“Looking at the way Yoga has been embraced by the world in the last decade or so, one can safely say that Yoga has arrived. Modern world has definitely realized the benefits of Yoga. Yoga is here and here to stay.”
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The following is a translation of the article published in Yoga Magazine of Denmark in December 2014.
Looking at the way Yoga has been embraced by the world in the last decade or so, one can safely say that Yoga has arrived. Modern world has definitely realized the benefits of Yoga. Yoga is here and here to stay. But, when we think of Yoga, immediately an image of a bendy person doing some sort of a body contortion comes to our mind. Modern world has been presented the idea of Yoga as physical exercise. Is Yoga only about stretching muscles and moving into seemingly elastic body manipulations? In this article, let us try to understand Yoga as something more than just a “class” and open ourselves to the deeper understanding of the holistic, life transforming benefits of Yoga.
Traditionally, Yoga is understood as “Moksha Shastra” or the science of liberation. Moksha commonly means “liberation”, but one needs to understand Moksha in its deeper sense. Moksha, is not any mundane liberation but is the fundamental liberation from our erroneous perceptions of ourselves. In its original sense, Yoga is the science of total mind-body transformation that releases us from the limiting perception and experience of ourselves and the world. It would not be wrong to call Yoga the philosophy and technique of correcting our own understanding and experience of ourselves.
But, is there a need for such liberation? I mean, ask yourself, how many times have we decided to do something only to be stopped by self-doubt. How many times have we vouched to be calm only to be disturbed by a wave of anger that seemingly comes out of nowhere. How many times have we suffered under bouts of repeated self-denial, guilt, regret and “poor me” syndrome. These issues have an effect on our body, posture, breath, relationships and life in turn. Yoga is a holistic science that includes all aspects of our life. Practicing Yoga in its entirety and not just as postures eases the pressures of the physical-mental (psycho-somatic) ups and downs generating a lasting sense of peace.
The Rishis or the spiritual scientists of ancient India realized that we humans do not really live with total efficiency and effectiveness. Our day to day life is compromised by limiting psycho-somatic tendencies that restrict our thoughts and actions. Once these limiting factors are transformed and eventually over powered we can live as something very profound and peaceful that we all are. This “something very profound” is known as the True Self (Atman/Shiva in philosophical sense). Simply put, the True Self can be understood as our human potential operating in an unrestricted, optimized, peaceful and loving manner. Liberation from limiting psycho-somatic tendencies that restricts our optimum potential is known as Moksha and the set of practices that help us in facilitating the liberation is called Yoga.
Thus, Yoga is much wider than a mere practice of physical contortions (asana). It is a way of living consciously, working on our limitations and allowing life to unfold the optimum potential within us all. Yoga is not just about physical exercise or a class but it is living a life of conscious transformation. Let us look at some ways in which we can consciously practice Yoga in its holistic sense and make Yoga a self-transformation process.
The process of Yoga: The objective of Yoga is to refine the body-mind complex. Since between mind and body the variable of body is grosser, more physical, we start the transformation process with the body. Yoga essentially believes that mind and body are two sides of the same coin. The body is gross of mind and mind is the subtle of the body. Whatever effects the mind will have its effect on the body and vice versa. This is why we start the transformation process via the body as it is more accessible of the two. The physical posture (asana) practice is just one part of the Yoga process.
Why do we do asana in Yoga: Traditional Yoga schools did not look at asana as flexibility training but as a method of generating self-awareness and energy alignment. Deepening of self-awareness is facilitated by making the asana practice more conscious and mindful. Such conscious, inward focus is cultivated by focusing the awareness on body sensations, breath, emotional sensitivity and through visualizations. A mindful asana practice generates self-awareness and mental stillness, bringing the mind and its movements under observation and a fairly conscious grasp. This is when the deeper work of refining the mind and emotions can start. Thus, a gentle, mindful asana practice can, over a period of time, generate increased self-awareness and slow down the restless mind which is usually responsible for stress, exhaustions and a number of mind-body ailments. A life lived with self-awareness makes the practitioner feel more alive, participative and integrated in the process of life.
Breath is the key: According to yoga scriptures, mind and breath are closely linked. It is said that the mind rides on the horse of breath. When the mind is relaxed, the breath is balanced and effortless. When the mind is agitated, the breath is imbalanced and effortful. Modern life, with its stress and speed has resulted in a hyperactive, buzzing mind. This hyperactive mind keeps us in an excitatory state which leads to a fast, shallow and confused respiratory rhythm. Such respiratory rhythm in turn leads to an agitated mind. This is how the cycle goes on, unnoticed for our whole life.
The technique of breath modulation is called Pranayama and is very useful to calm down the mind. Pranayama has not caught up with the modern Yoga enthusiasts as much as asana. Yet, one cannot rule out its importance. In fact a regular practice of Pranayama has shown to generate a sense of wellbeing, cultivate deep relaxation and increase lung capacity. But the most important benefit of Pranayama is that it makes us more aware of ourselves. It literally creates more space between two moments and allows us to consciously exercise the “choice” that we all have and that every moment encloses within itself. Pranayama practice in Yoga is a slow, gentle practice that makes us more conscious of our breathing which is otherwise usually automatic. When a person is conscious of the breath and is able to modulate it in the right time, the automatic, impulsive thoughts can be reined in. In times of conflict, when the mind and speech fires like a machine gun, one, single conscious breath can create space and give us the moment to choose our action carefully. When choice is exercised in such a way, escalation of conflicts and worries can be avoided. Sometimes all you need to create peace in life is conscious awareness and one relaxed breath. Gradually every single breath, taken consciously, calms down the mind and promotes a reflective life rather than a reactive life.
Relaxation: Yoga practices like Shavasana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Meditation can provide innumerable relaxation benefits. Modern society needs to learn to relax. It is with a sense of urgency that we all ought to understand our mind-body system’s vital need for relaxation. Relaxation, not in the sense of getting enough sleep or resting on a sofa, rather, relaxation emerging from a deep knowing that there is no hurry, there is no need to prove anything to anyone and that it will all be fine eventually. Many of us complain of tiredness, exhaustion and mental fatigue compromising our efficiency. Unless we take the time to relax, our lives will continue to be driven by pursuits that lead to nothing but increased nervous exhaustion. One of the best ways of relaxing is a general slowing down of activities through the day. Unless we slow down, we are too caught up in life’s pace to even know where we are going. Slowing down give us the chance to pause, reflect, prioritize and channel our energies towards the desired goals. Involving more relaxation methodologies in the Yoga practice can create lasting peace of mind that can allow us to reflect on our life and take appropriate steps to slow down life’s pace, enjoy the moment and cherish small joys of life.
Faith and Patience: Last but not the least, each one of us who has been preoccupied with the external world has to one day sit up and take notice of the inner voice. This inner voice is nothing but a deeper, innate instinct of self-refinement (transformation). It is that impulse which is programmed to set us free. Listening to the inner voice will drive us safely and clearly towards self-refinement. Self-refinement happens through patiently experimenting with methods of Yoga and experiencing life consciously and totally. Experimenting means exploring new possibilities and to explore new possibilities we need to be fearless, fearless enough to objectively examine our self and to ascertain what to let go off and what to hold on to. One cannot expect the benefits of Yoga if one is not ready to invest in dedicated and diligent Sadhana (self-practice). Process of Yoga is not merely a pursuit of fitness but a process of enlivening a steady state of peace and contentment. This process of self-transformation is gradual and many a times challenging. But with patience, determination and trust we all can reach the peak of peace and true potential that Yoga promises.