Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Meaningful Living Through Yoga and Meditation

by Lee Rothman, M.Ed., M.A.

The health benefits of yoga for a growing senior population are too numerous to mention. We could almost say that yoga and meditation provide a foundation for the high quality of life we all seek in our elder years.

Through the regular breathwork and purposeful movement of yoga, we improve flexibility, joint health, muscle tone, and balance. And the list doesn’t stop there. Lower blood pressure, improved circulation, and better sleep all contribute to our well-being. The most recent research also points to multiple psychological and cognitive benefits, including a decrease in anxiety and depression, a greater sense of well-being, and improvements in attention, concentration, and memory.

These benefits have long been recognized by seniors at the Jewish Home, where yoga continues to be one of our most popular fitness programs. But yoga and meditation have equally important spiritual benefits which form an important part of the most rewarding practice.

From its origins in the second century, B.C.E, yoga and spirituality were considered inseparable. The Sanskrit word yoga has the literal meaning of ‘yoke’ or ‘union,’ suggesting the important connections of its physical, mental, and spiritual components.

Our Western perspective has largely emphasized the asanas, or physical postures, and pranayama, or breathing exercises. When appreciated as a comprehensive system through the practice of meditation, yoga expands to encompass the spiritual.

Spirituality, from a yogic perspective, embodies a relationship with something greater than we are — a source of being that we have come from. As such, the spirituality presented through yogic teachings easily complements our religious beliefs, whether we identify ourselves as Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc.

In yoga, we experience the spiritual by activating our awareness. That awareness comes with a practice that involves asanas, pranayama, and meditation. Asanas are the various postures one goes through in a yoga session, like the cobra pose, downward dog, and tree pose, to name a few. Asanas are designed to stretch muscle groups in your body and improve blood flow throughout the body. Joints and ligaments are lubricated, cholesterol is lowered, respiration improves, and your immune system is strengthened.

However, there is also a spiritual aspect of the asanas. Asanas are designed to take us through a range of experiences in the course of one yoga session. Since effort is required and stress may occur, practicing the asana teaches us how to maintain mindfulness in times of stress.

Mindfulness is a practice that enables one to live fully in the present moment. Your awareness is completely centered on the here and now. You are not worrying about the future or thinking about the past. If you are concentrating on these words, the present moment is all that exists and you are living where life is happening.

The meditation that is part of a comprehensive yoga practice may be as simple as sitting silently with eyes closed, focusing on the breath. Or it might involve chanting a mantra out loud with accompanying hand movements.

By cultivating mindfulness through meditation, you begin to enjoy your life just the way it is, not for how you want it to be in the future or for what it was in the past. This heightened acceptance of the present moment leads to a spiritual awareness, and with it, a greater enjoyment of your life.

A regular meditation practice enables one to pause and observe the ‘reactive’ aspects of our mind without taking action. It is as if we become a proverbial fly on the wall inside ourselves. Suddenly, we can observe our world and our responses to it, then decide how we want to act upon them. Meditation tends to foster more purposeful and thoughtful action, and less reaction. Some schools of yoga (notably Kundalini) take the view that the regular practice of asanas and pranayama prepares one to meditate.

So, how do we combine the physical aspects of yoga with those that foster spiritual development? And how does this marriage manifest itself in our behavior on a daily basis? (Many yogis refer to this as taking it “off the mat.”)

With a regular yoga and meditation practice, we learn to live our life with greater integrity, honesty and respect for ourselves and others. We understand that our words have power and affect others, so we choose them more carefully. We learn to treat ourselves and others with greater kindness and compassion.

We still feel angry, impatient, frustrated and hurt. However, with the regular practice of pranayama, we learn to take a breath or two before we respond. Yogic breathing helps to calm our mind and thoughts. We abandon damaging habits, and our thinking becomes more positive. We cease judging others so negatively, with the realization that we are no better than they are. As we develop a more extensive practice, we understand deeply the concept of the oneness of all life, and glimpse the highest attainment of our spiritual existence.

Lee Rothman Lee Rothman, M.Ed., M.A. is a certified Kundalini yoga and meditation teacher. She has been practicing mindfulness meditation since 2010. She also is the Volunteer Coordinator for Skirball Hospice.

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