'What is yoga?' At first glance this is a seemingly simple question. However, by getting a flavour of how rich and varied the complete toolkit of yoga techniques is, it's easy to realise that yoga is just an umbrella term for a variety of practices.
The simplest and most broad definition of yoga I came across lies in its ability to synchronise our body with the mind. It is deeply believed (and by now well researched too) that such synchronisation brings various benefits. One of them is helping yoga practitioners maintain an awareness of the present moment and assist them on the journey of 'waking up' to the reality.
Our mind often wanders in the past and possible futures. It takes a fine observer to notice that the body easily follows journeys of the mind which often causes inadequate to the present moment physiological responses, muscle tensions and so on. Bringing the mind and body together, often with help of the breath, effectively brings us to the mindful here and now. In that special place and time we are invited to get to know and experience our potential and full inner power, which usually is scattered all around our lives. This often takes some time and patience as we learn the path step by step...
Yoga as a wellbeing lifestyle or system provides a whole range of techniques to achieve that. But we have to insist on letting go of our view of yoga as a physical practice alone (hatha yoga) to get to know its essence, and richness. The state of being present can be experienced and strengthened through a variety or combination of the following: meditation, relaxation, self-massage, breathing therapy, cleansing techniques, physical exercises, and dietary guidelines (sattvic diet). Yoga even advises on mindset, attitude and philosophy!
Being present matters
Let's explore the following metaphor. We will imagine that most of our lifetime we are like a straw involuntarily flowing down the river. Sometimes the straw stops on an obstacle – this gives it an opportunity, sometimes a painful one, to observe and reflect on its own journey to see it from a new angle so that the obstacle can be gone past. Now let's imagine that these obstacles are nearly omnipresent and easy to run into. How often can the straw switch from flowing to stopping and observing, from stopping and observing to flowing? The straw doesn't remain unaffected by running into these numerous obstacles – the process may drain its precious inner resources.
The sacred state of yoga, the union of the body and mind, shows us the way on how to maintain these two opposing yet equally precious perspectives at once, and as a result regulate our ability to successfully respond to stress. By experiencing both, flowing (living) and observing, we gain the awareness of ourselves, as well as of our immediate environment. We not only become the straw flowing now with a purpose, we become the flowing stream too. Subsequently, we can choose purposefully our course of actions instead of being on autopilot and having our buttons pressed. It's about choosing the proactiveness that enables the functioning of our pure will over unreflective passive responding. We do have to however empower ourselves to enable this powerful shift.
We can experiment with canoeing or rock climbing to understand the illusionary boundary between ourselves and the outside world better. A climber to successfully summit a rock has to be aware of his or her own purpose, and respect both individual limitations as well as the shape of the rock climbed. The climber has no choice but to adjust to the rock he or she is discovering with every ascend and embody it within the individual purpose. Yoga seems very similar, with one big difference – there is no external environment to work with such as river or rock, there is just complex us.
How to embrace the gift of the present moment
Our yoga mat is the place where we can cultivate a constant enquiry to recognise our true nature buried below a thick layer of traces of our past actions: our capacity for compassion (virtue: ahimsa), our own limitations and even the degree of acknowledging them (virtue: satya). That's how we can learn openness and honesty where we don't steal time from ourselves by pretending to be someone we are not. We don't take something that is not naturally there (virtue: asteya). If we keep going deeper into practising yoga holistically, therefore taking into account the whole conduct and recommended healthy habits, we can also learn to centre our attention. This skill mostly comes from practising abstinence, limiting our energy – not to repress it, but to contain and control it, so that we can channel and direct it to the areas that truly need our attention (virtue: brahmacharya). That's how we can develop a non-attachment – for example – to judgement, our self-grasping mind and self-definition, fruits of our own practice, and even joy. This narrow path leads to an additional growth – the practise of complete freedom of choice where 'yes' and 'no' make us equally happy (virtue: aparigraha).
