Health and Fitness

Published on March 29th, 2009 | by Guest Contributor


Understanding Yoga, a Green Path to Health and Fitness

A decade or two ago, yoga was was considered to be a fringe activity for hippies.  Today, it has blossomed into one of the most popular health and fitness modalities in America. Yoga studios have burgeoned in all of the major metropolitan areas, offering a range of classes, workshops and retreat programs for those who are familiar with the practice and for those who know absolutely nothing about it.

Although yoga terminology has become commonplace, it is a good idea to look at its basic concepts to understand how it is connected to green living.

photo credit: judepics
Yoga- Tree Posture

Yoga- Tree Posture

What is yoga?

The word “yoga” translates from Sanskrit, means “union.”  The intention of yoga is to bring about union: of bodywork and breath, of consciousness and action, of emotional and physical behavior, and of the human and the spiritual world. So, much more than a set of mere physical exercises, yoga is in fact a modality which can be uniquely physical, emotional and spiritual. Or indeed, all of the above.

Most people associate yoga with ‘asana’ or physical postures. And although the popularity of classes based upon physical yoga postures have spread like wildfire, they are just one basic aspect of the practice of yoga. Most yoga forms are actually more more concerned with mental and spiritual well being than physical activity.

Why is yoga considered “green”?

The practice of yoga comes from nature itself, so it is about as green as it gets when it comes to fitness or health. While there is no documented text that describes, the exact origin of this ancient practice, it is believed to have evolved over the course of civilization. Since yoga is about harmonizing breath with body and mind, you could say that much of it is a mindful meditation that has emerged from observation of nature.

To understand the influence that nature has had on the practice of yoga, you simply need to bear in mind that its various postures and breathing exercises are named after plants and animals. Long time practicing yogis will tell you that they were actually born out of studying and imitating the behavior patterns of birds and animals. By tuning your body and mind into the physical attributes of environment, you can attune your consciousness to the larger order of life forms.

Also, yoga requires nothing but you to practice it. These days, studios and yoga centers are filed with props and supplies that apparently make your yoga practice more efficient. However, it is important to remember that until very recently, there was no such thing even as a yoga studio! Yoga is a practice that the Indian people have traditionally been able to undertake anywhere, whether at the top of some mountain or in the comfort of your own home. The fact that today companies earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling yoga apparel and affiliated gadgetry shouldn’t take away the underlying green nature of this very basic mind-body practice.

The eight limbs of yoga
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is an ancient Sanskrit text that provides the basis for the philosophy behind yoga, refers to the “ashtanga” or eight “limbs” of yogic practice. Each limb relates to an aspect of achieving a healthy and fulfilling life, and each builds upon the one before it:

1. Yama
Yama provides five guidelines relating to your action towards others:

  • Ahimsa: Nonviolence
  • Satya: Truthfulness
  • Asteya: Nonstealing
  • Brahmacharya: Nonlust
  • Aparigraha: Noncovetesness

2. Niyama
Niyama provides five guidelines relating to your action towards yourself:

  • Saucha: Cleanliness
  • Santosa: Contentment
  • Tapas: Sustained practice
  • Svadhyaya: Self study
  • Isvara pranidhana: Surrender to God

3. Asana
This is the practice of physical yoga postures which makes up about 90% of the content in Western yoga practices.

4. Pranayama
This involves the practice of yogic breathing exercises.

5. Pratyahara
This refers to the practice of withdrawing your senses to prevent the external influences from distracting you.

6. Dharana
This pertains to support through concentration, or the ability to focus without interruptions from external or internal distractions.

7. Dhyana
This refers to meditation. It extends concentration beyond focusing on a single thing to focusing on life which is all encompassing.

8. Samadhi
This refers to the ultimate state of eternal bliss where you merge with the universe.

How do you find a good yoga class?

Finding a good class is all about finding a good teacher who can work with you to bring up your level of yogic awareness without over-challenging your mind and body. As mentioned already, most teachers in the West focus on asana only.  However, there are a good number who also provide instruction on breathing, call and response chanting and meditation instruction.

The makeup of each class depends largely on the individual teacher and the yoga tradition in which he or she has trained. Typically, a yoga class at a gym will be more focused on the purely physical benefits of yoga, while one at a yoga center may delve more into the spiritual side.

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