Brahmachari

In Yoga philosophy we learnt the eight limbs of yoga, asht-anga, are yamas (abstentions), niyamas (lifestyle observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption into the Divine). 

The goal of yoga is self-realisation, which in some sense is freedom. All of it takes work, and with baby-steps I hope to be able to incorporate these eight limbs of yoga bit by bit to eventually free myself from the unknown. 

One of the yamas, is brahmacharya also known as energy moderation. Amongst all the yamas, I wanted to share how this has the biggest application in my life given that I am of Vata dosha – energy of movement. Vata dosha people are identified as thin and lanky (check, and check), active both physically and mentally (also very true for me as someone who is constantly engaged in a sport or seeking academic rigour), and many other attributes that I related to. 

While Brahmacharya is often interpreted as celibacy, a more appropriate interpretation of it would be based of the literal translation of the word ‘walking in the way of God’. It is rather about channeling the appropriate amount of energy and preventing the dissipation of one’s energy through the misuse of senses. Overstimulation or turbulence in the mind is a violation of brahmacharya. Yet as a vata dosha, I find myself expending excessive energy on certain projects, only to be easily exhausted and struggling to follow through with other responsibilities. I often overthink, or am clouded with thoughts racing through my mind rather than expending the right amount of energy for a required task and conserving what is left of me. 

To help my Vata turbulence, not only was it vital for me to regulate Vata ways of staying balanced, I also thought applying Brahmacharya is of utmost importance to me. I started by working Brahmacharya on a more tangible aspect: asanas. When striking a pose, I bring my awareness to it and hold it to consider: am I regulating my effort such that I’m not pushing or forcing? Am I draining myself out just in this one pose? And if so, how do I put in the right amount of effort? By bringing about breathing into the poses, I relax my mind and use the asana instead to help replenish my energy rather than drain it. All in all, the various aspects of Yoga – breathing, asanas, and spirituality unite harmoniously to elevate a being.

I want to bring this same awareness I practice in yoga, to daily aspects of my life. I wish to live more in the present without feeling constantly drained and exhausted. For me, brahmacharya has been a very applicable aspect of the Yamas in my life. 

Yoga’s Origin Story: 

Yoga is very special in the sense there is so much more to it than just the practice. Theres a rich deep-rooted cultural history to it, and I was curious to find out more as it would been touching base with my own roots.  

Yoga originated in India, over 5,000 years ago. It was initially mentioned in the Vedas, which are sacred ancient scriptures used by priests. Within Hinduism, there are six schools of philosophy encompassing the world views and teachings. 

These were: 

  1. Sankhya: the duality of consciousness and matter
  2. Yoga: emerging from the prior, the practice of Sankhya through meditation, contemplation and liberation
  3. Nyaya: Logic, sources of knowledge
  4. Vaisheshika:  empiricist, atomism 
  5. Mimamsa: Orthopraxy, accurately interpreting the ancient sanskrit Vedas
  6. Vedanta: The final segment of knowledge in the Vedas

Yoga is one of the schools of philosophy in Hinduism, preserved by the sages and adapted to fit a diverse audience by practicing through the five basic principles: Exercise (Asana), Breathing (Pranayama), Relaxation (Savasana), Diet (Vegetarian), and Thinking and Meditation (Vedanta & Dhyana). Given its strong link to the religion and practiced by the priests in temples from years ago, my obvious next question was: 

Is Yoga a Hindu practice? 

Within Yoga, there are some mantras involved, and even the chanting of (alongside its history) makes me question – are we practicing a religious form of exercise? The use of repeating mantras or chanting is to adjust vibrations of all aspects within our being and penetrating into the depths of our unconscious. This is understandably useful and vital in meditation and other aspects of Yoga as we connect with our breath and elevate our self-growth. The word, mantra means to free the mind – very much in tune with the concept of Yoga yet also commonly used in Hindu prayers. 

Perhaps with external influences extracting Yoga as a form of exercise, it diluted the significance and link of it to the religion. Yoga was introduced to the west when Swami Vivekananda visited the states, translating the yogic texts into English and describing Yoga as the science of the mind! Thus forth, Yogis were welcomed to the west, and one such guru was Shri Yogendra who strived to research and produce scientific evidence of the yogic benefits in the medical realm. This was wildly successful and since then Yoga has been moulded over time, to adapt to different ages and physical abilities. With the power of globalisation, yoga has a lot more expertise now! But it also facilitates the spread of misinformation and/or omits its significance originating from India, discounting potential other benefits of doing yoga (in place of any form of exercise). 

I would love it if we could continue spreading the knowledge of Yoga, while paying homage to its historical significance. From my understanding, while there are links to religion, I do believe it is highly spiritual rather than a religious practice. In religion the focus is on God while in spirituality it begins with your own spirit, within yourself. नमस्ते।

Meditation is amrit (अमृत) for my Vata mind

A practice which is seemingly easy but tough. As someone who is grounded in the ways of science, I went to look up how meditation improves my self-awareness, mental health and other benefits it proposes. 

Meditation is now gaining momentum, as most people live a fast-paced and stressful routine. It helps the mind to focus, while creating space in our mind to stay present, disallowing other thoughts from our greater pool of consciousness to interfere. 

