Ancient Egyptian Yoga
Note: Mary White is a professional British School of Yoga qualified teacher in Hatha Yoga. With a passion for Egyptology and studying of the ancient arts and origins of mind, body and soul, Mary’s interest and knowledge of the therapeutic values of Yoga span not just current practices and techniques but those of millenia before.
Historical record shows us that the early civilisations of Africa, namely Egypt and Ethiopia, together with India, shared cultural links. Yoga was practised in Ancient Egypt, long before it was introduced into India and other cultures, as a discipline that leads the way for human beings to reach spiritual Enlightenment. It is likely that this was due to evidence of lifestyle, diet, adherence to spiritual teachings and practice in daily life, including exercise and meditation, that yoga was practiced earlier in Egypt than India.
Yoga as a philosophy is very old and it can be traced back to around 6000 BCE and the time the Egyptian God Osiris (Oser) appeared in Egypt with the early source of spiritual teaching. Devi describes it as a “most ancient art”. Whilst it is not certain who originated yoga, Patanjali, who lived around 200BCE, is called the ‘Father of Yoga’ as he was the first to put into writing what had until that time been handed down verbally from master to pupil. Yoga was first mentioned in the Vedas (3000-1200 BC) with the Upanishads later at about 800 BCE and the Bhagavad Gita 500 BCE. In the 16th Century Hatha Yoga Pradipika was recorded by Swami Svatmarama.
The word “yoga” comes from the Indian Sanskrit root “yuj” which means “join” or “union”. The Ancient Egyptian term is “Smai” which also means ‘union’. The hieroglyph ‘Sma’ represents the union of the two lungs and trachea, therefore it can be interpreted as the union of the Higher and Lower Self as it becomes One consciousness. This occurs through the process of diligent yogic practice to traverse each level of the Energy Centres, commonly referred to as ‘Chakras’ in India, to reach enlightenment. The purpose of all yoga practice is to unite man with the infinite Cosmic Consciousness, or the Higher Power (GOD). Through the practise of yoga it is intended to find oneself beyond ego (lower self), from which comes knowledge that the individual being and cosmic being are one, hence the reference to “union”. It is a practise of physical, mental and spiritual development which reveals the knowledge of true self. Yoga is sometimes referred to as a religion. “Re” is the Ancient Egyptian word for GOD; Re means ‘back, hold or bind’, thus religion is an act of going back to our original source, GOD. Our spirits emanate from the Universal Consciousness (GOD) and humans have generally forgotten or ignored their origins. Religion is a way to reconnect with the Creator, GOD and remember who we are: Mind, Body and Soul.
The practice of yoga enables individuals to seek inner awareness and spiritual awakening through physical control and breathing techniques. It is hoped that through regular practice individuals develop inner calm and tranquillity which enables them to better deal with life’s challenges.
Most yogins follow a vegetarian diet because of the association between the purity of the foods eaten and spiritual development. However, it is a fact that in the West yoga practitioners are not always able to follow this regime, but it is likely that the more an individual practices yoga the easier it will become to change and adapt. According to Hewitt (1995) the yoga of meditation follows on from the physical techniques in as much as it aids in a transformation to a better quality of life established through breath control and posture.
One of the prime functions of yoga is the breathing and breath control which is of paramount importance. Controlling the breath is controlling the Life Force (Sekhem) within. Sekhem is subtle life energy and everything living is charged with it. Yoga is concerned with a style of breathing that is different from normal breathing. It is much deeper and can be used in many ways for cleansing the system and its sequence with the positions and movements or ‘asanas’ makes yoga unique. We are not usually conscious of our breathing, i.e. it is an unconscious act, however, in yoga it is used to lift the level of consciousness and the breath is controlled by the individual. The difference between ordinary deep breathing and yoga breathing is the fact that in yoga breathing the air is sucked into the pharyngeal area which connects the mouth and the nose and the action is felt only at the back of the throat. The air is drawn in by using the area situated at the back wall of the mouth. Rhythmic yoga breathing can help to increase mental capacity and widen the intellectual horizon.
