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. Proper exercise should be pleasant to the practitioner while beneficial to the body, mind and spiritual life.
There are numerous modern physical culture systems designed to develop the muscles through mechanical movements and exercises. 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.
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.
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.
The Asanas also affect the internal organs and the endocrine system (glands and hormones).
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.
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.
Three Types of Breathing
1. Clavicular breathing
is the most shallow and worst possible type. The shoulders and collarbone are raised while the abdomen is contracted during inhalation. Maximum effort is made, but a minimum amount of air is obtained.
2. Thoracic breathing
is done with the rib muscles expanding the rib cage, and is the second type of incomplete breathing.
3. Deep abdominal breathing
is the best, for it brings air to the lowest and largest part of the lungs. Breathing is slow and deep, and proper use is made of the diaphragm.
Actually, none of these types are complete. A full Yogic breath combines all three, beginning with a deep breath and continuing the inhalation through the intercostal and clavicular areas.
Learning Abdominal Breathing
To get the feel of proper diaphragmatic breathing, wear loose clothing and lie on the back. Place the hand on the upper abdomen, where the diaphragm is located. Breathe in and out slowly. The abdomen should expand outward as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Try to get the feeling of this motion.
Learning Full Yogic Breathing
Once you feel proficient in the practice of the abdominal breathing you will be ready to learn the Full Yogic Breathing. Breathe in slowly, expand the abdomen, then the ribcage, and finally the upper portion of the lungs. Then, breathe out in the same manner, letting the abdomen cave in as you exhale. This is the Yogic complete breath.
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.
The two main Pranayamas taught in the Sivananda Ashrams and Centres are Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma.
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. By relaxing deeply all the muscles the Yogi can thoroughly rejuvenate his nervous system and attain a deep sense of inner peace.
When the body and the mind are constantly overworked, their natural efficiency to perform work diminishes. Modern social life, food, work and even the so-called entertainment, such as disco dancing, make it difficult for modern people to relax. Many have even forgotten that rest and relaxation are nature's way of recharging. Even while trying to rest, the average person expends a lot of physical and mental energy through tension. Much of the body's energy is wasted uselessly.
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.
It may be remembered that in the course of one day, our body usually produce all the substances and energy necessary for the next day. But it often happens that all these substances and energy may be consumed within a few minutes by bad moods, anger, injury or intense irritation. The process of eruption and repression of violent emotions often grows into a regular habit. The result is disastrous, not only for the body, but also for the mind.
During complete relaxation, there is practically no energy or "Prana" being consumed, althouth a little is keeping the body in normal condition while the remaining portion is being stored and conserved.
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.
1 - Physical Relaxation
We know that every action is the result of thought. Thoughts take form in action, the body reaching to the thought. Just as the mind may send a messeage to the muscels ordering them to contract, the mind may also send another message to bring the relaxation to the tired muscles.
Physical relaxation first begins with the toes and then moves upward. The autosuggestion pases through the muscles and reaches the eyes and ears at the top. Then, slowly, messages are sent to the kidneys, liver and the other internal organs. This relaxation position is known as Savasana, or the Corpse Pose. For further reading, please see chapter 6 of the Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda.
2 - Mental Relaxation
When experiencing mental tension, it is advisable to breathe slowly and rhythmically for a few minutes. Soon the mind will become calm. You may experience a kind of floating sensation.
3 - Spiritual Relaxation
However one may try to relax the mind, all tensions and worries cannot be completely removed until one reaches spiritual relaxation.
As long as a person identifies with the body and the mind, there will be worries, sorrows, anxieties, fear and anger. These emotions, in turn bring tension. Yogis know that unless a person can withdraw from the body/mind idea and separate himself from the ego-consciousness, there is no way of obtaining complete relaxation.
The yogi identifies himself with the all pervading, all-powerful, all-peaceful and joyful self, or pure consciousness within. He knows that the source of all power, knowledge, peace and strength is in the self, not in the body. We tune to this by asserting the real nature, that is "I am that pure consciousness or self". This identification with the self completes the process of relaxation.
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.
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. One should have a certain knowledge of dietetics in order to balance the diet. Eating foods first-hand from nature, grown in fertile soil (preferably organic, free from chemicals and pesticides) will help ensure a better supply of these nutritional needs. Processing, refining and overcooking destroy much food value.
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.
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. The high protein requirement still being used by many Health Departments is based on antiquated data and has been scientifically disproved many times in the laboratory.
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 lifeforce,or Prana, the vital life energy. So the greatest nutritional plan for the Yoga student is the simple diet of natural fresh foods.
However, the true Yogic diet is actually even more selective than this. The Yogi is concerned with the subtle effect that food has on his mind and astral body. He therefore avoids foods which are overly stimulating, preferring those which render the mind calm and the intellect sharp. One who seriously takes to the path of Yoga would avoid ingesting meats, fish, eggs, onions, garlic, coffee, tea (except herbal), alcohol and drugs.
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.
The Yogic diet will help you attain a high standard of health, keen intellect and serenity of mind. To really understand the Yogic approach to diet one has to get familiar with the concept of the 3 Gunas or qualities of nature.
