The Core Components of Yogic Life
Continued from Part VII
In the preceding part, a brief reference was made to eight limbs or components of Yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra that constitutes the structural framework for the yogic practices. Of this, Yama and Niyama being first two that represent the moral discipline in the form of restraints and observances were dealt with at length by the author. However, practicing all eight limbs is important to achieve completeness by the practitioner for a better experience of the temporal activities as also in pursuance of the divine path. Sage Patanjali had in his Yoga Sutra inter alia laid down a great emphasis on the regular practice of Asana (body posture), Pranayama (breath control) and Dhyana (meditation) along with the moral discipline to achieve the yogic height and climax i.e. Samadhi.
There is no doubt that Yoga is an invaluable to humanity more so because it enables and embodies unity of thought and action, restraint and fulfilment, body and mind, and thereby ensuring overall physical and mental health and well-being. Besides, Yoga also helps in creating the harmony between man and nature by changing the complete outlook and perspective of the former towards the surroundings. In a way,Yoga is not simply about physical exercise and inculcating certain virtues, instead by practicing it’s eight limbs, the person is able to experience the sense of oneness with self, nature and the universe through a complete makeover of his (or her) lifestyle and consciousness.
More recently, on 27 September 2014 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the 69th session of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) urging the world community to adopt an International Day of Yoga inter alia citing it as an invaluable gift of the ancient Indian tradition to the whole world with immense physical and spiritual benefits. Consequently, the UNGA approved a resolution on 11 December 2014 by consensus to establish 21st June as ‘International Day of Yoga’. The UNGA recognised that Yoga provides a holistic approach to health and well-being, and harmony in all walks of life including the disease prevention, health promotion and management of many lifestyle-related disorders.
In the past and even now, some communities in the world have opposed Yoga citing it a religious practice in Hinduism but now the World Body at large has formally recognised its scientific temper and recommended its wider dissemination in the interest of the overall health of the world population. The author in the following paragraphs intends to illustrate the operational (practical) part of Yoga apart from briefly touching upon the various components and relevance thereof.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline and experience based on an extremely subtle science which focuses on bringing the harmony between body and mind enabling the practitioner for a healthy living. The term Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning ‘to join or unite’ and according to ancient scriptures the practice of Yoga leads to the union of the individual consciousness with universal consciousness. According to modern science, everything in the universe is just a manifestation of the same quantum firmament and the person who is able to experience this oneness of existence is termed as a yogi having attained the state of freedom, spiritually referred to as nirvana or moksha in Hinduism. The goal of the yogic practice is to overcome all kinds of physical and mental sufferings and achieve the sense of freedom in every walk of life with complete health, harmony and bliss.
Brief history of Yoga
The science of Yoga had originated in the Indian sub-continent thousands of years ago, perhaps even before any belief system or religion was conceptualised. According to an ancient legendary tale, the Lord Shiva was the first yogi or adiyogi who transferred his yogic knowledge to the legendary saptarishis or ‘seven sages’ on the banks of the lake Kantisarovar in the high Himalayas several thousand years ago. Subsequently, these sages transmitted the powerful yogic science to different parts of the globe; and rishi Agastya of saptarishi fame was one who widely travelled across the Indian sub-continent including down south to Vindhyachal range in pursuit of spreading the gems of the yogic way of life. In due course, Yoga found its fullest recognition and expression in Bharatvarsha (India) and largely identified with Hinduism.
Among the Hindu scriptures, the early reference to the yogic practices is found in some Upanishads. For illustration, the details of the practice of Pranayama (breath control) finds a mention in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (estimated vintage 900 BCE) and the Pratyahara finds a mention in the Chandogya Upanishad (estimated vintage 800 BCE). It is believed that the ascetic practices (tapas), concentration, breath-control and body postures (asana) used by Vedic priests were precursors of Yoga that find a reference even in the Atharvaveda and some Vedic Samhitas. More authentic evidence of yogic practices in the ancient Bharatvarsha (India) emerged from the Indus-Saraswati Valley Civilization in the form of seals and fossil remains with yogic motifs and figures suggesting prevalence of the Yoga practice in the ancient India.
Although yogic practices in various forms existed in Vedic or perhaps even in pre-Vedic age, the sage Patanjali was one who actually codified and systematised the then existing yogic practices through his Yoga Sutra. After Patanjali, many other sages and Yoga Gurus too contributed for the preservation and development of various Yoga schools through well documented practices and literature. These efforts led to the evolution and establishment of many forms of Yoga such as Tantric Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Kriya Yoga etc. In the twentieth century, it was primarily due to the efforts and influence of Swami Vivekananda that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali received larger recognition as foundational scripture of the Classical Yoga in India and abroad (particularly USA) as we see it today.
