Yoga, as we know it in Western Society, is a practice of exercise and meditation using various body poses and mental techniques. Considered a part of a natural, healthy lifestyle, Yoga has become a cornerstone in the healthy living sector, and it’s popularity has surpassed some of the old exercise techniques such as Pilates or contemporary ’15 minute burn’ exercise techniques.Yoga has become so popular that many yoga poses and positions are seen daily on television and billboards without many people realizing its origins.
Probably one of the most popular forms of yoga today is Bikram Yoga, which is a form of ‘hot’ yoga that uses 26 yoga poses in a 90 minute session. All five principles of yoga are observed throughout the session, leaving the body and mind balanced and focused. Bikram Yoga is just one example of many practicing yoga forms today. Nude yoga, which isn’t as much a form of yoga as it is a way of practicing any type of yoga, is another part of yoga increasing in popularity in the west.
But what exactly is yoga and where did it come from? Why are so many people practicing yoga? Is Yoga just a fad? What are the health benefits of yoga? Here we attempt to explain the basics of this intriguing lifestyle.
A Short History of Yoga
Although the exact beginnings of Yoga is unknown, archaeologists have found seals dating back to 3300 BCE depicting humans in poses and stances, heavily suggesting the use of yoga poses and yoga positions from that time. These tablets or seals were discovered in the Indus Valley, the birthplace of many meditative practices. The earliest mention of meditation in that region is in the Upanishads (early Hindu texts) from around 900 BCE. The exact time that an amalgamation of yoga positions and meditations surfaced is unknown, but there is no doubt that Yoga in its root form was originated and cultivated in the Indus Valley region for thousands of years. Some of the 26 poses of Bikram Yoga are directly derived from these seals.
In the 6th century BCE, during the Vedic Period, evidence of yogi teaching people to use spirituality and ceremonies to surpass the known limitations of the physical world though the mind. Known as Vedic Yoga, it is some of the earliest concrete documentation of organized yoga.
At about this time, Buddhism was starting to spread throughout the lands, with its main teachings focusing on meditation and physical poses. Here the practices of yoga are clearly seen and Yoga was very much a part of daily life for Buddhists. Bhagavad-Gita was a scripture written around 500 BC, and is the earliest know yoga scriptures. The scripture itself is invariable proof of the existence of yoga.
In the second century, Patanjali tried to pin down the fundamental practices of yoga. Usually referred to as Classical Yoga, his definitions as written in his Yoga Sutra explained the Eight Limbs of Yoga:
• Yama, referring to morality and ethics
• Niyama, referring to personal observance
• Asanas, referring to body postures
• Pranayama, referring to controlled breathing
• Pratyahara, referring to control of the senses
• Dharana, referring to cultivation of inner awareness
• Dhyana, referring to devotion and meditation
• Samadhi, referring to a union with the divine
Probably the most notable change in yoga at this point was the emphasis on meditation over physical yoga poses, and the separation of body and spirit (in contrast to the unification of these in contemporary and Vedic Yoga).
Today, yoga is so popular in the west that it is literally impossible to find a modern gym that does not offer yoga classes. Bikram Yoga is an example of a hugely popular form of contemporary yoga. But yoga’s fundamentals remain relatively unchanged. Contemporary yoga, or post-Classical Yoga follow the Five Principles of Yoga:
• Savasana, proper relaxation
• Asanas, proper exercise (yoga poses)
• Pranayama, proper breathing and breathing control
• Diet, proper diet
• Dhyana, proper meditation
As you can see, yoga really isn’t as mysterious as it sounds. In an attempt to find balance and harmony in the mind, body and spirit, one can easily understand the importance of these Five Principles. Upon further examination, we can easily see how each principle works off each other.
Savasana, or knowing how to properly relax, (both the body and the mind) is essential to alleviating stress. Proper dieting and exercise has been proven to not only help us feel better physically, but helps the mind remain healthy, alleviating other disorders such as depression and anxiety. In order to properly relax and then meditate, good mental health is necessary. Once you are ready to meditate, proper breathing techniques can help you meditate properly. Breathing also works closely with yoga poses and exercising, allowing for proper circulation of oxygen and blood to all organs throughout the body.
It’s no wonder then, why so many people in our western culture have been turned on to yoga. It is truly a lifestyle that allows you to focus on your overall health from both a physical, spiritual and mental standpoint. All you need is a towel and a yoga mat – what are you waiting for!