The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.
– Old Chinese Proverb
This practice of yoga is to remove the weeds from the body and mind so that the garden can grow.
– B K S Iyengar
My Guruji Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar, who was conferred India’s first Padma (Vibhushan) award for contributions made in the field of Yoga, passed away on August 20, 2014, but he is surely here in spirit to see the world embrace this ancient art, science, culture and philosophy.
But what should be the true celebration of a Yoga Day? To understand that we must know that word comes from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to unite or bind or join. Thus, Yoga aims to conjoin the individual (self) with the universal (force). It is an instrument to sensitise us, and extend our capabilities. In Yoga, what is the instrument? Only what we were born with – the body, mind and breath. Through the different asana and pranayama techniques, we touch these three dimensions within us to enhance our potentials and to live qualitative lives.
Yoga has benefitted over millennia with a continuous line of seers dedicated to uncovering the secrets of the mystical inner self. Sage Patanjali compiled the yoga wisdom of his time in what came to be known as the Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali (composed somewhere between 200 BC to 200 AD). In these 196 sutras, Patanjali-muni summarises the experiences of many yoga gurus, and stresses that the path of yoga is eighth-fold. In his own words, ‘it has eight limbs – asta-anga or astanga.’ These eight limbs comprise: Yama & Niyama – the do’s and don’ts; Asana – postures or physical and physiological explorations;Pranayama – pranic or breath explorations; Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses to look inward; Dharana – concentration; Dhyana – meditation; Samadhi – trance or realisation.
Generally, people think of these limbs as separate practices, but they are an integrated whole. Take Pranayama; the Patanjali Yoga Sutras maintain that tasmin sati – only after – a certain mastery in asanas is achieved, should the practice of pranayama be taken up.
Just as there are erotic zones in the body, similarly the body has pranic zones or breath zones, like the diaphragm region or the abdominal region.
At least on this one day, people should question the absurdity of yearning for a six-pack when yoga wisdom clearly demonstrates the need to have an expansive abdominal and diaphragm region. This place is the locus of breath; you breathe deeply not only because of your lungs but also because of the supreme action and expansiveness of the abdominal area. Out of the three bandhas (literally locks, but in effect, actions which channelise), the Uddiyana bandha, or the abdominal region control, is vital.
If you want to rationalize your yogasana practices, why you are doing the head-stand or the seated or twisting postures, visualise the body as a container and the mind, senses, breath, consciousness as the content. You have to also use the container to shape the content. So postures work not only on the body, but the whole being (and content). You become realised, aware, united in body mind and breath to become a sensitive being. Sadhakas/seekers should use this imagery instead of thinking of associating Yoga with any group or credo.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND YOGA THROUGH ITS ASANAS
Let us now understand some yoga principles through just three of its most representative asanas or postures.
1. Adho-mukha-svanasana or the downward-facing dog pose:
Some people may mock at this saying why do we need to become a dog when we are human beings. And these are the same breed who think nothing of spending hours slumped like a couch potato.
Well, the simple but philosophical answer is that a dog stretch will make you feel closer to being human than the animal within us. As our sages observed, this pose takes its inspiration from a dog’s stretch, yes, but its implications are felt in the rebalancing of our forces within. Generally, the head (mind) is active and the peripheral body is inactive for man, hence the stress, the unequal ageing and the mental anxieties. In this pose, the head is kept quiet and the peripheral body or limbs alert. Also the spine is kept parallel to the earth removing the gravitational load. In this way, a certain rebalancing takes place within thus bringing us into a harmonious relationship with mother earth.
2. Shirsasana or the head stand:
To stand on the head is to effectively change the foundation and reorient forces within. Normally, a human being will function in only three given positions in his or her entire lifetime – standing, seated and lying down. To stay in this pose for 10 to 15 minutes with even breathing cycles is to formulate a new language from within which transforms your potentials. People often relocate to start life afresh. The yogi has devised this powerful means to relocate and refresh life from within.
3. Shavasana or the corpse pose:
Even though this pose seems simple and is merely to lie down and resemble a dead body, this pose is not a prelude to doze off. Sleep was studied by the rishis and yogis and they formulated this ‘conscious’ sleep – shavasana. Here, the practitioner is instructed to evolve into this condition with the breath. Normally, the mind leads. In shavasana, the mind is told to be a mere witness, while the breath takes over.In this way, the mind and body get breath-conditioned and/or breath-influenced, which is one of the best things that will ever happen to you.
For a moment, just reflect on the uniqueness of our breath: it is ever fresh; a new one every moment. Unlike the body and mind, it carries no baggage, no history of gender, class, caste, creed, status or experiences. The breath is a unique force (ours but not to keep, it comes and goes) that will help one transcend the petty self and realise one’s essential nature.
My humble advice on this first Yoga Day to aspiring yogis is not just to take deep breaths, but to become your breath… that will make you more fit for (and tolerant of) the incredible offerings of our universe.