The Role of Yoga in Improving the Quality of Life

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

What is the role of yoga in improving the quality of life? There can never be a conclusive answer to such a question. We all have to find our own answer, in our own space, where we are comfortable with the answer and can apply it in our lives.

Karma – free will makes destiny

First of all, how do we perceive life? From the yogic point of view, life and creation are an interplay of the karmas. Each and every being that comes within the fold of this creation in any form, whether insect, reptile, bird or human being, is subject to the law of karma. Karma is the deciding factor of life. In the third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says that karma is the mainstay of creation. From the time we are conceived, karma begins. The growth of the foetus in the womb is a karmic process. Birth is a karmic process. Actualization of the intellectual and creative abilities in this life is a manifestation of karma. Karma can be from the past, karma can become the future, and it is always here in the present. Our role in this field of karma is self-centred and self-oriented – we are aware only of ourselves.

The term karma evokes the idea of cause and effect. Any condition in life, whether of pleasure or pain, will evoke a personal response. What kind of response that is will depend on the intensity of the karma, which in turn will depend on what kind of attribute or guna it triggers within you. A person you consider to be your enemy or adversary can remain like that for almost your whole life, until the moment you come out of the space where you look upon that person as an enemy.

The pains and pleasures in life are nothing but our responses to conditions which already exist around us. Even the need or the desire to search for happiness is a response to conditioning. Sometimes these conditionings can be seen, analysed and understood; sometimes they act as undercurrents, which are unconscious, invisible and subtle.

What we can perceive and understand, we can deal with easily. Those conditions are within the ambit of our intellectual grasp and we can try to figure out ways to overcome them. But there are certain conditions, which are unseen, yet dominate the whole behaviour and expression of our personality, and we are unable to manage or control them. When we encounter these kinds of situations, we say, “Oh, it must be my karma that I have to go through this.” When something is not understood, because it comes from an unseen, unknown and therefore uncontrollable influence, we call it karma. It means that, whether visible or invisible, there is always some influence governing us: our nature and personality, our thoughts, expressions, attitudes and behaviour. So we are not just talking here about how we derive happiness from what we do, because that is very limited when compared with the whole dimension of karmic existence.

If you win a lottery you become elated, and you become sad if you lose something. The depression or anxiety of losing something or somebody, like a job or a friend, will affect you only for a limited time, not for your whole life. These joys and anxieties represent momentary awareness of your participation and involvement in the outer conditions which continue to influence you even when you are not aware of them.

If I practise meditation, I may be happy for a little while as long as I am able to forget my difficulties, but that does not indicate that I have evolved in my meditation. Rather we should look at this question, not just from our own perspective, but from a wider understanding of how we as human beings, as God’s creatures in His creation, function, and by what principles we are guided.

Managing karma with yama and niyama

Patanjali speaks of the eight-fold path of yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. When Patanjali codified yoga, the needs of that environment were different from the needs of our environment today. In those days, people did not have access to TVs, cars, mobile phones or computers. They lived a life which was simple, in society’s terms primitive, but from the yogic view sattwic.

In that more natural state, where the personality was sattwic, untainted by the need for luxury and comfort, the approach to psychology and yoga was not through the body, but through fine-tuning the mental expressions and behaviour. Patanjali placed the yamas and niyamas as the first two components of yoga, because this is when you begin to fine-tune your mental expressions. After that you moved into the practice of asana, which was the third step. The opening statement of the Yoga Sutras is ‘Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah’, which deals with fine-tuning the mental expressions.

However, in today’s environment, where we have adopted a materialistic mind and have identified principally with the needs of the body, asana and pranayama have become more important for us, so first we practise asana and pranayama. Then pratyahara and dharana are important in order to manage the frustrations of the mind. Only once there is some semblance of control over the mind can we begin thinking about how to bring about qualitative changes in our life through the yamas and niyamas.

Transformation through yama and niyama

The adoption of yamas and niyamas then becomes a part of the meditative transformation that we experience through yoga. Consider the five niyamas. Purity, shaucha, contentment, santosha, self-analysis, swadhyaya, are experienced in meditation. Meditation becomes a process of purifying oneself of all the rubbish accumulated over time, which is tapasya. Meditation becomes a tool for learning how to let go and surrender, Ishwara pranidhana.

Meditation becomes a tool for living the the five yamas also, for living truthfulness, satya. With this purifying of our nature, the intensity of violence recedes from our personality and we reflect that by following ahimsa. Asteya, non-stealing, aparigraha, simple living and non-possessiveness, and brahmacharya, always keeping our highest aim in mind, become natural and spontaneous for us.

The actualization of the yamas and niyamas is what we are aspiring for in the practice of karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. Satya, truth, cannot be part of us until we are established in jnana yoga. Jnana yoga means applying wisdom so there is no falsity; there is only truth. Similarly, ahimsa cannot be a part of us until we are established in karma yoga. So the yamas and niyamas are complementary practices to the other yogas, and when we begin to live them, we move into a meditative awareness that is continuous and constant, and not just fleeting. It is that same sense of continuity and order that we now need to apply in our lives.

After practising asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana, you will feel free in the body, more relaxed, with increased vitality and concentration. Instead of just trying to meditate, apply your learning and go back to Patanjali’s first step, which is to adopt the yamas and niyamas. It is at this point that you will stop being a practitioner of yoga and become a yogi. Anybody who practises a little medicine may be called a doctor, but actually to qualify as a doctor you need to have specific training. Similarly, in order to become a yogi, you need this specific training in the grind-mill of yama and niyama to train for dhyana and samadhi. This is the approach that we need to adopt in order to practise yoga in our lives today.

