Relevance of Yoga in Modern Age
Dr. P.C. Kapoor
India’s ancient heritage of Yoga, a comprehensive discipline of physical, mental, and spiritual practices which originated in the country, again came to the fore of global awareness, when June 21 was declared as the International Day of Yoga by the United Nations General Assembly. The declaration came after the call for the adoption of 21 June as International Day of Yoga by Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi during his address to UN General Assembly on September 27, 2014. Shri Narendra Modi stated that "Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being."
Yoga is understood to be an over 6,000 year old practice having its origin in India aiming to transform body and mind. Over the centuries as Yogic traditions and practices developed in India, Yoga gurus disseminated it across the country and in more recent times to other countries of the world. In the late 19th and 20th century, the western countries learnt the teachings of Yoga from enlightened masters and Gurus’ such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Vishnudevananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Chinmayanada and so many other enlightened spiritual leaders. In the last four decades, yoga has steadily gained popularity amongst western and far eastern countries, as a holistic system of exercise, though in classical Yoga tradition, the physical aspect is only a medium of connecting with the spiritual.
Among the enlightened masters who propagated the science of classical Yoga in the west was Swami Vishnudevananda. He started the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, which is a non-profit organization named after his Guru Swami Sivananda of the Himalayas, one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the 20th century.
The organization was founded in 1957 by Swami Vishnudevananda, a renowned authority on Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, who was asked by his Master to preach the practice of Yoga in the West. He established the first Sivananda Yoga Vedanta centre in Montreal, Canada, in 1959 and till date there are close to 60 Sivananda locations (ashrams, yoga Centres and affiliated Centres) around the world.
Over 30,000 teachers have been trained in the TTC or Teachers Training courses. Its purpose is to propagate the ancient teachings of Yoga and Vedanta as a means of achieving physical, mental and spiritual well being and thereby create a more peaceful world.
THE FIVE POINTS OF YOGA
According the Swami Vishnudevnanda, the Yogi sees life as a triangle; the body undergoes birth, growth, change, decay and death. The growth period reaches a plateau at about 18-20 years. In the first years of life, the “youthful period’, the rate of cell rejuvenation (anabolic) exceeds the rate of cell decay (catabolic). The body then maintains equilibrium from the age of 20 until around 35, when the decaying, or catabolic process, begins to gain precedence. The body starts its decline, resulting in “old age” with its accompanying ills and despairs.
However, the yogis say that we were not born merely to be subject to pain, suffering, disease and death. There is a far greater purpose to life. But, the spiritual investigation of life’s purposes requires keen intellect and strong will, products of a healthy body and mind. For this reason, the ancient sages developed an integral system to retard the decaying process, and keep the physical and mental facilities strong.
This system of Yoga is structured around five main principles: Proper Exercise, Proper Breathing, Proper Relaxation, Proper Diet, and Positive Thinking and Meditation.
1. Proper Exercise: acts as a lubricating routine to the joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other parts of the body by increasing circulation and flexibility.
a. Our physical body is meant to move and exercise. If our lifestyle does not provide natural motion of muscles and joints, then disease and great discomfort will ensue with time. As Yoga regards the body as a vehicle for the soul on its journey towards perfection, Yogic physical exercises are designed to develop not only the body. They also broaden the mental faculties and the spiritual capacities.
b.The Yogic physical exercises are called Asanas, a term which means steady pose. This is because the Yoga Asana (or posture) is meant to be held for some time. However this is quite an advanced practice. Initially, our concern is simply to increase body flexibility.
c. The body is as young as it is flexible. Yoga exercises focus on the health of the spine, its strength and flexibility. The spinal column houses the all-important nervous system, the telegraphic system of the body. By maintaining the spine's flexibility and strength through exercise, circulation is increased and the nerves are ensured their supply of nutrients and oxygen.
d. The Asanas also affect the internal organs and the endocrine system (glands and hormones).
e. 12 BASIC ASANAS
1. Headstand (Sirshasana)
2. Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana)
3. Plough (Halasana)
4. Fish (Matsyasana)
5. Sitting Forward bend (Paschimoth-anasana)
6. Cobra (Bhujangasana)
7. Locust (Shalabhasana)
8. Bow (Dhanurasana)
9. Spinal twist (ArdhaMatsyendrasana)
10. Crow (Kakasana) or Peacock (Mayurasana)
11. Standing forward bend (PadaHasthasana) Surya Namaskar
12. Triangle (Trikonasana)
2. Proper Breathing: aids the body in connecting to its battery, the solar plexus, where tremendous potential energy is stored. When tapped through specific Yoga breathing techniques (Pranayama), this energy is released for physical and mental rejuvenation.
a. Yoga teaches us how to use the lungs to their maximum capacity and how to control the breath. Proper breathing should be deep, slow and rhythmical. This increases vitality and mental clarity.
b. Most people use only a fraction of their lung capacity for breathing. They breathe shallowly, barely expanding the ribcage. Their shoulders are hunched, they have painful tension in the upper part of the back and neck, and they suffer from lack of oxygen. They should learn the full Yogic breathing. A full Yogic breath combines all three, beginning with a deep breath and continuing the inhalation through the intercostal and clavicular areas.
c. Pranayama: By far the most important thing about good breathing is the Prana, or subtle energy of the vital breath. Control of the Prana leads to control of the mind. Breathing exercises are called Pranayamas, which means to control the Prana.
d. The two main Pranayamas taught in the Sivananda Ashrams and Centres are Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma.
