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Yoga Practices in History and Today

Yoga has gone mainstream and it has become an important part of Western pop culture. Yoga’s global success is due in large part to the endorsements made by celebrities and influential people of the Western world. Yoga’s popularity surge was aided by testimonies of ordinary people extoling the curative power and tension-breaking benefits of yoga (Gordon 7). Yoga started as a philosophical belief system and evolved into a sophisticated meditation technique enhanced by physical exercises that strengthens both the mind and the body. It is therefore interesting to trace its trajectory from its humble beginnings in ancient Indian history to its emergence as a global phenomenon (Gordon 7). A historical approach will reveal that modern practitioners are merely scratching the surface when they focus only on the mental and physical benefits of yoga. The religious and moral components of yoga may serve as access points to unleash the power of this ancient belief system.

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Background

Yoga’s basic framework is described as a system of exercise (Pappas 2). However, it must be made clear that it is also a lifestyle leads to the union of mind and body (Pappas 2). Yoga practitioners offer a more sophisticated view, telling the world that it is a series of actions leading to the harmony of mind, body, and breath (Stone 113). Furthermore, it is a system of harnessing the power of ancient techniques, such as, meditation, relaxation, breathing, and physical exercises (Kappmeier and Ambrosini 17). These ancient techniques are known to other cultures (Kappmeier and Ambrosini 17). However, the yogis were the first to incorporate these ancient traditions into one unified system (Pappas 2). It is interesting to point out that the term yoga was taken from the Sanskrit language, and it means to join or integrate (Gottfried 7). In this context, yoga is defined as the perfect union of mind and body (Gottfried 7). This is a good starting point in order to have a general overview of yoga. Nevertheless, it is important to retrace its development from ancient India to the Western world.

It is impossible to know the exact date and other pertinent information regarding the origins of yoga (Claire 24). It is an impossible undertaking to pinpoint its date of birth because “yoga is so ancient that it is believed to predate the written texts and visual images that depict it” (Claire 24). Nevertheless, historians made the claim that yoga was invented 5,000 years ago in India (Claire 24). One of the earliest known writings are traced back to the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. One of the oldest is the Rig-Veda, an ancient text that was written in 3,000 B.C. The Rig-Veda contained numerous references to this particular form of exercise and meditation technique. However, it was another ancient Hindu text called the Upanishads that was instrumental in codifying the oral traditions that formed the basis of yoga (Claire 24). The Upanishads were helpful, however, it was the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras that were influential in creating the modern version of yoga.

Serious practitioners refer to the information contained in the Bhagavad Gita, because it is in these ancient texts where one can find the Hindu god Krishna’s instructions to the warrior Arjuna on how to practice yoga. The Yoga Sutras on the other hand is a collection of 195 aphorisms on the essence of yoga thought (Claire 24). A yoga expert named Patanjali wrote it. He is considered as the father of yoga.

One of the critical turning points in its history occurred in the 14th century A.D. when Svatmarama Yogin developed the branch of yoga known today as Hatha Yoga Pradipika or hatha yoga. This is an influential text because it paved the way to the development of the physical aspect of yoga.

The soil from which it emerged was ancient India’s six principal systems of philosophy (Bose 121). The six principal systems are linked in pairs of three: 1) Sankhya and Yoga; 2) Nyaya and Vaishika; and 3) Mimamsa and Vedanta (Bose 121). In this early attempt to create systematic philosophy, “the Sankhya supplies the metaphysics and Yoga delineates the psychological discipline” (Bose 121). In the beginning, yoga was not created as an exercise system to help people experience peace of mind and acquire a strong body. Yoga was created as a major component of a moral and religious framework to control lust and other desires (Bose 121). The end goal is moral and religious restraints, such as: “non-injury, truthfulness, purity, sincerity, sex-control, self-containment; and external purification of the mind (Bose 121).

In the present day, yoga is seen as a type of exercise. A more technical elaboration means that it is a series of movements or exercises known as yoga postures. Therefore, beginners are introduced into conventional yoga postures, such as, forward bends, lunges, back bends, and twists (Pappas 19). But this is a superficial view of yoga. In the beginning, the foundation stones were made from moral and religious tenets prompting one expert to comment that “physical fitness and toning the body are only a beginning step; the broader framework is to begin to see the things of the world not as items of consumption but as a place of ultimate un-satisfactoriness” (Stone 114). It is crucial to understand these things in order to remove the blinders that limit the full appreciation of ancient yoga.

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Present Day Yoga

In the modern era, yoga has been reduced to meditation techniques and physical exercises. Breathing exercises enhances the meditation techniques. Yogi experts made the claim that the key to healthy living is the ability to inhale and exhale properly (Bennett 12). This assertion is based on the insight that newborn babies have shown the correct method of breathing (Bieling and Antony 19). Nevertheless, the baby becomes an adult and forgets how to breathe the correct way (Datey 20). As a result, the inability to breathe correctly leads to mental and emotional problems such as stress, depression, and other ailments (Miner 43). It is the end goal of yoga experts to teach people how to rediscover the ability to breathe like a newborn baby, and in the process learn the technique to restore life-giving power to the body (Forbes 15).

