Yoga – A way of life to fitness and good health

Vidya Bhat explains how Yo(u)ga(in) from the science and art that is Yoga

Yoga is a Science and an Art. I think many of you reading this may agree with one view or the other. A science as it is exacting and precise if followed properly with the help of a guru or teacher.

It can be preventive and curative due to its very preciseness. It can also be considered an Art as it is exploratory in nature for all trying to learn it, understand it, digest and assimilate its essence to accept it and adopt it as a way of life. But how does it contribute to fitness – a healthy state of body and mind?

The wisdom of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga

When I started studying Yoga Therapy at Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, a text book of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga became my all-time favourite companion. Studying it then was exciting and interesting as it answered many questions that I asked myself on different aspects of spirituality. Over a period of time, it became my guide and bible to help me get the determination and perseverance to achieve many things in life. Every time I read it, I get a new meaning which is somehow connected to the context of my query and I get an answer to solve, resolve or manage the issues that I face. How did this text book of spirituality contribute to my good health and fitness regime?

Raja Yoga brought me in touch with the way in which I should conduct my life, to maintain good health and cheer, mentally and physically. What captivated me was the sutras, the single line of deep meaning that are so well structured and so simple in its meaning and wisdom. Life can really be as simple or complicated as we make it. Really!

The neglected but foremost limbs of Yoga

There are eight limbs of Yoga of which many are familiar with the 3rd and 4th limb - Asana and Pranayama. They have overshadowed the basic steps. While asana and pranayama are important for maintaining good physical health, these should be preceded by Yama and Niyama - self-restraints or a personal code of conduct followed by a social code of behaviour( to understand how to make a smooth transition of acceptance within a community) , which needs to be understood and followed first. Yama and Niyama contribute to the mental well-being of the individual .This is basic to shape our value system which gives every individual strength of character and integrity, which is our natural guide for having a clear guiltless mind - the criteria for achieving mental peace and contentment in life.

Hence, I would consider mental fitness a priority over physical fitness. It is necessary to take baby steps to attain mental fitness in today’s times. Value systems are continuing to erode and when people are not guided by proper boundaries of behaviour, they do what they think is right and acceptable with the result of social norms being broken because they don’t know where to draw the line. Incidents of irresponsible and irrational behaviour are the result. Chaos and disturbances reign, not allowing space for mental peace and contentment.

We now know that many ailments and diseases are psychosomatic. It first affects the mind and when the mind is not able to handle it, it spills over and gets manifested as physical symptom/s. Hence, it becomes important to first understand how to keep the mind healthy and cheerful to be fit mentally.

Yama or a personal and conscious code of conduct includes Ahimsa (non-violence), Truth (satya), honesty (Asteya), Brahmacharya (self-control) and non-possessiveness (Aparigraha). We see how violent thoughts, words and actions affect individuals, community and society at large. Lies and cheating creates guilt which is self-destructive. A lack of self-control leads us to indulge in excesses like different kinds of addictions, which is unhealthy and harmful. Being possessive makes us insecure and gives rise to the fear of losing, again leading to mental disturbances and unsocial behaviours.

With life lacking self control or any restraint, it is natural for the senses to go amuck and also lead to mental disturbances and illnesses. Hence the need to control the wildly distracted mind gently and bring it under control to achieve fitness and health of mind and body.

The five niyamas or social rules include cleanliness (soucha), contentment (santosha), tapah (austerity or thriftiness), svadhyaya (self learning) and surrender to God (Isvarapranidhana). Maintaining cleanliness of mind and body through good thoughts and a bath(physical cleanliness), being content with what you have and live a simple life of necessity instead of wanting more and having excesses, practicing austerity or thriftiness. Be need based in your attitude and not desire based. Be thrifty and conscious of your spends or desires. Self study to continuously be on the path of personal growth and understanding. The last and not the least is surrender to God. This I think have interpreted as the ability to act by using free will and be a willing participant to surrender to any activity without force or suppression. That is Isvarapranidhana to me.

What is needed to understand here is that these self-controlling guidelines are important for creating a peaceful and harmonious mind. A peaceful mind also is more creative and productive leading to happiness and contentment. It is hence important to put in effort to practice these self-restraints and be detached from the results of the desires. Therein Patanjali introduces the concepts of effort and detachment as a solution.

The solution

When one practices the yamas and niyamas, there is a likely chance that individuals will be disturbed and their practice broken through their past/existing passions and addictions and the persistent negative thought patterns that dominate the mind. It takes effort and detachment to be strong in your determination to continue and be perseverant and focused. This is where effort and detachment play their part. Practicing ahimsa helps to remove hostility from one’s heart and helps one have more love and compassion. If you can eliminate disapproval, anger, hate, disappointment, enmity, it will help to make many of us more patience with ourselves as well as others.

How is effort defined? Effort is defined as constant practice – one that continues for a long time, without interruptions and done with a faith or love towards the task. That got me thinking. When one is working on a task, and one gets immersed, one loses track of time in the effort to complete the project. It is not the question of the length of time, but the continued concentration till the goal is reached. It should not be forced but done willingly that brings in the aspect of devotion that is needed to achieve our goal.

The role of Vairagya or detachment

As humans, we all have intense desires, cravings, wishes and ambitions that we want to fulfil. Craving or desire for material possessions, for people and for things is the cause of all mental agony. The fear of losing your possession or loved one leads one to be insecure and becomes a threat, resulting in suppression, inhibitions or complexes. Detachment is related to the senses. When we see beauty, we are captivated. When we feel the touch of skin, we are aroused. When we smell a good fragrance, we are attracted. Our mouth waters when we eat something that we find tasty and delicious and we want to eat it again and again and again. When we listen to a good voice, we gravitate towards the voice. We get attached and develop intense passion, likes or dislikes towards things and people. These are all the attachments we develop in life.

If we can be without the craving, this is detachment. The craving leads to fear and anger if we don’t get what we crave for. The unfulfilled desires lead to mild or intense mental tensions, stress and conflicts. Hence, giving up our anger and fears can lead to contentment and mental peace. It brings out a balanced self, an attitude which will take you past the guilt of the bad effects of your actions and behaviour to help you lead a more fulfilled and content life.


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