Very few adults breath with full efficiency and for maximum health benefit. Young children tend to breath more efficiently than adults but once exposed to social pressures and tensions they develop faulty respiratory habits, i.e. shallow high-chest breathing. Not utilizing respiratory muscles to the optimum with adequate elasticity, then the bloodstream is not being fully purified and oxygenated. Food is not being properly burned in the body to provide energy. It can result in fatigue, headaches and neurasthenia. Therefore, for many deep breathing has to be relearned with utilization of diaphragmatic and abdominal breathing. There are billions of body cells that need to breathe and receive oxygen that is turned into carbon dioxide. The lungs pass oxygen from the air breathed in into the blood and this is carried to the cells. The bloodstream carries the waste gases and the carbon dioxide is expelled through outgoing breaths.
Breath control is at the heart of Yoga practice. Yoga is mastery of body and of breath with purification as the key to yoga and purification is Sekhem (Life Force). Author Dukes (1995) considered breath control to be more important than the positions/asanas although both are integral to the practice of Yoga. It is believed that the flow of breath through the right nostril is controlled by the sun and that the left nostril is controlled by the moon.
Sekhem is life breath and is the power within or the vital life force in every being, or cosmic energy. It is present in sunlight and in the foods eaten, especially those sun ripened foods. Therefore, if air is the most vital of foods, improving breathing means a richer supply of Sekhem and life itself.
Benefits from the application of Yoga breathing techniques
Yoga emphasizes the relationship of an individual to the universe and therefore teaches a breathing technique that is different from the norm; one that reflects our inner attitude while we are performing it. This should be one of devotion toward communion with the universal consciousness and should be maintained throughout the deep breathing exercise. In Yoga, the process of deep breathing is lifted to the level of consciousness and the individual takes over the natural direction and control of the airflow. Deep breathing is done automatically during sleep and therefore learning to do this during wakefulness will stimulate sleep and relaxation. The spine should be kept straight during yogic breathing so as not to impair the free flow of the life-force or Sekhem. This also helps to develop correct posture, which is very important.
Why we need a balanced diet
Everyone is unique in nutritional needs and some diets work for some individuals and not for others. It is the ability to choose the right foods that nourish and avoid those that may be a problem. The two basic functions of nutrients are to provide materials for growth and repair of tissues that form the basic structure of the body and to supply the body with energy to perform external activities as well as carrying on the internal activities. The body is able to sustain life through its ability to maintain its own internal processes. Nutrients also have another function i.e. controlling the body’s processes. Energy is required for sustaining all forms of life and the prime source is the sun without which there would be no life on the planet earth.
Why the diet should include cellulose
Cellulose is the chief structural carbohydrate of plants and is very widely distributed. All forms of plant life contain cellulose and it is therefore found in all vegetables. Cellulose in the diet acts as a non-starch polysaccharide, or dietary fibre, and promotes healthy bowel mobility, helping to protect against bowel cancer. The non-starch polysaccharides are metabolized by bacteria and provide a nutritional resource for the normal bacteria of the large bowel (colon). This is a fermentation process that releases large amounts of short-chain fatty acids and act as a nutrition for the colon itself. Cereal grains are rich in fibre such as wheat, maize and rice which are mainly composed of cellulose and insoluble. Vegetables contain more water than cereal grains and therefore the fibre is less. The presence of roughage/fibre in the diet prevents constipation and helps control colorectal cancer. Regular bowel movement is the main reason for consuming fibre. The fibre in the small intestine absorbs water leading to speedier transit of food through the gut and the formation of softer and larger stools. The transit time for a typical British diet may be up to 100 hours, compared with say 35 hours or less if a diet has high fibre content. Approximately half dietary intake of fibre is provided by fruit and vegetables and the remainder by cereals. Eating sufficient fibre does help to prevent many bowel diseases, appendicitis, diverticular disease and haemorrhoids.
What we know about correct eating
As we know, there has been mounting press coverage over recent years to encourage the public to eat healthily and eat their “five a day”. The public is therefore much more aware of the benefits to health of eating a balanced diet. This trend has led manufacturers of processed food to become more aware of the contents of their food cartons and in this country the government has attempted to educate the public through advertising campaigns to adopt healthy eating habits for self-awareness, as well as attempting to stem the increasing instance of obesity and disease. According to Jean Carper (1993) in her book “Food Your Miracle Medicine”, knowing the right food to eat, or not to eat, is to know how to treat and/or prevent health problems. Carper discusses the specific foods that may help to promote or alleviate many reported health problems. Mother nature is the oldest and greatest pharmacist and ultimately it is up to the individual to establish the right foods that suit their particular body. Good food protects against diseases that attack modern society and eating healthy food makes the environment healthy. Alternatively, there is mounting evidence over the years that certain foods have bad health consequences for a number of individuals with food intolerances and allergies and should be avoided i.e. coeliacs (gluten) and candida sufferers (wheat, yeast and sugar). It is fortunate that there are dieticians, food nutritionists and homeopaths that can be consulted in this regard.