The eye cannot see itself, therefore we practise yoga to see. Yoga is like a mirror allowing us to see ourselves flowing through every moment purposefully while embodying everything around. We need however a clear surface of this inner eye, often referred to as a still lake, so that it can reflect the nature of things without distortion.
I have never seen two birds collide. Have you? Birds fly swiftly through Sky Father without the need for traffic controllers. Why is this? They are aware. Aware of their surroundings, aware of themselves, their abilities, their intentions, their destination, their possibilities, their choices, their purpose.
"Earth Dance Drum" by BlackWolf Jones
By sticking with these "right living" rules and attitudes we balance the unbalanced and restless mind. Otherwise, when left on its own, it deviates from its purity. But here an extra effort can be made to keep the mind pure: we can avoid actions which bring further disturbance to it.
It may mean cultivating a minimalist 'less is more' approach to our use of time, physical space and possessions, relationship with the environment, other people, and even ourselves. Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual training which exposes our true selves for us to see. As a side effect, it may occasionally uncover our emotional wounds and past traumas, but also empowers us to start working with them – instead of covering them with compulsive behaviours, habits and items we don't really need.
Holism by synergy
The domain of physical yoga is the right hemisphere of our brain – the one responsible for body coordination, creativity, emotions, synthesising and intuition. What's interesting is that the logical, well-structured and analytical left hemisphere, often responsible for our experiences of stress, isn't left alone in the holistic practice. The purpose of many yogic techniques is to bring both hemispheres together – to enable collaboration, as well as to transcend them by developing a third bigger entity, a metaphorical third eye conventionally located between our eyebrows.
The integrated functioning of both of our hemispheres is important to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle, of not necessarily a higher but smarter performance (many yogis do however report increased levels of energy). Enhanced imagination, decision-making, information processing, learning, self-awareness, empathy are common outcomes of a regular yoga practice, and can be an additional asset in any aspect of our lives, even workplace, helping everyone around.
That's also how, with all those wonderful outcomes, yoga is a common cure for depression, anxiety, insomnia and even pain sensibility. Why yoga deals so well with these? Because it impacts and regulates the nervous system directly.
Self-empowerment by tangible means
The secret of health benefits lies in yoga's ability to increase the vagal tone – the body’s ability to successfully respond to stress. The vagus nerve, the largest cranial nerve in the body, starts at the base of the skull and wanders throughout the whole body influencing the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. Therefore it regulates all our major bodily functions. Mindful meditation combined with physical movement optimises the nerve's activity and connectivity to the brain.
When the vagal tone is low, which is often correlated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy, we experience symptoms of stress. We may feel tired, finding ourselves with slow digestion, increased heart rate, and mood swings. However when the vagus nerve is toned, our digestion and heart functions improve, mood stabilises, a relaxed state is easier to achieve.
Those early sages who created, or perhaps discovered yoga were probably left to their own experiments, observations and pure intuition. Today we can measure how yoga techniques actually work. Even chanting has been scrutinised by scientists and confirmed to be an effective tool – chanting OM out loud increases the vagal tone.
Getting yoga (do) right
In our Western culture we may miss the point of yoga at first – we can believe it's a set of physical exercises designed to increase our physical attractiveness and as a result disregard the rich spiritual heritage, or believe that yoga is a 'girl thing', although it was created by and for men (especially prenatal and pregnancy yoga teachers are still at the beginning of their journey of adapting yoga to female needs). Whatever the reason brought yoga to our lives in the first place, sooner or later we experience a wide array of benefits, which just strengthen our commitment to stay on the path. To respect our own time and benefit from all that yoga has to offer we may as well look into its origin and tweak our mind to make sure we are on the right track straight away.
Perhaps one day this approach to life on a large scale will build a stable lasting peace in the world. Because emotional intelligence, clarity of thinking, enhanced problem solving skills, self-respect, healthy self-love and so on easily translate and go beyond an individual life. Developing empathy, kindness and healthy relationship with ourselves changes the world around us as it radiates onto the connections we have with others. Inner space is outer space, there are no boundaries.