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. A positive outlook on life can be developed by learning and practicing the teachings of the philosophy of Vedanta. The mind will be brought under perfect control by regular practice of meditation.
When the surface of a lake is still, one can see to the bottom very clearly. This is impossible when the surface is agitated by waves. In the same way, when the mind is still, with no thoughts or desires, you can see the "Self" this is called Yoga.
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".
When we take up some recreation on putting the ball into the hole (golf), the other thoughts are slowed down or stilled. We feel we have played a good game when we have achieved perfect concentration. The happiness we experience comes, not because the ball being put in the hole eighteen times, but because we have achieved perfect concentration eighteen times. At that time, all the worries and problems of the world disappeared.
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.
The only difference between this and meditation (the positive way), is that generally we have learned to focus the mind externally on objects. When the mind is fully concentrated, time passes unnoticed, as if it did not exist. When the mind is focused, there is no time! Time is nothing but a modification of the mind. Time, Space, and causation and all external experiences are mental creation.
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 Techniques of Meditation
Meditation is an experience that cannot be described, just as colors cannot be described to a blind man. All ordinary experience is limited by Time, Space and Causation. Our normal awareness and understanding do not transcend these bounds.
Finite experience, which is measured in terms of past, present and future, cannot be transcendental. Concepts of time are illusory, for they have no permanence. The present, immeasurably small and fleeting, cannot be grasped. Past and future are non-existent in the present. We live in illusion.
The meditative state transcends all such limitations. In it there is neither past nor future, but only the consciousness of "I am" in the eternal NOW. It is only possible when all mental modifications are stilled.
The closest analogous state that we can experience is deep sleep, in which there is neither time, nor space, nor causation. Meditation, however, differs from deep sleep, for it works profound changes in the psyche. By curbing and stilling the oscillations of the mind, meditation brings mental peace.
On the physical level, meditation helps to prolong the body's anabolic process of growth and repair, and to reduce the catabolic or decaying process. Ordinarily the anabolic process predominates until the age of 18. From 18 to 35 there is balance between the two, and after 35 the catabolic process dominates. Meditation can significantly reduce the catabolic decline. This is because of the innate receptivity of the body cells.
Each of our body cells is governed by the instinctive subconscious mind. They have both an individual and a collective conciousness. When the thoughts and desires pour into the body, the cells are activated; the body always obeys the group demand. It has been scientifically proven that positive thoughts bring positive result to cells. As meditation brings about a prolonged positive state of mind, it rejuvenates body cells and retards decay.
One cannot learn to meditate, anymore than one can learn to sleep. one falls into both states. There are certain points to remember regarding the techniques and stages of meditation.
The 14 Points of Meditation
1. Regularity of time, place and practice are important. Regularity conditions the mind to slow down its activities with a minimum of delay.
2. The most effective times are early dawn and dusk, when the atmosphere is charged with special spiritual force. If it is not feasible to sit for meditation at these times, choose an hour when you are not involved with daily activities, and a time when the mind is apt to be calm.
3. Try to have a separate room for meditation. As meditation is repeated, the powerful vibrations set up will be lodged in the area; an atmosphere of peace and purity will be felt.
4. When sitting, face North or East in order to take advantage of favorable magnetic vibrations. Sit in a steady, comfortable, cross-legged position with spine and neck erect but not tense.
5. Before beginning, command the mind to be quiet for a specific length of time. Forget the past, present and future.
6. Consciously regulate the breath. Begin with five minutes of deep abdominal breathing to bring oxygen to the brain. Then slow it down to an imperceptible rate.
7. Keep the breathing, rhythmic, inhale for three seconds and exhale for three seconds. Regulation of breath also regulates the flow of prana, the vital energy.
8. Allow the mind to wander at first. It will jump around, but will eventually become concentrated, along with the concentration of prana.
9. Don't force the mind to be still, as this will set in motion additional brain waves, hindering meditation.
10. Select a focal point on which the mind may rest. For people who are intellectual by nature, this may be the Ajna Chakra., the point between the eyebrows. For more emotional people, use the Anahata or Heart Chakra. Never change this focal point.
11. Focus on a neutral or uplifting object, holding the image in the place of concentration. If using a Mantra, repeat it mentally, and co-ordinate repetition with the breath. If you dont have a personalized Manta, use Om. Although mental repetition is stronger, the mantra may be repeted aloud if one becomes drowsy. Never change the Mantra.
12. Repetition will lead to pure thought, in which sound vibration merges with thought vibration, without awareness of meaning. Vocal repetition progresses through mental repetition to telepathic language, and from there to pure thought.
13. With practice, duality disappears and Samadhi, or the superconscious state, is reached. Do not become impatient, as this takes a long time.
14. In Samadhi one rests in the state of bliss in which the Knower, the Knowledge, and the Known become one. This is the superconcious state reached by mystics of all faiths and persuasions.
If you meditate for half an hour daily, you will be able to face life with peace and spiritual strength. Meditation is the most powerful mental and nerve tonic. Divine energy freely flows to the adept during meditation, and exerts a benign influence on the mind, nerves, sense organs and body. It opens the door to intuitive knowledge and realms of eternal bliss. The mind becomes calm and steady.