My Love Hate Relationship with Yoga

I chanced upon yoga a few years back when a new yoga studio opened just 5 minutes from where I stayed. I went for their open house during their grand opening and signed up for a one-year package. Took my first hot yoga and fell in love with it. That hotness in the studio makes you perspire like hell, but you feel so good after. That same night I slept like a baby.

I continued various different classes with different teachers. Hatha, flow, hot, yin and Ashtanga. That’s where I discovered the style (Ashtanga) that I love the most. I started attending Ashtanga classes more frequently on a weekly basis with the same teacher without fail. However, it started my love hate relationship.

Ashtanga has a fixed sequence that your body will remember after consistent practice. You just flow through the variation poses like water flowing with the tide. However, I find certain poses intimidating and challenging especially the inversion and backbending poses.

I guess quite a lot of beginners like me finds those poses a huge hurdle. Without proper guidance or explanation, there is no way you can learn to stand on your head or bend it gracefully like a gymnast. Pun intended…  

Even though I continued my weekly classes without fail, I have yet to conquer that hate. After one year, I quit from the studio and yoga practice. And went on a hiatus. Until early last year, where my sister suggested to try out a studio (Tirisula) that she has been attending yoga classes regularly. I attended the first class with her and fell in love again. Angelika, the yoga teacher for that day was amazing. Her dedication to all the students of all levels was undivided. She pays attention to every student individual different needs and adjusted our posture for every class that I have attended. I must say, the teacher, teaching the classes plays an important role. She motivated me to overcome my hate. And from there I fall in love all over again and has never look back since.

Patsy Kaye Ang, YTT200 Weekend Warrior – March 2018

 

Yoga was about physical exercise for me

Yoga is more than just a form of physical exercise. The modern understanding of yoga does great injustice to it. If you ask any other person on the street about their understanding of the word, there is a high chance that their replies would generally be that it is a stretching workout for really flexible people or that it is a highly dangerous workout that causes a lot of injuries among its practitioners.
To those who have some Sanskrit language knowledge, they would know that the term Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word “Yug”, which means union. Union? Union of? That’s a very vague terminology. Yoga practitioners seek union of their physical body, mind and soul with the divine through the practice of yoga. There are a number of types of yoga. The one that we conveniently have thought it to be is only one of the eight aspects of the Ashtanga Yoga. The physical exercise that is made up of various poses is called Asana.
Another confusion in the field of yoga is the definition of the terms “hatha” and “vinyasa”. Through this course, I realize that practitioners of hatha yoga practise their asanas by holding a particular pose for a longer period of time. Sequence of poses is not highly important in this category. On the other hand, vinyasa yoga is more demanding. The execution of each pose must be precise, the sequence of poses must obey a certain set of guidelines and the transition between poses must be smooth in terms of movement, breath and energy flow.
The other aspects of yoga that are still overshadowed by the overly emphasized Asana are Pranayama, Dhyana, Yama, Niyama, Dharana, Pratyahara and Samadhi. In this article, I would share my understanding of the other two aspects, which are overshadowed by the practice of Asana; Pranayama and Dharana.
Pranayama, which is often treated as a secondary aspect of yoga as compared to Asana, is often being undermined as a mere breathing exercise. Modern science and medical studies could only draw conclusions in terms of physical, chemical and biological effect of breathing, the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in alveoli and the importance of oxygen in our body for sustenance. But from pranayama’s point of view, the western philosophy on breathing is only the tip of the iceberg. The word “prana” has already made it obvious that the practice involves energy, more than just the energy derived from the food that we consume. Similar to the traditional Chinese medicine’s concept of Qi, “prana” is the vital energy that is intangible, abstract and almost mystic. However, this abstract form of energy is the key difference between a living man and a dead one.
The practice of pranayama is claimed to have physical, mental and spiritual benefits to the practitioners. If spiritual advantages are considered beyond your comprehension of logic, then do at least consider the immediate and obvious benefits of the exercises.
For example, the practice of Nadi Shodana, which consists of alternate nostril breathing and breath retention, does directly or indirectly makes the body (circulatory system) especially the heart and lungs to work more efficiently. With a doubled time of exhalation, a doubled time of breath retention and a doubled time of void of breath (after exhalation), the lungs would be “forced” to be more efficiently in absorbing the oxygen from every breath that the body takes. Indirectly, the heart would need to pump more blood (that carries carbon dioxide) into the lungs for the gas exchange and get the oxygen-rich blood cells to deliver oxygen to various parts of the body. A specific time to breathe, such as 5 seconds, is generally longer than our regular breathing. This means we train ourselves to develop deeper breathing habits. Deeper breathing would lead to more oxygen in every inhalation. Longer time of exhalation would mean that a higher percentage of the air exhaled contains carbon dioxide. Thus lesser oxygen would be released through respiration as compared to our regular breathing. Longer breath retention time would mean more time for the lungs and blood to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Lastly, longer time of body without breath would train the body to be more efficiently in the delivery of oxygen-rich blood cells to vital organs and parts of body, it would create “hungry” oxygen deprived blood cells that would absorb oxygen faster and it would train the mind and body to not be in a state of panic in cases where there is an unexpected trauma.
The third aspect of yoga is somewhat being overlooked or misunderstood by its more abstract cousin, dhyana. General public often fail to recognize that the link between the state of conscious and meditation is the art of concentration, Dharana. Perhaps it is easier for the people in the past to practice concentration. The reason for coming to such conclusion is that in this current age, we have reached to a stage where we are constantly being surrounded by distractions of all sorts. It could be the television or the Internet. It could be pop culture or fashion. Surrounded by sky-high buildings that seem trying to reach the heavens and media that bombard us with endless flow of information 24/7, one would not be surprised at how short the attention span of the younger generation is. Mankind has become so accustomed to fast changing landscape that their patience grow thinner and their knowledge is skewed towards superficial subjects. Mankind becomes more and more entrapped and enslaved in this illusion-world.  Weakness in dharana is revealed in situations when the mind takes the reins of your body and gives you an emotional roller-coaster ride. The failure to keep the mind under your control means that your concentration is weak.
Dharana trains the body to be disciplined. Concentration comes in various forms such as determination, perseverance, endurance and focus. But the essence is same which is concentration. It helps to prevent the mind from overtaking the body. Concentration would aid us from becoming easily affected by external factors. When we are no affected by external factors, our tasks would be easier and faster to accomplish. Being concentrated does not mean we become oblivious to the surroundings. We are still well aware of what is happening around us but we have an option to turn off those that are not pertinent in our lives.
In practice, there are many ways to train our concentration. One of the ways is to use visual or imagery to train the mind to focus. In Buddhist practice, mandalas are used to aid the believers to focus and concentrate before transcending into a state of meditation. Some rely sounds, from chants or bells, to get into meditation. Others use the sense of touch, such as hand mudras, as point of focus. Only after we have successfully practise dharana, we would then be ready for dhyana, meditation.
 
