Today is International Day of Yoga! I love to use this day as a reminder to myself and others of the many benefits of yoga. Our culture here in the West tends to think of someone bending into a pretzel shape when we think about “yoga,” but the physical practice is just one aspect of a much bigger picture.
A profound impact on my yoga practice occurred back in 2009, when I spent two weeks at The Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. I was greeted by a woman who explained to me that yoga in India is very different than it is back in the U.S., and that I was going to be in classes from dusk till dawn learning meditation, breathing exercises, positive thinking, asana postures, chanting, everyday yogic health habits, proper eating habits and lots and lots of theory. She then asked me, “Are you ok with this?”
Exhausted from my journey, I thought to myself, “I just flew 15 hours across the world to this place, so yea, I’m ok with this,” but I just replied, “Yes.” However, she could see that I was just saying yes and not really understanding the depth of what I was about to encounter.
She continued, “I need you to understand that here at the Institute, this is what yoga is about and not just the physical practice like you’re used to. All that you will learn and practice is yoga.” Again, I didn’t have much of a choice being in the most foreign country that I had ever encountered, so I agreed once again. As she escorted me to my sleeping quarters, she smiled at me, almost as if she knew that my stay there would be a life-changing reality.
As it turned out, the time I spent at the Yoga Institute was a most valuable experience. I gained a deeper appreciation for yoga and came to understand what my greeter had meant when she explained on my first day that I would learn the many dimensions of yoga. I was introduced to SO much more than the physical practice ever could. Therefore, each year on this special day I like to share some of my learning and remind my students of the 5 essential yoga principles of yogic balance for a happy, balanced life on, and off, the yoga mat:
1. Proper exercise (asanas)
The modern lifestyle does not provide natural motion of the muscles and joints. Because of insufficient muscle length, or flexibility, and muscle strength, our bodies develop disease and discomfort over time. Our physical body is meant to move and exercise. Proper exercise should be pleasant to the practitioner while beneficial to the body, mind and spiritual life.
2. Positive thinking and meditation (dhyana)
What the mind believes, the body achieves. What we think, we become. Yoga teaches us to entertain the positive and creative thoughts which contribute to vibrant health and a peaceful, joyful mind. Keeping a gratitude journal to write in at the start or end of the day can assist with positive thinking. Sitting still and focusing on the breath for just a few minutes a day can be viewed as a meditation practice. The mind will be brought under profound control by the regular practice of meditation.
3. Proper breathing (pranayama)
Most people do not utilize the optimum capacity of their lungs. Yoga teaches us how to use the lungs to their maximum capacity and how to control the breath. Proper breathing should be deep, slow, and rhythmical. This increases vitality and mental clarity, while eliminating stale air, stress, and tension.
4. Proper diet
Besides being responsible for building our physical body, the foods we eat directly affect our mind and thoughts. For maximum body-mind efficiency and complete spiritual awareness, it’s best to consume fresh, organic, natural foods from the earth. These are foods that are rich with prana (life-force). Yoga advocates a vegetarian diet, but a vegetarian diet doesn’t serve everyone’s body (and yoga is all about serving your body). It’s important to consume the foods that feel best for your body and not to subscribe to any diet. Whether you eat fruits, vegetables, meat and/or dairy products, always be sure that they are the highest quality choices.
5. Proper relaxation (savasana)
Due to the fast-paced lifestyles most of us live, combined with external stimuli, we are continually switching our bodies on and off from the “fight or flight” syndrome. Stressful situations arise, we tense up, the situation passes and yet we continue to carry the stress and tension. Over time, this has a tremendous cumulative effect. By deeply relaxing all of the muscles, a yogi can thoroughly rejuvenate his nervous system and attain a deep sense of inner peace. Relaxation pose is one of the most challenging poses in yoga since we have such a hard time letting go. However, once mastered, it is an extremely therapeutic one.
Adapted from the Sivananda School of Yoga.