In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. However, yoga is more than physical exercise, it has a meditative and spiritual essence.
The first Hindu teacher to actively try to popularize the aspects of yoga to the Western audience was Swami Vivekananda , who toured Europe and the United States in the 1890s. The reception which Swami Vivekananda received was mostly by intellectuals such as R. W. Emerson (1803–1882), philosophers and scholars - G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) etc.
The Western world associates the term "yoga" with Hatha yoga and its postures (asanas) merely as a form of exercise. In Hinduism it is more than exercise; it incorporates meditation with spiritual benefits.
Yoga has been studied and is increasingly recommended to promote relaxation, reduce stress and some medical conditions such as PMS. Yoga is a low-impact activity that provides the same benefits as any well-designed exercise program; it increases general health and stamina, reduces stress and improves health issues brought about by the modern sedentary lifestyle.
There is evidence to suggest that regular yoga practice increases brain activity, and yoga has been shown to improve mood and anxiety more than some other metabolically-matched exercises, such as walking.
The three main focuses of Hatha yoga (exercise, breathing, and meditation) make it beneficial to those suffering from heart disease. Studies of yoga on heart disease demonstrate that yoga reduces high blood-pressure, enhances cardiac rehabilitation and lowers cardiovascular risk factors.
A research group from Boston University School of Medicine tested yoga effects on lower-back pain. For the duration of twelve weeks, one group of volunteers practiced yoga while the control group continued with standard treatment for back pain. The reported pain for yoga participants decreased by one third. The standard treatment group had only a five percent drop. Yoga participants had a drop of 80% in the use of pain medication.
Ways to MeditateThere are many styles of hatha yoga and there are many ways to meditate. The first stage of meditation is to concentrate on a specific object or establish a point of focus, with the eyes opened or closed. Silently repeating a word or phrase, reciting a prayer or chanting, visualizing an image or focusing on an object such as a lit candle or fingering a rosary or a piece of crystal are all commonly recommended points of focus. Observing your breathing and noticing the bodily sensations are also optional focal points.
The Use of Sound
Mantra yoga uses a particular sound or a phrase as a point of focus. The word mantra comes from man, which means “to think,” and tra - “instrumentality” . So, mantra is an instrument of thought.
Chanting is another powerful way to meditate. A chant involves rhythm and pitch. Indian chanting comes out of a tradition that believes in the creative power of sound and its potential to transport us to a state of awareness. Reflected in an interpretation of the word universe—”one song”— Om is the seed sound of all other sounds.
The Use of Images
Visualizing is also a good way to meditate and it’s easy to practice.
Some practitioners visualize a natural object such as a flower or the ocean; others meditate on the chakras / the energy centers in the body/. In this type of meditation, you focus on the area or organ of the body corresponding to a particular chakra, imagining the particular colour that is associated with it.
Another variation on the use of imagery is to maintain an open-eyed focus upon an object. Candle gazing is a popular form of this method. You can focus on a flower, a statue, or a picture of a deity or a colourful mandala.
Use this technique with your eyes fully opened or partially closed, creating a softer, diffused gaze. Many pranayama techniques also call for specific positioning of the eyes, such as gazing at the “third eye,” the point between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose.
Use the breath as a point of focus. You can do this by counting the breaths so that the breath becomes the sole object of your meditation. Observe every nuance of the breath and each sensation it produces: how it moves in your abdomen and torso, how it feels as it moves in and out of your nose, its quality, its temperature, and so on. Though you are fully aware of all these details, you don’t dwell on them or judge them in any way; you remain detached from what you’re observing. What you discover is neither good nor bad; you simply allow yourself to be with the breath from moment to moment.
There are many classic seated poses - Sukhasana (Easy Cross-Legged Pose) or Padmasana (Lotus Pose).
Relax your arms and place your hands on the thighs, with the palms in a relaxed position facing up or down . Keep your neck long and the chin down. Your eyes may be opened or closed. Breathe and relax.
A moving meditation may be an enjoyable option for you. The challenge is to walk slowly and consciously, each step becoming your focal point. Destination, distance, and pace are of no essence. Relax your arms at your sides and move freely, coordinating your breath with your steps. Breathe in for 3 steps and breathe out for 3 steps or just breathe freely. Choose a place you love—the ocean, a river, a favorite park.
The classic Corpse Pose, Savasana, is used for meditation. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing upward. Some find it easier to stay awake with their eyes open.
The Benefits of MeditationResearch has confirmed what the yogis of ancient times already knew: deep physiological and psychological changes take place when we meditate.
When meditation deepens, brain activity decreases. Studies on meditators have shown decreased perspiration and a slower rate of respiration accompanied by a decrease of metabolic wastes in the bloodstream. Lower blood pressure and an improved immune system are further benefits of meditation.
Meditation teaches you to manage stress. It reduces stress; enhances the overall physical health and emotional well-being. On a deeper level it adds quality to your life by teaching you to be fully alert, aware, and alive.
How Do We Know It Works?
At the beginning you might feel uncomfortable meditating—sitting for 20 minutes can cause your legs to fall asleep or cramp up; walking slowly can make you feel impatient or anxious; reclining poses may make you fall asleep. Don’t worry. Reduce the length of your practice time; change your position; play around – find the pattern that suits you best.
If you continue having trouble with your meditation practice, find an experienced teacher or a support group. No matter how you do it, an indicator of your progress is a feeling of inner calmness and composure.