Yoga is most often considered a physical discipline. Why does your approach emphasize the mental side?
Yoga practices are at least 5,000 years old and have gained increasing respect in both consumer circles and in health research. The research that has been popularized has focused on physical effects. And yet, everyone who has practiced yoga, is familiar with the mental as well as the physical ease that comes from a good yoga ‘treatment’.
Current diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems focus on three areas of behavior: Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors (Actions). Below are three classic definitions of yoga taken from ancient Sanskrit texts. Notice the parallel to modern psychology:
“Chitta Vritti Nirodaha”: Control of Thoughts is Yoga
“Samatvam Yoga Uchyate”: Equanimity is Yoga
“Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam”: Perfection in Action is Yoga
The similarity to the three levels defined in mental health/illness is not only striking. In the yoga definitions, we see a positive view of health and elegantly stated goals. Moreover, in these (and other) classic definitions of yoga, the emphasis is not on physical techniques or outcomes.
From the beginning of my practice in 1969, it was abundantly clear that regardless of name brand or guru, the teachings of yoga were essentially psychological. As a discipline, yoga practices reflect ‘tried and true’ theories and remedies that address basic human mental (and physical) health problems. Perhaps the stress of life has not changed much in 5,000 years! As I continue to practice and study in both fields, I continue to see parallels.
What is Yoga?
The word ‘Yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ from which we get many English words like: Join, Link, Yoke, Union. There are various branches of yoga practice. Yoga practices increase concentration and mental clarity, promote physical health and control the stress response. Hatha yoga focuses on body postures and relaxation training. Meditation emphasizes concentration and awareness. Pranayama is the study and control of the breath. All the techniques complement one another, and aim toward connecting with, and using innate mental and physical wholeness.
Is Yoga a Religion or Cult?
No. Yoga, which means “union,” implies harmony of body, mind, and spirit. This state is familiar, natural, and accessible to all. Learning from a teacher with extensive experience in yoga practice and instruction is most useful. However, commitment to a group, or teacher, or particular belief system is not necessary.
How can I choose a type of yoga that’s best for me?
Recently my fitness center, my church, and the “Y” have all added yoga classes to their programs, and my friends are all learning yoga with exotic names like: Hatha Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Yin Yoga, Power Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Naked Yoga (yes – there is a style with this name. .), Iyengar Yoga, Pilates, etc.
Yoga seems to be everywhere, with new “name brands” of yoga featured regularly in popular magazines. However, a word of caution is appropriate: The simplicity and elegance of yoga makes the practice inviting to persons of all skill levels, and with varying interests. To realize the benefits of practice, to progress safely into more difficult techniques, and to avoid injury, it is vital to learn from qualified teachers. When you seek help from other professionals such as doctors, therapists, and lawyers wouldn’t you expect them the meet some accepted standard of practice?
How do I know if my instructor is qualified to teach yoga?
A competent yoga teacher will have a regular personal practice long before getting certified to teach. They should have a broad exposure to the various branches of yoga (especially meditation) and they should be certified in at least one style of hatha yoga (the generic name for the practice of physical postures). Their certification should include a minimum of 200 hours of course work followed by supervised teaching practice. These are the currently accepted national standards.
Experienced yoga teachers know how to transmit the therapeutic effects of practice, and teach with ease, grace, and safety.
Lakshyan began his studies in 1969 and has been teaching since 1971. His yoga studio is independent of any particular guru, or name brand, or religion, and was founded in 1979.
Is Yoga a form of physical conditioning?
No. Everyone can benefit from yoga practice, even if you are not an athletic. Some name-brands of yoga have much in common with physical conditioning. However yoga has a different focus. In physical conditioning, the goal is to improve or create a condition that needs to be developed. In authentic yoga, the goal is a return to a built-in level of health. To quote one master:
“No change can be made in you.
No instruction whatsoever can be given to you.
You were perfect even before you came here.
And you will be returning absolutely perfect, without even a dent on you.”
– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Thus, Yoga is really about ‘de-conditioning’. Proper yoga practice results in a restoration – a return to a natural and more original sense of ease. In every program at our studio you are encouraged to discover and work with your own limits without strain. Practicing yoga this way will increase your flexibility and improve your general well being, regardless of your level of fitness.
