Yoga was created as a science for liberation, but in modern times it is used by many to improve physical and mental health, helping us become more productive at work, more caring in relationships, more responsible contributors to society, and better inhabitants of this planet. If yoga does accomplish all that―as many practitioners report―how exactly does yoga do it? How does yoga work?
Believe it or not, the answers lie in how the human body and mind function. Eddie Stern’s One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life explains from both a yogic and a scientific perspective how the human nervous system is wired. It describes the mechanics taking place beneath the surface of our bodies and shows how we can consciously use yogic practices to direct and change our lives in positive ways.
Drawing on modern neuroscience, ancient wisdom, and decades of practice and teaching, Eddie Stern reveals how what we do―from diet to chanting, from postures to meditation, from ethical practices to breathing techniques―affects who we become, and how a steady routine of activities and attitudes can transform our bodies, our brain functions, our emotions, and our experience of life.
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WHAT IS YOGA?
IF THERE IS A SPIRITUAL practice that has been mocked, lampooned, and stereotyped in the West, it's yoga. And why not? Western yogis are easy to make fun of. With our top-knots, expensive leggings, chia seeds, smoothies, yoga mat bags over our shoulders, extended retreats, crystals, namaste-ing, om-ing, and sitting cross-legged everywhere, if you want to make fun of us, there is plenty of material to pick from. A couple hundred years ago, yogis in India were also mocked and denigrated, during the time of the British occupation and by the early travelers who had never seen anything like them before. Accounts as early as the one in 1689 by John Ovington describe the "painful and unnatural postures" of the ash-smeared, philosophical mendicants known as fakirs, a name for the Persian ascetics who were lumped into the same category as the Hindu yogis. The armed and highly organized ascetic order of the Naga Sannyasis presented a violent challenge to the hegemony of the East India Company, and from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s the Naga Sannyasis and Muslim fakirs staged uprisings and attacks against the East India Company in Bengal, which eventually led to big crackdowns on all ascetic organizations.
The fact that Westerners lumped the Nagas, fakirs, and yogis of more gentle orders together into the same category of dangerous and violent ascetics is perhaps one reason that yoga fell out of vogue in India in the 1700s and 1800s. However, even if the yogis were considered to be dangerous, as well as filthy, lying scoundrels (and there are examples of this view even today), the practice and philosophical tenets of yoga somehow made it through this rocky period in India and found a resurgence with Sri Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda, and yoga's journey to the West in the late 1800s. As of 2014, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an avid promoter and practitioner of yoga, at the helm of India, the birthplace of yoga has certainly begun to pull its own weight in yoga again.Modi's suggestion of an International Yoga Day to foster global harmony and inner and outer peace was sponsored by every country represented at the United Nations, and has helped India reclaim its place of primacy in the world of yoga. Although some may say that India never lost touch with yoga, in the late 1980s I spent a lot of time traveling from North to South India looking for yoga teachers, and found relatively few of them. In 1990 there were only two or three yoga schools in Mysore — at present, there are close to fifty. Mysore is now considered to be one of the yoga capitals of India, and it is largely due to the influence of Pattabhi Jois. The yoga landscape in India has changed dramatically.
Yoga arrived in America in the 1800s and has been largely assimilated into our culture. Though Americans studied yogic texts at the beginning — Ralph Waldo Emerson loved the Bhagavad Gita — few actually practiced yoga. However, in the short span of a little more than two hundred years, millions upon millions of people across all walks of life have begun to practice yoga — in 2017 an estimated 36 million in the United States alone did some form of yoga — and not just by those who are on a spiritual path. It is practiced by children in schools, the elderly in chairs, people who are incarcerated, those who suffer from PTSD, patients in hospitals, and folks who just have a lot of stress in their lives. Yoga provides solace, free of discrimination.
And yet it's also important to acknowledge that in the United States, at present, we find ourselves in the midst of a very real clash of cultures. In the 1960s we had East meets West, and the hippie movement, as a generation of youth tried to free themselves from the shackles of wartime austerity and restrictive nuclear-family ideals. As I have watched the yoga scene grow over the past thirty years, it's now more like West gobbles up the East, and the free-form embrace of spirituality has veered into a head-on collision with consumerism — exactly the opposite of what yoga was supposed to promise and deliver. India, especially under Prime Minister Modi, has begun to reclaim yoga as part of its cultural heritage, which indeed it is. But in the meantime, the West has adopted yoga as one of its own children, and yoga in the United States has adapted to life here in unusual ways, including the secularization of a contemplative practice.
It is hard for me to separate the ancient Indian — or Hindu — culture from yoga practice, and I am not sure that turning a contemplative, mystical practice into a completely secular fitness regime is a good idea. Once you remove the contemplative aspect of yoga from its practice, can it truly be called yoga anymore? On the other hand, yoga has proven itself to be beyond religions, and beyond religious beliefs, and that is readily seen in the people from a variety of religions and the nonreligious who practice yoga because it calms their mind, reduces stress, and makes them more internally clear. A pastor who practices with me uses the time when he does deep breathing at the end of his practice to contemplate his Sunday sermon; a rabbi uses his practice to find a quiet space that his spoken prayer does not give him. The Judeo-Christian traditions all have mystical branches, wherein a direct relationship with the divine is sought, but the mystical branches are often seen as fringe movements. The Eastern traditions made no distinction between the world and the sacred. Yoga, ritual, and the earth were all seen as one; they were mystical to the core. Today we often forget that there is a difference between religion and mysticism, dogma and contemplation. And that is precisely where yoga excels. It is easy-accessmysticism. It is instantly contemplative, usually from the first time you lie down and rest deeply after practice.
