I am not going to use this post to sing the praises, the headstand or any inversion for that matter. There are enough articles on the net that do that. Just Google “headstand” and you will find the one site after the other that will tell you of the many benefits. There are also many contra-indications and one of them is that the headstand is not recommended for people with high blood pressure. I am suffering from high blood pressure and I am on medication, as my doctor once said to me, as long as the blood pressure is under control, you can pretty much do any yoga asana you like. I am following my doctor’s advice and I do at least once a week a headstand for a few minutes. I belief it does help to manage my high blood pressure.
However, this post is about an aspect, a benefit of the headstand or inversion of which very few article will refer to. I want to start at that amazing event in every human’s life, being conceived and born into this world with your unique set of karmas & samskaras and reincarnating into a life full of endless possibilities. However to be born into this life, we need to leave the comfort and safety of our mother’s womb and this is where an amazing evolutionary event happen, we need to do a headstand to basically get into this world! Jip, think about it, you were born into this world upside-down. An inversion was the very first thing you did to enter this life.
And this is where the miracle of life already starts, in order to enter this world, we had to turn our world around. In order for you as a new human to this planet you had to change not only your physical position to enter this world, but also your mental view to prepare your self for the challenges of this life.
Say hello to your dose of endorphins when you do an inversion. Yes, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins when you invert your body and this in turn assist you to be calm and collected when you need to make those big important decisions.
Apart from changing your point of view, an inversion help us to concentrate and to really focus on what is at hand. It help us to sustain our concentration and to direct all our energy to the challenge or obstacle in front of us. An inversion align the mind in such a way that we can then think creatively about the issue in hand and find a solution flowing from a space of inner calmness.
Increased body awareness.
Ever get into an asana and think, I have no idea where my feet are right now? Inversions are notorious for this. However, inverting your body not only invert the body and your awareness of your body, but also your mind. Your mind has to literally think differently when you invert and this is a valuable asset you have in problem solving. Figuring out where the body is in space is a beautiful practice in cultivating spacial awareness. Figuring your problems out while there, that is just as special and amazing.
Enhanced focus on the present.
When we worry we usually either retreat to the past to find solace or we rush into the future to seek the solution or to escape. Inversions have the power to bring you into the moment, into the here and now and to confront everything right here and now. It’s hard to do anything else when upside down! Staying grounded, calm, focused, breathing slowly and remaining present are truly the only ways to stick an upside-down asana, but while there, things do change, so that when we come down, our world might look different, we might think different. Inversions release the mind and allow it the freedom to think differently.
Therefore, if you ask me how to approach your problems, how to find a solution, my advice will always be, do an inversion or two.
When we set aside all the modern perceptions we have attached to yoga such as it makes you more flexible, develops core, helps you to lose weight, calms you down and we strip back the images of yoga is associated with the East, incense, chanting and mystical gurus, we are left with a system that is truly amazing in making you astute, strong and incredibly tactile on a physical, mental and emotional level. Here is why:
YOGA IS A WORK OUT
Many people are surprised that they can build up a sweat during a yoga class. It is not the same as the one you develop during a gym session lifting weights and running on a treadmill, but it is an intense sweat that tells you have done something much deeper and profound to your body. Most yogis will tell you also that they don’t know how to explain this phenomenon, but despite the stiff and sore muscles two days later they overall feel amazing, alive and much more connected to themselves. They find inner strength in their practice and I have many yogis who would tell me that if they skip a week of yoga they can feel it, physically, mentally and emotionally. So what is happening?
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Why has this 5,000 year old science suddenly become so popular?
Yoga does a lot more for the body than most people realize, it is not just about increasing flexibility or developing a calm mind. It is not necessary to sit in the crossed legged lotus position, chant OM, or be able to put your legs behind your head (but it does make for a very cool party trick!).
- develops strength and endurance,
- enhances your focus,
- improves your balance, and
- increases your performance in every aspect of your life
It works the whole body synergistically, working every joint, muscle and fibre improving all of your bodies functions.
Yoga is the best medicine for preventing injuries and aiding muscle recovery and repair. When the muscles and surrounding tissues are lengthened and relaxed during yoga asana it creates more room for blood to flow. And increased blood flow carries vital healing energies to those injured and inflamed parts of your body, thus accelerating healing.
This in turn attracts more oxygen to the area helping muscles to heal and grow, making them more effective for your next workout (and less sore in everyday life). As an added bonus yoga also helps to flush lactic acid from the system. The squeezing and releasing motions the yoga postures create invite the good stuff in and push the bad stuff out.
Practicing yoga also increases your range of motion (ROM) which is beneficial for all activities allowing you to swing further, reach higher, dip lower, step wider etc. With this increased ROM it is easy to see how you would be able to put more power and explosiveness behind your movements. With increase in muscle elasticity on top of this you are going to decrease you risk of injury tenfold.
