The essence of Yoga

The essence of Yoga

The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit “yuj” which means “to yoke”, as in to join a horse and cart together. It signifies the original spiritual aim of yoga – to join the practitioner with “the ultimate reality”, the so-called becoming one with everything.

Whereas in the Western world we commonly think of yoga as primarily being a series of physical postures, this part of the practice known as asana originally consisted of a dozen or so basic stretches, predominately aimed at preparing the body for a period of sitting meditation by opening up the breathing and lengthening the spine. The number of physical postures have increased over the years but actually many of the more vigorous standing postures which we associate with modern Yoga were added as late as the 1950s as Western keep-fit style exercises made their way to India.

The Yoga Sutra written by Patanjali defined what is known as the 8 limbs of yoga – 8 different types of practice, only 1 of which is the practice of physical postures, however other limbs will also be familiar – breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation practices (which we could consider as encompassing 3 of the limbs). The other limbs concern living what we might consider living a spiritual life – morality and the self-discipline of personal practices, and the final limb concerns the so-called becoming one with everything. (A fuller explanation of the 8 limbs can be found here)

However, given how sedentary modern life has become compared to when Patanjali’s 8 limbs were written, it is entirely in keeping with the limb of personal practices and self-discipline that there should be an increased focus on maintaining our physical health.

“the health of our body affects the health of our thoughts”

…And here-in lies the challenge for a modern teacher. The demands of life in the modern Western world are very different from those a couple of thousand years ago in India, as is our way of relating to the world.

Added to this over the intervening two and half thousand years many different teachers have developed different styles and practices – so much so there is a saying “2 teachers, 3 opinions”. I am very grateful to my teacher for impressing upon me the need to develop my own style of teaching, while remaining humble and true to the practice of Yoga. So while I call this article the essence of Yoga, I am not arrogantly assuming I am speaking for all practitioners. I invite you to develop your own understanding, but to hold that with a Yoga like openness and flexibility that allows that interpretation to grow and change; with a great respect and willingness to learn from teachings that differ from your own preferences and opinions.

Just as modern Mindfulness teachings have taken the essence of Mindfulness and placed them in a scientific rather than religious context whilst remaining true to the original practices, I aim to do the same with Yoga. I recognise that the majority of people come to classes for physical health and stress management, and believe that meeting this need is essential for survival in the modern world! My aim then is to frame my classes in such a way that they are open to individual interpretation, accessible for those looking for health benefits and based in science, while still being relevant and valuable to those on a spiritual path.

So If I were asked to express my personal interpretation of the essence of yoga down to one sentence, I would probably go for “If you want to become one with everything, start by becoming one with yourself”; or perhaps even more simply – “Listen.”

Science has been a great gift for us, and our culture and understanding of the world has grown massively as a result. However it has seemingly imprinted on us a view that rationality is the pinnacle of humanity, and therefore it’s all about our thoughts, and the body is simply a vehicle to drive the brain around. One of my aims as a teacher is to reconnect people with their physicality – our body is an incredible living breathing organism. We know that when we get ill or are in pain, that our mood is affected. We also know that when our mood is affected it affects the way we think, generally becoming less positive, and less focused. So just with those two simple sentences, we have established that the health of our body affects the health of our thoughts, and that the brain and body aren’t separate, but are both a part of the same whole.

Inherent in this idea of oneness is another concept – that of compassionate acceptance. If we are critical of the way things are right now, we are in effect creating a second, imaginary reality in our heads in which things are different – two realities by definition isn’t oneness.

So to be one with our body is to accept how it is right now; it might be a bit stiff today, or every day. Our strength, or our flexibility, or our balance may prevent us from going as far into a posture as we normally do, or as the person next to us in class is doing but we only have the body that we have right now; and however it is is however it is. So we accept our boundaries as they are, we stop wherever it is comfortable for us to stop, and we don’t (or at least try not to) run a story of self-criticism, of not being good enough.

On a psychological level, this teaches us that we are good enough just as we are with all our flaws, which we all know in theory, but living it is a very different matter. Yoga gives us a means to develop that.

