Today, the 21st of June, is International Yoga Day. In this article I’ll explore the deeper aspects of Yoga, so that you can practice yoga for life (and not only for your body).
In the West, Yoga has been popularized as a physical exercise – a set of postures (asanas) that has a calming effect, and great health benefits. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg. We can say that postures is to Yoga what algebra is to Mathematics – a basic and introductory step.
The whole picture is this: yoga is a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual discipline, and also a way of life. It is an integrated system of self-transformation whose ultimate goal is spiritual liberation or enlightenment, but which can also be used to attaining other benefits.
There is nothing wrong with approaching Yoga only for its physical benefits, just as there is no problem with learning only algebra. However, the depth of the transformation you will experience depends on how deeply you want to go into this science.[Note: Throughout the text I am including in parenthesis some technical terms in Sanskrit, for the yoga geeks out there. Other than that, this is an introductory text, targeting both the secular reader and the spiritual seeker. You can skip the first part if you are not interested in history.]
Brief History of Yoga
Yoga was developed in ancient India, approximately during the period of 3300 to 1900 BCE. For several centuries it was an oral tradition only – and in some aspects it continued to be like such for millennia to come.
The earliest written material about yoga is found in the Rig Veda, which was first written down between 1500 and 1200 BCE. On the other hand, some scholars point out that astronomical references in that book indicate that is must have been at least partially written in the fourth millennium BCE.
Yoga deeply influenced the development of several religious movements in Asia, including Buddhism (Buddha was a disciple of two Yogis), Jainism, Taoism, Sikhism and Sufism. Throughout the centuries, many different schools or types of Yoga have developed. The main ones are:
- Raja Yoga / Patanjali Yoga
- Jnana Yoga
- Bhakti Yoga
- Karma Yoga
- Hatha Yoga (including all it’s modern developments)
- Kriya Yoga
- Tantra Yoga (including Mantra, Kundalini, Laya, Nada, and Hatha yogas)
Here is an interesting documentary covering some basic concepts in each of these paths.
In the late 19th century, Yoga made its way to the West through Swami Vivekananda, who spoke at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. This kindled a strong interest in Yoga, and opened doors for many other masters to visit the US and Europe.
Many Levels of Yoga
There are four core aspects of Yoga practice: body, breath, mind, and life. These levels are an alternative reading of the eight “rungs” of Yoga, codified by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
The yoga postures (asanas), together with the practice of certain body locks (bandhas) and purification exercises (shatkarma), help us keep our body healthy, strong, flexible, and full of vitality. This aspect is what is most commonly known of Yoga, but it’s far from being the whole of it.
Some of the general benefits associated with the practice of asanas are:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Lowers blood sugar levels
- Lowers production of cortisol (stress hormone)
- Increases flexibility, core strength, and balance
- Increases vitality and energy
- Boosts your metabolism
- Calms down the amygdala (the center of fear and anxiety in your brain)
- Improves sleep quality
- Improves posture
- Improves immune system
- Reduces chronic pain
Each pose also has particular health benefits and therapeutic effects. For example, the shoulder stand pose (sarvangasana) stimulates the thyroid gland, revitalises the ears and tonsils, and balances the digestive and endocrine systems.
From a secular point of view, a daily and well-rounded practice of Yoga postures is great preventive medicine, packed with several health benefits.
From a spiritual point of view, the goals of the physical practices are to:
- Calm your body and mind before meditation
- Prepare your body for sitting motionless during long meditation sessions
- Free your body from disease, so that the practice need not be interrupted or weakened
- Make you more resistant to cold, heat, hunger and pain, so that you are less distracted in practice
- Increase your vitality (because going into deep meditation requires tremendous energy)
- Increase your life-span (so you can meditate more)
Indeed, a healthy and strong body is a great foundation for deep meditation practice.
On the other hand, when we practice the asanas carefully, these yoga poses themselves are a form of dynamic meditation. For that, turn off music and distractions, keep your mind focused on your body and breath, relax into the asanas, and remain at ease in the present moment.
The breath and the mind are very tightly connected, so by working on the breath you can change your mental states, and vice-versa. Also, it is also much easier to calm your breath than to calm your mind, because the mind is rather subtle and volatile. So breath work is a powerful tool for physical health, emotional wellbeing, and meditation.
There are many different pranayama techniques, for different purposes. In general, though, they all involve taking a seated posture and breathing deeply (usually through the nose), in a specific pattern. In pranayama we
- use abdominal breathing rather than chest breathing
- make our breath as even, deep and smooth as possible
- usually make our exhalation longer than the inhalation, to induce relaxation
- learn to work with breath retention for extended periods of time (more advanced)
Below are some instructions for a very simple pranayama practice that anyone can do. I call it “Square Breathing”.
- Breathe in counting 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds
- Breathe out for 4 seconds
- Hold empty for 4 seconds
That makes up one cycle. Do 12 cycles like this, and your mind will be in a different state. It takes only about 4 minutes, and you can do it anytime, anywhere.
In this practice, breathing in and out should be done through the nose, and be as deep, even and silent as possible. If 4 seconds is too hard, you can do 3 seconds; if it’s too easy, you can increase the count to 5 or more.
