Yoga is a living tradition, a philosophy and methodology which cultivates creativity, health, and happiness. The word yoga is probably best translated as integration. In simple terms, it means to yoke or to unite the body, mind, and spirit. Yoga practice induces peace and well-being on every level of our lives: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Yoga practice gathers the energies of our bodies and minds and gently opens our awareness. It reveals the key to establishing and sustaining vitality, contentment and wisdom in our lives. Just as an automobile could be defined as a means of transportation from one destination to another, so yoga could be defined as a means to a destination, a place of balance and joy.
Yoga has always been an oral tradition. It is not an orthodoxy. It was not established on scripture, but on an evolving understanding and direct experience of life. This direct experience has been passed on from teacher to student and from master to disciple over generations. It forms the living link of yoga knowledge. The practice of yoga does not require a belief in a specific doctrine or philosophy. Therefore, yoga is compatible with any religious faith. Yoga students are given methods and encouraged to realize this direct and personal experience for themselves through their own practice, self-discipline, and study.
Yoga is not really a philosophy, as many people think, but is a series of techniques. It is a wonderful system of psychological and physiological self-disciplines, which lead to a rebalancing of the body and mind. Although not a philosophy, Hatha Yoga methods are often taught in conjunction with one of the six major schools of yogic philosophy. Yet the philosophy remains independent of the techniques, and students do not need to embrace it in order to benefit from Hatha Yoga practice.
Though primarily an oral tradition, over the millennia in which yoga has existed, certain aspects of its practices have been committed to writing. One of the primary texts utilized by yogis is the Yoga Sutras, collected by the Indian sage, Patanjali. Patanjali codified, but certainly did not canonize, the oral tradition which preceded him. He took this existing oral tradition and organized it into four short books which presented a pattern for memorizing and studying yoga.
The Yoga Sutras are said to have been written between 500 and 200 B.C.E. However, it is well known that Patanjali’s text is a reconstruction of a much older text which pre- ceded him by hundreds of years. From evidence found in Northern India, it is known that 800 years earlier, yoga texts were not written down at all, but were transmitted verbally. This indicates that the system is at least 5,000 years old.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes yoga as an eight step process known as Ashtanga (ash = eight and anga = limbs).
The eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga system are:
3. Asana (postures) 4. Pranayama (regulation of prana or the life force) 5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal) 6. Dharana (concentration) 7. Dhyana (meditation) 8. Samadhi (contemplation)
The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, form the primary techniques practiced by the beginning student. Among these first four essential limbs of Patanjali’s system, we find the focus of our study: asana or Hatha Yoga, which is the to form and hold a posture that is stable and comfortable while regulating the breath.
The eight limbs of the Ashtanga system were structured to be practiced sequentially and simultaneously, indicating that stillness and integration of the body, breath, and mind, supported by a balanced lifestyle, are essential to sustain physical and mental health. Without these fundamental skills and the benefits of their practice, deeper and advanced yoga techniques are difficult or impossible to master. In this program we will discuss all eight limbs of the classical system; but our primary focus will be on asana or Hatha Yoga, pranayama, and meditation.
The Hatha Yoga system builds concentration, poise and stillness of body and mind. Pranayama, or yoga breathing exercises, reduces mental tension, focuses the mind, and increases the body’s energy level by oxygenating the blood stream. Meditation, some- times done in conjunction with hatha practice, helps consciously quiet the mental activity and emotions which constantly absorb the mind. Meditation releases intuitive, creative energies, and reveals insights into the nature of consciousness, the pattern of the mind, and Life itself.
Yoga has been organized into specific types or systems of study. There is a famous maxim, “Truth is one, but the paths are many, and all paths lead to the mountain top.” In the same way, there are many different types of yoga. Yet all lead to an expansion of awareness. These different types of yoga are practiced according to an individual’s needs, preferences, and personality.
In the West, people generally equate yoga with Hatha Yoga. They often use the terms yoga and Hatha Yoga interchangeably. Students will say, “I’m taking a yoga class,” when in fact they are practicing a specific type of yoga known as Hatha. In truth, the term yoga embraces all forms of yoga, of which the hatha system is one of many.
Because of our emphasis on the physical body and on physical health, many people in this country are attracted to the physical aspects of yoga, even though the yoga system offers so much more. As it is taught in the West today, yoga has been modified by the various cultural values of western society. Thus, in the West, yoga is most frequently considered as an exercise system, and associated with methods for relaxing and reducing stress.
However, Hatha Yoga is much more than exercise. It is a system which is designed to give maximum flexibility and strength to the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems. It strengthens the spine, making it supple. The postures massage the internal organs, regulate circulation, and stimulate the glandular system. Yoga asanas restore the body to its natural equilibrium and alleviate tension so the muscles and nervous system will relax more naturally.
Studies have been conducted to document these beneficial effects of hatha practice. Medical research on yoga has shown some interesting results. It has been found that savasana relieves high blood pressure and that regular practice of Hatha Yoga and breath- ing techniques can help to alleviate arthritis, arteriosclerosis, chronic fatigue, heart conditions, asthma, and varicose veins. One study indicated that through Hatha Yoga practice, lung capacity and respiration can be significantly increased, body weight can be reduced, the ability to resist stress can be improved, and there can be a decrease in cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Today there is no longer any doubt of Hatha Yoga’s effectiveness as both a curative and preventive method.
The yogis who first developed the hatha system in ancient India knew this well, but they used a simple series of eight or ten poses in their practice. These have evolved over the centuries into the vast number of postures we know today. A classical text specific to Hatha Yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, describes the various asanas and breathing exercises, which form the basis of modern hatha practice. It is said to be based on the work of Goraksanatha and was written in the fifteenth century. But even the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes only 15 postures. The Shiva Samhita, another work on Hatha Yoga, contains 80 postures. From this continuing development of the system, we can see that the oral tradition of yoga is alive and well and still flourishing.
As a teacher, you become a part of this living tradition. Study the system. Practice calmly and consistently. Make it your own. In truth, yoga is much like a tree that bears fruit. The fruit is there for those who find the tree, and recognize that they must partake of the fruit to nourish themselves.Yet once nourished, they transform the gift of Life into a vitality which enriches their life and benefits others.
May the blessings which this ancient science offers bring into your life abundance, wealth, and wisdom. May joy, peace, and contentment be yours. May you live a life that fills you and others with ever greater health and happiness.
May you always remember that the fruit contains the seed, and within the seed is all the potential of the tree.
ASANA AS A SYMBOL OF LIFE’S TRANSFORMATION
I. Life is constant change. A. As we get older, it becomes harder. B. Adjust, adapt and acclimatize. C. As change occurs, we can become angry and defensive.
1. We fight change. a. We cut off that which we need.
2. The inability to adjust to change causes destruction. a. This destruction causes confinement to us and those around us.
D. Life and yoga are about learning to expand and become freer. 1. The need to learn to say yes to life.
II. Hatha Yoga A. A mental posture 1. Doing or flowing into the posture 2. Holding the posture (sustaining) 3. Releasing 4. Preparing for the next posture.
III. Life A. Prepare our mind for the change. 1. Recognize that a mindset is not forever. a. Being relaxed. 2. Breathing is very important. B. We say something or/and do something with our body.
C. Sustaining the change 1. Take hold gently of that which is precious to us.
2. We have all had in the past those things which are important to us, but some-how lost it, so sustainment, or the symbol of the holding of the ultimate pose (life), is the most important.
