Yoga Essay

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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:

  1. The five “abstentions”: (1) nonviolence (ahimsa), (2) truth,  not lying (satya), (3) not stealing (asteya), (4) nonsensuality, celibacy (brahmacharya), and (5) nonpossessiveness (aparigraha)
  2. 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)
  3. Asana: literally, “seat”—the seated position used for meditation
  4. Pranayama, or “suspending  breath”: restraining or stopping  and controlling the life force that  is breath
  5. Abstraction: withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects
  6. Concentration: fixing the attention on a single object
  7. Meditation: intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation
  8. 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.

Bibliography:

  1. Broad, William J. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
  2. Dasgupta, Surendranath. Yoga as Philosophy and Religion. New York: Kennikat  Press, 1924.
  3. Iyengar, B. K. S. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.
  4. Louis, Lila. “The Effectiveness of Yoga for Depression: A Critical  Literature Review.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing,  35/4 (2014).
  5. Ross, Alyson and Sue Thomas. “The Health  Benefits of Yoga and Exercise: A Review of Comparison Studies.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine,  16/1 (2010).
  6. White, Ganga. Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights  to Awaken and Deepen Your  Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic  Books, 2007.

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