Yoga is a philosophy and a spiritual practice, an element of which prescribes a specific set of movements designed to purify the body and set it free from the limitations of a purely bodily existence.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, regarded as the earliest text compiling ancient yogic wisdom was written in 400 CE, meaning that today's yoga practice is part of an almost 2,500 year old tradition.
It is the asanas (postures), which can be sewn together in various sequences that constitutes the yoga that has become popularised in the west over the past 70 years or so.
For many, however, stretching and holding poses is as far as the practice goes and this alone is beneficial for the body and mind. The beauty of yoga is that however much you scratch the surface there is always more you can draw from it. Teachings are all concerned with ways to reduce suffering, in our physical and emotional lives. Yoga is a journey of self discovery and the mat is your ride.
While any form of deep stretching promotes health benefits, certain things sets yoga apart from other physical practices.
Detoxify the organs
Yoga has been developed over thousands of years, with asanas tailored specifically to target the entire anatomy. The physical aspect of yoga is concerned with purification of the body. This is achieved through generating internal heat causing the body to sweat, and contorting and stretching in specific ways so as to stimulate internal bodily organs.
Among other things, yoga helps to boost the flow of the lymphatic system, which removes waste fluid from the tissues which are potential causes of infection and disease. Many asanas also target the liver, increasing the blood flow to this vital organ which is responsible for detoxifying the body.
Full body massage
If you have experienced a good yoga class, then you will be aware of the "yoga glow". A deep-seated feeling of satisfaction and a radiant complexion; the result of an hour or so spent stretching and holding what can be challenging poses.
You should feel warm after a yoga practice, your muscles having been pumped with increased blood flow. Certain stretches and movements are as powerful as a deep body massage, if not more so as you are in control of the pressure.
Added to that, the main objective of yoga is to synchronise the breath with each and every movement you make, which intensifies the massage effect by increasing oxygen flow to all of your muscles and organs.
The modern way of life often does not prioritise proper relaxation. A lot of what we class as "relaxing" is not actually reducing stress in the body. Some of us live in a state of mild anxiety, so much so that we don't even register it. Yoga is an effective way to really relax and actually reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in the body.
By distracting the mind from the incessant internal dialogue and focusing on bodily movement instead, you stop creating emotional states that are purely reactions to a virtual reality i.e. your thoughts, which is the predominant cause of unnecessary stress.
Instead, you concentrate on what is happening on a physical level to your body in the present moment and in doing so cultivate a deep sense of inner calm.
This aspect may not interest you, however it is worth acknowledging that yoga is a philosophy (not a religion) that dates back to before Biblical times. There is a timeless wisdom embodied within the practice of yoga, much of which has now been proven by science.
Importantly, yoga preaches genuine self love and acceptance of what is; two valuable lessons in life no matter your age, gender, race or religion.
Yoga requires a certain level of commitment and regular practice, if the benefits are to be properly felt.
That is not to say that you can't also dip in and out of a yoga practice, when life gets in the way; it is a practice that can be picked up again and adapted, no matter your circumstances or your age.
However, maintaining a regular practice is the aim with yoga and this in its self is good for you. It disciplines the mind and body, which is the first step to achieving any goal.