Yoga and Health: Overview

Per the shastras, the aim of Yoga is really not health, at least not explicitly. Patanjali says ‘योगः चित्तवृत्ति निरोध:‘ (Yogah Chitta Vritti Nirodha) – Yoga is the complete cessation (stopping) of mental activity. Very very simply put, Yoga is about achieving peace within ourselves , with ourselves and with everything around us. It is a state of being. To that end, Patanjali has expounded, eight limbs – अष्टांग (ashta anga -eight limbs) – practicing which end goal can be achieved. The practice itself is also called Yoga. The eight angas (limbs) are:

  1. Yama (यम), Niyama (नियम): In our usual chatter, these may even be called virtues worth imbibing. Yamas include अहिंसा (Ahimsa – non violence), सत्य (Satya-Truth), अस्तेय (Asteya – non stealing) , ब्रह्मचर्य (Brahmacharya- sexual restraint), अपरिग्रह (Aparigraha – non-accumulation). Niyamas are शौच (Shauch – cleanliness), सन्तोष (Santosh – contentment), तपस (Tapas – disciplined effort), स्वाध्याय – Swadhyaya (Self study) and इश्वर प्रणिधान (Ishwarpranidhan – surrender to the higher power). Broadly understood, these practices set us up for a healthier interaction with our communities as well as our own selves. Healthy social and personal relationships will help develop the right world view and subsequently help us be at peace with our surroundings. (Aai ga, this is too preachy, as if life is not demanding enough. Yup totally understandable :D, but it’s simpler than we think. More on this, in a separate post) Aajkal, there is quite a lot of talk about ‘sustainable living‘. To think of it, the above aspects are pivotal to leading a sustainable, non-wasteful, compassionate life.
  2. Asana (आसन), Pranayam (प्राणायाम), Pratyahaar (प्रत्याहार): These three are what we most associate with the health regime of Yoga. Unless and until we are physically healthy & disease free, peace will not come. Asanas help with muscular, strength and flexibility aspects (and more). Pranayam helps with breath control. Pratyahar is the first step on the path of what we call mediation, simply means moving inwards. Together, these limbs help achieve physical, physiological, emotional, hormonal and mental balance.  In Hatha (हठ) Yoga*, along with Aasanas and Pranayama, there are other internal body cleansing techniques too, such as Neti, Dhauti etc.
  3. Dharna (धारणा), Dhyan (ध्यान), Samadhi (समाधि): The path of meditation. Great if we get here, doesn’t matter if we don’t. The previous limbs are more than enough for mortals like us. 

There’s another way to look at “achieving peace”. When we are mentally undisturbed and stable, we tend to be more balanced, intuitive and objective about things, and therefore better at decision making. ‘Think objectively’, we are told. Regular practice of Yoga actually helps us achieve that objectivity.  You see mental health and physical health are not separate in Yoga (or in life). The two are interconnected and treated together.  That reflects in the way our shaastras define ‘swastha’ (healthy)

समदोषः समाग्निश्च समधातु मलःक्रियाः।
प्रसन्नात्मेन्द्रियमनः स्वस्थइतिअभिधीयते॥ (सुश्रुत संहिता सूत्रस्थान १५/१०)

Samadosha, samagnischa,Samadhatumalkriyah !
Prasannatmendriyamanah,Swastha iti abhidhiyate !!

Healthy is the one who has her doshas (kapha, vaata, Pitta), digestive fires, body tissues and elements, excretory systems all working in equilibrium, and is in a happy emotional and mental state. (Sushruta Samhita)

*What is Hatha (हठ) Yoga? Hatha Yoga, is the practical implementation of ashtanga Yoga to eventually achieve the same goal of Raja Yoga – i.e चित्तवृत्ति निरोध:. The texts on Hatha Yoga enumerate various techniques for the same including elaborate practices of cleansing, physical postures, breathing techniques. The various other types we hear of – Vinyaas, Iyengar, Yin and Yang, Anaahata etc, these rest are brands that package the practice with some style/sequence tweaks to make Yoga more accessible to people like us, as well as to differentiate from other Yoga schools. The basis is hatha Yoga only. 

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