Yoga A Doctor's Perspective

Vijaypal Arya M.D.

The term “yoga” refers to the union of physical, mental, and spiritual practices that were originated in ancient India thousands of years ago. The goal of Yoga is to attain – A state of perfect knowledge and bliss, known as ‘Samadhi’. Hindu ascetics introduced yogic practices to the West in the late 19th century, and by the 1980s the body of knowledge known as yoga became popular as a system of physical exercises, referred to as Hatha yoga. Truly speaking, the physical component is much smaller than the mental and spiritual components in the practice of Yoga.

According to the Sage Patanjali –The father of Yoga, the aim is mainly prevention. In Sanskrit-Heyam Dukhham Anagatam i.e. To prevent the sorrows, which have not come yet.

Yoga has been widely studied for its efficacy as complementary intervention for a variety of mental and physical ailments including stress, heart diseases, arhthritis, as well as cancer. Yoga and meditation were the basis of a Nobel Prize winning study “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase” by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009. The study showed that telomerase activity which controls cell aging -could be increased by just three months of yogic life style. Dr. Dean Ornish also has shown the reversal of coronary atherosclerosis by following yoga and meditation based lifestyle.

While the practice of Hatha yoga offers many benefits to one’s overall health, there is much more to be gained from the full body of yogic knowledge. This knowledge is divided into eight limbs:

1. Yama: The yamas are a series of ethical rules –Duties towards others.

  • Ahimsa: Practice non-violence (non-harming in thought, word and action)
  • Satya: Do not tell lies.
  • Asteya: Do not steal, or covet the possessions of others.
  • Brahmacharya: Practice celibacy.
  • Aparigraha: Limit your possessions to those that are necessary for life.

2. Niyama: The niyamas complement the yamas,-Duties towards yourself.

  • Shaucha: Cleanliness of thoughts, words and deeds.
  • Santosha: Be content with what you have, instead of seeking more.
  • Tapas: Live simply, and work hard.
  • Svadhyaya Study the scriptures to understand God and the soul
  • Ishvara-Pranidhana: Surrender to God.

3. Asana: Literally translates to “seat,” and refers to the seated position assumed in meditation. This Limb developed into the full body practice of Hatha yoga.

4. Pranayama: Prana, breath, “ayama”, to restrain or stop. The control of the breath is an important component of Hatha yoga, but there are also exercises that focus entirely on the breath, which is interpreted as the life force.

5. Pratyahara*
6. Dharana*
7. Dhyana*
8. Samadhi*
(*These limbs refer to advanced meditation, which requires the renouncement of one’s worldly possessions, and a full retreat from the external world.)
For true benefits of yoga, one should incorporate Yama and Niyama in daily life.