Will I have to sit cross-legged and be able perform those ‘pretzel’ poses I see in magazines?
Currently, yoga practice is both influencing, and influenced by many other disciplines, such as dance, gymnastics, and even circus acrobatics. While rigorous Hatha yoga postures might aid in a very high level of physical conditioning and flexibility, yoga is never about going to extremes. We strongly discourage you from learning from teachers who expect you to be a gymnast, acrobat, or contortionist.
Is there a difference between a yoga studio and a health club?
An authentic yoga studio is not a health club. Our yoga studio cultivates an atmosphere of peace, healing, non-competition, and friendship. A health club or gym usually focuses on physical culture (form and fitness), and instruction without much emphasis on the healing state of meditation or relaxation. Health clubs may employ instructors having little or no training, or certification in yoga. Authentic yoga classes will include more than posture practice. Classes should include breathing practices, and relaxation or meditation. The ethic of non-violence, called ‘Ahimsa’ (no force/no harm), is present throughout the class, and makes the practice ‘yogic’. Special attention is given to each student’s capacity. Instruction is not ‘one-size fits all’. If there are more than 20 students in a class, additional trained assistants should be present. A competent instructor will modify practices for you, especially if you are under medical treatment, and your doctor has advised you of any restrictions.
Will Yoga make me healthy?
For centuries traditional yoga practitioners have claimed extraordinary control over body functions. Science has verified some of these claims (especially the relaxation effects of yoga practices) and much remains to be researched.
Simply stated: YES! Because, fundamentally, you are already healthy. Yoga practices are aimed at returning you to a natural state of mental and physical ease. Yoga will also aid whatever other healthy habits you cultivate including: cardiovascular health training, sleep habits, managing chronic pain or illness, dietary reform, and general physical conditioning – to mention just a few areas. However, it is important to understand that unless your yoga teacher has been certified in medicine, psychology, physical fitness, physical therapy, nutrition, chiropractic, or any other professional healing art, they are not professionally trained to give you advice in areas outside of their yoga training.
How is your approach to yoga similar to your approach in psychotherapy?
The core of my work has to do with a shift in the way you use attention. Body awareness in both psychotherapy and yoga might be cultivated by turning your attention to the ever-present physical background of experience –without changing it. For example, while you are reading this sentence, you might also notice some tension in the muscles of your face, or even the location of your tongue in your mouth, or even the way you are breathing.
And we can attend even more closely: Let’s use the example of the breath: If you focus on your breath right now, which nostril is more open? Nothing has changed in the way you breathe. But you are taking in more information about your experience. When performing an asana (posture), like the cobra pose, the focus involves watching how your body automatically makes somatic shifts/adjustments. So in this pose I teach how to pay attention and allow the releases that take place in the face, at the back of the neck, etc. This is different from looking in mirror or imitating your yoga teacher demonstrating the cobra, where the technique is from outside to inside- like, just using your arms to hoist your back into a curl up. In my teaching, when you bring this open focus of awareness to include your unique patterns of tension, you notice where the constrictions are, and precisely where your body can release them. So I teach a deliberate attention to the sensory information from the inside out. This enhances communication between the ‘you’ that is ‘doing’, and the ‘you’ is already going on automatically, habitually, in the background of experience all the time. By practicing this way, you admit other levels of experience. You let them ‘leak in’. By shifting attention this way, you ‘tap’ into this ongoing interconnected ‘bodymind’ being, and gradually notice how a physical constriction or relaxation may be connected to emotions, energy, mood, memory, or thoughts. Thus, I promote using your own physical awareness, and this makes the practice more ‘psychological’. In yoga practice I use the release of body to arrive at the release of mind.
In psychotherapy, I reverse the focus. For instance, a client might say that s/he feels is a lot of emotion, but doesn’t want to cry. So I invite them to focus on the physical or mental way that they might be stopping the crying. As soon as they shift attention like this, perhaps to the awareness of tension in the eyes, or in the jaw, they get more information about the need to inhibit the crying. They may also notice other body tension/pain. They get closer to discovering the larger background of experience that is governing the need to control how they feel. They may remember being told to ‘grow up’, or that they would be ‘given something to cry about’, or that they have some other feeling, like anger.
