Yoga is way more than the asanas – those physical postures that we generally do in a yoga class. Similarly, it has way more relevance than just keeping us fit by attending a weekly yoga class or asana session. It can be, and is, used in so many different ways.
The main aim of yoga is increased awareness – in all its guises.
It starts with being aware of our bodies. In a person with no history of trauma or major illness, just being aware of the placement of the relaxed body is a significant beginning; from that, the person can then gradually become aware of which parts of the body respond to which kinds of movement. In a person with a history of trauma, shutting down body awareness is a common response – more of that later.
Awareness of the breath comes next and many people then realise that they have poor breathing habits.
Most commonly, people realise that for many years they have been taking very shallow breaths, which don’t allow the lungs to be completely cleaned of old stale air. Practising abdominal breathing consciously and frequently can relieve and (dare I say?) prevent respiratory diseases. Abdominal breathing is also a quick, easy, affordable and readily available method of relieving stress. I recommend that everybody does a few minutes each day of conscious, abdominal breathing.
An interesting fact about the breath is that, it is claimed, that humans are the only species that can be conscious of their breathing. Mostly, we do not think about about our breathing – it happens automatically, as with most of the processes of our bodies.
Some very experienced yogis can consciously alter their heart rate, blood flow and other bodily processes!
However, WE – as opposed to all other species on earth – can become aware of our breathing – and in fact yoga encourages us to do so. Most of the time, it is the most ancient part of our brains, the “reptilian” part of the brain that takes care of our breathing, but when we consciously take control of our breathing, the controls are handed over to the frontal cortex – the most highly sophisticated part of the brain. My belief, then, is that taking control of our breathing, that is, breathing consciously, helps us to become smarter.
In fact I recently watched a program about increasing our brain power; it showed that by exercising the brain (for example, learning to juggle) we do in fact become smarter. So … as often as you can – take conscious control of your breathing; that is, just become aware of it.
At Yoga Alive we practise a tradition of yoga called Satyananda yoga, which is based mostly within the style of Hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga is the ancient tradition of posture, breath, meditation and cleansing – what we know as the 8 limbs of yoga (of which the yamas and niyamas are the beginning).
One of the major foci of Hatha Yoga is its cleansing practices, the best-known being neti. Neti is the nasal-cleansing practice in which slightly salted water is used to wash out the nostrils. People frequently find that once they start performing neti several times a week, they don’t fall victim to colds and flu. Neti pots are often available at chemist shops. I am happy to give instructions on neti practice, if you’d like to try it – which I recommend.
Yoga is probably best-known for encouraging body flexibility, via the asanas (postures) that are generally practised in a yoga class.
The asanas also encourage physical strength, improved balance and improved posture, which is important in keeping the body healthy. To attend a weekly class – and especially to practise some of the asanas between classes – requires self-discipline, which is both a requirement for, and a result of, yoga, and which inevitably spills over into, and improves the quality of, other areas of life.
“Mindfulness” is the “in” thing in our society at present. Mindfulness, meditation and relaxation are all integral parts of yoga. With “stress” being the number one cause of most major illnesses in our society today, these yoga practices are essential items in our health tool-box, giving people the ability to cope with depression. I knew a swami in India who even used candle-gazing meditation to control her schizophrenia.
Also, yoga can help relieve daily aches and pains, improve the immune system, and even alleviate some of the symptoms of diabetes and heart disease. 1
Many of the asanas work directly on the digestive system; it’s not uncommon for people to report significant reduction in constipation as a result of attending a weekly yoga class for about six weeks.
Aspects of yoga are becoming standard in some schools and pre-schools.
My nine-year-old neighbour says her class does a mindfulness session every day. Apparently this is quite common. Yoga is increasingly being used in schools to improve students’ physical and mental health; it improves their focus, memory, self-esteem and even academic performance. In cases where serious research has been undertaken in schools, yoga has been shown to not only reduce students’ anxiety and stress, but also their classroom behaviour. It has also been shown to help with ADHD. 2
In a study of the effects of yoga practice on eye-strain caused by prolonged computer use, all participants recorded complete relief in subjective symptoms like headache, backache and irritability. All of them also reported an increased capacity to work without becoming exhausted. The study showed that yoga eye practices definitely help in reducing symptoms arising from computer use. 3
Yoga is used by many top-level athletes and sports people to enhance their performance in their chosen fields.
It is used by managers of businesses large and small. It is used by the Indian army as an adjunct to their military training.
“Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level of our being – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – makes it a powerful and effective modality for trauma victims … most experts agree that trauma’s effects live in the body – and that’s why yoga works”. 4 There are of course many kinds of trauma – being raped, being hit by a car or involved in a serious car accident, witnessing or being the victim of violent crime, losing a friend or partner to serious illness, or being in a war zone – all can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yoga is now being used in various parts of the world to help sufferers of PTSD.
At an Asylum Seekers Support Centre in Sydney, yoga has been used to give asylum-seekers a renewed sense of trust and self-confidence. 5
Here is an article about yoga being used to help little children who have been abused.
It is used in the repatriation of service men and women into civil society. I am reading a book called “HOPE: How Yoga Heals the Scars of Trauma” by an Australian yoga teacher who is currently teaching yoga to ex-soldiers and their families.
Whether you are seeking improved health, a calm mind, self-discipline or you are wanting to move through the damaging effects of trauma, any or all of the usual aspects of a yoga class may be used – asanas, breathing techniques, yoga nidra, and relaxation.
Yoga truly is India’s gift to the world.
1. Linda Sparrowe: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/transcending-trauma-how-yoga-heals
3. Ghantali Mitra Mandal, Yoga Magazine (May 2007), Year 6: Issue 5: p.44.
4. Linda Sparrowe: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/transcending-trauma-how-yoga-heals
5. Linda Sparrowe: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/transcending-trauma-how-yoga-heals