D. Repetition 1. Symbolic that we are creatures of imperfection striving for balance. E. Release 1. Must pull out of the situation gracefully, gaining greater freedom. IV. Preparing the mind for the next change. A. Wake up, straighten the spine and go into a meditative mood. 1. “How do I feel? What is going to happen today?” a. A probing of your intuition 2. “I wonder what I dreamt?” a. Do something with your mind to transform those dream symbols. 3. Ask what has happened the last three days. 4. Find or create a map of your karma (not available to everyone as the other three are).
V. In yoga we are trying to transform the enemy rather than defeat the enemy. A. “I don’t know any better way of making a friend out of an enemy than showing that I love them.” 1. Work one problem at a time. 2. The enemy is not “out there.” What is out there is “change.” a. We are the ones that need to adjust, adapt and acclimatize.
B. To prepare for the next change, savasana or relaxation is needed at the end of the day. 1. As we relax, the blood vessels open, and more oxygen and prana reach the brain so it begins to operate more effectively.
C. We begin to ask: “What is the problem?” “Where is the problem in me?” 1. Life is change. Though it may frighten or irritate us, we must learn to adjust, adapt and acclimatize.
VI. Morning ritual to prepare the mind for the changes of life. A. Learn to adjust, adapt and acclimatize by a mystical ritual. B. Life is a hurdle race. 1. There is not one hurdle, but a series of hurdles. a. And the hurdle is not what we were expecting. b. We’re running the race not to win, but to learn something. 2. Visualize the asanas, moving the energies from confinement to more free- dom. a. Do the poses physically, but also learn to do them in your imagination. b. Find one or two poses in each chakra level that are meaningful. 3. The most mystical time is while the breath is held. a. Use an affirmation effortlessly.
C. Savasana 1. Best way not to confine ourselves is with the brain, so we need to relax more.
D. Saturn chakra level 1. Creeper pose/cobra - to activate the energy of the Saturn. 2. “I will do that which will not have to be undone.”
E. Jupiter chakra level - symbol of expansion 1. One-leg posterior stretch/bow. 2. The secret of life is not asking for more, but using what you already have.
F. Mars chakra level 1. Peahen/wheel pose 2. Pouring the energy up to Mars which is the chakra of energy. 3. “I am here in life to succeed, to grow higher, to mature - but this can only happen if I help others to unfold.” a. Pride simply means that we have lost the center of our awareness. b. The secret of life and the secret of helping others is that we are here to make life easier for other people at all times.
G. Venus chakra level 1. Right prone spinal twist/bird pose
2. The concept is that adversity is sometimes necessary to realize how off balance we are, so adversity is necessary to develop peace and serenity.
a. If there were no challenges, we would not see where we are at. b. The adversity should not be seen as a negative factor, but as a challenge.
H. Mercury chakra level 1. Right half-spinal twist/bridge pose 2. State of consciousness: “What I am given by life depends on what I give to life.”
In the yoga system of Patanjali, practice is divided into eight stages or limbs called Ashtanga. The first two limbs, yama and niyama, establish ethical and behavioral parameters for our conduct. When observed, they establish a harmonious relationship between our experience of the inner and outer worlds. The first limb, or anga, is called yama, which means something that is controlled, regulated, or restrained. This should not be misunderstood as something which is obliterated or repressed. Repression is an emotional reaction which forces thoughts and impulses into the unconscious layers of the mind, where they remain an active force and continue to affect our behavior. Yama is a conscious practice which is observed with insight, self-awareness, and self-discipline.
Certain behavioral qualities can create distress in our lives and in the world around us when they are not wisely exercised. Therefore it is important that we learn techniques to control them. Yama (conduct which is controlled) and niyama (conduct which is cultivated) are guidelines that help to make our human experience harmonious and joyful. There are five yamas and five niyamas, each practiced or observed on three levels: thought (baudhika), word (vachika), and physical action (sharirik).
Thought is said to be the source of words and actions. In other words, something first needs to be thought, before it can be communicated or verbalized, and then acted upon. The five yamas are the restraint in thought, word, and deed from violence (ahimsa), lying (satya), stealing (asteya), sensuality (brahmacharya), and greed (aparigraha). The five niyamas are the observances of purity (shaucha), contentment (santosha), austerity (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and attunement (Ishvar-pranidhana).
The first yama is ahimsa. It is translated as non-violence and is considered to be the greatest of the yamas. All of the other yamas are practiced so that we may become established in ahimsa. Together with wisdom and compassion, ahimsa is symbolically referred to as one of the “jewels above the head of God.” This suggests that even our concept of God must yield to the observance of ahimsa, and that we need to learn to treat all sentient beings, all Life, with benevolence and compassion.
To fully understand what is meant by non-violence, we must reflect deeply upon our concept of violence. In order to sustain our existence in this world, we must in some way take life. Even if we consume only vegetable matter and no animal flesh, we are still taking life. This goes back to the definition of yama — actions that need to be controlled and tightly regulated mentally, verbally and physically. Whether you are a soldier in battle or a householder deciding whether or not to exterminate an unwanted insect, these actions require serious consideration. We need to examine the effect of our actions, not just on humanity, but on all life.
To begin observing mental non-violence, the first things we need to explore are the structure and the contents of our own mind. We may want to reflect on the following thoughts: How often do I indulge in anger? Do I anger easily? Do I repress anger when I experience it or am I able to find a constructive outlet for the energy? It is important that we reflect on how we experience and process angry and violent thoughts. We need to understand how these thoughts affect our experience of life and our interactions with the world. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to come to understand the genesis of the violence and anger within us. Where does it comes from and what triggers it?
On a subtler level we need to reflect on what is destructive to us and to those around us. Each soul is unique with different needs and different strengths. What is destructive to your happiness? What is destructive to your peace of mind? What is destructive to your dream, to your contentment? All of these subtle and potential forms of violence, which we direct at ourselves and others, need to be renounced through the practice of ahimsa.
Verbal Non-Violence (Vachika Ahimsa)
When we verbalize angry or destructive thoughts, our words impact our bodies, our minds, and the world around us. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of violent words knows that the aftereffects can be devastating and quite long lived. More often than not, physical injuries will heal and be forgotten long before verbal violence is forgotten. The analogy of a bell is sometimes used to better understand the impact of verbal violence. Although the sound vibrations generated by a bell can be heard for miles around, the vibration is most intense within the bell itself. Whatever damage may be done in the outer world through verbal violence, greater still is the violence which is done to the person who is its source. A wise soul once said, “Coat your words with honey. You never know when you may need to eat them.”
Physical Non-Violence (Sharirik Ahimsa)
Violence at the physical level is the most obvious. Most of us refrain from commit- ting acts of physical violence against others, but we are often unaware of the subtler acts of violence we commit against ourselves. In the Yoga Sutras (Book II: Sutra XVI) it says, Heyam duhkham anagatam, which translates as “Pain and suffering that has not yet occurred can and is to be avoided.” There are many things which we do in our lives that are not in our best interest. Often they are subtle and will not yield problems for years. Because of this, we somehow rationalize doing them. The simplest choice that we make each day can have profound effects upon us in the future, whether that future is the next day, the next year, the next lifetime, or the next breath. Remember the formula IxD=F? One way to measure intensity is by awareness. If due to unawareness, we produce an unhealthy, destructive behavior or habit, such as improper diet or smoking, the force or result of that habit will be determined by how long the habit has existed—its duration. It will require a conscious force of at least equal intensity and/or duration to counteract the effects of the behavior. As the great sage said,”We are the result of all that we have thought, said, and done.” Physical violence against others or oneself usually begins as a mental or emotional pattern that is self-destructive. This attitude can even enter our asana practice. If we become goal oriented, we may try to force movements or to open areas of the body prematurely. This attitude can cause damage to our physical body. The truth is that the present is the only reality that we have. It is the only place in which we can act. If we can find a feeling of wholeness and balance in the present, then this is good yoga.
