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Biology 103
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

Yoga: Stress Reduction and General Well-Being

Mahjabeen Hassan

As the last few weeks of the semester approaches, Bryn Mawr finds itself submerged in the stress of finishing syllabuses, writing papers, meeting deadlines, begging for extensions and taking exams. The keyword here is stress. Stress is perhaps the most utilized word at Bryn Mawr and as a junior with more than my share of work, I have also managed to accumulate more than my regular share of stress.

Nevertheless with every problem comes its solution. There are many ways to manage and reduce stress and one such technique is practicing Yoga.

Yoga is an ancient, Indian art and science that seeks to promote individual health and well-being through physical and mental exercise and deep relaxation. Although known to be at least 5,000 years old, Yoga is not a religion and fits well with any individual's religious or spiritual practice. Anyone of any age, religion, health or life condition can practice Yoga and derive its benefits.

Unique and multifaceted, yoga has been passed on to us by the ancient sages of India; early references to yoga are found in the spiritual texts of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Pantanjali's Yoga Sutras (the Eightfold Path) are still widely studied and practiced today. The Sutras form the basis of much of the modern yoga movement. (1).

The three major cultural branches of Yoga are Hindu Yoga, Buddhist Yoga, and Jaina Yoga. Within each of these great spiritual cultures, Yoga has assumed various forms.

Yoga is the practice of putting the body into different postures while maintaining controlled breathing. It is considered to be a discipline that challenges and calms the body, the mind, and the spirit. Preliminary studies suggest that yoga may be beneficial in the treatment of some chronic conditions such as asthma, anxiety, and stress, among others. (2).

By focusing on the breath entering and leaving your body, you are performing an exercise in concentration. If your mind wanders to other things, your focus on the breath will bring your concentration back. Research confirms that consciously directed breathing can have the following benefits: reduced stress, sound sleep, clear sinuses, smoking cessation, improved sports performances, relief from constipation and headaches, reduced allergy and asthma symptoms, relief from menstrual cramps, lower blood pressure, and emotional calmness. (3).

According to Dean Ornish, in his book, Reversing Heart Disease, "almost all of these (stress reduction) techniques ultimately derive from yoga." Yoga integrates the concepts of stretching, controlled breathing, imagery, meditation, and physical movement.

Yoga is thought of by many as a way of life. It is practiced not only for stress management but also for good physical and mental health and to live in a more meaningful way. Yoga is a system of healing and self-transformation based in wholeness and unity. The word yoga itself means to "yoke" -- to bring together. It aims to integrate the diverse processes with which we understand the world and ourselves. It touches the physical, psychological, spiritual, and mental realms that we inhabit. Yoga recognizes that without integration of these, spiritual freedom and awareness, or what the yogis call "liberation," cannot occur. (4).

Yoga's numerous health benefits, its potential for personal and spiritual transformation, and its accessibility make it a practical choice for anyone seeking physical, psychological, and spiritual integration. Interest in Yoga is surging throughout the world. Among the many different Yoga styles, Hatha yoga is the most familiar to Westerners. It is the path of health using breathing techniques and exercises concerning different postures to better mental and physical harmony.

During an experiment in biology lab concerning the measurement of heart rate, my partners and I experimented with yoga breathing as a technique to decrease heart rate and bring about relaxation. Our results did show a decrease in heart rate from the norm and it was concluded that if yoga was practiced in a calm setting without a time constraint (neither of which was available to us in a noisy laboratory) there would have been a significant decrease in the practicing individual¡¯s heart rate. Moreover, from personal experience I can vouch that Yoga is indeed effective in not only stress reduction but also for an individual¡¯s general well-being.

All forms of Yoga teach methods of concentration ad contemplation to control the mind, subdue the primitive consciousness, and bring the physical body under control of the will. In Hatha yoga, slow stretching of the muscles in exercise is taught, along with breathing in certain rhythmical patterns. The body positions or asamas for exercises and meditation can be learned, with some practice, by most. These positions are thought to clear the mind and create energy and a state of relaxation for the individual. Hatha Yoga is basically the style of Yoga practiced by most Westerners not only for relaxation and stress reduction but also for the mitigation of pain during certain illnesses. Yoga is also widely recommended for pregnant and nursing women as well as those reaching menopause. (5).

In Britain, there is widespread practice of Yoga in the workplace. Employers who fund exercise programs for their employees are beginning to rule in favor of Yoga instead of the regular gym membership. Research shows an individual who is relaxed and at the peak of his mental and physical health will also perform better in the workplace. (6).

Yoga is so popular in today¡¯s world that it is increasingly being coined as a religion. Is Yoga a religion? Your guess is as good as mine. Since Yoga comes from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptures, certain aspects of these religions are supposedly integrated in Yoga such as the ideas of karma and reincarnation and the notion of there being many deities in addition to the one ultimate Reality. However, most Yoga gurus deny the existence of Yoga as a religion and go on to say that Yoga does not teach the idea of reincarnation or even impose karmic beliefs.

Yoga is one of the orthodox philosophies of India. While it is not a religion, it is theistic, that is, it teaches the existence of a Supreme Intelligence or Being. However, to practice the techniques of yoga successfully you do not need to believe in such a being. Because yoga is a spiritual rather than a religious practice, it does not interfere with any religion. In fact, many people find that it enhances their own personal religious beliefs. (7).

How can Yoga enrich the religious or spiritual life of a practicing Christian or Jew? The answer is the same as for any practicing Hindu, Buddhist, or Jaina. Yoga aids all those who seek to practice the art of self-transcendence and self-transformation, regardless of their persuasion, by balancing the nervous system and stilling the mind through its various exercises (from posture to breath control to meditation). Yoga's heritage is comprehensive enough so that anyone can find just the right techniques that will not conflict with his or her personal beliefs. (8).

More than that, yogic postures calm down the nervous system and creates sufficient space in the psyche to explore breathing control. It puts the individual in touch with his or her body's life force and opens up spiritual aspects of his or her being.

Yoga should not be looked at as a religion or an exercise, it is more of a system of well-integrated techniques and mind frames designed to alleviate stress and bring about universal harmony throughout one¡¯s body, thus infusing feel-good vibes in mind and body.In a world where most good things come with side-effects, Yoga brings a refreshingly different perspective.


(1)Self Discovery: Mind and Spirit

(2)Stress Reduction Techniques and Therapies

(3)Kripalu Yoga, A Way to Better Health

(4)Self Discovery: Mind and Spirit

(5)How to do Meditation and Yoga to Reduce Stress

(6)Yoga for Stress Management and Yoga in the Workplace

(7)Yoga: FAQ

(8)Yoga Research and Education Center: Is Yoga a Religion?

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