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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What is Yoga

January 6, 2005

Bend It Like Beckham, PanjabiMC, Bollywood Dreams, Bride and Prejudice, Night Shamalyan, henna tattoos, Indian Restaraunts, House of Spices. The influence of South Asian culture has spread globally and one of the pioneers and fastest expanding trends in the world comes from the most ancient texts and practices in India: YOGA. As the highly respected guru, Smt Nischala Joy Devi observed, “Within the United States alone, there are about twenty million people practicing yoga.” And then corrected herself by adding, “or some form of yoga.” With the advent of yoga magazines, yoga bags/mats, yoga clothing, and yoga studios, yoga tools and yoga diets it seems the entire world is embracing yoga and its benefits. Unfortunately, in the rapid growth of this “trend” the true meaning of Yoga and its benefits are often overlooked and the purpose of its practice is frequently diminished into a superficial form of physical exercise performed to obtain the “yoga body.” Many do not take time to ask the question, “What is yoga?” When we dig deeper into the question, we naturally look at the definition of yoga, not as it is defined by modern society, but, rather, through the definitions found in earlier yoga texts.The first written account of the definition of yoga is found in the most ancient texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas and Upanishads.“Tam Yogam iti manyante stiram indriya dharanam”Controlling all of the senses, including the steadying of the mind, is known as yoga.Another ancient text on the philosophy of yoga, known as Yoga Vasista, was given to Lord Rama by Sage Vasista. “Manah prasamano payah yogah”A technique to calm the mind is yoga.And later, Sage Patanjali, who has compiled the knowledge of yoga and has written its treatise, defines yoga again.“Yogah chitta vrutti nirodah”Yoga is to cleanse the mind of disturbances.Likewise, the definition of yoga can be found in various other ancient Indian texts. In none of these texts do we find any sentence defining yoga as a set of physical postures. Hence, we can, without a doubt, begin to understand that there is much more to yoga than the contortion of the body into strange acrobatic positions or a type of physical achievement.While I was giving a talk about the research and therapeutic work in the field of yoga in Bangalore, a gentleman from the audience stood up and asked, “I do sirshasana (the head stand pose) for one hour everyday, is that okay?”For a moment, I pondered my answer. How could I tell him that doing a headstand for one hour is not yoga? It might be one of the postures in yoga, but yoga has such a deeper meaning and philosophy. After all, at least he is practicing sirshasana and is interested in yoga, so how could I discourage him? Compounded with that question he asked me if it is okay. I thought, if it were okay, then why would God create us head up, feet down and then say, “My dear friend, I made the mistake of creating you head up, feet down. Please correct me!” So then I answered, “Yoga means peace of mind.” And then light heartedly continued, “Yes, continue to do an hour in the headstand pose, so long as while you are in the headstand, people at home will have peace of mind… Further, if the head is not useful for any purpose, let it carry the weight of the body for an hour; it is good!”But we see that yoga is beyond the hour of physical postures when, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna takes the purpose and meaning of yoga to a higher dimension, giving it a deeper notion. He tells Arjuna “Yogasthah kuru karmaani,” which means do every activity while in the state of yoga. This further defines yoga, not as doing something external, but rather, as a state within us. It is not connected with doing; it is connected with being. Even doing asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), or kriyas (cleansing exercises) are all external to us, but Krishna is not referring to these externalities; He is referring to the state of being. If we are so focused on what we are doing that we fail to internalize the practice, and then we are missing the purpose and idea of yoga. One may be a master of body contortions or become extremely non-violent to the point of not killing germs, but if his/her internal being has not transformed into peace, tranquility, and harmony, then s/he has missed the purpose of yoga. This takes us into the higher dimensions of understanding yoga which will be further detailed in upcoming articles.
Let us take a minute of silence and prayer for all of those who lost belongings, loved ones, and even their own lives, during the dreadful natural disaster which hit South Asia and neighboring countries over the holidays. May we hold them in our prayers and hearts.

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