Yoga: Body and beyond
Corporate whizkids relax with yoga. Patients recoup with it. Weight watchers slim down with it. Worriers chill with it. Sages find God with it. The age-old Hatha Yoga system has found new popularity
A T-shirt legend popular in the West goes thus: "Whatever the question, the answer is… more yoga."
Yeah, man! From an esoteric science practised in secluded ashrams among a handpicked group of gurus and their acolytes to being brandished on a T-shirt in California is a pretty good gauge of the distance yoga has travelled in the last century.
Today, statistics reveal that yoga is the most widely practised exercise system in the world. One out of eight Americans practises yoga and three lakh people in the UK do likewise.
Hollywood stars like Madonna and Kate Winslet are dedicated yoginis, and it is one of the few terms in the Indian spiritual lexicon that MS Word passes without drawing a red line under.
In the West, yoga and meditation are virtually treated as panaceas to a whole host of physical ailments, including heart conditions ever since Dr Dean Ornish proved that a regimen of yoga, meditation, group therapy and a change in diet could reverse heart conditions.
Books and CDs on the subject abound and websites on yoga are legion. In India, statistics are hard to come by, but every yoga teacher confirms that more and more people, particularly among the younger generation, are turning to yoga.
Collegiate Phiroza Jamula is learning a one-month teacher's training course at the Yoga Institute, Mumbai.
She probably speaks for her generation when she says: "College life is very stressful because of the pressure to do well, and to handle relationships at home. Through yoga I have learnt how to balance my life."
Bhumi Trivedi is in her last year of college and simultaneously doing a 7-month teacher's training course in the same institute and is even more emphatic about its benefits in her life: "Yoga has made me realize that there is much more to life than to eat, drink and be merry. I used to enjoy going out and eating good food. Now, I prefer spending time with my family. Yoga brought more awareness and clarity in me, and my asthma cleared up."
At the other end of the scale is nonagenarian Sitadevi Yogendra, wife of Shri Yogendra, founder of the Yoga Institute. At 91, she is slim, spry and full of life, all of which she attributes to a regimen of yoga and a simple diet.
Says she: "I have no complaints. Even my memory is quite good. People should do yoga instead of waiting until they fall sick."
Yoga is being taught in schools and colleges. At the Yoga Institute, a hundred school students from the Arya Vidya Mandir were listening attentively to a discourse by the institute's attractive and dynamic Dean, Hansa Jayadeva.
In addition to spending a day at the Yoga Institute, these students learn yoga regularly at their school. Hansaben, as she is called, shows me a sheaf of grateful letters by principals of other schools, acknowledging workshops conducted by the institute and asking for more.
The Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) in Munger is doing sterling work in introducing yoga to children. The Bal Yoga Mitra Mandal is an organization run under their auspices in which children teach other children the intricacies of yoga.
Initially, the children are trained in yoga in their respective schools. Then a select few are trained at BSY as teachers. They return to their schools and conduct classes of their own!
Yoga is an elective subject in all ICSE schools, and Bombay University offers a diploma in yoga.
Spiffy corporate training programmes on stress management revolve around yoga in such companies as Essar and L&T, while Crisil and Infosys have introduced yoga to their in-house fitness programmes.
Clubs, gyms and spas now routinely have yoga in their menu. Jetking Infotrain Ltd., a company that runs technical courses, particularly on computer education, sends all their students for a sponsored two-day workshop at the Yoga Institute, while faculty members are required to attend a seven-day workshop at the same place.
Its CMD, Suresh Bharwani, is an ardent yogi who attributes his focus and concentration to the discipline.
Says he: "In 1979, my father died suddenly. I went to Jayadeva Yogendra, the head of the Yoga Institute, and asked him, 'Yesterday, he was wearing nice clothes, and today, where has he gone?'"
Since then a philosophical understanding of death has gone hand-in hand with a robust zest for life. The yogic training has increased the effectiveness of his staff members. Says he: "When they return from the workshop many are so grateful that they fall at my feet."
Jetking, the Rs 39-crore company, with 60 centres across India, takes a 10-minute break every day, across the board, in which everyone chants Om.
"I link our prosperity to the cultivation of right values," says Bharwani.
Hospitals are using yoga as a way of helping patients recover not just physical well-being but also to inculcate a positive attitude. I visit the Indian Cancer Society in Parel.
Here, cancer patients are rehabilitated not just in terms of coming to terms with their condition but given livelihood opportunities. They are also taught yoga by teachers from the Ambika Yog Kutir.
