It is no surprise that yoga has lasted thousands of years. Nor is it any surprise that its popularity is surging. Pop stars, waiters, actors, secretaries, lawyers, doctors, car mechanics, housewives, athletes – yoga appeals to everyone.
It is no longer a cranky pursuit. Instead it is fast becoming the most sought-after of exercise and training programs. The reason is simple: yoga reaches parts that other forms of exercise cannot even contemplate. It exercises every muscle in the body; it tones and invigorates every organ; it flashes and cleans every blood vessel; it pacifies, tones, and harmonises the nerves; it massages the brain; it realigns bones; it improves posture; it irrigate all body tissues; it enhances the skin quality; it clears and relaxes the mind; it focuses attention; it generates energy.
The practice has lasted so long, and is in such demand, simply because it is brilliant – brilliant for the body, brilliant for the mind, a brilliant way to enhance your life. There is no other form of exercise, or any other kind of training, that is so comprehensive.
While it’s method is mainly physical, its effects are not. It enhances the activity of the mind just as much as it does that of the body. It does so with the utmost simplicity. It requires no special machinery or gadgets; it needs new specialist understanding.
All you need to practice yoga is a body, a mind, a little floorspace, a little bit of time, and motivation. We can all have that. Once you start to practice its benefits are so immediately obvious that it becomes easier and easier to find both the time and the motivation to continue. There is no need to impose hey strenuous discipline on yourself. It is just a matter of going to your mat and doing it.
YOGA COULD HARDLY BE MORE SIMPLE
In fact it is a very natural process, especially first thing in the morning: cats do it, dogs do it, children do it.
In fact most of us, even now, still do it. We wake up, and we stretch: an arm or two, a leg or two. On the surface yoga is simply organised stretching – a stretching of the whole body undertaken systematically, regularly, and consistently. The remarkable power of yoga comes from the way we go about the stretch – the internal dynamic – and the organisation of the different stretches into sequences – the external dynamic – that open, relax, and tone the body gently, gradually, safely, and effectively.
The internal and dynamic and the external dynamic are equally important. Together they transform yoga from a flexibility training into a whole body/whole mind training that has the power to enhance your life enormously. It is much more than simply developing fitness while becoming more relaxed, although Yoga does both of these more effectively than any other training. You can become flexible, relaxed, stronger, more alert, fitter, focused, and full of vitality – all with a little diligent cross training.
But Yoga has a magic ingredients that is unique. Most importantly of all, yoga will help you become more comfortable with yourself. As you become more comfortable in your body, and more at ease in your mind, you will feel better and better about yourself this is the secret of yoga it is not about becoming a better person by becoming a different person. It is about becoming better about being the person that you are. It helps you to drop the tension, anxiety, and inhibition that prevent you from being fully and freely yourself. It teaches you to like and love yourself.
You do this in yoga simply by paying attention to the way your body feels as you move it, to the rhythm of your breathing, in and out of different postures. Nothing weird, nothing esoteric, nothing complicated.
Just moving, breathing, and feeling. With, again, one secret ingredient – staying still, and breathing and feeling. While how you move in and out of the pastures is important, it is the staying still that really counts. It is this that distinguishes Yoga from other forms of training: giving yourself time to stop still, to listen to your body, to feel yourself as you are.
You are going to be amazed and delighted by how simple yoga is. And you are going to be amazed and delighted at how much you are going to get out of it.
MOVING INTO STILLNESS
Yoga is a practice of moving with a breath into stillness. The stillness takes place within specific shapes: the yoga postures. These postures are varied in their shapes and their familiarity.
Many of them can be seen in the everyday activity of children, athletes, dancers, and gymnasts. Some of them cannot. The more advanced yoga postures can be very extreme in the demands that they put upon muscles, joints, and ligaments. However, the benefits of yoga are not in proportion to the difficulty of the postures. Most of the benefits of yoga results from the more basic postures. The advanced posture is simply add a little delicious icing to the basic nutrition of the cake.
The benefits do not come simply from making the body take a specific shape.
Yoga is not like dance or gymnastics.
Even though many yoga postures are very beautiful, the way that a posture looks is not the point.
Yoga is not an external practice. It is an internal one. The point is the inner dynamic that sustains the posture in an effortless stillness.
This is dynamic stillness, or meditative action.
It requires the presence of the mind. Paying attention to the breath brings the mind into the equation and changes the shapes of the postures into powerful tools of transformation. The mind is brought to bear on the inner activity that sustains the outer shape of the posture. Without presence of mind the inner activity will be incomplete and then so two will be the posture. Then it will not be able to provide all of its benefits.
The basic yoga postures require a contribution from each part of the body. It is not just a question of moving the spine. The spine must be supported by the pelvis, legs, and feet. It must be assisted by the chest, neck, arms, and hands. The shapes become yoga postures by involving all the body and all of the mind.