In psychotherapy, I don’t suggest these possibilities. I only invite the shift in attention to these other levels. The client discovers the background and meaning for themselves. Thus, this approach to psychotherapy parallels the approach to asana practice. In both yoga and psychotherapy, I teach how to accept and support the tension, instead of provoking a physical or mental rebellion- which can happen when you are forcing yourself into a position, or in the case of psychotherapy -forcing yourself to emote. In psychotherapy as well as in yoga, the whole bodymind is perceived as an integrated unit. In both yoga and psychotherapy, when you are mentally, emotionally, and physically less divided, you find the power to heal.
My body is no longer as perfect, or as flexible as it used to be. I have had injuries, and surgeries. And of course, there is the ‘mileage’, since I am over 50. Can I still practice yoga? Should I stop? What should I change?
If you practice yoga with acceptance of all the levels of your experience, what difference does it make, that your body has changed? Every day is different. Every year is different. It is the practice that is consistent.
The practice is not the posture or technique. The practice is to stabilize your sense of self at the very source of your ongoing experience. That source of your self is on ‘auto pilot. It is an automatic habitual pattern of behavior. It is like a trance. Once (or as many times) as you may catch your self at that ’sleepwalking’ level, you have a chance to break the spell of your own history or what others have told you.
Thus, as you get older, lose flexibility, have ‘replacement parts’, get ill, suffer through chemotherapy, etc, you adapt the technique to allow you to face your new limits with the same attitude used when you had less of a medical history. Of course, common sense dictates that you check with your medical doctor regarding any serious limitations.
Speaking more personally, my own flexibility, strength and physical conditions have varied over time. I have significant limitations in range of motion since I have had hip surgery for a broken femoral neck. While the flexibility of this joint has never fully returned, I continue to practice as before. It was a serious bone break requiring bone cutting and metal parts for reinforcement. In the more recent photos posted at this site, you can see some of these changes/defects in alignment. I am not preoccupied about how beautiful my body appears in these newer pictures, or more importantly, with these physical changes even in my own daily practice. Over time, this body, like yours, will fail completely. Remember, each of ‘us’ comes with a ‘limited factory warranty’. So the goal of yoga practice should not be everlasting preservation. There is nothing wrong with having plastic surgery, various additives, or even replacement parts. But this is not what yoga is about!
So then, what do you teach in your approach to yoga?
Life defies concept. Yet we each have a never-ending stream of concepts about life and our self. The ideas: ‘ I have a. . good body, young body, different body. . sick or injured body. . I am 60, 20, or 90. . I am . .employed. . homeless . . a father. . son. . lover. . boss . . rich or poor. . loveable or unlovable. . better than others . . I have good or bad ‘karma’. . ’ are concepts about our self and our world. And these come and go. Yet some how, it seems that a sense of self is constant.
Thus, in my work we recognize the obvious: That we need to ask: Who or what is ‘it’, that has all these ideas that come and go, that has an idea of a ‘self’ and a ‘self in the world’? Like the lesson from proverbial riddle of the Sphinx- as we investigate this sense of ‘self’, we learn that just like the ever-changing conditions of the body, so goes the mind itself: Constantly creating a self and world concept. In yoga we use our body and mind, our ‘BodyMind’, to reflect on and connect with this sense of self that is central and constant, since it never stops changing. Thus, both yoga and psychotherapy practice are meditations on the center of what we call ‘self’.
Incidentally and to date, scientifically, we do not know if this center is some invisible axis of some grand circle (i.e. soul) or, if there is nothing there but emptiness or innate survival mechanisms. None-the-less, this center is worth investigation. As we face our self, we spontaneously remove physical and mental tension, and we feel connected to life, which as I said, does not need concept. This is what I teach in yoga and what drives my work in psychotherapy. I promote not Hinduism, but ‘Undo-ism’, or the subtraction path.