BULK VERSUS TOTAL BODY CONSCIOUSNESS
Weight training and cardiovascular activity such as running tightens and shortens the muscles while yoga lengthens and builds functional strength. It teaches you how to use this strength effectively – look at an average yoga class, there are bodies of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, but they can all do more or less the same things you would throw at them during a standard yoga class. In a gym it is much more varied, some tiny body just can’t lift the same weights that a big bulky one can. But in a yoga class that same tiny body and that same bulky body will be able to do the same balance or stretch you throw at them. And this is what makes yoga so appealing and amazing, it is literally for every body!
What is the point of having all this strength if you can’t use it? The level of concentration needed to maintain balancing postures also gives you a great lesson in focus and the importance of having a calm mind.
WHY DOESN’T STATIC STRETCHING ACHIEVE THIS RESULT?
Yoga is different from other modes of stretching because it works on full muscle groups and not just isolated muscles, bringing all the little supporting muscles into the game as well. During your study of Anatomy, we have seen that many asanas can be used to help the neck, shoulder as well as the hip for example. A single asana can focus on 3 or 4 major muscles groups and work them as once. It is like opera, if you get 4 people to just speak, it will be chaotic, but is you add a tune and a piano for example they can sing that same dialogue in complete harmony to the ear. The same with yoga, the asana is the tune and adds the harmony needed by the body to make different muscles work together in great synchronicity.
Not only does yoga decrease the risk of injury it also can increase your muscle endurance and pain threshold. In yoga you learn correct breathing techniques that teach you how to have better control of your oxygen intake, monitoring the inhalations and exhalations allowing you to use the breath more efficiently as well as using it to move through pain.
Along with all the benefits you will gain physically it is also important to mention the mental clarity and focus gained from a regular yoga practise. Jumping on the mat allows you to draw the senses inwards for awhile and regain your composure and sense of self. It puts you back in touch with what is true for you and allows you to reassess where you are, and to start fresh every day.
It teaches you to work with what you have on that day because everyday the body has something different to offer and to teach. By coming more in touch with your body you are able to work with it, not against it. When you can hear what the body needs you are able to work together to go beyond your boundaries in a way you never considered before.
Personally for me one of the great benefits of yoga is that it teaches us to be present in the moment. I have done this many times in a class, I would ask my yogis to do an asana, usually a balancing one as it demonstrates this principle in yoga best, I would ask them to really concentrate, think, breath and then do it and hold the asana. The result is stunning everybody in the class is able to hold the balance in a steady manner for an extended time. I would bring them out, ask them to feel what they have done and then ask them to do the asana again. But this time as they start to hold the asana I would ask them to think about their day, problems at work or home and suddenly the whole class starts to fall apart! And this is the beauty of yoga, it teaches us that we can be in the moment, that it does help us to set our day and problems aside for a moment and that we can attain inner strength and tenacity from our practice.
So instead of asking me why you should be doing yoga perhaps I should ask you why you are not doing yoga. What have you got to lose?
Yoga has always been practiced in both the East and West, so it would be an error to consider yoga as exclusively “Eastern”. In fact, yoga, with its powerful techniques for creating a sense of inner peace, harmony, and clarity of mind, is absolutely relevant to the modern world – both East and West. Given the increasing pace and conflict present in modern life, with all its resulting stress, one could say that yoga has become an essential tool for survival, as well as for expanding the creativity and joy of our lives.
Although yoga does not “belong” to the East, it is easiest to trace its roots there, because cultural change has not obscured the origins of the science, and an ongoing tradition of yoga has continued to the present day. No one person “invented” yoga – yoga is a living tradition, a set of practices that dates back for centuries. And as such I would like to introduce some thoughts on the 5 Yamas that might make it easier for the Western yogi to understand and assimilate into his/her life.
AHIMSA – THE ACT OF NON-VIOLENCE
For many Western yogis this Yama is problematic in the sense that many yoga teachers immediately associate it with their diets and going vegetarian, not harming animals by not eating them and some teachers will paint the horrors of abattoirs to the yogis to drive home their point. However, those same teacher’s fridges are packed with amazing veggies, fruits and nuts flown in from the Middle-East, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. All the linen, plates and glasses in their cupboards are imported from China – because it was so cheap!
My approach is to consider the violence that was perpetrated against the Earth to get those magnificent veggies, fruits and nuts to South Africa. How much Ahimsa is in your decision to buy imported stuff from China if you consider their poor human rights record (think Tibet here), disregard for the environment and life in general, lost jobs in your own country because you support them by buying their goods?
For me Ahimsa starts with the little things we do. Support local farmers and their produce, that way you keep people in a job and you minimise your violent carbon foot print on the Earth. Support local industry by buying what is produced in your country at much better quality usually that the stuff from China. Once you have done that, then consider more challenging issues such as vegetarianism, again nobody says you have to be a vegetarian to do yoga, but perhaps you can support Meat Free Mondays or cut back on your meat consumption to say three times a week initially?
