Health is wealth. Peace of mind is happiness. Yoga [and meditation] shows the way (S.V. Saraswati). Mental health is a prominent social issue currently, and our mental state is often overwhelmed with the stresses of various aspects of life such as doing well in school, meeting deadlines, maintaining relationships, and building a better future for ourselves. The mind is a complicated element of our body that enables us to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, to feel, and is a faculty of our consciousness and thoughts. Good physical health is often times more sought after than good mental health. Its pursuit is seen as normal and physical ailments are regarded as more curable. Good mental health, on the other hand, is not given the same amount of importance and this can result in various mental health issues that are often stigmatized and not addressed in an appropriate manner. We view mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, etc., as weaknesses and a sign of failure when in reality they are ailments that can be addressed through the practice of yoga and meditation. Yoga is a multifaceted system for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing (Yoga Alliance, What is Yoga?).
Yoga is commonly known in the form of Hatha yoga, a combination of poses and breathing techniques. Today, millions of people practice yoga to improve the quality of their life in the following ways: fitness, stress relief, wellness, vitality, mental clarity, healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth (Yoga Alliance, What is Yoga?). Overall, yoga is a combination of various methods and guidance for living a healthy and enriched life. On the other hand, meditation is a precise technique for resting the mind and attaining a state of consciousness that is totally different from the normal waking state. It is the means for fathoming all the levels of ourselves and finally experiencing the center of consciousness within (Rama, The Real Meaning of Meditation). Yoga and meditation can benefit one’s mental state under stress, regulate bodily systems such as the cardiovascular system, and is practiced for one’s own spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being. However, a popular misconception is that yoga is simply a form of exercise. Prejudices non-Hindus may have towards practicing yoga and meditation is that they believe that simply engaging in the practice will conflict with their religious and cultural beliefs.
The development and science behind yoga and meditation techniques originated at the beginning of human civilization when man first realized his spiritual potential and began to evolve techniques to develop it in the Indus Saraswati Valley civilization back in 2700 BCE (S.S. Saraswati, pg 3). Although the ultimate aim of these techniques is not widely understood in popular culture, one of the many benefits is overcoming all kinds of suffering such as stress, anxiety, etc., through a variety of methods to help human beings cope with mental instability. According to a Harvard Mental Health Letter, yoga along with other self-soothing techniques such as meditation, relaxation, and exercise regulates the mind’s stress response systems. When practicing yoga, deep breathing, which is an important aspect of yoga and meditation, sends a message to the brain to calm down and relax. According to Mayo Clinic, meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine and can produce a deep mental state of relaxation and a tranquil mind.
An elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland has shown how yoga and meditation can contribute to mental stability, mindfulness, and calmness. Robert W. Coleman Elementary School implemented yoga and meditation techniques to correct its students’ behavior rather than send them to detention. The effect of these techniques is clearly evident through the positive feedback received from some of the students at the elementary school. It was found that by going to the Mindful Moment Room, the students [built] an ability to be mindful and calm. And in the face of so much adversity, some of these children are coming out ahead (Bloom, Instead of detention, these students get meditation). Similar to the emotions and feelings we experience in times of danger or during high pressure situations, the kids at Coleman Elementary School often deal with high-stress situations and come to school on high alert. Their bodies’ alarm system is switched way on, so they may be primed for fight or flight and not able to sit calmly and pay attention (Bloom, Instead of detention, these students get meditation). Yoga and meditation served to be really beneficial by easing psychological stressors such as anxiety, depression, and pain of these students. Not only do the children at Coleman Elementary experience the positive difference yoga and meditation have brought into their lives but also have done wonders for their learning environment and productivity. According to one student, when the kids come down here, they’re all rowdy and goofing around, [however], when they leave the room, they’re peaceful and quiet and ready to do their work.
Yoga is the science of right living and, as such, is intended to be incorporated in daily life as it works on all aspects of the person: the physical, vital, mental, emotional, psychic, and spiritual (S.S. Saraswati, pg 1). The influence of yoga and meditation on the body ranges from the outermost aspect of a person starting with the physical body to the innermost: spiritual, oneness with God. Besides stress and anxiety, people suffer from other mental instabilities such as phobias, irrational fears, and neuroses. Though yoga and meditation may not be able to cure these issues, these techniques present a proven method for coping with them (S.S. Saraswati, pg 2). Yoga’s impact on mental health is not limited to just the mind but both the mind and body. According to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the gross form of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the mind. This is further explained through this example: emotional tensions and suppression can tighten up and block the smooth functioning of the lungs, diaphragm, and breathing process, contributing to a very debilitating illness in the form of asthma (S.S. Saraswati, pg 11). Therapeutically, yoga and meditation have been successful as they create a balance between the nervous and endocrine systems in the body.
