By David B. Hughes
Everyone is familiar with the gentle stretching, graceful movements and calm breathing techniques of Hatha Yoga. People have enjoyed Hatha Yoga in the West since the 40s and 50s, and it has become more and more popular since the 60s. People who practice Hatha Yoga exercise report all kinds of benefits from better fitness to spontaneous cures for any number of diseases, to peace of mind.
However, as beneficial as Hatha Yoga may be, it is only a small part of the original and complete Yoga system. If the entire teaching of Yoga were an ocean, Hatha Yoga would be a minor sea smaller than the Mediterranean. Most Western students of Yoga are content to ply the safe waters of Hatha. But in this article, I would like to batten the hatches, trim the foresail and set sail across the stormy sea of the complete Yoga system--or at least give the map a good looking over.
Where does Yoga come from? Although it may be new to America, it certainly is not a recent invention. The source of Yoga is the Vedic literature of India. The Vedic literature is the written record of the Vedic civilization, the oldest--and perhaps the wisest--living culture on the planet. It comprises a vast spectrum of knowledge from practical, commonsense advice to sublime meditations on the most recondite spiritual knowledge, all set to exquisite Sanskrit poetry. Many authors compiled these ancient books over a period of thousands of years, but with a common purpose: all of them have something to do with the practice of Yoga.
To give you an idea of the scale of the original Yoga teaching: first there are the four original Vedas--the Rg-veda, Sama, Yajur and Atharva-veda. There are four Vedas because they contain directions for ceremonial performances performed by four priests. Then there are the 108 principal and hundreds of minor Upanishads, which contain elaborate discussions of the esoteric philosophical and theological implications of the original four Vedas.
There are the 18 main Puranas, or histories of the universe, along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are histories of the incarnations of Rama and Krishna on this planet. Then we have innumerable Tantras describing the technical details of thousands of Yoga practices. And let's not forget the Vedanta-sutra, or ultimate conclusions of the Vedas, the well-known Yoga-sutras of Patanjali, and the many ancillary treatises such as the law books of Manu, and the Samhitas. All of these books have voluminous commentaries written by hundreds of master teachers over thousands of years.
Altogether the collected volumes of the Vedic literature would easily fill the main branch of the New York Public Library, a very large building indeed! However, only a tiny percentage of this incredible spiritual treasure has ever been translated into English.
This great body of literature and culture ensured that none of the original Yoga teachings existed in a vacuum. All of them were developed and written down in the social and philosophical context of the Vedic civilization. Therefore no Yoga teaching is meant to stand alone, but is a choice, one alternative out of many, for attaining the great aim of Yoga. And what is that aim? Yoga ultimately aims to liberate people from the sufferings of life and help them reach their true spiritual potential:
"One can relieve all material distress by practice of Yoga."
-- Bhagavad-gita 6.17
The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yukt, which means to link or attach, as in the English verb yoke. So the subtext in all Yoga teachings is the spiritual process of linking the soul with the Supersoul, the part with the whole, the human with the Divine. The implication is that our difficulty in material life is due to separation from our original spiritual source. The root problem of human life is thus inextricably bound with our individuation from the Supreme Soul and our descent into matter. The solution is found in re-linking our soul with our Divine source through Yoga.
The original Yoga teaching was one; a self-realized master teacher would prescribe practices appropriate for a given student, monitor his or her practice and certify the result. Then why are there so many different branches of Yoga today? Over time, master teachers became too rare to guide everyone, so Yoga specialists developed to tutor specific branches of the teaching. Human nature being what it is, these specialists formed their own schools with differing philosophical conclusions. Now there are hundreds if not thousands of 'flavors' of Yoga.
The benefits of Yoga include relaxing the nervous system has been shown to help direct the immune system to attack the viruses and bacteria that increase in colder weather. Colds are caused by bacteria and affect the upper respiratory system, causing stuffiness, coughing, sore throat, etc. If the immune system is weak, the bacteria can go into the lungs and cause bronchitis or pneumonia. Viruses go deeper into the system, causing chills, fever or pain and aching in the joints.
But a strong immune system can frost the invaders within a few days, preventing more extreme manifestations of the illness and in fact strengthening the immune system. Again, yoga postures done in a relaxed way and slow, deep pranayama can help relax the nervous system and boost the immune.
Yoga also improves our mental state, increases concentration, builds self-esteem, and helps us to deal with stress in a positive way. Mental and emotional improvements include clarity of mind, greater awareness, increased concentration and focus, a more positive attitude, less mood swings, improved self esteem, "groundedness", and stress reduction.
Increasing Flexibility – yoga has positions that act upon the various joints of the body including those joints that are never really on the 'radar screen' let alone exercised.
Increasing lubrication of the joints, ligaments and tendons – likewise, the well-researched yoga positions exercise the different tendons and ligaments of the body.
Surprisingly it has been found that the body which may have been quite rigid starts experiencing a remarkable flexibility in even those parts which have not been consciously work upon. Why? It is here that the remarkable research behind yoga positions proves its mettle. Seemingly unrelated "non strenuous" yoga positions act upon certain parts of the body in an interrelated manner. When done together, they work in harmony to create a situation where flexibility is attained relatively easily.
Massaging of ALL Organs of the Body – Yoga is perhaps the only form of activity which massages all the internal glands and organs of the body in a thorough manner, including those – such as the prostate - that hardly get externally stimulated during our entire lifetime. Yoga acts in a wholesome manner on the various body parts. This stimulation and massage of the organs in turn benefits us by keeping away disease and providing a forewarning at the first possible instance of a likely onset of disease or disorder.
One of the far-reaching benefits of yoga is the uncanny sense of awareness that it develops in the practitioner of an impending health disorder or infection. This in turn enables the person to take pre-emptive corrective action
Complete Detoxification – By gently stretching muscles and joints as well as massaging the various organs, yoga ensures the optimum blood supply to various parts of the body. This helps in the flushing out of toxins from every nook and cranny as well as providing nourishment up to the last point. This leads to benefits such as delayed ageing, energy and a remarkable zest for life.
Excellent toning of the muscles – Muscles that have become flaccid, weak or slothy are stimulated repeatedly to shed excess flab and flaccidity.