what is yoga?

 “Yoga is a journey of the self (ego), through the self (selfish to selfless) to the Self (True Nature)”. Essence of the Bhagavad Gita

The yoga that we all talk about during social hour is actually asana, pose practice. When you tell everyone that you do yoga, is it safe to assume that you are referring to an exercise class at the gym or a studio? But yoga is so much more than that.

Yoga as exercise

The answer to the question when do you do yoga may look like this: at 9:30 am Friday morning or 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening. The answer to the question where do you do yoga is – at the gym, at the studio, at my house (in front of the T.V. DVD or you tube). The answer to the question how do you do yoga could quite possibly be – using a mat, blocks, blankets and straps. And, finally the answer to the question why do you do yoga may not be limited to these – following my grandfather footsteps, knee pain, to lose weight, to decrease stress and anxiety, or it is your doctor’s prescription, or your are trying it out with your neighbor. All these answers are perfectly fine, if – the meaning of yoga is – exercise.

Yoga as physical exercise — the asanas or postures has gained widespread popularity in recent decades. Although Asanas play a vital role on the path of yoga, they can become a superficial aspect of this great science of unfolding the limitless potential of the human mind and soul.

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“Yoga is not a PE class. You’re teaching students how to start feeling free and intuitive. It is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are.” Erich Schiffmann. 

The Word – Yoga

In the ancient language of Samskritham (Sanskrit), ‘yoga’ comes from the root- युज्yuj, meaning “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach”

‘Yoga’ can also mean “method”, “application”, and “performance”.

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For the purposes of this blog, we will use the meaning “to unite”:  i.e. the union of the individual consciousness or soul called जीवात्मन्, Jivatman, with the Universal Consciousness or Spirit, परमात्मन्Paramatman is what yoga practice is all about.  In the Yoga Sutras, the yogic text, Patanjali describes this as the union of Prakriti, प्रकृति nature, with पुरुषPurusha or ईश्वरIshvara, – other names for Universal Consciousness or Spiritual Union.

Now that we know that yoga means spiritual union, when you say that you are practicing ‘yoga‘, are you declaring that you are in that higher state of being – i.e., united with the Universal Consciousness? On the other hand, if you mean to say that you are practicing postures on the mat, then you (we all) have to get into the habit of saying – that you are practicing asanas or yoga-asanas at the gym at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yoga as Spiritual Union

Following this introduction to the meaning of yoga, i.e., union, let’s figure out when we are and when are we not “in spiritual union.”

We can agree that when our body is in pain, when the mind is in turmoil and our negative emotions get the better of us, we are not in spiritual union. When we have forgotten that it is the hand of the Spirit that leads us, the love of the Spirit that nourishes us and breath of the Spirit that enlivens us – we are not in union.

On the other hand, when we help a stranger, rescue an animal, volunteer to pick up trash in our neighborhood park or stop using styrofoam to save the environment, we experience fleeting moments of union with a ‘Higher Purpose’. Are these ‘small gestures’ of Higher Purpose – tangible, transitory aspects of the Universal Consciousness? How do we make this permanent? How do we begin to cultivate the practice – to be in this state of union – day to day, moment to moment?

We could begin on the yoga mat. When you go to the gym for a yoga-asana class, you are choosing to step on the mat. This is the beginning of cultivating the union – for you must show up – everyday – to practice. Yoga mat becomes a place where you work hard to release the blocks in your body and begin to train the mind to be less of a critic. After mat practice you experience a sense of accomplishment that somehow you were able to leave your world of chores and project deadlines to make it to class. You take deep breath and smile – for having found that fleeting moment of joy in your heart and peace in your mind. Have you united your body and mind to be in this moment?

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Each week you return to the yoga-asana class and you step on the mat – this repetitive act induces a sense of practice, cultivates the attitude of being present and sparks reverence to the path of yoga. You begin to practice with gratitude for many blessings – for showing up to class, for moments of peace you experience on the mat which may prompt you to take deep breaths throughout the day – to stop and smell the roses. The yoga mat transforms into a sacred space where you work towards creating health in the body, clarity in the mind and joy in the heart. When the body and mind unite, uncontrolable feelings of joyful gratitude overflows from the depth of your being towards the Spirit. Is this when you begin to truly unite in yoga?

