Sunday, May 22, 2011

Physical aspects of Yoga

Biological evolution is such a fantastic science that I really feel everyone should be thoroughly knowledgeable with at least the basics of it. There are many popular science books on this topic and most of them are well written to pique ones interest in the subject. When one gets well acquainted with it, its easy to see that, evolutionarily, there are no quantum jumps. There is always a continuum.

What this implies is that, if any new characteristic has to be developed in an organism (in other words, when an organism evolves), the existing hardware and software are leveraged to the maximum possible extent. Redesign from scratch is certainly not an option. Thus, we see many organs doing multitasking (excretion and reproduction) or being designed in complicated ways (optic nerves instead of staying behind the retina, come in front and pierce through the retina on their way to the brain, leading to the blind spot).

Pretty much the same thing has happened with the mind too, though we do not normally perceive the same. The same parts of the brain from the pre-mamallian era that worked to handle physical stress (fight or flight when under threat) are the parts that function in an average person, when faced with a socially stressful situation. As we evolved from the pre-human species to the human species, the hardware and software that existed to handle physical stress, has been reused to handle social stress. So, as far as the physiology is concerned, there really is no difference between the stress faced by a zebra when it is chased by a lion to the stress faced by us when say, we are shouted at by our boss, or when someone abuses us in a bus or when our child fails miserably in an examination. But, that is only the similarity. The difference is that the zebra cannot learn Yoga (or at least no one has figured a way to do so), but we can learn Yoga and thereby free ourselves from this brain residue that is with us from the pre-mamallian / reptilian era.

There is not much difference mental stress wise!

Only humans are endowed (at least as far as we can see) with the faculty of awareness. But, for the average human, this awareness is so mixed up with the mind, that it is seldom experienced in its pure nature. Some rare individuals come with the ability to separate these two faculties effortlessly and at will. But, this seems to be next to impossible for most people. The physical aspects of Yoga have been specifically designed for such people and enable them to accomplish the separation between their mind and their awareness. But, it is difficult to understand how these things work. All techniques should only be used after committing oneself sincerely. That sincerity is the base on which any technique works.

The key factor used to facilitate any technique is the breath. If you have noticed, the pattern of your breathing varies with your mental state. When an individual is stressed, it usually becomes rapid and shallow. But when an individual is trained to breath correctly even under stressful situations, the responses of the individual in those situations become much more skillful and compassionate. This immediately leads to tremendous well being of the individual and betterment of hir relatioinships. This is the fundamental theory behind many of the practices developed in many traditions around the world.

In Yoga, one of the ways to achieve this is by the practice of asana with correct breathing. As we practice asana regularly, we notice that in some poses either inhalation or exhalation or both become difficult. But when that particular pose is practiced correctly with appropriate preparation, then slowly over a period of time the breathing in the posture improves. When this process is repeated in many poses, then, automatically the persons breathing becomes much better in most poses. Someone called this effort 'controlled suffering'. We activate the parts of the brain that get activated during stressful conditions and then we practice making the breath better in those circumstances. Thus, even in stressful situations our breath remains normal, and thereby our ability to respond skillfully to extreme situations dramatically improves. Gradually, the extremes stop affecting us. Patanjali says, after practice of asana,

tato dvandvānabhighāta (sādhana pādaḥ, sutra 48)
Then, one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites

Besides asana, pranayama techniques are also very important to help in this process. There are many different breathing techniques that have been developed around the world. From yogis to sufi saints all of them have developed and prescribed many of them. When the breathing becomes better, the quality of life automatically becomes better for the breath is the physical manifestation of the mind. These days accurate mathematical models have been developed to measure physical ramifications of such yogic practices. One such measure is the 'Heart Rate Variability'.

Heart Rate Variability is a measure of the time gap between two of an individuals heart beats. When this variation is plotted on a graph, for most normal people, its an horrible ad-hoc curve. This indicates that there is no smoothness or rhythm in the beating of the heart. But, for a person who is well trained in these practices, or for a realized Yogi, the curve is a beautiful sine wave. Such a beautiful and rhythmic heart beat pattern has both physiological and mental consequences. Such people are mostly in good health and more importantly, are very much capable of skillfully dealing with tough circumstances. Most of us are just happy to somehow survive tough situations, but these people thrive in such circumstances. Given the testing conditions the world is in, it is utterly important to develop such an inner strength. The movement from having an arbitrary heart beat pattern to that of a perfect sine wave is obviously a continuum. Regular, correct and appropriate practice done even for a few months is enough to show results. Such people improve their ability to derive joy fom simple events and be compassionate and sensitive.

There are many people who abhor any technique given along the spiritual path. They do have a very important point. Especially since, most people who follow any technique are slaves to the technique and do not understand that a technique is like a medicine. If the medicine needs to be had forever, then it has no use. Thirumoolar says,

எண்ணாயிரத்தாண்டு யோகம் இருக்கினும்
கண்ணார் அமுதனைக் கண்டறிவார் இல்லை
உள் நாடி உள்ளே ஒளிபெற நோக்கினால்
கண்ணாடி போலக் கலந்து நின்றானே

Even after thousands of years of yoga practice,
You may not be able to witness the divine
But, if you turn your attention within,
In a second, you may find him shining!

When techniques are used to derive the sense of self, they are bound to fail. Discovery of true nature is beyond any technique. But, the right technique is used to stay in that divine state even under stressful situations. The samskaras (conitioning) of the body and the mind are strong for most people and hence, techniques are vital for such people. But, the need and the usage has to necessarily be directed by the deepest part of that individual. Then there are some techniques that may be used to improve the general life condition of an individual and give them a glimpse of the divine. Unfortunately, the vasy majority of people definitely need such techniques. A calm and healthy general population goes a long way in building a peaceful society. But, all such techniques should be needed lesser and lesser by the individual.
In conclusion, I say that the physical aspects of Yoga when practiced with sincerity greatly assists in consolidating the gains one may make through insight into ones true nature.

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