It was the summer of 1998 and my cousin and I were vacationing in Pondicherry, a small quaint town in South India known for this historic French heritage buildings, endless stretches of tranquil beaches and the famous Aurobindo Ashram. Peace and wellness seekers from all around the world flock to this historic town in search of their salvation. It is said of this town that ‘time takes a break here’.
One evening my cousin and I were sitting by the promenade of the beach watching the sea and enjoying the splash of the waves when we heard a voice behind us that said “may I please have the window open”. We both turned back and saw a white-clad foreigner seated in a Lotus Posture (padmasana) on a flat elevated bench just behind us. We were blocking his view of the sea and at his request we moved aside giving him a more broader view of the sea. He introduced himself and mentioned that he has been a disciple of the yoga for a long time and is a volunteer at the local Aurobindo Ashram. Listening to him, my cousin said “I have also started doing yoga recently”. The foreigner smiled and said “you cannot do yoga… yoga happens”.
That was a very eye-opening statement. That happened about 17 years ago and since then, I have attended many yoga classes, visited many yoga retreats and have read bunch of books on yoga. In retrospect on this ‘International Yoga Day’ I reflect upon what that foreigner said and how insightful and powerful that statement was..
Yoga has evolved in many forms, adapted in many cultures and has taken many dimensions to suit different needs. I was curious to understand in its original form – what was the goal of yoga? For such fundamental questions, it’s always preferable to go back to the roots and I started reading Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras which is considered as the foundational text on the subject – It’s a short book of 196 aphorisms and was written about 2000 years ago.
Aphorism # 2 defines the goal of yoga in just 4 words and below are the dictionary meanings of the words –
- Yoga – To join, unite, attach or yoke
- Chitta – Mind – which includes, memories, consciousness, intellect, reasoning etc.
- Vrutti – Activity, work, temper, disposition, turn
- Nirodha – Cessation, destruction, prevention
Over the centuries there have been extensive, exhaustive and diverse interpretation of what these 4 words really mean. Swami Vivekananda was the first Indian to introduce the concept of Yoga to the western world and this is how he explained the goal of yoga in his book The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali –
The bottom of the lake we cannot see, because its surface is covered with ripples. It is only possible when the rippled have subsided, and the water is calm, for us to catch a glimpse of the bottom. If the water is muddy, the bottom will not be seen; if the water is agitated all the time, the bottom will not be seen. If the water is clear, and there are no waves, we shall see the bottom. That bottom of the lake is our own true Self; the lake is the Chitta, and the waves are the Vruttis.
Yoga is restraining [Nirodha] the mind-stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms (Vrttis)
The Framework of Yoga
Yoga is not just physical exercises that results in good physical health as we know it today. It is like saying Michael Phelps practices swimming or Sachin Tendulkar played cricket for health reasons. It is more than that. As we saw in the aphorism above, yoga is all about mind – good health is what happens as a consequence and not as a goal.
According to Yoga Sutras, there are eight limbs of yoga that leads to spiritual salvation. I have taken the liberty to write about it in the context of our day-to-day common experiences.
Look at this picture of Joshua Bell. He is by far one of the best violinist human race has ever produced. Here is a moment of pure creation where music flows without any efforts /or thinking. In such a moment – the music, the instrument and the composer all become ‘one’… this is the type of moment when we say ‘yoga happens’.
The eight limbs of yoga are –
Yama – Respect for others, integrity and our moral code of conduct.
The focus here is on our behavior towards others. Think about it, if Joshua Bell were to fight with everybody and bad mouth media constantly, would the world let him be at peace for him to continue his practice towards greatness?
Niyama – Self-discipline to study and practice austerities.
Nothing can be achieved without hard-work and sacrifices. While Yama focuses on others, Niyama is a focus on one-self.
Asana – Body posture, harmony with the body.
For great musicians, the musical instrument is an extension of their body. They are able to handle the instrument with the same ease as we are able to use our legs to walk and run. This requires years of sustained and consistent practice. As professionals and students, just being able to sit in one place for extended time (long classes / work hours, lectures, studying, etc.) is a pre-requisite for developing concentration and expanding the attention span. This comes only by practice.
Pranayama – Breath control.
The underlying idea of breath control is simple. Different emotions cause different breathing patterns. For example – when we are anxious or afraid, we breathe more quickly and shallowly and when we are happy, we breathe slowly and fully. If emotions cause breathing patterns to change, then changing the breathing pattern should change our emotions. This is the overall idea of Pranayama. Another example is, in public speaking they teach participants to take deep rhythmic breath to control fear of public speaking.
Pratyahara – Withdrawal of senses and awareness away from the external world.
The picture above beautifully demonstrates this aspect – look at how Joshua has closed his eyes and he seems to be totally unaware of anything outside the world of his music.
Dharana – Concentration on a single object.
Pratyahara paves way for Dharana i.e. withdrawing senses and awareness away from the external world and focusing it on single object develops concentration. Again in the picture above, there is nothing other than complete focus on music.
Dhyana – Uninterrupted flow of concentration.
In the picture above, Joshua is probably performing for about 3 hours and keeping the focus uninterrupted for such a long time is nothing less than a meditation. Think about it, even a stray thought of say, where to take his spouse for her birthday, can disrupt his concentration and adversely impact the performance.
Samadhi – Ecstasy, transcendence, enlightenment.
Just look at Joshua’s expression in the picture above to understand what this means. Words fail to express the unexplainable. Here is one more examples.
Wish you all a very happy Yoga Day! May the framework of yoga help you achieve oneness with your aspirations. May yoga happen to you!