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Yoga: Fitness, Mindfulness or Therapy?



More than 21 Million Americans have explored and experienced Yoga in some form, according to a National Health Interview Survey (https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2012/mind-body/yoga)

But where did it all start? And most importantly how did it find its way into crowded popularity in gyms and studios all around the world?

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Yoga, is rooted in a Sanskrit word “YUJ” or “YUG”, and means Union.  In the practice Yoga has many shades of meaning, including union, integration, discipline, way, behavior.

The practice of Yoga is believed to have started with the very dawn of civilization. The science of yoga has its origin thousands of years ago, long before the first religions or belief systems were born.

Yoga practices include posture (asana), breathing (pranayama), control of subtle forces (mudra and bandha), cleansing the body-mind (shat karma), visualizations, chanting of mantras, and many forms of meditation.

Yoga is also commonly understood as a therapy or exercise system for health and fitness. While physical and mental health are natural consequences of yoga, the goal of yoga is more far-reaching. "Yoga is about harmonizing oneself with the universe. It is the technology of aligning individual geometry with the cosmic, to achieve the highest level of perception and harmony.”

The history of Yoga can conveniently be divided into the following five broad categories:

§  Vedic Yoga: is arguably the origin and seed of the other Yogas

§  Preclassical Yoga:  The creation of the Upanishads begins the Pre-Classical period of yoga. This period unravels the transition of yoga to other religions and worshippers. The word Upanishad means to "sit near." It also implies that for one to have learned in depth the true meanings of the words spilled out on the text was to sit close to a guru, a teacher

§  Classical Yoga : Sutras, popularized through translations incorporated the teachings of many Indian philosophical systems prevalent at the time include 196 sutras or aphorisms

§  Postclassical Yoga: was focused on encouraging attention on the present, to accept it and live in the movement. The Post-Classical era saw an increase in literature and many branches of yoga, such as Tantra Yoga (out of which grew Siddha and HathaYoga, or “body” yoga) while only slightly modifying yoga.

§  Modern Yoga: Transitioned to the US when Swami Vivekandanda appeared at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, a move that marked the beginning of yoga’s evolution in the West. As one of the chief yoga practitioners with a Western education, Vivekananda was pivotal in sharing the wisdom of yoga with an international audience

Yoga is historically an extremely complex and multifaceted term, and its nuances are difficult to understand using the knowledge or methodology of just one discipline. A discipline that places more emphasis on quantitative “rigor” may offer insight into the techniques of yoga--but an approach that emphasizes the philosophical or ethical dimensions of yoga may offer important insights into the human condition. Dialog between approaches can provide an exciting and holistic understanding of how yoga can radically transform identities and lives.

Emerging Trends:

Today as we look around we see three distinct facets of Yoga – Fitness, Mindfulness and Therapy

Gyms have incorporated several forms of Yoga into routine fitness training and practice. It has demonstrated results in Cardiorespiratory fitness, Muscular fitness and Flexibility.

According to Psychology today, Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Yoga is a very powerful way to tune into the more subtle levels of our mind and consciousness and achieve state of mindfulness.

Last but not the least, yoga has tremendous therapeutic value in treating chronic disease symptoms and pain. With illustrated benefits in physical, emotional and psychological health, Yoga is making its way into a diverse set  of therapists tool box.

One example is in psychotherapy transitioning from the couch to the yoga mat. The concept of healing the mind via the body, and vice versa, has been around for decades. "Freud used to work with hysterical women with unconscious conflicts that they couldn't express through words. Only through looking at the symptoms of their body [like phantom pregnancies] could they even get to what was psychologically needed for healing."

Since the days of Freud, research into the mind-body relationship has come a long way. Studies show that not only are mental health and mood dependent in large part on physical factors like exercise, but also unchecked stress, anxiety and depression can affect physical health, increasing blood pressure, heart disease and even risk of death. So it was perhaps inevitable that patients would start bringing their yoga mats into therapy.

With a growing body of research, there is overwhelming acknowledgment of human existence beyond physical terms. Neurobiological studies at different levels of consciousness shows the development of psycho neuro immunology as the most happening field in science and studies on “relaxation response”

The “relaxation response,” a term coined by Harvard Medical School Professor and Body Mind Medical Institute founder Herbert Benson, M.D, is defined as a physiologic state of deep rest that alters the physical and emotional response to stress. The relaxation response is the opposite of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to stress, and can be achieved by centering practices like yoga.

We can learn and utilize the components of this ageless science to improve the quality of life and achieve “freedom from pain”.

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