Riesal
(200hr Yoga TTC – July 2013)
“But I could be wrong.”
― Carl Sagan

Yamas

Yamas

The first of the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga (or Raja) Yoga is the Yamas. The word Yama in Sanskrit translates in to English loosely to mean Restraint. Thus the first Limb of the practice of Ashtanga is to restraint in how you deal with the world outside of yourself. There are five Yamas, which are outlined below:

 

Ahimsa – Non-violence

Violence is not always literal, and so this must not be taken literally and in the traditional interpretation of the word. We can be violent in not taking action when we see or hear brutality and negativity in others, or push our emotions onto another. Forcing your opinion onto someone else is violent in the way you project your idea or lifestyle on another and expect them to change accordingly. Telling someone to believe something, act or speak a certain way, or go without something they personally need or desire is also violent. When we practice Ahimsa we acknowledge pain and suffering, desires and needs, opinions and beliefs. We appreciate the way things vary and where change and assistance are asked from you, the return is gentle and progress in to a new path is felt on a deeper level where it can be acknowledged fully.

 

Satya – Truthfulness

Lying comes as second nature to many people, not only lying to others but also lying to ourselves. Lying cannot be considered as just speaking the truth to others, but also being truthful in your actions. There is no way you can successfully show honesty towards others, if you are actions are filled with deceit and lies. By being truthful, we encourage it in those around us. By being truthful within your mind you are building a stronger identity for others to appreciate your actions.

 

Brahmacharya – Chastity

Chastity is not to ignore your sexual urges. Chastity is only to allow that you are not controlled and ruled by these urges. We are animals with base instincts to be secure, fed, watered and reproduce. When we indulge in our base instincts regularly we begin to be overcome by them and lose some control of how we manage the rest of our lives. The practice of Bramacharya is the practice of acknowledging that we have these urges and with-holding our minds from being taken over with the drive to fulfill these needs to a point where our Mind and Soul cannot function.

