By Dr. Rita Khanna
The meaning of Yoga is different from person to person, in view of the varied nature of an individual’s feelings and experiences. For some, it is a way of life, and for others, it is a way to keep the body free from different ailments. For many, it involves the practice of Relaxation and Meditation. However, according to my own experience, Yoga is a way of unfolding our hidden qualities and awakening our dormant faculties.
The word “Yoga” literally means “to unite,” and people interpret this unity in different ways. Some say it is the uniting of individual consciousness with higher consciousness; others believe it to be a state of realization. However, practically speaking, it is a state of unity, balance and equilibrium, between body and brain, brain and mind, mind and spirit. When all the aspects of personality are in balance, our personality expresses itself in a different way.
Yoga and the Altered State of Consciousness
Any change, in the normal behavior of the mind, can be an altered state. When we get angry, it is an altered state of consciousness; when we go to sleep, it is another altered state; and when we express ourselves, we create altered states. There are some experiences, which bring the mind down towards the gross, instinctive, and rational plane; and other experiences that go beyond the instinctive and rational level, which are probably best expressed by the term “intuitive states of mind.”
Yoga helps us with the different situations and experiences, with which we are confronted. Some are very pleasing and we feel elated; but when we are confronted with depressing situations, we let them get us down. During our whole life, from birth until death, our mind fluctuates between these two extremes. One such extreme is of happiness, satisfaction, and joy. The other extreme is of sadness and frustration- Our thoughts, emotions, feelings, behavior, and attitudes are always fluctuating, moving from one side of the scale to the other, and during these fluctuations, our energies become unbalanced.
“Unbalanced,” means that we are unable to harness the potential of our personality, and our mind stays in a state of dissipation, unable to concentrate, unable to become one-pointed or focused. It is at this time, that by practicing Yoga, we are able to gain a better control over our intellect, emotion, and behavior.
Aspects of yoga
There are three aspects of Yoga – Physical, Mental, and Spiritual.
The Physical Aspects of Yoga
The physical aspect of Yoga is where we try to harmonize the body and become aware of the different types of imbalance, within the physical structure, which cause various types of stress and tension. Due to muscular and physical stress, a state of imbalance occurs, which becomes the cause of different aches and pains, psychosomatic, and somopsychic disorders – where the harmony of the body is distorted.
Let’s see how many types of physical movements we go through during the day:
Just try to imagine. We sit in a chair; our body is bent. We sit on the floor; our body is bent. We sit on the bed; our body is bent. Most of the movements that the body experiences, in the hours of our waking state, create a lot of physical tension. How many times do we actually stretch our body? How many times do we actually provide traction to the body during the day? There are very few times. How many times do we twist our body in a controlled way, without any jerk? Again, it is very few times. How many times do we make a conscious effort to curve the body backward? It is very rarely. We can say that, apart from sleeping flat in bed, most of the time, we spend it is in a forward bend posture. Right now, you are bending forward. Your spine may be straight and upright, but your legs are bent. This type of posture creates some type of tension. This imbalance creates a definite distortion in the functioning of the internal organs and systems. The digestive system is affected without doubt, unless we have a very powerful digestive tract.
The physical aspect of Yoga aims to eliminate this imbalance, by prescribing various postures or Asanas. Asanas are smooth, controlled movements, which are done slowly and with awareness, to provide the maximum stretch to the body in every direction. When we begin Yoga, we do not start with difficult practices, like the Headstand, but with very simple practices, such as moving the fingers and toes, the hands, wrists and arms – just to gain a deeper understanding about the state of our body, about our muscular, nervous, and skeletal systems. Thus, we become aware of where we are stiff, where we are tight, and how best we can remove that stiffness and tightness. It is this gradual working with the body that leads to the discovery of the body, which is the main object in the physical aspect of Yoga.
Apart from the physical structure, within our body, we experience levels of energy. When we wake up, we feel fresh and energetic; but by the end of the day, we are feeling down, low in energy, tired. If we, again, relax for some time, and the body is able to recuperate, again, the level of energy rises, and we feel okay. The stale of tiredness decreases. The level of energy also increases, with the state of physical relaxation, and decreases when the body is in a state of tension.
“Asana,” a Sanskrit word translated as “posture,” does not literally mean “exercise” or “posture”, but “at ease and relaxed”. You could be standing totally upside down on one arm, in a state void of tension or stress. If you are able to achieve that, then you can say, “I am doing an Asana.” So, what the whole thing ultimately boils down to is – knowing one’s body.
When we practice Asana, by stretching the body in different directions, we are also relaxing the muscular structure, tissues, bones, and nervous system, and massaging the internal organs, such as the liver, kidneys, intestines, and stomach. It is a gentle toning. In this way, the whole body is brought into a state of balance. When we feel balanced within, physically free from tension and stress, free from stiffness and tightness, then that physical harmony influences the activity of the brain.
Apart from Asana, there are practices of Pranayama – breathing techniques. The breath is intimately related with the states of emotion and intellect. We take our breath for granted and fail to understand that, by harmonizing the breathing pattern, we can also influence and alter the pattern of our emotions, mind, and intellect. When you have felt afraid, or angry, your breath becomes fast and shallow, but when you are relaxed, tension-free, breath becomes slow and deep. The breath definitely controls certain aspects of the nervous system, the activity of the brain, and emotional and intellectual expression. The practice of Pranayama gives us voluntary control over our intellectual and emotional activities.
The Mental Aspect of Yoga
When we study Yogic literature, we find that Yoga is a form of psychotherapy. The whole process of Yoga eventually deals with knowing, understanding, and realizing the mind.
Another type of stress is emotional. Emotional stress plays a very important role in our life. Intellectual stress plays a very important role, also. Both types of stress deal with the feeling of security, inhibition, inferiority, or superiority complexes, and our ability to express ourselves. Many things are involved here – not just one. Through various practices of relaxation and concentration, which aim to focus the attention at one point, we are able to overcome the state of emotional stress.
Relaxation is definitely something which we all require. We cannot avoid it. Sleep is a form of relaxation; but when we go to bed at night, we carry our problems with us. We carry our thoughts, frustrations, anxieties, and stress. So, when sleep comes, we do not know; and if the level of stress is high, we pass a very restless night. If the level of stress is low, we are not even aware of how we passed the night – all the lights are out. Yoga says that in order to relax totally, one should be able to go to bed alone. It means that we should not carry extra baggage with us to relax the mind. Before you go to bed, put your thoughts aside on your bedside table. Just like you take off your glasses and watch, remove your thoughts and keep them aside – remove the stress and keep it beside you. Just go to bed by yourself. By doing this, we become more aware of our mental requirements and of what is needed for proper physical and psychological relaxation.
Remember, we need the ability to observe our state of mind – I am having this type of thought, I am undergoing this type of physical experience, I am passing through this emotional experience, I am undergoing this conflict, this tension – full awareness of body and mind.