Saturday, November 25, 2006

Making Space

Ever noticed how people in pain curl into the foetal position? Or how, when you are in the midst of a crisis, you just can’t see a way out? So did the ancient yogis. That’s why the Sanskrit word for suffering is dukham, which literally means ‘shrinking’, while it’s opposite, comfort or ease, is sukham, which translates as ‘expansion’ or ‘space’.

These concepts apply to the physical body, the breath, and the mind in equal measure, since they are all interconnected. In ‘The Yoga of the Yogi’, Kausthub Desikachar writes: “Yoga teaches that the human system is a holistic unit comprised of several dimensions or levels. We are not just a physical body, our human system is much more complex than that. We have a breathing body that keeps us alive. We are made up of senses, which help us feel and perceive the world around us. We have a mind or intellect, which allows us to perceive or analyse things in a particular way. A philosopher will look at a situation in one way, for example, while a scientist will look at the same situation in an entirely different way.”

The basic goal of all yoga practice is to ease or end dukham (suffering). The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali say:
dukha daurmanasya angamejayatva svasaprasvasah viksepa sahabhuvah (YS 1.31)

‘Emotional disturbance, negative thinking bodily reaction and changes in breathing pattern are the symptoms of the agitated person.’

We are all familiar with these symptoms. Sometimes they occur together, and at others there will just be one.

For example, if you get the flu, initially the only change may be a bodily reaction, but if the unpleasant symptoms persist, you might find yourself prey to daurmanasya (negative thinking) too. And then you start to ‘shrink’. This is why we need yoga - to make space.

Kausthub Desikachar says, again in ‘The Yoga of the Yogi’, that “Krishnamacharya knew this about yoga, that it replenishes us, refreshes and calms us, and gives us space to examine our lives. This is why he insisted on a daily discipline, not only to keep us healthy, but also to allow us the space to evaluate our overall health.”

We practice asana (postures) to make space in our joints by promoting flexibility of the muscles and connective tissue, and we make space in the lungs by breathing consciously. These practices give us a bit of quiet time to examine and calm the workings of our minds.

The practice of yoga is not restricted to asana and pranayama (breath control), but encompasses a wide range of activities, including mediation, chanting, devotional practices for those who are religious, visualisation, dietary restrictions, and of course, the yamas and niyamas (yoga ethics) which govern how we live in the world.

This means yoga is accessible to everyone on a daily basis, and the benefits can be reaped from any and all of these practices. For example, if you are allergic to wheat, and every time you eat it, you get a horrible rash, you can practice the restraint of excluding it from your diet. This will have the result of easing your suffering - promoting sukham or space.

This month, think about what causes you the most distress - be it physical, emotional, mental, or all three. Spend some time reflecting on what would ease that distress, and then take action! You may decide to include more yoga classes in your weekly routine, or you may decide to practice sun salutes every morning when you wake up.

Perhaps your yoga practice will be as simple (but not easy!) as eliminating a food from your diet that causes ill effects. You may want to step up your religious observances, if you have a religious practice. For example, most religions require their adherents to stick to certain dietary regulations. This has a very important function - eating with awareness and respect for your food improves the quality of prana or nutrition that you take from that food.

If the action is performed consciously and with the intention of eliminating suffering, it qualifies as yoga.

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