What is yoga?

Yoga—an ancient Sanscrit word that’s invaded the dinner-table conversation of America, as in “I went to yoga today.” The word means “union,” interpreted as the connection of body, mind and spirit. When most Americans think of yoga, they think of twisted physical contortions, the word pretzel comes to mind, or they visualize young slender women in a nature setting touting yogurt or multi-vitamins for corporate America. Devotees tell another story. Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the Self. As a practitioner for 13 years, teacher for 9, I can go on and on, book length, about the benefits of yoga, but I’ll try and keep this love expressed in a much shorter version.

The physical expressions of yoga, poses called asanas, are merely a way of accessing the deeper realms of this practice, and the physical strengthening that comes with a regular practice, is a wonderful side effect of the real reason people do yoga. It’s affectionately called “yoga bliss,” the joyful way your mind and body feel after a yoga class. The health benefits of the body, mind and spirit are almost infinite. As a friend and mentor of mine, a woman who I think embodies the true loving essence of yoga, Laura Jane Mellencamp, says “yoga meets you where you are and takes you to a better place.” I hold on to this truth.

The reason for this shift in mental and physical well being is due in great part to meditation and breathing practices, called pranayama, that are included in any good yoga session. Meditation, visualization and special breath techniques help the body access it’s healing nervous system, called the parasympathetic system. In our rapidly moving environment of hard work and hard play, humans live in the sympathetic, fight or flight, nervous system that, over time, creates continual stress on the mind and body. Yoga helps us slip into a place to heal.

yogaWe cannot control many aspects of life and even of our own bodies, like what mood our boss is in on any given day, or how our small intestine might work on a Tuesday, but we can control our breath, and through our breath, our heart rate, and the wandering of our minds, which tend to travel on a hamster wheel, running over and over the same issues without resolve. While the mind never stops moving, and that is its nature, we can focus the mind in a direction that benefits us. Slowing the mind, slowing respirations and slowing heart rate all help us live mindfully in the present moment, giving full attention to our lives right here and right now. As writer and poet, Mary Oliver, says, “Attention is the beginning of devotion”— devotion to our life, our family, our planet, and a higher consciousness beyond ourselves. Breath is definitely a friend in this quest for health and present-moment living.

As a nurse I taught people with anxiety and asthma to slow their breathing, focus their attention on the breath, and to see what happened when they followed these directions. Most often the patient breathed easier, lowered his/her anxiety and felt better overall. When, as an upset child, your mother said “take a deep breath,” or “count to 10,” you slowed your breath and mind, calmed yourself, and were able to relay to her what distress you were feeling. These same results, and more, are what we get with yoga asana, pranayama and meditation.

Clinical studies in many institutions around the country, such as Harvard and the National Institutes of Health, have shown the benefits of yoga for lowering blood pressure, lifting depression, relieving the pain of chronic illnesses such as arthritis and back pain, and acute pain following surgery, plus increasing the quality of life for those living with cancer. These are just a few of the positive aspects of practicing yoga. Those of us who practice yoga regularly will also attest to its ability to help keep us as healthy as possible despite the natural effects of aging. Again, this is due to living in a healing place.

Yoga is done in baby steps. There is no magic session that will completely heal what ails you, but over time, most times beginning in your very first class, you will directly feel the healing benefits, physical, mental, and spiritual of this practice and be able to take it off the mat and into the world with you each time you leave class. These feelings help connect you to the natural world, to other humans, and to yourself.

There’s one last word I’d like to leave with you, and that word is Namaste (na-ma stay). Namaste is a greeting word shared between teacher and student at the end of each yoga class. It means, “there is a divine light within me that recognizes the same divine light within you.” Yoga. Union. Connection. Health. Namaste.

Nancy Wedemeyer

Nancy Wedemeyer, RN, is a 500 CYT, specializing in Hatha and Yin yoga classes, back care workshops and trauma yoga. She is the owner of Bodhi Yoga and teaches at the Prana Yoga Center, Geneva, Illinois, and the St Charles Park District. You can connect with her at

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