(Inspiration comes from: “The Heart of Yoga”)
Yoga is a practice of observing yourself without judgement. Asana translates as “posture.” The word is derived from the Sanskrit root as which means “to stay,” “to be,” ‘to sit,” or “to be established in a particular position.” An asana has two important qualities – steadiness/alertness and the ability to remain comfortable in a posture. You could take this concept off the yoga mat and into your daily life. Ask, “am I being steady, alert, and comfortable within the position I am in?”
When we practice asanas there is a natural starting point where we begin, just the same as for anything else in life. The starting point for our practice is the condition of our entire being at that present moment. Because we are all changing constantly – our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our energies – even the exact same sequence of postures done in the same way will be a different experience every single time we do them. It is helpful for us to know – be aware – of our whole self so that we can advance step by step, developing our practice in accordance with our abilities.
Developing a yoga practice (life practice) according to this idea is referred to as vinyasa krama. Krama is the step, nyasa means to place, and the prefix vi- translates as “in a special way.” This concept tells us that it is not enough to simply take a step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.
Inspired by passages within: “Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness” by Donna Fahri
Take time to pause frequently and ask “Who am I becoming through this practice? Am I becoming the kind of person I would like to have as a friend?”
Our whole day offers us the opportunity to practice yoga. What we learn on our mat can be a reflection of where we are – our asana can be a powerful mirror for us. During asana, rather than focusing on the external form of your posture, learn to perceive progress through “invisible” signs. While your asana unfolds, it may be helpful to ask, “Am I moving towards greater kindness, patience, or tolerance? Am I calm and centered even when other people around me are fidgeting or distracted? Is the energy I am creating within my whole entire posture grounded, attentive, and at ease?” Check in with your breath to see if it is easily and fluidly moving through your body. When I find myself pushing my body to its limits just to feel the pose more intensely, I honor where I am and without judgement, and bring myself back into a pose that feels more like a compassionate offering.
I realize that what I create on my mat is going to be carried with me for the rest of the day. If I let go of the external form, and create a focused, calm, attentive, beautiful asana practice (a dance with my body following my breath) – that’s what carries me through my day. On the other hand, if I create pressure, pushing, resistance, holding of my breath (bottling) – then that is what unfolds throughout my day. Yoga is a disciplined practice – where we take care of and tend to each moment without judgement. We are all human – we fall and we will never be perfect (and that’s not the point anyway!!) – but we pick ourselves back up – look honestly at where we are at – and start walking the path again.
The adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol in response to an acute crisis. When people are regularly stressed, their cortisol levels may be chronically elevated. Persistently elevated levels of cortisol can have adverse effects on the immune system, on body weight, and on memory. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
A study at Benares Hindu University found that three- and six-month practices of yoga lessened depression. The practice consisted of relaxation poses, inversions, and other asana, pranayama, and mediation. The yoga group and a comparison group treated with an antidepressant showed similar improvements in neurotransmitter levels, both experiencing a significant rise in serotonin levels and a decrease in the levels of cortisol and monoamine oxidase. Such changes may help to improve mood. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
Adapted from “The Heart of Yoga”
How does our perception work? We often determine that we have seen a situation “correctly” and act according to that perception. In reality, however, we have deceived ourselves, and our actions may bring misfortune to ourselves or others. Just as difficult is the situation in which we doubt our understanding of a situation when it is actually correct, and for that reason we take no action, even though doing so would be beneficial. In yoga terminology, this is called Avidya – literally meaning “incorrect comprehension.” The opposite is Vidya, “correct understanding.”
Our incorrect comprehensions are very rooted in us because we often live life through a series of many unconscious actions and ways of perceiving that we have been carrying out for years. As a result of these unconscious responses, the mind has become more and more dependent on habits until we accept the actions of yesterday as the norms of today. Such habituation in our action and perception is called Sam Skara. These habits cover the mind with Avidya, as if obscuring the clarity of consciousness with a filmy layer.
If we are sure we do not clearly understand a given situation, generally speaking we do not act decisively. But if we are clear in our understanding we will act and it will go well for us. Such an action stems from a deep level of perception. In contrast, Avidya is distinguished by superficial perception. I think I see something correctly, so I take a particular action and then later have to admit that I was mistaken and that my actions have not proved beneficial. So we have two levels of perception: One is deep within us and free of this film of Avidya, the other is superficial and obscured by Avidya. Just as our eye is transparent and clear and should not itself be tinted if it is to see colors accurately, so should our perception be like a crystal-clear mirror. One goal of yoga is to reduce this film of Avidya in order to perceive and act correctly.