Managing karma with sanyam

The second point in the management of the karma which conditions our life is sanyam. Sanyam can be used as a measure to see how much you have progressed. Sanyam means restraint, controlled guidance or to take command. Wild horses will run all over the place, but when you train them, you can ride them and they will do your bidding.

The first component is control over speech, which is vani sanyam in Sanskrit. This is not an easy thing to achieve, but controlling the speech evokes a very high intensity of energy. From vani sanyam, comes vak siddhi, the power of actualizing the speech. The speech of a person who has that kind of control conveys power, it generates shakti so that whatever they speak comes true. Such people will always think in the most positive, auspicious and appropriate manner, and therefore they will always speak the truth, because speech is the tool of expressing the state of mind.

The mind is a very peculiar thing; it is a bundle of stored energy, and thoughts radiate out like electromagnetic waves. All thoughts are in the environment. We cannot see them, just as we cannot see radio waves or other waves, but with the proper instrument we can capture them. With a radio we can capture the radio waves. In the same manner, if we had something like a ‘thoughtometer’, we could capture our thoughts, and listen to them like a radio.

I have known Swami Satyananda since I was born. Many other people who have also known him for a long time will be a witness to the fact that never have we heard a negative statement from him. He never thinks negatively, he is always smiling away, thinking all the good things. Never once have I heard him say anything ill of anyone, not even of those people who have harmed him. Compare that with our own life. We constantly think ill of other people; it is not possible for us to be reaction-free even for half an hour out of the twenty-four.

The second component is control of the mind, manas sanyam. This means being able to guide and direct your mental expressions in a positive, creative and constructive manner. It means always being alert, able to pull the mind back from gravitating towards tamasic tendencies and directing it towards sattwic tendencies. When a bad thought comes, you stop it immediately and change it by coming back to a good thought. This is very much like the practice of Brahma vichara sadhana, which is extending your love and compassion, not only to those you love, but also to those whom you hate. In a similar manner, there should be the ability to recognize the state of mind that gravitates towards tamas and the strength to divert it towards sattwa.

The third component is karma sanyam, restraint over actions. This involves guiding any action so that it leads to the most positive and fulfilling end. These three forms of sanyam are advocated in yoga in order to maintain the awareness of sattwa, of luminosity, light and wisdom. Once we are able to maintain the state of sattwa, then qualitative changes happen in our own life. It is at this level of karma sanyam that our inner qualities have to be managed through swadhyaya, self-understanding.

Personal SWAN practice

There are two practices you can do. One is to change the existing attitude. Our actions and attitudes in life are governed by our strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs – what we call the SWAN principle. S for strength, W for weakness, A for ambition and N for need. Do you think that we can understand ourselves by asking who am I? No, it is an irrelevant question. The answer is simple: I am what I am. Self analysis, self observation, self understanding begins by putting together the jigsaw puzzle of our life and learning to differentiate between strengths and weaknesses, and between ambitions and needs. Swadhyaya gives an in-depth understanding of our nature and what qualities make us respond in a particular manner.

Sometimes the weaknesses are so overpowering that we have low self-esteem, and confusion and doubts creep in. Sometimes the strengths are overwhelming, and we become over-confident, arrogant and rash. So many things can happen in each of the four stages, and understanding this is known as swadhyaya.

To practise, make a private list of your strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs. Just write it down one day and keep it. The next week write another set and keep it. Do this for four weeks. Then take all the four weeks’ reports, lay them out in front of you and compare them. You will find that some qualities have been added and some removed, but some will also be common throughout. Try to deal with the common ones first. As best as you can, cultivate those strengths, overcome those weaknesses, understand your ambitions and strive to attain your needs. This is your practice in swadhyaya and karma sanyam at the personal level.

Interactive movie practice

The other practice you can do is at the level of interaction. When you go to bed at night, see yourself as if you are in a movie, starting your day from when you woke up and ending when you go to bed. In your mind’s eye, go through all those things you have done – what you had for breakfast, where you sat, with whom, what you were talking about, everything. Re-live each and every moment of the day, and you will come across certain situations where you realize you should not have reacted in that manner. At that point, press the pause button of your daily movie. Think for five minutes, “If I were to encounter the same situation again, how would I react, knowing what I do now?” Then again press the play button and keep the movie going.

Continue to do this. Some events will repeat themselves again and again until they come in the ambit of your awareness and you notice, “This is where I am making a mistake. Either I am too weak or too aggressive. Here I am not able to convey what I mean. There, maybe I am too open and people don’t really care.” In the course of time your behaviour and responses will change in relation to the external situations and environment. As they change, you will feel more satisfied, more fulfilled and content with yourself because you are putting your best foot forward.

Live as a human being

We have taken a sankalpa, a resolution to live like a human being and not like an animal that reacts to every situation. So the first component in improving the quality of life is being aware that our efforts now guide our future destiny. The knowledge of oneself through swadhyaya contributes to improving the quality of sanyam in our life. That affects our karma and the present and future quality of our life.

The second component in improving our lives is realizing that in today’s environment we should begin yoga with the practice of asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana, then go to the yamas and niyamas and adopt one to live in our lives. At Bihar Yoga Bharati we give that discipline to the students. We tell them to select one yama and one niyama that they can perfect while they are living here. Some do it, some don’t; but those who do can see the change in their life and connect with yoga in a much deeper and more sincere way.

The third component is the practice of sanyam – restraint of speech, thought and action. These three initial steps take you deeper into the yogic process that will touch and transform your life.

Ganga Darshan, December 2003