Yoga is auspicious sangam or holy union.
In the context of coming International Day of Yoga in this year, it is representative of a set of techniques and practices that seek the union of body, mind and spirit with all that is manifest and unmanifest in the universe. That is, through yoga, you can fuse all that you are with all that is the universe. In that state of primordial union, or samadhi, all there is to know can be known. All that can be done can be.
The first recorded practitioner of yoga is Lord Shiva. Out of compassion for humanity, he revealed 112 techniques of yoga that were mentioned into the book, Vigyan Bhairava. For those blessed with a human physiology and mind, Lord Shiva demonstrated that there is at least one technique appropriate for everyone. Therefore, yoga can work for every human being on this planet, without exception.
Later, Bhagavan Sri Krishna was a great teacher of yoga. He demonstrated that one can benefit from yoga even in intensely worldly situations like the battlefield of Mahabharata. Practice of yoga can help you distill the right course of action even in chaos. Lord Krishna’s teachings are codified into the Bhagavad Gita, which describes itself as the Yoga-shastra in every chapter. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought support from the Gita for critical policy decisions.
The great Sage Patanjali compiled the yogic traditions as practiced during his time into his seminal work, the Yoga-sutra. Swami Vivekananda, who took the world by storm in 1893 to re-introduce yoga to the rest of the world, would rewrite Sage Patanjali’s work in English prose, titled Raja-yoga. Swami Vivekananda has inspired millions of Indians, and the likes of Nikola Telsa, Leo Tolstoy, J.D. Salinger, Annie Besant, Sarah Bernhardt, George Harrison, Gertrude Stein, John D. Rockefeller, Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell.
There are five states in yogic practice. The first is strengthening and optimizing the body for its vital functions. The limbs and muscles must be toned and relaxed, blood and vital fluids should circulate vigorously, and toxins and waste need to be expelled effectively. Sri BKS Iyengar was the world’s great modern guru who distilled and taught the yoga-asanas in such a way that anyone could do it. He pioneered props to help even the elderly and disabled to benefit from yoga. He stressed the importance of proper alignment in even standing, walking, sitting and sleeping as yoga in itself. While Hollywood stars are indebted to him, there are today more than 2,000 yoga schools around the world that he founded and nurtured. His work, Light on Yoga, is a classic where he himself demonstrates nearly all the yoga-asanas to perfection and YouTube carries many of his live demonstrations.
A relaxed body helps with a relaxed, contemplative mind. It helps in sitting erect cross-legged on the floor needed for further states. This is the second state in yogic practice. There are many techniques to achieve this state as well, including those taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Hollywood veterans like Clint Eastwood, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey and Howard Stone have all publicly attested that this is a big part of their success.
The third state in yogic practice is prana-ayama. Ayama is exercise. It is important to note that while yoga-asanas are poses, the only exercise or ayama recognized in yoga is prana-ayama. Prana is the primordial life force, a subtle substance, that permeates the entire universe. Prana is often mistaken for breath, but it is not; breath is like a catalyst for transporting prana into the body. Charging up the body with prana has demonstrated that the mind can be further calmed, and blood pressure stabilized and lowered to even sportsman-like levels with regular practice. Yoga-avatar Sri Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya taught advanced techniques of prana-ayama from the Bhagavat Gita to about 5,000 disciples in 19th century Kasi. His grand-disciple, Paramahansa Yogananda, carried these techniques to America in 1920 and spread them world-wide from there. Paramahamsa Yogananda’s book, Autobiography of a Yogi is a modern classic. Apple founder Steve Jobs had only this book on his iPad, and copies were distributed to every attendee of his memorial service in 2011.
The fourth state of yogic practice is Dhyana, mispronounced as Chan in Chinese language and Zen in Japanese. Dhyana or meditation is more easily possible after prana-ayama. In this state, on its own, the breath calms down progressively to minimal levels. When the breath calms down, the mind automatically calms down. The goal of Dhyana is to naturally remove all thoughts from the mind – it is a waste thinking about the past or the future or the present. In the eye of the cyclone, it is perfectly calm and sunny; so it is at the center of every galaxy. It can also be so within you, in your mind, and if you can achieve that, it is powerful. From stillness, you can also direct the mind to solve specific problems quickly and intuitively. Swami Vivekananda sat in meditation for three days on the island rock off Kanyakumari in 1892 to discover the purpose of his life. The next ten years are history.
The fifth state of yogic practice is Samadhi. Loosely, it is the primordial, undifferentiated state of sameness prior to the Big Bang. All is one, one is all in Samadhi. There are several levels of Samadhi, with the highest state achievable in a living human body called Nirvikalpa Samadhi, wherein even your identity as separate from the universe dissolves. According to one estimate, there are about 500 people living on this planet today who have achieved sustained states of Samadhi. Samadhi requires regular and sustained yoga practice.
The soul of India is yoga. All the great achievements of Indians through the ages were possible through yoga. And yet, today, only very few in the country practice it. And, of those who do, fewer practice it the way it should be. For example, stopping yoga after the first state of Yoga-asanas or physical exercise is like building an aeroplane to drive it on roads like a car.
Yoga is something you can do wherever you are, whenever you want, and for however long you can. Advanced practitioners advise practicing yoga at least once a day, ideally early in the morning before sunrise. Hopefully on this year’s International Day of Yoga on summer, June 21, many, many more should go back to their essential yogic nature and heritage.