WORDS HAVE MANY MEANINGS
One of the drawbacks of words is that they create divisions. The spine is the spine, not the legs. The legs are the legs, but not the arms. Of course this is true.
However, the body does not work within itself in the same way that words do. Although it is clear from the outside that arms are arms and legs are legs, from within it is not so clear. When we raise an arm, the muscles in the legs and feet also change their activity. If it were not so we would lose our balance. So, as far as the body is concerned, the absolute distinction that we make between body parts and muscles does not hold. This becomes very clear in yoga.
When the spine is under stress and needs relief, we often have to change the activity of the legs while doing nothing directly with the spine. Likewise the line and position of the pelvis is secured by adjusting the feet and the legs. In yoga the body is a whole. The parts are not separable. The activity of each part determines and is determined by the activity of every other part. The mind, too, is a vital part of this equation. It is needed to re-educate muscular relationships that have become dormant or restricted through years of bad habit.
This fact underlies the way that the postures must be approached. Just as nobody has it innate integrity that goes deeper than the separation of various parts, so too does the method of the practice. While the shapes of the postures can easily be approximated without the integrity of this approach, their benefits will be compromised.
To access the full range and depth of its benefits the practice of Yoga must be approached with integrity. This integrity is one in which the attentiveness and sensitivity of the mind are used to activate and integrate each part of the body into a harmonious hole.
This is a harmony of both body and mind: as one. The guiding link is the breath.
YOGA IS NOT FANCY STRETCHING
What this means is that Yoga is not simply a matter of establishing the greatest possible movement in a muscle or muscle group. Yoga is not a fancy form of stretching. It is not simply a matter of lengthening muscles: it is a question of retuning all the muscles of the body and their relationship to each other. This retuning is not done in order to bring about flexibility. It is done in order to bring about efficiency and harmony of all physical activity. This is not just about muscular movement. It is also a question of the organic activity of the vital systems of the body: respiratory, circulatory, digestive, reproductive, immunological, nervous, et cetera. Nevertheless, flexibility is an obvious and beneficial effect of this process.
But it is important to realise that flexibility is not the be all and end all of yoga: nor a strength, stamina or any combination thereof. Yoga is not primarily fitness training, though it will make you fit.
The more you put into the practice of yoga the more you will get out of it.
It can be used to develop flexibility, strength, stamina, and general fitness. It can be used to promote relaxation and good posture. It can be used to correct muscular imbalances and skeletal defects. It can be used to overcome illness and prevent disease.
But it can give much more than these things, while including them also. It can give a deep and resilient peace of mind, which comes from self awareness and self acceptance that rest upon the self-determination and self responsibility which the method demands. No one can do your practice for you. Once you begin to feel the way that it opens you to yourself, allowing you to feel and be yourself more fully and more freely, you will greatly appreciate this fact.
A DEADLY PITFALL
Yoga is not just a technical process. It also has an inner dimension.
This inner dimension is in fact far more important to your overall well-being than the mechanical techniques of the postures. While the correct technique protects your body from injury, it cannot protect your mind. The effect that Yoga has on your mind, and therefore on your everyday life and in particular your relationships, depends much more on your motivation and your attitude. The effect that practice has on your state of mind depends almost entirely on these two factors in combination. The wrong motivation and attitude can create an aggression in the mind that is harnessed and amplified through the practice. It is not so much that wanting to become super flexible, superman strong, or supermodel skinny is harmful.
It is what that motivation can do to the attitudes that you bring to the practice. It can make you push yourself beyond your safe limits. It can encourage you to force muscles, to strain joints, to damage ligaments. More seriously your ambition to achieve a preconceived result can constantly give you a sense of your own inadequacy as you are. Then while your practice may make you more flexible and stronger, and you might feel good about that, on a deeper level you are undermining your self-esteem, and your self-confidence.
To avoid this deadly pitfall you require two consistent allies: sensitivity and honesty.
You must apply sensitivity to what you are doing so that you can be honestly aware of the effect it is having on you, and not only on your body, but also on your mind. Is what you are doing making you feel more relaxed about yourself, or is it making you aggressive, impatient, or irritable? We all have our limits: so too does each part of us; every muscle, every ligament, every joint. We must respect these limits, moment by moment. This does not mean we consign ourselves to the limitations forever. Not at all. It means that we should explore and express those limits with sensitivity and honesty, so that they can expand, so that you can grow according to your current capacity. With this motivation and attitude the application of the correct technique to the practice of yoga postures will result not only in enjoyable physical benefits, but deeply satisfying psychological benefits to. Yoga practice with an honest sensitivity to your limitations, and the innate impulse to expand, will result in a deepening of your self-esteem and nourishing of yourself confidence that far outweighs the more obvious physical benefits.