Yoga is a holistic practice that enhances both physical and mental well-being. The term "yoga" derives from the Sanskrit word yug, meaning "to yoke." Most Christians are familiar with the term "yoke" from the Bible; a yoke is known to unite two animals at the neck to work together. However, in Hinduism, the historic purpose of yoga is to achieve union with the Hindu concept of God. As a result, when yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar first introduced yoga to America in the 1960s many Christians were skeptical and clung to the idea that it is only a practice for Hinduism. Today, however, people from all over the world are practicing it, not for spiritual reasons but rather to unite and strengthen their physical and mental well-being. And while it is anyone's guess when exactly this Indian native practice originated, yoga continues to evolve into an intangible treatment for injuries and mental illnesses, with postures that engage all parts of the body and deep breathing exercises that declutter the mind. After numerous studies, yoga has been proven to be a healing miracle, so much so that medical practitioners are beginning to incorporate this practice into their patient recovery programs. Thus, yoga has become a part of life for many. This leaves people to wonder, what makes yoga beneficial to our physical and mental well-being?
Many of the successful studies and stories of yoga are an inspiration and a tremendous impact on our society. According to Yoga Health Foundation, a research done by the Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard's McLean Hospital proves that the daily practice of yoga has been extremely healing for people who suffer from depression. Those who practice yoga for an hour on a daily basis has a twenty-seven percent increase in levels of GABA (an amino acid in the brain that gives a sense of well-being and calming excited pulses). When you have low brain levels of neurotansmitter GABA, you are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. In addition to that, a study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. showed that a yoga class performed for ninety minutes at least three to five times a week will produce weight loss. With yoga, we remain harmonize with our body, bringing awareness of our bad habits, like eating because of stress, depression, or boredom. While it is not a cure for cancer, yoga does have the ability to bring a sense of tranquility to cancer patients who are in constant struggles with fatigue muscles due to treatment, stress, depression and shortness of breath. As stated by Pleural Mesothelioma Center, some patients claim that the daily practice of thirty to sixty minutes reduces their stress and improves their well-being. Thus, doctors are able to recommend yoga instructors.
Today, may are unaware of that fact that our mind and body are connected, consequently, when a person suffers from mental illnesses, they become unbalanced and struggle to perform their daily activities. This is when pranayama, also known as yoga breathing exercises, play a crucial role. The most common mental benefits of pranayama include stress reduction, better sleep and emotional balance, and fight depression and anxiety. The breathing exercises vary from beginner (such as abdominal breathing) to advanced (such as the alternate nostril breathing). They urge you to become aware of your mind and body and to focus on your breathing. Alternate nostril breathing (nadhi sodhana) is used as a technique to balance the nervous system and calm the mind; those who have trouble sleeping may perform this daily. Abdominal breathing is the action of breathing deeply into the bottom of the lungs, using the diaphragm muscle to breathe—this provides more oxygen intake, so you feel highly energized. If you are experiencing or have struggled with depression, anxiety and stress due to your hectic lifestyle, this will be greatly beneficial for you. These exercises can be done anywhere at anytime, whether you're sitting at your desk or standing in line at the grocery store.
Now, you may be wondering how to coordinate your breath with yoga postures to reduce mental illnesses. Let's take one specific posture, downward-facing dog. Many, especially those who have little knowledge of yoga, misconstrued this to be the simplest posture, when in actuality, there are steps to follow which require deep abdominal breathing to perform an effortless downward-facing dog, as those seen in Yoga Journal and Women's Health Magazine. You begin on the floor on your hands and knees, assuring your hands are in alignment with your shoulders and hips, during this process, you are inhaling deeply and as you exhale, you slowly lift your pelvis to the ceiling, drawing your hips and looking at your feet. You remain in this posture for one to three minutes, breathing deeply. This is a relaxing yet powerful posture; your breathing and movement are in perfect harmony with one another.
When people hear "yoga", they imagine insane flexibility and strong toned muscles. While that is true, the benefits of asana, the physical movements of yoga, also include increasing the maintenance of a balanced metabolism, aiding in weight loss, posture correction and improving muscle form. Unlike other exercises, asana is composed of postures that vary from beginner to advanced, but all stretch and target specific areas and joints that are not worked out: the smaller and larger muscles. Yoga ensures that all parts of the body are structured and toned.
