By Debra Daley
Yoga is a holistic system of purifying techniques for the body and mind. Those who sincerely practice it regularly and with devotion, develop greater sensitivity. They can attest to the existence of their inner Spirit and a better understanding of human nature. This phenomenon can be subtle or dramatic. But, it enables the yogi to objectively view himself and gracefully react to the challenges in his life. Not all students reap the full benefits of this ancient tradition, which includes philosophical study and adherence to a humbling moral code of ethics. Some simply practice the anatomically aligning postures as a sort of cross training and a way to gain some much needed flexibility. But, even these individuals will experience an improved sense of well being during the time that they are practicing the yoga postures. Many will also find the poses help to combat the effects of aging, especially when they incorporate some of yoga’s breathing techniques.
A yoga practice consists of physical postures, pranayama, and meditation. Certain postures should be practiced every day, particularly the ones that affect the spine, systems and glands of the body. These fundamental poses are maintenance exercises that keep the spine and joints supple, the ductless glands secreting their chemicals properly, and the body calm, yet, energized. There is a certain calm confidence that regular asana practice brings to the mind. A basic regime is enough to improve the immune system by simply tuning up the body. Removing toxins is paramount to the purifying aspects of yoga. There are soucha, cleansing practices, that a dedicated yogi uses to clean his eyes, ears, intestines, stomach, and sinuses. Deep breathing stretches and tones the entire respiratory system. It rids the body of toxic gases and brings oxygen into the body, building healthy tissues.
Asanas are divided into groups which exhibit certain characteristics and affect the practitioner in a certain way. A series of asanas can open up new movement patterns that a yogi had never experienced before. A new pose can find some strength or flexibility that he has never had, too. Generally speaking, standing poses build strength and flexibility. Inversions and backbends are invigorating, while forward bends and prone poses are introspective. Twists keep the spine healthy and sitting poses strengthen the lower back and open the hips. Prone and supportive poses are restorative. Traditionally speaking, the reason that all yoga poses are practiced is, so, the yogi can sit comfortably in a meditative sitting posture. Sitting postures are also useful when practicing breathing techniques. These exercises clear out and strengthen the respiratory system. The ribs and diaphragm are taught how to work together to get the most nutrients out of the oxygen that the lungs absorb. Cleaning and toning all of the organs and muscles, and optimizing the blood flow to the connective tissue and nervous system makes the yoga practitioner feel good and relaxed. His body and it’s functions are optimized. On the surface, this all seems to be similar to aerobics. However, the mind is called into play, once the student starts to dig deeper into yoga, the “subtle science”.
All aspects of yoga must be actively pursued, otherwise the energy flow within a student stagnates, and it’s purifying power is blocked. Yoga aligns the muscles and bones and balances the body’s chemistry to combat disease. It is accessible to everyone in all stages of their lives. Pranayama and asana exercises are considered the physical practices of yoga. Their job is to clean and strengthen each person’s physical state, so, his mind and emotions calm and he learns how to grow spiritually. Breathing exercises coordinate the breathing process, so, harmony develops between the asanas and the breathing. Breath control directly affects the emotions and sooths the central nervous system. Pranayama directly affects the mind. Meditation serves to purify the mind. Mr. Iyengar divides the body into three parts in “Yoga, the Path to Holistic Health”, the anatomical, the physiological, and the psychological; and all three aspects of the body need to work together to practice asanas fully.
Pranayama moves, distributes and stores prana in the body. Controlling the breath cleans the nerves or nadis so prana can move through the sushumna. Alternate nostril breathing helps the process and the mind is able to concentrate, meditate and become more one pointed. Pranayama clears the way for the prana to move and keep the nervous system healthy. The mind stills when the breath calms and grows strong. Prana is the “charged”, or living element within all living things.
Even the skeptics of yoga can’t deny that deep breathing can bring a bit of calmness to any dramatic and tense situation. This said, a yogi cannot automatically practice pranayama and yoga postures and expect to tap into the spiritual stream within him. He also has to creatively listen to his true self and be motivated through ethical and pure intentions. The quality of a yoga practice is most important. It is best to attempt two full, honest poses, than to hurry through a bunch. The way a student approaches his study of yoga is important in his overall development. Peaceful emotions induce calmness and aggressive ones create stress hormones that flood the bloodstream and initiate a chain of unhealthy reactions. By practicing with good intention, a yogi can teach himself how to react in dramatic situations. He can integrate breathing techniques that has he learned on the mat into his everyday life. The deep strength he finds when he calms his thoughts and holds a backbend for an extended period of time is going to be useful when a driver cuts him off on the highway. With sincere practice and some mental fortitude, he can call upon these coping skills to help him practice peacefulness.
With devotion, a yogi will travel within his physical practice and arrive at his mental practice with positive emotions, which will motivate him to delve into the philosophical practice of yoga. The physical, mental, and philosophical aspects of yoga work together to cleanse the individual and uplift the spirit. There are obstacles that make this journey frustrating, but, there are also, “aha” moments that make the journey worthwhile. It is important to aim for purity of mind and motivation, which requires honesty about and acceptance of oneself. Performing poses that feed the ego leads to irritation and possibly torn muscles, or worse. One must listen to the body and mind to practice yoga in a way that balances out all areas of the student’s practice. Intuition has to be cultured, not ignored, for the sake of obtaining a goal. Hurrying through an asana practice, just to “get er done” is counterproductive.
