This article appeared in bodymindsoul magazine Kuala Lumpur July 2015:
“I am that” was a phrase that caught my attention early on in my quest to learn about Yoga. It incorporates the ancient wisdom of who we truly are, albeit its understanding requires years of training with an experienced and self-realized person, may it be a Yogi, a mystic Christian or a devout and knowledgeable Muslim. The truth is, even if someone claims to have the answers or the right path to find the meaning and purpose of life, we still need to discover them ourselves. It requires determination and a sincere wish to get to the core of human existence; and beyond everything else a capacity to self-reflect and the willingness to let go of our ego and everything that is connected to it are needed to progress.
Many believe systems already have principles of behavior and rules in place that teach universal values, s.a. though shalt not harm another person or desire what the neighbor has. Raja-Yoga has the Yamas (moral observances) and Niyamas (personal observances), recommendations of conduct to behave a certain way in order to progress more quickly to the next step of evolution, for instance Ahimsa means non-harming of living beings. Rules or recommendations of conduct attempt to create order in society, that otherwise might slide into anarchy. Many believe systems have mystic pathways that go beyond the daily codes of behaviours and rules. Depending on each individual society’s laws those mystic pathways are allowed or prohibited, e.g. mystic Christianity or Sufism. Laws in individual countries often do not take into account that some individuals may search far deeper than the common tenets of religion allow.
Yoga can be one of the paths a person may choose to look for answers to find the essence of life. The Yoga that is practiced in many countries in studios and gyms (Hatha-Yoga) is just a tiny part of the vast philosophy that has its origin in ancient India. For thousands of years Yogis passed on their specific knowledge to their disciples for the purpose of aiding their disciples’ quest in self-realization. In modern times self-realization has become a fancy word with many connotations that have little to do with what the Yogis intended originally.
Acknowledging that there are many different expressions in personalities in a human being, a guru would choose a specific path for their disciples. For example an intellectually inclined person would benefit and advance much quicker on the path of Gnana-Yoga, the Yoga of knowledge or wisdom, in which scriptures and the Yoga Sutras (divinely inspired texts that lead to knowledge of the essence of the human spirit) would be studied and interpreted. A dancer or musician could opt for Bhakti-Yoga, whereby complete devotion to the divine through singing, dancing and chanting would help a person to advance spiritually. Karma Yoga is the Yoga of selfless service and is widely practiced in Yoga-Ashrams and people of different believe-systems worldwide, for instance Mother Theresa was a Karma-Yogi. Hatha-Yoga is the most common form of Yoga that is practiced predominantly for health and fitness reasons or to reclaim a sense of relaxation in an overstimulated world. Although its purpose is to create a body free of disease and undesired currents, it may provide inner peace and perhaps a heightened sense of self-awareness with regular practice.
Our accelerated life-style that exposes us to massive overload of information has been unprecedented in the history of mankind. Lifestyle diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes are on the increase. Sedentary occupations that require a person to sit for hours in front of a computer further increase the likelihood of postural and stress related problems. It seems no coincidence that simultaneously with these changes in life-style more and more people are attracted to practicing Yoga. Yoga with its breathing and relaxation techniques is an efficient way to allow the over-stimulated nervous-system to calm down and relax. An article about Yoga and Stress written by Ellen Serber summarizes various studies conducted on Yoga and Stress as a helpful tool in reducing anxiety .
With energy spent on re-creating and maintaining a sense of emotional and physical balance, are there any resources left to dive deeper into our subconscious and find a recognition in who we truly are? The world is buzzing with technological gadgets, constant distractions via endless possibilities of entertainment and high pressure to succeed. Never before has the practice to stay present in the here and now been so important to maintain some kind of equilibrium in body and mind.
This can be done through various means, for example through practicing Yoga, Tai Chi, following the prayers of one’s adopted or born-into believe system or even just walking silently in Nature. A very effective way to begin self-awareness and to remain present is for instance the practice of the Buddhist teaching “passive witnessing”, a technique in which one observes their own thought process without judgment, thereby releasing repetitive, often negative thought-patterns.
Practicing Yoga can be a tool to aid in the quest to find a deeper meaning of life no matter what belief system a person adheres to. It simply allows the practitioner to focus on the body and breathing thus it aids a person to experience a relaxed state of mind, which is the precursor of self-awareness. Meditation, the path of Raja-Yoga, may be practiced in combination with prayers of the diverse belief systems, thus making its practice suitable in any multi-faceted religious community.