By way of illustration, plow posture (halasana). To perform this inverted advanced yoga posture, you simply lie on your back and as you inhale, you engage your abdominal muscles to lift your feet off the floor, sweeping your legs over your head until your toes reach the floor. The plow posture strengthens the neck, shoulders, abs and back muscles, while also calming the nervous system and reducing stress. An asana for beginners would be the bridge posture. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, on your exhalation, lift your hips toward the ceiling, keeping your shoulders rolled back and underneath your body. You remain in bridge posture for thirty seconds to one minute.
Meditation is also a practice in yoga. It is a skill that teaches the meaning of true relaxation, as it requires clearing and stilling the mind. The purpose here is to focus on one object only, your breathing. This is known to reduce stress, depression and improve memory and critical thinking. You may perform chants, such as the names of Hindu gods - "om namah shivaaya", which translates to "I bow to Lord Shiva" - or most commonly, "om shanti," meaning "peace" in Sanskrit.
As previously mentioned, many Christians were against the practice of yoga. The thought of this new tradition from another religion entering America stirs up the argument between yogis (those who practice yoga) and those who believe yoga should only be for Hinduism. Pastor Mark Driscoll, author of Doctrine: What Chrsitians Should Believe, has no filter when sharing his thoughts on why yoga is antithetical to Christianity. "Should Christians stay away from yoga because of its demonic roots? Totally. Yoga is demonic." Driscoll states, "We don't worship with Muslims because they worship with different God." This is a pastor who has spent years insulting all kinds of religion, other than his own. In response to Driscoll's statement, Anne Phyfe Palmer, owner of 8 Limbs Yoga Centers in Seattle, argues, "Yoga is not based on religion but on a science of practices that enhance an individual's ability to connect whatever spiritual practice they choose."
Agreeing with Palmer, I can speak from my own experiences when I say that yoga is the most effortless and effective healing system that creates strength and harmony between the mind and the body. When I was 16-years-old, I struggled with stress and depression. My nights became a horror of sleeplessness due to all of the negative chaos that pelted my mind. Most days were spent locked in my room because I did not want to associate with anyone. I'd stare blankly out my bedroom window with a glass of gin and tonic, waiting until the sky darkens. Every sip sent a million delicate sensations that made me feel alive, that made me feel as animated as the blue skies on a summer morning.
Eventually, I reached a point where everything around me looked dull, even when the outside was a myriad of electrifying actions, which is endless in New York City. And if there was one thing I hated more than anything, it was ennui. I was born in the Philippines, where I spent seven years of my childhood. There, I was surrounded by raw nature and everyday was an adventure—from climbing coconut trees, dancing and running around barefoot and naked in the rain, catching spiders in the massive mango tree that stood in the center of my grandmother’s ethereal garden to taking care of our pigs, goats, chickens and ten golden retriever puppies.
Sitting and drinking and hoping that the next morning would be a different day were getting me nowhere. It was the purest form of inaction. I refused to take prescription pills and I did not want anything to do with a therapist. Finally, during one of my many sleepless nights, I grabbed my MacBook and began searching for something that would heal me, physically and mentally. After reading countless of articles and researches on yoga, I was enticed to try it. In the beginning, I doubted it, or I suppose I doubted myself. I thought, "What are these postures? This is a waste of my time." Nevertheless, I got through the first two weeks and I quickly became tied to it, to the point where I never wanted to leave the yoga studio.
When practicing yoga, I focus on my breathing and practice; unknowingly, the negative forces that are causing any sort of mental illness vanish. The more I practice, the more I become accustom to a calmer mind. The yoga studio I have been a part of for years consists of people with various religious beliefs; thus, our yoga instructor advises we dedicate and concentrate our practice to our own faith, if we desire. At the end of the day, we are there trying to achieve the same goal: to enhance our physical and mental well-being.
Yoga is about balance. It is the most natural way to heal ourselves. The combination of pranayama, asana and meditation urges us to simply be and let go of all that may be causing a strain on our daily lives. It is always wise to focus on the present and find inner peace. My only hope in writing this is that whoever is struggling with physical and mental illnesses tries out a yoga session and sees what it is truly about. Remember don't give up after the first class.
Originally published: April 2nd, 2016