Eight-Limbed Yogic Practices
The core theme of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for the yogic practices. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each limb is a holistic focus which in combination of others eventually brings completeness to an individual in pursuit of the divine course. Many atheist Hindus and followers of other faiths worldwide too believe that the yogic practices are beneficial for a good physical and mental health as also in prevention of diseases. The eight limbs of Yoga are Yama (restraints), Niyama (observances), Asana (body posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (fetching or drawing near), Dharana (concentration or introspective focus), Dhyana (contemplation or meditation) and Samadhi (harmonious whole or trance). The first two limbs namely Yama and Niyama have been dealt with at length in the previous part as the moral restraints and observances, respectively. The remaining six limbs or components are explained in the following paragraphs.
Asana is the practice of physical postures and the most popular aspect of the Yoga in the recent times as understood and practiced universally. In fact, a majority of practitioners look at the Yoga as a means for the physical health and well-being while many of them being still unfamiliar with the other limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The systematic and disciplined practice of moving the body into various postures indeed has widespread benefits in the form of the improved health, strength, balance and flexibility. More conscious people exercise a deeper level of the practice of Asanas for the peace and tranquillity of mind moving into the inner essence of being.
The challenge of various postures offers the practitioner the opportunity to explore and control several aspects of physical balance and flexibility as also their emotions, concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and ethereal body. The practitioners learn through a sustained Yoga practice how the Asanas are a means of exploring the mental attitudes and strengthening willpower for a gracious existence by balancing own material world and spiritual experience. The physicality of the yoga postures becomes a vehicle to expand the consciousness by extending the practice to other components like Pranayama and Dhyana. These practices carried out in unison bring the desired state of health, harmonize the flow of energy in the body and contribute towards the evolution of the spiritual self.
Pranayama consists of developing awareness of one's breathing followed by wilful regulation of respiration as the functional or vital basis of one's meaningful existence. It helps in developing awareness of one's mind and to establish control over the mind. In the initial stages, this is done by developing awareness of the ‘flow of in-breath and out-breath’ (svasa-prasvasa) through nostrils. Later, this phenomenon is modified, through regulated, controlled and monitored inhalation (svasa) leading to the awareness of the body space getting filled (puraka), the space(s) remaining in a filled state (kumbhaka) and it getting emptied (rechaka) during regulated, controlled and monitored exhalation (prasvasa).
Thus Pranayama is a scientific breathing technique of measured and controlled administering of the breath that regulates the energy (prana) in the living being in order to restore and maintain physical and mental health in the upward spiritual evolution. In the Yoga Sutra, the practices of asana and pranayama are considered to be highest form of self-discipline for the purification of the body and mind, respectively. These practices are believed to generate the physical heat, called tapas or the inner fire of purification allowing the mind to become calm and tranquil. The rhythmic patterns of slow and fast deep breathing strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and minimize desires and cravings, thereby conditioning the mind for Dharana or concentration.
Pratyahara indicates dissociation of one's consciousness (withdrawal) from the sense organs which connect with the external objects. The word ahara refers to ‘nourishment’ and Pratyahara is withdrawing self from what nourishes the senses. Thus asking to observe Pratyahara implies that one should control senses (indriyas) from the worldly cravings i.e. he should withdraw from the external influence and attachment. This is not an ordinary and easy task and one needs great resolve and restraints to stay away from worldly attraction and diversion. The practice of non-attachment to sensorial distractions is a mandatory requirement to pursue the path of self-realization and attainment of inner bliss. The practitioner observing Pratyahara is able to stand this conflict between mind and senses by withdrawing sensory cravings. Once these cravings are over, it becomes easier for the person to concentrate without temporal distractions or temptations.
Conversely, when the practitioner is able to meditate, Pratyahara is nearly automatically achieved because meditation itself takes away the mind of the practitioner from the temporal world. When the mind is focused, the senses too tend to follow it in subordination. In other words, ordinarily our senses tend to be masters by enticing the person to develop cravings for attractive things but through Pratyahara they could be enslaved and put in proper place. The truth of life is that much of our emotional imbalances are our own creation by too much indulgence in the external events that disturb our inner peace and tranquillity. Such disturbances when become excessive, they become the cause of physical and mental imbalance or even illness. When people practice Pratyahara, they are able to get rid from this vicious tendency.
