The benefits of yoga

Do you sometimes feel like you’re operating at half-speed? Are you stressed out? Or perhaps you’re feeling like you just don’t get enough exercise, but the thought of working out at a gym utterly bores you to tears.

Practising the ancient art of yoga can not only help with various health problems, it can also boost your energy levels, strengthen your immune system and soothe a tense mind and body.

In Thailand, as in much of the western world, yoga is on the ascendancy. Bangkok-based yoga teacher Hilary Fedderson says more and more Thais, along with expats, are becoming interested in yoga. "I don’t know if it’s a fad or what," she says, "but people are certainly picking up on it now."

Complete yogic practice is made up of five essential principles, although various yoga schools may have slightly differing theories. These principles are: proper relaxation, proper exercise (physical postures, or asanas), proper breathing (the practice of pranayama), a proper vegetarian diet, and meditation.

Yoga originated in India up to 5,000 years ago, but became more widespread with the publishing of the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata, around the 6th century BC. Hatha yoga, the generic term for the practice of most forms of yoga, today is based on a later text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Hilary emphasises that the objective of yoga was never merely to exercise. "The idea of yoga was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually," she explains. If the body is supple and strong, sitting meditations are easier. "It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body."

But people come to yoga for different reasons, and exercise is one of them. Justin Herold, an Iyengar yoga teacher, first tried yoga back in 1979 when stretching was first deemed to be an important part of warming up for running – and Justin ran over 100km per week. "I thought if anyone knew about stretching, it would be the yogis."

Eventually, however, he decided that yoga was a better all-round system for keeping himself in shape. "With running, there’s a price or a penalty that you pay – because of the abuse you do to your body, you’re going to get injured," Herold says.

He thought for a long time that the benefits of running were greater than the price his body was paying. "But then I looked at yoga, and I thought, well, there’s really no penalty with this one. You get injured sometimes – I’ve had neck injuries – but nothing that can’t be corrected."

Petcharapan Sangsawang, who practises at Justin’s studio, came to yoga to try and solve her allergy problems. Nearly every morning, she says, her nose ran, she would sneeze and her head would be uncomfortably congested. "Now I know how to breathe," she says, after two years of regular practice. "My lungs are healthier and stronger, so they can cope with the allergies."

Petcharapan runs her own advertising business and – unsurprisingly – says this can be quite stressful. "But the yoga can help make my mind quiet and peaceful, and breathing calmly helps reduce the pressure."

Chomchuen Sidthivech, who teaches the Sivananda school of yoga, also first came to yoga to seek relief from health problems: allergies, regular colds and period pain. She heard about yoga from a magazine, where she read an interview with the man who would eventually become her guru. "After about three months of practising every day, my menstrual problems cleared up. It took one year for my body to really change. After that I improved quickly."

Contrary to some people’s expectations, you don’t need to be flexible to start doing yoga or to receive any of yoga’s benefits. "The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways," Hilary says.

So what are you waiting for?