WHAT IS YOGA?
Yoga (pronounced “yogh”) originated in India thousands of years ago. Sri Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali around the second century BCE and is said to have called himself simply a “compiler of yoga principles” from ancient Vedic texts. Sutras means threads, or philosophical guidelines. Patanjali describes yoga as chitta vritti nirodha, which roughly translates to “you are in a state of yoga when you can still the mind into presence.”. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means “to yoke, join or unite”. The ultimate meaning is the union between the individual self and the Universal Self. It is establishing oneness between the finite and the Infinite, between the inner being and the Supreme Being. So, as well as helping us to attain optimum health and a calm and peaceful mind, yoga can also lead us to self-realization and ultimately spiritual liberation and a sense of oneness with the Self.
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
Through not understanding the distinction between pleasure (an attribute of the senses) and happiness (an attribute of the mind), we often try to give our lives meaning and purpose by turning our minds outward. Hence we fill our time with external events, activities and objects – pursuits that can bring only transitory happiness. Yoga meditation interiorizes the practitioner’s concentration, reversing the outward-flowing life-energy (or prana) of the senses so that it moves inward and upward through the energy centres (or chakras) in the body, magnetizing the spine with energy and encouraging divine self-awareness. The art of Yoga Meditation is not merely doing techniques, for these are only vehicles to help you on your inner journey to attain the goal of yoga, or spiritual union.
YOGA IN INDIA VERSUS WESTERN YOGA:
Yoga in Western society often misrepresents the physical practice, known as yogasana, as yoga itself. Jnana Yoga (studying spiritual texts as yoga), Bhakti Yoga (devotion as yoga), and Karma Yoga (community action as yoga) are more ancient forms of yoga with little or no physical posturing. Classical yoga, however, is a holistic practice comprising eight limbs—the physical postures being just one element of finding peace in oneself.
THE EIGHT LIMBS OF YOGA
Called ashtanga yoga in Sanskrit (ashta means eight, anga means limb). These eight interdependent limbs, put forward by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras (200 BCE), prepare us for the inward journey from our limited consciousness of outward identification with our body-mind, to a subtle, higher state in which we can feel more at one with ourselves and the universe. They provide the means for freedom from earthly “suffering” and the true awakening of our ever-joyful inner spirit. Are:
THE INTERNAL ENERGY SYSTEM
- yama – self-restraint
- niyama – fixed observances
- asana – yoga posture (postures that are steady, pleasant and comfortable will lend themselves to such concentration)
- pranayama – regulation of life-force through the breath
- pratyahara – withdrawing the mind from the senses (preparing the mind for concentration and meditation)
- dharana – concentration (mind can be compared to a lake, with the thoughts and feelings that arise from the mind appearing as waves on the lake. We can see our reflection clearly in the waters only when the waves on the surface subside and become still)
- dhyana – meditation (liberation of the mind from all disturbing thoughts, emotional reactions and restless desires, and turning our attention inward to become aware of our own true blissful nature)
- samadhi – divine union (the mind is so totally absorbed in the divine Self that it is no longer aware of itself meditating)
THE THREE BODIES AND FIVE SHEATHS
- the physical body, the two subtle bodies and their five sheaths (koshas)
- the chakras – the body’s seven main energy centres serve as transformers to receive, assimilate and distribute the vital energy, or life-force, required for the body’s systems to function
- the nadis – subtle energy channels running throughout the body transport the body’s life-force, nourishing you with vitality
- kundalini – spiritual energy, or consciousness, which is symbolized as a coiled-up serpent living in a latent form at the base of the spine
We are spiritual beings, immortal spirit-souls temporarily embodied in both material fields of energy (our physical body) and non-material fields of energy. The body in which our true self or soul (atman or purusha) resides can therefore be likened to a castle that has three layers of fortification:
- the physical body (sthula sharira) – the inner “wall”, which is subject to the limits of time, space and gravity, and is destroyed upon death
- the astral body (suksma sharira) – the middle “wall”, which is more durable
- the causal body (karana sharira) – the outer “wall”, which is even more permanent, being carried through countless lifetimes
The five “sheaths” (koshas), are located within the three bodies. They are like coverings of the inner luminous self. While we need to keep each of the bodies and sheaths in optimal working order so that we remain healthy and vital, we should also aim to stop associating their actions with our limited sense of self, and instead start identifying with the true, divine self that lies beyond, where we will find deep inner peace and contentment.
“The physical sheath is filled by the vital sheath, the vital sheath by the mental sheath, the mental sheath by the intelligent sheath, and the intelligent sheath by the blissful sheath.”
The most concrete of the three bodies, the physical body is subject to birth, growth, disease, decay and death. The most effective way to keep this body healthy and vital is not only through a balanced diet and physical exercise such as running and swimming, but also through yoga postures (asana) to balance our energy, breathing techniques (pranayama) to clear the energy channels, and meditation to give rest to our mind and body.