I know many yogis who are vegetarians who commit so much violence against their bodies because they insist to follow a lifestyle that is strictly speaking not suitable for everybody. They are ill, have all sorts of muscular problems, so many is diabetic and most of them are severely depressed due to a lack of B-vitamins in their diets and resort to violent medication to help them “cope” with life – not much Ahimsa in such a life either.
SATYA – THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE
Most of us try not to lie, we earnestly strive to be honest in our daily life and for most Western yogis this Yama is actually the easy one. Thou shall not tell lies, is one of the 10 Commandments so we grew up with it, we are experienced in this Yama.
However, Satya is more than just not telling lies. It is about telling the truth about yourself as well. It is a known fact that people, who are honest about themselves to others, are in fact much happier than individuals who withhold info about themselves or who pretend to be straight if they are in fact gay for example. This extends to your truth on your spiritual life as well; do you live two spiritual lives – one for the yogis and one for the friends and family not to upset them too much? Sometimes it is difficult and scary to that honest as we all fear rejection, judgement and criticism. But, living in fear constitutes living a lie and it is not worth the sadness and anger that comes with such a life.
Satya has wonderful benefits and here are a few to ponder and consider:
- Truthfulness grounds you in yourself. We weather the emotional storms much better when we are truthful, we are less dependent on approval from others and the pressure to conform is reduced.
- Truthfulness makes you trustworthy—both to yourself and to others. Other people see your transparency and feel that they can trust you.
- Truthfulness deepens relationships. It opens the door for genuine intimacy. Your honesty promotes honesty in others. It empowers them and gives them permission to be honest themselves. When people share honestly with each other about their feelings and their needs, everyone is more likely to have their needs met.
ASTEYA – DO NOT STEAL MY ENERGY
Again Asteya is a Yama that we are familiar with in the Western and Christian view of the world. It is one of the 10 Commandments and a Yama that we practiced since a very young age. But I want to look beyond the physical act of not stealing to the subtle art of spiritual stealing that most of us commit.
When we speak about theft at its core, it is when a person believes that anything is his – his money, his belongings, his spiritual growth, his spiritual connection. When a person is of the consciousness that these things are mine, he is stealing. Why? Because the truth is that everything is from the Divine. Nothing is really ours.
Your daily life is made up by the concept that this is mine and that is yours and we get upset when people intrude and “steal” from us. When we start to implement and practice Asteya it is inevitable that our worldview will also start to change from mine to ours. As long as we belief this and that is mine, it obscures our truth (Satya) and almost every argument and every form of negativity that comes about in a person’s life is based upon this concept of mine. And that is the stealing, to which I would like to refer here.
BRAHMACHARYA – A LIFE WITHOUT SEX?
In the classical understanding of yoga Brahmacharya refers to exactly that, celibacy, life without sex and this is a ghastly thought for many Westerners as most yogis in the West today are not monk, sannyasas or ascetics living in mountain caves or ashrams somewhere in the Himalayas. No, most Western yogis are householders, they are already married or in relationships and this will be an unfair expectation to most. On another level we refer to it then as fidelity in your relationship, being faithful and trustful to your partner in life. However, I want to look at the spiritual aspect of Brahmacharya.
We live in an age where we are bombarded with new spiritual ideas and concepts on a daily basis. And the temptation to take from that path and from this one and from that one is great, because we see in each of them something that rings true for us. However, my yoga teacher, Sri Durga Devi, was adamant that once we have investigated and explored all the paths, we should choose a path and stick to that path. Be faithful to that path, defend it no matter what and this is the spiritual Brahmacharya we all must practice at some point. My path is the path of yoga, I’ll defend it always and first and foremost I will promote it as one of the best paths to follow, I’ll always answer a question with yoga philosophy in mind, I’ll always ask myself what would my own teacher have said. The value of practicing spiritual Brahmacharya to your path is legio, but the greatest is that your focus is concentrated and you can make much bigger spiritual jumps than when you are unfaithful to your path and take a little from this path and a little from that one.
APARIGRAHA – DO I WANT OR DO I NEED
The principle idea behind Aparigraha is that we should strive to live a life that is not ruled by greed. Problem is in the World today we have constructed a world economy and financial system that is inherently based on greed. It is also in the nature of humans to want to have more and big business knows this and they pounce on this human trait by means of advertising which is based on fear most of the time.
In South Africa there is an advertisement for a large banking group where a man stands in a shop looking at a pair of shoes and he really desire to have those shoes. Then there comes a voice that asks if he wants it of if he needs it? His answer is:”I want to need it!” Unfortunately this is where the good part of the ad stops, next moment they offer him a credit card with which his greed is then fulfilled.