And this idea has benefits on a physical level too. Whenever we make a movement, two opposite sets of muscles get involved. For example if we are bending our arm at the elbow, the biceps, on the front of our arms, contract to make the movement happen – in technical terms the muscle creating the movement, in this case the biceps is known as the agonist. But at the same time the triceps, the muscle on the back of our arms gets involved too. In effect it is acting as a brake, to make sure we don’t overstretch and hurt ourselves, in technical terms this is the antagonist.

If we try to stretch as far as we can then, the agonist is tensing to create the movement, and the antagonist is tensing to try to stop any further movement and prevent injury. In effect we are fighting against ourselves. Some techniques for building muscle actually use this process, but as yogis we have a different aims, and fighting against yourself is definitely not one of them! When we take a stretch up to our natural comfortable boundary, before the antagonist really starts tensing, the body feels safe and knows it won’t be injured. Therefore it allows the muscles to relax more and we can go even deeper into the stretch; but we’ve done this in a very nurturing way rather than forcing our way through. This allows for a much deeper release in the muscles. What we call “knots” in our muscles are where the body won’t “let go” – either because it’s been holding tension there for so long, or because there’s a muscle tear that the body is trying to protect. If we force our past our comfortable boundary as encouraged by many stretching techniques, then the body never feels safe enough to release these knots.

“Yoga must not be practiced to control the body, It is the opposite,
it must bring freedom to the body, all the freedom it needs.”

– Vanda Scaravelli

We are in effect using a less is more approach. By not trying achieve more, we actually allow for a much more effective release of tension – and tension in our body takes effort for the body to hold, so every bit of tension we release is energy that you are reclaiming to use in your daily life!

There’s one more concept I’d like to unpack from this “becoming one with your body” idea, and as well as having physical benefits it also includes the three limbs of Yoga that I said in my introduction related to meditation. So these three limbs are usually translated as bringing your attention inwards, concentration and perhaps slightly confusingly meditation – so whereas what we usually call meditation practise usually encompasses all three, in this case meditation refers to observing what is going on within us, for example watching our thoughts or emotions without reacting to them (ideas which I discuss further in my previous article the essence of mindfulness)

So as we are taking the postures, we are aware of every sensation in the body, and every movement the body is making, whether a twitch, a muscles release, wobbling to keep our balance, or the movement of the breath. By doing so we are bringing our attention inward, and concentrating covering two of the limbs, and by applying our compassionate acceptance and simply observing and not judging we have the third one included too.

In terms of becoming one with ourselves, which in terms of the limbs I suggested as a precursor to becoming one with everything, we are increasing our “oneness” as the mind observes the body moving with the breath.

And in terms of our physical health, by focussing on the sensations and movements of the body, we are giving our nervous systems a very clear picture of what is going on in our body – the nervous system does this brilliantly anyway, but we are taking away the distractions, and raising the resolution of the picture of the body it is getting.

It is the nervous system which decides which muscles to lengthen, and which muscles to strengthen, so by giving it this clearer picture, we are improving its decision making capacity, and thereby the health of our bodies. This is also another reason behind the compassionate acceptance of the boundaries of our flexibility. If we are fighting against ourselves, tensing both the agonist and antagonist, the nervous system isn’t entirely sure what we are trying to do. By taking ourselves to our comfortable boundary, we are letting the nervous system know exactly what our aim is, and so it can make the necessary changes for those deeper releases.

Likewise, we have pauses during the class, and the class ends with a period lying on our backs. This isn’t supposed to be sleeping time, although snores are fairly common, but it’s actually a chance for your body to process the changes we’ve already made, for the nervous system to deepen the openness we’ve created, so we get maximum benefit from the practices.

Taking this all back to the even simpler essense… Listen. Listening is an act of receiving, we don’t control what comes in. Listen to your body, and where its boundaries are in each moment. Listen to the sensations of your body. Listen to the movements of your body. Let go of ideas of trying to control, or to perfect.

Simply be with your body, as it is right now.

