Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Yoga And Movement

Some weeks ago I read an article in a newspaper encouraging more people to do yoga.  It said that even sitting in your office, massaging your fingers was a very useful kind of yoga.  Undoubtedly the author had noble intentions but a loosely written article serves more to fuel misconceptions than to provide concrete help.

This brought to my mind many thoughts about yoga and it's connection with movement.  Yoga is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word 'yuj' (to join).  It is the means by which the body, mind and soul can be united to form a whole individual and the individual can also unite with a greater cosmic spirit.  My yoga teacher sometimes questioned this definition.  What does it mean to be united and is this the true root of the word?  I think we will never know the answer to this and to many other aspects of yoga, which had not been written down but just passed on from teacher to student for generations.  This is one reason for the many interpretations of yoga and what it means.

My teacher proposed an alternate plausible root for the meaning of yoga - the word 'ga', which means movement.  He said, yoga is that which helps us move, in different ways, from one level to another.  When he said this, of course, he was not necessarily talking about movement in a physical sense.  However, in the minds of many people (especially as yoga continues to be marketed more aggressively both in the West and in India), yoga is equated with physical movement.  It is seen as a form of activity or exercise that increases flexibility, reduces stress and provides therapeutic benefits.

This is very far from the classical definition of yoga as found in Patanjali's yoga sutras (the earliest known treatise on yoga).   Patanjali, in fact, does not even consider the body while defining 'yoga'.  He describes yoga as "Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah" (sutra 1.2) .  Yoga is that which prevents movement in the consciousness (in practical terms, that which stops an individual's mental flow of thoughts and blocks tendencies driven by intellect and ego).  This can be achieved in a systematic manner, through an eight-fold path called 'Ashtanga yoga' (ashta - eight, anga - parts), of which only one part (asana) deals with physical movement.  The rest deal with other aspects that help one's practice - rules and norms of conduct, self discipline, physical fitness, mental steadiness and finally an attempt to move inwards and to know the truth (after mastering the mind, body and emotions).

Within the realm of physical movements in yoga, repetitive movements do have a role to play.  They are considered important when the person is weak or injured and does not have the energy or ability to adopt and hold specific postures.  But under normal circumstances, these kinds of movements or massages would not fall within the ambit of asanas (or postures).  Certainly I do not know of any classical asana which recommends that one massage one's fingers (or any other part).

Patanjali, in his yoga sutras, fleetingly refers to asanas as "Sthira sukham asanam" (sutra 2.46).  That which provides happiness and stability is an asana (or posture).  Happiness and stability for yogis implies achieving a level of equilibrium such that one is completely at ease and is unmoving in a particular position.  This requires a concerted act between the body, mind and breath.  When one is perfectly at ease in a posture one can relax, attempt to breathe slowly, deeply and uniformly, focus inward and allow the mind to passively observe oneself.  When I approach this state, I feel calm, still and alert - and it's extremely enjoyable holding oneself steady in an asana.

This feeling comes to many who practice yoga, at certain points or moments.  The hard part is to sustain these moments.  These moments of stability, stillness and peace are harder to come by in a led class, especially physically demanding classes.  People invariably tend to look outwards - at other students or at the teacher (or at the clock!).  Mastering physical movements brings an exhilaration of its own (because the mind is compelled to stop thinking and also because one achieves something concrete), but I would not always term this activity a practice of  'asana'.  There is a fine line.

Ultimately technical details are not the most important: what is important is whether the practice makes you feel healthier and more balanced.  However, when everything under the sun is labelled 'yoga' with no lucid explanations as to why it might work, my mind does object!
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