Staying present can also be practiced through prayers and focus on the Divine in the different religions. Prayers can be a self-reflective practice or a method to set a goal in life. In either case the strong believe in the existence of something greater than the human mind may take pressure off the individual and create meaning and purpose in life. Research has shown that persons who have a strong believe-system experience reduced reactions to stress and grief [2 & 3].
In the search for the meaning of life the prerequisite is that basic needs of oneself and family are met. In the traditional path in ancient India, a person was required to pass through different stages in their lives that included the assurance of the well-being of family-members before embarking on the quest of spiritual fulfillment. A focus on the physical and material well-being may only give a person temporary satisfaction, that wanes as soon as the next thing is desired. The Yoga-Sutras explain in detail how to overcome the illusive entrapment of material life. The purpose of one’s life may however also be revealed through traumatic circumstances that propel a person to radically change and find their path of service.
Finding the essence of life requires a balance between the physical, emotional and spiritual realms. When there is balance, conditions for self-recognition are set. However Yoga does not claim exclusivity to owning a complex system for self-development and recognition. Any path we chose to find answers to our existence will aid us to bring us closer to remembering who we are. And ultimately this is, what some believe, the purpose of why we were born as human beings.
 Serber, Ellen. “Yoga and the Stress Response”. 8 January 2010.
This article appeared in German monthly magazine of the German speaking society: KL-Post March 2010:
Yoga is almost as old as mankind. For thousands of years it has been practiced by Swamis – Hindu monks and scholars – who passed this specific knowledge to their disciples. Today’s hectic lifestyle coupled with a lack of movement has been unprecedented in the history of mankind. Lifestyle diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes are increasing. Sedentary occupations that require a person to sit hours in front of a computer further increase the likelihood of postural and stress related problems. It seems no coincidence that simultaneously with these changes in lifestyle more and more people are practicing Yoga worldwide.
One of the main reasons Yoga has become popular are the health-benefits. In Ayurveda, the Indian traditional holistic medicine, Yoga is an integral part of a trinity. “Ayurveda is the science of life, Yoga is the science of union with the Divine and Tantra controls the energy that creates union with Truth” . Yoga creates a balance between body and mind, so that they can function optimally. In this information age our need for scientific ratification has initiated many studies involving Yoga. Whether Yoga really lives up to the claims of Yoga-enthusiasts has for instance been investigated by Mark Anders. He refers to a study by Dawn Boehde and John Porcari Ph.D., who verified the effects on health of practicing Hatha-Yoga three times a week for 55 minutes. The results have shown a “significant improvement in flexibility, muscular strength, endurance and balance.”
Meanwhile, there are many different Hatha-Yoga-styles, such as Asthanga-Yoga, Shivananda-Yoga, Yyengar-Yoga, Hot Yoga and Anusara Yoga just to name a few. These styles are synonymous with the teaching of their founders. Each style offers a unique way of instructions, which is often interlaced with the individual instructors’ own experience. More and more it is recognized that Yoga is best adjusted to the individuals’ health condition. It would be implausible to attempt Ashtanga-Yoga, a vigorous flowing style, with a pre-existing health-condition such as Asthma. A yoga routine incorporating sun-salutes, gentle back-bending postures and breathing exercises such as Ujiyay will help the bronchial tubes to relax and increases circulation through tight chest-muscles. R. Nagarathna and H.R. Nagendra tested fifty three patients with asthma on the effects of integrated yoga exercises within a two-week program. The study demonstrated a “highly significant improvement in the number of attacks per week” compared to the control group .
On the other hand a powerful yoga sequence might be the best solution for someone who positively responds to a vigorous, sweat-promoting and endorphin-releasing exercise-style hence creating a balance to an otherwise sedentary but mentally highly stressed profession. But it could also be that a gentle routine with restorative poses such as Viparita Karani Mudra (supported shoulderstand on the wall), adjusted back-bends (on gymnastic balls or chairs) and mild standing variation including Triangles and Forward bends coupled with breathing techniques such as alternate nostril breathing might be more appropriate. Yoga asanas with breathing and relaxation exercises are effective in calming down an overstimulated nervous-system. Ellen Serber summarized in her article “Yoga and Stress” numerous studies and concluded that Yoga is a useful tool for reducing anxiety . According to Felicia M. Tomasko’s Research Summary “Adrenal Fatigue Treatable, Rampant, Dangerous and Underdiagnosed.”  an exhausted adrenal system (fight-flight symptom) can be revitalized with gentle exercises like Viparita Karani Mudra (supported shoulderstand on the wall), Halasana (Plow) and Bhujangasana (Cobra), relaxation (Shavasana) and dietary adjustments.
