THOUGHTS ON YOGA
by Varadaraja V Raman
3 May 2008, posted 10 May 2008
Yoga is one of India's great contributions to the world. It has served countless people for reducing stress, achieving inner peace, for relieving oneself of some common ailments, and in other ways also. The literal meaning of yoga is union. In principle, it has a grander goal: to teach us how the individual soul may be made to fuse with the supreme one. Eight specific ways are prescribed for union with the supreme: restraint (yama), religious observance (niyama), yogic postures (asana), breath control (pranayama), restraint of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana); contemplation (dhyana), and profound meditation leading to absolute bliss (samadhi).
At a more modest level, yoga is for realizing our intrinsic potential to a greater degree. The wholesome yogic view is that the human spirit is an untapped storehouse of capacities. As one can't do science without direct observations of phenomena, so too, to uncover the secret powers of consciousness introspective disciplines are needed.
Deep probes into the Self are said to lead to mystic delights of unsurpassed intensity. Any mystic feeling involves a merger. The joyous response of a loving mother to her giggling infant, the enchanted walk of the poet through the woods, the recognition of a new pulsar by a radio-astronomer, the Eureka scream, all these are mystic experiences of varying kinds and intensity. In this context, a frequently mentioned second-hand report is that the delirious dance of the religious mystic is the highest mystical experience of all.
Yoga is more than an exercise to control bodily functions for accomplishing a feat or two, or for inhaling and exhaling through alternate nostrils. The attitude of the individual to life is as important as the twisting of limbs. Yoga isn't just gymnastics via corporal contortions, such as we see in books and pamphlets (on hatha yoga). The yogi is a person whose thoughts, attitudes, and actions, are inspired by an awareness of the spiritual dimension. To be a true scientist, it is not as important to tinker with instruments in a lab as to weigh facts and respect reasoning. Likewise, one doesn't have to master awesome asanas to be a yogi. One can lead a life of work, service, and enjoyment, and be a yogi as long as one remembers one's link to the Transcendent.
When I was a teen-ager, a venerable swamiji from the Divine Life Society initiated me into the basics of yoga. He taught me to inhale and exhale rhythmically, to prostratingly salute the rising sun, and to assume asanas bearing picturesque names, including one in which one I stood on my head for a while, hands locked behind on the neck and chanting something sacred. I didn't feel sthira sukham âsanam (asana is steady, comfortable posture). Once I asked the swamiji how many asanas there were. He said 84, adding with a straight face that as per the eminent Gorakshanatha, there are 8.4 core asanas. Hindu hyperboles are mind-boggling and magical sometimes, absurd and awful at other times.
Soon I realized I wasn't destined to become a yogi of even modest competence. Though I was not overweight, and even before I studied any physics, I instinctively ruled out the possibility of my ever levitating, besides feeling that there was really no point in striving for this after the invention of airplanes. I also felt that walking around the Dhakuria Lakes, contemplating the wonders of Nature, was healthy enough for my mind and body. But I learned to meditate, and developed a simplistic, and for me rewarding, practice : Each morning, upon waking up, I spend a few minutes focusing my mind on any number that comes to mind. At the end of this brief meditation with regulated breathing, I resolve that before I retire to bed at night I should show some kindness in action or in words, and bring smile or laughter to at least one person. I've been reasonably successful in this for many years. If you smile at this, my promise for the day is fulfilled.
Varadaraja V Raman
e-mail <vvrsps (at) rit.edu>