There is definitely a big interest in Yoga world-wide. We hear about it, we see it on television, and sometimes we practice it. The physical aspects of Yoga are well known all over the world as Hatha yoga, and people have used it for trimming their waistline, as a type of gymnastics, and as a way to improve their physical well-being etc., and I do not think there is a community or society which has not heard the word "Yoga", even though they may have different views and ideas about it.
One day a lady came to me and said, "Yoga is a very interesting subject", (it was in a place totally new to Yoga and not many people knew about it), and I was quite happy to meet somebody who showed some interest in Yoga, so I asked her, "Do you practise it?". She said, "No, my husband watches it". I thought maybe it was on television so I said, "Oh yes, what channel?". She said, "No channel. We live on top of a cliff and there is this young girl who does her yoga asana every morning. My husband watches her". So at least she knew about it.
We tend to look at Yoga traditionally. I am not talking about the different views that people hold, but the traditional aspect of Yoga, because it is with this aspect that we as sannyasins are concerned. Traditionally people have looked to Yoga as a way of life in which they can best express their potential, their qualities, and therefore Yoga takes on three meanings on three different levels.
First let us look at the physical side of Yoga, which is what many people are interested in, in order to loosen up their bodies and experience the energy within the body. The postures, by stretching and exercising the muscles, tissues, bones and various other parts and organs of the body, release energy blocks in the physiological structure. Many people find it difficult to understand what an energy block is and we can probably best explain it as tension or stress in any specific part of the body.
The concept of energy in the body is not something new; it is something quite ancient, and Yoga does not simply view the body as something composed of matter. It views the body as a composition of energy and consciousness. The same energy that we experience in our head, the mind, can be experienced in different parts of the body, even the tip of the big toe. The same awareness, the same consciousness which is experienced in the head can be experienced in any other part of the body without any problem. Therefore, apart from the solid matter of the body, Yoga says the body is composed of energy and consciousness.
Science today is also coming to the understanding that the body or matter is nothing but energy. We have been able to see energy in solid matter, and the yogis have the same perception about the self, the personality, the body, the mind, and the various experiences of emotion and intellect. Yogis have always viewed the whole personality, including the body, emotions, intellect, awareness, memory, willpower, in fact the total personality, as an energy structure.
Energy manifests in many ways, but the source is always one, just as with electricity we can light a zero wait or a thousand watt bulb. They give us different quantities of light, but the source remains the same, electricity.
Sometimes there is an imbalance in different areas of the body, sometimes our muscles are affected, we get aches and pains. Sometimes our digestive system is affected, leading to indigestion, constipation, inability to digest and diarrhoea. Sometimes our respiratory system is affected due to various forms of allergy, humidity, dust, etc. Sometimes our nervous system is affected. So the different systems of the body are constantly facing changes in their normal behaviour pattern, and these changes cause imbalance in the body. Therefore our physical experiences differ, and physical experiences have an influence on the mind. Our emotions and attitudes are affected.
Just imagine trying to sit on top of a hot oven for one minute without moving and shuffling. It will definitely be an unpleasant experience. That minute will seem like an hour, and it will make us very restless wanting to get up because of the state of discomfort becoming more and more uncomfortable every second. If we continue to sit there what will happen? There will come a time when we will say, "Okay I've had enough, I'm getting out of this place". If someone forces us to sit on the hot oven what will happen? We will get angry, frustrated, even violent. Just a physical thing, sitting on a hot oven, has all these reactions. Physically, the nervous system is affected, the muscles and skin are affected, but apart from that the brain and emotions are also affected. We begin to experience anxiety, anger and our violent nature comes out. I am of course talking about an extreme condition.
So there is a link between body and brain, brain and mind, nobody can deny it. If by chance you are in a state of tension and stress, so much so that you are unable to sleep at night because of the conflict inside, the nerves will be shot. Not being able to sleep or relax for one night, the next day we will have a terrible hangover - our nerves will be frayed. Physical reactions take place, many times loss of hunger. So the mind definitely has a direct influence on the body.
Energy blocks can be experienced in any of the strata of our physical structure; the muscular system, nervous system, skeletal system or any other organ or part of the body. We have seen how acupuncture works; we might have a pain in the head but it can be relieved if needles are stuck in different parts of the body. Pain is muscular or nervous, so by sticking needles into the body how can we eliminate a muscular or a nervous pain? By re-channelling the flow of energy, the muscles, nerves and whole system is affected, and we get relief. If by re-channelling the energy we are able to alter the state of our muscular or nervous systems, or the state of our internal organs (stomach, liver, pancreas, intestines, lungs, heart, etc.) then we can understand how yoga postures naturally bring the body into a state of equilibrium and balance.
