YOGAS – CITTA -VRTTI – NIRODHAH
Yoga Sutras I.II – Patanjali
YOGA IS THE STILLING OF THE CHANGING STATES OF THE MIND.
Relocating from the Northeast Coast to rural West Tennessee has had me grappling for a short and sweet answer to the above question. So many in this region have not had direct exposure to quality, medically-oriented Yoga instruction, yet carry the vague nagging feeling that Yoga is something suspect, a discipline that is actually a ‘foreign religion’ in disguise – a philosophy or way of life that is somehow ‘against’ Christianity and a possible danger to their core personal spiritual beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth about Yoga, yet finding the right words of reassurance and a definition of Yoga that is accessible to the lay practitioner have been challenging to find. This first blog post is an attempt to begin to answer this question from an historical and factual point of view. Subsequent posts will delve deeper into other aspects of this question, but I do sincerely hope this post helps allay your fears somewhat and encourages you to try a class or two, so that you may benefit from what has begun to be proven, via scientific method, to be very good for your health and overall well-being.
Yoga as a Tradition has existed for thousands of years in India. The text referred to above, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was penned around the turn of the Common Era as a synthesis of the many diverse preexisting aspects of this large, overall ‘Tradition’. Patanjali’s text has become the seminal text describing the Yogic Discipline, laying out the ‘steps’ to be taken to achieve the desired result, namely: the stilling of the changing (unproductive) states of mind. What does this mean, and what, if anything, does it have to do with the now very popular forms of Yoga we see in advertisements, on television, or participate in at our gyms and fitness centers?
Medical studies have demonstrated that STRESS is bad for our health; they have also demonstrated that STRESS is almost always accompanied by worrisome thoughts about the future and/or regretful ruminations about the past. A brain full of unproductive ‘self-talking’ thoughts regarding a future that has not yet arrived and/or a past that is now behind us is a brain working against a state of optimal health. Science has proven that each thought we ‘think’ carries with it an accompanying chain of physiological reactions – either causing the body to click into FIGHT OR FLIGHT, or allowing it to relax into a state of peaceful, immune enhancing restfulness. The ability to experience short periods of consciousness – clear peaceful awareness – silent of thoughts – has been repeatedly demonstrated to be a front line of defense against the experience of stress and its drain on the body’s inherent vitality and capacity to fight disease..
Even thousands of years ago, these truths were evident to those who practiced Yoga. Exercises that brought movement and breathing together in harmony were devised in an effort to bring about a quiet, peaceful, ‘thoughtless’ state of mind, in order to allow the human body to hit the ‘reset’ button, effectively returning all autonomic body processes to their original state of balance, supporting the return of optimal health quite naturally. The Yogis of Old were wise. They realized that one could not just sit down on a pillow and begin a successful process of meditation; a ‘method’ was required that gradually created a physical and mental environment conducive to true relaxation – and this certainly remains true in the face of modern day stresses.
People need a workable ‘system’ with which to reliably begin to transition out of the over-active ‘monkey mind’ into a state of mental tranquility. Simple direct steps on a clear path leading toward states of increasing mental clarity and one-pointed attention are necessary, before a state of meditation can be cultivated in the brain. This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago. Hence, the common sense approach of learning and practicing Yoga Postures first, then learning and practicing Yogic Breathing, followed by learning and practicing Yogic Meditation Techniques. These are ‘steps on a systematic ladder’ that leads, in a very pragmatic way, to a very peaceful and healthy state of (thought free) consciousness – a consciousness that is highly restorative, similar in value to deep, dreamless sleep.
Over time and consistent practice, we become capable of moderating a previously wildly uncontrollable neuro-biological process: our thoughts ~ and via our thoughts, our physiological response to those thoughts. Our Bodies Get A Break! We are empowered to disengage from a ‘habit’ (stressful over-thinking) that is actually harmful to our health. Now that is some powerful Yoga, and it is not associated with ANY particular religion, or ‘religion’ in general, for that matter. It is more aligned with medical science, if you will. These ancient Yogi-types wanted to live long and healthy lives. They were great experimenters, using their bodies and their breathing as their laboratories.
Of course, we cannot all get up and leave our modern stressful lives and head for the mountain cave. We need to ‘think’ in order to survive. Can you imagine going to the grocery store without your ‘thoughts’?. But, on the other hand, CAN WE TURN THAT OFF at 3am when we cannot sleep? Can we stop the mind from churning away when worrying about a loved one, an exam, a presentation, or paying the mortgage? Yoga is, ultimately, about learning this ‘skill’. When one learns the ‘skill’ of achieving a less reactionary, less hyperactive frontal lobe of the brain, many health benefits are gained. The body exits from the stressful Fight or Flight physiological state, cortisol levels drop, blood pressure drops, pulse lowers, breathing and digestion processes are slowed and normalized, the drain on the immune response is lessened. As a a result, the body’s inherent beautiful state of balance is returned.
Many studies over the last two decades have shown, without a doubt, that the chemistry of the brain is altered when we practice meditation. Try Googling (use Google Scholar): Jon Cabot-Zinn and the highly effective Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Program out of the University of Massachusetts. Many peer-reviewed studies will pop up on this form of meditation, which is derived from a specific form of Yogic Meditation (Vipasana), although they do not use the postures or the breathing as prerequisites, as are used in Traditional Yoga Classes. In addition, here is a link to a study out of Harvard Medical School (2000). While it is a bit on the older side, this study contains incredible color photographs of your brain ‘on meditation’, and clarifies the role a specific Meditation ‘Technique’* played in helping the body switch out of Fight Or Flight into a very desirable physiological state called the Relaxation Response: http://www.massgeneral.org/bhi/assets/pdfs/publications/lazar_2000_neuroreport.pdf.
(*More on the technique used in this study (mantra – the repetition of sound) will be shared in later posts. Suffice to say that ANY sound may be chosen. If you read the study don’t get hung up on the funky Sanskrit words that are used. It could be nonsensical syllables or specific words that are meaningful to the practitioner. The same effect is achieved.)
More studies are needed on this subject, as the practice of Yogic Meditation is basically free after instruction, exhibits no negative side effects, and may be practiced anywhere one can take a few deep breaths. It is not associated with any religion or philosophy; it is a physical exercise with great mental and physical benefits. Hopefully, Martin Yoga will get involved in this type of research over the next few years, as we have a special interest in the benefits of Yoga for children with ADHD. We are wondering, as are many others, if this fundamental ‘Yogic Skill’ – the ability to focus on ‘one thing’ and ultimately ‘no thing’ at a time’ – can be taught to young children struggling with this condition.
In any case, all kinds of interesting research studies are linking the practice of Traditional Yoga Postures, Breathing Practices and Meditation Techniques to reputable Medical Science. The cutting edges of Yoga – both in ancient and modern times – are medicine and health, not religion. To the ancient Yogi, optimal health was viewed as necessary to the enjoyment of ANY aspect of a well-lived life, including (but not limited to) one’s religious and spiritual life. If anything was to be revered, it was longevity and the ability to directly experience pure peaceful awareness of themselves, others and the world without the often harmful interjection of cognitive thought.
If this post has raised more questions than given more answers, then it has done its job. More will be shared on this fascinating subject in subsequent posts. Suffice to say, this post is Thought FULL! Enough for Today. To Your Health, West Tennessee!
Kate Healy, ba, lmt, e-ryt500