Just as there are tangible good affects on the body and mind when a student performs a posture well, executing an asana with tension and negative intension can result in ragged breathing and unstable emotions. There are also warnings against performing Pranayama with any tension. Prana is the vital thing in air that makes things alive. Pranayama controls the movement of prana through the subtle body, and in order to use this psychic energy best, the body cannot waste it. Breath control tempers emotions and calms the mind. When the mind is still and the body is strong, the act of breathing comes under our control. The prana, that is in all living things, charges us and is stored in our bodies and largely concentrated in the solar plexus. Through honing our breathing technique while in a relaxed seated posture, the prana is concentrated and reserved . Since prana is a life giving source, the more we practice healthy, positive living, the more we can use this source to learn about our essence and then, to serve others. Root locks and bandas help concentrate prana. Retention, exhalation, and inhalation make the most of what we inhale, by optimizing the detoxifying effects of our exhale. Retention stills the mind. When we pay attention to the things that are good for us, an aspect of ahimsa, we become aware of how we optimize our resources.
Optimal use of prana occurs only when pranayama is performed slow and relaxed, with no competitive goal in mind. By diligently practicing asanas, pranayama techniques and purifying practices, including the chanting of mantras, the chakras vibrate and kundalini is activated. With cultivation, divine energy moves up through the chakras, through the nadis, the sushumna, and ending in the sahasrara chakra. According to classical yoga texts, this is where the individual Self and the Divine, or universal Self, join. This union is the reward of true devotion to yoga.
Spiritual awakening requires true and regular nurturing and a balanced physical and mental practice. Good practice requires consciously living in the present and seeing the world as it really is. Looking inward and seeing the Self requires deep patience and quiet contemplation. One of the biggest obstacles for the Western yogi is the old Hindu philosophy which is the foundation of yoga’s roots. The premise of classic yoga is to teach the way of” living right’ in order to have a proper spiritual unfolding. Patanjali presented the Yoga Sutras hundreds of years ago. This text provided real problem solving techniques, so, man could improve his quality of life. Patanjali stated that mankind was in turmoil because he viewed himself as a separate entity and worried about the future and about the past. He believed that the non concentrated and restless mind created excess stress in the body, which created the perfect fuel to feed disease. Fear, loathing and anger are aggressive emotions that poison the body and mind. Patanjali came up with a code of conduct, now known as the Eight Limbs of yoga, to obtain happiness within the body and mind. His teachings explained how to replace old behavior patterns to ease suffering by steadily focusing the mind and remaining detached from outcomes, actions, thoughts and things.
The eight limbs are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Yama and Niyama are moral codes that relate to how we behave toward ourselves and society. There are 5 Yamas that are meant to purify human nature, in English, they are: compassion, truthfulness, non-stealing, sense control, and non attachment. There are also 5 Niyamas that are personal purifying laws. These are: purity of thought, contentment, discipline of the body, self study(reflection), and celebration of a higher entity. Asana and Pranayama are purifying physical limbs, which prepare the yogi for meditation. Mr. Iyengar describes pranayama as the percolation of the breath through the body. The final four limbs deal with meditation. Pratyahara is detachment and sense withdrawal. Dharana is one pointed concentration. Dhyana is meditation on the Divine. Samadhi is final union with the Divine and release from suffering. Desire, anger, greed, infatuation, pride, and envy are six obstacles that need to be overcome in order for the yogi to reach Samadhi.
Self acceptance is important to spiritually evolve. Without it, the yogi is fooling himself and not optimizing his potential to practice all the branches of yoga. Karma yoga is the practice of right actions, service and commitment to the love of humanity. Raja yoga is more mystical in its pursuit of calmness through the love of the “higher” and “lower” self. Bhakti yoga utilizes a loving tone and attitude toward the Divine and his Self. Jhana is a philosophical approach to yogic peace. A balanced yoga practice employs some aspects of each branch, which helps a student affect the community he lives in. Yoga is now seen in a modern light in the West. Certain aspects within the Eight Limbs are seen in modern self help groups and recovery programs. Yoga is also used as a way to get fit, but it’s most exciting contributions are therapeutic.
The scientific community is collaborating with yoga teachers to provide alternatives to healthcare in America. At a time when physicians are spending less and less time with their patients, the compassion that a yoga teacher should exhibit, is attractive to more of the general public. There are modern studies being done on the appropriate use of yoga for the treatment of Asthma, Scoliosis, and Arthritis. Meditation is a recognized system to self treat anxiety and stress. With the use of props, yoga is accessible to everyone, and can help many recover from injuries and physical impairments by helping alleviate pain and mental anguish. Yoga improves the quality of life of those who practice it. With some practice, students can dispense with the status quo, knee jerk reaction, in stressful situations. Instead, he can react with peace and wisdom. As a result of self reflection, a dedicated yoga student can educate others and improve the spirit of the world around him.
Debra Daley is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in the Jensen Beach, Florida area.