The Covid-19 era has ushered in a wave of happiness from solid wannabe yoga practitioners sheltered-in-place and succumbed to lockdown, pleased to spend more regular time on their yoga mats. Donning their yoga outfits and utilizing their special yoga music, videos, crystals, and accessories, they take to the warrior pose, the cobra pose, and the surya-namaskār series they admired passing the humongous sculpture in Delhi airport Terminal 3 (1). Covid time tests their ability to practice daily, keep their minds still, and avoid discord with family members or housemates.
True yoginis have also sheltered in place, unnerved. It is a time for extra compassion, connection, and self-care. They need not boast of their nitya-sādhana, daily practice, as this commitment to self involves no others. Their content hearts know the impermanence of the Covid crisis, and they commune with nature to absorb deeper patterns emerging in the world alongside those that preceded the crisis.
Since September 2014, when yoga-practicing Narendra Modi successfully launched a campaign in the UN General Assembly requesting endorsement of India’s mind-body science, 177 countries (2) have participated in the International Day of Yoga (IDY). Modi chose June 21, the start of dakshinayana (dakshina, south; ayana, travel) when the sun begins to move south from its northernmost point in our sky. The day is also known as the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Ṛtucarya, the ancient prescriptions for season-based self-care, tells us that as the days grow shorter, the sun’s strong rays deplete our strength less and less, allowing us to rejuvenate and replenish. As the fifth IDY approached in 2019, the whole of June had unofficially become Yoga Month (3), showcasing āsana practice worldwide in grand public events at Macchu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, and Times Square.
The overwhelming acceptance for IDY at the UN whispers acknowledgment of a quiet $16b+ yoga industry in the USA alone (4). Plus countless savings in India and regions that practice Buddhist yoga and meditation. But yoga’s contribution is more than economic. Yoga is an unparalled system of preventive medicine (5) and the paragon of mental health care (6). It is the only discipline that understands the physiology of the heart (7). Its ability to optimize respiratory function and rebalance hormones gained reputation during the early 2000s when Swami Ramdev began yoga camps in stadiums. Providing day care for tens of thousands of older, retired citizens, India witnessed elders (8) slowly discard their arthritis, dispel low back pain, and discontinue their inhalers and canes while “doing Baba Ramdev.” The data traverse the ages. Children taught yoga are less violent (9) and able to cope with emotions of anger and depression. Used in school detention or prison populations, it reduces repeat offenses (10). Pregnancy yoga assists in better labor. College students with regular yoga do better on exams (11). Yoga is the Vyasa of the modern day, traveling from Calcutta to California to Kerala, finally accepted by its mother openly because it has a place in the world.
Yoga begins where much of ancient Bharatiya wisdom begins, with the questions: who am I? why am I here? What is the purpose of life? It understands that suffering provokes the inquirer to ask deeper questions, instead of simply living in the present. But we are stuck thinking that our pain is the center of the Universe.
Ancient philosophers posited that suffering occurs when we have become unglued from our role as an inextricably-important yet minute part of the Universe, distorted by our delusion that we are separate from the world that is causing us pain. The ego guides and profits from this delusion, convincing unevolved souls that comfort and an evolved sense of self are the perfect protection from suffering, and the definition of a good life. The ego wants us to move faster to deliver it luxuries and minimize pain.
Yoga philosophy enters here, offering deeper awareness that if we can still our minds – yogaś-chitta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ - and listen to the robust wisdom in the pervasive stillness beyond, our minds can access unfathomable brilliant wisdom. Yoga offer principles for self-control of urges and emotions and promotes awareness of self in society with yama-niyama. Precepts such as sauchya - cleaning one’s own space, and asteya - not taking that which is not given, are powerful change agents. The ten profound principles bring greater peace and happiness to the global and local world when people shift their hierarchy of needs. Yamas motivate behaviors that support better personal health, promising to curb hefty resource expenditures of societies with high mental instability.
Sometime around 400 BCE, this philosophy was written into Patañjali's YogaSutras, considered to be one of the oldest texts on the subject. Two others are very commonly used for their exposition of detailed āsanas (poses), the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the prolific Yoga Drishti Series of texts of the Bihar School of Yoga, founded in 1963. Today there are hundreds of styles of yoga, patented, registered, and trademarked. Everyone wants to be known as a Yogi, though the true yogi is seen only in echoes.
This philosophy is outright rejected by the West, preferring Descartes, Freud and Bohr and a concrete, material view of the Universe. Everything else must be magic and pseudoscience for the western philosophical base to work. The West examines each part of Nature, and extracts only the material science of it, the chemistry, maths and physics that support their view. The only items from ancient Indian sciences valued today are medicinal jewels and stolen texts. Yoga is discredited quickly by religion fanatics cautioning against dangerous Hindu cults, and disreputed for lascivious incidents of yoga gurus, forgetting the thousands of convicted catholic priests, and muslim girl-slaves.
Often ignored in the West today, yoga teachings prescribe that we come to our mats only after time re-examining the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas. Then we can fully access the third arm of yoga: āsana, known popularly as hatha yoga. A quiet aware mind commands the body and 5 senses to obey it. They submit themselves as the mind puts the body into postures that flex the 14 main joints, and stretch what is now understood as a highway of fluid and gas, known as the interstitium, where molecules swim quickly around the body. These āsanas are more than just exercise. They promote circulation that allows hormones to better reach their targets and be checked by the liver’s filtering system.