Most of us are on a daily basis torn between what we want and what we need and the practice of Aparigraha becomes so much more important for us. When I am torn between what I want and need, I always take a moment and ask myself do I really need this or is it just my greed, my fears that let me belief I want it. It’s a simple practice, but it has helped me not only to save thousands of Rands over the last ten years of my life, but it has paved the way for a simpler and less complicated existence as well, and there in is the value of Aparigraha for the yogi.
We are all familiar with non-verbal communication – it is that aspect of our daily communication that requires no words, but rely on facial and body expressions, hands gestures, frequency of glances, pupil dilation, blink rate of the eyes, aspects such as pitch, volume, intonation and rhythm of the voice it also includes aspects such as the space and time around our bodies and environment. Non-verbal communication represents two-thirds of all our daily communications. All these indicators help us to code and decode messages from and to other people and as humans we are very good at it. We are constantly busy interpreting what other are saying to us non-verbally!
Only a small percentage of the brain processes verbal communication. As infants, non-verbal communication is learned from social-emotional communication, making the face rather than words the major organ of communication. As children become verbal communicators, they begin to look at facial expressions, vocal tones, and other non-verbal elements more subconsciously. We are fluent in non-verbal communication long before we are fluent in words and sentences.
Spiritual Non-Verbal Communication
Mudras (the word means gestures) are the non-verbal communication aspect of yoga and Spirit. We employ our hands, face and even full body to activate certain energies on the subtle level of our existence and we communicate these energies to Spirit with the help of mudras. A mudra is a spiritual gesture and an energetic seal of authenticity employed in the art of communicating with Spirit.
When we sit for example in Padmasana (lotus pose) we not only stimulate the process and flow of prana or energy in the body and on the subtle levels, but we are also indicating to Spirit our intention of sitting for meditation and thus inviting conducive energies to flow while we are in this state of meditation.
In Tantra Yoga there are 108 mudras that we use to communicate to Spirit what we want to change, achieve or influence during such a performance. It is not the goal or scope of this article to give a description of all of them, but I would like to share a few general and powerful mudras with you and encourage you to please use these mudras when you feel the need for them.
8 Basic and Important Mudras
1. Atmanjali Mudra (Gesture of Prayer) – The gesture is used for both greetings and farewells, but carries a deeper significance than a simple “hello” or “goodbye”. The joining together of the palms is said to provide connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and represents unification or “yoking”. This yoking is symbolic of the practitioner’s connection with the Divine in all things. Hence, performing Atmanjali mudra is an honouring of both the self and the other as the gesture acknowledges the divinity of both practitioner and recipient. On a spiritual level it communicates our devotion and readiness to give gratitude to the Divine for all our blessings. It also expresses our reverence to the Divine.
2. Abhaya Mudra (Gesture of Promising Protection) – Is a hand pose that is the gesture of reassurance and safety, which dispels fear and accords divine protection and bliss to the devotee. In Abhaya mudra, the right hand is held upright, and the palm is facing outwards. This is one of the earliest Mudra found depicted on a number of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina images. This mudra is usually used by a spiritually stronger person (like a deity, master or guru) to dispel fear in his/her disciples and to bring calmness into their hearts and situation. This is also a mudra that is depicted in Christian Iconography of Christ. We see Christ promising protection though this mudra to his flock.
3. Varada Mudra (Gesture of Granting Wishes or Mercy) – It indicates a gesture by the hand and symbolizes dispensing of wishes or mercy. For Varada mudra, left hand is used. It is held out, with palm uppermost and the fingers pointing downwards. Again this mudra is mostly used by a spiritually advanced soul like a deity, master or guru, and is used to indicate that you need to practice the art of forgiveness in order to receive certain wishes or mercy. We see this mudra being used extensively in Christian depictions of the Christ when he shows his wounds in his hands to his disciples, which demonstrates the Great Act of Mercy the Christ performed on behalf of all his followers when he granted forgiveness to all by his sacrifice.
4. Dhyani Mudra (Gesture of Meditation and Contemplation) – This mudra forms into a sort of bowl in your lap and is commonly used in meditation. This is symbolic of emptying yourself to be filled with light. The gifts of light might come in many forms, like expansion of consciousness, greater insight or ease of mind. The point is to let whatever comes come, and trust that you are being cared for. The hands and fingers form the shape of a triangle, which is symbolic of the spiritual fire within all of us. When we assume this classical meditation mudra, we are indicating to Spirit that we are ready allow the Divine Force to act within me and for me. It is an indication that we surrender to Divine Will.
5. Jnana Mudra (Gesture of Knowledge) – In Jnana mudra the hands are placed on the knees in seated meditation with the palms facing up. This mudra gives a feeling of spaciousness and has a subtle uplifting effect on the body and mind. In both Chin and Jnana mudra the connection made by the thumb and index figure is said to create a kind of circuit by connecting the terminus of certain nadi thus re-circulating the body’s vital energy. This mudra connects us on a subtle level to the vast body of spiritual knowledge in the Akasha (ether) and increases our spiritual wisdom.