Using a MRI, Richard Davidson found that the left prefrontal cortex shows heightened activity in people who meditate, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness, better immune function, more flexibility in outlook, and a temperament that is harder to anger or fluster. The most dramatic left-sided activation Dr. Davidson has seen was found in a Westerner trained as a Tibetan monk. The calm demeanor and softness in the eyes you see in some spiritual masters seems to have physiological correlates in the brain. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
Yoga has been shown to improve coordination, reaction time, memory, and other measures of effective brain function. When you study yoga, you are learning completely new ways to move the body, and coordinating different actions simultaneously. Beyond all the variety in asana, there are breathing techniques, visualizations, mantras, and different kinds of meditation. Each of these activities causes the brain to build new synapses, the connections between neurons. Scientists now believe that continuing to learn new things into older age is one key to increasing neuroplasticity and maintaining brain function. Yoga also teaches you to focus your attention. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
By Stephen Cope, Senior Teacher at Kripalu Center
Kripalu Center is situated just across the street from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From early on in my tenure at Kripalu, I found myself wandering across the street, sometimes every night, to watch conductor Seiki Ozawa’s artistry and hear the genius of musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Serkin ad Kathleen Battle. What a treat!
Gradually, I began to notice something interesting – something that linked my daytime yoga practice with my nighttime revels at Tanglewood. These artists routinely entered into profound states of concentration. I recognized these states because they were precisely the same states cultivated in yoga and meditation – the same states I was cultivating in my own practice. What a surprise! I also noticed that the concentrated states into which the musicians entered affected not only themselves, but the audience as well. There was a profound “field effect” that extended to the thousands of people participating through listening.
All contemplative paths cultivate the mind’s natural capacity to focus awareness. Yoga and meditation systematically expand and deepen this ability. In highly concentrated states, attention becomes one-pointed. External, distracting sensory input is completely tuned out. As the mind penetrates the object of its attention, the very architecture of the mental process is transformed. The stream of thought becomes laser-like, narrowed but highly organized. All extraordinary human endeavors involve this same quality of concentration. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “what makes a man is great concentration of effort.” “Winners focus, losers scatter,” says Stephen Covey, author of the acclaimed Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Yogis have another way of saying this that better conveys the spirit lying behind most extraordinary achievements: When you bring all of your energy and commitment to the table, God shows up. When you fully commit to one path, to one endeavor, then the Universe somehow responds. Mysterious doors open. We discover powers we did not know we had. Unseen beings come to our aid. We experience unboundedness – a mystical connection with the whole field of mind and matter – and act not from the individual personality but a state of unified mind.
I believe everyone has the capacity for extraordinary living. All that is required is that we bring our focus, skill, and energy together to serve on purpose. If we do it, it can lead to astonishing powers of body, mind, and spirit – powers that are note “ours” in any sense of the word, but which we simply channel into worthy endeavors.
To say that yoga simply relaxes the nervous system is an oversimplification. Many yogic practices, like backbends and strong pranayama techniques, actively stimulate the SNS, so yoga’s benefits can’t be reduced to just relaxation. What you want is an ANS that’s finely tuned to respond to whatever stresses life brings, shifting the relative activation of the PNS and SNS as needed. My guess is that yoga, by a combination of stimulating and relaxing practices, tones the nervous system to give it this flexibility. Researchers analyze the function of the ANS by looking at such factors as how well the body senses and adjusts to changes in body position (baroreceptor sensitivity) and whether the heart maintains a healthy though subtle variation in its rhythm (heart rate variability). Yoga appears to improve both of these measures. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
When people talk about stress reduction, they often mean changing the balance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), switching it from a hyper-vigilant state, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), to relaxation, mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The ANS regulates the function of internal organs such as the heart, lungs, and intestines; it is sometimes dominated by the SNS and sometimes by the PNS, depending on the circumstances. The SNS, the “fight or flight” response, becomes more dominant in emergencies. When there is now perceived emergency, the PNS dominates. The PNS is calming and restorative; it lowers the breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to internal organs such as the intestines and reproductive organs, allowing you to “rest and digest.” These effects, which are the opposite of fight-or-flight, constitute what Dr. Herbert Benson has dubbed “the relaxation response.” The system he popularized to elicit it, which involves closing the eyes, following the breath, and repeating a word or phrase, is directly modeled on Transcendental Meditation (TM), a type of yogic mantra meditation, though other yogic tools including asana and pranayama can similarly shift stress in a wide variety of medical problems – not just the obvious ones like migraines and insomnia. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)