Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one's being, from bodily health to self-realisation. Yoga means union - the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one's actions.
- B K S Iyengar, Astadala Yogamala
The word, yoga, originates from the Sanskrit word "yug," which means to yoke or bind. In yoga, balance is achieved through the union of mind and body, and by practicing yoga we achieve a personal centre of gravity, harmony and peace in our lives.
The concept of poise
Nature comprises of appositional forces, the interplay of which releases the energy that animates all living things. Through the practice of yoga, we bring under control the appositional forces within us so that we are serene, and relaxed.
Asana. Asanas are not mere exercises. They do not take our breath away or make us hyper-ventilate. Yoga has 84 classical asanas [poses] with a variety of combinations. All asanas are performed in a systematic manner where our breath is co-ordinated with slow and rhythmic movements. During the asanas, we use the body as a guide to tell us how deeply we can go into a posture, when we experience fatigue, and how to move from one pose to the next without tension.
Each asana provides different benefits. For example, the sarvangasana or Shoulder Stand invigorates and rejuvenates the whole body, making the spine supple and the legs free from varicose veins. Also, each asana has certain contra-indications. For example, the Shoulder Stand should not be done by those who have high blood pressure, or by pregnant women.
Pranayama. Yoga makes us conscious of our breath. One important difference which is taught in yogic breathing is not to suck our stomachs in as we breathe in. As we inhale, we fill our lungs and breathe deeply to push our stomachs out. As we exhale, we throw our breath out, emptying our lungs and pulling our stomachs in.
Our need to focus on breathing relates itself to prana or life force. It is a barometer reflecting our state of mind. Upper chest or shallow breathing occurs when we are stressed, anxious or frightened. If we continue to breathe this way for long periods of time, we become lethargic and depressed. To counter this, yoga recommends deep diaphragmatic breathing. Long, deep breaths relieve stress and tension. Ujjayi, kapalabhati, sitali, nadi shodhana, and bhastrika, are all examples of breathing techniques in yoga. Since breath is the bridge that connects both mind and body, we can control our breathing to bring about balance.
Yoga brings us balance because it -
- Makes our bodies flexible and adaptive
- Our breathing deep and calm
- Our minds focused and clear
- Creates inner awareness
- Helps us discipline ourselves
- Achieves beauty and harmony suited to our individual self.
Meditation. We close our eyes, sit calmly and focus on the point between our eyebrows. This is the ajna or intellectual centre. Our breathing is normal. We allow all thoughts to come and go without disturbing us.
Meditation is the process through which we learn to concentrate on the present with what is termed "mindfulness." By concentrating on the ajna, breathing in and out, and sitting in a calm posture, we allow ourselves to relax. At the same time, our concentration increases, making our mind less fragmented. With practice, we can attain calm and mental clarity.
As Swami Satchidananda said, "You can't control the waves, but you can learn to surf!" Research has shown that meditation increases the feel-good hormone, endorphins, and decreases the stress hormone, cortisol, leading to better health.
Chanting. The word Om, made up of three Sanskrit letters aa, au, and ma, combined together makes the sound Aum or Om. During yoga, we chant this word for it is the primal sound which helps us connect with the deepness within. As we continue with this chanting, we reach a state of self-realisation and bliss. If we close our eyes and continue to repeat this word while breathing consciously, we also reach an altered state where mundane things cease to exist and, therefore, lose their power to throw us off-balance.
Ritual. The yogic way of life requires a disciplined approach. Yoga is to be done preferably in the early morning hours, after waking up. It needs to be done on an empty stomach [no meal should have been taken for four hours before exercise]. Loose and comfortable clothing should be worn. A non-slip mat should be used for exercising. Certain exercises should not be done by people with specific ailments. Most important - you ought to solicit the guidance of a yoga teacher. Done everyday, with conscious awareness of all the good it brings to our body and mind, yoga becomes a way of life.
Take a moment
Breathe in, open your hands and as you breathe out, close your hands to form a loose fist. Do this for a minute, focusing on what you are experiencing. Feel the difference as this simple co-ordination of your breath and body movements help your mind and body come into balance.
Yoga's weight bearing postures, for example, create strong bones, the spine becomes supple, metabolism is balanced and stress is reduced.
Yoga helps us learn to accept, and let go. In the din of everyday life, it leads us to hear the music of our self. Most of all, it helps us feel centred and balanced, harnessing our energies with calmed focus.
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