Āsanas promote controlled action, conditioning the nervous system and reconnecting it again and again with the muscles. Postures done correctly massage the organs in the belly and ensure bowel movements are more regular. Coordination of the eyes, hands and feet are enhanced. That small patch of squishy fat between the thighs become svelte and smooth. The notochord, nerve fibers that run through the center hole in your bony spine and coordinate all your actions from the neck down, is stretched safely and pulses with the cerebrospinal fluid to create bio-electricity. The breath is controlled, becomes longer and more still, and increases the lung tidal volume, one of the parameters of healthy lung function that is noticeably shortened in people who neglect their breathing.
The fourth arm of yoga is prāna-ayama, known in popular culture as breathwork. Those in the west that “discover” that breathing in particular patterns evokes physiologic responses have taken enthusiastically to patenting their brilliant inner technology of “breathwork,” unaware that Patanjali and lakhs of wise breathers before them knew how to use different control patterns to alter their physiology. Prāna is the life-force, the breath, and the willpower. Ayama is control. Pranayama therefore is the controlled training of the self during times of health to breathe fully, so that in times of danger, such as a sudden respiratory infection, the body can invoke the wise practices. There are over 1000 prescriptions for breathwork, using parameters of length, duration, unilateral or bilateral flow through the nostrils, and accessories such as the mudras of the hands, the mantras of sound, and drshti of the eyes and mind, all with the simple binary language of inhale and exhale.
Indulging in sensual pleasures is an important part of understanding life, but overindulging creates addictions and illusions. The fifth arm of yoga teaches withdrawal of the senses, pratyahāra, a simple but not to easy choice not to tune in to channels that promote no peace or balance. The last three steps of inward direction, dhārana, true and focused meditative concentration, dhyana, and union with the cosmic wisdom samādhi, are understood only when the first five steps are imbibed and integrated.
Few understand that yoga is a full medical system, commonly known in the west only as yoga therapy. Propagated today by physicists and real estate junkies, research on yoga focuses mostly on biomedical measures because true yogis are not at the helm. Modern research acknowledges only what non-practitioners can understand using a framework that ignores the non-tangible functions of mind. In India, professional training courses combine yoga with naturopathy (12). Leading researchers measure yoga against exercise, use time-in-meditation as an outcome ignoring depth of experience, and see yoga as an alternative to physical therapy. After exploring the topsoil, yoga researchers cannot go deeper into the crust or mantle of yoga’s medical potential because most never actually master the practice of yoga beyond the physical.
When the mind is developed, it unlocks the autonomic control on the physiology by conditioning the vagus nerve. Using anchored self-awareness, a series of postures, and breath patterns that rejuvenate every part of the body, yoga developed as a medical system for robust practice by the properly initiated in healthy times to evade disease using a healthy body-mind.
If disease or injury occurs, yoga therapy principles restore the body by calling in the powerful forces of the mind, enabling neurotransmitters dispensed by the body’s inner pharmacist to deliver all the medicines needed for healing. The inner surgeon coagulates broken vessels, and the inner electrician reboots the bioelectric cables of the vagus nerve or the His-Purkinje fiber system. Indeed, yogis such as Swami Rama and Pattabhi Jois have demonstrated immense power of the mind on the body and physiological abilities that defy the archaic gold standards of Guyton’s Physiology (13).
The same people that stammer that health is a human right shout communal slurs against yoga, discluding it from school districts by misnaming it as religion. Each year, the vast potential for yoga to develop and heal young minds is lost. Apparently, not everyone deserves Yoga.
When yoga is properly practiced, the lotus flower of wisdom begins to unfold, allowing the person extraordinary powers to see instinctively and perceive beyond the normal person. These powers are sometimes called supernatural by the banal, dim-witted world who both envy the super-able but are unwilling to do the work that by birthright would allow them similar abilities. They blame the unknown for heart disease and cancer and demand society to foot the bill when they fall sick. The understanding that they are disconnected never arrives in their heart.
But those who know the power of yoga quietly embrace daily practice as a trade secret, never revealing it in public. For the religious daily practice that must be done, even international airports today have yoga spaces (14), usually near the church and namaz rooms. So perhaps, Yoga IS a religion. If religion is defined as practiced faith that connects the heart, mind, actions, and hope, then yes, yoga is that. Tat sat.
(Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya MPH MD PhD is a Fulbright Specialist 2018-2022 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College. She began practicing yoga with her father at age 3.)
2. Text of UNGA Resolution A/Res/69/13. https://www.pminewyork.gov.in/idy/Yoga.pdf
3. Yoga Sessions, United Nations, 20 June 2019. https://www.pminewyork.gov.in/idy/
4. Yoga Journal report 2016. https://www.yogajournal.com/page/yogainamericastudy
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12. AYUSH Central Council for Yoga & Naturopathy, Government of India. http://ccryn.gov.in/
13. Hall JE. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology, 13e. Elsevier, New York. ISBN 9781455770052 https://www.us.elsevierhealth.com/guyton-and-hall-textbook-of-medical-physiology-9781455770052.html
14. Quiriconi S. Hit the Mat at New Yoga Airport Yoga Zones: Spaces at nine airports allow you to use post-TSA time to downward dog, 04/17/17, The Observer. https://observer.com/2017/04/airport-spaces-yoga-meditation/