6. Chin Mudra (Gesture of Consciousness) – This mudra is used in either seated meditation or pranayama such as ujjayi. The hands rest on knees or thighs facing down. This Gesture has a grounding effect on the mind.The middle finger, ring, and little finger represent the three classic qualities of all of nature (the Three Gunas). The middle finger symbolizes sattva, (purity, wisdom and true understanding) the ring finger rajas, (action, passion and movement) and the little finger tamas, (inertia, lethargy and darkness). Classically the yogi is meant to transcend these states, progressing from darkness into light and from ignorance to wisdom. This mudra symbolizes the connected nature of human nature (prakriti) to that of Divine consciousness (perusha) and that we strive for greater connection with the Divine.
7. Yoni Mudra also Uttarabodhi Mudra (Gesture of the Highest Enlightenment) – Yoni is the origin of life. The yoni is also considered to be an abstract representation of Shakti and Devi, the creative force that moves through the entire universe. This mudra connects us with the Mother Principle in the Universe and as such serves to inspire us. It connects us with the Divine Mother and as such to the creative force in the Universe. Yoni is our muse or Divine Inspiration.
8. Pran Mudra (Gesture of Life Flowing) – In this Mudra the tips of the thumb,ring finger and the little finger are touched together while keeping the other two fingers straight. It awakens the dormant power of prana within us and as such provides us with energy when we need it most. On a spiritual level it keeps us alert and helps us to maintain clarity during meditation. It anchors us in our meditation and as such strengthen our meditative resolve.
Spirit provided us with powerful communication tools, of which mudras are extremely powerful, but also safe to use. I encourage you to explore the use of mudras in your life and use them on a regular basis, they have a profound influence on your spiritual awareness and evolution.
If there is one idea in yoga philosophy that is difficult for most Western yogis to grasp and to get used to, it is the idea of Maya. Over the years as a yoga teacher I have come to realise that even harder than karma or reincarnation to digest, is the theory of Maya for Western yogis and I hope that this article will shed some more light on the subject for them.
Samkhya, also Sankhya, is one of the six (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy and classical Indian philosophy. Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya School. It is regarded as one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. Samkhya is an enumerationist philosophy that is strongly dualist. Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities; Puruṣa (consciousness or God) and prakriti (phenomenal realm of matter or nature). Jiva is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakriti through the glue of desire, and the end of this bondage is moksha(liberation).
From this dualistic view flows the idea of Maya. Maya is part of prakriti, it is the realm in which we as reincarnated souls function within the limits of our karma and Maya serves as the catalyst through which we can experience prakriti. However, Maya is also part of this bondage or Moksha and we need to remember that all these constructs, Prakriti, Maya and Moksha are not real, they are part of illusion, the unreal, hence the famous words from the Shanti Mantra: “Om asato maa satgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, Mrityor maa amritam gamaya” (Lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to immortality.) The only aspect that which is then real is Puruṣa as it is God or that part of us which is Light, Real and the only Truth.
The world of names, forms and constructions is then Maya. It is our human nature (prakriti) to names things, to put them in categories and to organise them down to the smallest atom and even name those atoms into smaller parts. And this is Maya, while in a body it has purpose and it helps us to make sense of a very complex world, but once we are dead this system has no use to us. We don’t know what awaits us on the other side and even if we will need these Maya constructs to function. It is generally accepted that we forget them as we exist then in Puruṣa, pure consciousness and there is no need for these constructs that we have created and learned while in prakriti.
The Western Dilemma
The main dilemma for most Western yogis are that we grow up with such a strong sense of our world and our bodies, that to tell us suddenly that your body is only an illusion is a bigger shock to the system than the law of karma. As one of my yogis once challenged me in class to come and feel, smell and even taste her body and tell me it isn’t real! For the Western mind the world around us is very real and no illusion, it is a place of joy and sorrow, ups and downs, love and hate and much more. So, to tell a grieving mother and yogi that the death of her 11 year old daughter is only an illusion is no comfort to such a person, but adds to the confusion and sorrow.
True vs. Truth
For me illusion or Maya is true as long as I have a physical body and ego! Yes, my body is true: – I can feel it, smell it, taste it and even sometimes hear it function. I can perceive my body with all my senses. My emotions, my nature, my personality, all these aspects of me and the world around me are true as well. There is no illusion in that. There is even no delusion in that as well. It is also true that we construct words and ideas to describe and categorise our world around us and these constructs are also true and necessary to function in Maya. It is important to realise that all of Maya is true; there is no need to deny our prakriti of even Maya, in doing so we delude ourselves even more and association with our ego becomes stronger.
