Simple Yoga: A Simple Wisdom Bookby Cybele Tomlinson
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Simple Yoga takes an extremely complex subject and makes it accessible to general readers. It explains what yoga is, how it evolved in ancient India, and how it can benefit the typically harried Western lifestyle. It gives practical information on the various yoga styles available in the West and offers suggestions for choosing a style and finding an appropriate teacher. A chapter on women and yoga and a basic routine for readers to try on their own are included, as well as a modified routine for the office. Unlike most yoga books, targeted to people already involved in the discipline, Simple Yoga is short and easy to absorb. It gives a feel for what yoga is without getting overly theoretical. A practical guide, it is particularly useful in helping readers find the style of yoga that's right for them.
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By CYBÈLE TOMLINSON
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2000 Cybèle Tomlinson
All rights reserved.
WHAT IS YOGA?
The word yoga can conjure up an array of images: bodies twisting and contorting into impossible pretzel shapes, or long-haired Indian yogis sitting atop mountains, lost in a meditative trance. Some of us link yoga with hippies, and there is good reason for this association: yoga did, indeed, become more visible and popular in the '60s, when larger numbers of people–many of them young–in the West began to experiment with a variety of Eastern teachings.
Each of these associations paints part of the picture, but not all of it. Yoga can be–and often is–approached through the body, especially in the West. And there are many postures, some of which are quite challenging, that make up the physical aspect of yoga practice.
But yoga is much more than just physical exercise: it also embraces the realms of mind and spirit. At heart, yoga is more about a whole way of being, one that is not limited to mountaintop ascetics who choose to give up their worldly ties but is equally available to the busiest Westerner. In fact, many of the most influential yoga teachers of our day maintain families, which is hardly possible while living in a cave or on a mountain! And though yoga may have seemed for a time to be a "hippie thing," it has become increasingly mainstream, particularly since the early 1990s. It is an alive, evolving tradition that is evolving in ways that both reflect and respond to the needs of people living in the twenty-first century.
The Sanskrit word yoga has multiple meanings. Its root, yuj, can be translated as "to yoke," "to fasten," or "to harness." Yoga is most commonly translated simply as "union," though it can also mean "discipline." It's often spoken of as the discipline, or process, of uniting mind, body, and spirit.
The origins of yoga are in India. It is believed to have existed in some form for as long as 5,000 years–and possibly longer. Over time, yoga has branched off into a multitude of schools, making it a very rich and complex tradition with many different approaches and techniques. Enormous scholarly effort has gone into sorting out these various forms and understanding their differences.
What can be said about all forms of yoga, though, whatever their approach and methodology, is that their goals are the same. The real aim of yoga is to liberate human beings from suffering and bring us to a place of deep, lasting peace and limitless happiness. One of the contemporary scholars of yoga, Georg Feuerstein, describes yoga as the "technology of ecstasy."
We all have moments of that joy–perhaps when we're skiing, listening to an exquisite piece of music, or thinking deeply about a complicated problem. Some people have felt these sorts of "highs" through hallucinogenic drugs. There is the feeling of complete immersion, total absorption; ordinary thinking is suspended. We're not aware of ourselves in the way we normally are; for a few seconds, or minutes, or maybe–if we're really lucky–a few hours, we forget who we are. But these are all fleeting experiences. Try as we might, we can't sustain this state: we can't will ourselves into it.
What would it be like to be this way all the time? Yoga tells us that not only is this possible, it is actually our natural state. It is our essential nature, our birthright. Through steady yoga practice we are given the means to reach this lasting joy.
In yoga, there are a number of terms for this essential nature–Self, Soul, Atman, purusha, the Absolute, the Supreme Spirit, the Universal Spirit, Ultimate Reality–and some people use the term God. The end goal of yoga is to fully realize our essential nature, or Self. Self-realization has nothing to do with thinking. It has nothing to do with language. It's completely beyond any sort of "normal" experience. Those who achieve this ecstatic state report that it's beyond description.
Another, more accessible way to think of the yoga is this: It's a means of bringing out and fully manifesting our highest, or greatest, potential. Yoga gives us capacities we did not have before–physical, mental, and spiritual. It shows us how to clear the path so that we can become more fully alive–more ourselves.
If you consider again those transitory moments of freedom and peace that you have from time to time, these experiences are characterized by a feeling of flow. Everything around you seems to function harmoniously. And everything in yourself is likewise flowing smoothly toward the same end. Every part of you– body, mind, and heart–is engaged in and committed to whatever you're doing.
