Yoga, in its journey from ancient times till the present day, has gained popularity amidst people of all walks of life. Yoga has been compared with many other physical fitness exercises in terms of health benefits and staying in shape. However, the reality is, that, yoga is a truly wholesome practice, a class-apart from other exercises.
Indra Devi, the First Lady of Yoga and Mother of Western Yoga, compares yoga with other exercises in her book, “Yoga For Americans”, wherein she states:
“Yoga asanas are an art applied to the anatomy of the living body, whereas gymnastics are a form of engineering applied to the muscles of the body. The aim of Yoga postures is not merely the superficial development of muscles. These postures tend to normalize the functions of the entire organism, to regulate the involuntary processes of respiration, circulation, digestion, elimination, metabolism, etc., and to affect the working of all the glands and organs, as well as the nervous system and the mind.”
Indra Devi also emphasizes to her readers that Yoga is “a means of harmonizing the body, mind, and spirit”.
We need to understand that each exercise system has its own purpose. So, here are some of the differences that set yoga apart from other physical practices.
The ultimate aim of yoga is to reach Samadhi, a higher state of consciousness. To purify the mind it is important that our bodies undergo absolute purification. This has to happen so that all impurities are removed, the nadis (subtle tubes of energy) function properly, and blocked energies are released. The main objective of yoga is to create a perfect balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, the mind, and energy-body.
When this balance is formed, the impulses that are generated give a call of awakening to the central force (sushumna nadi, the main pranic nerve or tube). The awakening of energy and surge of energy along this main pranic pathway is responsible for the growth of human awareness. If yoga is not used to this end, then it’s true purpose is defeated.
On the other hand, the ultimate aim of exercising is improvement of one’s overall physical fitness level and health by the practice of any kind of aerobic activity, which can help to elevate the heart rate. Exercise can enhance our muscle strength and improve the performance of the cardiovascular system. Additionally, it boosts our athletic skills and also aids in weight loss. Regular exercise can propel the immune system and improve mental health issues like preventing depression and promoting/maintaining positive self-esteem.
Furthermore, exercise is of different forms. Different sports can be practiced competitively with the aim to become the best within the chosen sport. This can be a factor that can drive an individual’s performance.
We are taught that during the practice of yoga postures there should be continuous, synchronized deep, long breathing. The logic behind this is that, during exertion, there is a buildup of lactic acid in our muscle fibers and this causes strain and fatigue. As we do the accompanying deep breathing in yoga, the huge influx of continuous oxygen negates the build -up of lactic acid and there is a minimal build up. This is a very scientific way to exercise.
However, in every kind of aerobic exercise and sport, there is a huge production of lactic acid, which over a period of time, begins to strain body systems.
We humans have energy centers (points where there is a concentration of energy) throughout our subtle bodies, and in yoga these centers are known as Chakras. Just as the valves of our heart are vulnerable to getting blocked if our diet is unhealthy, our Chakras too can experience energy blockage when we slip into poor emotional habits.
Our emotions, when shunned, like unused fats in our bodies, are stored away by the body. This process will ultimately obstruct the path to our well-being. The main areas in the body where our emotional energy is stored are the chest, the navel area and the lower back region, and we will find these areas “catch” and “stiffen” when we are tense or emotionally wound up. These areas correspond to the heart chakra (Anahata chakra) or heart center in the chest and the Manipur chakra, or navel center, in the region of the abdomen and the Swadisthan and Mooladhar chakras in the region of the lower back.
Yoga explicitly structures its asanas (poses) around the opening of the chest, hips, and lower back areas as well as any other parts of the body where negative emotional energy might be stored. By inducing these blocked energy systems to open, through postures and through mental concentration and breath awareness in these regions, the body releases tension in a way which cannot be accomplished by the practice of conventional exercise.
The release of tension at the level of both the physical body and subtle energy body, creates a fertile ground for clarity of the mind. This kind of clarity is the state of mind that differs greatly from the way we feel after an aerobic workout. Regular yoga practice leaves so many with a feeling of calmness and equanimity. .
The mind-body calmness that originates from a yoga class comes as a result of a chemical change, we experience while practicing yoga. During yoga practice, the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated while most conventional exercises vitalize the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in to make our senses more alert and help us operate in the most efficient mode. Whereas the parasympathetic nervous system is activated during more relaxed functions like resting and digesting to have it activated during exercising is amazing it means our work out is giving us deep relaxation as well.
In traditional exercise the muscles receive the majority of the nutrition and oxygen at the expense of the organs whereas in yoga the muscles do not hog all the nutrition and oxygen and so the organs reap the benefits. The twists and bends in yoga, reach deep within massaging internal organs, which are simultaneously fed with sufficient oxygen and nutrients, so as not to feel strained. This one distinction is what makes yoga a remarkably outstanding and unique practice for our body organs in comparison to other conventional exercises.
Undoubtedly, regular aerobic exercise makes our bodies stronger, but excessive muscle growth can shorten muscles, making our body less flexible. This is true especially in the case of weight training, as it develops large muscle mass away from the bone. On the contrary yoga supports the skeletal system by evenly drawing muscle mass onto the bones. Muscles are toned into a gentle sculpted shape.
Yoga postures, or asanas, create lean and strong muscles as a result of all the bending, twisting, and stretching carried out. Asanas tone the muscles while also lengthening them and therefore retaining length and flexibility and asanas create muscle strength by using (lifting) our own body as a weight.
Yoga and other physical exercises are not completely different from each other. Each has its place. As one of the forms of fitness, yoga is excellent at building strength, flexibility, balance, and other functional movement skills.
Yoga not only enhances our physical being, but our spirituality as well. As a method for healing both mind and body, yoga is unparalleled in its ability to relieve stress, help people cope with medical ailments, finding meaning in daily life, and creating a more positive relationship with their bodies.