Dharana indicates broad based field of attention (inside the body and mind) which is usually understood as concentration. To understand Dharana better in yogic parlance - when the body has been dispositioned by Asanas, when the mind has been refined by the Pranayama and when the senses have been controlled by Pratyahara, the practitioner is said to reache the sixth stage i.e. Dharana. By practicing Dharana, one is able to focus his mind in one direction instead of straying in many different directions. The objective of concentration is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity. However, in yogic sense this concentration is not to stop the mind from wandering through the reflective thoughts, memories or dreams by merely focusing upon any abstract or static object but to achieve a mental state for self-less offerings to the divine. Thus in essence, Dharana has a great potential for the inner healing and purification.
Dhyana is meditation or contemplation i.e. focussed attention inside the body and mind. Some religious people do contemplation on a particular deity but in reality this contemplation is not restricted to any religious object. The practitioner could try to concentrate on any object of nature or celestial bodies or even any abstract thought of pure and pious nature. The concept is that when someone focuses his (or her) mind on an object, the mind tends to be transformed into the shape of that object. Therefore, when one focuses on the divine or pious thoughts they become reflective on his own body, breath, senses and mind. During Dhyana, the consciousness is further unified by combining clear insight into distinctions between the objects and between the subtle layers of perception. Through sustained meditation, the practitioner comes closer to the universal reality of Self, Brahman and Maya that enlightens him to seek liberation or moksha, the ultimate truth of life. Thus the meditation is an effective tool to see the purpose of life clearly and perceive reality beyond the illusions.
The final step in the eight-fold limbs of Yoga is the practice and experience of Samadhi which literally means wholesome harmony or trance. In the state of Samadhi though the body and sensory organs appear to be at rest, as if asleep, yet the mind and faculty of reasoning remain constantly alert, as if fully awake. In philosophical and spiritual jargon, the Samadhi is a state of an identity without difference, when a liberated soul enjoys pure awareness of its pure identity. Thus Samadhi refers to the ultimate stage of Yoga where the mind and the intellect stop wandering, thus experience real consciousness and bliss.
However, the achievement of Samadhi is not an easy task. This is the reason why Yoga insists on the moral restraints and observances as general discipline even before other yogic components are pursued. The practice of Asanas and Pranayama lead to a healthy and fit body and mind that enables the practitioner to observe Pratyahara and Dharana, which are mental activities regulating and purifying otherwise a crowded mind with temporal cravings. Once Dharana is achieved, it becomes easier to practice Dhyana leading to Samadhi. These eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway for the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality.
Other Fundamentals of Yoga
As Yoga essentially works at the level of body, mind, emotion and energy, it is broadly classified in Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Kriya Yoga, respectively. The Karma Yoga relates to the body while Jnana yoga is concerned with the mind; the Bhakti Yoga works at the level of emotions and Kriya Yoga utilizes the energy. All forms of Yoga practices fall under one or more of these categories and each practitioner is a unique manifestation of these four yogic practices. Apart from the eight components of Yoga referred to in the preceding paragraphs, some other components like Bandhas, Mudras, Shatkarmas, Yuktahara, Mantra-japa, Yukta-karma are also accepted as yogic practices.
Bandhas and Mudras are allied practices of the Pranayama often viewed as the higher forms involving certain physical gestures along with controlled breathing. This further facilitates control over mind paving way for higher Yogic attainment. However, the practice of Dhyana that helps the practitioner towards self-realisation and the state of transcendence is considered the essence of Yoga Sadhana. Satkarmas are detoxification procedures essentially clinical in nature that help to remove the toxins accumulated in the body while Yuktahara relates to appropriate nourishment (food) and food habits.
Over the centuries, the different philosophies, traditions, lineages and guru-shishya traditions led to the emergence of different schools of Yoga such as Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Patanjala Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Dhyana Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jain Yoga, Bouddha Yoga etc. Each such school has its own merits, approach and practices but the Classical Yoga largely based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra has a much wider and universal acceptance.
Guidelines for Yoga Practice
Today, Yoga has been recognised across the globe by the world fraternity and practiced at a large scale as per the teachings of eminent Yoga masters from ancient times to the present date. People have conviction that Yoga practices are useful in the maintenance and promotion of health, and even prevention of diseases. Although eight-limbed Yoga is a comprehensive and total package for the moral and material development as also spiritual attainment of the practioners but the majority people recognise and understand it merely in terms of practicing different Asanas and Pranayama for its accrued benefits in physical and mental health.
