Is Yoga to Hinduism as English to Catholicism?

It was not too many generations ago in Singapore when immigrant parents from China viewed the English language with great suspicion. It was the language which promised a better future for their offspring, perhaps a chance at a white collared career so difficult to come by in those days, but it was also the language taught largely by Catholic nuns and missionaries. Of course, the price of learning English in those days was having to grace before meals and various Catholic rituals frowned upon by the Chinese.
Likewise, yoga is often viewed with a fair amount of suspicion as a vehicle for Hinduism. It is a practice that promises a better body and better health, and perhaps even spiritual awakening. However, since it was brought into Western knowledge and popularized by Hindu monks, it could be difficult to express yoga without the context of Hinduism. However, the existentialist mysteries of life, and death and everything in between that yoga seeks to elucidate are not very different from those that plague philosophers from ancient Greece to China.
Abstract concepts such as duality and existentialism are as difficult to grasp today as they were eons ago. Due respect should be paid to the brave souls who thought enough of these concepts that they sought to share them, even beyond language and cultural barriers. At this moment, as I write about simple ideas, my thoughts and how I word them are really a construct of every experience that has brought me to this point today, and so it was for the Catholic nuns and Hindu monks explaining explaining concepts, both philosophical and divine. The message could be exactly the same – there is one, unchanging absolute truth, and the truth could exist within us, except for that the world has come in between. The rest of the story depends on which world we were brought up in.

What is Yoga?

Yoga is perhaps one of the most misconstrued terms in contemporary society. In mass culture, when most people say yoga, like pilates, they are most likely referring to a “brand” of exercise one can take at a gym or at a yoga studio, that is also associated with trendy fitness clothes, funny postures, and cool accessories.  Like most people, I also started with this conception of yoga based how it is commercialized and I “consumed” how that product has been packaged and marketed differently in various countries.  The worldwide yoga market is worth billions of dollars, so it is no wonder that yoga styles and sequences have been trademarked and copy-righted by various celebrity gurus and franchises.  Nevertheless, yoga, like good classical music used in TV advertisements, is one of very few things in the world whereby any type of exposure is preferable over no exposure at all. That is because even if one does the asanas and vinyasas without knowledge or understanding, one can still benefit physically and mentally. Most people intuitively appreciate yoga in their first class and many keep coming back.
Often in life, the journeys begun without destinations, timelines, targets, goals, objectives, and intentions—these are the most life changing ones.  Yoga is this type of journey. Recently, I decided to take a sabbatical to study meditation.  I began by looking at books and teachings and then traveled to Dharamsala, India, to study meditation there. Afterwards, I followed the footsteps of the Buddha through northeast India, and visited the temples of the famous gurus in and around Calcutta.  During this time in India, the words “yoga,”  “yogi,” and “yogini” kept coming up over and over—in the context of the original meaning: Divine Union.  In New Age spiritualism, yoga can also be synonymous with Oneness, Self-Realisation, Liberation, Enlightenment, and Super-Consciousness.
I began to understand that many of the great spiritual teachers, such as Krishna, Patanjali, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Babaji, etc.—essentially, each taught a form of yoga or a path to Oneness.  I also realized that although there are many paths, no philosophy or school is more right or more wrong because all sincere spiritual paths eventually converge at the same truth – your “True Self.”   Everything that moves you away from your true Self is the mind. Everything that moves you towards your “True Self” is yoga.   This makes yoga the ultimate paradox because it is the path of no-path (sometimes also described as the path of no-mind) since being attached to the path automatically leads one to stray off it.  Further, like fingerprints and snowflakes, every yogi and yogini is unique, so it is for each person’s inner guru to discern what path feels right for him or her.  My path may not be your path, and vice versa.  However, all paths converge.  Similar to the saying, “all paths lead to Rome,” all paths lead to Oneness.
At the end of my travels in India, from somewhere deep inside, I knew I had to take a closer look at the wisdom inscribed by Patanjali on Ashtanga Yoga.  That is how I ended up in this yoga teacher training course.  From what I have learned so far, Ashtanga yoga presents a proven path of disciplining the body and mind to make ourselves open to universal truth, thereby enabling us to re-become our “True Self.”  Ashtanga yoga encompasses more than asanas and vinyasas. It is an inward journey that involves turning away from the sensory mind, developing body awareness and becoming conscious of the energy of life within and enveloping us, healing and strengthening our physical body and energy meridians, and awakening our inner wisdom—our intuition—which comes from our inner guru.  We then understand that asanas and vinyasas when integrated with deep ujjai breathing are powerful tools for directing, balancing and harmonizing energies in the body and for taming the mind.
Ashtanga Yoga is a beautiful system passed down to us from the ancient Rishiis.  As in the chants we say before each practice, I sincerely offer my thanks and gratitude to the ancient Rishiis for the teachings, especially Patanjali for codifying and inscribing it, and to the many generations of gurus who have gone before and preserved the traditions throughout the ages.  I am also grateful to the teachers at Tirisula for enthusiastically sharing Yoga with me.

