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Yoga and Life

“You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.” – Unknown

Why do I practice yoga? What does yoga mean to me? How does yoga effect my life?

These are all questions I constantly ask myself. Not because I doubt the ability of yoga as a positive in my life but because I enjoy reflecting on my journey and being mindful of my changes.

While I have actively been practicing yoga for the best part of 10 years, meaning, asanas, pranayama, and meditation, I did not start to experience the mental and physical benefits of yoga until I started my teacher training. This is in part due to the fact that when we take yoga classes there is not enough time for the instructor to explain the purpose of a pose or practice. Instructors guide breath work, meditation, and posture practices. But without the proper background and understanding of the practices it is difficult to receive the full benefits. That is why I created this website, to inform on all the positive aspects yoga can have on your life if you truly open yourself to yoga.

Yoga is more than postures, meditation, and breath mastery. They are tools in yoga utilized to find your Truth, open yourself to all knowledge, calm your heart/mind, and find peace.

Asanas, pranayama, and meditation are all important to help you reach a state of peace but only if you are mindful during your practice. What is mindfulness? Being mindful means you are listening to your mind and body, not just in your yoga practice but in your everyday life. When you are mindful you “live your life with intention” (Najm 51). In the West we spend too much time pushing ourselves to achieve what society has deemed success. Because of this we ignore important body or mental cues that tell us to stop, slow down, and rest.

When you are mindful, you are present. Being present means you are not attached to the past or the future, which are both distractions (vrrtis) and leads to suffering (duhkha). One of the main purposes in practicing yoga is to overcome pain and suffering. When this is embraced, a weight is lifted from our shoulders. This means we must accept what is in our lives, not strive for more material possessions. When we accept, positivity enters our spirit and we are able to keep living unencumbered by suffering.

You cannot make a change unless you are aware of what needs to be improved for a healthy, positive, and balanced life. You can only become aware if you are mindful. Our thoughts are powerful and can bring the change we seek. There have been numerous studies done to show mindful meditation can improve stress, relieve pain, and improve illness. How can meditation, which means you are focusing inward while remaining still, have such a positive impact on our life? Because being mindful and becoming aware of your ailments can direct your thoughts to correcting those ailments. As with chakra meditation, you identify the detrimental behaviors caused by an imbalanced chakra and direct your thoughts inward to correct those behaviors. If you are mindful of the behaviors then throughout your daily life you are aware and can actively change. Repeating the mindful change will eventually create a positive habit and you have taken a step toward harmonizing the energy in that chakra.

Change, however, cannot be achieved unless you want to experience change. If you want to ease anxiety, seek happiness, heal your body and mind then you must be motivated to achieve those goals. Without motivation you will not be able to stay consistent and have the right mindset for positive change.

It is important to note that while there are spiritual aspects to yoga, yoga is not a religion. It is a way of life and an experience. When you practice yoga at its full capacity you are liberated from the manifested world. When you fill yourself with positivity, that positiveness surrounds you to impact the world and people around you.

What else is there to yoga? So, so much more. Yoga is a beautiful life changing practice. The yoga sutras are a group of instructions on how to live and practice yoga in its entirety, written by Patanjali, centuries earlier (Bachman xv). Traditionally, yoga was taught and passed down from guru to student and took many, many years to master. The knowledge and instruction includes Sanskrit study, because the tone of a word is important to the meaning of the word. Vibrational frequencies from speaking Sanskrit unlock energies that connect you to knowledge and other objects. Asana and pranayama is a small mention in the sutras because the focus of yoga is first and foremost to unite one’s Self with the Brahman in everything. With this unity we achieve Kaivalya (liberation). In order to reach Kaivalya our heart/mind must be free of distractions and absorbed in peace. Our citta (individual consciousness) is formed by our experiences of the external world. We gain the input from our sensory organs. We create memory from our experiences, that memory forms our identity through behavior habits and relations with those around us. However, the goal of yoga is to purify and transcend our citta, unite the citta with the Purusa (inner light of awareness). The citta is constantly changing, whereas, the Purusa never changes and is always observing (Bachman 25). If we can successfully unite the citta and Purusa then we become aware of our true Self, our inner light that we share with everything (Bachman 28).

The citta, through living, easily becomes distracted by vrrtis (fluctuations). These distractions are identified by Patanjali as evaluation, misperception, imagination, sleep, and memory (Sutra 1:6). All thoughts and experiences are distractions. Only through diligent practice of stilling the citta can the vrrtis be overcome to prepare oneself for the union with Purusa. When we are able to reach our Purusa then we are open to Isvara (knowledge itself). Isvara is the ultimate knowledge we seek to tap into, where we find the answers to the universe. Isvara is our eternal teacher that never changes and is always present, spanning time and space (Bachman 47). When we reach Isvara we have achieved Kaivalya. We are aware of our deeper existence, not our physical being but our higher consciousness that is part of a larger supreme knowledge.

At this point we have overcome suffering, we have shifted obstacles into opportunities, to purify our citta, and completely absorb the heart/mind in Purusa.

What are the causes of suffering, or the klesas? The klesas are rooted in fear. There are five klesas that Patanjali outlines. These are Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egotism), Raga (desire), Dvesa (aversion), and Abhinivesa (fear of death). These fears cause us to act in certain ways. We create impressions (samskaras) through our actions based on the klesas. The samskaras become habit forming and we fall into a cycle of suffering. Through mindfulness we can break the cycle and release ourselves from becoming prey to our fears. Awareness and detachment allow us to overcome the obstacles that keep us from seeing our pure Truth.

I know this is all heavy and maybe a little difficult to grasp, but once there is understanding you can have an idea of why it is important to practice yoga. Through diligent practice it is possible to heal yourself and always have the tools to reach liberation. There are eight limbs to yoga, that when practiced cleanse your heart/mind and set the foundation to reach Kaivalya. The first 5 limbs are the outer limbs, more directly linked to the external world. The first five are Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara.

