Friday will be celebrated as the fifth International Day of Yoga across the world. June 21 is the day to commemorate this ancient Indian practice that energises the mind and keeps the body fit.
Keeping the body fit and mind energised is just scratching the surface of this science. In the words of renowned yoga guru, the late Dr BKS Iyengar, yoga is a journey of self-exploration of your body and mind. Simply put, there are bigger things to achieve than merely doing asanas to remain fit.
To quote from Dr Iyengar’s book, Light on Yoga, he says: ‘In the Kathopanishad, yoga has been described as the steady control of the senses and mind has been defined as yoga. And in the yoga sutras by Lord Patanjali, yoga has been described as chitta vrtti nirodah, meaning suppression (nirodah) of the fluctuations (vrtti) of consciousness (chitta)’.
Today, what is commonly known as yoga is just practice of asanas. The actual meaning of yoga is what has been described in the Kathopanishad.
Achieving yoga requires intense discipline and will. But just practicing asanas is perfectly fine. Doing so will certainly benefit the body and mind, if done with discipline. Dr Iyengar had said that asana brings steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of the mind. Asanas are not merely gymnastic exercises, they are postures.
However, he cautions that faulty practice will cause discomfort and uneasiness within a few days. This is sufficient to show that one is going wrong. Also, the right method of doing asanas brings lightness and an exhilarating feeling in the body as well as the mind and a feeling of onement of body, mind and soul.
Why practice asanas at all? Brisk walking will keep the individual fit. Or for the more adventurous, pumping iron at a gymnasium will give you a cool-looking body.
Take walking as the first example. Any well-informed yogasana guru will tell you that walking might help you lose calories but it might actually be leaving you with stiff thigh and calf muscles. This is bad, especially the elderly. Once the muscles have been exerted while walking, a simple virasana (hero pose) will help loosen up stiff muscles. It might be difficult to sit in virasana initially, but practice will make it happen.
Going to the gym and having a toned body is great. The question is, are all body organs being exercised? The answer is simply no. While there is nothing wrong with going to the gym for workouts, supplementing that with yogasanas will be far more beneficial.
For instance, yogasana will keep the spine in pristine condition. A majority of us are stuck in front of the computer for at least eight hours a day and there is a tendency to shrug the shoulders and collapse the spine while sitting. The vertebrae will eventually move out of place and lead to problems. Spine stretches while performing asanas return the spine discs to its original position.
Padangusthasana (big toe pose) can stimulate the liver, will ensure that the abdominal organs are toned and digestive juices increase.
Trikonasana (triangle pose) will tone up the leg muscles and remove stiffness in the legs and hips. It can also strengthen the ankles and develops the chest.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward dog pose) can relieve stiff backs and can help people suffering from slipped or prolapsed discs of the spine. Also, the lungs get elasticity and blood circulates freely in the pelvic region and keeps it healthy.
Baddha Konasana (restrained angle pose) is good for urinary disorders and keeps the kidneys, prostate and urinary bladder healthy.
The above are just a few examples of how asanas can keep the organs healthy. Ideally, yogasanas should be done under the supervision of a trained guru so that the maximum benefit can be got out of it and there are no injuries due to doing it improperly.
Yogasana also teaches us simple things like the act of placing feet straight with the toes pointing forward while walking. Leaning the toes even slightly inwards or outwards will destroy the natural geometry and alignment of the foot and cause problems.
Many individuals are in a rush to learn pranayama before learning any asanas. The third (out of eight) Patanjali Sutra is asana, while the fourth is pranayama. It is not just about blindly following the order. Only after practicing asana for two or three years will one get the physical strength to keep the upper body lifted and straight. Unless it is lifted, the lungs will not open up and expand fully. If the lungs do not expand fully, there is little benefit in doing pranayama. Moreover, pranayama involves the mind apart from physical effort. Unless the mind and body work together, doing pranayama will be of little benefit.
Apart from practicing asanas the right way, it is also important to choose the right institute and guru. Those who promise quick results should be avoided.
Once the right institute is identified, it is important to keep in mind the relationship between a guru and sisya. As Dr Iyengar says in his book, “The relationship between a guru and sisya is a very special one, transcending that between parent and child, husband and wife or friends.” This old tradition should not be broken. Here, it should be stressed that a sisya should have complete confidence in the guru. If not, learning asanas will not be good and there will be little benefit.
Regular practice of asanas has the power to make you a better person, a calmer person, a knowledgeable person and, of course, a healthier person. Done the right way, it will want to make you go back to practice regularly.
Finally, yogasana should not be mere physical activity, it should be a way of life.