Mental Truthfulness (Baudhika Satya)
Translated literally, the second yama is truthfulness. Referring again to the concept of restraint, it is helpful to understand satya as non-lying, because truthfulness itself need not be restrained. The concept of truthfulness, however, is easily distorted and can become quite obtuse because the nature of thought is quite subjective. As the Buddha said, “Our mind is our world.”
Each of us has had a unique set of life experiences and have synthesized them in distinct ways. How these experiences have been organized within our thought processes determines the bias of our consciousness. This presupposes that virtually all of us have a bias to our consciousness. The fact that we have different opinions in response to receiving the same information tends to verify this.
On one level, it could be said that each individual experiences his or her own truth. We then seek out like-minded individuals with whom we can compare our life experiences, thinking that if enough people agree with us, we know the truth. But when we look at the diversity of what is called truth, the subjective quality of it is apparent. The danger arises when we begin to think that what we find to be true should be true for everyone. The more attached we become to our truth or to converting others to sharing our views, the more we risk violating ahimsa (non-violence). The challenge is to seek out and embrace our own truth without dogma or judgment about the truth of another.
On a deeper level, can we ever really know what is objectively true? As human beings, we find ourselves in the position of having to function as though we know what is true, when it is highly unlikely that we do. As long as we experience life through the biases of our body and mind, we are existing in a subjective realm.
If two children are playing and a dog walks into the room, each will respond accord- ing to the bias of his or her mind. One may run and hide in the closet, the other child may let the dog lick her face and play with it like a toy. How many dogs walked into the room? You could say two dogs entered the room, one a symbol of danger and fear, the other a symbol of pleasure and playfulness, one in each child’s mind, biased by their past experiences. But truth is neither of these subjective interpretations of the dog. The dog is neither a monster nor a toy. It is an entity unto itself, a dog. To see Life as it is, and not as we fear it may be, or desire it to be, is to observe satya (truthfulness) within our minds.
Verbal Truthfulness (Vachika Satya)
To speak the truth is no less of a challenge. This is due largely to the nature of language; words do not have a fixed meaning. Even the dictionary usually offers several meanings for the same word, some quite diverse from one another. The bias of our life experiences also affects how we hear and react to different words. If we seek to speak the truth, do we need to use words as they are true in our consciousness, or should we use words as the listener will hear them?
If the goal is for the listener to hear the truth, then speaking as the listener hears would seem to be the most desirable approach. Because this is such a challenging task, it is very helpful to employ the technique of dialogue. One person speaks his or her truth as accurately as possible, and then the other person responds, expressing what he or she heard. This can continue back and forth until a mutual understanding is reached. With practice, this exchange can work reasonably well between two mature individuals. How- ever, the technique is not as effective when speaking to a group because the margin for miscommunication increases proportionately with the number of people involved.
Reflect on this from the position of a yoga teacher. Much of what we communicate as teachers comes through the use of words and the feelings we express through them. Yoga asana is a very focused and often demanding subject to practice as well as to teach. To find language for the most articulate and effective communication is a constant quest. Our language needs to evolve in response to who is listening and how we experience our words being heard. In order to accomplish this, we need to minimize the bias within our own consciousness, so that we can function more as a vehicle for the teachings, than as “the teacher.” This is an important distinction.
Physical Truthfulness (Sharirik Satya)
Expressing truth through our bodies requires some degree of self-awareness and integration. The inflection and intonation of our words reveals as much about our thoughts as the literal meaning of the words themselves. Our bodies also express what we think and feel. Most of us are relatively unconscious of how much we express through our postures and actions and how much we are affected by the postures and actions of others. Our bodies can easily betray the truth about what we think and feel.
As Hatha Yoga practitioners and teachers, we need to be aware of the language of the body. Through our own practice and observation, we begin to develop insight into how particular physical actions correlate with specific internal states. As we learn through our own experience, we become more capable of perceiving this dynamic in others. The more adept we are with body language, the better we will function as teachers. As we develop the ability to understand the language of the body, we become capable of bring- ing unity to our thoughts, words, and deeds. In doing this, we more effectively communicate our truth.
Mental Non-Stealing (Baudhika Asteya)
Asteya means non-stealing. Asteya means refraining from taking anything that is not ours: physically, mentally, or spiritually. The loss of a possession is nothing com- pared to the loss of our health, our self-image, or our peace of mind. The practice of asteya means that we refrain from taking someone’s happiness, their moment of prominence, or their dream. To observe asteya in a healthy, balanced way, like all yama, requires constant self-awareness, self-discipline, and wisdom. We need to be ever mindful of what we think, and say, and do.
As we practice asteya, we learn not to take that which we have not earned, as well as that which is not ours. In terms of our mind, there is a great difference between what we have memorized and what we actually know and have made our own. Any piece of knowledge is meaningful only to the degree that it has been integrated into our consciousness. Whenever possible, we should embrace the opportunity to learn directly and for ourselves. This in no way minimizes the role of a teacher. It actually helps to define it. One of the roles a teacher plays is to present information in such a way that the student can learn what he or she needs to learn in the way that is most appropriate for that individual at that moment. There is a tremendous power in knowledge. By earning it through experience, we are better prepared to put it to good use.
It has been said that amateurs imitate, while professionals steal. There are people who seem to believe that it is actually easier to take than to earn, but this is shortsighted. In the long run, thoughts not earned and assimilated only cloud our consciousness. We have a tendency to define ourselves by the information that we accumulate in our minds. If we take an idea that is not really our own and use it to define ourselves, we may end up trying to live someone else’s life or someone else’s truth, which only creates discontent. When we fail to embrace asteya, we also violate satya (truthfulness), which in turn disturbs the practice of ahimsa (non-violence).
Verbal Non-Stealing (Vachika Asteya)
When we verbalize something, it begins to solidify, to take form. The benefits of disciplining the mind are more clearly appreciated when we see the results that our words have on the world. As mentioned earlier, language is very subjective in nature. The more we embrace satya with our words, the easier it is to embrace asteya as well. The greater the truthfulness of our mind, the more easily we speak in words that truly express our own experience of life and of self. When we communicate with the world, it is always best to speak from our heart and our own mind. If we try to emulate someone else, even a noble soul, we will only effectively communicate what we have made our own.Language often has a social and cultural context. Borrowing elements of speech or other’s ideas in order to more effectively reach the listener can be a valuable communication tool. It only qualifies as stealing if we act as though the thought or style of speech is our own. When necessary, borrow whatever language is needed to most effectively communicate. Just remember that it is borrowed, so that it can be returned at the appropriate time. More often than not, this technique demonstrates our flexibility as a speaker or teacher.
Physical Non-Stealing (Sharirik Asteya)
Little really needs to be said at this time about the inappropriateness of actually stealing physical objects. The laws of our civilization establish guidelines, which we as a culture have more or less agreed to live by. However, if we look at the status of the environment and observe just how much we have stolen from it, it is easy to understand how narrow our concept of stealing is culturally and just how much room for interpretation these laws permit.
