Wikipedia defines Calisthenics as a form of exercise involving a number of rhythmical movements and stretches, generally without using equipment or apparatus. It is intended to increase body strength and flexibility with movements using only one's body weight for resistance. When performed vigorously and with variety, Calisthenics can benefit both muscular and cardiovascular fitness, in addition to improving psychomotor skills such as balance, agility and coordination.
Now, hang on a minute, I hear you say! This sounds an awful lot like how you might describe yoga to someone who had never heard of it. Yoga is everything as described above, but is it also much more – it is a holistic approach to wellbeing. It is a complete science of personal development that focuses on the mind, body and the spirit.
Interestingly, when you search for ‘calisthenics’ in Google Images, what you get are endless pictures of ripped bodies - men gritting their teeth showing off their muscles and women in little bikinis. What you get when you search for ‘yoga’ is much less.....vain. I think that says it all really!
One of the fundamental things that takes yoga beyond what calisthenics offers is the focus on the breath, or pranayama. Considering how vital breathing is to maintaining life, it is surprising how little time and attention we spend focusing on this life force. Many people have developed bad breathing habits and do not use the diaphragm to its full capability, breathing very shallowly and therefore not taking in as much fresh oxygen as they could. Yoga aims to repair these bad habits by increasing lung capacity.
“When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still.”
As well as pranayama, yoga is different to calisthenics due to the use of bandhas – energy locks, mudras – gestures that represent the psyche, and the cleansing of chakras. All of these techniques together form a unique system that purifies the body and mind for the higher practice of meditation and ultimately, the experience of cosmic consciousness. This, fundamentally, is the true aim of yoga.
The other thing that sets yoga apart from calisthenics is its ancient spiritual and philosophical lineage, and understanding this tradition opens us up to understanding its true purpose. Yoga is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world. The word Yoga itself is from the Sanskrit ‘yuj’ and means ‘join’ or ‘union’. The practice of yoga is therefore the joining of oneself - one’s conscious being - to the cosmic universe; the internal with the external; the limited to the limitless. However, yoga is fully relevant in today’s fast paced world and is as beneficial to us today as it was thousands of years ago. According to current medical opinion, yoga benefits us because of the balance attained in the nervous and endocrine systems, which in turn influence all other functions and parts of the body.
“Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion. It is the most valuable inheritance of the present. It is the essential need of today and the culture of tomorrow.”
Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Westerns especially tend to have lives that are fragmented and the practice of yoga aims to unite those pieces together, bringing a sense of wholeness and of self. It is to discover truth, clarity and awareness. The practice of yoga brings us to the understanding that we are part of a totality and the role of the asanas in yoga is to help with this process. In focusing on the body we bring our attention inwards which helps to re-centre us and quieten our mind.
While yoga’s central theme remains to attain a higher state of consciousness, the practice of yoga brings about physical, mental and emotional benefits to everyone, despite their spiritual aims.