YOGA – the science of right living
According to the Bhagavad Gita, the original framework for yoga practice;
“Yoga is not for those who gorge too much, nor for those who starves themselves. It is not for those who sleep too much, nor for those who stay awake. By moderation in eating and resting, by regulation in working and, by harmony of sleeping and waking – Yoga destroys all pain and sorrow.”
This ideal, dated from as far back as the third century BC, describes perfectly the modern-day concept of biological homeostasis; being the condition of equilibrium in the human body’s internal environment, that is maintained by the body’s own regulatory processes.
Homeostasis is dynamic and ever changing, whilst remaining within certain narrow limits that ensure optimal functioning of all life processes. When this balance is threatened or lost there is risk to the wellbeing of the individual. Yet if it is maintained, robust health and optimal physiological function can ensue.
There are of course, many points in between the two extremes of optimal health and the onset of disease; yoga, and homeostasis, represent the proverbial middle ground.
LIMBS of a YOGIC TREE
David Svenson, Ashtanga yoga pioneer, and author of The Practice Manual, eloquently elaborated on Patanjali’s original description of the eight aspects of yoga as the “limbs of a tree”.
Svenson explained that the world of yoga, with its many different styles and approaches, can be likened to a forest filled with much variety and colour, where every tree in the forest has the same ultimate goal; to reach toward the light. One tree’s method for doing that is not better than any other’s; each species has unique and individual characteristics that enable it to grow to its greatest potential.
There are many branches of the yogic tree, including raja, hatha, jnana, karma, bhakti, mantra, kundalini and laya; and many texts that explain them all in detail. This allows each individual to find a style most suited to their unique personality, beliefs, wants and needs.
In recent times hatha yoga has become among the most well-known and widely practiced systems; partly because of its focus on the physical body which for many people is a familiar and practical starting point. Yet the concept of what constitutes yoga is broadening all the time as more people take up the practice and spread the ancient knowledge into the modern world.
While yoga’s central theme remains the highest goals of the spiritual path, yogic practices offer direct and tangible benefits to everyone regardless of their spiritual aims.
Yoga asana, when practiced appropriately, is one of many of modalities that can empower an individual to maintain their own health; but it is by no means the only one. In fact, yoga asana is not even the full spectrum of a complete yoga practice; merely one of eight classic limbs or branches that also include:
- Ethical disciplines.
- Breath control.
- Sense withdrawal.
- Cultivation of joy and peace.
These aspects are less often explored in a modern yoga environment. Yet due to the unity of yoga, asana practice can still affect all aspects of being; making it a powerful healing tool. Many people are not be aware of the effects that physical practice can have on their mental and emotional state. Yet when they arrive for class they unconsciously place all these things on their mat.
Between health, characterised by an optimally functioning body; and death; there is a wide range of sub-optimal function and varying degrees of cellular degeneration. Yoga cultivates introspection and self-examination. By increasing awareness of our own physicality we are able to identify blockages on physical, mental and emotional levels.
The mind and body are not separate entities; rather, the mind is the subtle form of the body, and the body the gross form of the mind. Both body and mind can harbour tension and knots; in fact, it is said that every mental knot has a corresponding physical, muscular knot, and vice-versa.
The aim of yoga practice is to release these knots. Asana can release mental tension by dealing with them on a physical level. As a result, previously dormant energy is liberated, allowing the body to become filled with vitality and strength; which, in response, allows the mind to become light, creative, joyful and balanced.
Yoga understands that the whole cannot be separated from its parts. Yoga asana allows the practitioner to refine control over their physical body and bring increased levels of understanding to the miniature of their being.
JNANA – the 1%
Shri K Pattabhi Jois famously described yoga as, “99% practice, 1% theory.”
This is true to a point, but should not detract from the importance of that one percent! Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills; which is acquired through experience or education, and by perceiving, discovering, or learning.
Yoga teaches us to pay attention to the subtle intricacies of being, and the body knows that each and every atom and cell play a specific role in the homeostasis of the entire organism. In his 2011 publication, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, Professor Rob Dunn asks us to;
“Imagine that we could see smaller or more distant things than we do. We might then see what is really going on.”