It is a moving spectacle to see these patients, some emaciated, others visibly scarred, closing their eyes and folding their hands reverentially for the opening prayer.
Dr Satish Pathak, a surgeon and the moving spirit behind the initiative, says: "Many of the patients are healthier and more energetic since we started the programme four months ago."
This is an assertion which the Director of the Society, Kalpana Venkataraman, enthusiastically endorses.
Says Dr Pathak: "If a child is not given the right sanskar, he becomes a vagabond. Similarly, through yoga, we are trying to give sanskar to the vagabond cells that are cancerous."
Alka Ghandat, 28, looks like a 10-year-old, a phenomenon caused by the brain tumour she battled which stunted her growth.
She giggles as she admits: "Earlier, I used to feel nervous. Yoga has helped me overcome that."
Santosh Purab, who has just recovered from an operation for cheekbone cancer, says: "After the operation I used to feel very tired. Now I feel fresh."
Fresh is a word most patients use to express their state of being. Many have been rid of colds, acidity and depression since. The Yoga Institute runs a cardiac workshop for patients with remarkable results.
Reveals Hansaben: "The change in outlook is the main cause for the healing. The 32-year-old son of one of our heart patients died recently of an accident. Earlier, he may have suffered another heart attack. But today, he is philosophical and has accepted the son's death, and only feels grateful for his own life."
AIDS patients have been helped by the institute's former students in America, while slow learners and the physically challenged have all benefited from using yoga.
At the Kripa Foundation De-addiction Centre in Bandra, run by Father Joe Perreira, a student of BKS Iyengar, addicts are taught yoga and meditation besides the 12-point Alcoholic Anonymous Programme. The results are excellent, for the Centre boasts of a recovery rate of 69 per cent.
Father Joe also teaches yoga to a group of largely Christian practitioners.
At all nature cure sanatoriums, such as Jindal's farm in Bangalore, yoga is considered part of the regimen. It is also closely aligned to ayurveda. Most spiritual ashrams and meditation programmes include some aspect of yoga in their regimen.
For instance, the popular Art of Living course employs a series of pranayamas.
Siddha Samadhi Yoga of Rishi Prabhakar uses a combination of pranayama, asanas, natural food as well as the higher reaches of mind control and spiritual realization.
Brahma Vidya, another popular programme, uses a series of healing breaths coupled with affirmations and meditation.
It would be correct to say that the two disciplines underwiring India's spiritual civilization are yoga and its ally, meditation. The two together form our most popular export item, and are perhaps the premier transforming agents in the world today.
Says management consultant Kartik Vyas, who started his training career with a yoga-based workshop: "People are looking for greater direction and purpose in life. They are realizing that solutions cannot be piecemeal. The answer is yoga, which does not neglect any aspect of our lives and integrates it. It is also non-sectarian."
Adds Parmanand Aggarwal, secretary of Kaivalyadhama in Mumbai: "Today, yoga is necessary for practical life. Modern medicines carry side-effects. Yoga not just takes care of the body but also the mind.''
There is a fascinating myth about the origin of yoga, which is popularly attributed to Lord Shiva.
According to the book Shiva, An Introduction by Devdutt Patnaik, Shiva was very disturbed by the state of Brahma's world, rife as it was with avarice, envy, hate and misery, with only a few glimpses of pleasure to keep creatures moving from life to life.
Railing against the maya that ensnared man in an eternal cycle of birth and death, he vowed to find a way out. Repairing to Kashi, he strove to control his mind, and to rise above the illusions of life and penetrate its underlying truth.
Through this tapasya emerged yoga, the system that yokes man with his creator through rising above the pleasures and pain of material life and earning him eternal salvation.
Sitting under a banyan tree, facing the south, Shiva freely gave of his knowledge to all who yearned for moksha.
It is said that apart from creating the other seven limbs of yoga, he manipulated his body into 8,40,000 ways, each representing a different bird or beast, which form the body of yoga asanas.
Shiva is also known as the Adi Guru and is saluted by all yogis. That yoga is of ancient origin, there is no doubt.
In the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro, dating back to 2300 to 2000 BC, there is a sculpture of a man sitting in meditation. It has been mentioned in the Rig Veda, considered to be the oldest sacred text in any Indo-Euorpean language.
But its modern form owes much to the sage Patanjai who codified the yoga philosophy and practices under the title Yoga Sutra around 200 A.D.
Yoga, semantically, means to yoke (yug) one thing to another; it links the body, mind and spirit, and finally God.
Such a broad definition means that yoga stands for any technique or technology that integrates and brings together man and God.