More commonly, though, we're not in this state of being wholly involved. We often experience discord or even opposition in ourselves. Consider how much of the time you are in some sort of mental debate about something. The subject can be important, because there's a big decision to be made, like whether or not to buy a new car. You want the car, but maybe you know that the money should be put toward your child's education. Or perhaps it's something as trivial as whether or not to pick up the phone when it rings. Or it can manifest just as general restlessness, a free-floating dissatisfaction with how things are in the moment: we want something, but we don't know exactly what, and so we don't know what to do with ourselves. When we experience states like this, we're fragmented. We're pulled in different directions and our energy can't be directed toward any one activity. This makes us feel stuck.
Yoga is about clearing away whatever is in us that prevents our living in the most full and whole way. With yoga, we become aware of how and where we are restricted–in body, mind, and heart–and how gradually to open and release these blockages. As these blockages are cleared, our energy is freed. We start to feel more harmonious, more at one with ourselves. Our lives begin to flow–or we begin to flow more in our lives, regardless of the exterior circumstances.
WHO CAN DO YOGA?
Although yoga is fundamentally a spiritual path, it's a mistake to think that yoga practice requires a belief in God. Yoga is not a religion, though its history is interwoven with some of the major religions of India. Nor does a person's religion get in the way of yoga practice. Yoga is remarkably inclusive: there are yoga practitioners of all different religions as well as those who have no religious leanings whatsoever.
Yoga is open to anyone who is interested in it. Age is no barrier: you can start at any stage of life. And–contrary to what some people think–you don't have to be particularly flexible or strong in order to begin a yoga practice. There are no prerequisites to yoga except an open mind. The beauty of yoga is that it responds to the needs and interest of the individual. It can be used simply as a means to better health (and this is often what motivates people to try yoga in the first place) or it can be pursued with more passion as a whole way of life. Because of the tremendous variety within the world of yoga, anyone with sufficient curiosity and desire can find a suitable form that matches his or her nature.
The yoga that has become most popular in the West involves practice of physical postures (called asanas) and breathing techniques (called pranayama). These practices form the bulk of what is known as Hatha yoga–the yoga of force–which emphasizes strengthening and purifying the body. Hatha yoga is sometimes used as a general term to refer to the physicality of yoga practice, but it is also a complete system in and of itself.
In this branch of yoga, it is thought that in order to progress along the path toward self-realization, the mind and spirit must be contained in a healthy vessel. So Hatha Yoga begins with the body. (Traditionally, there are actually two previous stages to physical practice, which are called yama–guidelines governing our behavior toward others–and niyama–those that guide our behavior and attitudes toward ourselves. In the West, however, most people start with the physical practice.)
It makes sense to start with the body. Most of us feel better when we're physically well, and it's certainly more difficult to feel happy when we're unwell. Through the practice of postures and breath control, we approach the obstacles to our health. We clear the impurities that accumulate and lead to stagnation and disease. We work to restore and heal the body, making it function as optimally as possible. Once we are more healthy, we are in a better position to approach the other aspects of yoga practice.
PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF YOGA PRACTICE
Practice of the asanas–or postures–can impact us in fairly obvious ways. First of all, they make us more sensitive to our bodies; we become aware of where we're strong and where we're weak. We notice where we're flexible and where there's little or no movement. We notice how our physical freedom has been confined by our unconscious habits of holding and moving ourselves. As we work with the asanas, we build our strength and we identify and release the physical blockages that restrict our movements. The end result is that we improve posture, restore range of motion, and open up whole new possibilities for movement.
But yoga postures also operate in much subtler realms. The blood is cleansed and begins circulating in the body more efficiently, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to all the tissues. The internal organs are lightly massaged and stimulated, and the body's metabolism is increased and digestion improved. Even glandular activity can be affected by yoga. These effects can have a profound impact on how practitioners feel. After beginning yoga, many people report that they have more energy than before. In addition, because yoga is so calming to the nervous system, practitioners become more relaxed and at ease in their bodies.
Suppose your job requires that you sit a lot–either at a desk, in a car, or on a plane–and you notice that your back has been bothering you. Maybe you have even developed some chronic back pain. Through a few simple yoga postures you may be able to strengthen and mobilize your back so that you are able to sit for long periods without pain.
Or maybe your life has become very stressful and you have developed high blood pressure. Medical research has proven that relaxation, which is an essential part of yoga practice, can effectively relieve high blood pressure. In general, yoga is extremely useful for coping with stress–and stress, which affects all of us, is now being implicated as a major contributor to the development of many life-threatening diseases.
Yoga can be used to help with such diverse ailments as arthritis, asthma, or chronic fatigue; it can also prepare a woman to give birth, as well as to recover afterward. In fact, there are a huge number of health applications for yoga, and there are many people whose health has been significantly impacted by regular yoga practice. (Please be aware, however, that yoga is not meant to replace medical care and should be undertaken with the advice of a physician if you have a serious health problem.)