A common misconception is that yoga is simply a form of exercise. However, that’s not the case as yoga consists of various techniques in which the body is placed in positions that increase awareness, relaxation, concentration, and meditation. Additionally, yoga is in fact something that mixes awareness and concentration with movement. In other words, yoga is moving meditation.
Meditation is practiced for the betterment of one’s spiritual, emotional, and mental growth. In a meditative state, the brain experiences an increase in activity in regions directly related to decreased anxiety and depression as well as increased pain tolerance. When the brain is in a more relaxed state, one’s memory, self-awareness, goal setting, and empathy improves. Physically, the brain also changes in shape and size as a result of the practice of meditation. According to Moffit and Brown, meditators have higher levels of alpha waves, which results in reduced feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness, and anger. Telomeres are protective protein complexes that help reduce damage to our DNA and lower cell death. Telomeres that are shortened in length appear to be correlated to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer (Moffit & Brown, The Scientific Power of Meditation). Meditation often results in significant increases in telomere length. Although meditation has many health benefits, it is not a substitute for medical advice. While working out at the gym exercises the physical body, meditation offers a relaxing workout for the mind.
Furthermore, meditation offers promising benefits for the cardiovascular system. Research tells us that meditation can help lower blood pressure, which alludes to the strong possibility of other benefits for the entire cardiovascular system. According to Dr. Kubzansky, evidence seems to suggest that people who endure chronic stress are intoxicating their cardiovascular system. Additionally, results from a report of a compilation of nine studies show that on average, transcendental meditation lowered systolic blood pressure by 4.7 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 3.2 mm Hg compared with other approaches (Balaji, Can calming your mind help your heart?). Another benefit is that meditation boosts heart rate variability, which is a positive byproduct, because it is a sign of a healthy heart; a healthy heart normally responds to the body’s constantly changing environment.
Some non-Hindus may have apprehensions to practicing yoga and meditation because of the presence of a murti (loosely translated as ?idol’) of the Hindu deity, Shiva, who is known as the first yogi and some chanting in Sanskrit in yoga studios. They think that these techniques are a covert conversion tool to make one a Hindu. A recent trend is that Mindfulness programs have become popular on K-12 campuses, but in some parts of the country concerns about religious intrusion keep the trend at bay (Wong, Why Schools Are Banning Yoga). Wong observes that a disruption in the trend points towards yoga classes promoting a non-Christian belief system through multiple aspects including the namaste greeting and various postures that have Sanskrit names. Opponents to yoga and meditation techniques tend to believe that the line between yoga’s roots in Hinduism and Buddhism and secular practices is often blurry. Furthermore, religious influences such as chanting ?om’ and poses with Sanskrit names are inherently tied to yoga and meditation. On the other hand, proponents of such practices focus on the benefits rather than abstaining from the practice because of religious influences. A major benefit is that it teaches children to divert their mind from negative thoughts or emotions. Also, yoga helps to augment kids’ working memory, attention span, and cognitive flexibility, which helps students respond to stress in a confident manner and do well in school.
In Hindu American Foundation (HAF) 2011 campaign, Take Back Yoga, the main argument is centered around the origins of the practice of yoga being in Hinduism. Vitello found that while some of the sources favored yoga as the legacy of a more timeless, spiritual ?Indian wisdom’ and that Hinduism was too ?tribal’ and ?self-enclosed’ to claim ownership of yoga, others, who are in favor of HAF’s Take Back Yoga campaign, believe that yoga was first described in Hinduism’s seminal texts and remains at the core of Hindu teaching (Vitello, Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul). The prejudice or prior belief that non-Hindus often hold against the practice of yoga is that it will put the souls of the non-Hindus at risk of being imperiled by simply engaging in it. On the contrary, the purpose of HAF’s Take Back Yoga campaign is merely to have yoga recognized as a practice that has its roots in Hinduism, and not as a mechanism of conversion to Hinduism.
Exposure to yoga and meditation has shown that through the regular practice of yoga and meditation, the mind is more relaxed and calm. The practice can leave a person feeling energized with mental stamina to take on the stress of school work, meeting deadlines, maintaining relationships, and working towards building a healthier lifestyle and prosperous future. Overall, yoga and meditation help cope with one’s mental state under stress, regulate bodily systems such as the cardiovascular system, and is practiced for one’s own spiritual, emotional, and mental health. As B.K.S. Iyengar, a yoga teacher and founder of ?Iyengar Yoga’, once said, Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.