Finding balance in today’s hectic world is no easy task. Let’s face it: we human beings are a complex species! To live in a state of inner poise amidst the many worlds we straddle as individuals, all of which are constantly undergoing change, requires that we become expert surfers on the waves of change.
One of the greatest assets we can cultivate in life is the ability to still our mind and turn our attention inward. When we learn to harness the energy that usually flows outward through the senses and turn it within, we build up a reservoir of positive energy that becomes our greatest ally in solving life’s problems.
“Stilling the mind” sounds simple enough, but if you’ve ever tried it, you know it’s not always as easy as it sounds. When you tell yourself, “Don’t think of a monkey,” what inevitably pops up in your mind’s eye? Stilling the mind requires that we observe and understand the tendencies of our own mind. This may not sound like much, but to be able to turn the spotlight of your attention back on your own mind is a huge breakthrough that gives you access to tremendous power — power to shape your destiny. It may not come easily at first, but wouldn’t you say it’s worth the effort to understand something you have been living with, and will continue to live with, for the rest of your life?
Understanding the nature of the mind, which is the filter and interpreter of all our experiences, is generally not encouraged in our society. Neither at school nor at home are we taught the simple techniques that can help us gain inner poise and tap the source of wisdom and guidance at the core of our being.
Science, which has given us so much advancement in the outer world, has yet to penetrate the mystery of the mind. Biologists and neurologists look to the brain as the seat of the mind, but does this mean that the mind is the brain? Is it the physical brain that gives rise to the invisible mind, with its different personalities, talents, likes and dislikes? These are questions which still evade scientists, even with their cutting-edge technology.
When it comes to technologies that govern the inner world, the ancient Vedic civilization of India was far ahead of ours, with a sophisticated understanding of the human mind that can only be borne of a deep and introspective culture.
The ancient Vedic civilization was far ahead of ours, with a sophisticated understanding of the human mind.
The Vedic culture, which flourished in ancient India more than 4,000 years ago, was based on the wisdom of the sages who dedicated their lives to realizing their human potential. It was an enlightened culture which gave rise to a whole gamut of spiritually-based sciences, a few of which still survive today. Out of these, Yoga is by far the most well known. Its revival and continued popularity in today’s world reveals that what Yoga has to offer is both universal and practical.
So what exactly is Yoga? The popular images we often encounter of modern Yogis in advanced postures portray Yoga as a purely physical system of exercise. For the vast majority of people in the West, the physical side of Yoga is their first, and perhaps their only exposure to this discipline.
But let’s dig a little deeper to the original meaning and intention behind this ancient science. The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning ‘to yoke’, ‘to unite’, ‘to bring together’. It also means ‘to make fit or ready’, and ‘to direct one’s attention to’. In short, Yoga is a discipline which aligns all aspects of our being — the body, breath, mind and awareness — with the source of life energy within. It is a system designed to make the body and mind fit to conduct a higher voltage of life energy so that we can live in a state of greater awareness.
Now what is this ‘life energy’? Thousands of years ago, people were aware that it is not just food, water, air and sunshine that are the source of their energy, but the essence distilled from these sources that made them thrive. This vital energy was called by various names in different civilizations — chi by the Chinese, ki by the Japanese, rlung by the Tibetans, bios by the Greek, and aether by the English. In ancient India, where Yoga emerged, the sages called this force prana.
We can compare prana to electricity. Whether you want to operate an elevator (kinetic energy), a toaster (thermal energy), a light bulb (light energy) or stereo speakers (sound energy), you need the same electricity. Similarly, it is the pranic current that activates life on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. The same energy expresses itself in many different ways.
Prana is the bridge between the body and the mind, the senses and the mind, and between the mind and spirit. It is the wave that arises out of, and merges back into the ocean of pure awareness. By “pure awareness,” I mean awareness without judgment or attachment; awareness capable of perceiving things as they are.
This intelligent life energy is present in every cell of our body, controlling and coordinating a mind-boggling array of mechanisms that keep the body running smoothly. But the most accessible expression of prana which lies under our voluntary control is the breath.
This is why the breath is so important in Yoga. It offers a secret key to controlling the fickle “monkey-mind.” Yoga considers the mind and breath to be two sides of the same coin. It understands the breath to be the physical expression of the mind, and the mind the psychological expression of the breath.
You can experience this for yourself right now. Find a comfortable, steady posture and take a slow, deep inhalation through your nostrils. Hold it for a few seconds. Then release it slowly, taking as long as possible to exhale the stream of air. Follow this current to the very tail end of the breath, until you are completely empty, and stay with this feeling of emptiness for a moment or two. Now watch the swelling of the next incoming breath like a tidal wave, letting it fill your entire torso. Let yourself ride the breath to the point where it naturally completes itself. Be with this still point for a couple of moments, and let it out in a slow, even stream, enjoying the smoothness of the breath.
Did you feel the immediate effect the breath has on your mind? During the holding of the breath, did your eyes close naturally? Focusing all your attention on the breath naturally draws your awareness inwards. Although the breath is with us every second of the day and night, most of us take it for granted, never exploring its transformative power.
Yogis call this practice pranayama, which literally means “expanding or extending the life energy.” Through the practice of pranayama, we develop an intimate and conscious relationship with our own life energy. It is a powerful practice that can override the restlessness of the mind and help you glide effortlessly into a meditative state.
It is best to learn pranayama from an experienced Yoga teacher, but a safe and effective breathing practice is presented here for you to delve a bit deeper into the experience. In the beginning, it is very helpful to set aside a specific time and a clean, quiet place for you to practice where you won’t be disturbed for 15-20 minutes.
Traditionally, early morning before the day gets going, or evening around sunset time are considered to be most conducive to Yogic practices. But if these times don’t work for you, choose a time that’s convenient and workable. The important thing is the regularity of your practice, and that you give your undivided attention to the breath during your practice.
You can also start by simply becoming aware of your breath whenever you have a free moment throughout your day. Think of your breath as your constant guide and companion, waiting to show you your own greatness. It is like a secret door to a hidden passageway leading to your inner sanctuary.
Being able to open your mind to see something new in the familiar, the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things, is a sign of an awakened mind. This keen awareness can only be cultivated by a thoughtful mind, a mind that knows how to observe itself.
In this age, which has earned the nickname “the Age of Information” for the enormous volume of information that is available at our fingertips, it is easy to see why our mind is our most valuable asset in life. Yet most of us pay surprisingly little attention to caring for the quality of our mind. We tend to forget that the quality of our mind determines the quality of our lives.
Yoga, with its simple but profound wisdom, puts us in touch with the essential basics of our lives. We have to remember that while technology has its undeniable place in our lives, the inner substance of human existence has remained relatively unchanged since ancient times.
We are beings that straddle multiple dimensions of existence – physical, sensory, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Yoga gives us the key to explore each of these dimensions. It allows us to discover our own insights, our own creativity, our own source of inspiration, and our own strengths.
It’s never too early or too late to begin this journey. Once you set sail, you’ll find yourself at the juncture where your day-to-day reality breathes new life into ancient wisdom.
Published in Kidspirit online magazine July 2010.
Copyright © 2011 By Mariko Hirakawa, E-RYT, D.Ay., B.A.M.S.