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The True Meaning of Yoga

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” Mahatma Gandhi

Stopping is part of life. There is no meaningful life without the connection to the essence of who we truly are, the spirit. A consistent, dedicated time for self-reflection, for bringing ourselves back to our breath is fundamental to a sustainable fulfilment. One of many ways to stop for a moment is by practicing yoga.

Let’s look at the history and philosophy of this ancient spiritual practice before we dive into the research.

Yoga originated in India where it is seen as means to enlightenment - a liberation from the self, extinction of the ego and perception of the non-dual nature of the Universe. It entails mastery over the body, mind, the emotional self and transcendence of desire. The original word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit Yuj meaning “to yoke” or "to unite." In Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, yoga is spiritual practice with moral and ethical principles. It helps still the mind through mantras and awareness of breathing.

The purpose of yoga is expressed differently in different traditions. In Hinduism, it’s a set of practices intended to bring people closer to God, to achieve union with God. In Buddhism, yoga helps people connect with themselves through their inner wisdom and compassion. In our Western culture with a strong emphasis on individualism yoga is a search for meaning in the self through the unity of different aspects of being.

Somewhere along its path to finding inner peace, however, yoga seems to have lost its way. For the past decade or so this sacred spiritual practice has become a trendy fitness niche that can be taken in between an “extreme box fit” and “power pump” class. Many push themselves into postures more frenetically than its original devotees would have ever imagined. Swami Gitananda, a yoga guru who founded ashrams on several continents declares that “real yoga” is as safe as mother’s milk. How safe is today’s yoga?

The first controversial research about the harming effect of yoga came from a respected Oxford neurophysiologist, Ritchie Russell, who published an article arguing that some yoga postures may cause strokes even in relatively healthy people. Russell found that brain injuries were the result of not only physical trauma but also from rapid movements or excessive extensions of the neck, which occur in some yoga poses.

The neck has its natural capacity to stretch backward up to 75 degrees, forward up to 40 degrees and sideways up to 45 degrees. It can also rotate on its axis about 50 degrees. Many Western ambitious yoga teachers encourage to move the vertebrae much farther. In result, today's average yoga student can turn his/her neck 90 degrees which is nearly twice the normal rotation.

A few years ago researchers at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published results from an international survey of yoga teachers, therapists, and doctors. The survey’s main purpose was to look at the most serious yoga-related injuries. The study revealed that the largest number of 231 injuries were related to the lower back, 219 to the shoulder, 174 to the knee and 110 to the neck.

The respondents noted four cases in which posture’s extreme bending and contortions resulted in some degree of brain damage. Although the numbers weren’t alarming, they shifted the perception of the potential harm yoga may cause when practiced the wrong way. ​

Let’s focus on the bright sides of our yoga practice. A recent study published by scientists at Seoul University was looking at how the 12-week yoga programme may impact back-related function, stress, and inflammatory factors in patients with chronic low back pain. This non-randomised controlled study involved 43 women with chronic low back pain. All participants were screened based on self-reported low back pain, medical history and lifestyle.

Researchers reported significant improvement in back flexibility and decreased serum cortisol level in the yoga group, with no significant changes in C-reactive protein level in both groups. The results suggest that yoga may be used as effective treatment for chronic low back pain and stress although the results need to be confirmed with a large-scale randomised controlled trial.

A randomised comparative trial was undertaken by an Australian team of scientists comparing yoga with relaxation. Researchers enrolled 131 people with mild to moderate levels of stress. All participants attended ten weekly one-hour sessions of either relaxation or hatha yoga. Following the ten-week intervention yoga was found to be as effective as relaxation in reducing stress and anxiety and more effective than relaxation in improving mental health.

At the end of the 6 week follow-up period, there were no differences between groups in levels of stress and anxiety. Social function, mental health and vitality scores were higher in the relaxation group. The study has shown that yoga appears to provide a comparable improvement in stress, anxiety and health status to relaxation.

It’s actually striking how weak the research on yoga is. Many studies suggest that practicing yoga may be beneficial for people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression, but these are small mostly observational and badly designed studies. The groups are not representative and relate to various styles of yoga. The data is either inconsistent or inconclusive. In a recently published meta-analysis the authors summarised:

“there is a lack of reliable, strong evidence on the effects of yoga on clinical events, blood pressure and lipid levels and for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

Perhaps we don’t need research to prove that entering our inner sacred space with grace and gratitude brings a natural sense of fulfilment, joy and meaning. What we know for sure is that yoga means more than rushing through a series of postures and competing with others. It’s a body-mind-spirit experience, a miraculous agent of renewal and healing. Yoga is an open eye meditation that needs to be respected and practiced gracefully with inner peace and self-awareness.

Stopping is part of life, even in societies where running fast is a badge of honour. A meditative yoga session may help us reflect on why we are running, where we are running and what is the running for.

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