Yoga is not a religion.
It can be religious if one wants it to be, and it can coexist with an existing religious belief, but yoga itself is not religious in the sense that it focuses on belief or faith.
Yoga is a science; and indeed, in many places in the world (such as India), it is referred to as a science.
This is not mere playing with words; it truly is approached as a science, which means that it is understood in terms of the scientific method.
Yogic science seeks to verify cause and effect, and build principles based upon objective observations.
Indeed, in many places in the world, to be a yogic master of any credibility, one must be highly educated in the sciences, including physics and the biological sciences.
This discussion on yoga as science is important, because it allows us to sensibly ask the question: what are the benefits of yoga?
After all, if yoga is a faith or a belief, then asking this question isn’t fair; because it’s one that yoga cannot answer in terms that we can objectively understand.
Yoga is a science; as empirical and pragmatic as kinesiology, or exercise science, which seeks to understand how the body acts and reacts to changes in the internal physical environment.
And even more simply than any of this: each of us has a right to ask the basic question why should I bother doing this yoga thing?
Before we should be asked to consider experiencing it for ourselves. Indeed, while the experience of yoga cannot be reduced to words – just as reading a book on preparing for a marathon isn’t going to actually physically prepare you to run a marathon – the goals and principles of yoga can easily be discussed.
Here’s the Mayo Clinic’s take on the benefits of meditation: Meditation is used by people who are perfectly healthy as a means of stress reduction.
But if you have a medical condition that's worsened by stress, you might find the practice valuable in reducing the stress-related effects of allergies, asthma, chronic, pain and arthritis, among others.
Yoga involves a series of postures, during which you pay special attention to your breathing — exhaling during certain movements and inhaling with others.
You can approach yoga as a way to promote physical flexibility, strength and endurance or as a way to enhance your spirituality.
The Mind-Body Connection
Yoga is centered on the mind-body connection. This mind-body harmony is achieved through three things: postures (asanas), proper breathing (pranayama), and meditation.
Mind and body draw inspiration and guidance from the combined practices of asanas, breathing, and meditation.
As people age (to yogis, ageing is an artificial condition), our bodies become susceptible to toxins and poisons (caused by environmental and poor dietary factors).
Yoga helps us through a cleaning process, turning our bodies into a well synchronized and well-oiled piece of machinery.
By harmonizing these three principles, the benefits of yoga are attained. And just what are these benefits?
The benefits include: equilibrium in the body’s central nervous system, decrease in pulse, respiratory and blood pressure rates, cardiovascular efficiency, gastrointestinal system stabilization, increased breath-holding time, improved dexterity skills, improved balance, improved depth perception, and improved memory.
As noted above, Yoga also delivers an array of psychological benefits; and in fact, this is a very common reason why people begin practicing it in the first place.
Perhaps the most frequently mentioned psychological benefit of yoga is an improved ability to manage stress.
Yoga diminishes an individual’s levels of anxiety, depression, and lethargy; thus, enabling him/her to focus on what’s spiritual and important: achieving balance and happiness.
Supporting a Healthy Lifestyle
There is some very interesting psychology behind this that students of western thinkers (e.g. Freud, Jung, Fromm, etc.) will find familiar and, indeed, quite rational.
When an individual decides to be happy, something within that person activates; a kind of will or awareness emerges. This awareness begins to observe the jungle of negative thoughts that are swimming constantly through the mind.
Rather than attacking each of these thoughts – because that would be an unending struggle – yoga simply advises the individual to watch that struggle; and through that watching, the stress will diminish because it becomes exposed and thus unfed by the unconscious, unobserving mind.
At the same time, as an individual begins to reduce their level of internal negativity, subsequent external negative behaviors begin to fall of their own accord; habits such as excessive drinking, emotional overeating, and engaging in behaviors that, ultimately, lead to unhappiness and suffering.
With this being said, it would be an overstatement to imply that practicing yoga is the easy way to, say, quit smoking, or to start exercising regularly. If that were the case, yoga would be ideal.
Yoga simply says that, based on rational and scientific cause and effect relationships that have been observed for centuries, that when a person begins to feel good inside, they naturally tend to behave in ways that enhance and promote this feeling of inner wellness.
As such, while smoking (for example) is an addiction and the body will react to the lessening of addictive ingredients such as tar and tobacco, yoga will help the process.
It will help provide the individual with the strength and logic that they need in order to discover that smoking actually doesn’t make them feel good.
In fact, once they start observing how they feel, they’ll notice without doubt that instead of feeling good, smoking actually makes one feel quite bad inside; it’s harder to breathe, for one.
Now, this book isn’t an anti-smoking book, and if you’ve struggled with quitting smoking then please don’t be offended by any of this; there is no attempt here at all to imply that quitting smoking is easy, or just a matter of willpower.
Scientists have proven that there is a true physical addiction that is in place, alongside an emotional addiction that can be just as strong; perhaps even stronger.
The point here is simply to help you understand that yoga can help a person make conscious living choices that promote healthy and happy living.
This can include: quitting smoking, reducing excess drinking, eating healthier, getting more sleep, reducing stress at work and promoting more harmonious relationships all around.
Please remember: yoga doesn’t promise anyone that these things will simply happen overnight.
At most, yoga is the light that shows you how messy things in the basement really are; and once that light is on, it becomes much more straightforward – not to mention efficient and time effective – to clean things up.
Yoga has also been hailed for its special ability to help people eliminate feelings of hostility and inner resentment.
As a result of eliminating these toxic emotions, the doorway to self-acceptance and self-actualization opens.
Pain Management Benefits
Pain management is another benefit of yoga. Since pain and chronic pain are conditions that affect all of us at some point, understanding the positive link between yoga and pain management could be invaluable.
It can also be financially valuable, since the pain medication industry is a multi-billion dollar marketplace and many people, especially as they age, find that their insurance or government coverage won’t cover some pharmaceutical and over-the-counter pain relief medications.
Yoga is believed to reduce pain by helping the brain's pain center regulate the gate controlling mechanism located in the spinal cord and the secretion of natural painkillers in the body.
Breathing exercises used in yoga can also reduce pain. Because muscles tend to relax when you exhale, lengthening the time of exhalation can help produce relaxation and reduce tension.
Awareness of breathing helps to achieve calmer, slower respiration and aid in relaxation and pain management.
Yoga's inclusion of relaxation techniques and meditation can also help reduce pain. Part of the effectiveness of yoga in reducing pain is due to its focus on self-awareness.