Stealing creates a void, an imbalance. Receiving a gift, whether from nature or a person, does not. The challenge that the practice of asteya poses is to understand how we can fully live and participate in the world without creating imbalance. Life is dynamic; it is always changing. Through the practice of ahimsa, satya and asteya, we learn to perceive and become sensitive to the changing order of life. In yoga, this order is called rita. This insight enables us to receive and to impart as needed in order to sustain balance and equanimity within us and in our relationship to the world around us.
As an analogy, asana can be a tremendous teacher. If we are not truthful with our- selves (satya) and we take an asana to a degree that we have not earned (asteya), we can easily do violence to ourselves (ahimsa). But, as we become aware of rita, the order of life, the order of our body and mind, we begin to aspire towards balance and equanimity. As we cultivate this attitude of balance and bring it into our asana practice, we be- come aware of the results it yields. This in turn enables us to more easily attune to this attitude and to apply it to other aspects of our lives.
Mental Non-Sensuality (Baudhika Brahmacharya)
Brahmacharya is often defined as celibacy. Though this may be accurate in some circumstances, this definition encompasses only a small part of what brahmacharya means. If we take brahmacharya at its most literal definition, we find that Brahma is seen as the creative force or principal within us and acharya means a master teacher who lives his philosophy. So brahmacharya could be translated as becoming the master of one’s creative force. This definition provides many different levels of interpretation.
One of the great mantras of yoga is aham brahmasmi, which translates as I am the creative principle. It is a recognition of the creative potential within us, the power to create other human beings, as well as the creativity to solve the problems we encounter every day. Yoga embraces the philosophy that we create the circumstances of our life, on every level, and only we can alter them. The proper use of the creative forces of our being is what brahmacharya is all about.
The practice of brahmacharya acknowledges that both the desires to create and to procreate are among the motivating forces we experience as humans. To harness and direct this energy in a balanced way can provide the vitality to accomplish tremendous things. Left undisciplined, this same energy creates chaos. By necessity, the expression of the desire to procreate requires both active and receptive elements for it to manifest. Our mind has been conditioned by habit to understanding this in terms of male and female relationships. However, in reality both of these creative urges are an expression of the dynamic quality of life.
The challenge presented by observing brahmacharya is to keep this energy in a healthy balance, while giving it its proper expression. If we think of brahmacharya only in terms of sexual expression, the scope of this energy’s capacity to express itself be- comes quite narrow. Since sexual expression requires another person for its greatest creative fulfillment, the complexity of expressing it and keeping it in a proper perspective increases exponentially. An enormous amount of our effort can be invested in trying to sort this out and resolving the confusion which it creates in our mind.
What many people are really seeking is the satisfaction or contentment of creative self-expression. For some this may be a feeling of power, for others it may be a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment, for some the bliss of becoming one with another being, experiencing something larger than themselves. What the yogi is seeking is an experience of completion, of wholeness, of touching life in a way that is only experienced by a recognition and awareness of our true nature. Each of us is a self-existent spiritual being, a part of Life and not apart from it. This experience of integration and wholeness, of being a part of life, creates a feeling of bliss and delight. In one way or another, we have all had this experience of bliss. On some level, we remember it and we continue to seek it.
Because this state of internal integration is so difficult to attain or sustain, most people seek to manifest it in the physical world or to experience it sexually with another person, and there is nothing wrong with this. We just need to honestly evaluate where we are in our quest for wholeness and what avenues we should pursue in order to find our fulfillment. With a proper respect for ahimsa, satya, and asteya, we can wisely explore appropriate avenues for our creative expression.
Verbal Non-Sensuality (Vachika Brahmacharya)
Language is a wonderful tool for conducting this exploration. It can be the interface between thought and action. Clear communication with other people helps us to dis- cover the most harmonious expression for our creative and procreative drives. We have said that this energy requires both active and receptive elements. With respect to the use of words, this means we need to be a good listener, as well as a good speaker.
If marriage or a relationship is the appropriate path for an individual, language is a necessary tool for exploring compatibility and appropriateness before sexual interaction occurs. As any relationship deepens, it is important that we regularly reflect on ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and the fifth yama of non-greed, as guidelines for how to conduct ourselves. Our words have the power to create as well as to destroy. Our choice of words affects not only our consciousness but also the consciousness of others. We are a part of life — not apart from it.
The physical expression of brahmacharya has been the subject of reflection and de- bate since the dawn of civilization. More often than not, this energy is experienced as sexual in nature. Even though this is only one possible manifestation, it seems to be the most common and dominant form.
Repressing any part of our human nature can be as much a form of violence as applying no control or discipline at all. This energy is a natural urge, and one way or another it seeks and finds expression. Remember that intensity times duration equals force. The longer an energy has been held in check or repressed, the greater will be the force of its expression when the opportunity arises. Finding the most balanced expression of our creative and procreative desires is essential. One of the most important concepts regarding yama is that it is to be observed depending on time, place and position. This means that the observance of brahmacharya for someone who is married is not the same observance as it would be for someone who is single. We are living as human beings and need to interact with and express ourselves as human beings in a healthy and balanced way. With wisdom, this can and should be a delightful experience.
Mental Non-Greed (Baudhika Aparigraha)
Aparigraha is often defined as non-greed. In discussing baudhika aparigraha, we are referring to the contents of the mind. As we go through life, we collect memories of life experiences. These memories are used as references to help us make decisions about how to behave in the present, in order to create the future we desire. For this reason, the contents of our minds have great value. Yet, just as we collect more than we need in material possessions, we can easily collect more than we need in our memories.
Thoughts and emotions coexist within the mind. Because emotions usually contain more experiential weight than thoughts, emotional patterns have more momentum and are often more difficult to see objectively. For most people, emotional biases affect the thought process more readily than the thought process affects the emotions. This can be a good thing, because the thought process needs to be used to temper and refine the emotional experience, not to repress or eliminate it. However, our emotions need to be healthy and balanced so that their influence on our thinking will not be destructive to us or to those around us.
The more intensity an experience has at its inception, the more momentum it carries and the more we tend to relive it. The more we relive it, the greater its momentum becomes over time. Because of this, we often hold onto thoughts long after they have outlived their usefulness. These thought patterns, to a great degree, bias our experience of life. Consider for a moment how much our thought process affects and defines our experience of who we think we are. Then reflect on how much the content of our mind biases how we experience life and therefore affects what we become. The more informa- tion we have in our minds, defining who we are, the less freedom we have to be any- thing else.
Try to imagine for a moment how much of your internal dialogue is really necessary for you to function efficiently in the world. It should not take much reflection to realize that the vast majority of it is superfluous. Most of our internal dialogue is just a series of thought patterns we simply do not know how to let go of. Observe how freely children experience the world before they are given language with which to create rigid mental parameters.
The practice of aparigraha challenges us to only take into our consciousness that which is needed, to use it only as long as needed, and then with gratitude for having had the experience, to let it go.
Verbal Non-Greed (Vachika Aparigraha)
The word sutra means a thread. When applied to language, sutra means that a concept is expressed in its most concise form. Often we find ourselves saying relatively little with many words. We may even find ourselves saying things that do not need to be said. An old axiom suggests that we should speak only when it is an improvement on silence.
When we have become established in the yama of verbal non-greed, we not only communicate clearly and succinctly, but we also become very good listeners. As we begin to remove the clutter from our mind, it becomes easier to be less greedy with our words. When we are less greedy in our thoughts and words, we are more prepared to really listen. At this point we may begin to hear the teachings of life. Life is talking. Life is teaching. All we need to do is become quiet enough inside to hear.