3. Proper Relaxation: cools down the system, as does the radiator of a car. When the body and the mind are continually overworked, their efficiency diminishes. Relaxation is Nature’s way of recharging the body.
a. Long before the invention of cars, planes, telephones, computers, freeways and other modern triggers of stress, the Rishis (sages or seers) and Yogis of yore devised very powerful techniques of deep relaxation. As a matter of fact, many modern stress-management and relaxation methods borrow heavily from this tradition.
b. More of our energy is spent in keeping the muscles in continual readiness for work than in the actual useful work done. In order to regulate and balance the work of the body and mind, it is best to learn to economize the energy produced by our body. This may be done by learning to relax.
c. During complete relaxation, there is practically no energy or "Prana" being consumed, although a little is keeping the body in normal condition while the remaining portion is being stored and conserved.
d. In order to achieve perfect relaxation, three methods are used by yogis: "Physical", "Mental", and "Spiritual" relaxation. Relaxation is not complete until the person reaches that stage of spiritual relaxation, which only advanced spiritual aspirants know.
4. Proper Diet: provides the correct fuel for the body. Optimum utilization of food, air, water, and sunlight is essential.
a. Besides being responsible for building our physical body, the foods we eat profoundly affect our mind. For maximum body-mind efficiency and complete spiritual awareness, Yoga advocates a lacto-vegetarian diet. This is an integral part of the Yogic lifestyle.
b. The yogic diet is a vegetarian one, consisting of pure, simple, natural foods which are easily digested and promote health. Simple meals aid the digestion and assimilation of foods. Nutritional requirements fall under five categories: protein, carbohydrates, minerals, fats and vitamins.
c. There is a cycle in nature known as the "food cycle" or "food chain". The Sun is the source of energy for all life on our planet; it nourishes the plants (the top of the food chain) which are then eaten by animals (vegetarian), which are then eaten by other animals (carnivores). The food at the top of the food chain, being directly nourished by the Sun, has the greatest life promoting properties. The food value of animal flesh is termed as "second-hand" source of nutrition, and is inferior in nature. All natural foods (fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and grains) have, in varying quantities, different proportions of these essential nutrients. As source of protein, these are easily assimilated by the body. However, second-hand sources are often more difficult to digest and are of less value to the body's metabolism.
d. Many people worry about whether they are getting enough protein, but neglect other factors. The quality of the protein is more important than the quantity alone. Dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds provide the vegetarian with an adequate supply of protein.
e. A healthy motto is: "Eat to live, not live to eat". It is best if we understand that the purpose of eating is to supply our being with the life force,orPrana, the vital life energy. So the greatest nutritional plan for the Yoga student is the simple diet of natural fresh foods.\
f. Any change in diet should be made gradually. Start by substituting larger portions of vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts until finally all flesh products have been completely eliminated from the diet.
5. Positive Thinking and Meditation: puts you in control. The intellect is purified. The lower nature is brought under conscious control through steadiness and concentration of mind.
a. Here is the most important point of all, we become what we think. Thus we should exert to entertain positive and creative thoughts as these will contribute to vibrant health and a peaceful, joyful mind. The mind will be brought under perfect control by regular practice of meditation.
b. We can control the mental agitation by two means: by concentrating the mind either externally or internally. Internally, we focus on the "Self" or the consciousness of "I am". Externally, we focus on anything other than the "Self" or "I am".
c. The mental ability to concentrate is inherent to all; it is not extraordinary or mysterious. Meditation is not something that a Yogi has to teach you; you already have the ability to shut out thoughts.
d. All happiness achieved through the mind is temporary and fleeting; it is limited by nature. To achieve that state of lasting happiness and absolute peace, we must first know how to calm the mind, to concentrate and go beyond the mind. By turning the mind's concentration inward, upon the self, we can deepen that experience of perfect concentration. This is the state of Meditation".
The benefits of Yoga are multifaceted and holistic for the human body and mind. These benefits are being discovered everyday by existing and new practitioners of Yoga. Yoga can be life transforming if approached and practiced as per the guidance of Yoga masters. Moreover, every new person joining the great global Yoga movement is making this transformational wave even stronger in the world.
(The Author is famous yoga guru and head of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Nataraja Centre New Delhi. e-mail: email@example.com)