Yoga is much more than a physical practice: definitions and benefits


Why is yoga more than just a physical practice?

Most people start doing yoga for the following reasons: back pain, lack of flexibility, need for relaxation, for exercise, managing stress… However, when you practice yoga regularly, you realize that it is not only about doing physical postures (asanas) and that there are many more benefits that you could hope for.

What differentiates yoga from other fitness and relaxation disciplines is that this practice is thousands of years old and it is not reduced to a physical practice. Even if the images conveyed by the internet and social networks show mostly incredible postures. But yoga is much more than a sequence of asanas sometimes completed with breathing exercises and a short meditation, as we currently practice in 1 hour yoga classes.

How to define yoga?

The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root Yog which means to join, to connect. Yoga in its broadest sense is a set of knowledge and practices dating back more than 5000 years that allow us to connect our body and mind. The asana are only a small part of yoga and were designed to help yogis stretch their bodies in order to stay longer in meditation. The word asana is translated as position/form/posture and means seat in Sanskrit.

In one of the founding texts of yoga, the Bhagavad Gita, it is written that yoga is skill in action. This definition of yoga, not widely shared in yoga classes, allows us to explore the profoundly transformative practice of yoga as a way to work for the liberation of ourselves and others, to become an agent of social change and to work for a better world.

That’s why yoga resonates so much in our society now. Recently we started hearing about yogactivism for causes like racial and social justice, women rights, gender equality…

Patanjali, the father of modern yoga, defines yoga in the Yoga Sutras (around the 3rd century BC ) as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Yoga is therefore practiced to achieve clarity of mind, calmness and quieting of thoughts.

Patanjali describes in the yoga sutras the means to reach this state with the ashtanga yoga and its 8 steps of practice. The asana, is only one of the 8 pillars of yoga practice:

  • Yama: ethical principles to be applied in daily life,
  • Niyama : principles of self-discipline
  • Asana: the physical postures of yoga
  • Pranayama: the control of the breath
  • Pratyahara: control of the senses
  • Dharana: concentration
  • Dhyana: meditation
  • Samadhi: spiritual awakening, a state in which individual and universal consciousness are united

Yoga being a practice with a history of several thousands of years, there are many other reference texts and for this article I have chosen only those 2.

What are the benefits of practicing yoga?

Yoga helps us to access a deeper body-mind connection more often in our daily lives. It is not about achieving a temporary state of enlightenment, yoga teaches us to navigate our lives with a greater sense of who we are. The asana postures are not the destination, but they help us stay on track, moving towards the life we want to create for ourselves. Yoga helps us stay committed and dedicated to our personal development and allows us to remember that we are complete beings, connected to each other and to the universe.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual benefits of a regular yoga practice:

  • connecting mind with body
  • finding an inner well-being
  • managing emotions
  • developing spiritual life
  • learning how to breathe
  • improving balance, flexibility, strength and coordination
  • improving back problems
  • relaxing physical tensions
  • having a better digestion
  • reducing the risk of developing heart disease
  • relieving physical pain
  • fighting osteoporosis
  • boosting immunity by increasing natural antioxidant levels
  • Knowing and accept your body as it is
  • learning how to take care of yourself
  • learning how to be humble, consistent and persistent
  • developing a healthy lifestyle
  • cultivating a positive attitude
  • calming the mind and the flow of thoughts
  • lowering cortisol levels and reducing the impact of stress
  • activating areas of the brain that increase joy and decrease stress-related emotions
  • helping delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
  • fighting against age-related memory decline

We understand that yoga is a set of practices that can not be reduced to being practiced in a studio or in front of a screen. We are talking about a philosophy of life, personal development practices that have their place in everyday life, that allow us to know ourselves better and be better people in our interactions with other human beings and the universe.

The next time you go to a yoga class, remember that this is just one step on your path and see how it starts to change your life.

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Sources: , , Skill in Action by Michelle Cassandra Johnson