Physical Non-Greed (Sharirik Aparigraha)
What differentiates need from greed is rarely clear to us. Periodic reflection on the status of our environment can help to keep things from getting out of hand. Remember, if we “have” something, it also has us. The more possessions we have, the more energy they require from us for their care and maintenance — not to mention the bigger house we need just to hold them all.
Idealistically we could ask the question: what do we really need beyond food, cloth- ing and shelter? In actuality, we are much more complicated beings than that. Yet most of us could easily look around our homes and prioritize what is being used and what is not. This evaluation needs to take into consideration more than just utilitarian items. Decorations, for instance, can certainly serve the purpose of affecting our moods. Books, even the ones we bought and never read, can be an important resource. So what we think we need in order to be happy, healthy and functional is really quite subjective and dynamic.
In asana practice we can also become physically greedy. We may try to take too much from an asana and end up hurting ourselves. This attitude is something that we need to restrain both within ourselves, as well as in our students.
We become greedy when we fail to practice satya, asteya, and brahmacharya. We become greedy because we are not observing one of the most important niyamas — contentment. If any of the last four yamas are not respected, then the most important of all the yamas, ahimsa, is also violated. Heyam duhkham anagatam. “Pain and suffering that has not yet occurred can and is to be avoided.”
The niyamas will be discussed in next month’s lesson.
The second limb of the Patanjali system is called niyama. Yama refers to something that needs to be controlled or restrained. The prefix “ni,” or in some cases “nir,” means without. Therefore, the five niyamas refer to conducts that need no restraint or limitation placed upon them. Like the yamas, the niyamas are observed on the three levels of: thought, word, and deed.
Mental Purity (Baudhika Saucha)
The first niyama is saucha. It is translated as purity. Mental purity can be under- stood in many ways. One would be to observe saucha in terms of an ethical or moral framework. For example, by holding the mind to thoughts and feelings of the most noble and ethical stature, these thoughts will inspire contentment, peace, and compas- sion.
Another way to understand mental purity is purity of focus. If the mind is scattered or diffused, it is no longer pure. Consider a bowl of marbles as an example. If all the marbles in a bowl are blue except for one which is white, we would say that the bowl of marbles is not purely blue. Mental purity does not mean our thoughts are clean or moral; this is a religious concept. From a yogic standpoint, mental purity means that our minds are clear and focused. Practicing saucha of the mind means sustaining focus and self- awareness in all our mental activities.
When we reflect on the results of how our thoughts affect our experience of our inner and outer worlds, we begin to understand the degree to which we are or are not employing saucha. If we indulge in thought patterns that create fear or confusion, this is not an expression of saucha. When our thought patterns create peace and equanimity, this is an expression of saucha.
Verbal Purity (Vachika Saucha)
The first step toward verbal purity is having respect for the power of words, both as a means of communication and for the effects they can have on others. For this reason, we should strive to let our words produce the most positive effect possible upon both the listener and ourselves. Purity of speech can also mean the use of words in a clean and clear fashion. Indiscriminate use of profanity, or angry and derogatory speech does not generate peace and harmony.
Having a clear picture in the mind of what needs to be said is necessary for clear communication. Words can only be as accurate as the mind that creates them. Reflect on this in the context of teaching yoga. As a yoga teacher, you will need to express as clearly as possible exactly what you want your students to do. If your thoughts and words are not clearly articulated, students may do something ineffective or possibly harmful. As a teacher, verbal purity needs to be cultivated for your benefit as well as for those you teach.
Physical Purity (Sharirik Saucha)
At the most fundamental level, physical purity can be seen as bodily cleanliness. This refers not only to the outer body but to the inner body as well. Keeping the outer body clean is relatively simple. The inner body requires a little more effort and awareness. In the classical Indian model of health care, Ayurveda, it is said that cleanliness of the inner body is the single most important aspect we can maintain for our health. It is said that virtually all illness comes from a buildup of what is called ama, an accumulation of undigested matter in the digestive tract that inhibits digestion, absorption and elimination. Thus, Ayurveda recommends that we periodically (perhaps twice a year) perform an inner body cleansing of some sort.
At a subtler level, sharirik saucha can be understood as purity of movement and action. From the standpoint of asana practice, this implies cultivating structural, visceral and pranic alignment, which produces a unity expressed through the body. Are the joints of the limbs parallel and mutually supportive? Are all parts of the spine moving in complementary directions? Are the internal organs encouraged to function in a healthy manner? Are all the lines of prana balanced and flowing freely? All of these things can be considered an expression of physical purity.
Mental Contentment (Baudhika Santosha)
Santosha means contentment. Baudhika santosha is a state of mind that is at peace with the present moment. Much of what commonly goes on in the mind is not support- ive of santosha. The mind is typically consumed with aspects of the past that cannot be changed and visions of the future that may never exist. Because we can only live and act in the present, these thoughts only create discontent.
This is not to discount the value of past experience or dreams for the future. Memory can be a great teacher. The thoughts, words, and actions of the past have created the present. By understanding the cause and effect relationships of our past actions, we come to better understand the present. This understanding can help us to accept responsibility for creating our experience of the present, which sows the seeds of santosha. Only when we accept responsibility for having created our experience of the present will we have the freedom to change our behavioral patterns and create our desired future. If we indulge in regrets and self-recrimination, the past becomes a burden rather than a cherished teacher. If we blame the outside world for our experience of life, we are enslaved. When we accept responsibility for that which we experience, we begin to understand that we have the freedom to create our reality.
The experience of santosha arises when we are fully in the present without being distracted by regrets of the past or hopes for the future. At that moment we see how the past has created the present and how the present is the seed of the future. This is not a contradiction. It is an insight and an awareness which brings contentment.
Verbal Contentment (Vachika Santosha)
Why do we speak? Is it out of the desire to influence others to think as we do? Do we speak to attempt to change some element of the outer world, to mask some personal discontent? How much of what we say really needs to be said? When we begin to em- body baudhika santosha, we realize how little really needs to be said at all. And when we do wish to speak, we become content with saying only what needs to be said. Super- fluous words simply drop away.
For many of us, silence in social situations makes us feel uneasy. When there is a lull in conversation, people tend to feel that there is no communication or that the other person is upset. Someone who lacks verbal santosha is unable to simply enjoy the pres- ence of others.
We use words to represent the tangible and give form to the intangible. But when we become quiet inside, we experience the present for what it really is, without the necessity of assigning language to it. Words are not reality itself; they are merely a sym- bolic representation. Excess words dilute the intensity of our meaning. Remember that intensity times duration equals force. When one becomes established in the state of ver- bal santosha, words take on tremendous power and meaning because they truly em- body the present.
Physical Contentment (Sharirik Santosha)
Hatha Yoga is the most effective method of developing sharirik santosha. Bodily discontent results from imbalance. Hatha Yoga restores balance to the body-mind complex. Through asana practice, we discover which muscles are either too weak or too strong, too short or too long, and then bring them back into balance. This brings the bones into a harmonious relationship with each other, returning the skeletal structure to its proper and natural alignment. This in turn relieves stress on the internal organs so they can function optimally. Now the body can work when and how it needs to work and rest when it needs to rest--without struggle, complaint or unnecessary effort. The body is in a state of ease and contentment rather than in a state of dis-ease. One then experiences the joy of physical contentment.
