Here’s some reasons why you’d be better off replacing your gym work-out with a yoga class. This list of reasons excludes the simple fact that yoga has been recommended by wise sages and yogis for thousands of years, which in itself is a pretty hefty endorsement!
First, a little intro about yoga to clear up some misconceptions:
Something that might not be obvious from the odd yoga-studio flyer, is that yoga essentially means “union” and is a spiritual system based on a profound science. Within the system of yoga, there are broadly four paths corresponding to our main faculties: body/action (Karma yoga), intellect (Jnana yoga), emotion (Bhakti yoga) and mind-body/energy (Raja yoga). Yoga-asanas form a part of Raja Yoga, the path of yoga focused on a scientific approach to raising the mind and body to their highest potential.
Asana translates from Sanskrit as “steady posture”. Asanas benefit not only physical health but also mental health and in addition, hold the potential to elevate consciousness. In fact Hatha Yoga is a path involving asanas and pranayama (breathing techniques) that is a complete spiritual path by itself. The significant health benefits are merely side-effects!
1. Flexibility, balance and strength
Yoga emphasises stretching the muscles as opposed to the forceful contractions emphasised in gymming exercise. While both forms of exercise help to strengthen and tone muscles, asanas improve flexibility of the body while gym workouts, as most of us know from experience, tend to make the body stiff.
The more flexible the body, the more it is at ease, the wider the range of movement it is capable of and the healthier it is in general. When muscles and joints are stiff, it is difficult for the prana (life energy or the vital force) to circulate freely within the body. At the most fundamental level, imbalances in prana are what lead to both mental and physical health problems.
2. Importance of the Spine
In Hatha Yoga, the spine is considered to be the axis of the universe (See: video by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev). The yogis have always placed great importance on the health of the spine for the following reasons:
- The spinal column houses the nervous system and therefore a healthy spine ensures that the nerves are nourished and healthy. This in turn ensures that all other functions of the body are healthy. A strong and flexible spine keeps one youthful in both the body and mind which is why it is commonly said that ‘you are only as old as your spine’.
- The spine corresponds to the place where the seven most important chakras (energy junctions) reside in the energy/subtle body (which envelopes our physical body). These chakras are the main seats of vital energy and consciousness in the body and play a very important part in our physical, mental and spiritual life.
All asanas emphasise maintaining good posture and most asanas deliberately exercise the spine either through elongation, rotation or bending.
3. Relaxing and De-stressing
The traditional practice of yoga-asanas places a strong emphasis on relaxing the muscle after it has been exercised/stretched. This makes yoga radically different from gymming exercises which generally emphasise vigorous movement without rest. What gymming does therefore is lead to the build-up of lactic acid which causes muscle fatigue and soreness. Asanas do not allow the build-up of lactic acid if practiced correctly.
In addition to physical relaxation, asanas as well as pranayama also aid mental relaxation. This is why yoga has become so popular among people suffering from stress. Yoga practice is designed to cleanse the energy channels (nadis) of the body, which may be blocked by stale energies from past emotions, stress, traumas, etc. The Anulom-Vilom pranayama technique for instance, is a powerful process that, by focusing on just the three main energy channels of the body, has the effect of cleansing all 72,000 nadis, allowing fresh prana to circulate freely.
4. Targeted benefits
Asanas are not just any postures, but involve a scientific precision reflecting a profound understanding of the functioning of the human body. Aside from the important focus on the flexibility of muscles and the spine mentioned earlier, asanas also target specific glands and functions of the body, for instance:
- Asanas like Setu-bandhasana (bridge pose), Halasana (plough pose) and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) massage the thyroid gland (responsible for metabolism), regulating its function.
- Inversions like Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and Shirsasana (head stand) provide rest to the veins in the legs that are operating against the force of gravity when we are standing or sitting on a chair throughout the day (See also: It’s Dangerous to Sit Around, Unless You’re a Yogi).
- Asanas like Paschimottanasana (sitting forward bend), Halasana (plough pose) and Ardha–Matsyendrasana (half spinal twist) help stimulate the pancreas, helping in diabetes control.
- Pranayamas like Kapalbhati and Anulom-Vilom regulate the functioning of the endocrine system among other benefits.
5. From Asana to Awareness
Asanas differ greatly from regular exercises because of the focus on awareness that is part of the practice. Asana is not asana without awareness. This awareness is generally maintained by focusing on one’s breath throughout the practice. The breath is also itself used to move the body deeper into asanas. In the advanced stage, the yogi is so united with his breath that the asana that the body is holding does not even matter anymore. He is one with awareness.
This awareness is hard to maintain in vigorous work-outs when one is often running out of breath. The mind and body need to be aligned first before they can be transcended into the experience of awareness (See also: Aligning Body and Mind with Yoga).
Not only is awareness a conscious practice in yoga, it is also facilitated by the asanas themselves. This is because the asanas are designed to raise the level of prana in the body and to move prana or energy, upwards. This naturally makes one more aware, conscious and even meditative. The sequencing of asanas may also be designed to further help to move energy upwards in the body. Similarly, pranayama techniques are designed to cleanse the energy channels (nadis) of the body so that prana can circulate freely. In fact, the entire effort of Hatha Yoga is to move the prana into the central energy channel of the body – the Sushumna Nadi – which scientifically speaking, enables the yogi to be in the highest state of consciousness.
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