But is it the Truth? No, it is not the ultimate Truth, this body, this world with all its constructs is not our ultimate Truth. It is not really who we are and that is the path of yoga, to guide us to understand that while Maya is true, Maya is not the Truth! The ultimate Truth, that which is Real, the Light, call it what you want, that is what Maya serves us to discover, Maya is the great reminder that while certain things are true, it is not the Truth and that we are on a path of discovery. The discovery we need to make within Maya is to realise the Truth – and at that a very hard thing to do as well. So Maya helps to differentiate between that which is true and the Truth.
In classical yoga the yamas-niyamas are very demanding obligations. They represent the yogi’s commitment to a life where ethics, discipline, constraint and self-control plays and integral part in the spiritual as well as mundane life of such a yogi. For the serious yogi they are his/her way of life and there is no negotiation. In Patanjali’s framework they are absolute in their compliance and meaning and very little room for interpretation.
In classical times, yoga used to belong to the sphere of the Ashram where monks and sannyasa (final stage of the ashramic life, total renunciation) and other spiritual aspirants practiced yoga. The yamas-niyamas were their guidelines for right conduct and they were prescribed and followed to the letter. However, by 1947 when India gained independence from Britain, yoga was practiced as an exception and not a rule. Many of the gurus and swamis of the time were extremely worried about the lack of interest in yoga in India during this time. This prompted great yogis to send disciples to the West to promote yoga and Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh to send his disciple Swami Vishnu-Devananda in 1957 with these words ‘many souls in the East are reincarnating in the West. Go and reawaken their consciousness and bring them back to the path of yoga.’ And the stellar growth of yoga in the West is from there astounding till this day.
But with it came a huge problem, many of the Western yogis were normal householders, they were married and many were initially part of the Hippie Movement in the 1960’s where especially the Brahmacharya yama was extremely problematic in an age of free sex. I have read many interpretations and as a teacher it remains the most difficult yama to explain to students who are married and have a duty and obligation towards their partner regarding sex. All the explanations of being constantly aware of the universe, immersed in divinity, divine conduct, continence, celibate when single, faithfulness when married etc. has never really satisfied me or my students and I hope my interpretation might add another view on this very important yama.
Unfortunately in the West we had mistaken the yamas-niyamas as a canon of behaviour, describing what is preferred and what is not. We have classified and codified them as superficial guidelines to regulate and explain certain behaviours, choices and even personality traits. The problem is they are not any of this, no matter how much we want them to be the above, the yamas-niyamas represent distinct classes of human manifestation and need not be narrowly interpreted as doing this or that.
Brahmacharya or “abstinence from sex” is a classic example of loss in translation. I do not think for one moment Patanjali was so naïve to overlook a need for the perpetuation of the human species and sex is the vehicle for that. I also am certain the Patanjali realised the pleasure factor that goes with sex. And in a way I think if he wrote the Yoga Sutras, which contains the yamas-niyamas, for the ordinary man, he would have most probably worded Brahmacharya completely different.
I think that Patanjali had no problem with sex between two people in a loving relationship per se. I think he most probably would understand the need for sex and also the pleasure we as humans derive from it. What I do think would have been problematic for Patanjali in this context would be total over indulgence and our mind’s attachment. And I think for that matter Patanjali would have a problem with over indulgence whether it was sex, eating, gambling, gossip, judging other, internet surfing, addiction or anything else.
One of the great pitfalls for many yogis is attachment. Our attachment to indulgence in anything is then a problem. For me in a modern Western context, Brahmacharya is then not a warning not to have a sexual life, but it is a warning against something much deeper – our attachment to such acts as sex and the pleasure we derive from it.
I know may yogis who are guilt ridden because they find Brahmacharya just so difficult to adhere to. This guilt burns them up and instead of becoming more joyful and contends with life, they fall into depression, anxiety and a life of guilt. They way out is to realise that Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras for a completely different audience than who is doing yoga today. I don’t even think that Patanjali contemplated the possibility of yoga in the West and how it morphed into different branches and styles. The way out is to understand the necessity for sex, but without the over indulgence and attachment to it.
If you read this post you most probably had one of two experiences while doing yoga:
1. You were extremely down before a yoga class and by the time you finished the class you are amazed by the fact that you feel emotionally refreshed, positive and uplifted.
2. You went to class in such a good mood, but during class you started to experience a swell of emotions which totally engulfed you to the point where you just started to breakdown and cry in class.
My own teacher Sri Durga told us that yoga has the uncanny ability to purify us on all levels and more so on the emotional level. We think that we have our emotions under control or that we have dealt with certain emotional issues in our lives, just to discover through yoga that in fact we haven’t. And if you haven’t, your yoga practice will bring forth those emotional issues until you have positively dealt with them. I am a great proponent of Louise L. Hay and her work on how our emotions affects our muscles, our internal organs and ultimately leads to dis-ease and illness. But, as a yoga teacher and practitioner I have learned how yoga can help us to face these emotional challenges and assist us to overcome them.
