Embrace the Many Branches of Yoga
June 21 is International Day of Yoga
By Deborah Charnes
June 21 is the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, usually filled with lovely light rays beaming all around us till late evening. In 2014, 177 United Nations member states voted to assign this date as International Day of Yoga. The initiative was proposed by India’s (then and now) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, himself a yogi.
His government issued the following statement to welcome International Day of Yoga 2023:
“Yoga is an ancient science of wisdom for living a healthy life and by adopting it in daily life, one can make life easy and simple. It works efficiently on all the aspects related to human life [e.g.] mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical planes of being. Yoga means… the union of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness.*”
I agree. Yoga is transformative. We’re not just talking about building the quadriceps or lengthening the hamstrings. Too often, the Westerners image of yoga is limited to the physical side represented by headstands and contortionist poses. But the physical component is just one of eight branches of yoga. There’s so much more waiting for people.
In Prime Minister Modi’s words: ”Yoga makes us conscious of everything within us and builds a sense of awareness. Yoga brings peace to us. The peace from yoga is not merely for individuals. Yoga brings peace to our society. Yoga brings peace to our nations and the world. And, Yoga brings peace to our universe.”
It certainly works for me. Two yoga tenets on auto-play in my mind are ahimsa (do no harm to self, all living beings, or the planet) and santosha (contentment). A yoga lifestyle and philosophy changed my life. Dare I say yoga is even saving my life?
My happiest and healthiest days rolled in after I qualified for AARP discounts. I first started on the yoga, meditation, and breathwork path as a teen to calm digestive disorders and chronic back pain. When I hit 50, my alarm bell said I needed to prioritize yoga and its sister science, Ayurveda, to stall or turn back the aging process and my insulin resistance. I committed to a serious daily practice, completed yoga teacher training, followed by three years studying yoga therapy, Ayurveda, and other holistic modalities.
As part of my lifelong quest for knowledge and commitment to healthy living, I spent years crisscrossing the world to learn from a dozen gurus representing a broad tapestry of religions, ethnicities, and countries of origin. Among my mentors are real-life swamis dressed in orange robes, whereas others don lab coats, army fatigues, or boxing gloves.
I felt compelled to share those lessons in a yoga therapy-in-disguise self-help book. My book transports readers to the places I visited and connects them to my disparate gurus, each of whom radiates inner wisdom, which echos the origins of yoga — even if they’ve never stepped on a mat or inside a studio.
From the Boxing Ring to the Ashram: Wisdom for Mind, Body and Spirit, reveals my secret weapons to ease the most prevalent conditions plaguing our modern society including PTSD, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and digestive disorders. The recommended easy and free suggestions for optimal well-being don’t require fancy gear, or branded attire. They only call for a bit of focus for a few minutes.
These practices form the fabric of my life lessons—and my teachings. Each tip is practical, accessible, and enjoyable.
Because yoga is so much more than the physical, I incorporate two of my favorite yoga limbs of yoga, with which most people are not familiar.
Bhakti is my favorite. While 50 million people in the U.S. keep up with yoga asanas (postures), Bhakti predates the ancient Hatha traditions. Without a doubt, long before sun salutations became popular there was bhakti. Bhakti is the yoga of devotion expressed in different ways, including group chanting or mantra meditation.
Multiple research findings point to the mind/body/soul benefits of singing and chanting, and the power is magnified when in a group setting.
For example, singing affects heart rate variability (HRV). A low HRV is associated with depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease. Guess what? After belting out a few tunes or quietly following along to a song, the HRV increases. One study even compared the effects of singing a Christian hymn, a mantra, and humming. The first two had more positive results than the third.
Karma may be a commonplace word nowadays. But few are familiar with karma yoga, which is integral to my life. Also known as seva, it means selfless service, or helping others and expecting nothing in return. An example I often use is that if you make a million-dollar donation to a non-profit as a tax write-off, that’s great for the organization. But it’s not karma yoga. The key is to expect nothing in return. Give from the heart with a sense of charitable intention and support.
Narendra Modi, who brought International Day of Yoga to the world, explains that karma yoga is “to help anyone, without asking questions.”
While I grew up in a household that valued helping others, it wasn’t until I became serious about yoga that I kept selfless service top-of-mind in my life.
Again, there are many research findings that explain the importance of seva in your personal or work life. For example, one 2022 study in India found karma yoga in the workplace improved emotional states and even reduced burnout.
When you think about yoga in the future, think beyond a 60-minute session on a yoga mat. Try to incorporate breathwork, mindfulness, and other components of yoga — like chanting or volunteering — into your daily routine.