Yogabhyasa and health
The question often arises from those of us who spent many years of our youth or midlife playing sports or frequenting a gym….”but what about cardiovascular health?” It is common thought that increasing heart rate (often to a breathless state) is healthy in moderation for the general function of the heart and system as a whole. When students begin a yoga practice and start to explore long smooth breathing with attention to a steady heart rate the mind spins a bit. Clearly the results are felt but the smriti (memory) and samskara (patterning) of our previous approach seems counterintuitive. Many people as a means to justify the shift while maintaining previous attachments will bring up the old adage “well it’s all about balance!” While this isn’t necessarily wrong it does gloss over some things and set us up to seperate yoga from the rest of our life. It is this general view that has perpetuated the myth that yoga is just stretching, or yoga is just meditation, or yoga is just one thing at all…but in studying the holistic system of yoga we realize at least on the intellectual level that of course this is not true…
So how does yoga abhyasa effect our overall health?
It isn’t necessarily a helpful approach to begin comparing and contrasting the discipline of yoga with other physical pastimes. The intention is not to vilify sports or athletics as they hold there own benefits. Instead let’s begin by seeing yoga as a holistic system for health. Much of this is review, but then again as per the terms of pramana review is certainly necessary ?
for the practitioner without the physical health and mental stamina to venture into ashtanga yoga (even simple asana) quite yet the protocol is:
- Tapas: Through physical austerities of moderate consumption and moderate speech we purify the system of the influence of negative outside forces. We limit the influence of the senses and find a closer connection to what is within us.
- Svadhyaya: Through self reflection and study of the subject matter we can find support in the path of truth. We can connect with a sangha of truth seekers. The mind moves from distraction to focus.
- Iswara Pranidhana: devotion to the higher principle. Managing our expectations for the capacity of this body/mind complex to rest in abiding peace is important. By going beyond our ego’s need to identify and make sense with nature as the “self” we can see that our suffering is temporary. The mind is able to find gratitude for the eternal. The effects of gratitude and unconditional love have myriad benefits on one’s experience of pain and suffering in the present.
This kriya yoga helps us to overcome the 5 fold kleshas or the manifestations of avidya (ignorance of the Self). Kriya yoga is yoga for mental health and perspective.
For the yogabhyasi taking up the 8 fold path the benefits are many:
- Yama and Niyama: through ethical observations regarding our environement externally and internally we limit the intake of rajas and tamas from our environment. Rajas manifests in the body as tension, anxiety. Tamas manifests as carelessness, lethargy, intertia, maybe even depression. So through yama and niyama alone we can reduce the impact of these gunas negatively on our mind/body complex. Yama/niyama is a shield of sorts through relationship with ourselves and others.
- Asana: Asana done with long smooth breathing and attention to the source of the breath helps to reduce systemic rajas…it reduces the tension/anxiety/expediency already manifested in our body/mind. Asana while of many benefits has a specific effect on the health of the musculoskeletal system (the spine being of special focus with all it’s nadis, nerve complexes and foundation for the rest of the body). Long held asana, in particular the viparita karani and maha mudra, with bandhas help to tonify the heart and internal organs and their sacs (koshas) which begin to sag as we age often causing hernias, digestive issues and more.
- Pranayama: once we’ve been able to consistently breathe in a long smooth manner we can begin to work with the ratio of our breathing and add in bandhas. This practice reduces the systemic tamas… clears the inertia within the cells (metabolic waste), clears the mucus membranes of debris, purifies the nadis, tonifies the respiratory system, brings better control over the sympathetic nervous system (as does chanting) and of course reduces the number of breaths we take. The mind is left clearer AND the body is left feeling lighter and less dull. Pranayama therefore benefits the internal organs, the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system and the nervous system all of which directly effect the mind.
- Pratyahara: pratyahara acts as a seal. Now that the body/mind complex, in particular the buddhi (intellect), has been made more sattvic due to the previous observations and practices the senses are drawn in to observe this heightened state of health.
- Dharana: the mind can now focus. Dharana is the first stage of maintenance. Without dharana and the resulting dhyana the mind easily invites in more imbalance. It is a key message of yoga that our physical reality is a manifestation of the mental space so working with the mind is imperative to overall health. Having moved from a wavering (viksipta) state towards single pointed (eka grah) we can then take up the upper limbs of yoga practice- samyama/meditation. Additionally with a focused mind we can maintain a higher state of mental health- less reactivity, more clear seeing= less attachment= less dukha.