While some elements of yoga are deeply entwined in the Hindu tradition, others are not. There are hints in the ancient texts that, as a practice, yoga transcends culture, time, place, and what we now call religion. While yoga is indeed from India, and rooted in Hindu thought systems, yoga has proven itself to be extremely adaptable, and is practiced on every continent by people from varied backgrounds and different cultural perspectives. The remarkable thing about that is that of the millions who are practicing yoga with regularity, many have very similar results: we feel better, are more clear-headed, are healthier, and in many cases have a deeper sense of purpose. This is a hint to what the basis for the Hindu tradition, called the Eternal Way, or Sanatana Dharma, was before it was called Hinduism. Beyond deities or reincarnation, Hinduism is concerned with the idea that every being has an essential purpose, and that we should strive to live our lives in such a way for that purpose to be fulfilled. It is from this vantage point that I view yoga.
So many things in the world divide us, such as politics, religion, sports teams, and all of our personal opinions, ideas, and judgments. It is rare to find something that connects us. Yoga is one of those things, and it has the ability to help us transcend partisan distinctions because it has clarity of mind, compassion, empathy, kindness, love, and caring as its base — these are all mental states and emotions that transcend religion, distinction, and things that set us apart from each other. They are things that connect us, or remind us of our connectivity, and not the things that divide us. Of course, in the marketplace, we do not always see this reflected, but when it comes to the results that people experience from yoga, the benefits are largely the same. I find that extremely interesting, and it is one of the things that led me to ask, What is the underlying mechanism that makes yoga work for so many different people, almost regardless of the type of yoga that they practice?
THE WORD YOGA
The word yoga has several meanings. Among them are "union," "concentration," "a path," and "relation." The word itself comes from the verbal root yuj, which means "to yoke or join" and is why the word yoga is most commonly associated with the idea of union. The ancient Sanskrit grammarian Panini wrote that there were two ways of defining the word yoga, depending on usage. The first is yujir yoge, which describes the action of joining or yoking — for example, the joining of an ox to a cart. In the earliest teachings of the ancient Sanatana Dharma canon, called the Vedas, this was the sense in which the word yoga was used. But for yoga practice, which was classified as a spiritual discipline in later years during the Upanishadic age (800–500 B.C.E.), the correct derivation is from yuj samadau, which means, roughly, that yoga is a special type of concentration, called samadhi. Samadhi means "absorption," and it is a natural tendency of the mind to become absorbed in things, whether thoughts, objects, work, ideas, a love interest, or goals. When it comes to absorbing the mind in spiritual pursuits, the mind is said to take on the form of that which we are contemplating, and eventually, that deep level of absorption leads to the insight and experience of our true nature. In the deepest level of samadhi, one gains knowledge of one's inner being, or self.
Around twelve hundred to two thousand years ago, a sage (rishi) named Patanjali collected the existing teachings on yoga and systematized them in a form known as sutras. The sutra form of authorship means that the author did not create a system and write an original work, but compiled the teachings, practices, and methods that already existed, collecting or codifying them under one heading. There are six philosophical schools in Hinduism, and each has sutras that contain their teachings. For yoga, the text is called Patanjali Yoga Sutras, and it contains 196 sutras. A sutra is a short sentence, the few words of which have a much larger meaning. Commentaries given on the short forms by other sages and saints fill in the details and elaborate on the finer points of what the sutra is actually saying, because more often than not, they are quite hard to understand at face value.
Patanjali explained in his Yoga Sutras that samadhi, the highest state of concentration, is a technical term for the mind's innate ability to become absorbed in its object of contemplation. Patanjali's is not the only presentation of yoga, but it is indeed one of the most complete. Other presentations of yoga that came after Patanjali have different end goals, but all of them have one thing in common, namely, the idea that in order to achieve your goals, you need to be able to focus your mind. Therefore, Patanjali defines yoga in the second sutra of his book as the ability to selectively eliminate all extemporaneous thoughts or movements that occur in the mind and to choose where you want your mind to be, or where you want to focus it. As my Sanskrit teacher Vyaas Houston has said, the Yoga Sutras serve as a road map for inner consciousness. These short, concise aphorisms, which are packed with meaning, lead us through deeper and deeper levels of our mind, consciousness, and reality. Many of the teachings contained within the sutras — several of which will be discussed in this book — are amazingly relevant to us even today. Why is this so? It's because, I think, that the mind we have today is no different from the minds that people had two thousand, or even five thousand, years ago. We suffer, we struggle, we experience joy and desire, and we question, we investigate. The quest to know ourselves, to question who we are and what we are doing here is not new to us; it is in fact a part of us to question like this, and it is this impulse that drove people to create systems of yoga thousands of years ago, and is the same impulse that drives so many to practice it today.
