Many people in the West are of opinion that Yoga is meant for keeping the body fit and healthy by doing asanas. They limit yoga to physical exercises, but the major focus of yoga is the modification of one’s self-awareness and relationship to the world. It is a complete system of therapy, which includes developing awareness and control of the physical body, emotions, mind and interpersonal relationships. (1)
The physical postures are important in the early stages of yoga training. By making the body balanced, healthy and strong, one is ready to pursue mental work and introspection. Moreover, one is also learning to detach oneself from the body and acquire knowledge of its functioning.
Body and the mind are connected.
The posture a person takes in a daily life is a mirror of his state of mind.
When we are under stress we contract certain muscles. Usually, we are not aware of this as we hold subconscious fears, therefore we contract certain muscles every day, for years, subconsciously. Eventually, one develops stiff body or pain in certain areas of the body. A very common pain, related to stress, is a lower back pain (pain in a lumbar spine). Due to stress we contract a muscle called illio-psoas which is attached to the lower spine. Habitually contracting this muscle for a very long time can cause slipped discs or lower back pain as it pushes the spine into unbalanced position. This would consequently affect other muscles and a whole body would be out of balance.
Doing a series of asanas helps to stretch and strengthen the body in order to reach the freedom of the body and regain its balance.
Another goal of asana postures is to prepare the body for the practice of meditation which requires complete stillness of the body in a meditative posture.
Definition of asana by Patanjali is: “STHIRA-SUKHAM-AASANAM”.
“Sthira” means stable, steady, still while “Sukham” means comfortable.
Therefore, asana is a posture that is stable and comfortable. But, we cannot reach this in the beginning, therefore 3 stages of asanas were defined:
- 1st stage: making an effort to learn the posture. In this stage a person cannot maintain the posture. This stage is also: shaky, unstable and sweaty and one is burning more calories.
- 2nd stage: this is a stage when a person begins to maintain the posture for a prescribed length of time and mind control begins here. When posture becomes effortless, mind according to its nature, starts wandering.
- 3rd stage: this is a meditative stage – continuous flow of the mind on one thing (the infinite). Here, less energy is consumed as one can “rest” in the asana for a longer period of time.
So, what is the difference between Yoga Asana and Exercise:
In asanas (in later stages) there will be low calorie consumption and minimized effort whereas in exercise high calorie consumption is maintained and effort maximized.
Yoga asanas require relaxed, natural or controlled breathing while exercise demands fatigue breathing.
Asanas include balanced postures and all body workout: activity we do on the right side, we repeat on the left side to keep muscle balance. Forward bend is followed by backward bend, asanas include a lot of stretching exercises as well as exercises for strength, so one develops strong and flexible body. They also include both slow and dynamic movements. Usually, in sports only certain group of muscles would be under pressure and there will be less stretching activity with more rapid and forceful movement (also increased risk of injury), therefore certain muscles would become tense (eg. jogging). Normally, asana practitioner would be stronger as he is working on inner muscles, therefore, he can bear the muscle pressure longer.
Moreover, in asana, the spirit is not competitive, it is process oriented and the focus is internal while in exercise the spirit is competitive and goal oriented and focus is external.
There are limitless possibilities for growth in self-awareness in asanas while in exercise there can be a boredom factor once the goal is reached.
Iyengar, the world’s foremost authority in Yoga, says: “Asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound and they keep the body free from disease. They reduce fatique and soothe the nerves. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind. Many sportsmen possess superb physique as they put the body above else, but they lack control over mind, the intellect and the Self. The yoga practitioner’s aim is to conquer the body and makes it a fit vehicle for the Spirit.”(2)
Yoga is for everybody as it is a therapy system not a sport. Yoga asanas include numerous exercises for all levels which can be performed dynamically by beginners and statically by advanced practitioners.
I am, personally, discovering a whole new world of body and mind connection, which I have never experienced with sports. I would highly recommend yoga to become part of everyone’s daily life.
1 / Yoga and Psychoterapy, Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine MD, Swami Ajaya PhD
2 / Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar, Harper Collins Publisher