The following three niyamas are collectively referred to in the Yoga Sutras as the defining elements of Kriya Yoga. Book II, Sutra I reads,“Tapaha-svadhyaya Isvara-pranidhana kriyayogah,” which translates as: Kriya Yoga is self-discipline or austerity (tapas), self- study (svadhyaya) and attuning our thoughts, words and deeds to our chosen concept of the sacred (Isvara-pranidhana). Like all of the yamas and niyamas, these three should be contemplated and practiced in the light of one another for a deeper understanding.
Mental Austerity (Baudhika Tapas)
Tapas is sometimes thought of as the heat created by the intensity of our practice. We can use the analogy of a magnifying glass focusing sunlight. The greater the light is diffused, the less heat it creates. The greater the degree of focus, the greater the heat that is created. Austerity is the narrowing and focusing of the elements of our lives. Heat without this focus can be destructive, randomly consuming anything in its path. When focused and directed, it can be used to burn away the impurities like the intense heat necessary to purify gold. Gold ore contains a complex mixture of materials. The purifi- cation process removes the dross from the gold. The process of removing the dross from our lives is austerity, and it requires self-discipline. The heat created in this process is tapas.
Intent is required to focus the mind. The greater the tendency for the mind to wander, the greater the intent or desire required to keep it focused. This friction between the mind’s desire to indulge and wander and our intent to keep it focused is the heat of tapas. Thinking of this as a niyama is an interesting subject. Most people are not motivated to do anything without desire. Our desires direct us toward what we need to do to find balance. For example, when we are in need of food, we have the desire to eat. But this does not mean we should indiscriminately eat as much as possible. We need to understand the purpose of the desire and use the wisdom gathered by our observance of yama and niyama to guide us to balance. Like all of yoga, tapas seeks to find “just enough.” It is easy to go to extremes, letting ourselves lean to one side or the other. The austerity of tapas requires us to minimize excess in either direction and to rest in a state of balance.
Tapas is a very powerful, motivating force. We need to acknowledge our desires. They are a source of great energy. When we try to repress them, their heat remains present and seeks some form of expression. It is by acknowledging our desires that we have the opportunity to focus their energy to some healthy end. All of the yamas and niyamas help to provide parameters for a balanced expression of tapas. The word “enthusiasm” is from the Greek word “entheos” which means to be in, or inspired by, the divine. Tapas creates enthusiasm for life.
Verbal Austerity (Vachika Tapas)
Verbal tapas implies a great respect for the power of the spoken word. Can we be- come focused enough in our minds to know exactly what needs to be said? It necessi- tates the mind being emptied of extraneous chatter. When this is achieved, our words express the focus of our mind. An old proverb says, “Speak only when it is an improve- ment on silence.” We need to become focused and quiet enough inside to listen to life. As we do this, our words will have the power to penetrate to the heart of a situation. Reflect on the concept of sutra, which means the most concise thread of words possible to ex- press an idea. Excess words only diffuse communication.
Economy of words is a blessing for a yoga teacher. We need to be able to give the appropriate instructions in a reasonable amount of time. When a student can only hold a posture for a very limited length of time, we need to minimize our own agenda and understand what the student needs to hear at that moment.
Physical Austerity (Sharirik Tapas)
Physical tapas can be expressed through the qualities of the physical body as well as the qualities of our physical environment. We can look at the quantity and quality of the items in our living environment as an expression of our inner world. The things we have also have us. How many of our possessions are truly necessary for our health and happiness? How many exist because of habits that have outlived their usefulness?
Think of this concept in terms of how it relates to the physical body. Is the actual mass of your body too much or too little to function at its best? Do the various patterns of muscular tightness and use still have relevance or can they be released? In the practice of asana, heat is created in the body. This is part of the process of removing the obstructions in the body.
There is a style of asana practice called Vinyasa, in which each asana flows into the next without interruption. This style of practice can create substantial heat. Care must be taken to use this powerful technique wisely. Excess internal heat can dry out the visceral body, and if the practitioner is already too thin, tight or dry, this may not be the best style of practice. However, if one tends towards lethargy or being overweight, Vinyasa can be of great value. It is also a good idea to learn the details of the asanas before practicing in a Vinyasa format. Even though Vinyasa incorporates movement, it does not need to be practiced quickly. The breath should be the standard by which one’s pace is judged. One’s practice of Vinyasa should be adjusted to maximize the quality of the breath.
Reflect back on the yamas of non-stealing (asteya) and non-greed (aparigraha). They are particularly important techniques for the actualization of tapas.
Svadhyaya means self-study. It has been said that life is the best teacher. Svadhyaya is the technique of learning from life experiences. By disciplining and focusing the mind through yama and niyama, we develop a certain degree of objectivity. We begin to ob- serve the thought process as something we do and something we have, rather than as something we are. From the vantage point of an observer, we can begin to study our thought patterns. We can stand back and observe what is going on in our minds, eventually developing enough self-discipline and detachment from our mind to discern which thoughts are relevant and healthy and which are not. Through this pro- cess of reflection and self-study, we can determine how our mind has been affected by our life experiences and how our thoughts affect our life. With this knowledge we can begin to evaluate how to best utilize the content and qualities of our mind as tools for self-discovery. If the mind is clear and disciplined, it can be our greatest asset. If not, it will be our greatest challenge.
In yoga, emotions are considered to be a part of the mind. Some schools of psychology consider emotion a more primary experience than thought. Some of them would say that in order to get at the truth of an experience we need to observe it from a non- intellectual or even unstructured emotional perspective. This suggests that when we stop trying to structure and control our experiences, we will stop distorting them. But emotions seem to have greater intensity and duration than thoughts do, and therefore they have a greater force upon us, and they are often more self-destructive.
The Yogi seeks to see life as it is, not as she wants it to be. Yoga suggests that neither an intellectual nor an emotional perspective alone will yield true perception. Intellect and emotion must temper each other. The two must be balanced for true insight and intuition to develop.
Verbal Self-Study (Vachika Svadhyaya)
Verbal self-study is about being a good listener. It is about listening to ourselves. By slowing down the momentum of our thought processes, we not only cultivate a more concise style of speech but we also have enough space in our mind to actually listen to and evaluate what we are saying. As we begin to listen to our choice of words, we begin to understand what is really motivating our speech. It can be quite enlightening. By evaluating our language as objectively as we can, we gain insight into the predisposi- tions of our mind and emotions. The more repetition and intensity we give to specific words or ideas in our speech, the greater the likelihood that there is a lesson to be learned there.
Physical Self-Study (Sharirik Svadhyaya)
Your body is an expression of what is going on in your mind. Think back to the body you had as a very small child. If this is difficult to do, refresh your memory by watching a small child, observing how it lives in its body and in the world. Now reflect on the life experiences you have had that have transformed your body from that of a child to its current status. As you work through your asana practice, what you are actually doing is working through the body memories of everything you have thought and experienced from childhood to the present.
Imagine how much we can learn about ourselves as we work back through the body memories towards balance. It is not unusual to experience emotional responses in asana practice. As we begin to release the gripping in the body, the mental and emotional patterns that created the gripping in the first place may be relived. As we request muscles to work in ways that are no longer familiar, the things that were being avoided may resurface. This is a desirable and necessary part of the process of reintegration.