In Chinese medicine there are twelve main meridians. Along the path of the meridians, there are certain places where the energy pools, making the qi of the meridian more accessible there than at other places. These pools of energy are called acupuncture points. When we do asana in yoga, we either stretch or contract, putting pressure on or taking pressure of these points, affecting the flow of energy in our bodies. It is taught in yoga as in Chinese medicine that there are several emotions identified as having a specific attraction to particular organs. An excess of fear damages the kidneys. Too much anger damages the liver. Excess hate damages the heart, while grief in overabundance damages the lungs. Too much sympathy damages the spleen and sadness destroys the brain. Conversely, equilibrium in the emotions causes the body and its organ systems to work more efficiently.
It is therefore the natural teaching of yoga that every asana have an effect not only on the muscles but also on the emotions. When we awaken to the emotional side of yoga asana and accept the impact of asana on our emotional body, we become more sensitive, perceptive, and responsive to the emotional challenges we have to face both on and off the mat. According to Patanjali yoga asana is a position that is both steady and comfortable, a place where one can feel completely present. From this silent backdrop, we watch the agitated mind. Practice then becomes a purifying method of listening to the inner workings of the mind and emotions. It is important to be patient and compassionate with yourself even in the face of negative emotions leading the way. Don’t judge, but use discernment to enhance your awareness, in other words pay attention to your emotions and how they affect you. And remember above all you are not those emotions, you are merely going through that experience like going through a traffic crossing.
When we come to yoga we all approach yoga from where we are – some might be already flexible and find yoga a breeze, for the next person every asana may be extremely difficult to perform due to stiff and inflexible muscles, some already have severe back, neck, shoulder or hip issues and the next person might be diabetic or have heart issues. It is the intention of yoga to meet you where you are and working with you on all levels, including the emotional level. You may find that practicing downward facing dog pose deeply stretches the shoulders, the spine, hamstrings, feet, and the Achilles tendons, but we can also use this asana to decrease depression and anxiety. A simple asana such as cat-cow breathing can reduce fear. Supine twists are excellent asanas for relieving back pain, but they help us to accept our stresses in life and prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by all our challenges. So gradually you learn to relax, you learn to release the emotions through your sustained yoga practice in a positive and sympathetic environment and you learn that it is save to release those built up emotional tensions in your body, guiding you to greater equanimity, peace, harmony and tranquillity. The ripple effect of this release of even very deep and old emotions, will eventually lead to understanding our bodies and ourselves much better.
Your yoga experience is unique and highly individual according to your body, it follows that the affect on the emotional body or Manomaya Kosha will also be unique and individual, depending on where we store stress in our bodies. In yoga philosophy, we are taught that the emotional body has its own sheath or layer. The Manomaya kosha (sometimes called the astral body) houses all our emotions. When the emotions in this layer get stuck – fear, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion – they can cause energy to become trapped in the physical body, including the internal organs. While some people may manifest anxiety in the throat (i.e., have a difficult time expressing or voicing their emotions) others will experience that same stress in the digestive organs, or the liver (i.e, they have a hard time digesting their feelings as in “I can’t stomach this.”)
Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation and opening of the chest, backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as forward bends tend to calm an agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale-oriented postures are executed in order to create equilibrium in the body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.
Examples of a few asanas and how they can deepen our understanding and awareness of our emotions:
- Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks— inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.
- Balasana (child’s pose) sends relaxing signals to both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Garudasana offers relief to the scattered mind and works on the balance of the external and internal worlds.
- Marichyasana (sage pose) is one of yoga’s greatest harmonizers because it both calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.
- Janu shirshasana (head to knee) relieves feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, and stress. On each exhalation, let the torso sink further toward the legs.
- Dhanurasana (bow) helps stimulate the inhale and arouses the adrenal glands.
- Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. While standing, lift your imaginary ax on your inhale, and with a forceful “Ha!” on the exhale, chop the imaginary wood between your legs.
Though every person’s experience of yoga is different, the following are some common emotions that arise in varying poses:
Forward bends – these asana can trigger a release of egocentric attitudes. They force us to face our fears as we turn inward. Those of us always looking behind to see what the world is up to will have difficulty in forward folds, and may have to confront emotions which have to do with surrendering to our own strength. Forward bends calms the mind and body and emotions and tends to bring greater understanding into our consciousness.
Backward bends – these asana are important when dealing with attitudes of embracing life – of being wide open to receive the good, bad and the ugly, to rise to life’s challenges. When practicing backbends, we may have to deal with emotions of being a doormat to others – literally bending over backward to please them, letting go of co-dependent patterns and building our own self-esteem without relying on others excessively to give us a positive self-image. Just as in forward folds, backbends can bring up fears associated to these emotional patterns. Those who are extremely shy or have had their heart broken repeatedly may feel feelings of sadness as psychic wounds of the heart are healed. Because we are exposing our whole self to the world in backbends, they can also bring up feelings of confrontation experienced in the past with the self or others. But on the plus side backbends tend to calm the mind and bring harmony and peace into the body.