Yoga has a very simple theory. It says that if the body can create imbalances within itself then it also has the ability to get out of that state of imbalance. There are two aspects to it. When a state of imbalance is experienced by the body then what do we do? We immediately look for some external help. If there is a headache we take aspirin; if there is a stomach-ache we take antacid. We look outside to bring about a balance in the internal structure with the help of a pill or some other method. However, according to Yoga we should look inside ourselves and not outside. If we have ahead-ache we do one practice of yoga which balances the system and the headache is gone. If we have a respiratory problem, instead of using bronchial dilatory inhalers or sprays, we practice a posture; the imbalance goes and relief is felt. So in a sense we can say Yoga is a process of looking at oneself in order to experience a state of harmony and balance within the body, mind and total personality.
By providing a proper stretch, the practise of asana releases the blocks, and energy circulates throughout the system, but if there is a lack of energy then it is built up with the help of the breathing techniques, pranayama. The breath plays a very important role in our life without our knowledge. We have been breathing since the time of our birth until now and we will continue to breathe until the time of our death, and we experience breath as something external. Scientists are still trying to find out the relationship between breath and mind, because a relationship is definitely there. By observing one's breath, the length, the speed etc., we can determine the state of our emotions and intellect. We can know the activity of our brain and what type of experiences we are having simply by observing it, and we can alter and control cur moods, the moods of the emotions and the moods of the intellect.
When there is a lot of dissipation, distraction, and we are not able to focus the mind and become one-pointed, by simply observing the breath for a few minutes the mind suddenly becomes one-pointed. "When we are tense, or angry, if by chance we happen to retain a bit of our head and observe the breath, we will observe that it is coming out very quickly in short spurts, shallow or upper thoracic breathing. When we are relaxed on the other hand our breathing is slow and deep.
The breath raises the level of vitality. Breath is linked in a very peculiar way with the state of our nervous system. By breathing in slowly and deeply we can alter the state of our nervous system and influence the brain. We can alter the activity of the brain in terms of the brain waves and influence the mind and, who knows, maybe by influencing the mind we will also be able to influence the spirit. It is a possibility.
Yoga says that the breath is linked with prana, and "prana" means "vital force", "vital energy". Prana, which is experienced in the breath, is a very subtle process. Some people say that oxygen goes to the brain, some that the negative ions affect us positively. All these theories are correct, I am not denying them. Yoga does not deny them, because all of these ions in the air around us have a very definite influence on our personality. Oxygen has a vast impact on the body, negative ions influence the brain and induce the state of alertness and vitality, but prana is something different. It is the energy which is directly related with our life. One can stop breathing for forty minutes or one hour and still live.
One of the guru-brothers of our Guru Swami Satyananda is now a very old man of ninety-seven. His name is Swami Nadabrahmananda. He has the ability to stop breathing, and this was scientifically verified in the United States. They plugged his nose and placed electrodes all over his face. His mouth was taped, his ears were covered and his body was sprayed with a special spray, so there was no possibility that he would breathe through his pores. He was put hi an airtight glass chamber with a monkey and a candle, and there were instruments outside monitoring him. The candle flame went out after three or four minutes (you know what that means, the oxygen was all finished), the monkey became unconscious after about ten minutes due to the very high content of carbon in the glass case, but this ninety-seven year old Swami continued to sit there drumming. So there was physical exertion, it was not that he was meditating or anything of the sort. For forty minutes without breathing he was just drumming his time away.
Now this is not a yogic feat. I am not telling you this to say you can also do it if you practise yoga. No, I am just trying to say that prana when awakened in the body can do wonders, and this prana is not related with the breath at all, although breath initially controls and helps to awaken it.
When we practise pranayama, observe our breath or perform a set of yoga postures, apart from the release of energy and tension from different parts of the body we are also influencing the various centres known as chakras. Chakras are centres of energy, vitality or prana. Even in the thumb we have chakras. We balance these chakras and the prana is released. The release of this prana is experienced in the form of total balance in our entire personality, body, brain, mind. So we usually say that the practice of postures and breathing help to realign and re-balance the physical structure.
Now, coming to another aspect of Yoga which most people do not really think about but which probably is the most important aspect - the mental aspect. All the oriental philosophies have always stated that it is possible to control matter by means of the mind -"mind over matter", (not the ability to bend a knife or fork or spoon, that is a different thing altogether). The concept of mind over matter is having mental control over the body, and this is something that we should understand properly.
Awareness of the mind is a very important thing in Yoga. In day-to-day life we take our mind for granted and do whatever it demands from us. If the mind says, "go left", we go left, if the mind says, "go right", we go right, and we do not have the ability to say "no", If the mind says, "like this", we enjoy it; if the mind says "don't like this" we dislike it. That is because of the extrovert nature of our personality.
