There is a perception in much of the Western world that Yoga, despite its focus on controlled breathing, stress-relieving techniques, and the cultivation of focus, a healthy body and mind, is purely a physical exercise; a workout like running, weight lifting, or rowing, only meant to improve flexibility. Even among those that practice classical styles like Hatha, Iyengar, and Ashtanga the focus is too often set on physical strength, muscle tone and flexibility. While yoga can help you achieve tremendous physical results, advanced yogis know they represent only the outer petals of Yoga’s unfolding lotus. Advanced yogis recognize that the inner petals require similar attention. Advanced Yogis know that, just like the conscious experience, each unfolding petal remains connected to a single stem and through this union the whole lotus is formed, beautiful, healthy, strong body and mind.
There is no doubt that the Asanas can be physically demanding. From the very first posture we attempt in our lifetime to the very first posture we adopted this morning, each constantly seeks out new ways to challenge us and change our perception. Even during intense physical stimulation, the mind is still vulnerable to distraction, anxiety, anger, competition, etc. Indeed, the mind can stray so far while we search for peace that we forget the very space and time we occupy and we lose our ability to be fully aware and present. We become numb to the moment because we have allowed body and mind to burn itself out on noise, clutter, stress and nonsense.
In today’s busy world, becoming numb may sound to many like an oasis of bliss away from the constant frustration of a busy mind, and though it is a long way from the dangerously overactive sympathetic nervousness of modern living, its deep roots lopsidedly cling to the parasympathetic nervous function, making it as equally distressing and harmful – like driving while blindfolded.
Take, for example, what would happen if our muscles behaved like the mind often does while engaged in any number of Asanas, deciding to disengage without warning, or jolting off without our direction. The outcome could result in serious injury as the muscles spasm, or disengage altogether, causing the body to contort or collapse. On the other end of the spectrum, think of what would happen if your muscles became numb while practicing your Asana, unaware of any damage taking place from overuse, unable to protect themselves from your physical routine as your senses shut down completely.
Uncontrolled physical movements are seen as a serious medical issue. Why then do we not have the same concern for the uncontrolled shifting of the mind? We do so out of habit, out of learning that the mind is uncontrollable and therefore unable to be cultivated and made to react or behave differently.
Luckily for us, a habit can be abandoned and replaced with something more powerful, developing a new behavior and methodology by fusing willful thought with directed action. Awareness of Self. Consciousness. Unity between breath, body and mind.
The mind is the root of everything we experience. All actions, all achievements, all desires, and all suffering must first begin as thought manifesting in the mind, and all outside information and environments must first pass through the filter of the mind before it becomes part of our experience. Without the willful exploration and manifestation of human thought there would be no creation or destruction, no interaction or communication, no growth or evolution. Our world would be entirely devoid of life if we were to simply remain numb. Society, Religion and Philosophy, Math, Science and Art would cease to exist.
Without thought the architect could not conceive buildings of grand design. Without thought the inventors would fail to conceive even the most mundane things. Without thought man could not create a single object or direct a single action. Without thought nothing could be destroyed – only made irrelevant, insubstantial, meaningless.
Conversely, with thought a person can seek the highest of aspirations. With thought mankind obtains miraculous achievements. With thought the world is recognized, the body is given motion, and a personality develops. With thought man becomes a consciousness: accountable, actionable and wholly alive.
With so much at stake, should we not then look to direct the body and mind, and should we not seek to solidify that unity to achieve a greater, stronger whole? Should we not seek to differentiate between inspired, creative, intelligent thought and base human reaction and nervous response? Knowing the difference between consciousness and reaction is the basis of our social and spiritual evolution.
Beyond the physical demands and corresponding benefits to the physical body, Yoga challenges the mind to stay focused, relaxed, steady and attentive. Just as the muscles must be engaged in our day-to-day activities both on and off the mat, so must the mind. Attention to deep breathing increases the flow of oxygen to the muscles and brain while simultaneously providing a steady calming rhythm to the mind. Beyond this the practitioner’s own willpower and self-control must be utilized and developed, and like much of the human form this too can be strengthened through a variety of techniques, the most basic being the practice of a physical discipline such as Asana. When the body, breath and mind are balanced, holistic evolution naturally occurs. The energies in the body are given time to regulate and unite. This development goes a long way to steadying the mind which, in turn, increases our capacity for greater compassion, sustained realization, and clear perception – all fundamental human characteristics often neglected in our busy lives. Slow down the body and mind, sharpen your perception of your experiences, give yourself enough time to process this new awareness, and you will find that body and mind fall into the same steady rhythm.
If we can take time on the mat to develop and hone our physical well-being then we can also take this time for the development of the unseen body and our conscious and unconscious mind. Yoga is, after all, unity beyond just the physical form. If we are solely focused on attaining the deepest stretch or the furthest lunge, we cease to fully challenge ourselves, because we are so much more than just our bodies. A lotus is more than the blossom we see floating on the surface of the water. It is kept alive and beautiful by the deep roots that extend beyond our immediate vision. A lotus dies quickly without it’s root. Strengthen your mind as you strengthen your body. This is Unity.