Balancing asana – Have you ever noticed that your one side is sometimes more balanced than the other? In yoga philosophy the left side is the female side, it is the ida or moon side and deals with our more feeling and artistic expressions. The left side also deals with issues of the past. The right side is our male side, it is pingala or the sun side and the right side is more logic and calculated and deals with the present. Balancing asanas are extremely indicative of a person’s emotional state. Someone with an un-easy emotional state, or a mind busied with too many emotions, will find balancing poses very difficult. As they find equilibrium in these poses, whatever emotions that are causing the mind to become agitated may increase before subsiding to a more peaceful place. Balance poses help to build a calm, resilient, steady mind.
Twisting asana – as you may have imagined, these asana have to do with untangling the knots of life. All twisting asana initiate feelings of dealing with obstacles we face, and developing strength to face whatever comes our way. Twists, along with backbends give us more confidence through sustained practice, and develop overly introversive personalities.
Finally, inverted asana – when we practice these asana, we are literally turning the world on its head – changing our perspective completely, turning our behavioral patterns upside down. Inversions help us to see ourselves, and our world from a different angle, so you can imagine all the emotions that can arise from turning your whole perspective around. Inversions help to purify the mind and bring greater peace and calm even when our worldview feels shaken.
Finally a few pointers in assisting you to cultivate greater awareness of your body-emotion connection and dealing with them:
Practice Off the Mat – Notice the situations that cause you to become tense. Are you an anxious driver, talker, or worker? When you cook or do the dishes, does your back feel strain? Whether the tension is in the shoulders, neck, back, or navel center, practice moment-to- moment body awareness. This will help you cleanse your negative emotions and trapped issues so that they don’t find a permanent home in your body.
Wise Words – Following the path of yoga cuts through the roots of suffering. Hatha yoga teaches us control of breath and control of body. Through awareness we learn concentration, control of our thought patterns, and emotional control. The serious yoga practitioner will cling less to life’s negative matters, permitting the practice to have a levelling effect on the emotional body.
Frustration in the Body – When we feel frustrated, it generally means that we’re not flowing with the experiences of our lives. Instead we’re pushing away or resisting something. Frustration then collects in the body. Many of us feel it in the shoulders, neck, low back, and hips. Problems in the shoulders represent irritability and resistance to change. Issues in the back can be related to a repression or restriction in your life, hurtful issues from the past, or the need to carry the weight of the world. Repressed anger creates tension in the neck as you force your feelings down your throat instead of saying what you want to say. You can literally experience a pain in the neck from something or someone who makes you angry. The hips are related to general frustration. Notice the person who often stands with her hands on her hips. This is a gesture of feeling frustrated and out of control.
Feel what you have done – Whenever your teacher stops during class and ask you to feel what you have done, take that time and cultivate awareness of your emotions and body and how the influence each other.
Intention is everything – The natural outflow of awareness is intention. Set your intention for each yoga class to work through those emotional challenges your body manifest at that particular point in your life.
Breathe regularly deeply – The breath is everything, my teacher used to say. Cultivate breath awareness and learn to breathe deeply into your belly, putting all of your awareness into the breath. Feel all the emotions of your respiratory system—the air in the nostrils, throat, and chest, the belly and chest rising. Feel the rib cage expanding to the front, to the sides beneath the armpits, and all the way into the lower back. Gently move your attention from your mental state to your breath so that you can more easily observe and step back from your emotions.
Embracing Change – Change is one of the most difficult aspects we have to face on a daily basis. Through the practice of yoga, we awaken to how life unfolds moment by moment. Things are constantly changing—the breath, your state of mind, the phases of the moon, the seasons. This can be both a profound revelation—life is like a flower that blooms continuously—and a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even your body will let you down in the end.
When we resist change, the ego will try to hold on to the body as it is. Consequently the body contracts and tenses, and the natural flow of energies slows down or may stop completely, creating blocks in the form of a tight hip or frozen shoulder. That’s why until we accept the changes that occur from day-to-day and from year to year, and until we surrender to the natural course of existence, little progress can be made along the path of yoga.
Asana practice shows us how our bodies, minds, and the world around us are constantly changing. Today, through breath, patience, and a watchful eye, we’ll honour our changes from movement to movement and embrace the reality of change.
- Embracing change creates ease and freedom in your world.
- The only constant is change.
- Give yourself room for expansion. Give yourself room to change.
- Allow change to happen to you. Don’t resist it.
- Sunrise and sunset are obvious reminders of change.
- May we learn to accept life’s constant changes.