Benjamin Button and Yoga

Remember Benjamin Button? He was the lead character from the 2008 fantasy drama that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The film, which received 13 Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, depicted the life of a man who had to live his life backwards. Brad Pitt played the character of Button, who was born wrinkled and looked like an old man, but as the years passed, grew to look younger and younger. Eventually, he ended his life as a baby.
The picture, in my view, draws a number of parallels with yoga.
The first parallel is that a life lived backwards could be far more enriching. From a physical standpoint, the different inversion and backbend asanas from camel to wheel to shoulder and head stands, yield countless health benefits.
Two-thirds of our body resides below our heart most of the time.  The heart thus needs to work hard in order to send oxygen and blood round our body every millisecond. The heart also needs to send blood against gravity to our brain, which helps and guides the rest of the body to perform every menial task throughout the day. Whether upwards or downwards, the heart is a slave.
When we lift into a Sirsasana, all of a sudden, blood flows back to our heart more readily and our brain is a happy recipient of a pool of bonus blood and oxygen, making us more alert and reinvigorated.  Along the way, our digestive system takes the opportunity to remove stubborn remains in our intestines, just like how we flip our bags upside down to clear out rubbish sometimes. And strangely, there is a renewed sense of calm inside you just by viewing the world around you with an unusual lens.
The second parallel – the movie not only leaves everyone wondering whether Brad would end up with Cate, the film also piques the viewer’s interest from scene to scene wondering how he would look as he grew increasingly younger (and more handsome too!). I, for one, admit that when I first took up yoga, it was a case of using the stretching exercises in yoga to perform better at other competitive sports. It was a means to strengthen my core muscles, stretch out my hamstrings, and improve my flexibility.
But as I practiced yoga more regularly and developed a deeper understanding of this 5,000-year-old discipline, I started to realise, and experience, the anti-aging benefits of yoga too. My skin is clearer and firmer. My breath is deeper and more wholesome. My mind is clearer and more alert.  I feel young both physically and mentally. Today when I get into Trikonasana, it is not just about how I look, whether my body is in perfect alignment, it is also very much about how I feel and if I am happy. When I step out of the yoga studio, yoga has also become what I choose to eat and say, and very importantly, how I want to live my life and treat the people around me.
The third parallel — Brad knew when to give up when he needed to. In the film, he stepped back twice and left Cate, even though she was probably the only woman he had ever loved. As yoga students, we are told to suspend intentions or expectations because when there’s an intention, there is bound to be disappointment. When you do something without expecting anything, any outcome that comes along will be a bonus, a form of happiness. Do what you can, not what the person on the next mat is doing. It is only when you open up to your insecurities and fears, and acknowledge what your mind is telling you, that you can embark on a real path to conquer your wayward mind. And when the mind is conquered, the body will follow. So sometimes giving up and surrendering, in this case to yourself, is not a bad thing at all. You may just encounter a new, and happier, you.

What is Yoga from the perspective of the 3 Gunas?

