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Well HELLO! Welcome to the now. And while it may be apparent that stretching in itself might be considered a healthy endeavor, it is certainly not the limit or defining characteristic of what millions of Americans have now come to know as Yoga.
In Sanskrit, the word "yoga" means "union"; the conscious integration of body, mind and spirit with the awareness of the One. Stretching without involving the mind is ... stretching. Actively connecting with the body through thought and conscious breathing, while remaining aware of spirit, comes closer to the idea of what yoga advances. If there is a threadline that connects the multiple facets of the practice of yoga, it may well be simply expressed in one word: awareness.
One author has described yoga as a system of spiritual, mental and physical development. Historically speaking, it is the practical application of the theoretical foundation provided in the ancient Vedic texts of India. And, naturally, the physically apparent part of that method is noted most easily by the eyes. One physical part is the exercise of postures or movements known as asanas. (AH-sahn-oz) That has become the most commonly observed part of a broad methodology and is what many Americans consider the essential characteristic of yoga. It is, however, only the tip of the proverbial Himalayas... er, iceberg. With so much scope in the practice of yoga, the most wonderful thing about it is that you get out of yoga what you put into it. If all you want is to use the practice to increase flexibility, then, there you have it. On the other hand, a yoga newsgroup on the Internet recently posted a finding from an international research group studying the beneficial impact yoga has on Attention Deficit Disorder. With yoga, as in life, one reaps what one sows.
"HEY, HEY...BOO, BOO."
With a basis in Vedic texts dating to 6000 BC, the first name we can attach to the practice of yoga appears around 200 BC. That is when a yogi named Patanjali collected his thoughts from meditations and the teachings of other yogis and scribed them in Aphorisms on Yoga. In this work Patanjali left us with definite practices and techniques that are the backbone of the many yogic practices.
From a strictly physical point of view, one yogi at the Los Angeles Center for Yoga used a description that is easily recalled and graphically makes sense. Here it is. Most of us maintain the image that the body is constructed just like a building or sky scraper might be. That is, that the skeleton serves as a sort of scaffolding or framework and that the musculature of the body and the various glands and organs are supported upon that frame, just like the walls and stairwells and superstructure of a building would be hung on girders. The image is that the skeleton supports and holds up the musculature. But imagine for a moment what it might be like standing in biology class and holding up a skeleton by that hook on top of the skull. If we let go of the skeleton, it crumples to the floor. It becomes obvious. The skeleton is not what supports the musculature, the muscles support the skeleton. Left to slump and unconsciously compress, those muscles don't do a very good job of holding the skeleton in shape and put a great deal of pressure and constriction on the other parts of the body, blocking the normal flow of energy. The physical result of yogic postures is the reclamation of that normal order of the muscles supporting actively and effortlessly the bony skeleton. Not the other way around. This is a correction that is NOT addressed in other types of typically Western physical activity. Nearly all forms of "exercise" common to Western culture ( other than yoga,) encourage the musculature to compress . Think about it. Everything from running to weightlifting, aerobics to bicycling, emphasize the contraction of a set of muscles to the desired goal. This results in the compression of the spaces between the bones, and, with 209 bones in the body, that's a lot of spaces. But with Yoga, the postures put more of the emphasis on the expansion of the spaces between the bones, with a balanced attention to the muscles that cause that expansion. This brings an opening up of the body. Energy flows freely. Breathing is easier. Organs and musculature regain their normal positions and can operate more freely.
And because yoga allows the participant to move at his or her own level of work, there is no competition involved. The level one works at is determined by the participant alone. Before you suspect that a few "stretching" movements might not provide you with the level of exertion you require, be advised: one can certainly work as hard in yoga as in any form of physical movement.
HATHA IN THE HEARTLAND
Our most recent column featured an interview conducted by Susan Gillespie. Her classes in yoga have been taught at the Omaha Yoga and Bodywork Center in Benson for over ten years. Kathleen Wingard is another area teacher who is owner and director of Heritage Yoga Center in Lincoln. She teaches in the Iyengar style, found to be more typical of yoga instruction as practiced on the West Coast. Both schools are open to all levels and are attended by a wide variety of students.
Yoga is an experiential learning. There is no way to study or learn about yoga other than doing it. It does, after all, seek to do yoga , the union of Spirit/Mind/Body. Be sure to bring all three to class.
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Michael Braunstein is Executive Director of Heartland Healing and certified by the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners in clinical hypnotherapy. He graduated from the Los Angeles Hypnotism Training Institute and was an instructor at the UCLA Extension University for 11 years.
Heartland Healing is devoted to the examination of various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information and not as medical advice. It is not meant as an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or by Heartland Healing Center, Inc.
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