There is indeed much “going on”, and it should influence our approach to practice if we intend to engage in safe and effective yoga. Over 90% of the biological cellular matter that dwells within the human body is not part of the human body! For every one cell that makes up the physical body, there are nine bacterial cells that have co-evolved to reside upon and within it.
Evolutionary biologist Allana Collen, in her 2015 book 10% Human, describes the human body as a “superorganism”. There are more bacteria in the large intestine, for example, than there are cells that make up the entire physical body; some 100 trillion from around 4000 different species. These commensal organisms are essential to physicality and inseparable from the sum of being human.
The physical body is part of an extensive ecosystem, a collective of trillions of individual cells; assembled as twelve basic systems (skeletal, muscular, respiratory etc.), each comprised of multiple organs and tissue structures, and each dependent of the synergistic operation of all others for their own unique form and function.
Cells rarely function as individuals. Instead groups of cells, each similarly specialized to perform a limited number of functions, aggregate into tissues. The structure of a tissue group is always related to its function; for example, muscle tissues have a high degree of contractibility, whilst nervous tissue is electrically excitable.
Relating this to teaching yoga asana is simple for tissues of major muscle groups such as those in the legs. It becomes more intricate and complex as we delve deeper into the microcosm of the body. For example; a practitioner with relatively loose superficial muscle fibers may at first appear ready for a deep back bend. But if tightly bound tissue in the colon is tense; due to poor diet, anxiety, emotional stress etc. they may not release enough for the student to extend into the asana as far as initially presumed.
Remembering that all cells are interconnected; forcing the issue will not help and may in fact cause injury.
Dense, tightly packed tissue structures protect and insulate vital organs, store energy, produce blood and lymphatic cells, defend and repair the body. To practice and teach yoga asana is to unlock trillions of individual cells, bound together and interconnected. This can take much time and patience on behalf of the student and teacher alike.
Hatha yoga was originally made up of six cleansing practices that promote physical and mental purification and balance.
Cleansing and strengthening of the physical and mental aspects of our being, rank among yoga’s more notable accomplishments. The powerful effects of practice work because of the holistic principle that balance created between the endocrine and nervous systems directly and positively influences the bodies many other independent structures and systems.
The yogic concept of Prana, or Life Force, describes the inherent energy that pervades the entire body. Prana flows though channels called nadi’s, which modern science today understands as nerve channels, and which are now known to be responsible for regulating all individual cellular activity.
Stiffness in the body is due to blocked Prana and the subsequent accumulation of toxins; which are the result of normal cellular metabolism, as well as being ingested via the air we breathe, foods we eat, and even the thoughts we harbour in our minds towards ourselves, other people, and the world around us. When Prana begins to flow freely, these toxins are not only removed and flushed from the system, but other, newer toxins are not given the opportunity to take root in body tissues.
As the body becomes more supple with regular practice, many postures that previously seemed impossible to perform somehow become easy, and a certain grace and fluidity of movement develops. When the yogi is focused enough on their practice, the body even moves into certain postures by itself, as asana, bandha and pranayama occur almost spontaneously.
The techniques of yoga are today assimilated into many diverse fields, including medicine, education, entertainment, business, sport and spiritual aspirants. In the 21st century, beyond the needs of the individual, the underlying principles of yoga offer a tool to combat social malaise. As Swami Satyananda Saraswati eloquently noted in his teaching manual Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha;
“At a time when the world can seem to be at a loss, rejecting past values without being able to establish new ones, yoga provides a means for people to find their own way of connecting to their true selves and to their most genuine beliefs.”
Through this connection with our real selves, it is possible to manifest harmony in the current age, and for more compassion to emerge where previously there has been little.
JNANA YOGA at THE SHALA – CAPE TOWN YOGA SCHOOL
This unique and informative class incorporates yoga theory and discourse with asana, pranayama and meditation; as you learn to take yoga off the mat and integrate the practice into daily life.
Thomas Sheehy (RYT200) is a natural health practitioner specialising in diet, nutrition and lifestyle education.
For more information, or to arrange a private consultation, please visit: www.naturalhealth21.com