditation, or guided visualization with the poses. After the activity of doing, you’ll want to allow yourself to focus on your being — to relax into the graceful, blissful opening of your soul that yoga can help to bring about.