No single approach may be equally beneficial for every human. Remember please that we are all living different manifestations of the gunas. Our practice may evolve dynamically in and out of art form, therapy, philosophy, etc. The stage of life we are in also has considerable impact on where our efforts are applied. Therein lies the beauty of yoga. It really is for everyone who is interested enough to take up the path.
Yoga for the Heart
Krishnamacharya was of the opinion that the heart should not be strained. He continuously reminded students that hatha yoga was in fact pranayama and that the mind and the breath are friends! Poor breathing creates a strain on the heart. Continuous states of erratic, shallow, quick or strained breathing can lead to imbalance in the body that may present as anxiety, stress, autoimmune issues, digestive problems, and more. In yoga we tend to the breath. Even in visama vrtti the breath is long and smooth. What makes the physical practices of yoga unique is the simultaneous increase in blood circulation without straining the heart/increasing heart rate. This is achieved first through the combination of the muscle pump and respiratory pump reflex while using long, smooth breathing in vinyasas and specific asana namely the viparita karani mudra. Through these time tested techniques the yogabhyasi is able to significantly improve the efficiency of circulation in the body even to the most remote places all while maintaining equipoise. A very different approach to “fitness.” This does not mean that the practice is not challenging. Of course there are many vinyasas and pranayamas that are quite “advanced.” The point though is that yogabhyasa should establish a foundation wherein the body can remain in a state of equinimity and ease in any given activity we take up. A state of grace, not just on the mat or cushion. Straining our way into an asana or pranayama does not indicate mastery. Quite the opposite.
When we consider yoga as only the stretching companion to our other physical activities we run the risk or creating harm and instability in our body. If we consider yoga only meditation without proper preparation of yama,niyama, asana and pranayama then we are going to have a very difficult time focusing the mind. If we try to make yoga practice a high impact practice or fusion we will only bring in more rajas and tamas to the system as we strain our heart and increase metabolic output so there really isn’t much preparation for the mind then. This is appropriation and it has real consequences. Additionally if we commit a lot of time to intense breathless workouts or sports we have to work with the accumulation of more rajas and tamas in our system when we go to practice.
Therefore if our aim is to establish overall health through yoga we should consider this in our approach. Rather than compare disciplines let us have some faith in what these great rishis had to say and trust the effects within our own body/mind complex. Krishnamacharya lived for over 100 vibrant years with yoga as the foundation. Ramaswami reports that in all his 33 years of study with the professor never once did he fall ill. The picture of health. Ramaswami himself is in his 80’s and regularly teaches for weeks at a time morning to evening with only short breaks for meals. He never loses focus and is always energetic. After a full days teaching i’m often tired, but Sir is just getting started. I’ll take that example!
There is great joy even in the simple aspects of this practice. To be with oneself so intimately helps to reveal a guidepost for the rest of our life. The heart is often described as the organ closest to to the true self (individual purusha) temporarily housed within the body. The observer of this divine experience. There is a lot of focus then applied to the heart in our practice from where we apply our attention to where we feel the breath etc. So yes, there are benefits to cardiovascular health but deeper still is the aim of yoga: to connect with what the heart houses. Yoga is what remains when our bodies become incapable or no longer attached to the rest.
For the person not practicing yoga there is likely a lot of tamas in the system. Quick bursts of energy can feel great! The endorphins, the adrenalin all has a very real effect on clearing the inertia or inactivity. If there is a lot of rajas – anxiety/ tension then the feeling of fatigue that accompanies a hard and fast workout certainly feels as a relief. There is no denying that there are benefits to these physical activities. However, for the YOGABHYASI let us look to our aim. If we love working out, if we love playing sports no one is saying to stop BUT maybe we would be better suited to apply the principles of yoga to those activities rather than the reverse. Sometimes this is possible, others it isn’t. What holds importance in your life will ultimately take over. This is not a statement of judgement just a fact. As Patanjali states the practice can be mild, moderate or intense all of which breed varying results. So there is benefit no matter what. Again, it all comes down to where your enthusiastic effort, faith, time, attention is applied.
Gives one a lot to consider, no? 🙂
I encourage everyone to read the following articles by Srivatsa Ramaswami on Yoga for the Internal Organs , Yoga for the heart and Yoga for the Nerves that I received in the last 100 hour program I attended with Sir. They may help to shed more light on the benefits of yoga practice from that regard as Sir is a much more eloquent and clear writer than I am.
See you tomorrow,