By Hannah Slattery, LPC, NCC
My experience with yoga had been very minimal up until I recently decided to start working on my yoga instructor course. Besides a few classes here and there I didn’t know much and was most definitely a novice. The history of yoga is not concrete and potentially dates back thousands of years, rooting itself in India. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that yoga was brought to the America’s and it took even longer for it to become the cultural norm it is now.
The Sanskrit word yoga has several translations and can be interpreted in many ways. It comes from the root yug and originally meant "to hitch up," as in attaching horses to a vehicle. Another definition was "to put to active and purposeful use." Still, other translations are "yoke, join, or concentrate." Essentially, yoga has come to describe a means of uniting or a method of discipline. (A Beginners Guide to the History of Yoga)
8 Limbs of Yoga
So besides contorting your body in uncomfortable ways or having goats sit on your back while doing a downward dog pose, what is yoga? Yoga is an art, it’s a passion and it’s a potential way of life. There are 8 limbs or aspects of yoga; Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratayahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samdhi. Yamas are one’s ethics or integrity, this is how we conduct ourselves and interact with the world.
Niyamas has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. How do you care for your spiritual or religious beliefs, do you attend church, meditate, take contemplative walks?
Asana are the postures or poses of yoga. In yoga the body is a temple to be cared for, so by doing the physical poses of yoga we are healing and strengthening our vessel.
Pranayama’s direct translation is life force extension. This is the belief that our breath is not only to heal and rejuvenate but it also an extension of ourselves. Practicing pranayama can be as simple as performing breathing exercises.
Pratayahara, the 5th limb of yoga, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. Simply put, it is when we are able to truly focus on our own internal experiences rather than external forces we can grow and flourish. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.
Dharana is the extension of pratayahara, this is an experience where we concentrate on the distractions of our own mind. Each limb build upon itself, helping us move into a deeper state of acceptance and healing.
Dhyana is the uninterrupted flow of concentration, it is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus.
The final limb of yoga, Samadhi, is comparable to a complete state of ecstasy. This is when the individual has found a true connection to themselves and feels a sense of being connected to all living things. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, "holier than thou" kind of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow find their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires? ( Eight Limbs of Yoga)
Mental Health and Yoga
So what does any of this have to do with mental health? If I may be so bold, it has everything to do with it. The reason we continue to feel less connected to others, to ourself, the reason we feel like we can never have enough things or friends, the reason we can’t sleep at night because our mind is racing or the reason we feel so beat up by the world that we can’t even get out of bed is because we have been steered away from a life full of happiness. Yoga increases body awareness, relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, strain, and inflammation, sharpens attention and concentration, and calms and centers the nervous system.
Do you remember the last time you felt calm, the last time you could sit with yourself, the last time it was quiet in your mind? Studies done at Harvard medical school show that yoga targets unmanaged stress, a main component of chronic disorders such as anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and insomnia. It does this by reducing the stress response, which includes the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The practice enhances resilience and improves mind-body awareness, which can help people adjust their behaviors based on the feelings they're experiencing in their bodies.( Yoga as a Practice Tool)
Find What Works For You
What is truly wonderful about yoga is that there are so many different practices, 13 to be exact, that anyone can find something for them. From restorative yoga, which is wonderful for people struggling with stress or chronic pain to Bikram yoga where you’re in a room that is 105 degrees to Aerial yoga where you’re doing yoga poses but suspended from the ceiling within a silk hammock.
Mindfulness and meditation is a key component to experiencing a sense of calm and it is also a potential addition to your life that can be done very easily. You don’t have to go to a yoga studio to accomplish peace.
Remember, "It's not about being good at something. It's about being good to yourself."
Contact us today to schedule a session with Hannah Slattery, LPC, NCC!