The modern world was attracted to Patanjali’s 8 Limb System and made yoga accessible to ordinary people. The 8 Limb System was an eye opener regarding the importance of going beyond the limitations of the physical body (Gordon 10). Patanjali codified the ancient truth that a healthy human being understands the importance of a progressive consciousness starting from a sensitive understanding of the surroundings to enlightenment (Gordon 10).

The 8 Limb System served as the gateway to the most accessible component of yoga, which is the Asana or physical poses. It is common knowledge that a healthy body helps reduce the impact of stress (Gordon 19). The 8 Limb System however opens up another level that leads to the union between mind and body. The fourth level of the 8 Limb System is the pranayama. It is in this level wherein yoga practitioners learn how to relax in order to counteract the effect of depression and anxiety (Gordon 68).

The student must never stop at the fourth or fifth level. The next goal is to reach the sixth and seventh level in order to reap the benefits of a strong mind able to withstand external pressures (Gordon 69). However, the end goal is level 8 or Samahdi, because at this level the body and mind is in complete harmony (Gordon 69). According to yoga experts, a strong mind has the capability to control the body (Gordon 70).

The popularity of yoga surged when celebrity endorsers harped about its power to deal with depression and anxiety. The modern world is plagued with various manifestations of anxiety and depression, such as, low-self esteem, constant worrying, insomnia, and a general sense of malaise (Klein and Wender 15). There are numerous cases of anxiety, manifested through constant worrying and physical agitation (Bennet 23). There are also numerous cases of depression, and it is manifested by negative thinking, lack of engagement in life, and physical lethargy (Bennett 23).

Yoga became a popular alternative after the discovery that the ineffective use of Western style medication on depression leads to an overburdened circulatory system reeling from the impact of toxic chemicals (Doran 10). Yoga offers an alternative way out offering healing through the union of mind and body. According to one commentary, “Like musicians performing a duet, the mind and body can compose countless variations on the themes of anxiety and depression (Forbes 15). Yoga practitioners cite scientific studies that found the interconnectedness of yoga’s breathing, exercise, and meditation techniques. In other words, the practice of yoga helps body and mind to achieve rest and therefore prevent anxious thoughts and depression (Forbes 15).

It is interesting to know what will happen if current yoga practitioners go beyond the mental and physical aspects of yoga. It is interesting to find out how yoga can help people beat depression and anxiety if they include the moral component. It is hard to believe yoga’s effectiveness to heal anxiety if the yoga practitioner is an unfaithful spouse or a corrupt politician.

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Conclusion

21st century yoga practitioners are content to focus on the physical and mental aspect of this ancient belief system. The breathing, meditation, and physical exercises produce tangible results. However, ignorance of the moral component of yoga could create unnecessary limitations. In other words, a superficial understanding of yoga could lead people to believe that a strong mind is enough to eradicate anxiety and depression in their lives. It is an erroneous belief system, because the original adherents of yoga understood the minimal requirement to accomplishing harmony of mind and body. The minimal requirement is moral restraints, such as: “non-injury, truthfulness, purity, sincerity, sex-control, self-containment; and external purification of the mind (Bose 121). It is difficult to accept the suggestion that yoga without moral restraints can help solve a variety of social problems. For example, a cheating husband living with a contentious wife will never experience a harmony of mind and body even after several hours of meditation and yoga exercises. The same thing can be said of a corrupt politician hounded by the Department of Justice. It is therefore important to reconsider the moral and religious components of yoga to fully understand its long-term benefits.

Works Cited

Bennett, Bija. Emotional Yoga: How the Body Can Heal the Mind. New York: Fireside Publication, 2002. Print.

Bieling, Peter and Martin Antony. Ending the Depression Cycle: A Step-by-Step Guide for Preventing Relapse. CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2003. Print.

Bose, Mani. Social and Cultural History of Ancient India. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1998. Print.

Claire, Thomas. Yoga for Men. New Jersey: Career Press, 2004. Print.

Datey, Keshavarao. Yoga and Your Heart. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing, 2007. Print.

Doran, Christopher. Prescribing Mental Health Medication: The Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. Forbes, Bo. Yoga for Emotional Balance.

MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2011. Print.

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Gordon, Journey to Joyful: Transform your Life with Pranashama Yoga. New York: Perfect 10 Lifestyle Publication, 2010. Print.

Gottfried, Sara. The Hormone Cure. New York: Scribner, 2013. Print.

Kappmeier, Kathy and Diane Ambrosini. Instructing Hatha Yoga. IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. Print.

Klein, Donald and Paul Wender. Understanding depression: a complete guide to its diagnosis and treatment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Miner, Martin. “Patient Education: This Practitioner’s Ignorance of Diet, Nutrition, and Exercise: A Call to Education.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 2008: 43-45. Print.

Pappas, Stephanie. Yoga Posture Adjustments and Assisting. IN: Trafford Publishing, 2006. Print.

Stone, Michael. Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. MA: Shambhala Publications, 2010. Print.

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