Thus under this broad umbrella term come the three self-realization measures mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita: Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.
There is also Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga and Tantra Yoga. Closer to our interest is the classic path of Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga.
Raja Yoga, the royal path, is the practice of the ashtanga (eight limbs) yoga prescribed by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
These eight limbs together move the practitioner from the adoption of a moral code (yama and niyama) to the practice of physical exercises (asanas) and breathing (pranayama), leading to the higher realms of controlling the mind through the practice of pratyahara, (withdrawal of the senses), dharana, (one-pointedness), dhyana (meditation), and finally samadhi (union with the divine).
Raja Yoga is a comprehensive programme for self-realization that has seldom been bettered and is comparable with the Buddha's eight-fold path.
One of the key differences between the two, however, is the inclusion of physical exercise, asanas, in the former.
For the casual observer and even practitioner of yoga, it is this aspect that dominates attention.
The identikit picture of a yogi is, after all, of someone tied up in intricate knots. Such an idea does not do justice to the profound thought behind a discipline that is considered one of the six mystical paths of Indian philosophy.
The others being Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta and Mimamsa. There is, however, one form of yoga in which asanas take pride of place and that is Hatha Yoga. Ha stands for the sun and tha for the moon.
Together, they represent the flow of breath in the right and left nostrils. The left is traditionally associated with the moon and is connected with the pingala, one of the three premier nadis that spiral up the spine, orchestrating the flow of prana in the body, and the right with the ida, the second of the nadis. These two coil around the central nadi, the sushumna.
Hatha Yoga is the preparatory stage for the movement into the majesty of Raja Yoga, but it can also be seen as a full-fledged spiritual path in its own right.
Through control of the prana, the vital energy in the incoming breath and the apana, the outgoing breath, as well as through the practice of asanas, bandhas (locks), mudras (seals) and kriyas (cleansing practices) that compose the discipline, one can reach a state where the breath itself stops.
This stage, called Kevala Kumbhaka, occurs only when the prana enters the sushumna and the mind is steady. In the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, a 17th century classic text on Hatha Yoga, written by Yogi Swatmarama, there is a likeness drawn between the aim of Raja Yoga, chitta vritti nirodha, the stilling of the mind, to Hatha Yoga's stilling of the breath.
Both occur only when the practitioner is purified and ready for enlightenment. Kundalini Yoga is an extension of Hatha, which also propels the aspirant towards self-realization.
A package of special breathing exercises and asanas help the ascent of the Kundalini shakti (the legendary serpent power considered to be the index of spiritual awakening) up the sushumna all the way to the sahasrara (the crown chakra).
This is considered to be the state of enlightenment, the physical equivalent of the state of samadhi which is the apex of Raja Yoga. In this article we are concerned with the domain of Hatha Yoga, its popularity and growth, its various derivatives, its practice and practitioners.
A vast field of study in itself. And the reason for its selection is not out of lack of respect for Raja Yoga or a deprecation of the full potential of the yogic path, but because it is worthwhile looking at Hatha Yoga too, which has seen a worldwide popularity.
Hatha Yoga is said to have its origin in a discourse by Shiva to his consort, Parvati. It is the most popular form of physical exercise in the whole world, particularly in the West where it is considered in many pockets to be primarily a physical exercise for body betterment.
Even within the framework of this limited understanding its benefits are manifold. It tones and limbers the body by stretching muscles. It regulates weight and sustains youthfulness.
Says Uma Ghaisas, a teacher at Mumbai's Kaivalyadhama yoga centre: "I lost 10 kilos in the first year of doing yoga 16 years back, and I have not regained that weight."
It maintains health and dissolves disease. Jehangir Palkhivala, who has been teaching Iyengar Yoga for many years, reveals that he has managed to heal patients of many ailments including thyroid problem, chronic lower back pain, diabetes, all kinds of enlargements and even the regeneration of the body, such as turning grey hair black.
Says Palkhivala: "My most satisfying case was that of two young women, recently married who had a problem called endometriosis, which is a painful condition of internal bleeding. Both agreed to go on urine fasts, eat only raw food, and do specific asanas. In two months, their condition had cleared up."
Says Ramchandra Surve, a trustee of the Ambika Yog Kutir, a Thane-based yoga centre which teaches yoga free of cost and has 45 centres: "We have had good results with blood pressure, migraine, sinus, and dysentery."
Dr Pathak furnishes a summary of the condition of their cardiac patients which indicates that 63 per cent have achieved over 50 per cent relief in their condition.