The astral body
– the invisible fortifying wall surrounding the physical body – is the home of our personality, our thoughts and our feelings; in short, all our non-physical personal attributes. This body could be described as the “conductor” of the physical body, as all our physical actions take place as a result of the astral body’s energy (the physical body does not have the required energy of its own). The most effective way to energize and empower this body is through practising yoga asana, pranayama, mantra chanting, self-enquiry and the study of yogic scriptures. The astral body contains three sheaths: pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha and vijnanamaya kosha.
Even more subtle than the astral body, the causal body
is composed of our deepest thoughts, desires, intentions and aspirations. It is the storehouse of our past impressions, the seed impressions that motivate our behaviour and create our karma. In the analogy of the three-walled castle, the causal body is the wall connecting us to the divine self. Although it gives light and energy to the astral body, its own vitality has a different abode, called the anandamaya kosha (bliss sheath). This is a body of light that reflects the blissfulness of the self, allowing us to experience true joy.
Chakra is a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel” or “revolving disc”. Accordingly, chakras in the human body are thought to be wheels or revolving discs of subtle energy or life-force (prana) located along the midline of the astral body, known as the astral spine. They are confluences of consciousness and energy that store and distribute energy and information to the physical body, as well as storing our psychological tendencies, desires and habits. The yoga tradition recognizes seven major chakras distributed along the midline of the body. These are located:
- at the base of the spine – muladhara
- in the genital area – svadhisthana
- at the navel – manipura
- at chest or heart level – anahata
- at the throat – vishuddhi
- at the forehead – ajna
- above the crown of the head – sahasrara
It is essential for these chakras to be functioning well in order to store the maximum energy that can be used by the body at will. Just like, over a period of time, the battery of a car can become old and lose its capacity to “hold charge” if not well looked after, so too will your chakras become unable to adequately support the vital systems of the body if they are not sufficiently developed. Regular practice of the yoga exercises, such as asanas, pranayama and chanting the bija mantras, will ensure their balanced development, and therefore boost energy levels and enhance overall health.
Ultimately, our bodies are nothing but energy. Our chakras act as dynamos of cosmic energy, allowing our subtle bodies to plug into the universal power source. They serve as transformers and regulators to receive, assimilate and distribute prana in the astral body, which then distributes it to the spinal nerve plexuses, where it is, in turn, transferred to the blood and organs of the physical body. The prana enters the body at the base of the brain (an area known as the medulla oblongata) and flows to the higher brain centres. It then filters downward through the six major chakras below that, starting at ajna chakra and working its way down to muladhara chakra; sahasrara, the main generator of the energies that power these six chakras, is located at the crown, above the medulla oblongata, and operates on a higher plane of consciousness. As this energy spirals down through each chakra, it becomes increasingly dense, until it forms what are known as the five great elements (panchamahabhuta). These are essential “states” of matter. When your mind is calm and still, you become aware of your true identity, of the spiritual being within yourself who is beyond the forces of the body, mind and senses. Yoga Meditation is an effort to perceive this presence of cosmic energy and pure consciousness.
“The conscious cosmic energy first enters through the medulla oblongata (in the brain stem) and remains concentrated in the brain as the thousand-petalled lotus. Then it descends into the body through the spinal cord and sympathetic nervous system.”
THE IDA AND THE PINGALA
The ida and pingala nadis function alternately in the body, not simultaneously. This can be seen in the nostrils as we breathe. Generally, breath is flowing freely through one nostril while the other is blocked. This natural alternation occurs approximately every two hours. When the left nostril is open, the ida nadi is flowing, transports mental energy (chitta shakti) and controls all our psychological
processes, the right hemisphere of the brain is active, the mind is introverted and creative, and the parasympathetic nervous system is active – responsible for resting the body when required. When the right nostril is open, the pingala nadi is flowing, transports our vital life-force (prana) and controls all our physiological
processes, the left hemisphere of the brain is active, the mind is extroverted and logical, and the sympathetic nervous system is more active – responsible for stimulating urgent action when required.
Is the potential spiritual energy, or consciousness, that lies dormant at the base of the spine in the causal body of all beings. When dedicated Yoga Meditation practice brings about balance between the upward movement of energy in the ida (accompanied by inhalation) and the downward movement of energy in the pingala (accompanied by exhalation), kundalini is activated from its dormant state in muladhara chakra. Both these currents of energy then move upward in the central channel of the sushumna, where they are activated in the brain, creating a sense of inner calm and divine joy as part of our spiritual awakening.
True knowledge comes through direct experience so it is important to practise regularly, even if it is only for ten to 15 minutes a day. Although mornings or evenings are best, you can schedule your Yoga Meditation practice anytime.
V Nanammal, the 98-year-old yoga expert from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, believes that, in its true form, yoga isn’t about rigorous activity or getting all sweaty and breathless; it’s about peace and relaxation, and this is what she’s been practicing every day for nearly a century. more