According to Vedic perspective, all of material nature (Prakriti) is thought to be made up of three primary qualities or “gunas.” These three gunas make up the essential aspects of all nature—energy, matter and consciousness.
These qualities of nature, or gunas, are:
Sattva – the power of harmony, balance, light and intelligence; higher spiritual potential.
Rajas – the power of energy, action, change and movement.
Tamas – the power of darkness, inertia, form and materiality
It can take a bit of contemplating to understand what these “qualities of nature” are and how they are relevant to our lives and our sadhana (yogic practice). Perhaps the simplest way for us to understand the gunas is that matter is tamas, energy is rajas and light is sattva. These qualities are described as the main components or elements of our physical universe.
The Earth Element is the realm of tamas or darkness, of physical matter.
The Fire Element is the realm rajas, of action and change, symbolized by storms with their process of lightning, thunder and rain. It indicates energy or subtle matter on all levels.
The Air Element is the realm of sattva, of harmony and light. It indicates light as a universal principle that is the origin of all matter and energy. The entire universe is thought to consist of light that moves in the form of energy and condenses into physical matter.
The universe and all of nature is inextricably linked to the gunas and are formed from them. We as people are influenced by these same qualities and processes which are at work within each of us. Both our bodies and our minds are subject to the ebb and flow of the gunas within us. Each of us is thought to have an intrinsic mix of these qualities (called doshas). It is the aim of yoga practice, in all its various forms, to bring into balance our individual mix or the three qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas. Yoga of course favors the cultivation of sattva, the guna of higher consciousness, yet all three gunas must be considered and brought into balance in both the mind and body. However, the ultimate goal of yoga is union with the absolute. This would imply that sattva is not the end goal but it is the ultimate union with the divine that we are seeking.
Hence, a Yogi could be seen as a clear, running stream. When we practice asana, meditation and pranayama (breath techniques) regularly, all the systems and functions of the body line up in an optimal flow of energy. In other words, the gunas are in balance and everything begins to work well and we start to feel the radiant, vibrant health that is our birthright. Our usual aches and pains disappear, we begin to feel naturally more flexible and strong, our sleep and digestion improve and we may sense a serene calmness or peacefulness of heart and mind. The over all “tone” of our being feels more exuberant and at the same time grounded and steady. The aging process becomes one of continual growth and discovery rather than a falling apart. A feeling of being more connected to ourselves and to others may develop, and we may begin to see the world and how we live in it in a kinder, gentler way. Yoga, in all of it’s forms, is about bringing the various aspects of our self into balanced harmony. The result is that we tap into a higher, clearer energy positively affecting all aspects of our health and well-being.

Cyci the Yogi: What my dog taught me about Yoga

Cyci the Yogi
You must be wondering, how this small, adorable little creature could have helped me in understanding profound Yoga philosophy concepts. Yet, the beautiful thing is also that the path of knowing is subjective to the individual and how each theory is contextualized in the lives of the students. In mine, I found my dog to be the best embodiment of Santosha.
Santosha is one of the 5 Niyamas under the second limb of Raja Yoga. Niyama refers to an observation within and how one handles themselves within the inside world – the internal battle. By achieving the 5 niyamas, the individual is on their way to the highest moral character and ethcial conduct.
Another word for contentment, Santosha refers to that inner peace of mind that should not be relied on external circumstances, since these external factors are always changing in ways byond our control.  This requires us to enjoy exactly what each day brings, to be satisfied with what we have. In other words, the action of seeking ceases. By elimination the action of seeking, one also clears out worries and burdens, which are deriaritives of seeking.
A simple definition illustrated by Master Paaulu defined contentment as being in the center of happy and sad.

