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what is yoga

relax

yoga studio
Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: ©Govinda Kai

Often I mention articles in class that, if not about yoga, are yogic in nature. Yoga, we know, is everywhere. More and more frequently scientists and other “experts” are coming around to what strikes me as common sense. But if you’ve lost touch with common sense (who hasn’t?) and instead look to experts for your answers, there’s plenty of support out there. A quick search of yoga in PubMed yields 1,496 results, and about 206,000 in Google Scholar. Slowly, the ideas behind yoga are becoming more accepted, most especially when they aren’t identified as yoga.

Often I get the feeling that students don’t want to relax and just release into the slower, more restorative poses toward the end of the class. It might not be that they don’t want to—perhaps they simply can’t. Or they feel if they do, they’ll hear something they don’t want to hear from themselves, or lose that edge, or become weak. Or they are so far away from relaxation, they are just learning how.

Because it seems difficult, I try to encourage students to rest and relax, and to find time for it in their lives. In case my ramblings don’t convince, I sometimes share others’ thoughts on the matter. Recently I drew on a New York Times article about “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” by Matt Richtel:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self….

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Did you get that? “Downtime is to the brain, what sleep is to the body.” Oh, you don’t sleep, either? The brain needs sleep, too.

From the New York Times science section, “When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays,” by John Tierney: You want happiness? Focus on something. It “is now, at long last, scientifically guaranteed to improve your mood.” I find it depressing that we need “science” to verify the obvious—or what was once obvious to those in touch with their humanity.

What is yoga? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sutra Two: “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” You know, focus.

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Categories
art & yoga yoga habits

the yoga of sylvester graham

Jessica’s fantastic comment a few posts back reminded me of my undergrad thesis on health reform. Sylvester Graham was an activist of the 1800s. He had many interesting beliefs (and followers, like Ralph Emerson and Upton Sinclair), some of which parallel those of yogis. He was generally severe, believing that such things as cold cereal and flannel clothing worn against the skin (specifically undergarments) excited the body and should be avoided. However, he was a great advocate of dance. He believed that  it was preferable that people meet to sing and dance rather than to eat and drink, lest “They should endure a miserable existence in moping melancholy, for want of proper exercise and relaxation….If I could have my wish, the Violin…should be played in every family in the civilized world” and that were singing and dancing practiced in theological seminaries, literary groups, and scientific circles, then “immense benefits…would result for society at large.” Exactly! He goes on:

The salutary influence of animating music, connected with exercise, is very great; in fact, it may almost be said to be medicinal, for it actually has the most healthful effect on all the vital functions of the body; and hence, dancing, when properly regulated, is one of the most salutary kinds of social enjoyment ever practised in civic life, and every enlightened philanthropist must regret to see it give place to any other kind of amusement. The religious prejudice against dancing is altogether ill founded; for it is entirely certain that this kind of social enjoyment is more favorable to good health, sound morality, and true religion than perhaps any other known in society.

—Graham, Sylvester. Lectures on the science of human life. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1858, p.39.

Perhaps I’m a bit off topic here, but I love to see the parallels between yoga and other health practices in American culture, historical or otherwise. Soon, a shift from art and yoga to a post on Namaste नमस्ते. What it means and why we say it.

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