It is therefore vital for everyone to be aware of the effects of eating unhealthy processed foods, however, for a large proportion of the population it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a balanced diet due to lack of sufficient funds in the wake of rising natural food prices, import costs with high oil prices for transportation and the economic setbacks over the years that have rendered many people without jobs and in some cases homeless.
The goal of yoga is to integrate, mind-body-spirit to promote optimum health for the individual.
The goal of yoga is to integrate, mind-body-spirit to promote optimum health for the individual. Yoga is a principal discipline that leads the practiser to ask and answer questions about their existence here on earth. It is not seen as a religion although they have been linked because it promotes spiritual development, through meditation and physical exercises, but is considered a way of life. Yoga keeps the suppleness and flexibility for longevity and health which should be practised throughout life. The spine should be likened to a tree that is able to bend where the wind takes it. A rigid, ageing trunk can snap in the wind. It keeps the vertebrae stretched and well lubricated.
What is tension?
Tension is a tightness of the muscles and can be linked to oxygen starvation. Many people in this day and age still do not realize the importance of deep breathing, although this should be the case from the point of view that oxygen tanks are often close at hand when an individual is taken to hospital. Many people experience tension continually in their daily life and have the tendency to not breathe deeply enough, only using a small section of their lungs. Poor breathing also contributes to anxiety and stress and therefore slow deep breathing helps to lower stress on the heart and is good for the cardiovascular system as whole.
What is Relaxation?
Relaxation is necessary for individuals to avoid any illnesses that result from stress and anxiety
Relaxation is the absence of tension. It enables individuals to deal with daily issues in a sound and logical way. Individuals suffering from stress can develop heart and dietary problems among others. Relaxation will be stimulated by the para-sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by a stimulus shown in the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis, or Adrenalin Factory, whereby stimulus can be received by the thalamus which acts as a relay station for sensory inputs. The thalamus has two outputs, one that sends information to the amygdala and one that sends information to various parts of the brain involved in cortical processing. The amygdala is involved in the storage and formulation of emotional memories and it assigns emotional weighting to the information it receives from the thalamus. If the information is given a high emotional weighting then it activates the para-ventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus. The Alpha state is linked to relaxation, stress relief. All communication that influences the Para-sympathetic nervous system will inhibit the sympathetic nervous system and induce relaxation, emotional regulation and healing.
The process of breath control when applying yoga movements, which entails breath retention, has a spiritualising effect on the conscious and is uplifting of mood. Discharging breath reflects lethargy and therefore creating an even flow and rhythm as in performing the yoga movements, counting in and out, acts as a calming and spiritual experience for those who approach it in this way, rather than as happens in the West, a form of exercise. Yoga should be considered a lifestyle adaptation and be included in the daily programme, where possible, but at least four times a week.
Meditation: “Aum, Om and Amun”
Many yogins recite during meditation. An Ancient Egyptian papyrus (Leyden Magical Papyrus) records Om and it predates 5000 BCE according to Ashby. Om translates as “hidden”, in other words, by reciting Om, Aum or Amun you are voicing “Hidden God”. Note the similarity to “Amen” voiced at the end of Christian prayer. Ancient practices travel through time and evolve into terms that we are familiar with today. Deep meditation concerns withdrawal of the mind to a level where we renew and regenerate at the spiritual source. It could be likened to travelling through the gateway to universal consciousness. The meditative or, hypnogogic state, is concerned with learning to be in touch with oneself at the deepest level; allowing the subconscious, or spirit, to lead the mind and teach, allowing the inner voice to guide with wisdom and love. This is often the first connection with one’s inner “light”. Only the infinite “light” knows our life plan; have faith that everything is a stepping stone on the path of spiritual unfoldment.