This particular tendency of mind is not conducive to the development of intuitive awareness. When the mind is externalised we are able to gain a lot of intellectual awareness, to analyse, criticise and understand. The intellect is the external manifestation of mind. The senses, awareness, thought, memory, willpower, emotional expression - these represent the external manifestation of mind.
The internal manifestation of mind is beyond all this, and is best known as the intuitive quality of awareness. In this state, when you feel you know something, you know it deep down in your gut, and there is no rationalisation, no analysing the process, just a state of experience in which you "know". This is the inner nature of the mind. Ninety-nine point nine percent of people direct their attention to the external area of mind and experience. This is not bad, but it does not allow the full qualities or abilities of the mind to develop. In the mental process of Yoga what we are trying to achieve is to become aware of the inner mind, and try to awaken it through some techniques.
We begin through techniques of relaxation, which help us bring the mind to its natural resting place. Afterwards, either through concentration or meditation, we take the mind from its natural resting place, inside. Then, after we have experienced the inner mind we again bring it back to its normal resting place. There are practices of relaxation, concentration and meditation which do not aim to provide an understanding of the inner mind in one go, but which aim to bring the mind to its point of rest.
To bring the mind to a stress-free state is very difficult. There has been so much conditioning of our mind, how can we disassociate from that? It is not at all possible. How can we disassociate from our thoughts? Not possible! From our emotions? Not possible! The mind can never become disassociated from any experience. The moment it becomes disassociated from any and every type of experience we cease to live. So in the mental aspect of Yoga our first objective, whether it is through the practice of pratyahara, dhyana, relaxation, concentration, or meditation, is to bring the mind back to its natural resting place. If we have the ability to do only this much then it is a great achievement.
How can we bring the mind back to its natural resting place from being totally external? By becoming aware of the various experiences that our body is going through, and that we are having inside in terms of the sensory, intellectual and emotional experiences, we broaden the horizon of our perception. Then there is the process of gradual concentration which focuses the mind, and this process in Yoga is known as "dharana" or concentration. One of the best methods to achieve dharana or one-pointedness is through the repetition of mantra. After the mind has been focused we can take it inside and experience our intuitive nature. This is what happens when we go into a state of deep relaxation and meditation, and many people have experienced it suddenly when lying in bed, while sitting observing the environment or the breath.
If the mantra is going on, if that particular sound vibration is working on our personality, then when all the energies of mind are suddenly fused together, there is a momentary intuitive flash. That flash might be associated with anything in life; it might be a solution to some mundane problem we are having at work, or at home - the tap is leaking; the plumber is not coming, I have no understanding of plumbing. I might have an intuitive flash: Oh, put glue on it. This type of flash can be related to anything. It is only momentary, but as we go deeper and deeper into our mind and it becomes more and more focused, the flashes of intuition begin to occur more regularly.
What happens when we develop this intuitive power? A balance comes about between the external and internal expressions of mind, which opens up the dormant centres of the brain. Yoga says that these inactive centres are not related to the physical brain but to the experience of the total body, mind and spirit. When the mind is balanced, when we are in control of our emotions and able to handle the expressions of our behaviour, attitudes, feelings, desires, likes and dislikes, this experience of balance and harmony leads to an expression of the total personality, and it is this particular aspect and objective that Yoga emphasises when it talks about the mental aspect.
Then comes the third aspect of Yoga, which is the spiritual aspect. It can definitely not be viewed as some form of religious belief. The spiritual aspect of Yoga is defined as experiencing the total balance of life in every action and thought. When the mind and energy are balanced, and the consciousness is awake, then every thought, action, emotion and feeling is also balanced-This total balance is known as the experience of spirit. Whatever we may do, energy is experienced, consciousness is experienced and this is the spiritual aspect of Yoga, which eventually leads us to the realisation of our true nature and hidden qualities.
So this has been, throughout the ages, the system of Yoga, starting with the body, then working with the mind and eventually experiencing the spirit. Yoga is best defined as "the way of attaining perfection". Every step is seen as a new beginning, which is known as "initiation". When we start performing asana it is initiation of the body. Receiving a mantra is initiation into the mental aspect of Yoga. Starting the spiritual aspect of Yoga is initiation of a different nature.
The ability to begin afresh is Yoga, and not more than this. So walking out of the room, taking a deep breath of fresh air and experiencing your lungs filling up with air can be called the beginning of Yoga. If for example you observe yourself walking down the stairs and getting into the car with total awareness, that is to say, you are aware of the whole body, not only the legs walking or the hands moving, but of the whole structure from the top of the head to the tip of the toes all moving as one single unit, then that is the beginning of Yoga in your life.
Asana and pranayama are not the beginning of Yoga, but awareness in every action, combining body, mind and spirit. Even if your awareness is behind the unconscious movements that is the beginning of Yoga. So "yoga" means "awareness", ultimately it comes down to that - "awareness".