The physical body is a vehicle or tool for experiencing, focusing and learning about the consciousness which dwells within it. Our body can provide an astonishingly accu- rate window into what is really going on in our consciousness. We need to be willing to look through that window. The mind holds an image of who we think we are, but this image is often distorted. There needs to be a sincere desire for unfoldment in order to progress on the path of yoga. If not, the progress itself will become an obstacle. We begin finding all kinds of reasons not to practice when we start to see things about ourselves that do not fit comfortably into our self-image. We need to develop a willingness to look at every aspect of ourselves, past and present, and to learn from it in order to experience who we really are. This needs to be done with patience, wisdom and compassion.
-ISVARA PRANIDHANA- (ATTUNEMENT TO LIFE)
We will consider all three levels of Isvara pranidhana together. Most cultures have at some time developed a concept of divinity. It ranges from a concept of God, Reality or enlightenment, to a sense of the noblest expression of a human. Whatever our personal or cultural reference point, Isvara pranidhana suggests that we learn to evaluate all of our thoughts, words and deeds in the light of how they can reflect this concept. Isvara pranidhana is often described as attuning our thoughts, words and actions to this most noble, sacred concept.
We practice all of the other yamas and niyamas to enable ourselves to experience Isvara pranidhana. They are guidelines and practices that help us to fully express our humanity. As we cultivate this feeling of attunement to the Divine, it motivates us more and more to embody and ultimately become one with the sacred — which is life.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF YOGA PRACTICE - PART I
Yoga is a vast and ancient subject. It is both an art and a science. It is an art which relies on a profound depth of perception and intuition. It is a science which employs a methodology not based on belief. Yoga utilizes a system of techniques that yields specific results, whether you believe it will or not.
Yogic philosophy teaches that what most people consider to be reality is, in fact, only the most obvious manifestation or experience of existence. The Buddhists some- times use the terms big reality and little reality to differentiate between our reality (little reality), which is defined by time, and Reality (big reality), which is transcendent of time.The word yoga is from the Sanskrit language. It has its root in the word yuj, which means to yoke, integrate, or unite. The premise of yoga is that this state of integration or unity, the big reality, is our true nature. When we experience things as separate, we are seeing things only as they appear within the parameters of time (little reality).
Not long ago in Western science, it was thought that all matter was composed of atoms made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. It was believed that these were the smallest particles of matter possible until someone split the atom. Our view of the mate- rial world has never been the same. Hundreds of subatomic particles have now been identified. The current subatomic theory explains what we think of as matter is actually energy with form, or force fields that have the illusion of form. We accept these forms as reality because the experience of our existence is defined by them, creating our own little reality.
Time, Space, and the Concept of Maya
The current atomic theory has some close parallels to yogic thought. Yoga has the concept of maya, which is often defined as illusion, though this is not the best definition. A better definition might be that which is temporal or impermanent. The ocean is some- times used to illustrate the idea of maya. The ocean is a symbol of wholeness or totality, the big reality. Out of this wholeness a wave appears, which has momentum, form, and the appearance or illusion of an individual identity. The wave sustains its existence for a period of time, becoming a little reality. Then it dissolves back into the ocean, back into the whole. In yoga, this concept of the illusion of separateness (maya) is used to suggest that our physical body, our thoughts and emotions, our mind, and our spirit are little waves, just different temporal manifestations of a common whole—not separate at all.
Time is a measurement between two events. Space is a measurement between two objects. Because we live in a realm which is defined by the duality of time and space, things appear as separate from one another. Because we perceive time as linear, we perceive things in sequence rather than occurring all at once, as we would in a reality which is transcendent of time. In other words, it is the linear nature of our perception of the temporal that inhibits our awareness of the unity of all things. The task proposed by yoga is to volitionally reunite our consciousness, which is defined by its perception of temporality, with the oneness that is defined by eternity.
The Difference Between Eternity and Infinity
In yoga there is a difference between eternity and infinity. Infinity can be defined as an unending sequence of events in time. It is analogous to beads on a necklace which follow one another in a repetitious cycle that goes on forever. But infinity is still an aspect of time. Eternity, on the other hand, is analogous to the thread on which the beads are strung. The thread exists in every place in time and space at once. Eternity has no relation to time at all. It is completely transcendent of time and space.
The primary dualistic framework (maya) we have to deal with in our lives is that of time and space (temporality). As the parameters of this duality are fully balanced and integrated (yoga), we can begin to experience timelessness (eternity). On some intuitive level, we all seem to know that eternity exists. But because the vast majority of our cognitive faculties are defined by a perception of time and space, by name and form, any direct experience of eternity largely remains elusive.
Yoga accepts that we are functioning in this duality of time and space and offers us a clear and methodical system for the process of reintegration. Like most esoteric systems, yoga teaches ways to use the parameters of the temporal realm in which we live to transcend temporality itself and to experientially reintegrate with eternity.
Obviously, this necessitates that we work under the premise that we are not currently functioning as integrated beings. This is a concept that most of us seem to be able to accept intellectually but not emotionally. We seem to think we will find lasting happi- ness or fulfillment in the things of the temporal realm. Yet it is a mathematical truth that the only constant in the universe is change. To seek lasting fulfillment and happiness in something defined by change, as we do, would seem to be folly. Yet, as a species, we do it all the time. The technical term for this in yoga is avidya. Vidya means wisdom or knowledge. The prefix a denotes a negative form. So avidya means without wisdom or knowledge. Avidya is often translated as ignorance. It is also translated as forgetfulness or mistaking the temporal for the eternal.
Yoga is all about overcoming avidya. To this end, yoga offers techniques and guidelines to reintegrate the physical, psychological and spiritual levels of our being. It is necessary to work at each of these levels to create a complete experience of self. To work at any one level, without taking into consideration the others, will likely perpetuate an imbalance. Functioning in an imbalanced state necessitates effort and inevitably leads to fatigue and stress, making the practice of yoga difficult to sustain. In order to have the energy to sustain our practice, we must attain a balance at each of these levels.
In truth we are actually working on all of these levels at the same time but are unaware of it. Because our awareness is defined by sequence and duality, we normally only focus on one thing at a time. It is like being in a crowded room with many conversations occurring at once. All levels of existence are occurring simultaneously, but we can only effectively focus on one. Since most of our awareness is focused on the mental and physical levels most of the time, these would seem to be the best place to begin our path back to integration.
Samskaras: Predispositions from the Past
Even a small amount of reflection reveals that our physical body, our mind and our emotions are not working in harmony. Each seems to have its own agenda. Whichever is in charge at a given moment seems to make the decisions about what gets done, almost always without taking into consideration the best interests of the other two. The primary motivating source of our thoughts and actions resides in the subtlest facets of the mind, commonly called the subconscious and unconscious minds. For most of us very little, if any, of this part of our consciousness is perceived. Therefore, we need to look for clues about what is really going on below the threshold of consciousness within the things that we can see: our body, our conscious mind, and the circumstances of our lives.
The current status of our physical body is the net result of all we have thought, felt and done in our present life, tempered and biased by the predispositions of our mind and body which we brought with us into this incarnation. In yoga, these predispositions are called samskaras. Like time and space, our body and mind create an inseparable duality. They act as the interface between the eternal and the temporal. They are vehicles, or sheaths, through which consciousness interacts with the world. Observing our body and mind can teach us a great deal about how we live and have lived.
The Five Primary Functions Necessary for Human Life
There are five primary actions which we perform in order to sustain our existence in the physical realm: eating, drinking, sleeping, breathing, and eliminating toxins and waste products. Each of these actions can be thought of as a primary technique to be used on the path to reintegration. Their relative importance or potency can be evaluated by reflecting on how long each can be suspended before our body stops functioning.
