International Day of Yoga - Honouring the Roots of Yoga & its Benefits
In this post we celebrate yoga by exploring a brief history of the practice, as well as looking at the benefits of yoga, including improved sleep, heart health and back pain relief.
What is International Yoga Day?
“Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.” - B. K. S. Iyengar
International Day of Yoga is a UN sanctioned day of celebration and recognition that promotes yoga as both a beneficial exercise and a practice with extremely important cultural significance.
Previous celebrations have included broadcasts by The Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, large in-person gatherings of yogis from across the globe and the publication of an array of educational material on the history and importance of yoga.
The day was first officially recognised on 11 December 2014 by the United Nations after it was put forward by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and backed by 175 countries.
Why do we celebrate it?
“Yoga is an invaluable gift from our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action ... a holistic approach [that] is valuable to our health and our well-being. Yoga is not just about exercise; it is a way to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature.” - Narendra Modi
The word ‘celebrate’ comes from the Latin ‘celebr’ meaning ‘honoured’. To honour something is to understand its past, respect its present and protect its future. That’s why we want to celebrate the International Day of Yoga by exploring the roots of the tradition and ensuring that this knowledge is passed on, so that we can practice in a respectful and honourable way.
But we all celebrate yoga for different reasons and in different ways.
For us here at Middle-earth™ Yoga, yoga is celebrated as a way of living; mindful, harmonious, simple and open. We celebrate it because it connects us with others and with the world around us in a way that we may not otherwise have been able to do.
For others, yoga is part of their cultural identity and celebrating the practice helps them connect to their history and community no matter where they are.
Over the last year or so, we have had yet another reason to celebrate yoga. Whilst we have chosen to stay indoors to protect others, for many of us yoga has been a lifeline that has kept our bodies and minds safe and well.
A brief history of yoga -
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey
The history of yoga is complex, multi-faceted and fascinating. We couldn’t possibly hope to cover its impact and intricacies in one short article. However, as we believe part of practicing yoga is understanding where it has come from and why it is significant, we would like to give a brief overview (as we understand it) and encourage all our fellow practitioners to take the time to do their own research into it.
The word ‘yoga’ itself has a long and varied history. Originally a Sanskrit word (योग), it first appeared in writing in ‘Rig Veda’, a sacred Hindu text. It means something similar to “to harness” and is considered to be the equivalent of the english word “yoke”. To “yoke” in English was generally understood to mean attaching animals together in a harness for agricultural purposes. This may seem like an odd definition to associate with yoga, but if you think about it in terms of harnessing the power of unified forces, it begins to give you a better understanding of the ideology behind the word.
As to the physical practice of yoga, some believe that the first yogi was Shiva, the third god in the Hindu triumvirate. Shiva is often seen as the embodiment of true enlightenment and death of the ego - something which many yogis strive for in their meditation.
It is said that Shiva shared their yogic knowledge with seven sages (‘saptarshis’) who took it across the world; they travelled across Asia, the Middle East, northern Africa and South America. However, Ágastya, the saptarishi who travelled across India, crafted the yogic way of life around the principles of Shiva and found that it was in India that this practice truly began to take hold and flourish.
Since then, the history books are a little less certain on how yoga as we know it today came to be. Some believe that it dates back 5,000 years and others think it was long before this, some 10,000 years ago. Although defined as yoga, it’s unlikely that downward-facing-dog was a popular pose for the prehistoric peoples or that we would recognise the yoga of 10,000 years ago as the same practice that has been cultivated today.
Many use the Bhagavad Gita (‘the Gita’) as an origin point for the recognisable practice of yoga and it is often referred to as ‘the bible of yoga’. The Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata, one of India’s most famous epic poems. Although there is no exact record of when this scripture was written, it’s estimated to have been completed in around 200 CE.
It’s believed that the Gita was the first piece of spiritual text which allowed for anyone to take part and become enlightened. It follows the teachings of the guru, Krishna who sets out the three paths of yoga.
- Bhakti Yoga
This is the path of the heart.
Bhakti is the process of reaching enlightenment via a complete surrender to a love of all beings and devotion to your personal God.