When this ‘yogic ‘union happens repeatedly, lasting longer and longer each time, yogis affirm, that there will come a time when you can constantly dwell in this peaceful, joyful state, a state of constant gratefulness, a state of limitless love – then and only then you can confidently say that you are in a state of yoga, a state of complete union.

My ‘Yoga’

I have been so focussed on trying to learn about ‘yoga‘, through ‘yoga-asana‘ and other allied practices, that fleeting moments of spiritual union quite possibly may have come and gone without me being aware of “It’s” presence.

Awareness happens in small steps. First, I became aware that to achieve yoga, theory and practice were important. Although the books provide a way to acquire some insight into the field of study, it is the actual practice that provides insight into the inner workings of the body and mind.

Then, I became aware that knowing the true meaning of yoga altered the answers to the questions we started with. When do I do yoga – now translated to when am I in the state of union. The answer should probably be – all the time, not just between 9-10 a.m. Tuesday morning, right? But that’s not the case at all.

Next, where do I practice yoga translates to – in all daily activities and interactions, not just on the mat. Not successful here, either. Here is where I keep forgiveness at the forefront in order for me to return to the mat, to Raja Yoga practices to prepare for the next attempt.

And, how can I cultivate the state of yoga – doing selfless service, practicing forgiveness, performing random acts of kindness to name a few practices – are recommended. Again, it is an ongoing process.

I am aware that although there are various paths to yoga, spiritual union, the earlier post on Raja Yoga, eight fold path, is inclusive and complete – a path I must continue to travel on – in order to wipe the slate clean and ‘unite’ with the Universal Consciousness.

Each day I walk a path strewn with challenges – or opportunities – to cultivate forgiveness, to serve in order to lessen the grip of “I-ness” and to practice constant remembrance of the Spiritual Hand that feeds me, and makes me whole. And when (not if) that moment of Spiritual Union is bestowed upon me, my fervent prayer is that I should be completely aware of “Its” presence.

“Yoga (as a system – Raja Yoga – 8 Fold Path) is the perfect and appropriate method of fusing body and mind together. It is the full realization of the soul’s oneness with Spirit.”
― Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi

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Yogananda, Paramahamsa. 1955. Autobiography of a Yogi. Rider Publishers. CA

Schiffman, Erich. 1996. Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Simon and Schuster Publ. NY

nadi shodana – alternate nostril breath

Nadi Shodhana, नाडी शोधन प्राणायाम, is also known as Anuloma Viloma Prāṇāyāma, अनुलोम विलोम प्राणायाम.  Simply referred as Alternate Nostril Breathing, it is a powerful breathing practice.

Nadi, नाडी, is a Sanskrit word for ‘channel’ or ‘flow’ and shodhana, शोधन means ‘purification.’ The Nadis, channels that connect the chakras, energy centers are the psychic pathways within the human system.  This pranayama technique is used to purify these channels, balance the masculine and feminine energies.

How to Practice

Seat

  • Choose a comfortable seat; on the floor (with a cushion, block or blanket), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on a block with an erect spine and head.

Guidelines

  1. Begin with Dhirgha Pranayamadeep yogic breath.
  2. When the breath feels relaxed, begin Nadi Shodhana.
  3. Bring the right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding the index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb. Align the length of the ring and pinky fingers on the right hand. (You may also fold index, middle and ring fingers in a modified version of this mudra)
  4. Alternatively,  Nasagra Mudra may also used.
  5. You will use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) or just the pinky to close the left nostril alternately.
  6. Left hand is placed on the knee palms facing up (gesture of receiving). (Note: the mudras, yogic seals for pranayama – not discussed in this post.)

Variation One

  1. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril.
  2. Exhale through the left nostril.
  3. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the spine – from the pelvic floor to your head.
  4. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  5. Use the pinky and/or ring fingers of the right hand to close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril.
  6. Exhale through the right nostril, sending the breath down the right side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  7. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  8. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril, drawing the breath back up along the right side of the spine from the pelvic floor up to the head.
  9. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  10. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril.
  11. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  12. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  13. This is one round of Nadi Shodana, Alternate Nostril Pranayama.
  14. Do 5-10 rounds.
  15. Complete your final round with an exhalation through the left nostril.
  16. Return your right hand on your knee and breathe with complete awareness.

Breath Ratio

The above instructions are meant to provide a simple introduction to Nadi Shodhana.