From a secular point of view, the goal of pranayama is to oxygenate the blood, regulate your emotions, calm down the nervous system, and strengthen your rational brain (prefrontal cortex). Among other things, pranayama has been proven to help recover from PTSD (here and here).
From a spiritual point of view, the goals of pranayama are to:
- Pacify the mind, making it calm, focused and introverted (pratyahara);
- Increase your lifespan and health;
- In the traditions of Kundalini Yoga, Kriya Yoga and Tantra Yoga: to purify the nadis, balance the vital energies of prana and apana, make prana flow through the center channel (sushumna) and awaken the kundalini. For these purposes, pranayama is accompanied with specific visualisations, mantras, locks (bandhas) and other yogic processes (all too technical to explain in this short article).
To explore some of the scientific reasons behind pranayama, I recommend this video, by Dr. Roger Cole PhD.
The major focus of Yoga is actually meditation, not postures. All yoga practices exist to prepare you to meditate effectively, and to support your meditation practice. When there is stillness and ease in the body (asanas), and evenness in the breath (pranayam), the mind is in a much better position to meditate properly.
As you can imagine, there are many methods of Yoga meditation. The most typical ones are:
- Chakra meditation. This means focusing the mind on one of the seven main energy centers in the body, called chakras. This focus is usually accompanied with specific visualizations or mantras.
- Mantra meditation. Also called japa, in this meditation the yogi keeps repeating a sacred word during the whole session, while at the same time focusing on a particular feeling related to that word. Examples of mantras are OM, So-Ham, Ram, and Om Namah Shivaya.
- Trataka. This involves fixing the gaze on an external object, typically a candle, image or a symbol (yantras). It is done with eyes open, and then with eyes closed, to train both the concentration and visualization powers of the mind. After closing the eyes, you should still keep the image of the object in your “mind’s eye”.
The techniques also vary depending on the yogic tradition. In Tantra Yoga there is a great variety of meditations involving visualisation and energy work. In Bhakti Yoga, God is the object of concentration. In Jnana Yoga, it is the Absolute, or pure awareness.
Generally speaking, the yogic tradition has great flexibility as to meditation methods. It is said that the yogi can meditate “on whatever he/she prefers”. The general approach, though, is always concentration meditation.
From a secular perspective, the purpose of meditation practice is to improves one’s health, well-being, and performance (see here for meditation benefits).
From a spiritual perspective, the goals of meditation are to
- (1) Purify the mind from negative emotions and thoughts;
- (2) Liberate you from limiting beliefs and identifications;
- (3) Achieve the superconscious state of Samadhi, which is Yoga’s highest tool;
- (4) Ultimately achieve realization/enlightenment/liberation, which is also termed Self-Knowledge or union with God, depending on the philosophical metaphysics behind each Yoga style.
Here are the 10 Life Principles of Yoga. These principles are not imposed. Rather, their value must be discovered by each person individually, in one’s practice and life.
Five Principles (yamas)
- Nonviolence (ahimsa). Not causing harm to other beings or to ourselves through our body, words, and thoughts. Related virtues: compassion, kindness, modesty, love.
- Truthfulness (satya). Not speaking falsehood. Also involves being truthful to yourself and sincere in your relationships. Related virtues: honesty, integrity, sincerity, reliability.
- Non-stealing (asteya). Not taking what is not given. Related virtues: fairness, respect.
- Continence (brahmacharya). For monks and ascetics (who invented Yoga), this means celibacy. For “city yogis”, it means not obsessing over sex, and also being responsible in ones sexual relationships. Related virtues: self-control, moderation, contentment.
- Non-possessiveness (aparigraha). Not being attached to things, and living a simple life. It also means cultivating a mind free from greed and cravings. Related virtues: non attachment, contentment, simplicity.
Five Disciplines (niyamas)
- Purity (saucha). Keeping the body clean, and the mind free of negative emotions and thought patterns.
- Contentment (santosha). Cultivating an attitude of acceptance. Being cheerful and satisfied, here and now, regardless of external circumstances.
- Self-Discipline (tapas). Intensive practice that stretches your limits and creates inner transformation. “Tapas” literally means heat.
- Self-Study (swadhyaya). Introspection and self-reflection. It is the study of oneself, of one’s behavior patterns and intentions. It also means study of yogic texts.
- Self-Surrender (ishvara-pranidhana). Surrender to a supreme Reality. For some this means faith in God; for others it is surrender into the source of being, the Self or Awareness.
In the beginning these principles might be felt as a limitation, or a sacrifice. But as you progress in your practice, you see that they are intelligent guidelines to help you make the best decisions in every circumstance, both for yourself and for those around you.
With time we start seeing that whenever we don’t follow these guidelines, we experience some sort of trouble as a result. When that happens, following these life disciplines becomes the same as following your bliss.
Yoga For Life
Yoga can give you much more than a flexible body. If you are ready to go deep, you will find a system of practice that can help you achieve mastery over yourself and great inner transformation. This is yoga for life!
Yoga is already quite popular in the West. My hope is that during this International Yoga Day we can help the deeper aspects of this art be more widely known and practiced. Especially meditation and the lifestyle disciplines.
Please help me raise awareness by sharing this post.
[Images attribution: www.omcostarica.com (OM), activehandsyoga.com (yoga historic painting), freepik.com (asanas)]