The Yamas are social eithics that we should live by in order to maintain an inner and outer balance of kindness and truthfulness. The social eithcs are Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non stealing), Brahmacarya (vital energy conservation), Aparigraha (non hoarding). These are ways to live your life that directly impact the world around you. When you do not steal, harm, and are truthful, you are rewarded with kindness and truth. Treat others as you wish to be treated, as Christianity also states. But these Yamas go beyond treating other people, it also encompasses the environment, animals, plants, and yourself.

The niyamas are our internal control for personal care. While the niyamas are mostly internal, the first, Sauca (cleanliness) refers to keeping a clean body, which helps us keep a clear mind. When you wash the body, you wash away suffering, wash our mind clean of distractions and anxiety. The other four niyamas, Samtosa (contentment), Tapas (positive change), Svadhyaya (study of oneself), Isvara-pranidhana (humility or faith) all refer to ways we can shift our thoughts to instill positivity, gratitude, knowledge, maintain faith of the inner light in everything.

In Kriya-yoga we practice Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Isvara-pranidhana synergistically. All three are practicing mindfulness. In tapas we must set an intention to bring about positive change, in not just our own lives but in others’ lives. Svadhyaya allows for our self-discovery. We need to be mindful of our reactions in different situations, our behaviors, and our actions in order to accomplish Svadhyaya. In Isvara-pranidhana faith is about accepting that change is constant and we can only control what is directly related to us. With things out of our control, if unfavorable, we can change our perception so we look at it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. When we practice the three last niyamas in Kriya-yoga we weaken the klesas that attempt to hold us back from reaching our liberation.

The next two limbs of yoga are perhaps the most widely known in the West, i.e. Asana and Pranayama. Asanas are the postures that are practiced in a typical yoga class. Asanas are a limb of yoga because with practice we strengthen and stretch our body. This helps protect the physical temple to our mind and spirit. With control of the body we can master the mind. Pranayama is the practice of breath control. Prana is our vital life force and is in everything. We bring Prana in our bodies in multiple ways such as, food, sunshine, and oxygen. Prana connects “all aspects of perception” (Bachman 139). Sutra 2:49 is translated as “Once [the sitting posture] is [stable and comfortable], then the regulation of breath is cutting off the movements of inhalation and exhalation [so the breath is still]” (Bachman 139). This means as we master our breath, focusing our attention on the inhale and exhale then at the point of breath suspension (between the inhale and exhale) our mind will still. As we get better at pranayama, we can extend the breath retention to experience longer periods of stillness. Pranayama prepares us for meditation.

Pratyahara bridges the gap between pranayama and the first limb in meditation. Pratyahara involves turning off our sensory input. Here we take the final step in detaching from the external world. With focus we are able to ignore the distractions around us. Through pranayama and asana practice we learn how to control our physical body, preparing us for the mastery of our sensory organs in pratyahara.

The last three limbs of yoga are the inner limbs that prepare our heart/mind to reach Kaivalya. The first step is training your heart/mind in Dharana. In this stage you pick an object to focus on, a mandala, a candle, the idea of an elephant, a tree, and so on. In Dharana you begin focusing on the object selected. The focus will be intermittent with distractions entering the focus but you bring the attention back to your object. You are training to keep your focus on that object continuously. When you reach the continuous attention then you enter Dhyana. The focus on your object is now uninterrupted and you are practicing meditation. Finally, the last stage in the eight limbs is Samadhi, where the heart/mind is completely absorbed in the object. This is the point where you become one with the object, uniting with the energy that links everything. We can see and understand the Truth of the object.

However, this Samadhi is considered Sabija-Samadhi where there is still the knowledge of the object and, therefore, still connected to the manifested world. Nirbija-Samadhi is the ultimate goal in meditation where there is no distinction to the object, instead we have transcended the manifested and our heart/mind experiences Samadhi on the higher consciousness. We can completely understand the essence of an object in Samprajnata-Samadhi, then we can let go of that comprehension in Asamprajnata-Samadhi and just be. The last three limbs of yoga are meant to bring our focus inward, called Samyama. Once we master Samyama we achieve deep insight.

Everything prior has been to transcend our physicality and calm our heart/mind to prepare ourselves for Kaivalya. Yoga is a journey to our ultimate liberation. We cannot skip straight to enlightenment. We must first master ridding our heart/mind of distractions through diligence in positivity and focus. There are no detours or secret passageways on the way to Kaivalya. The obstacles and suffering we experience along the way teach us to persevere, that in the end we will know all and be able to understand our purpose.

So, after all of this, why do I practice yoga? The simplified answer is that it gives me the tools to calm my mind, relax, stay positive, remind myself to be kind, and take care of myself. When I first started yoga, I thought it was just for the physical activity of asanas. I was unaware of the other mental and spiritual aspects of yoga. On occasion I still feel guilt if I skip an asana practice, but I am practicing yoga everyday whether its through mindfulness, letting go of anxiety and anger, or breath work. Yoga has changed my life for the better and as an instructor, I want to inform my student’s that there is more than asana to yoga. Yoga can give the practitioner purpose, peace, and knowledge. It is mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional. It is a journey to improve life.

“Yoga happens beyond the mat. Anything you do with attention to how you feel is doing yoga.” – Unknown

Bachman, Nicolai. The Yoga Sutras: Workbook. Sounds True, Inc. Boulder, CO. 2010.

Najm, Liliane. Yoga Therapy for Autoimmune Diseases: Manage Inflammation and Pain with Yoga, Relaxation, and Meditation. Liliane Najm. Middletown, DE. 2019.

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