Yoga: Benefits of the Practice
Yoga is a discipline that currently enjoys renewed awareness and interest. We see it surfacing in various media: in apps for the iPhone, in YouTube videos, as well as in commercials and numerous television programs, even occasionally as the topic of controversy in the news.
In the west, most people view Yoga as an alternative to, or a complement for their regular fitness regimen. Although Yoga does offer extraordinary physical benefits such as increased strength, flexibility, stamina and balance, as well as enhanced cardiovascular and metabolic functioning, to name only a few, there are additional benefits of which many people may not be aware.
Traditionally, Yoga encompasses many disciplines, all of which are seen as paths toward greater awareness. These ultimately lead to liberation through our expanded consciousness. What we know of today as the asana, or physical postures seen in magazines and videos, are only one aspect of the Yoga practice, called Hatha Yoga. These postures were actually introduced as a means for the earliest Yogis to sit in meditation for longer periods of time, in their efforts to reach these higher states of consciousness.
In Sanskrit, “ha” means sun and “tha” translates as moon. In this form of Yoga there is a bringing together of these two vital energies, present in the body and in all life forms, seen as the active or outward moving principle, and the passive or inwardly receptive principle. This is analogous to the Yang and Yin energies of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The word Yoga derives from the root “yug,” meaning to yoke. The implication is one of union, of joining two seemingly opposing things together. Not only are we unifying the active and passive energies in the body, but we are also bringing together and harnessing the mind and the body, through an awareness of the breath.
Let’s imagine that we are farmers with the intention of plowing our fields in springtime so we may plant seeds that we will harvest when they come to fruition in the fall. We also have two great oxen we use to plow our fields, but those mighty beasts are on opposite sides of the field and are highly uncooperative.
Unless we introduce the discipline of the yoke, not much plowing will get done. This sturdy wooden yoke that will join them together, so we can steer them in the direction we want them to go. Then will be able to plow straight and uniform rows.
Now lets look at that scenario as an analogy for our life. We are indeed the farmer, but in this case, we wish to plant the seeds of our desire and ultimately reap the harvest of our creation in the form of the experiences of our life. The two oxen represent our body and our mind. When they are working at cross-purposes, it is very hard to achieve our intentions, but when they are operating in harmony, our life runs in a far more smooth and orderly fashion, and we can achieve our goals with greater ease.
So what then is the yoke, the key to manifesting our desires? Well, the tool that we all have at our disposal is the breath. That seems rather easy, you might say. All I need do is breathe?
Well, the body and the mind might not come together so willingly. The farmer must bring the oxen close enough to place the yoke around their prodigious necks. They are stubborn; they clearly have agendas of their own. The one tends to be like Ferdinand, indolent and loathe to do anything but lie around and smell the flowers, or he is gripped by his passions, pinning away for a cow in the other pasture, while the other is restless and high-strung, bucking and chaffing at anything that would restrain it. It requires perseverance and a tremendous force of will to light a spark in the one, and to quell the inner unrest of the other.
So the farmer must utilize another tool to coax the oxen into alignment. That tool is the ox goad, or, in the case of our efforts, concentration. When we can bring the mind and body into balance through the focused awareness of what is occurring in both at any given moment, we can harness the power inherent in each and create a vital, harmonious, bountiful life, and continue on our path toward expanded consciousness.
So with Yoga, in order to achieve its greatest benefits, we must dedicate ourselves to the task. We call it a practice for just that reason. We don’t “do” Yoga, we practice it, just as we would a musical instrument or sport. A committed musician or athlete understands that to become a master requires one very important thing – discipline. In this discipline of Yoga we fine-tune our instrument, the body, through a focused practice that is firmly centered in the breath, which vitalizes the body and keeps the mind centered in the present moment.
Yoga provides us with a disciplined practice that allows us to concentrate our awareness fully in the body and with the breath so we can train our consciousness to a single point of focus. The physical benefits like increased strength, greater flexibility, and enhanced lung capacity are a bonus of the practice, like icing on the cake, as it were; they are not its main purpose. Though surely, when body and mind are in balance, we do function more optimally in all areas of our life.
We are all well acquainted with mirrors. Most of us in the western world utilize them on a daily basis. Using a mirror we must engage our sense of sight, which requires light to be present. In Yoga, we are developing our sight as well, but this is an inner sight, what we call our intuition, which simply means inner knowledge or knowing. We begin to illuminate the inner landscape in the exploration of the body and the mind, through the physical postures and through focused breath awareness. Eventually, we don’t need these physical mirrors to reflect back to us how we appear to ourselves. In Yoga, we develop an internal awareness, one not contingent on anything external for our sense of self. But more importantly, we gradually discover the true nature of our mind, and we gain control of it, instead of it being in control of us. We are now driving the oxen….
An effect of Yoga is this ability to reflect our thoughts and actions back to us, as if in a mirror or a pool. We observe our thoughts, mind, consciousness and actions and begin to correct them, bringing us into a greater state of balance and equanimity.
The ancient Indian sage Patanjali, who created the first treatise or handbook for Yoga over 2500 years ago, said the practice of Yoga is: “Citta Vrtti Nirodha.” Citta means the mind or consciousness, vrtti can be seen as disturbances or fluctuations in the mind, and nirodha translates as: to restrain or subdue.
If we visualize citta as a lake, its movements (vrtti) are the ripples and waves on the water. In the practice of Yoga, we attempt to still (nirodha) those ripples. When the water is calm, we can more clearly see our true reflection, our true essence. From this place of stillness arises our inspiration. When our mind is still, we can more readily tap into this limitless fountain of Creative Energy.
The practice of Yoga can be described as a process of unlearning. Over the course of our lives we create patterns of behavior and thought that begin to solidify in our bodies and minds (samskaras.) These patterns are what block us from tapping into the stillness. So the continuous flow of this creative energy is restricted. Yoga clears the obstructions in our bodies and minds, and melts the crystallizations. It softens and releases the blockages that hinder us from tapping into the full power of our creative potential, and manifesting what we desire. Once there is a certain level of mastery, we can eventually move into higher states of awareness and consciousness.
Ultimately, Yoga is a journey of discovery. We are more concerned in this discipline with the process than we are with the product. When we are fully committed to the process, the product cannot help but be beneficial and inspired.
So are you ready to embark? You don’t need to pack anything for this journey, you are far better off coming empty handed, or rather empty minded. So drop your baggage and let’s begin…
By Katrin Naumann, MFA, RYI – yoga instructor at Syracuse CNY Healing Arts Center
Katrin’s Energy Healing, Spiritual and Life Guidance Practice Inner Balance Life Works, is located in Manlius, NY. She designs and leads Yoga and experiential workshops, sacred services and meditations, which provide practical tools for realizing one’s full life and Soul potential. She is currently collaborating on a series of recorded meditations and two books on Alchemical Transformation, and The Teachings of Tarot. Visit her website at www.innerbalancelifeworks.com. See the classes she teaches at CNY Healing Arts here.