Photo Credit: Ulleli Verbeke Photography
Since I teach yoga (you can see my facebook link on the side: Unity Yoga + Pilates), this seems an appropriate topic to discuss. (For the most part, I am writing off the top of my head and since this is not an academic paper, I am not citing all my sources. This information comes from any number of texts I have read, my teachers and in some cases, my experiences.) This will not be the only post on yoga, so this one will focus mostly on breathing.
My journey from knowing nothing of yoga to where I am today (which is no where close to the end..since there is no end), has made me realize that yoga, although not how most of us think of it necessarily, is definitely a reliable path towards happiness.
What most of us in the west refer to as yoga is really ‘hatha yoga’ or sometimes variations of that such as vinyasa or ashtanga yoga. However, that is only one small aspect of yoga. The word ‘yoga’ is sanskrit and is usually translated as ‘union.’ Yoga is actually a system of practices designed to take the practitioner to a place of understanding of the true self, which will result in happiness and inner peace, but more than that, will result in a deep understanding of and union with ‘god,’ for lack of a less emotionally charged word. Patanjali the original yoga philosopher defines yoga as ‘stopping or quieting the patterns of the mind.’ Now, most people do not go to their gym or their yoga studio in search of god or to quiet their mind, however, they may go in search of other things including physical well-being and health, balance, strength, flexibility and more. What I think is worth noting is that balance, strength and flexibility are words that can refer both to a physical and a mental state, so I think they are very apt words to describe the outcome of yoga.
As a brief overview of the various yogas for your etification, the primary yogas are as follows:
(Adapted from The Complete Yoga Book by James Hewitt, 1977.)
1. Jnana Yoga or union by knowledge, which is usually a meditation practice with the aim of understanding the true self.
2. Bhakti Yoga or union by love and devotion, which can be prayer, chanting or other worship. More on this in a future post.
3. Karma Yoga or union by deeds or service, which refers to what we might call ‘charity’, however, to be karma yoga, it needs to be totally altruistic. It is something we do for which we receive nothing except perhaps a feeling of goodness for helping another. More on this in future posts.
3. Mantra Yoga or union by voice, which was made most famous by the Hare Krishna movement. More on this another time.
4. Yantra Yoga or union by vision or form, which is often meditation of looking at an object or image.
5. Kundalini Yoga or union by arousal, which has to do with the chakras and is a very intense breathing and physical practice that will create alignment in the bodies chakras. Kundalini yoga is unique and powerful, so only to be done under proper guidance.
6. Tantric Yoga or union by sex, which was made famous by Sting, but it is important to note that Tantric Yoga is still a spiritual practice and is meant to bring its practitioners towards the ultimate goals mentioned above, not simply pleasure.
7. Hatha Yoga or union by breath, which I will discuss in depth momentarily.
8. Raja Yoga or union by mental mastery, which is sometimes called he King of Yogas. It is the highest form of yoga and is a form of deep meditiation resulting in inner peace, happiness and connection to god. More on this in a future post too.
For now, I want to talk about hatha yoga, what it does and why it might not only make you healthy, but also happy! The word ‘hatha’ comes from two sanksrit words: ‘ha’ for ‘moon’ and that for ‘tha’ for ‘sun’. Through breathing, hatha yoga seeks to balance the moon (feminine or positive) with the sun (masculine or negative) currents. (‘Negative’ and ‘positive’ are referring in this case to charges or currents not things that are bad and good.) Hatha yoga includes both pranayama, the breath and asanas, the postures. Hatha yoga, therefore, is the union of the two and in this post, I will focus more on the breath, leaving the poses for a later post. (I will for the purposes of this and other posts, just say ‘yoga’, although you now know I am referring to ‘hatha yoga’ unless I say otherwise.)
As a teacher, I often have men, particularly, say to me, “I can’t do yoga. I’m not flexible.” Since yoga was invented by and for men and practiced only by men for its first few thousand years, that is a weak argument. Anyone who can breathe can practice yoga, and it what is great, is it grows with the practitioner, so what you can’t do today, you may learn to do in future. Furthermore, unlike in other sports or exercise disciplines, where one must achieve something in order to reap the rewards, simply breathing and trying the asanas or ‘postures’ will bring benefit to the practitioner. In other words, one need not master a pose to benefit from it.
Scientists have long known that exercise releases dopamines, which make us happy. As I am not a scientist, I won’t get into this, but there are many articles on the subject available. So for that reason, practicing yoga postures would make you happy because you are exercising, especially in Vinayasa, Bikram and Ashtanga yoga (often referred to as hot, power, flow, dynamic etc), which are often quite strenuous. However, if dopamines alone were the factor, yoga would be no different than running, lifting weights or any other class at the gym. And in a more gentle hatha yoga class, the practitioner may not even work up a sweat, the heart rate may not increase and therefore, the dopamine released may be less, yet studies have shown that practioner will still feel inner peace and happiness. Why?
