Know Yoga, Know Peace
We twist and bend our bodies into the poses demonstrated by the lithe and supple instructors. We exhale and bring our forehead closer to our knees. We balance in shirsanasa — keeping the weight in our forearms, opening across the shoulder blades, elongating our spines.
Yoga is glorious. Glorious for the body, bringing health, strength, freshness and fluidity to muscles otherwise tightened into a hunch from hours at our desks. It is glorious for the heart and emotions — the opening of our chest in backbends is the best nonpharmaceutical cure for depression. Within a few minutes, that which seems emotionally unbearable miraculously becomes bearable. The tight clenching in our chest releases and we open and expand to the fullness of the universe. There is once again space in which to breathe, space for healing to flow.
It is glorious for our minds. Without intentionally ‘stilling’ the mind, the practice of yogasanas, if done sincerely and with focus, can bring dharana, a single-pointedness, which leads to dhyana, an experience of meditation. Intractable though it might be, our monkey-mind cannot find time or space to jump around as we direct our attention to our inner heel, outer ankle, the eyes on the back of our knee, the inner rotation of our lower leg with an outer rotation of our upper leg. The stimuli is too much to retain in our consciousness simultaneously. Like a zen koan which, as we try to wrap our brains around ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ leads into a place of ‘no answers’, so the sincere, focused practice of asana can bring about a stillness of mind that even the best intentioned efforts at meditation sometimes cannot.
Yoga is glorious for the body, bringing health, strength, freshness and fluidity to muscles otherwise tightened into a hunch from hours at our desks. It is glorious for the heart and emotions — the opening of our chest in backbends is the best nonpharmaceutical cure for depression
And yet, might the glory of yoga extend even further than suppleness in our bodies, stability and centredness in our emotions and stillness in our minds?
Patanjali spoke about Ashtanga Yoga or eight limbs of yoga, of which asana (the postures) is limb number 3 and pranayama (breath exercises) is limb number 4. Limbs 1 and 2, the very foundation of yoga, are the yamas and niyamas, or the do’s and don’ts of a yogic life. They include nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, control of the senses, nonhoarding, purity, contentment, dedicated practice,Self-study and surrender to the Divine.
As every architect knows, one cannot build a structure beginning with the third floor! Regardless of the beauty and elegance of the building, if there is not a strong foundation, that building will collapse in the slightest storm. Similarly, we cannot disregard the foundation and base our yoga practice exclusively on limb 3. We may become strong, limber and flexible but the moment the winds of change begin to blow in our lives, the best asana cannot keep us grounded if we have no foundation. The yamas and niyamas are crucial aspects of any true yoga practice. Without them, our asanas become mere acrobatics or aerobics.
As we open our chest in backbends, it is not only our pectoral muscles which expand, but it is our very heart chakra, the energy centre with which we connect to the Divine within our Self and within those around us. The opening of the chest in asana strengthens the commitment to nonviolence we’ve pledged in the first yama. With open hearts, we experience our inherent unity — the ‘union’ to which the word ‘yoga’ refers — with all of Creation. The practice, then of nonviolence, nonstealing, nonhoarding, etc comes easily and naturally. If we are One with all of Creation, if we are truly full, complete, whole and divine, then our choices — what we eat, what we buy, how we shop, how we live — will reflect that oneness.
In separation, the opposite of yoga, the world is made up of objects. We are each the ‘subject’ of our own subjective reality. Everyone and everything else is an object — the animals whose flesh becomes our meal, whose skin becomes our car seat or belt, the impoverished sweatshop workers who produce our ‘rock bottom’ priced clothes, the precious trees of the Amazon felled by the acre to make room for the grazing of hamburgers-to-be, the coffee and cotton pickers whose children have birth defects due to the toxicity of their pesticide-ridden working environment.
In a nonyogic life, in a life of dis-union, these are mere objects, put there on Earth for our use and abuse. In a yogic life though, in a life committed to the awareness and experience of unity — within ourselves, between our self and the Divine and between our Self and ourselves reflected in others — we realise that these are all us. Hence, we don’t need to put sticky notes on our computers to remind us to practice nonviolence, to remind us not to steal or hoard, to remind us to live a pure life. The practice of ‘yoga’ leads, automatically, organically to a life in which our choices are ones made in an awareness of unity and oneness.
Lastly, our eight-limbed tree of yoga also does not stop at limb 3 or even 4. It grows and expands gloriously up through the practice and experience of pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses; dharana, single pointedness, through dhyana, meditation, and ultimately into samadhi, complete ecstatic, blissful Union. Despite the “Aahhh” experience of relief and release in the physical postures, the tree of yoga has juicier fruits to offer us if we just keep climbing.
Thus, just as we do not start with limb 3, so we do not end with it. The asanas are windows into the possibility of what yoga holds. It is said, sthira sukham asanam. That which is stable, that which brings true joy; that is asana. Yes. And that is a window into not just stability and joy in the asana but in every moment and every breath of our life.
This article appeared on The Speaking Tree (Times of India), here.