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The concept of yoga, or “union,” was developed in India more than 2,500 years ago. At its most fundamental roots, yoga refers to the union of eight aspects of a human existence (or consciousness): (1) observance, (2) posture, (3) control of life force, (4) concentration, (5) abstinence, (6) refocusing of one’s senses inward, (7) meditation, and (8) super consciousness or reintegration. Patanjali, who has been most commonly considered as the originator of this concept, developed the idea as an attempt to unify the two opposites of human existence. At one end was the physical being, as embodied by what is visible, which determines the existence of a human within the physical or natural world. At the other end was the spiritual world created by humans, which determines a person’s sense of achievement and satisfaction with life.
The idea of yoga was to combine these two worlds. Over two millennia, many variations of yoga appeared in India, each of which emphasized a different aspect of the two founding elements of this philosophy or practice. Each variation had its leaders, or gurus, and its followers.
Patanjali’s writings became the basis for the development of the most enduring school of yoga, generically known as Raja yoga. The most popular form of yoga taught in the contemporary world is an outgrowth of that school and is referred to as Ashtanga, or “eight-limbed yoga.” The eight principles of this yoga consist of the following elements:
- The five “abstentions”: (1) nonviolence (ahimsa), (2) truth, not lying (satya), (3) not stealing (asteya), (4) nonsensuality, celibacy (brahmacharya), and (5) nonpossessiveness (aparigraha)
- The five “observances”: (1) purity (shaucha), (2) contentment (santosha), (3) austerity (tapas), (4) study of the scriptures to know about God and the soul (svadhyaya), and (5) surrender to God (Ishvara-pranidhana)
- Asana: literally, “seat”—the seated position used for meditation
- Pranayama, or “suspending breath”: restraining or stopping and controlling the life force that is breath
- Abstraction: withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects
- Concentration: fixing the attention on a single object
- Meditation: intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation
- Liberation: merging consciousness with the object of meditation
From the middle of the 19th century, many of these aspects of yoga began to attract the attention of the world beyond India. It gained popularity with the public and the health establishment beginning around the middle of the 20th century. Yoga is now practiced in many countries around the world, with the exception of certain Muslim regions, where it is seen as a practice of a religion other than Islam and is, therefore, banned. In much of the modern world, yoga is viewed as a set of exercises that bring about physical and, in some cases, mental well-being for the individual. Though practiced under many different forms, it appears to be the emphasis on the physical aspects that draws millions of people in the modern world to yoga—whether living in India or beyond. The physical contribution of yoga has led to an emphasis on a combination of breathing and controlled stretching exercises. These controlled stretching exercises or postures, known as asanas in yoga terminology, help direct attention and blood flow to various parts of the body and help develop an individual’s control over how the body moves and balances.
Variations, or schools, of yoga include Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar, Kripalu, Kundalini, and Vinyasa. In addition, tantric yoga is believed to develop one’s sensuality by emphasizing the feminine, the worship of female deities, sexuality, and controlled intoxication. Although all forms of yoga, to some degree, believe in supernatural powers, tantric yoga, in particular, shrouds itself in some degree of secrecy. Various schools of yoga differ in several ways, whether in terms of which postures, or asanas, are to be followed, how strict the order of those postures has to be, or the degree to which physical exercises are combined with the spiritual aspects of the practice of yoga. Some schools, such as Yoga-fit or Bikram yoga, emphasize only the physical exercises. Still others, such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa, place greater emphasis on the integration of the physical and the inner consciousness. Though modern incarnations of yoga, in the form of yoga centers and exercise schools found all over the world, tend to emphasize the physical postures, they do focus, to some extent, on the inner self along with the exercises being done. Yoga accentuates the controlling of one’s breath, extending the limits of how far the body can be stretched, and increasing one’s inner awareness of how the mind and body may be working together. Other forms of exercises, by contrast, may emphasize calorie loss, strengthening the cardiovascular system, and stretching the limits of how much work the body can do.
Scientific evidence appears to support the claim that the benefits of exercise associated with yoga far exceed some risks associated with the practice. True scientific validation of yoga, however, may be very difficult to obtain: Proof would require controlled experiments with alternative forms of exercises, along with placebos. Studies on the effects of yoga as a complementary and alternative medicine demonstrate that its results are comparable with those of other exercises. The benefits of yoga have been found to extend to survivors of lung cancer. Yoga has been found to be beneficial in controlling blood pressure, in improving the cardiovascular system, and in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder as well as rheumatoid arthritis. Medical studies indicate that the mindfulness and meditative aspects of yoga might provide help for those suffering from depression. Yoga has also been associated with weight loss—but in more complex ways than merely through the burning of calories. It appears to help lower one’s metabolic rate, which, by itself, increases weight, unless an individual cuts down on food consumption. Yoga seemingly reduces the need for stress-related food consumption through increased awareness of one’s body and its functioning. There are, however, risks of physical injury associated with yoga. Quite often the ego of either the practitioner or the teacher can lead to the exercise being carried out beyond the limits of one’s body, sometimes resulting in serious injury. Many of the asanas in yoga lead the practitioner to try to test the limits of his or her body. One source of injury, for example, may arise from stretching the neck beyond its capacity. Although the neck is known to be one of the most flexible links in the human body, some asanas lead practitioners to ignore the risks associated with this delicate link. Interference with the flow of blood between the neck and the skull has been known to lead to strokes. Other asanas may result in injury to the back or the hips due to excessive and inappropriate weight being placed on the joints. Injuries have also been known to occur when a practitioner maintains an asana for too long, while the asana was designed to block blood flow to a particular part of the body only for a short time.
Yoga has become a multibillion-dollar industry. It is estimated that about 20 million people in the United States practice yoga regularly. With yoga classes come yoga outfits and accessories.
It seems that yoga, an ancient art that has enjoyed success in modern times, appears poised to gain greater popularity.
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