The secret is in the breath…the pranayama. ‘Prana’ is our life force and ‘yama’ means ‘control over,’ so yogic breathing is exercising our control over our life force. The simple act of breathing properly, cleanses the body. Most adults do not breathe fully and deeply utlizing their total lung capacity. If you want to see someone breathe well, look at a child or infant sleeping on their back; their belly dramatically rises and falls. Most adults don’t do this even in sleep. Breathing deeply increases the oxygen in the lungs, which travels in the blood throughout the body making circulation more efficient. Better circulation leads to better lung and heart health, which leads to increased energy and relaxation and that leads to…yes, happiness!
There are a few types of pranayama, but you can practice simple, deep breathing while sitting, standing or lying down on your back. (If you are sitting or standing, try not to slouch…you want your lungs to be able to fill, so stand tall or sit on the floor or in a chair, but not leaning against the back.) Relax your shoulders. Breathe deeply in through your nose (this warms the air). You should not feel your shoulders rise, but instead feel your belly and chest expand. Hold for a count of one or two, and then exhale, gently pushing all the air out through the nose ideally, but through the mouth is okay if you need to. Try to exhale for longer than you inhale, and as you practice, you can also increase the hold. In yoga, the ideal pranayama is a ratio of 1:4:2 (inhale:hold:exhale), but that takes a lot of practice! It is perfectly acceptable to start with a 1:1:1 or 1:1:2 ratio, so you inhale for say 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and exhale for 3-6 seconds. You can practice this with your eyes open or closed. If you are struggling, try not to worry too much about the ratio and the seconds. Just inhale deeply feeling your ribcage expand, and then exhale slowly.
Try this for just 2-3 minutes to start. You may feel your pulse regulate and your stress level drop. The longer you do it and the more often you do it, the better you will feel. Now when you do your yoga practice or any exercise, incorporate these long, deep breaths. Over time, you will increase your lung health and capacity, increase your heart health, increase your abdominal strength and tone (hello 6-pack!)**, improve your circulation (which can reduce the signs of aging among other things), burn fat, improve balance, sleep better, feel more relaxed and with all of these benefits, you may find yourself just a little happier. Now tell me, can your barbell do all that for you!?!? You don’t need to do this only while practicing the asanas; you can do this sitting in your car, pausing when you are struggling to draft an email, in a bath, when you wake up, before you sleep, in a stressful moment….taking a few minutes to breathe deeply will bring you back to a state of peace and you can enjoy a moment of pure happiness for free!
**Wait, do you not believe you can tone your belly by breathing? Okay, let’s take out all this pranayama and circulation and ancient wisdom mumbo-jumbo, and let me give you something tangible. Take a deep breath through your nose, now exhale sharply through your nose or mouth. Do this a couple times. Okay, now breath normally for a breath or two…I’ll wait. Now, this time take a deep breath, and then exhale through the nose, but keep exhaling pushing every last drop of air out before in haling again. Did you do both of these experiments? In both cases, you should have felt muscles deep in your abdomen contract. Didn’t feel it? Try it again…..feel what I’m talking about? Those are your transversus abs. They run around you like a girdle, and when they are strong, they help keep the belly flat. The only way to work them is with breathing–no crunches can touch them. So, while you do need to burn off any fat that might be burying them, toning those muscles will actually help you to create a flat belly. This post didn’t get into Pilates, but that is the very essence of Pilates: breathing to increase core strength. If a flat belly will make you happy, this is yet another reason to breathe! More on that here.
For more proof/opinions on benefits of breathing, check out these (an other) links. Some of them give different techniques from the one I described, so find one you like:
NOTE: Yoga is complex, therefore, it is really important that if you take up a yoga practice, you do so with a fully certified yoga instructor. Check here: https://www.yogaalliance.org to see if your school and/or teacher is registered with the yoga alliance. Although some gym yoga instructors may be true yoga instructors, they may also be personal trainers who took a weekend course in yoga, which is not the same thing. If you are looking for only the physical aspects of yoga, they may help you, but you can hurt yourself if your asanas are not done properly. If you are looking for the deeper benefits of yoga, including the happiness I have described, seek out an instructor who has a more holistic approach meaning someone who incorporates breathing, relaxation and/or meditation in the physical practice. Without breath, yoga is not yoga, it is just a western adaptation of an eastern exercise!
Breathe happy! At some future stage, I will talk about other aspects of yoga, including my journey, but I think next time, I may put on my advocacy hat and talk about an important issue….