Just a few decades ago, finding information about yoga would’ve been difficult. Today, however, the practice is mainstream, with major cities like DC hosting yoga events every year, classes on a daily basis, and studios on virtually every corner.
But there’s more to Yoga than just postures, posing and stretching, but for most of us, that’s the extent of our yoga knowledge.
Yoga is an ancient practice that’s becoming more and more popular today for its ability to foster self-healing, and the connection between practicing yoga and living a healthy life with less physical and emotional stress should be enough to make you want to incorporate it into your weekly routine.
Despite its popularity, though, there’s still plenty of confusion about the purpose of yoga and the many benefits that it offers.
What is yoga?
There are a number of misnomers about what exactly yoga is. In short, yoga is a “direct means of stilling the natural turbulence of thoughts and restlessness of body that prevent us from knowing what we really are,” according to yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda.
“Yoga is a simple process of reversing the ordinary outward flow of energy and consciousness so that the mind becomes a dynamic center of direct perception no longer dependent upon the fallible senses but capable of actually experiencing Truth.”
Yoga is typically thought of as a physical exercise that includes often hard-to-do poses, but yoga is much more of a lifestyle than it is a workout.
Yoga is a centuries-old Indian (or more specifically, Hindu) “spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.”
Why you should do yoga
Let’s eliminate the idea that yoga is not for you. Yoga is for everyone! It’s not a religion and it’s not just something that only hippies do (although hippies do it as well).
The word Yoga means “union.” It comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” which means to yoke (meaning to bind). So, perhaps we should see it as a way of bringing us together.
Yoga is actually a way of creating harmony within–particular necessary in a world where we often look to external things to provide happiness and pleasure. So it’s no mistake that it’s tightly linked to a better quality life for those who do it routinely.
We think of yoga as a physical practice, but it’s more so a mental and spiritual exercise, having benefits that far outweigh anything the stretches and poses could offer cosmetically.
Benefits of yoga
Yoga has countless benefits both in and outside the body, many of which are emotional, psychological and spiritual. Here are just a few of the great benefits of yoga:
Improves flexibility and posture
Lowers blood pressure
Improves mental dexterity
Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
Helps with deeper sleep
Does yoga require a vegetarian diet?
This is a very controversial topic in the yoga community. It’s true that yoga philosophy encourages that you bring no harm to anything living, and if that’s the case, animals do count as something living. The Dharma Sutra warns that, “the slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven.”
There is a deep history that connects yoga and vegetarianism that dates back to the Vedic period, which is an era sometime between 4000 and 1500 b.c.e., and various subsequent teachings thereafter. But the same teaching that condemn the killing of animals to eat concurrently taught the need for animal sacrifice to the “gods.”
However, many who practice yoga today are not vegetarian. In fact, many believe that if a food nourishes the body, and provides energy and healthy benefits, then it’s their personal choice to consume it.
“The non-vegetarians are often practitioners who once tried to be vegetarian but didn’t feel healthy while on that diet,” says Karen Macklin of Prana Maya. “They say it made them feel ungrounded, and that it created conditions associated with vata imbalance (an ayurvedic term for too much wind and ether).”
Whether you practice yoga or not, you must pay attention to your body and make the right nutrition choices based on your individual health, which means that you may eat meat.
The different “paths” of yoga
One of the goals of yoga is to help you reach your highest potential in your human journey, and there are various specialized paths–all branches of the same tree–that will help you on this mission.
Hatha Yoga — This is a popular method of yogic practice in western countries. This system involves physical postures, or asanas, with the “higher purpose” of preparing the body for meditation by purifying the body and providing awareness and control over it internally.
Karma Yoga — Karma means “action,” so this system requires selfless service to others as part of one’s larger Self, without attachment to results, but with the idea of service to God, or performed in the name of God.
Bhakti Yoga — The Bhakti approach is all about “love” or “devotion” (as the meaning suggests). This approach involves all-surrendering devotion through which one strives to see and love the divinity in every creature and in everything, thus maintaining an unceasing worship.
Jnana (Gyana) Yoga — Jnana is the path of wisdom and true knowledge. “Jnana looks into the truth about who we are and what we are experiencing.”
Raja Yoga — Roja combines the essence of all the other paths. It is the royal or highest path of Yoga, immortalized by Bhagavan Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and formally systematized in the second century B.C. by the Indian sage Patanjali.
Yoga is a way of life, and only part of its philosophy is used in gyms and studios as just another form of exercise, but it is far more complex than that. Try starting with five minutes a day and building from there. Yoga can be a part of your everyday routine for both a healthy and overall balanced lifestyle.