Everyone talks about Yoga, many do not really know what it is. We present here a simple approach to the theory and practice of Yoga, as it is understood in relation to the Vedanta philosophy.
This is the Yoga of control over body and mind. It is pronounced “hut-ha” as in “hot-house.” Yoga postures are either static (a position taken up by the body and held) or dynamic (movement exercises) but all of them have the same aim: to tone up the body, exercise the delicate internal organs and glands, enhance the circulation of the blood and calm the nerve system and preserve balance.
Between each posture there should be relaxation for minute or two and at the end of a session a longer period of relaxation, a total letting-go, of at least 5 minutes.
Yoga breathing differs from normal breathing in that it is full breathing, consciously controlled, whereas our usual breathing is automatic and shallow. Yoga breathing is done to a rhythmso many seconds inhaling, holding the breath for so many seconds, exhaling for so many seconds. These rhythms can vary widely; it is best to ask a teacher.
To relax the Yoga way, one lies on one’s back, hands out a little from the sides with the palms upwards; eyes closed; one then checks from feet to top of head to make sure there is no muscle tenseness in any section of the body. One can also have a quick relaxation in an upright chair, sitting with spine erect, eyes closed, wrists on thighs, no tensed muscles anywhere; two minutes in such a position will be refreshing.
The first step in Yoga mental practice is known as concentration, which means looking at a target object, whether visible or abstract, and keeping one’s attention on it to the exclusion of all else.
This is no easy accomplishment for though we can control our thoughts, left to themselves they wander quickly from subject to subject; when we try to concentrate, other thoughts will intrude. One is advised to “brush them aside” but this is easier said than done.
There are several methods by which one can concentrate: on an article such as a vase, on a word, such as “Love”, on a picture or a candle flame; try whichever suits you, if you are not instructed by a teacher; and keep up the practice until you succeed.
We can also close our eyes and visualize a common shape like a triangle (easiest for most people) and keep it in our inner vision; if we choose a traditional form of God or an avatar for our target, we are to think of the name of that being time and time again as we concentrate, until the mind does not wander. This can also be combined with attention to breath.
A few hints on how to achieve “pratyahara” or sense-withdrawal, a necessary step when moving from simple concentration exercises to meditation.
Sit comfortably, making sure the spine is straight; close your eyes and look in the direction of tip of your nose. Now try to “live in the mind only”; ignore your surroundings or any noises; ignore your body; in time you will feel no contact with the floor or the chair; you will not be conscious of your trunk or limbs; you will just live mentally and not physically and probably see colors or even forms in your inner vision.
Hold this state for a few minutes; remember, this is a state of Yoga calm, a natural alternative consciousness, nothing mysterious, and it has a distinct therapeutic value in relieving tension.
Do not come out of sense withdrawal too quickly; become gradually aware of your body and surroundings; make sure you are “back to earth” as it were, before you open your eyes. When you are fully aware just relax in the ordinary way.
In meditation we still concentrate on our target but instead of just bearing its name in mind, we think about it and around it from every possible angle, analyzing it, and still sticking to the target; the mind must not be allowed to wander to other subjects. This is where visualization of a divine form or symbol is particularly helpful.
Traditionally meditation is to be used for spiritual purposes; we meditate on the Divine or some saintly person or a scriptural passage, as a form of sadhana, spiritual practice. Today’s application of concentration to secular pursuits, sometimes called “meditation”, is of a lower order.
Before starting to meditate one must be comfortable; it is usual to sit in a Yoga cross-legged posture, but one can also meditate sitting up straight in a chair, kneeling at a prayer bench, standing, or lying, or even walking.
An important factor is that the spine must be straight, as a psychic current is always ascending it and this must be given free passage to the brain. The entire system must be calmed, if necessary by means of some Yogic breathing; the senses must be withdrawn from everything but the target.
To go deeply into meditation it is necessary to resort to a teacher for instructions designed specifically for you.
Who am I?
Who I really am is called in Sanskrit the Atman, the true Self; in Yoga books you also find it called the Purusha. It is to be understood as “pure consciousness”. When we are aiming to realize that condition (or non-condition) it is very good to recall that this is what we really are, not something we have to gain. We can control the mind to some extent, but since we do not do that by muscular action, it is obvious that the mind is directed by a higher function of the psyche of which we are not ordinarily aware. Even this is not my true Self, which is beyond all mental functions.
Another fact we must accept is that of Universal Oneness; apparent visual and other sensory differences between things “lifeless” and “alive”, “material” and “mental”, are merely varying manifestations of the Original One, and this being so, we human beings are “at one” with animals, vegetation, earth, stone, water, gases, everything.
You will appreciate that this Oneness is far more comprehensive than “the unity of humankind,” etc. of which we hear so much, but it certainly pin-points the need for recognizing such a unity.
Use of Sound in Yoga
Sometimes called Mantra Yoga. “In the beginning was the Word”; ancients believed that the universe arose from sound, so that it was sound which gave rise to form; certainly sound has a profound effect on us as can be appreciated in music, alarms, commands and the like.
The Sanskrit word “mantra” means “a means of thinking” and certain words are used in meditation to help us along the mental path to the Goal. The most famous of these is “AUM” (often spelled OM), which is called “The Sacred Syllable” since it is the oldest name for God and it is said to contain in its three elements, A, U, M, the basic vibration of the universe. The value of the Sacred Syllable is testified to by the thousands in the world today who have experienced and practiced it.
Traditionally Yoga followers are vegetarians by reason of the Indian tradition which originally arose more as a matter of economics than morals, but a purely vegetarian diet does not suit everybody, so modern opinion allows flexibility in this matter.
Fresh foods, raw foods and whole grains are naturally recommended.
Yoga in Everyday Life
During work we can use our Yoga knowledge, especially mindfulness, concentrating on the task in hand to the exclusion of all else. If we can manage it, it is good to relax for a couple of minutes now and then in an upright chair as recommended under the heading of relaxation. If we have a sitting job, we should sit upright and occasionally flex the leg joints by crossing the legs, bringing the feet well back under the seat and laying the outside edges on the floor; this will make them more supple.
When out walking occasionally we can do some rhythmic breathing inhaling for so many steps, holding the breath for so many steps, exhaling for so many steps, in a ration of 1-1-1 or 1-2-1. Overdoing this exercise may make one giddy, so it is best to have a slight pause with normal breathing after one or two turns with the exercise, and then start again.
Not only should we do Yogic mental or physical exercises whenever we can during the day, but take the opportunity when appropriate to tell others about the wonderful way of life of Yoga.
Everything that has come from the East has had to be adapted to the Western way of life and this as true of Yoga as it is of the various religions.
Yoga evolved in India to suit Indians in an Indian climate with Indian food and Indian susceptibility to diseases; the set-up is far different in the temperate West, so one must not be dogmatic when putting to use the lessons taught from Indian sources.
Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda
Western Yoga Federation