Almost all practitioners report some physical benefit, most common being clearing up of cold and coughs, relief from headaches and migraines, sinusitis and asthma.
Says Sarla Barolia who is doing yoga for the last 10 years at Kaivalyadhama: "I had a cyst and heavy bleeding, all of which has stopped. Today I feel very healthy."
It also controls stress.
Julie Baruah, a teacher in King George School, Dadar, and doing a month-long teacher's training course at the Yoga Institute, acknowledges: "My anger is a little in control. I now remain calm at least the first two times after my children get into mischief. Even they have noticed it and they ask me: 'Why have you become a yogi?'"
Kiran Shukla, a housewife doing the same course, admits: "Earlier, my concentration was very low and everything, including the maid's absence, would flummox me. Now, when I get stressed, I do breathing exercises."
Falguni Shah, a young teacher at a school called Kangaroo Kids, used yoga to emerge from depression. Says she: "Earlier, I used to be impulsive and impatient. I have much more self-control now."
And it leads to a higher level of awareness and peace.
Mahesh Ramchandani, a writer for magazines and TV serials, says: "There's a newfound calmness and peace within me, which has transformed the way I do things and how I relate to people."
Mita Naik, a nutritionist, believes that yoga has awakened her spiritually and boosted her confidence levels. She adds: "I can handle any situation today. My mother, who is a diabetic, suddenly found her blood sugar dropping to the extent that she became catatonic. My dad was petrified, but I handled the problem without getting disturbed."
Yoga's uses are virtually endless. It can help with pregnancy and with menopause.
Says freelance journalist Sameera Khan, who learns Iyengar Yoga and has recently given birth to a baby girl: "I did yoga almost right through my pregnancy and it helped me tremendously."
It can help handle the stress at work as well as control the deleterious effects of spending long hours peering into a computer console. It can help build relationships and create harmony within and without.
Says Palkhivala: "It's very satisfying when I hear one of the practitioners saying 'I've changed the way I speak to my mother-in-law.'"
In short, yoga can help transform every part of a human being's life, and if enough people do it, it can transform the globe. So perhaps doing yoga is a social duty you owe to the Universe!
Hatha Yoga practices
Hatha Yoga consists of asanas, pranayama, bandhas, kriyas and mudras.
Asanas: These are the physical postures of yoga. There is an unlimited variety to draw from. Each yoga school will have its own repertoire unique to them.
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, asanas make one firm, free of disease and light of limb. It is achieved by eliminating the rajas guna that creates instability and fickleness of the mind, and the tamas guna that creates heaviness in the body.
Asanas also activate various nerve centers, that brings balance to the body and, more importantly, the mind.
In her book, the Keep It Simple Series (KISS) Guide to Yoga, American Shakta Kaur Khalsa adds that the inclusion of conscious breathing with the asanas circulates energy and blood and brings balance to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Asanas are grouped according to their stance, i.e. sitting, standing, lying down, etc. Different asanas create different effects, and therefore each condition has to be treated with specific asanas. This includes not just the treatment of physical ailments but also to generate specific qualities of the mind.
Management consultant Kartik Vyas runs a workshop on the four sattvic values of dharma (laws of life), gyan (knowledge), vairagya (detachment) and aishwarya (self-efficacy) which he substantiates with specific asanas.
Pranayama: Pranayama is the art of conscious breathing. Breath control is the key to the control of prana, or subtle energy, that coasts through our system and is the source of our life force.
When we control prana and direct its flow, we can consciously move it away from the senses and towards the inner landscape.
Thus we can consciously overcome our attraction to and repulsion of the material world, and rein in the wavering, fluctuating mind. The yogis understood that the mind and the breath pattern were intimately connected.
Anger and strong emotions generate agitated and quick breathing. As the breathing gets longer and slower, the mind calms down in equal proportion. Through pranayama, the mind learns to become still.
By slowing down the breath, the yogi extends his life expectancy, for he expends less energy. There are three stages in pranayama.
The first is the rechaka, the exhalation, then the puraka, inhalation and the kumbhaka, retention. It is advisable to make the exhalation longer than the inhalation, and many pranayamas lead with exhalation.
Kumbhaka is the retention of breath between the inhalations and exhalations and should be practised cautiously. As the practitioner becomes more comfortable with the idea he should increase the period of retention.
All teachers emphasise that pranayama must be learnt by a teacher or it can have deleterious effects. There are various types of pranayama. One of the most elementary is anuloma viloma, or alternate nostril breathing.
