The practice of yoga originated over 5,000 years ago in the northern region of India. The practice initially was a way of obtaining more self-knowledge and internal wisdom, mainly through sharing oral philosophy. Today, this practice has been adapted in a variety of countries and in a variety of ways to make it accessible to all bodies and beings. It is a practice composed of grouping together physical, mental and spiritual practices as well as disciplines to help us move toward ‘enlightenment’, or awakening our spirit. You may recognize this group of practices & disciplines in what we know today as the 8 limbs of yoga, outlined by an Indian sage, Pantanjali, who provided us with the framework for achieving this ultimate goal in yoga.
Anyone who has participated in any form of yoga can testify that the experience offers a very distinct feeling of bliss & euphoria, also known as the “yoga high”. I remember feeling that way when I walked out of my first yoga class, and it was a feeling that kept me coming back for more. Once I started to deepen and grow into my practice, I realized quickly that yoga taps into every aspect of ourselves on a physical, mental, emotional and energetic level. The benefits of yoga went far beyond anything I had realized at the time, the practice was not only beneficial to my physical body, but it helped me do the internal work that I had neglected for so long. It helped me to begin creating a change within myself. Both yoga and meditation are marvellous tools to cultivate self-reflection and self-realisation, so we can do the deep work on ourselves first to be of better service to others.
So I would love to expand on how yoga and meditation, with their philosophical roots, flowing movements, regulation of thoughts and feelings, helps us create an overall sense of well-being to show up in life as the best versions of ourselves.
On a physical level, when we come to the mat and practise the Asanas (yoga postures), it helps us with flexibility, range of motion, strengthening, toning, alignment, and improving our balance. We move the body in ways that the body was meant to be moved, working both the larger and smaller muscle groups to help create strength and length in the body. As a result, these movements help us in the aid and prevention of pain in the body, which will be beneficial in decreasing the triggers pain can have on the brain, such as depression and anxiety.
Although the benefits of strengthening and working the muscles through yoga are great, we also create a change on a more physiological and emotional level. As we begin to link the breath with the movement, we are not only feeding oxygen into the bloodstream, which is the key to our system to functioning and surviving, but we are moving the body in ways that compress and decompress the veins to help flush stagnant blood and reverse blood flow. Overall helping to increase blood circulation with the carrying of oxygen and nutrients to the entire body and purifying the bloodstream by eliminating toxins, debris and impurities. As a result, this will help decrease inflammation, muscle cramps, numbness, cold hands and feet, etc.
The movements we flow through in yoga can also a great compliment to a meditation practice as we have opened and prepared the body to sit in stillness for a length of time. Meditation can be extremely therapeutic as it has a direct effect on the nervous system, helping you bring your body into a more relaxed state. Within the autonomic nervous system, we have the sympathetic nervous system, better known as the fight-or-flight response and the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest response that calms and conserves the energy in the body. Nowadays, I think most of us have been accustomed to going about our day in that fight-or-flight response and have sometimes forgotten how to activate the PNS to be in a more calm and balanced state. This can be caused by a number of things, a deadline at work, trying to make ends meet to pay the bills, taking care of our families, etc. A yoga and meditation practice, whether it is 5 minutes or an hour, is what can help move out of the SNS and move us into our PSN, which is known to be extremely effective in helping us control stress responses within the body. In addition to creating more balance with our nervous system, the act of yoga and meditation combined has also been known to boost the production of three hormones in the body that are essential to cultivating happiness, health, and feelings of calmness. Oxytocin, being the hormone that helps us feel closer to loved ones, decrease stress and improve our overall wellness. Endorphins being the second hormone released during yoga, also plays an essential in managing physical pain and negative emotions. Thirdly, Melatonin is another hormone that has been known to increase production in certain forms of yoga, such as yoga Nidra, restorative yoga and meditation. Melatonin places an important role in regulating our sleep cycle and helping us create that feeling of complete peace and relaxation.
There are many more benefits to this practice. Still, with all of this working together, you can see how when you complete a yoga or meditation practice, you feel that sense of euphoric bliss that makes you want to continue, deepen and grow your practice of yoga. Remembering that the goal of the practice is not to accomplish a posture or turn off the mind during meditation. It is to show up for yourself both on and off the mat with the most compassion, kindness, and love you can give yourself and be open to the change that can occur within you to share that with the world.