Like in many other moral concepts in life, finding middle ground is always the preferred destination.
We can always practice Santosha in the beautiful and joyous experiences of our lives. For example, getting a pay raise, celebrating your birthday, receiving gifts from people, etc. However, Patanjali encourages us to be equally willing to embrace the difficult moments because when we can be contented in the midst of difficulty, we are truly set free.
A second part to this niyama also talks about the world’s evils and corruptions, such as achievements and acquisitions. Although material wealth and success are not evil, they can never in themselves provide contentment. Therefore, it is up to the beholder of these assessts to ensure that inner contentment still exists.  Neverthless, these world possessions opens up the floodgates for worries and burdens to set in, and Santosha to fade away, which is why many teachers may warn against materialism.
No, Cyci was not this master guru who warned me against materialism. He was in my opinion, the living example of what is meant to be contented. Midway during my 200hr teacher-training programme, Cyci was diagnosed with heart and kidney failure. Since then, he had to be hospitalized. My daily routine consisted of yoga classes till 3pm, then driving to the hospital to visit him before returning in time for dinner, and a few hours for me to read and write.
Although the first few days of his hospitalization wasn’t very smooth (his creatine levels were going up, and he was starting to have fluid in the lungs), my little boy was still extremely bright and energetic. To me, he looked like he had a perpetual smile on his face. (Trust me, you’ll learn how to judge a happy dog from a miserable one once you’re in the place full of sick animals)
This pained me terribly.
I couldn’t see the correlation between his inner body and his outer mannerisms. It was as though he did not know what was going on inside him. All he did was to look forward to seeing his family coming to cuddle and baby talk him. His innocence to his impending fate was so overwhelming and puzzling. I thought, he was not ready to leave this humanly world at all, he is still too happy!
Take this analogy for example. An old 90-year-old man being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer versus a 10-year-old child being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Naturally, people feel more for the 10-year-old girl. But, why is this so?
My revelation came when I read deeper into Santosha. This 90-year-old man would evidently have had more possessions in the natural world – more success, more experience, more wealth compared to the 10-year-old girl. Therefore, people would have felt that death for the little girl was unjustified since she has yet to experience any of those of the man.
This emphasizes the fact that humans derive happiness from material and wordly possessions. One of the ultimate goals in life for many people would be material abundance and financial wealth. Like how a saying in Singapore goes about the 5Cs of life – Car, Cash, Condo, Credit Card and a Coutry Club membership.
Cyci teaching me about Santosha!
Just like the 10-year-old girl, Cyci had none of these possessions. He didn’t care for any either, he never seeked. Despite his bobily weakness, his contentment freed him from all the unncessary worldy sufferings and explains his emotional brightness.
And when he leaves us, he leaves us pure, innocent, and untainted, with none of the world’s evil corrupting him.
As I write this article, Cyci has been discharged. He lies beside me right now, staring at me with his bright beady eyes. His heart weakens, his wheezing loudens, his kidneys slows…

What is Yoga?

What is Yoga?
 Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
 Is Yoga a religion?
In the traditional yoga sutras text, ‘yoga’ means union and ‘sutra’ means thread. Simply put, ‘Yoga’ means union of the parts of ourselves, which were never divided in the first place. Yoga literally means to yoke, from the foot yuj, which means to join; it is the same as the absorption in the state of samadhi. Sutra means thread, and this thread, or multiple threads weave a tapestry of insight and direct experience.
Therefore, the practice of yoga can be considered both an art and a science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation. In short it is about making balance and creating equanimity so as to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole.
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual a person can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they round out their understanding. In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows:
1. Yama : Universal morality
2. Niyama : Personal observances
3. Asanas : Body postures
4. Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
5. Pratyahara : Control of the senses
6. Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine
The first two limbs that Patanjali describes are the fundamental ethical precepts called yamas, and the niyamas. These can also be looked at as universal morality and personal observances. Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given on how we should deal with people around us and our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is yama, how we relate to ourselves inwardly is niyama. Both are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and to ourselves.
The yamas are broken down into five “wise characteristics.” Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, “they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful.”
Yoga Philosophy and Everyday Living
 Is Yoga a religious practice with an affinity to Hinduism?
 How can Yoga be applied to everyday living?
After having gone through the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra on the eight limbs of yoga, I reflected on these and how they may relate to my belief (Catholicism) and way of life. Many people out there still perceive yoga as a religious practice related to Hinduism and they generally ‘disapprove’ of yoga. I remember asking a friend to join me for a yoga class and he responded that he was “Christian” and that it was not appropriate to do yoga for him (and his family). Yoga is often linked to Hinduism because it originated from India and the founders tend to make comparison with Hindu beliefs but Yoga is definitely not a religion.
I always kept an open mind when reviewing the 8 limbs of the so-called Yoga Sutras and I look upon these as a philosophy – a way of life – not so much a religion or belief. In comparing the yamas and niyamas to my Catholic belief, these are very similar to the ‘ten commandments’ in the Christian faith. In my opinion, all religion that teaches good are similar and perhaps, there’s only one God or Divine, in whichever form or name that he/ she is known by. Yoga philosophy takes this one more step further in encouraging us to be more aware of our bodies and to keep healthy and fit, both in mind and body. Pratyahara, dharana and dhyana are vehicles and tools to help us relax and find peace within ourselves. And, finally, Samadhi is like finding oneself.
Yes, the sutras talked about past lives, karmas and reincarnations, and many Christians feel that this is not right, but I tend to differ. There is no concrete sentence in the bible to indicate that past lives do not exist. It just highlights the fact that all Christians should follow the ten commandments, follow God’s will and eventually aim to go to heaven at the time of death. What about those who did not make it to Heaven and those who are banished to Hell or somewhere in between (purgatory, perhaps) – what happens to their souls? Finally I reckon that going to heaven in the Christian faith is equivalent to achieving Samadhi in the Yoga sutras  that is the state of the Divine.
All religions teach one to be good and do good – to be pure in heart and mind. Applying the yoga philosophy of the eight limbs to everyday life, I become more conscious of my own thinking and behavior, and even perspectives in life. Most importantly, I have become even more composed, calm and relaxed; and I find that I am able to think even more clearly and logically than before.
I hope that everyone will eventually find inner peace and calmness and discover your true self.

