You can most certainly use yoga as an exercise to enjoy better health. However, yoga can do so much more to benefit you beyond just using it as an exercise. Many westerners practice yoga simply as a way to stay fit like an aerobics class but true yoga practice leads to better physical health, mental well-being and spiritual growth. What many call yoga today is really just the asanas meaning physical postures. But the asanas are just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are known as yama, niyama, asanas, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Without fully getting into the eight limbs, let’s explore some of the ways yoga benefits you in body, mind and soul.
First we should understand that the very word “yoga” itself means “union.” It is referring to the union of the soul and Spirit. Thus the very word yoga is “spiritual” in essence. Yet many attempt to practice yoga without the “spiritual” aspect to it. We must understand that spirituality and religion are too vastly different things. Spirituality is universal while religion is relative to the practitioner. You can be spiritual without necessarily being religious but unfortunately every religious person doesn’t necessarily embody spiritual principles. But I digress… let’s stay focused on how yoga benefits the body, mind and spirit:
Yoga as an exercise helps the body by stretching the limbs and strengthening the muscles. This helps to get much needed oxygen to body parts that may not always get the best circulation. In conjunction with the postures and body movements, one tends to increase the heart rate and deepen the breathing. Of course increased circulation and breathing creates a pressure gradient which in turn influences the lymph system which is then able to remove toxins and poisons from the bloodstream more effectively. So yoga, like many exercises, helps to influence all of the body for the better through increased body systems of digestion, circulation, metabolism, perspiration etc which leads to better strength, flexibility, energy, vitality, endurance and general health. However, unlike some exercises, smart yoga practice helps to minimize potential injuries, strains, tears or detrimental results. Of course because body and mind are connected, a healthier body tends to encourage a healthier mind.
A restless body tends to cause a restless mind. Yet a calm mind helps to influence a calm body. So what tends to have the greatest effect on the mind??? The breath! If you’d like to most directly calm the mind then practice steady and deep breathing. As you breathe more deeply, the lungs are able to absorb more oxygen and as the oxygen in the bloodstream becomes more plentiful, the organs require less and thus the heart slows. A calm heart greatly leads to a calm mind. This is the beginning stages of pranayama – breath control… or more specifically – life force control! A healthy mind is one that is calm, clear, focused and able to concentrate. A healthy mind is free of worry, paranoia, stress and doubt. Ultimately, a still mind leads to greater awareness, consciousness and eventually a spiritual “experience.”
So whether or not you are a “religious” person isn’t important. You don’t have to believe in a god or worship any higher power. But just as assured is gravity, there is a spirit within us all. Our own individualized consciousness is referred to as the soul. As our soul awareness grows, we come to realize that we are all part of One Spirit. This One Spirit is in fact the only true Reality. It is this Spirit that not only gives life to but “becomes” all of creation and manifestation. Through its own self-induced spell of “multiplicity” it dreams itself into an infinite number of “smaller selves” but in Truth never loses its own True Nature. Many refer to this process of soul awakening as Self-Realization. An awakened “self” becomes master of its creation. Thus, we have “yoga” – the union of soul and Spirit. This state is referred by many names such as samadhi, moksha, kaivalya, christ consciousness and so on. It is the ultimate state of being.
As you can see, yoga as an exercise does help improve one’s health but this is just the tip of the iceberg of what yoga leads to. Yoga is the means and the end of attainment. A true yogi is one who has awakened and overcome avidya – ignorance of self!