 

Asteya – Not Coveting

In life we should be at peace with the possessions and relationships that we create, attain and receive without desiring instead the relationships, possessions and successes of others around us. The ideal of what we need and what we are lacking is a creation of doubt and unhappiness within our minds. Peace and contentment will not be achieved while longing exists outside of our being for something that we do not have. It is so easy to miss life this way, and happiness for the success of another cannot be genuinely expressed whilst you feel this jealousy.

 

Aparigraha – Without greed

The giving of something, whether it is a physical item, mental or emotional stimulation or simply some time and effort, without an expectation of anything in return, helps enrich the soul. True Aparigraha is the act of giving, not because we judge we are better than another so ‘it is our duty to help’, instead we give for the sake of giving and the way it makes ourselves feel. If the person in the supermarket is a little short of their change and you can provide this change, simply do. Don’t think or analyse or ignore. This is how we abstain from greed.

Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga is the eight-folded path of yoga. It is a specific yoga tradition, but at the same time Ashtanga Yoga can be seen as covering all aspects of yoga within any yoga tradition.
Ashtanga Yoga is often called Patanjali Yoga, referring to Maharishi Patanjali, the ancient author of the famous Patanjali yoga sutras that describe Ashtanga Yoga. More recently (15th century) the term Raja Yoga is also often used instead of Ashtanga Yoga, meaning “royal yoga”.
Ashtanga Yoga can be regarded as a fourth option next to the 3 typical paths of yoga, namely bhakti, karma and jnana yoga. While these yogas rather directly aim at dissolving the ego, Ashtanga Yoga does the same job but more indirectly through mind. The second sutra of Patanjali already makes it clear: by stopping the modifications of mind the objective of yoga is reached. In other words, stop thinking long enough and the ego will no longer be fed by concepts. As the ego is nothing but a body of concepts, it thus dissolves through a process called Samadhi (effortless meditation) and merges with cosmic consciousness, which is the union that is yoga.
As Ashtanga Yoga also includes many aspects of bhakti, jnana and karma yoga, it is an extremely powerful yogic tradition. Stopping mind is not exactly easy, but the eight methodical steps of Ashtanga yoga make it possible for anyone to achieve that goal. Step by step, kosha by kosha, all obstacles to stop mind are removed and the attention is brought inside until the meditation becomes effortless and the dissolution of the ego can start.
Following is an overview of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga, described as practices:
Yama (control): a series of don’ts in contact with the world outside, so that our relationships as well as our energy remain harmonious, providing the peaceful background needed for deep meditation. The disciplines in Yama typically include nonviolence, truth, honesty, sexual continence, forbearance, fortitude, kindness, straightforwardness, moderation in diet & bodily purity.
Niyama (rules of conduct): a series of do’s that helping in detaching from the world and the ego. Activities in Niyama typically consist of austerity, contentment, belief in God, charity, worship of God, study of teachings and scriptures, modesty, having a discerning mind, repetition of prayers, observance of vows and performing sacrifices.
Asana (posture): as a motionless body makes the mind quiet, and as an unstable body cannot remain motionless in deep meditation, many postures have been described of which at the least one sitting posture must be mastered in order to reach a deep state of meditation.
Pranayama (control of breath): control of breath brings mind under control, while the main aim is to store the energy that will be needed when in deep meditation breathing has stopped.
Pratyahara (withdrawal of sensory perceptions) : removing the attention from sensory input, so that it ceases to disturb meditation. This may be preceded by some focus on purifying sensory input, such as in rituals, use of meditative sounds, etc… Ultimately prana is withdrawn from the nadis that transport sensory input.
Dharana (concentration): the focus of mind on any single object, for example a mantra, or deep concentration on the six subtle centers of the chakras, starting from the first and gradually approaching the seventh, etc…
Dhyana (uninterrupted meditation): in which the concentration is uninterrupted, without a single disturbing thought, though this concentration still requires some effort.
Samadhi (effortless meditation, absorption, equilibrium): concentration is maintained, but it requires no effort. This stage allows for a rather long purification process through which the individual consciousness is finally dissolved in pure cosmic consciousness.
After a prolonged practice of samadhi there is no need to practice any longer, because the conscious connection to the divine is everlasting, which is called natural samadhi. Ultimately it leads to enlightenment.