Silhouettes in calm light stretch into strange shapes, reminiscent of bygone days in human history. Except for the soft rhythm of breaths, the people are quiet.
Each pattern of inhalation followed by exhalation is unique like a fingerprint, defined by the level of exertion by an individual as well as the level of skill. These people, like so many in America and across the world, are practicing yoga.
Yoga is a layered discipline. Participants practice meditation, mindful breathing and elastic poses. It is a mental, emotional and physical exercise. One could even say that it is a spiritual workout — spirituality being a person’s connection with their personal philosophy of ethics and metaphysics.
Yoga can trace its roots back to India, where religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism began to take form. As a facet of these spiritual philosophies, yoga goes deep, beyond the tight muscles of 21st century people; it delves into the soul of mankind.
In Hinduism, branches of philosophy such as Ashtanga (or Raja) Yoga and Hatha Yoga emphasize the importance of yoga in developing one’s soul. Buddhism even has a tradition called Yogacara.
The meaning of all this is that yoga — while still being a great way to increase physical health, stay active and meet people — is much more than it appears.
Developing simultaneously with the thoughts and ethics of these Eastern philosophies, yoga is as essential to one’s spirituality as proper ethics and proper thought.
The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali are an ancient text, as well as being the literary core of Raja Yoga. Patanjali, like all who developed Yogic ideas, took the practice of yoga much farther than his mat.
The Yoga Sutras are an essential work for understanding this realm of religion while also containing thoughts on how to better oneself.
“The goal is the full consciousness of the spiritual man, illumined by the Divine Light,” Patanjali said. “Nothing except the obdurate resistance of the psychic nature keeps us back from the goal … The psychical powers are spiritual powers run wild, perverted, drawn from their proper channel. Therefore our first task is to regain control of this perverted nature, to chasten, purify and restore the misplaced powers.”
Patanjali took this stuff seriously — that much is obvious. The practice of yoga was, in his mind as in the minds of many other “spiritual men,” a detoxification of all the scum that leeches upon the brain and the soul.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, approximately 21 million Americans practice yoga, which is about 9.5 percent of the population.
Perhaps there are naysayers in the world who classify yoga as a fad and deny its benefits. Perhaps these same people believe that yoga is “magic” or some other kind of mumbo jumbo that merely wastes time, but this isn’t true.
According to a 2013 article by The Huffington Post, “students, stressed-out young professionals, CEOs and retirees are among those who have embraced yoga, fueling a $27 billion industry.”
The numbers don’t lie, and they seem to point in the opposite direction of such possible naysayers. And even if the numbers were a bunch of liars, that still wouldn’t stand in the way of the scientific truth of yoga’s benevolence.
Additionally, a 2014 article by The Huffington Post said that not only is yoga good for people physically as well as being a way to meditate, it can also boost one’s immunity, ease migraines, boost sexual performance, help people sleep better and fight food cravings.
So here’s the deal: yoga helps a person out physically — and in more ways than just stretching. Yoga has roots in old religions that promote good spiritual health, and yoga can cleanse your emotions like a therapist or a pill, albeit a bit more naturally.
Yoga is healthy, no matter how you look at it. It is important for people to have something — whether it is yoga, meditation, praying, etc. — that helps them stay centered and focused on their path toward physical health, mental well-being and spiritual enlightenment.
The beautiful thing about yoga is that all three can be accomplished while performing one practice. Yoga is comprehensive and can only lead to prosperity in life.
Five surprising health benefits of Yoga
Yoga increases flexibility and reduces stress, but the practice can do more than help you twist your body into pretzel shapes and find inner peace. These hidden benefits will help you in the kitchen, office and bedroom -- and will give you five new reasons to show off your yoga skills (plus recommended poses for each one!).
1. Boost Immunity
A recent Norwegian study found that yoga practice results in changes in gene expression that boost immunity at a cellular level. And it doesn't take long: The researchers believe the changes occurred while participants were still on the mat, and they were significantly greater than a control group who went on a nature hike while listening to soothing music.
Yoga also helps to boost immunity by simply increasing overall health, says Mitchel Bleier, a yoga teacher of 18 years and owner of Yogapata in Connecticut. "As you breathe better, move better and circulate better, all the other organs function better."
Strike A Pose: Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar)
This sequence of eight poses performed in a row can be found in almost any yoga class. It creates great circulation and tone, plus sweat, says Bleier.
2. Ease Migraines
Research shows that migraine sufferers have fewer and less painful migraines after three months of yoga practice. The cause of migraines isn't fully understood, but Bleier says it could be a combination of mental stressors and physical misalignment that create migraines and other issues.
Hunching over a computer or cell phone with your shoulders up and head forward causes overlifting of your trapezius and tightening of the neck. This pulls the head forward and creates muscle imbalances that can contribute to headaches and migraines.
Strike A Pose: Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-distance apart on the floor. With your hands resting on the floor, begin to press down into your legs and draw your hips toward the sky.
The key, Bleier says, is to keep your shoulders in line with the base of your neck, moving the back of the shoulders together so the shoulder blades are close. Lift your chest towards your chin and your chin away from your chest, so the upper trapezius muscles flow away from the head.
3. Boost Sexual Performance
Studies have found that 12 weeks of yoga can improve sexual desire, arousal, performance, confidence, orgasm and satisfaction for both men and women.
How? Physically, yoga increases blood flow into the genital area, which is important for arousal and erections, says Bleier, and strengthens the "moola bandha," or pelvic floor muscles. Mentally, the breathing and mind control involved with the practice can also improve performance.
Strike A Pose: Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)
Sit with your feet together and your knees bent and reaching toward the floor. Slowly fold over your feet while trying to bring your knees closer to the ground while moving the groin back and engaging the pelvic floor muscles. "It's a great hip opener, plus the pelvic floor engagement tones the muscles for orgasm," says Bleier.
4. Sleep Better
Researchers from Harvard found that eight weeks of daily yoga significantly improved sleep quality for people with insomnia. And another study found that twice-weekly yoga sessions helped cancer survivors sleep better and feel less fatigued. This can be attributed to yoga's ability to help people deal with stress, says Bleier.
"Sleep issues are like anxiety. Your head can't stop spinning, you don't know how to relax," he says. "Breathing and mental exercises allow the mind to slow down, so you're going to start to see yourself sleep better."
Strike A Pose: Corpse Pose (Savasana) With Diaphragmatic Breathing
Savasana is the final pose in a yoga class and is meant to restore the body. Lay on your back with your legs slightly apart and your arms extended at your side and your hands on your belly. Inhale and exhale through your nose, follow the breath and feel the belly rise and fall under your hands. The breath, muscles and mind should be completely relaxed.
5. Fight Food Cravings
Researchers from the University of Washington found that regular yoga practice is associated with mindful eating, an awareness of physical and emotional sensations associated with eating.
By causing breath awareness, regular yoga practice strengthens the mind-body connection, Bleier says. The awareness can help you tune in to emotions involved with certain cravings, and yoga breathing exercises can help you slow down and make better choices when cravings strike.
Strike A Pose: Meditation
Sit or lay in any comfortable position and bring attention to the natural breath moving in and out through your nose. Next, bring attention to the triangular area around the tip of your nose and upper lip, paying attention to your breath hitting this space as you exhale, the temperature of your breath, and which nostril you're breathing through.
Try this for two minutes, working up to five or more. "The key is to try and be still and focus just on the breath," Bleier says. "No moving, no reacting, just stay present."