The Yoga gurus and experts have devised certain guiding principles which a Yoga practitioner should follow while performing Yogic practices:
Preparatory Guidelines (Before Practice):
The practitioner must observe Saucha i.e. cleanliness of body, mind and surroundings as an important prerequisite for Yogic practice.
Yogic practice should be performed in a calm and quiet ambience with a relaxed body and mind.
Yogic practice should be done on an empty or light stomach. The bladder and bowels should also be emptied before starting it. However, a small amount of honey in lukewarm water can be taken if the practitioner is feeling weakness.
The practitioner should wear light and comfortable cotton clothes for the easy manoeuvring of the body postures. A mattress, durrie or folded blanket should be used preferably in open on the ground or grass, or at least well lit, well ventilated and spacious room for the practice.
Yoga should not be performed in the state of exhaustion, illness, in a hurry or in acute stress condition.
In case of chronic disease/ pain/ cardiac problems, a physician or a Yoga therapist should be consulted prior to performing Yogic practices.
Yoga experts should be consulted before doing Yogic practices during pregnancy and menstruation.
Guidelines during Practice:
Practice sessions should start with a prayer or invocation as it creates a conducive and harmonious environment to relax the mind and body. Some people may have reservations about the standard Sanskrit prayer due to their credal belief, they could adopt a prayer of their own choice:
Sam vo manamsi janatam
Deva bhagam yatha purve
(May you move in harmony;
may you speak in unison;
let your mind be equanimous;
let the divinity manifest in your sacred endeavours.)
Yogic practices shall be performed slowly and in a relaxed manner, with full awareness of own body and breath.
Breathing should be through the nostrils unless advised otherwise and breath should not be put on hold unless specifically required to do so during the practice.
Any Asana or Pranayama should be done according to own capacity without putting self under undue exertion. Holding of the body tight or jerking it must be avoided.
Desired results take time; so one should not hurry or be impatient and persistent and regular practice should be continued.
There are contra-indications/limitations for each Yoga practice and such contra-indications should always be kept in mind.
Yoga session should end with meditation / deep silence preferably with a Shanti patha:
Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah,
Sarve Santu Niramayah I
Sarve Bhadrani Pasyantu,
Maa Kascit Duhkha Bhagbhavet
Shantih Shantih Shantih II
(May all become happy,
may all be free from illness.
May all see what is auspicious, may no one suffer.
Peace peace peace.)
Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is essentially a path to liberation from all bondage when it is practiced with all components. However, medical research in recent years has uncovered many physical and mental benefits that Yoga (Asana and Pranayama) offers, corroborating the experiences of millions of practitioners. A gist of the benefits listed by the stated research is summarized below:
Yoga is beneficial for physical fitness, musculoskeletal functioning and cardio-vascular health.
It is beneficial in the management of diabetes, respiratory disorders, hypertension, hypotension and many lifestyle related disorders.
Yoga helps to reduce depression, fatigue, anxiety disorders and stress.
Yoga regulates menopausal symptoms.
In essence, Yoga is a process of creating a body and mind that are stepping stones, and not hurdles, to an exuberant and fulfilling life. Meditation is an important component of the Yoga practice with added benefits as it helps to minimize and even eliminate the negative emotions like fear, anger, agony, depression and anxiety. The positive impact of the meditation are; it keeps the mind calm and quiet, increases concentration and memory, enhances clarity of thought and will power and thus rejuvenating the whole body and mind.
The eight-limbed Yoga is all inclusive for the moral and material development and pursuance of the path of enlightenment and divine. In fact, most of the Hindus and also non-Hindus knowingly or unknowingly exercise moral disciplines and other components of Yoga partly or fully world over in their day-to-day life. Hence Yoga is indeed a precious gift of the ancient Indian culture to the humanity across the world for their overall physical, mental and spiritual well-being. As the same continued culture is known as the Hinduism today, linking and opposing it because of its root with Hinduism within and outside the country by some orthodox and natrrow-minded people is like denying the truth and its merit. A universal truth and practice is the heritage of the entire world and mankind, and thus the United Nations have rightly endorsed it and designated 21st June to be observed as the Yoga Day.
(Author is grateful to the Ministry of AYUSH, Government of India for deriving some important points from their publication 'Common Yoga Protocol' released on the eve of the International Yoga Day in 2014)
To be continued...