- Jnana Yoga
This is the path of intellect.
Jhana is the process of achieving enlightenment through the gaining of knowledge and wisdom through studying. Studying in this instance means both the learning of scriptures and the study of the self through reflection and meditation.
- Karma Yoga
This is the path of work.
Karma is the process of achieving enlightenment through faithful servitude to the universe around you. This path involves discovering and devoting yourself to your dharma (ultimate purpose in this world).
There have been many other texts since the Bhagavad Gita, some of which are more commonly known today, such as:
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In The Yoga Sutras, an eight-fold path is set out, known as the Raja Marga (Royal Path), which purely focuses on introspection and meditation.
- Tantra Yoga. Tantra yoga was developed by a group of yogis many years after The Yoga Sutras and is all about the balance of energy: hot and cold, internal and external, feminine and masculine. Unlike many previous forms of yoga, tantric philosophy believes the vessel of the body to be an important part of the path to enlightenment rather than an obstacle to it and that we should therefore cherish our bodies as we would all forms of life and deities.
- Hatha Yoga. This form of the practice concerns itself with caring for the body through physical practice and is the most recognisable form of yoga to those in the modern, western world. Although mediation was important for the mind, many yogis found that they were able to achieve deeper and more profound meditation when they sustained and nurtured their physical body. They therefore began to observe the movements of the world around them and mirrored this in their practice; hence we have the cat-cow pose etc.
This is only a very brief overview of yoga’s history but it is a stepping stone on the path to knowledge for any budding yogis or even advanced practitioners who want to gain a better understanding of the sacred art of yoga.
How can yoga help you?
Modern day yoga has diverged slightly from the path of enlightenment and has since become a force for mental and physical rejuvenation and wellbeing.
More than that, yoga has opened doors for people of every background due to its open and adaptable nature and has been used as a part of treatment plans for a myriad of health conditions.
Still more people use yoga as a tool to fine tune their bodies and improve their performance in other areas of their life. For example, one of our team members uses yoga to increase her strength and flexibility for bouldering.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, here as 9 benefits of modern yoga:
“1. Yoga improves strength, balance and flexibility.
Slow movements and deep breathing increase blood flow and warm up muscles, while holding a pose can build strength.
- Yoga helps with back pain relief.
Yoga is as good as basic stretching for easing pain and improving mobility in people with lower back pain. The American College of Physicians recommends yoga as a first-line treatment for chronic low back pain.
- Yoga can ease arthritis symptoms.
Gentle yoga has been shown to ease some of the discomfort of tender, swollen joints for people with arthritis, according to a Johns Hopkins review of 11 recent studies.
- Yoga benefits heart health.
Regular yoga practice may reduce levels of stress and body-wide inflammation, contributing to healthier hearts. Several of the factors contributing to heart disease, including high blood pressure and excess weight, can also be addressed through yoga.
- Yoga relaxes you, to help you sleep better.
Research shows that a consistent bedtime yoga routine can help you get in the right mindset and prepare your body to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Yoga can mean more energy and brighter moods.
You may feel increased mental and physical energy, a boost in alertness and enthusiasm, and fewer negative feelings after getting into a routine of practicing yoga.
- Yoga helps you manage stress.
According to the National Institutes of Health, scientific evidence shows that yoga supports stress management, mental health, mindfulness, healthy eating, weight loss and quality sleep.
- Yoga connects you with a supportive community.
Participating in yoga classes can ease loneliness and provide an environment for group healing and support. Even during one-on-one sessions loneliness is reduced as one is acknowledged as a unique individual, being listened to and participating in the creation of a personalized yoga plan.
- Yoga promotes better self-care.”
This International Yoga Day is a time of reflection:
- How can we make sure we are practicing respectfully?
- How can we give back to the cultures and communities that brought us yoga?
- How can we ensure that the future of yoga is one of peace and compassion?
Whatever your reason for doing yoga, however you came to the practice and no matter how far along the path you are, take some time today to think about these questions and meditate on why it should be celebrated and why you are grateful for it.