From Instagram to startup offices, yoga is everywhere. Practitioners and medical professionals attest that it’s incredibly beneficial for health. But yoga is intended to be a workout for the mind as well as the body, and its true value goes far beyond achieving a more bendy spine. I spoke with wellness expert Sophie Uliano to learn how to invite all of yoga’s benefits — not just the physical ones — into your practice.
An Antidote for a Chaotic World
Yoga seems like it’s been part of 21st-century wellness culture forever. Thirty-six million Americans practice it and there are at least 6,000 yoga centers in the U.S. alone. Popular instructors like Adriene Mishler leverage social media platforms to reach millions of people every day, translating complex concepts into easy-to-follow, bite-sized flows.
Yoga originated in the Indian subcontinent, where it is deeply linked with the ancient Vedic texts that form the basis of Hinduism. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s — decades marked by a devastating war and social upheaval — that the West began its love affair with yoga. According to NPR, the practice was attractive to many people because it was perceived as an “antidote for a chaotic world.”
But as yoga went from a niche hobby favored by “radical” young Americans to a more mainstream one, it evolved to suit the goals and interests of 20th-century Westerners. One major component of these goals and interests was physical fitness. In general, Western medicine doesn’t acknowledge the link between physical and mental health in the way Eastern medicine does (and it has no concept whatsoever of “spiritual health”). So as more people began to adopt this Eastern tradition, it was within a slightly limited framework of understanding that they did so.
How to Incorporate Yogic Philosophy Into Your Daily Practice
But many people argue that yoga’s Hindu philosophical origins shouldn’t be ignored. “The holistic practice of yoga goes beyond just a couple of asanas on the mat,” says Sheetal Shah, senior director of the Hindu American Foundation. “Holistic” here refers to the Hindu spiritual teachings that underlie the physical exercises, like living with nonviolence, loving-kindness, mental purity, and truthfulness.
Nutritionist and wellness expert Sophie Uliano agrees. “There is a disconnect from the original teachings of yoga, which are more about meditation and breathing, and less about the physical asana. It’s really an entire philosophy, which includes studying texts, breathing, and living with intention.”
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She recommends honoring yoga’s philosophical origins — both on and off the mat — by integrating the physical with the mental, spiritual, and emotional. Doing this will help you accomplish far more than an Insta-worthy backbend — it will lead to greater mood stability, happiness, and a deepened feeling of loving-kindness towards the world.
Here are her suggestions for accomplishing just that:
1. Familiarize yourself with some of the sacred texts.
A good place to start is the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. This collection of millennia-old texts introduces readers not only to the correct physical postures but also helps them discover more virtuous ways of living through the study of ethics and meditation. Find a teacher who isn’t just great at guiding you through postures but also bases her teachings on these sutras.
2. Develop a daily meditation practice.
The Sutras will explain that the true purpose of yoga is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. This is a short way of saying that to be a true yogi, the best starting place would be to develop a daily meditation practice. To really see the benefits of meditation you must commit to it. That could mean rising 20 minutes earlier every morning to meditate on your own, using a meditation app, or seeking out a class.
Pranayama — using breath control techniques to manage and enhance vitality — is a good idea for yogis and non-yogis alike. Sophie Uliano says “Pranayama isn’t just breathing. It’s getting in touch with and manipulating your life force. It’s very powerful stuff.” There are some simple pranayama techniques that can be learned at home. However, those who want to delve deeper should get in touch with a skilled teacher. Sophie recommends complementing your yoga practice with a class that teaches pranayama and meditation exclusively.
4. Focus less on flexibility.
We all know how great yoga is for flexibility, and we’re all impressed by the gravity-defying poses of our favorite Instagram yogis. But Sophie Uliano stresses that “yoga has nothing to do with the perfect backbend.” You can be deeply connected with the foundational teachings and barely be able to touch your toes. It’s about what you do with what you learn — if you are approaching yogic teachings with only the intention of becoming fitter or more flexible, you’re not going to experience the full benefits of a yogic approach towards life.
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