Yoga is on fire in the West, with 40% of health and fitness clubs offering classes to meet the growing demand; however, yoga is so much more than just a physical fitness practice. It is a complete system of health maintenance for the mind, body, and spirit. According to yoga, the highest level of healing is to prevent disease before it gets started.
I became intensely interested in yoga in my early 40s after attending a yoga workshop in Sedona. One of the participants was a 75-year-old woman who glided across the room and through the yoga poses with the physical and mental flexibility of a 24 year old. I asked for her secret. Had she discovered a new Fountain of Youth? Her one-word answer was not “vitamins” and not “supplements.” It was yoga.
In the US, yoga has become almost synonymous with hatha yoga (yoga as seen on TV), which uses stretching in various positions, or asanas, combined with breath practices like the yogic breath, a special form of long, deep breathing. As a moving meditation, hatha yoga calms the mind, strengthens all the muscles in the body, and tones the internal organs and glands.
It’s important, however, to remember that yoga is much more than a physical practice, much more than stretching. It includes yoga for the mind, also known as meditation.
- a moving meditation practice that keeps the body-mind strong and flexible into advanced age.
- defined by Patanjali as “that which calms the thought waves of the mind.”
- a holistic way to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia without pills.
- a way to boost the immune system and help keep away disease.
- an eight-part system, the last three parts having to do with meditation.
- a path to higher consciousness and higher awareness.
- a word that means union of the individual self with the soul-self.
What is the most important part of Yoga?
Perhaps the most common misconception about yoga is that the asanas, the positions, are the most important part of yoga. They are not. The most important part is yoga for the mind, or meditation. Meditation simply means giving your full attention, your concentration, to one object. That object could be something you can see, like a candle flame, something you can hear, like a mantra or the ocean waves, or something you can do, like yoga.
It is important to remember that the complete yoga system has eight parts. The all-important last three parts, a continuum of yoga for the mind, are dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (deepest meditation or absorption into bliss).
Just like we must learn to walk before learning to run, we must learn how to concentrate before entering deepest meditation or samadhi. In samadhi, the observer and the object being observed become one, culminating in feelings of oneness and bliss.
The original definition of yoga by the sage Patanjali is “that which calms the thought waves of the mind.” What thought waves? The worries and the hurries. Calming our minds has become one of the greatest challenges in this hectic modern world. Fortunately, yoga has given us a number of tools, such as meditation and conscious breathing, for dissolving stress and anxiety.
Holistic physicians like myself are now recommending yoga as a way to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia without the prescription pad.
To find out how, and to discover easy ways to meditate, please see my books: Mantra Meditation: An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety and Depression, and The Mystical Chakra Mantras: How to Balance Your Own Chakras with the Yoga of Sound.
Am I too old for yoga?
Definitely not. Many people have started yoga in their 70s, and most say they wish they had started sooner. There are yoga classes for every age group. Yoga can be enjoyed from childhood into the advanced years.
Do I have to be fit to do yoga?
No. You can join a class that’s suitable for your fitness level. Some yoga classes are chair-based. In an intermediate class, you will need to be able to get up and down from the floor.
Don’t I need to be flexible to do yoga?
Not necessarily. A common misconception is that yoga is only for the young; those who can do pretzel poses. Yoga can even be done from a wheelchair — it’s as easy as gently rotating the neck in a circle, or opening and closing a fist. If you are new to yoga, explore Peggy Cappy’s DVD, Yoga For the Rest of Us, available on PBS. Yoga will improve your flexibility and help you go beyond your normal range of movement, which may make performing your daily activities easier.
What are the health benefits of yoga?
Yoga increases strength, flexibility, and balance. It helps maintain ideal body weight and relieves anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It lowers blood pressure and gives the immune system a boost.
Can yoga help with arthritis?
Yoga is popular with people with arthritis as a gentle way of promoting joint health by stimulating the production of synovial fluid (nature’s WD-40) inside each joint. Find a teacher who understands arthritis and can adapt movements for individual needs, especially if you have replacement joints. Check with a doctor or physiotherapist to find out if there are any movements to avoid.
Can I injure myself doing yoga?
Yoga is normally safe if taught properly by a certified, experienced instructor. Occasionally, injuries like muscle strain may be caused by over-stretching, the same as with any other physical discipline. Learning from a qualified yoga teacher and choosing a class appropriate for your level will help ensure you remain injury free.
Is Yoga a religion?
Yoga is not a religion; however, it does, support spirituality, regardless of one’s chosen spiritual path. Over 5,000 years old, yoga predates most of the world’s modern-day spiritual traditions.
Dr. Harrison Graves, M.D., FACEP is our expert in holistic medicine, specializing in the treatment of anxiety, depression, or insomnia. He is heavily influenced by Ayurveda, the holistic medicine of India, and believes that many illnesses, especially those that are anxiety related, can be prevented with Ayurveda, lifestyle changes, and yoga. In his articles for the BoomSpot, the blog of the online store theBoomShop.com, Dr. Graves provides insight on alternative methods of maintaining physical and mental wellbeing. You can learn more by visiting his website, asktheholisticmd.com.