For example, the quality, quantity and regularity of what we eat and how we eat it has a profound effect on how we experience our lives. Our mental and emotional states affect our body chemistry and, consequently, our ability to digest, absorb and eliminate food. If these three functions are not in balance, our health can be compromised. If the health of the body is compromised, our sleep pattern, our attitude, and even our breath will likely be affected. These, in turn, can easily affect our mental and emotional states, setting up a self-perpetuating cycle towards illness. Unquestionably, our mental, emotional and physical health affects our ability to function in the world, and any imbalance on these levels can interfere with our ability to see ourselves and our lives with clarity.
To gain more objectivity and self-awareness, yoga practice begins with a system of ethical guidelines for our conduct. These guidelines take the form of the yamas and niyamas, which are two of the most important tools we can use to sustain the positive aftereffects of our asana practice. Remember, the physical body is the net result of our past thoughts, words and deeds. Observing yama and niyama creates a positive momentum which serves to sustain the balance our hatha practice yields. The degree to which we have actualized yama and niyama in our lives will determine the relative state of balance or imbalance we sustain from our hatha practice.
Patanjali’s Definition of Yoga
Our attitude is probably the greatest single influence we have over our lives. To learn to use our attitude to our best advantage, we need to better understand the mecha- nism of the mind. In Book I, Sutra II, Patanjali gives a concise definition of what yoga is really all about. He says, Yogas citta vritti-nirodaha, which translates: “Yoga is the cessation or inhibition (nirodaha ) of the fluctuations and variations (vrittis) of the mind (citta).” This means yoga is the experience of consciousness without the fluctuations of the mind. It is perceiving Life without any subjective interpretation of it. It is momentarily seeing Life as it is. This implies that consciousness, as we normally experience it, is filtered through the perceptions of our mind, and the biases, thoughts and emotions that dwell it. The obstacles to pacifying these fluctuations of the mind (vrittis) are called klesas. There are five vrittis and five klesas listed in the Sutras, which will be discussed in detail in future articles.
The Importance of the Breath
Of the five actions needed to sustain life in the physical world, the one that can be suspended for the shortest period of time, without adverse affect, is the breath, and it is therefore the most essential. The quality of the breath affects our nervous system and body chemistry as well as our mental and emotional states. Consequently, every other aspect of our lives is affected by the quality of the breath.
Because we breathe virtually all the time, it is easy for us to overlook the importance of the breath. However, there is an entire limb of yoga dedicated to pranayama, which is the control of the life force. Though we can control prana in many ways, the breath is regarded as the primary tool.
To begin understanding and becoming aware of the intricacies of the breath, we first need to become profoundly aware of our physical body. This necessitates bringing our physical body into a state of balance and harmony. The harmonious balance of the body and breath provides the foundation for health on all levels.
To demonstrate the interrelationship of the body and mind, try this simple experiment. Begin by either sitting or standing. Let the shoulders drop down and forward, collapsing the sternum. At the same time, frown and harden the eyes and the tongue. Now try to think joyous thoughts. It is not impossible, but it is not as easy as it would be if you were smiling. Happy thoughts do not easily reside in an unhappy body, just as miserable thoughts cannot easily reside in a jubilant body. Even if we are reasonably happy in an unhappy body, imagine how much happier we would be in a jubilant body.
Hatha: The Integration of Opposites
This brings us to the subject of Hatha Yoga. The two syllables of HA and THA are symbolic of the dualities in life. Choose any pair of opposites, up/down, positive/neg tive, stability/mobility, front/back, etc., and they will have some correspondence to HA/THA. Yoga is the balance and integration of polarities. The system of Hatha Yoga utilizes the body and breath as the primary vehicles to rebalance our being, at the same time acknowledging that the body, breath, and mind are reflections of each other.
It is interesting to note that in several of the contemporary dialects of India the word hatha means to be obstinate, an attitude that may be necessary to cultivate as we try to transcend the pull of our habits. This does not mean obstinate in the negative sense of being stubborn, but rather resolved and resolute on one’s path toward yoga.
Perceiving the Biases of our Body and Mind
The biases we have accumulated since birth in our body and mind are many and varied. We entered the world as infants. Normally this means that our body and prana were in a reasonably balanced state, and therefore, our experience of the world was relatively open and free of bias. Then we began to grow up. During this process, we learned to live within the parameters of our world in order to function harmoniously. These parameters may differ dramatically from culture to culture, but despite the fact that they are subjective, we learn to accept them as our reality. Not only are we taught these parameters, but we are also taught how to react to them.
In addition to the biases of this lifetime, yoga points out that we also carry within us samskaras, behavioral patterns that existed before birth. As we go through life, we react not only in our minds but in our bodies as well. As demonstrated by our frowning experiment, our bodies carry memories of things in the same way that our minds do. Most of these past experiences still live on within us, influencing our body and mind. We can attempt to balance these issues on a psychological level alone, but the memories in our body will tend to keep pulling us back into a particular pattern.
Hatha Yoga sees the body as a map or reflection of the consciousness living within it. The way the body is aligned and/or misaligned speaks volumes about how its consciousness has experienced life. This can be perceived physically by observing how synchronous the body is with the movement of prana within it. The body is an expression of what we have thought, felt and done in life up to this point.
Hatha Yoga is not only about stretching, though it will help to increase your range of motion. It is not only about strengthening, though it will help you to become stronger. It is about identifying imbalances, as revealed in the body, and restoring balance at the physical, pranic, mental and spiritual levels. The only reason we experience ourselves as stiff or weak is because of some imbalance.
Through the practices of yoga we can minimize the biases of our body and mind. This permits us to maximize our ability to focus our awareness and to become clearly aware of what that focused consciousness perceives. In so doing, we can experience life in its clearest and most unobstructed form—in essence, returning to the pure experience of a child. This state of childlike purity is the baseline upon which we build our practice. As the body ages, we should learn to sustain this state rather than lose it. Our physical body should become a teacher, helping to honestly reveal what is really going on mentally and emotionally. This could be compared to driving a car in which our perception of our speed is subjective, but the speedometer tells us what is actually happening. Where our mind can easily delude itself, our body cannot. We can learn to use our body to gain deeper insights. All that is required is patience, compassion, perseverance, detachment and a sincere desire for truth. A state of yoga exists when the mind, body and spirit are harmoniously moving in the same direction.
Prana and Hatha Yoga
On a subtler level, our Hatha Yoga practice helps us to rebalance the pranic body. The way we direct the movement of prana is a more relevant quality of asana practice then flexibility or strength.The articulation and alignment of our body are more relevant than our range of motion or strength because alignment affects the flow of prana. This is important because the pranic body will have effects on our consciousness even after the death of the physical body. The organization of prana has a direct relationship with consciousness and therefore the creation of the samskaras.
The practice of alignment that begins in the body itself leads us to aligning our bodies with our mind, and our mind with the infinite, and ultimately the eternal. That which is eternal in yoga is called spirit. It is the immortal part of you. You need not seek it, you need only remove the obstacles to a direct experience of your true nature. Enlightenment is becoming one with the eternal—a direct experience of Life. It is the aware- ness that your nature and the nature of Life are one, just like the ocean and the wave are truly one. As we eliminate the biases in our body and mind, the imbalances that exist there will more easily fall away. Yoga provides the tools that we may employ towards this goal, and it is to this end that we dedicate our practice.
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