How Yoga Works
Yoga works on many levels. It can be many things to many people. For some, it is a stress release, for many it is a practice of moment-to-moment meditation, some people use it as a technique to aid in emotional discovery. Still others see yoga as a well-balanced exercise regime, while for others it may be a full spiritual path.
Yoga is an ancient Indian tradition that was first mentioned in the "directly revealed" Vedas, a set of sanskrit texts dating roughly from 1500 to 500 BCE, although Indus Valley clay seals portraying figures in yogic postures date from c. 2500 BCE. The word "yoga" is usually translated as "union" or "yoke,"; early writings about the practice talk about an individual's union between the body and mind translating to a union with the universal. Yoga was praised in the Bhagavad Gita (200 BCE to 200 CE), as a means of freeing the mind from the difficulties of the physical plane of existence. Rather than an exercise regime, the Bhagavad Gita outlines three types of yoga: karma (selfless action), bhakti (devotion and prayer) and jnana (study of philosophy and knowledge). Practice with awareness, yoga postures tone the muscles, organs, joints and ligaments of the body, bringing physical and emotional well-being. Simultaneously, they free up energy blockages and help in channeling the energy (Prana) more appropriately. This in turn has a profound effect on the mind. Thinking becomes clearer, and one experiences a unique calmness. These mental effects will motivate you to proceed with a daily yoga asanas practice. Similarly, yoga breathing and relaxation techniques reinforce the benefits so gained. These work on the balancing of various energy flows in the body to provide maximum benefits. The breathing (Pranayama) techniques are very effective in transforming moods and dull mental states—a need that is felt today more than ever before. Current studies conclude that yoga reduces spinal deterioration and equals or surpasses exercise in reducing stress, improving balance and diminishing fatigue. Studies show that practicing Yoga helps in normalizing blood pressure. Since the movements have their full range of motion, it stretches the muscles and joints and may encourage strength and endurance. It also reduces stress, relieves pain, and increases the feeling of calmness and well-being. Jung, Thoreau, Menuhin, Gandhi, Sting and Madonna have all been intrigued by yoga.
Hatha Yoga (translates roughly as Sun/Moon Yoga) uses a series of physical postures that can aid every system in the body.
The Body: In a similar manner to acupressure, acupuncture or massage, practicing the postures temporarily slow down the blood flow to a given part of your body. This tourniquet effect dams up the blood in the area you are compressing, while simultaneously stretching the muscles in another part of your body. When you come out of the posture, a reserve of fresh, oxygenated blood flows into the area that was compressed. This counteracts our often repetitive-strain syndrome lifestyles that involve too much atrophic sitting or standing, allowing a more balanced blood, nutrient and oxygen flow throughout the body, "waking it up". This is why yoga helps us feel more energized and why it is so good for injuries; you are safely and carefully sending healthy blood to a damaged area, rather than letting it atrophy from non-use.
The Mind: When our muscles are tight and achy we get tired and cranky. Taking time to discover our body and learn that we can stretch our limits gives us feelings of confidence, empowerment and joy. Using muscles requires energy. As we develop the ability to use only the muscles we require for given tasks and therefore relaxing the muscles we don't need, we decrease our energy expenditure, and we have more energy at the end of the day. Emotionally, a body enjoying a feeling of relaxation and power helps us feel the same way; space in the body equals space in our mind for enjoying life, and for choice. So as we gain awareness of our body, we tend to feel more 'comfortable in our own skin', as the saying goes. It has been proven that improving ph balance and increasing blood flow to and from the brain helps us think better. Yoga improves brain function; in order to hold the postures, one must focus completely on what one is doing; this is called "being in the present moment" or "in the now". There is internal, healthy multi-tasking occurring, which is completely healthy and different from the external, mentally fracturing multitasking that often occurs during our daily lives. Calming the mind improves focus, memory and concentration. Hatha postures are a type of meditation—that is, focussing on one thing for a period of time. This clears the mind, allowing the brain to function more efficiently.
The Emotions: Each of the postural groups have a different physiological effect on our brain chemistry. Standing Poses help us "stand on our own two feet" by increasing stamina, stability, confidence, strength and power. Twists help us deal with "tight situations" by teaching how to breath, relax and soften when life twists us up. Backbends can expose the heart, helping us feel more comfortable with our vulnerabilities. Inverts work on our fears of the unknown, letting us feel we can trust ourselves when life goes topsy-turvy. Everyone's favourite pose, Savasana, where we lie down flat at the end of each class, is a metaphor for the end of each day. It helps remind us how to relieve stress, pressure and anxiety after a busy day. It helps us calm down and gives us an opportunity to rest and integrate our body, mind, and emotions.