Just Like That | Yoga’s health benefits are proven but a competent instructor is crucial - Hindustan Times

Just Like That | Yoga’s health benefits are proven but a competent instructor is crucial

Jun 23, 2024 08:00 AM IST

While Hatha Yoga has taken the world by storm, people are less aware that Yoga is an eight-layered philosophy, of which the exercises are only the first part.

On June 21, the world celebrated the 10th anniversary of International Yoga Day. A resolution to this effect was adopted by the United Nations in 2014. It is, indeed, a most worthy global recognition of one of the great contributions of Bharat to ensure health, harmony and mental peace.

Mumbai, Jun 21 (ANI): Western Naval Command personnel perform yoga on the 10th International Day of Yoga, in Mumbai on Friday. (ANI Photo) (Deepak Salvi) PREMIUM
Mumbai, Jun 21 (ANI): Western Naval Command personnel perform yoga on the 10th International Day of Yoga, in Mumbai on Friday. (ANI Photo) (Deepak Salvi)

I have been an avid practitioner for years. I began to learn Yoga when I was 16 years old. My guru then was the well-known Yoga teacher, Dhirendra Brahmachari, who later became controversial because of his political dealings and commercial involvements. His teaching centre was near Gole Market in New Delhi, and I used to be there every morning at the crack of dawn.

In the years that followed, one hour in the morning was reserved for Yoga, with a record player—now long outdated—playing the verses of the Bhagwat Gita sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Over time, I became quite adept in performing some of the most difficult asanas, including nauli kriya, which involves complete control of the exterior stomach muscles.

My practice of Yoga continued unbroken for the next 16 years. Then, one day, when I was posted in New York in our Mission to the United Nations, I inadvertently pulled my back, and abruptly—and wrongly—gave up the practice. I resumed it only some 12 years ago, and now a good Yoga teacher, Mithilesh Roy, a Bengali but trained at the famed Monghyr faculty in Bihar, comes twice a week, and both my wife and spend an hour doing fairly advanced and strenuous Yoga.

But while Hatha Yoga—the physical asanas of this discipline—has taken the world by storm, people are possibly less aware that Yoga is an eight-layered philosophy, of which the exercises are only the first part. The Yoga Sutra is attributed to Patanjali and is dated sometime before 400 BCE. Several scholars believe it to be of much greater antiquity, and it is very likely that even if composed later, the Sutra codifies a tradition and practice from several centuries earlier.

The Yoga Sutra begins with the aphorism: "Yoga chitti vritti nirodhah: Yoga is restraining the mind from discursive thought’. This restraint, it believes, can be brought about by physical and mental discipline. Discipline is outlined in an eightfold path, starting from yama (self-restraint), niyama (virtuous observances), asana (posture), pranayama (consciously controlling breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentrating the mind), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (a trance-like state in which there is a complete union with the subject of meditation). Yoga literally translates to ‘union’, and the purpose of the entire regimen of the eightfold path is to prepare the disciple for the union with pure consciousness.

In philosophy, Yoga is hyphenated with the Sankhya school. This was founded by the sage Kapila in the seventh century BCE and is one of the oldest systematised structures of thought in Hinduism. In essence, the Sankhya assigns a cosmic duality to the universe, consisting of Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is pure consciousness. Prakriti represents the ‘potentiality of nature’, and lies latent, its three constituents—sattva, rajas and tamas—in equilibrium.

Sattva stands for purity; rajas for energy and activity; and tamas for inertia and stolidity. This equilibrium is disturbed when Purusha interfaces with Prakriti, and evolution commences with all its manifest diversities. According to Sankhya, liberation consists in understanding the distinction between the material Prakriti and the pure consciousness of Purusha.

Yoga provides to Sankhya a carefully structured complementary system of exercises of the body and the mind that it believes is necessary to achieve liberation or moksha. The combined philosophical system is called Sankhya-Yoga. The other four schools of Hindu philosophy are the Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsha and Uttar Mimamsha. The last is the same as the most powerful of these schools, Advaita.

It is instructive to remember this deep philosophical background to the yogic exercises we perform. Nothing in the Hindu system of thought is simplistic. It is part of a complex web of thought, whose ultimate aim is understanding who we are, and in the process finding salvation.

The health benefits of Yoga are proven. Yogic exercises not only strengthen your muscles and enhance flexibility and balance but also have a beneficial impact on your internal organs. But ideally, it is important to learn Yoga under a competent instructor, because the same exercises if done wrongly or prematurely, can do harm. Pranayama, the art of harmonious breathing, is particularly helpful in strengthening the lungs and calming the mind.

Meditation has been scientifically shown to dramatically alter the level of consciousness of your brain. Experiments done in the most sophisticated labs in the US have shown that the brain of a person in deep meditation completely changes, the brain images turning to calm, light shades of blissful tranquillity from the aggressive colours that are normally dominant in our daily lives.

I wish all my readers a belated but happy International Yoga Day.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences. The views expressed are personal


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