Here inhalation happens through one nostril and exhalation through the other, alternating the nostrils with each breath.
Another is Ujjayi. Here you contract your glottis so that the breathing happens from behind your throat, making a guttural sound.
Ujjayi is a tranquillising breath, which soothes the nervous system and calms the mind.
Bhastrika, also called the bellows breath, requires one to breathe rapidly and forcefully. The other breaths are surya bheda, sitkari, sitali, brahmari, moorcha, and plavini.
Bandhas: Bandhas, meaning locks, are movements that contract the muscles internally, helping to re-channel prana, and generating concentration and internal heat. These are advanced yogic practices and require the guidance of a teacher to practise.
The Mula bandha (root lock) contracts the perenium and perineal muscles, located between the anus and genitals. The Uddiyana bandha (diaphragm lock) is focused on the navel which is drawn inward and upward.
The Jalandara bandha, or neck lock, draws the chin towards the throat. The Maha bandha, or great lock is when all three are applied together.
Kriyas: The kriyas are six cleansing practices that clean the body internally. These are dhauti, basti, neti, tratak, nauli, and kapalabhati.
Dhauti requires a long strip of clean cloth, about 15 feet long and four fingers broad. Slowly swallow it according to the instructions of the guru. Start with a span and increase by a span daily.
Draw it out again.
This practice cures asthma, splenetic diseases, leprosy and other diseases brought on by phlegm. Basti takes care of digestive problems and increases the body's digestive fire. It is a form of enema.
Water is drawn into the anus through a small bamboo tube, retained for a while and discharged. Neti takes care of respiratory problems, purifies the skull and enhances sight.
It is a most useful practice in these days of heavy air pollution. Using a neti pot, that has a long nozzle, lukewarm salted water is poured through one nostril and taken out from the other and vice versa.
Tratak means to focus on an object, usually the flame of a candle, without blinking, until tears appear in the eyes. Tratak removes all illnesses of the eye and also eliminates sloth.
Nauli is done by looking down at the feet, and turning the intestines to the right and to the left, with the slow motion of a small eddy in the river. It increases gastric fire, enhances digestive powers and destroys all diseases caused by vata, kapha or pitta.
Kapalbhati is the rapid inhalation and exhalation of the breath, which is excellent for respiratory problems.
Caution: Bandhas and kriyas must be learnt and practised under expert guidance.
Mudras: Like other aspects of Hatha Yoga, they also regulate the flow of prana. These powerful but gentle finger movements can heal diseases and create valuable positive states of mind. Mudras use the principle of acupressure by pressing specific parts of the hand for specific effects.
In Gyan mudra, for instance, you press the thumb and index fingers, while keeping the other three fingers upright. Its practice ensures mental peace, concentrations, and sharp memory. It cures insomnia and dissipates tension and depression.
Apan vayu mudra: Fold the forefinger down and touch the mound of the thumb. Bring together the tips of the middle finger, ring finger and the thumb. Keep the little finger upright. This position regulates complications of the heart.
In a severe heart attack, if administered within the first two seconds, it can give relief.
Pran mudra: Bring together the tips of the ring finger, little finger and thumb lightly. Keep the other two fingers upright. This mudra enhances the life force and helps improve eyesight.
Apan mudra: Join the tips of the middle and ring finger to the tip of the thumb. Hold the forefinger and little finger upright. This mudra provides relief from urinary problems and eases difficulty in labour and delivery.
Who can do yoga?
Just anyone can! Age and physical condition are no bar, for yoga believes in adapting itself to the practitioner.
Besides, its slow, gentle movements, while providing internal strength and pull, make it accessible to most people. Yes, some of its movements are challenging and require flexibility but the whole idea behind yoga is to build up the flexibility over time, at a pace adjusted to individual capability.
If you wish to learn yoga, it is best to join a class, instead of trying to learn through a book at home. Yoga is tricky because of the focus on the breath even while doing asanas and you might damage yourself if you do not learn the discipline well. A class will also force you to be regular.
We all know how easy it is to slip and default when we do it at home. Stay with a class until you have sufficient proficiency and have learnt to enjoy its benefits too well to give it up before going solo.
Yoga is usually practised early in the morning or in the evening. Avoid eating anything for at least two hours before practice. Eat only half-an-hour after practice. Drink plenty of water after a session, because it will help eliminate the toxins that are stirred up.
When practising at home, choose a calm secluded spot with plenty of light and air. Stay with the practice. Don't give up. Its benefits, as practitioners will testify, are precious and can take you all the way to self-realization!
From Life Positive issue: April 2003
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