The earliest commentary on the Yoga Sutras was written by the ancient sage Vyaas (a different Vyaas than my Sanskrit teacher). In his commentary, he discusses how the mind has five basic patterns, or states. We can clearly see that these five patterns have not really changed at all in two thousand years. The first two states are not conducive to yoga practice, but the last three are. However, it is only the last two states that are conducive to samadhi, or complete absorption. The states are:
5. Completely restrained
A person with a restless mind will never want to practice yoga, because he or she cannot remain focused for any length of time. The mind jumps from here to there, never staying fixed for even a moment, like having attention deficit disorder. I know plenty of people with ADD who are very productive and successful people, but they struggle to do yoga consistently, and sometimes find that meditation practices like Transcendental Meditation (TM) are easier for them. A person with a stupefied mind is obsessed with their problems, and ruminates, turns, and dwells on them. We've all had the experience of a problem, conflict, heartbreak, or disappointment becoming the only thing that we can think or talk about, sometimes to the point where our family or friends will want to shake us and yell "Get over it!" The stupefied mind has a hard time doing any type of contemplative practice, or doing anything at all, for that matter, except obsess about its own problems. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an extreme example of a problem of the stupefied mind.
The distracted mind, as odd a description of a spiritual practitioner's mind as it may be, is the state of mind of most of us who come to learn yoga. We are able to concentrate for short periods of time, but then we revert back into distraction. This is a state of mind that almost all yoga practitioners are familiar with: we can stay focused for a bit, but then our mind wanders off. The act of catching the mind after it has wandered off, and returning it to the place of our choosing, is one of the basic activities that we are training ourselves to do in yoga practice, and this is doable even with a mind prone to distraction. This is because one of the hallmarks of the distracted mind is that it can be calm at one moment, and then restless at another moment. The state of change that occurs in distraction is also the state that teaches us how to begin harnessing the power of attention — we get the opportunity to work on catching the mind when it becomes restless. People with this type of mind know that they need to do yoga or meditation because they have experienced both calmness and distraction, and would like to strengthen their ability to be in a calmer, more relaxed state. That is why it is said that the mind of the person who comes to yoga is predominantly in this third state, the distracted state. If you identify yourself as a person whose mind easily gives in to distraction, then I have some good news: you're the perfect candidate for yoga!
The final two states of mind — one-pointed and completely restrained — are the states that samadhi can occur in. "We should bear in mind," said Swami Hariharananda, "that our mental weakness is only our inability to retain our good intentions fixed in the mind; but if the fluctuations of the mind are overcome, we shall be able to remain fixed in our good intentions and thus be endowed with mental power. As the calmness [of mind] would increase, that power shall also increase. The acme of such calmness is Samadhi." I particularly like this quotation, because this idea is clear: yoga is not about screwing the mind into a fixed state of focus, or the body into a complicated pose; it is about calmness and filling the mind with a natural state of goodness. It is a natural, underlying characteristic that has been covered up by too much thinking. Sometimes when I sit and meditate, I don't do anything but sense or feel for that natural state of goodness within me. Like many people, I judge myself pretty harshly; I prefer criticism over compliments because I would rather improve myself to the point of perfection, and hearing what was good just gets in the way of what needs to be fixed. But not everything needs to be fixed; it's okay to sometimes just let things be. So when I sit and feel the natural goodness that is inside of me, a feeling of calm does indeed automatically come to me. It's soothing because, from this point of view, goodness is not something that we strive to be or become; it is something that is already there. We just have to allow it to be a little more present.
In the last two states of mind on Vyaas's list, the one-pointed and completely restrained states, the deepest experience of samadhi occurs, also known as the "state of yoga." In the one-pointed state of mind, you can rest your attention on any object that you choose to contemplate — whether it be your breath, a mantra, or something else — for as long as you wish. That is no easy feat. It is hard to keep the mind resting on one thing for literally even a few seconds. In the completely restrained, or arrested, state of mind, there are no thoughts, no fluctuations, and no object separate from yourself to hold your mind to. Subject and object cease to exist, leaving non-localized consciousness as your only experience. Everywhere you look, listen, hear, smell, or touch, there is only consciousness. In the deepest states of samadhi, there are no longer any objects; only the subject remains. It is called vishesha, or that which is left over, after all the changing objects of the world no longer color our experience. This is sometimes referred to as "unity consciousness."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "One Simple Thing"
Copyright © 2019 Edwin Stern.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Dr. Deepak Chopra ix
1 What Is Yoga? 7
2 The Eight Limbs 26
3 The Practice of Postures 32
4 The Seat of Awareness 59
5 Where Is My Mind? 80
6 Who Am I? 96
7 The First Two Limbs 109
8 Internal Energy 126
9 Breath as Spirit 145
10 Tips on Practice 153
11 The Nervous System, East and West 170
Practice A Resonance Breathing 249
Practice B Unilateral, or Single-Nostril, Breathing 257
Practice C Loving-Kindness Meditation 261
Practice D Body Scan 273