It is tough to catch a break to collect our thoughts and take deep breaths – a simple meditative process, yet many of us struggle to remember doing it midst our busy day. I remind myself that meditation is truly a form of self-care and as we live and work through a global crisis, we must ensure our wellness. 

For starters, meditation reduces stress. Stress is caused by increased levels of the hormone cortisol which releases inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. This exacerbates mental health by promoting depression, anxiety, poor concentration, as well as increase blood pressure and susceptibility to fatigue. Regardless of the type of meditation performed, it reduces the production of cytokines, inhibiting the escalation to further unwanted effects of stress! 

Meditation seeks to enhance one’s self-awareness. Some forms of meditation helps personal growth. The key idea is to gain greater awareness and understanding of our thought habits, how we interact/relate to others around us. Furthermore with the ability to stay present in the moment to read ourselves, not only does it allow us to move towards developing constructive patterns, it also increases our attention span! I think this is my favourite benefit of meditation, as a Vata dosha type, I truly struggle with the attention span in completing an activity and the patience to see myself through a project which I so ambitiously started. Focused-attention meditation builds strength and endurance of the mind. Research studies have concluded meditators perform tasks with improved attention and accuracy. (Meditation helped me sustain focus and the attention span to see this post through, so I can attest to this too!) 

Some of the other benefits of meditation include: reducing memory loss, generating kindness (with self-care and kindness inwards, we extend the positive feelings and actions outwards too), breaking out of vices (with our increased self-awareness and control), improving sleep and decreasing blood pressure. 

There are so many great benefits that essentially come back to self-growth, improving productivity and daily quality of living. But it is a real struggle to get into, even if it means we will potentially live better. My mind is constantly thinking of something, be it relevant or not, and that tires me out leaving no energy for my tasks, which in turn are executed with many distractions and poor focus. Also the constant thinking keeps me from sleeping restfully, which builds into this vicious cycle of waking tired and contributing to my poor performance leading to stress and other unhealthy patterns. 

The first time I learnt to be one with my breath was when I went diving in high school. I was keen on pursuing marine biology in college and hence went to get certified. Breathing underwater, you’re completely immersed in the moment – no time to accommodate other thoughts. And the pronounced sound of every breath through the regulator – your inhalation and exhalation; following the rhythmic breathing pace and deep breaths to ensure you conserve your oxygen. Just being in the water with the floating feeling (when you’re comfortable with the skill/technique of diving). The entire process of diving was so meditative, and once I learnt how to follow with my breath, it guided me similarly in my daily life. I end my day with a meditation practice to allow me to collect my thoughts and just observe stillness in my mind. My Vata mind is calmed and in a happy place. 

Stack Up!

Stacking up can mean many things. As an avid reader, I’m usually stacking my pile of books. Stacking simply put is, neatly piling or arranging things in order. At work as a research scientist, I find myself ‘data stacking’ to simplify my datasets and prepare them for further analysis. Stacking the data neatly into one organized column, helps me run many types of specific analyses for further understanding of my research. Needless to say, the order it is stacked in is not interchangeable and gives the data meaning. 

Similarly, in yoga, we stack the bones in our body so it can bear our weight in a pose and ensure a good alignment to prevent us from injuries. Specifically, in the shoulder stand, it is vital to ensure the body is stacked ideally for our breath to flow with ease. Stacking into proper skeletal support forms good alignment, minimal muscular effort, and smooth breathing. 

The shoulder stand, “Sarvangasana” is an inverted asana. The inversion stimulates blood pressure sensors in the neck and upper chest, triggering reflexes that calm the brain, slow the heart, and relax the blood vessels. It is a pose that comes naturally to me – a reason why I also enjoy it so much. But it is precisely why I lacked the technical anatomical and muscular knowledge of the pose.

This is how I come into the shoulder stand: I begin with lying flat on my back, with my arms by side. First I bend my knees and on an exhale, bring my knees to my face. With this momentum, I lift my hips and back up, with my hands supporting the lower back. Ensuring my elbows are grounded and tucked in, I push up my hips such that they are in line from feet to shoulders. My neck is engaged in a chin bandha, and my shoulder blades are pulled into the upper back. This movement creates space between the chin and the chest. Once I attain the balance and alignment required, I feel tranquil, to say the least – perhaps an indication that I successfully stacked, requiring minimal effort in muscles and breath. 

Dissecting the shoulder stand more technically: To lift your body up against gravity, it is vital to tighten the erector spinae in the back and the posterior deltoids in your shoulders. Flexibility in the chest and shoulder helps straighten the body vertically up, with the elbows and backs of your arms push firmly against the ground to provide support. For your arms to come into the supportive sweet spot, it requires flexibility in the pectoralis major muscle and the anterior part of the deltoid muscle. When the left and right pectoralis major muscles contract, they assist in flexing your arms forward, adducting them together in front of you, and then internally rotating them toward one another; all this action is happening behind you in your shoulder stand. The anterior part of the deltoid muscle assists in extending the shoulders to reach your arm behind your shoulders and firmly grounding your elbows.

By understanding the inner workings, it explains why attaining each alignment in the pose is important. It also allows me to help those who are unable to come into this pose, by stretching out and working on the flexibility of certain muscle groups; which in this case are the pecs and frontal deltoids!