Today’s world is a dichotomous one. While in many parts of the planet there is a worrying increase in obesity rates and heart disease, at the same time, and in those same places, there has been a boom in healthy living, streets full of cyclists and parks full of runners, offsetting their carbon footprint and diminishing their drain on the healthcare system. Nonetheless, how many times do you read of cyclists being hit by cars or trucks? How often have you heard of that runner who developed a knee injury or pushed himself a little too hard and ended up in the hospital with cardiac issues?
These pursuits are not suitable for everyone who wants to live a healthier lifestyle. The old adage that “one size does not fit all” rings no more true than when it comes to exercise. However, it can be argued that yoga does suit everyone.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is not the Instagram-promoted posturing and contortion that you see today, where pretzel-shaped bodies seem almost to levitate or balance on a fingertip with apparent ease. Nor is it the dollar-enabled, moneyed lifestyle choice of the few who choose to attend extortionately priced classes and sweat alongside equally wealthy people. Rather, yoga was originally a system developed to better enable the body to sit in meditation without discomfort. Simple as that. As Pantajali once wrote in his famous Sutras, yoga is the method by which the mind’s constant chatter and fluctuation is stilled (“yogas chitta vritti nirodha”). It is far more than the asanas, that series of poses your teacher runs you through in class, though these aid no end to remain cross-legged for extended periods of time without going numb.
Yoga is, essentially and overall, about achieving spiritual enlightenment, reached not just through asanas and meditation, but through mindful living also. However, though in addition to the “workouts,” you might pay for and the ahimsa (non-violence) vegetarian diet you might subscribe to, not everyone seeks the spiritual. This is why yoga in the western world has become a mere exercise class for the most part – and given the benefits of the asanas in and of themselves, that is something not to be sneered at. Though that vegan, rather than vegetarian, diet many people now follow as a popular and environmentally-minded lifestyle choice comes away from Ayurvedic dietary principles, too.
Yoga for Health and for Injury
Today, there really is a yoga for everyone. Whether you’re in prime fitness or recovering from a back injury monitored by the Comprehensive Spine Institute Florida spine institute, there are suitable sequences of postures to benefit you individually. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your spine is flexible. The best system for those recovering from injury is Iyengar. This type of practice uses props such as blocks and belts or straps to obtain the best and safest possible alignment, and then holding that pose (similar to Yin yoga) for a longer period of time, rather than “flowing” to the next pose, as in Vinyasa or Ashtanga. Iyengar’s system also includes sequences for specific illnesses and injuries.
Ashtanga yoga, founded by Pattabhi Jois (known as Guruji to his followers) in the 60’s, is the style most people think of when it comes to yoga. However, this fast-paced system is not suitable for everyone, particularly women during their menses (when it comes to the inversions) and beginners who have no concept of their mula bandha or “root lock”. Similar in concept to Pilates’ pelvic floor and general core muscle control, maintaining a strong mula bandha is vital in avoiding injury. Power yoga, and Jivamukti yoga, also require awareness and use of this core strength to remain safe.
The key is to take an honest appraisal of your body and pay attention to its limits, which people often don’t do, resulting in the unnecessary injuries proliferating in gyms and classes throughout the country. However, even for those who have hurt knees and hips in other athletic pursuits, yoga can be beneficial. Not everyone is sliding into the splits in monkey pose (Hanumanasana) or hip opening to within an inch of their life in turtle pose (Kurmasana) when they say they do yoga. Certainly, many older people who profess an enjoyment of yoga are likely taking Hatha classes. A breath-focused practice (as yoga should be), the asanas of Hatha yoga are much gentler and far slower than others, leaving its practitioners deeply relaxed (and primed for meditation, if they were to so choose).
Yoga for Life
In short, yoga is a way of life. Just as runners enjoy the “buzz” from their covered distances – eventually working up to marathons and maybe even triathlons, electing a suitable diet to achieve success in these areas – so too do those who practice yoga find they are inclined to change other aspects of their life to suit their own practice. This is why it seems so many who start these classes suddenly become more health-conscious overall, upping their intake of whole foods and lessening their intake of meat: because their body simply moves better when the right fuel is consumed.
If you look at a food pyramid, those consumers nearest the bottom (the herbivores) are taking in the cleanest source of energy. As raw foodism expounds, this primary food – “sun” food – is far more beneficial than the energy derived from a carnivore’s diet, because it is direct and not pre-processed by the body of another. This thought process applies within Ayurveda, also, when it comes to fungi (which feed on dead material) and other tamasic (low energy) foods. When all this is considered, it makes sense to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, and unprocessed foods in abundance (preferably organic, as well), thereby ensuring your body is operating with only the very best nourishment.
The living examples of many people, men and women both, practising yoga well into their 90’s speaks volumes for the benefits yoga permits the human body. Age is a state of mind and yoga is its yoke to youth and vitality.