Yoga can mean different things to different people. For many it is a way of life. For others it is a way to keep the body free from different ailments. For some it involves the practice of relaxation and meditation. However, according to the theory of Yoga, the teaching to which I have been exposed, and from my own experience, Yoga is, more than anything, a way of unfolding our hidden qualities and awakening our dormant faculties.
The word 'yoga' literally means 'to unite', and people interpret this unity in different ways. Some say it is the uniting of individual consciousness with higher consciousness. Others believe it to be a state of realisation. However, practically speaking it is a state of unity, balance and equilibrium between body and brain, brain and mind, mind and spirit. When all the aspects of personality are in balance our personality expresses itself in a different way.
We hear a lot about altered slates of consciousness, but have we really thought about what this means? Any change in the normal behaviour of the mind can be said to be an altered state. When we get angry it is an altered state of consciousness, when we go to sleep it is another altered state, and when we express ourselves we create altered states. There are some experiences which bring the mind down towards the gross, instinctive and rational plane, and other experiences that go beyond the instinctive and rational level, which are probably best expressed by the term 'intuitive states of mind.'
Yoga helps us with the different situations and experiences with which we are confronted. Some are very pleasing and we feel elated, but when we are confronted with depressing situations we let them get us down. During our whole life from birth till death, our mind fluctuates between these two extremes. One such extreme is of happiness, satisfaction, joy. The other extreme is of sadness and frustration. Our thoughts, emotions, feelings, behaviour and attitudes are always fluctuating, moving from one side of the scale to the other, and during these fluctuations our energies become unbalanced.
By saying 'unbalanced' I do not mean that we lose control over ourselves, but that we are unable to harness the potential of our personality, and our mind stays in a state of dissipation, unable to concentrate, unable to become one-pointed or focussed. It is at this time that, by practising yoga we are able to gain a better control over our intellect, emotion and behaviour.
Of course, there are three aspects of yoga. One is the physical aspect where we try to harmonise the body and become aware of the different types of imbalance within the physical structure which cause various types of stress and tension. Due to muscular and physical stress, a state of imbalance occurs which becomes the cause of different aches and pains, psychosomatic and somopsychic disorders, where the harmony of the body is distorted.
For example, how many types of physical movements do we go through during the day? Just try to imagine. We sit in a chair; our body is bent. We sit on the door; our body is bent. We sit on the bed; our body is bent. Most of the movements that the body experiences in the hours of our waking state create a lot of physical tension. How many times do we actually stretch our body? How many times do we actually provide traction to the body during the day? Very few. How many times do we twist our body in a controlled way without any jerk? Very few. How many times do we make a conscious effort to curve the body backward? Very rarely. We can say that, apart from sleeping flat in bed, most of the time we spend in a forward bend posture. Right now you are bending forward. Your spine may be straight and upright but your legs are bent. This type of posture creates some type of tension.
This imbalance creates a definite distortion in the functioning of the internal organs and systems. The digestive system is affected without doubt, unless we have a very powerful digestive tract. The physical aspect of yoga aims to eliminate this imbalance by prescribing various postures or asana. Asana are smooth, controlled movements which are done slowly and with awareness, to provide the maximum stretch to the body in every direction.
When we begin yoga we do not start with difficult practices like the head stand, but with very simple practices like moving the fingers and toes, the hands, wrists and arms, just to gain a deeper understanding about the state of our body, about our muscular, nervous and skeletal systems. Thus we become aware of where we are stiff, where we are tight and how best we can remove that stiffness and tightness. It is this gradual working with the body that leads to the discovery of the body, which is the main object in the physical aspect of yoga. Here we are not talking about any specific yoga, such as Hatha or Raja yoga, but the physical aspect of Yoga in general.
Apart from the physical structure, within our body we experience levels of energy. When we wake up we feel fresh, energetic but by the end of the day we are feeling down, low in energy, tired. If we again relax for some time and the body is able to recuperate, again the level of energy rises and we feel okay. The state of tiredness decreases. The level of energy also increases with the state of physical relaxation and decreases when the body is in a state of tension.
When we practise asana, by stretching the body in different directions we ate also relaxing the muscular Structure, tissues, bones and nervous system, and massaging the internal organs like the liver, kidneys, intestines, stomach. It is a gentle toning. In this way the whole body is brought into a state of balance. When we feel balanced, inside, physically free from tension and stress, free from stiffness and tightness, then that physical harmony influences the activity of the brain.
