Yoga and its Benefits
Yoga benefits people of all age groups. The benefits range from mental peace, fitness, health, improved physiological functioning of the body and spiritual evolution.
The benefits of Yoga Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Shatkarma and Meditation reach all the levels of our being. To understand this, we need to know more about the different levels of our own individual existence.
According to the scriptures, we are essentially the eternal Spirit or the Atma. The spirit manifests in the world by taking a body, not just the gross physical body, but also associated subtler bodies that constitute our being.
The Upanisads talk of five bodies or sheaths that accompany us when we manifest as an embodied self or Jiva. Just like a manual of a car will describe all the parts and its functions, the Upanishads have explored the various levels of manifestation in our being.
These five layers, or sheaths, are called ‘Pancha Kosha’. They are as follows – Physical body (called Annamaya Kosha), Pranic Body (Pranamaya kosha), Mental body (manomaya kosha), Intellectual body (Vigyanamaya kosha) and Bliss Sheath (Anandamaya kosha).
Let us discuss the benefits of yoga at each of the five levels of existence.
Benefits of Yoga at Physical Level
Benefits of yoga on the physical level are well known. Today, millions are taking to the yogic lifestyle for its health and fitness benefits. Yoga makes your body steady, flexible and strong. It increases endurance and vitalizes the organs. It gives a feel-good factor and improves self-confidence. Though not a panacea for everything, it is known to relieve many health problems, like anxiety, constipation, obesity, hypertension, digestive disorders, hormonal imbalances, respiratory and cardiac problems, allergies, and reproductive disorders, to name a few. Various yoga asanas and the Hatha Yoga practices of shad karmas (six practices for purification of body) were developed for specific health benefits.
Backward bending asanas like Makarasana, Bhujangasana, Chakrasana, Ardha-Chakrasana, Ushtrasana, Dhanurasana, etc. are good for problems of the back and spine by strengthening the muscles and increasing flexiblity.
The Hatha yoga practice of Neti gives nasal hygiene, removes sinusitis, and relieves allergies, headaches and migraines.
Surya namaskara is a set of yogic exercises that vitalize the body, remove lethargy and depression, and burn calories.
The list is endless as hundreds of Asanas are practiced by yoga enthusiasts for their various benefits.
Benefits of Yoga at Pranic Level
The ‘Pranamaya kosha’ or the energy sheath is our vital body. It’s responsible for all the physiological functioning, like digestion, excretion, blood flow, nerve impulses and body movements. The Science of Pranayama is specially designed for improving our vital energy, or Prana. Pranayama increases our energy levels, reduces carbon dioxide content in our blood, enhances self-healing properties of the body and improves lifespan. It can remove imbalances in all our physiological processes, reduce anxiety and hypertension and correct hormonal imbalances.
The prana is directly connected to both body and mind, as this sheath is sandwiched between the ‘Annamaya Kosha’ (physical body) and the ‘Manomaya kosha’ (mental body). Thus, the effects of pranayama are seen on both the body and the mind. When the Prana is controlled, the mind is automatically controlled. This principle is used by yogis to still the mind. Pranayama can reduce the fluctuations of the mind (also called ‘Vrittis’ in Sanskrit). It can relieve tensions and anxiety; and hence helps as a preparatory practice for meditation.
Benefits of Yoga at Mental Level
Yoga practices done with breath awareness, pranayama and meditation can help to bring calmness of the mind. They can reduce anxiety and tension. A calm mind is a prerequisite for meditation and higher practices of Samadhi, which leads to spiritual evolution. Fluctuations of mind can be removed by Hatha Yoga practices like Trataka (concentration on a point or object) and pranayama. Yoga helps us to deal with situations in life with awareness, in a steady and calm manner, without reacting to situations. It helps to create healthy relationships in the society.
Benefits of Yoga at Intellectual Level
‘Vigyanamaya kosha’, or the intellectual sheath, deals with our faculty of discrimination and decision making abilities. The intellect is subtler than the mind, yet the state of our mind can affect our decision making. Practice of pranayama and meditation reduce the fluctuations (or vrittis) of the mind. This results in improved clarity of the mind and better discrimination in dealing with situations in life.
Many spiritual seekers use the way of knowledge, or ‘Jnana’, as their path to realization. They rely mainly on intellectual understanding of the Self as explained in the scriptures. They may not do any yogic practices per se, yet there are yogic practices which can help them improve the quality of their contemplation on the truth. Many of the practitioners of Jnana Yoga use Pranayama as a means to reduce the menace of the mind. The mind is like a monkey that is constantly active without our permission. Controlling the prana can slowly bring this monkey-mind under control. In that calm state of mind, contemplation of the nature of the Self is possible without obstruction.
Benefits of Yoga at Bliss-sheath Level
‘Anandamaya Kosha’, or the Bliss sheath, is the innermost part of our being. Bliss is the essential nature of the soul. In the Scriptures, soul is described as Sat-Chid-Ananda or Being-Consciousness-Bliss. This bliss is experienced during deep sleep. The happiness we get during our day-to-day activities is only a lower expression of this inner bliss.
It is difficult to talk on how yoga can benefit your bliss sheath. In fact, it cannot. Bliss is your own inner nature. You don’t have to do anything to improve it. But you can certainly remove the obstacles that prevent experiencing this inner bliss. External experiences and the turbulences of life can distort and take away this natural bliss. Yoga can reduce these distractions, give steadiness of mind, prana and body, and give us back our sense of well-being.
In Sanskrit, the word for perfect health is ‘Swasthya’, which means ‘established or centered in one’s inner Self’. Yoga can definitely help us to get established in this inner bliss, which is our true pristine nature.