In our modern life there can often be a lack of ritual and spiritual connection. Yoga with a universal focus on inner well-being has helped to build a bridge for people who have no spiritual connection, or are disillusioned. The practice of meditation, an integral part of Yoga, encourages contemplation and introspection. It is often assumed that the practice of meditation “empties” the mind. In contrast, Swami Bharati Veda from the Himalayan Yoga meditation introduces meditation as a form of “self-talk”. He encourages to observe own thought processes and to be aware of anxiety and repetitive tendencies. Thus one can liberate him/herself from repetitive thought-patterns and negative thoughts. The Buddhists call this practice “passive witnessing”. We hereby observe our thoughts and feelings, without identifying ourselves with them. Although certain philosophies recommend meditation without Hatha-Yoga, it has been my experience that Hatha-Yoga (postures, breathing, and relaxation) prepares the body and mind for meditation.
Not only illnesses or stress can be addressed with Yoga. A wrong posture, which causes discomfort or pain (back- and neck pain, headaches or migraines), can also be relieved by a balanced routine of Yoga-exercises. Yoga postures are designed to strengthen the muscles that support the spine and protect the joints. Our predominantly sedentary lifestyle is forcing our bodies into an unnatural forward-oriented position, with the natural curves of the spine constantly forced into a flat position. This in turn creates chronic tension of the surrounding muscles. Back-bends are not easy for many practitioners but it is precisely this group of poses that strengthen the curves of the spine and are therefore a good recipe for chronic back and neck pain. Even for severe postural deformities, such as scoliosis, lordosis or kyphosis (abnormal curves of the spine) a well-adapted Yoga routine can bring relief.
Finally the question remains if Yoga is really good for you. The results of numerous studies suggesting Yoga to be beneficial for health (physically, mentally and emotionally) have been challenged by some scientific researchers because of their “inadequacy in the methodology” [effects of Yoga on anxiety 6]. Other studies, however, have unequivocally indicated a beneficial effect of yoga on health. I would like to add, that after more than 20 years practicing and teaching yoga in my personal experience Yoga is beneficial to health. The effects of yoga on health largely depend on the quality of the teacher and the adaptation of yoga practices on the practitioner. If yoga is attempted without preparation, without knowledge and proper guidance, it may even cause adverse health effects.
Meanwhile, Yoga is offered in many different organizations such as fitness, dance and yoga studios, and privately, therefore quality of teaching cannot be ascertained. In the selection of a suitable teacher cost and distance slip to the foreground rather then the crucial factor of an appropriate and to the student customized class level. On the other hand, the yoga teacher community has to take rising rents and competition into consideration. Reduced number of pupils means more “mixed classes”, i.e. students with different experience and level are training in the same class. Students as well as teachers are making compromises. However the great demand for yoga teachers has also increased the incentive for teacher training and is therefore beneficial to the student of Yoga.
Yoga can enrich us in many ways, and teaches us to be present in our daily lives. Yoga develops more awareness, sensitivity and promotes health. It can be practices with other sports, alone or in combination. Whether it is beneficial or not depends not only on teachers but also on the students. As Swami Rama of the Himalayan Yoga meditation once mentioned: “You don’t have to know much about Yoga in order to practice it, but you should practice a lot of Yoga to know more about it.
Monika Ramasamy from St. Gallen, Switzerland, is a qualified yoga teacher and has been practicing and teaching yoga for over 20 years. An English version of the text and other information are available on www.yogimon.net.
 Anders, Mark. “Does Yoga Really Do the Body Good?”. 8 January 2010. <http://www.acefitness.org/getfit/studies/YogaStudy2005.pdf>
 Nagarathna, R., Nagendra H.R., “CLINICAL RESEARCH’. “Yoga for bronchial asthma> a controlled study. 8 January 2010. http://www.bmj.com/. “BMJ helping doctors make better decisions”
 Vasanth Dr., Lad. AYURVEDA The Science of Self-Healing, Lotus Press, Santa Fe.New Mexico 1985 p. 18/19
 Serber, Ellen. “Yoga and the Stress Response”. 8 January 2010. <http://www.will/harris.com/yoga/yoga_and_stress.html
 Tomasko, Felicia M. LAYoga. 8 January 2010. http://www.layogamagazine.com/issue28/departments/research.htm
 Kirkwood, G., Rampes, H., Tuffrey V., Richardson, J., Pinkington K., “Yoga for anxiety: a systematic review of the research evidence”. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005, 39, 884-891. 2005. http://bjsm.bmj.com/