Why Practice Yoga?

First: What is Yoga?

Yoga is a practice that, over a period of time of regular practice, will increase awareness and self reflection. This can help deal with life’s ups and downs with balance and objectivity and less stress.

Most of us start yoga because we want to get in physical shape, or have injuries, or simply need to have less stress in our lives.

Yoga can do all of that ! The physical practice improves strength, flexibility and help reduce pain from injuries and chronic conditions. Yoga helps mentally, by connecting us to what we feel. It is this process of integrating the mental awareness with bodily awarness that reduces stress.

” The circuits of the brain that are used for mental action are the same ones that are used for physical action (Ratey 2002).”

“How we think and what we think are literally shaped by the body, and vice versa”. (Lakoff and Johnson 1999).

Our human embodiment is a marvelous tool with which to study our habits, from the way we stand, and walk, the types of injuries, aches and pains that we endure, and to how we deal with stress. Self awareness is key to overcoming the negative emotions that come with aches and pains.

” I do not know exactly what a prayer is, but I do know how to pay attention” (Mary Oliver. The Summer’s Day).

In her book ” Trauma and the Body” Pat Ogden quotes: ” postural and movement tendencies serve to sustain certain beliefs and cognitive distortions…The pattern of the body’s movements and posture influences reason, self reflection might be the best way of bringing the working mind to conscousiness. Reflecting on, exploring and changing the movement of the body is valuable”. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Yoga is skillful action; Doing the right thing at the right time.  Figuring out what to do next is the practice of yoga.  To do that, we have to begin to learn where we are right now.  In this method, we use the body and all of its parts as tools to begin this exploration.

What is the matter with you right now? BKS Iyengar

For most of us, it is hard to separate the now from what happened before. 3 out of 4 of our thoughts are about planning what is to come next. This occupies 75% of our thought process.

Worrying is not preparation.

If we constantly analyze and worry about the past or the future we become dis-eased physically, mentally and emotionally.

How to be present?

Being present is not about not thinking. It is about becoming aware of what we do at every moment rather than in the past or future.   

Yoga helps to delve deeper into this thought process and examine it on a moment by moment basis to overcome fears and anxieties, our desires and aversions. Through this we become more present and less stressed. 

B.K.S. Iyengar said ” Find out where the mind blocks you.  Remove the mind to find the freedom that comes.  Yoga is meant to satisfy the soul.  You always find a way to satisfy your mind.” (January 3, 2007).

When we sit with our beliefs or statements like ” this is the way it is”, we will always be held back in the memories of what we could/ should, have done, or the fear and anticipation of what we could/should do.

Yoga is not a set of beliefs. It is a moment by moment examination of where we are right now. The practice of yoga postures makes us stronger and more stable in our physical bodies, and therefore stronger and more stable in our minds.

“the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2005).

Our fears and anxieties are our own personal turmoil and they show up in the body. Yoga invites us to be willing to watch ourselves, where we are right now, with all those fears, aches and pains, and will help us either cure them, or help to endure them.

“Should we not at least make a beginning and take a few steps toward mastery? For the danger of developing too little yoga and becoming a victim of our inadequate world is far greater than that of becoming an unearthly superman.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Hans Ulrich Reiker.

The 5 vitamins of a yoga practice

Sraddha virya smrti samadhi prajna purvaka itaresam (Sutra I. 2 0)

Sutra 1:20 Practice with “faith and vigour, and memory as a guide to leap forward with wisdom, total absorption, awareness and attention”.   These are the inner supports, or vitamins of practice, says BKS Iyengar.  Patanjali writes that they are the upaya pratyaya – the fundamental means to practice.

How do we build faith and trust in our yoga practice?

Little by little, with awareness, time and care.  Whether it is from teachers, or our own practice, we build experience; we notice a little more, and from there, we  know a little more, our knowledge deepens, revelations occur, our memory recalls these clarifying experiences, and our energy, excitement and even devotion to the practice increases to experience what might happen next!   So, each time we practice we are taking in these vitamins. They build upon and give rise to one another. 

Sraddha is the foundation of the other 4.  Sraddha is trust – Vyasa writes that faith holds the seeker through the many phases of practice in the same way that a loving mother would hold her child.   From my own experience, my initial trust in a yoga practice came when I felt less pain in an injured area, reassured by new strength physically and mentally, less stress, better sleep, stronger muscles etc.  we develop the confidence to continue.  

To build trust in something  requires evidence over a period of time that things are working out beneficially, even if we don’t know quite how, or did not know what to expect at the beginning.  Rohit Metha says that “ faith is not blind belief.  It is a sensitive response to the intimations of the unknown”.     BKS Iyengar adds – “Sraddha should not be understood simply as faith, “it also conveys mental and intellectual firmness.  If trust is instinctive, faith is intuitional.”

The 5 vitamins:

1. Sraddha – trust,  from revelation, faith,  confidence, reverence 

2. Virya – vigour, physical and moral strength, mental power, energy

3. Smrti – memory, recollection

4. Samadhi –  profound meditation, supreme devotion,perfect absorption of thoughts 

5. Prajna – awareness of real knowledge acquired through intense contemplation previous, prior, first another, rest, different from,

(taken from BKS Iyengar’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Patanjali advises that faith is built on prajna  “ a clear memory of facts”, from here “a right memory”(smrti)  is developed “not a memory that is overlaid with psychological associations.” (Metha).  “Strange though it may seem, right memory releases one’s energy (virya) which is otherwise locked up in the tangle of psychological associations.  Thus the spiritual (person) rooted in right memory and possessing immeasurable energy is inspired by faith”. (Metha)

BKS Iyengar concludes “The natural trust of the aspirant is confirmed by revelation, and transformed into the faith which permeates the consciousness of practitioners in any field of art, science and philosophy.”

Check out Jess’s blog for more reading.

Some words from B.K.S. Iyengar.

“We should be humble within.”

“We are all intoxicated with our own confusion. If the mind is made to be still, the eyes must be still.”

“If the nerves are still, then the Self is still.”

“The mind must not stop at one point and say, this is enough. It must go further, the Self must be everywhere.”

“To live in the moment is spirituality. To live in the movement is divinity.”

“Be a fanatic with yourself while practicing Yoga.”

“When you are fully in the body, you meet the soul.”

“Freedom starts inside, freedom from the dualities of mind and body, spirit and material.”

“Training of the mind and body leads to awareness of the soul.”

Here is an NPR story about BKS Iyengar.

From a lecture given  by Birjoo Metha at “Yoganusasanam 2014”

What is the difference between individual consciousness and universal consciousness?

Imagine a river coursing through the landscape. Then there is a lot of rain and the water comes down fast into the river and it breaks its banks and over flows into the surrounding area. When the waters subside there are ponds left over that are filled with the river water but are no longer connected to the river itself. Banks develop around these ponds and the river continues on it’s way. After a while, these ponds develop their own life within the boundaries, or confines of the pond edges. The pond is the individual consciousness. The river is the universal consciousness.   The water always wants to join the river so it can see itself. Our practice is to try and break the boundaries of our individual consciousness to join the flow of universal consciousness rather like the pond breaking it’s banks. We have to let go of the identities that exist and let water return to the universal consciousness.