BEYOND THE BODY
As we practice yoga postures and breathing techniques, we continue to reap benefits. Often these improvements are most evident physically, at least in the beginning. Our bodies become more resilient and fluid. We can do more; we start feeling younger and more energetic. Our whole way of being in our bodies can change so dramatically that what was "normal" before is no longer acceptable: we have a new standard of health.
The mind can also be impacted by yoga practice. Many people report that their powers of concentration increase. People also find that memory is improved. In general, as yoga becomes more central to our lives, we become increasingly sensitive to the activity in our minds. We become aware of how much random mental movement there is most of the time. In particular, though, we notice our mental tendencies, or habits, and we begin to wake up to how these tendencies influence our actions.
Our mental patterns are revealed in the way that we practice yoga. For instance, sometimes our minds tell us–wrongly–that we are not capable of a particular posture. Or our minds can make us overly confident, pushing us beyond our proper limits. As we become aware of these automatic mental tendencies, we see how they can limit us, both on the yoga mat and in our daily lives. We begin to realize that our habits are essentially false beliefs we have about ourselves, and that, in fact, we are something more than what our minds may tell us. This dawning awareness of ourselves is supported in our yoga practice as we continue to observe and work with our habits. The practice of relaxation also invites and enforces this new awareness.
Shavasana, or relaxation, is done at the end of every class. Shavasana means "corpse pose," and it involves lying on the floor like a corpse, totally immobile, while methodically releasing every remaining bit of tension in the body.
This can be difficult for some people. It's challenging because we are so used to doing. If we are not doing something, then we're sleeping. But shavasana is not sleep. Shavasana is a kind of undoing. It's actively letting everything go. It's releasing all of the burdens of the body and mind. It's allowing everything to get very quiet internally without falling into the unconscious state of sleep.
Although it's the least impressive-looking pose, shavasana is considered the most important part of asana practice. This may come as a surprise to some people. And yet it's not hard to fathom the relevance of relaxation. After all, most of us desperately need to relax.
The problem is that we've forgotten how. We're so used to being in constant motion, to responding to the many demands that assault us on a daily basis, that even when we're exhausted we can have trouble stopping. We tend, instead, to resort to sedating ourselves–with food, drugs, alcohol, television, or any number of other things–just to slow down a bit.
This sort of behavior is not very conducive to health. Some people fall into obviously addictive and lethal behaviors, but many people are developing addictions, just by a slower route. Over time, less extreme addictions deplete our systems, too, and contribute to other serious health problems. So, from the standpoint of health alone, learning to relax is key so that we don't have to kill ourselves with self-destructive attempts to relax. Shavasana's real purpose, though, is not just to sustain life, but to put us directly in touch with the mystery of life itself.
How does this happen? When we relax, we start to realize that this body-mind we occupy is not totally under our control. Yes, there are some things we can change; we've experienced this through yoga practice. But as we lie in corpse pose, we realize that something else–something beyond our control–is keeping us alive. Who is it that is keeping our breath going? And who is it that is keeping a steady stream of thoughts running through our minds? We may find ourselves asking these questions and not being able to answer them. What it comes down to is that this body-mind with which we are so identified is not all that we are; within us there is a source of life that animates us.
This realization can be a great relief. It lets us feel less burdened. We feel less responsible for holding it all together. We realize that we can relax into this thing that is greater than ourselves–in fact, that's the only sensible thing to do, because this life source just is. We can rest and trust in it.
When we let go in this way, truly allowing ourselves to get quiet, we can directly experience the mystery that gives life to us and everything that exists. This mysterious source is the Self–or whatever you choose to call it. When we get this–that the Self is both in us and in everyone and everything else–and when we sense it at a deeper, more intuitive level, we start to feel very connected with the world. We feel more at one with life itself.
This peaceful feeling gets stronger and more accessible over time. The magic of yoga practice is that after a while, with sustained and consistent effort, this quiet peacefulness takes hold to such a degree that it actually starts seeping into other parts of life. We become aware of feeling differently–of feeling a lot better–as we're working, or driving, or reading, or doing any number of things.
When that happens, it makes it possible to meet the various challenges and obstacles that are a part of day-to-day living with greater equanimity. We're not thrown off-center; it's as if there's a kind of space inside where we can dwell for a moment before we react. We may find that we start to relate to the world differently; our habitual responses to people and situations start to change. So, for example, a person who has needed to rigidly control may (to the relief of family, friends, and colleagues) begin to relax and allow events to unfold more naturally. Or a fearful and shy person might gradually become aware of an underlying sense of power and confidence. Someone's previously scattered, chaotic lifestyle might become focused and directed. If we go far enough into it, yoga invites change into every aspect of our lives.
Excerpted from SIMPLE YOGA by CYBÈLE TOMLINSON. Copyright © 2000 Cybèle Tomlinson. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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