'Asana', a Sanskrit word roughly translated as 'posture' does not literally mean 'exercise' or 'posture', but 'at ease and relaxed'. You could be standing totally upside down on one arm, in a state void of tension or stress. If you are able to achieve that then you can say, 'I am doing an asana'. So what the whole thing ultimately boils down to, is knowing one's body.
Apart from asana there are practices of pranayama, breathing techniques. The breath is intimately related with the states of emotion and intellect. We take our breath for granted and fail to understand that by harmonising the breathing pattern we can also influence and alter the pattern of our emotions, mind and intellect. When you have felt afraid or angry you must have seen how your breath becomes, but when you are relaxed, tension-free, how do you breathe? Slowly and deeply. The breath definitely controls certain aspects of the nervous system, the activity of the brain, and emotional and intellectual expression. The practice of pranayama give us voluntary control over our intellectual and emotional activities.
Up to now we have only been talking about the physical side of yoga. Then comes the mental and possibly the most important area of yoga. Because when we study yogic literature we find that yoga is a form of psychotherapy. The whole process of yoga eventually deals with knowing, understanding and realising the mind.
Another type of stress is emotional. Emotional stress plays a very important role in our life. Intellectual stress plays a very important role also. Both types of stress deal with the feeling of security, inhibition, inferiority or superiority complexes and our ability to express ourselves. Many things are involved here, not just one. Through various practices of relaxation and concentration which aim to focus the attention at one point, we are able to overcome the state of emotional stress.
Relaxation is definitely something which we all require. We cannot avoid it. Sleep is a form of relaxation, but what type of relaxation is it? Yoga says that in order to relax one should have the ability to disassociate from one's thoughts, feelings, emotions and expressions. When we go to bed at night do we go to sleep atone? Think about it. Are we alone when we go to bed at night? I am not talking about one's wife or other people, or the dog who sleeps in the same bed with us. When we go to bed we carry our problems with us. We carry our thoughts, frustrations, anxieties, and stress. So, when sleep comes we do not know, and if the level of stress is high we pass a very restless night. If the level of stress is low we are not even aware of how we passed the night - all the lights are out.
Yoga says that in order to relax totally one should be able to go to bed alone. Before you go to bed put your thoughts aside on your bedside table. Just like you take off your glasses and watch, remove your thoughts and keep them aside. Remove the stress and keep it beside you. Just go to bed by yourself. By doing this we become more aware of our mental requirements and of what is needed for proper physical and psychological relaxation.
Remember one item which is needed, the ability to observe our state of mind - I am having this type of thought, I am undergoing this type of physical experience, I am passing through this emotional experience, I am undergoing this conflict, this tension - full awareness of body and mind.
As you throw off the day in preparation for sleep, become aware of the different parts of the body (for example, the breath) and acknowledge that they exist. Become aware of the mental activity in terms of thoughts - what types of thoughts are coming? How are they affecting me? It is a process of becoming awake to our inner mind, watching the mind, observing the mind.
Concentration is not meditation. Concentration is just focussing the dissipated energies of mind, and when these dissipated energies are focused the resulting concentrated awareness becomes willpower. The concentrated mind becomes the experience of self-confidence, and a new vista, a new perspective of life and work opens up. This is the mental aspect of yoga.
Many people stop here, but there are some who go further, to the spiritual aspect of yoga. The meaning of spirituality in Yoga is defined as experiencing the spirit, the energy. Spirit is not a form of ghost that we find haunting houses and wharfs at night, but the energy, the driving force, the motivation behind every action and experience in life. Some people are a ware of it and some are not, but there is a driving force behind our every thought, feeling, attitude and action, and it is becoming aware of that which is the spiritual aspect of Yoga.
There are times when we become highly active. There are times when we become highly sensitive, passive or dynamic. Dynamism, vitality, energy is a definite force known as 'prana'. The fluctuations in our mood, in our experiences, represent low forms of energy that govern and direct the whole of our life.
Being passive, analytical, intuitive, aware, having a broad view and vision are the expressions of a different type of energy. This second form of energy is known as 'chitta'. Combining these two energies, prana and chitta, the physical aspect and the mental aspect, we are able to experience life in its totality, and that is the ultimate aim of yoga. Some people may say, 'No, realisation is the ultimate aim of yoga'. That is their view, but when we have to live in society when we have obligations and commitments to fulfil, yoga means 'unity of the physical and mental energies'. The development of the personality then takes place from there.