What is Yoga

Yoga has existed here in Singapore for many years. As far as I could recall, in the 1990’s, my classmate once mentioned that his friend, who practiced yoga, could run for long distance without panting. He said this was the result of the yoga breathing technique. I did not pay much attention to this or to find out more about yoga, partly because yoga class was not common at that time but mainly because being a student, my duty was to complete my polytechnic studies and get good results.
Yoga has gradually gained popularity for the past several years and you could easily find yoga classes conducted at almost every community centre as well as sports complex. But you might need to sign up early because the class usually gets fill up pretty fast.
A month or two earlier this year, I walked into the community centre near my place and enquired about the yoga class which was opening soon. The counter staff kindly informed me that the class was full but they could still put me in the waiting list. He then cautioned me that all the applicants are ladies!
Where are the guys? Is yoga a lady-kind exercise that shy away the guys or it is a just a flexibility exercise that Singaporean tough guys would find themselves too stiff to get along? Or career man thinks that it is just a stress release exercise which he fears to be mocked by friends or colleagues that he is under stress in his work or life?
I think the vast populations here still do not know what yoga is all about.
Yoga is more than just mastering postures, increase flexibilities and releasing stress. In fact, these are just the few benefits of practicing yoga.
Yoga is a practice to cleanse the mind and the body so as to be released from constrains or limitations of the present self in order to attain a happy and peaceful state.
Because what we eat and what we do is what we are, we are always surrounded by sicknesses and emotional fluctuations. Even if you are rich, you wouldn’t be happy if you could not release yourselves from these constrains or limitations.
Yoga make you healthy, have a peace of mind and enjoy happiness internally and bring happiness to others as well.
Basic yoga practices for beginners are:

  1. Breathing – proper breathing technique improve respirations by increase the oxygen intake and circulation around the body to effectively remove the waste product produced by the body
  2. Asana – proper postures and movement techniques exercises various parts of the muscles, joints and organs to strengthen the body immune system, improve blood production and circulation, align the body anatomically for unobstructed flow of energy in the body, produce internal heat to burn away toxins
  3. Relaxation – proper relaxation to calms the body and mind to allow rejuvenation, release stress, promotes healing
  4. Diet – proper food selections to keep you stay healthy and joyful as certain food will cause laziness, increases anger, while other food promotes heath and cheerfulness

Yoga is good for everyone, guys and ladies, children and elderly. It’s never too late to start learning now.

What is Yoga?

The question “what is yoga?” seems easy to answer but it is not easy to explain all the meanings of it to a yoga beginner. Personally, I thought “yoga” was the unification of Mind, Body and Soul as perhaps most people would think – until the day master Satya (Miss Wei) explained it carefully in the class, then it made even more sense to me. Just as a yoga beginner my thoughts were not entirely correct. Initially yoga is the unification of body and soul without mind, at the highest state there will be no soul and no body. I had no experience with meditation, but I understood what she meant when she spoke of “Yoga”.
During the course I never felt tired or sleepy even though I had been suffering from the flu since the first day. Master Paalu and Satya have given me so much knowledge about yoga, so much more than I could have imagined and it has energized me.  I feel like a door has been opened for me, now I have to prepare myself so I can walk steadily through that door to explore more beautiful things about yoga. It all depends on me now. I can firmly say that after 9 years of practice my life now is completely about yoga. Life now means much more for me. Aside from my family, I also have yoga.