Be with yourself as you are right now.

“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures
but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”

― T.K.V. Desikachar

The essence of Mindfulness

The essence of Mindfulness

[Main photo by Hartwig HKD]

It’s common when introducing modern mindfulness to describe the practices as Buddhist in origin, but applied within a scientific rather than religious frame. Whilst he did develop many new ideas, Gautama Buddha also drew from philosophies and practices already existing in India; mindfulness being one of them.

Alongside the development of Buddhism, another school of spiritual thought developed in India, called Advaita Vedanta. Many practitioners of Vedanta believe that meditation isn’t useful and instead solely practice what we could consider to be the purest form of mindfulness, namely that of being mindful of every moment as we go through our normal daily lives.

The philosopher Ken Wilbur describes meditation as being a science – the scientific study of our own internal experience. And we are the only person who can study that experience.

We’ve been given one random human being to study in all its detail – ourselves. How do we react in this situation, or that situation? How do we feel? Do we feel one thing, and say another? What thoughts arise? Where did we learn this response? How do we judge our own actions?

sometimes our minds just won’t shut up!

As mindfulness practitioners, we are not supposed to be peaceful and happy at all times – I’ve had to point that out to an awful lot of people who have completed courses, and always to their great relief!

Our aim is not to try to change who we are, or fix ourselves, but to simply observe. We observe all our emotions, and greet them with acceptance. We start to notice that so called positive emotions come and go, and that so called negative emotions come and go. We notice that the same happens with everyone we know. That this is just reality. This is simply being human. We learn that, as I expressed in a previous article – it’s OK not to be OK. It’s just a part of normal life.

Neither are we trying to stop thinking. In fact it’s impossible! It’s very likely that in many of our meditations our thoughts will slow drastically, and we may have periods were there is no thought… but then thought arises. It’s simply the nature of our minds. And sometimes we just can’t switch off our minds either, and guess what? That doesn’t make the meditation a failure. In fact going back to our scientific study of ourselves… we’ve just learned something about ourselves: namely that sometimes our minds just won’t shut up!

In fact the practise of mindfulness is so incredibly simple, it’s sometimes too profound for our brain to grasp!

If we go into a poor me story we’ve created an extra layer of suffering inside ourselves

So if that’s the practise of mindfulness, what’s the point of practising when I want to be calmer, more peaceful and I want my brain to shut up?

Well because, that is all a side-effect of practising mindfulness, but it is not the practise itself. And for those of us who aren’t pursuing a spiritual goal, that side-effect is the primary reason that we practise.

We could put in terms of the Buddhist concept of “firing the second arrow”, or “throwing the second dart”. If we hurt our hand, we feel pain and it isn’t fun. If we then create a drama around it, and go into a poor me story in our heads such as “it’s terrible, bad things always happen to me, I’m such an idiot” – we’ve created an extra layer of suffering inside ourselves. We’ve got the pain in our hands, and now we’ve got this story of pain in our heads too. This is “firing the second arrow”. If instead we accept the pain in our hands, it still hurts and we may wince, but we are not adding to our suffering through our thinking.

So if you are practising mindfulness, and you keep getting distracted by thought, watch how you then fire the second arrow. Watch how you judge the meditation as a failure, and get frustrated or feel bad. Watch how this only increases your thinking. Congratulations – you’ve just learned something else about yourself!

…And after maybe 20 times of doing this, you don’t feel the need to criticise yourself any more. You simply accept that thought is arising and that’s just what thought does.

Raised in a society that is always teaching us to do, and to achieve, it’s difficult for us to grasp this idea; this profound simplicity. So we go on more courses, and read more books, looking for the answers. These can be very useful. They can give us a framework to better see what is going on within us… and that is all I do as a teacher. I point out to you, what is already there for you to see. But it’s not my pointing that’s important, and it’s not this profound simplicity that I’m hoping you’ll understand. What it’s important is what is there now… and now… and now… and now.

“To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” – Zen teaching

Here’s a meditation for you on this theme, from my Sunday Live series. Join us every Sunday at 7 for more.