Single Nostril Nadi Shodana can also be introduced to beginners. In other variations of Nadi Shodhana, advanced techniques incorporate breath retention and duration ratios for inhalation and exhalation.

There are multiple instructions regarding breath ratios in this pranayama. I was oblivious to this in the early stages of the practice. I was introduced to the variation one (see above) in the first year of yoga classes at Yogalife Institute. This variation provided a sense of calmness I needed at that time.

Frequently suggested breath ratio is 1:1, where the inhale count is the same as the exhale count. This is the safest way to introduce Nadi Shodana Pranayama to a new practitioner. For example, if your inhale count is 6, your exhale count should be 6, following the 1:1 ratio, i.e. 6:6.

However, within this pranayama, the practice of Kumbhaka or breath retention (at the end of the inhale –Antara – internal retention) and suspension (the end of the exhale – Bahir – external suspension), is taught only when students are ready.  The word ‘ready’ implies different meanings for different people. Hence it’s always best to learn Kumbhaka in person, from a qualified teacher and choose the practice variation that is right for you.

For example, the first ratio can be 1:1:1 with instructions for breath retention to be the same count as the inhale and exhale. That means – 6 will be your retention count – i.e. 1:1:1 ratio pattern equals 6:6:6 breath count.

If you are also practicing breath suspension, then the ratio will look like this – 1:1:1:1, where the last number refers to breath suspension – 6:6:6:6

Cautions 

  • Breathing should never be forced. The breath should be slow, soft and relaxed, and performed with full awareness.
  • Remember –The quality of the breath is always more important- not the ratios.
  • Performing a lower ratio correctly is more beneficial than trying to forcefully perform a technique beyond your capabilities.
  • If you feel any discomfort, stop and return to normal breathing. Only when you are  comfortable with a technique attempt the next level under the guidance of a teacher.
  • Practice for 2-4 weeks or more on the first technique, but it could take years to master it. It depends on how often you practice.
  • As the nadis, channels are cleared, blockages will be released. They could surface in unexpected ways. Be prepared for emotional releases (desirable and undesirable) and seek professional help if issues become uncomfortable or confrontational.
  • Nadi Shodhana should be practiced on an empty stomach. Early mornings are best, or choose the best time and make it part of your daily practice.
  • Everyone and everyday is different. How you progress depends on how disciplined you are in seated practice. In time you will notice the effects on your mind and body.

Benefits

Nadi shodhana can be very gratifying, even when practiced for as little as 5 minutes regularly. But practicing daily for 15 minutes offers deeper benefits.

Physical/Physiological

  • Infuses the body with oxygen
  • Clears and releases toxins
  • Rejuvenates the nervous system
  • Helps to balance hormones
  • Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies that cause hay fever, sneezing or wheezing
  • Balances solar and lunar, masculine and feminine energies
  • Brings balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain

Mental/Spiritual

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Fosters mental clarity and an alert mind
  • Enhances the ability to concentrate
  • Calms the emotions and prepares the mind for meditation

My Practice

At the outset, this pranayama had an instant calming effect for me. It was/is helpful to slow down my racing thoughts and overactive mind. I returned to it, sometimes several times in a day, if I was anxious, stressed, or had trouble falling asleep.

I was told by different people that if I had been practicing variation one of this pranayama regularly for over a year, then I could add the retention/suspension ratio. I did experiment with the ratios with limited success and finally settled down with what is best for my body and mind.

The 1:1:1 ratio for internal retention did not work for me. I modified the ratio to look like this: 1:1/2:1 = 6:3:6. This practice was manageable and did not agitate the mind or unsettle my emotions. Although I have increased the count of my inhalations and exhalations since then, the base ratio for kumbhaka – retention and suspension still remains at 1/2; meaning if my inhale and exhale is 12, my retention and suspension is 6 = 12:6:12:6.

And, when I am exhausted or rushed, I break it down further. I do only retention or only suspension for 5 -1 0 rounds. The ratios look like this: retention = 12:6:12:0 and suspension = 12:0:12:6.

These decisions are based on the physical capacity of my lungs and is guided by the first ethic, Ahimsa, non-harming.

Now, Nadi Shodana is an integral part of my daily seated pranayama practice. I use it to quiet my mind before meditation.

Next Post: Preparation for Daily Pranayama Practice