To many Westerners, the term “yoga” used to bring to mind Indian gurus in long, flowing robes doing pretzel-like poses. Today, when we hear the term yoga we probably think of people sweating in hot rooms by choice. Or, some other kind of physical activity that requires rubbery mats and designer clothing. Still, behind these evolving stereotypes lies rich, time-honored teachings on how to achieve physical health, psychological well-being, and spiritual peace.
Yoga aims at the integration and harmonization of all the various human faculties: mind, emotions, body & spirit. In India, where it originated, this process of integration, ‘the yoga’ takes many forms. There is Karma Yoga (selfless service), Jnana Yoga (knowledge) and Bhakti Yoga (devotion) However the discipline that is usually referred to when one says simply “yoga” is Hatha Yoga, the union of opposites. Through a series of physical poses and practices, hatha yoga teaches us how to quiet the mind by placing attention on the breath and on the movement (and stillness) of the body.
One can engage in hatha yoga on many different levels:
- As a brief and relaxing interlude in a hectic life
- As a demanding regime for strengthening and invigorating the body
- As a therapeutic practice for particular physical difficulties or ailments
Or, as a path to higher states of consciousness and union with the Divine.
Whatever your motivation or level of practice, hatha yoga offers profound benefits that will affect all aspects of your life: work, recreation, eating habits, family life and relationships with others. By making the body stronger and more flexible, hatha yoga frees you of your habitual defenses and allows you to face life with greater poise, openness, and equanimity. And, by teaching concentration and awareness, yoga snaps you out of your “consensual trance” and draws you gently but firmly into the reality of each moment.
Although yoga has a close association with the Hindu & Buddhist religions it ‘s only requirement is to believe in your own experience(s). Two of the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, mention the importance of physical postures in the practice of meditation. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a collection of aphorisms set down in the second century A.D., details an eightfold path of spiritual observance of which asana practice is but one part. Hatha yoga was originally meant as a preparatory vehicle for aspirants who needed to strengthen the body for long hours of seated meditation.
The eight “limbs” of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras form the philosophical foundation for the practice of hatha yoga. Rather than steps or stages, they are actually interdependent aspects of a holistic way of life and include guidelines for cultivation of the body, mind, and spirit. In addition to asana, there are precepts (yama) and observances (niyama)—such as non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, purity and study. These practices lay the groundwork for the other limbs which include:
- regulated breathing (pranayama), which brings the mind into harmony with the body
- sense restraint (pratyahara), for keeping energy from dispersing:
- concentration (dharana) for keeping the mind focused:
- meditation proper (dhyana) for realizing our true nature;
- and samadhi, ultimate realization itself.
Those of us who take up yoga as a refreshing antidote to a busy, stressful life certainly cannot be expected to follow the rigorous guidelines set down by the yogis’ of old. We are what is called, “householders”. What we do is adapt yogic practices to modern-day needs, remembering that asana practice is but one aspect of a yogic life-style and will have little benefit in isolation.
Thus, you may find, as your practice of yoga progresses you may lose interest in some of the old habits and behavioral patterns you have acquired over the years. You may suddenly give up smoking, for example, or lose your taste for white sugar or red meat. Or you may discover that you are less given to emotional outburst, or that you can no longer tell the little “white lies” that have gotten you through in the past. You may sleep less or crave fresh air or more relaxing leisure time. All these are welcome signs that the practice of Hatha Yoga is having its beneficial and wide-ranging effects on your life.
Please remember that yoga is something that we practice. The Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind is especially relevant to yoga. Each and every time we practice yoga we should enter into it being completely present in this moment. Achievement and attaining goals have no place in yoga. In yoga, we are in the moment experiencing and accepting what is happening right now.
One final word. Attending a regular yoga class is a wonderful gift to your self. However, just like anything else, the benefits of yoga will be more effective if you practice at home as well. If possible, set aside a warm, quiet corner of your home for practice, a place free from compelling distractions. Mornings are generally best for yoga, particularly dawn. However, late afternoons or evenings are fine too. If you bring an attitude of openness and exploration to your yoga practice—you may find that your body and mind are the most wonderful teachers you will ever have!
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