Practiced worldwide, yoga is one of the most popular exercise modalities. Though yoga is effective in training your body, giving you improved flexibility, tone and strength, yoga is also about training your mind. The word yoga actually means “to connect,” and, in addition to the physical fitness, it offers many mind-related benefits.
The western culture discovered yoga as a way to stay in shape and calm the mind, but for Easterners, the practice of yoga permeates the entire being. Yoga is not just exercise; rather, it embodies the food you eat, your interaction with others, and the way you spend your day.
Narayanan Veeraraghavan, holistic yoga practitioner for the Penn State Vedic Society, compares it to a diamond. “You can use a diamond as a paper weight and it is useful as one, but its value is much more than that,” he says. In other words, you can reap the health benefits of yoga if that is all you desire, but yoga goes well beyond the body.
WHAT IS YOGA?
Yoga is Sanskrit for “to link.” Logically, linking implies the presence of two or more entities. In a spiritual context, yoga is a process of linking human consciousness to a supreme consciousness. The purpose of yoga exercises, or asanas, then, is to make the body conducive to achieving higher levels of consciousness.
Sure, you can simply “do” yoga, but you can also allow yourself to become one with it. In Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, Krishna says, “One must become a Yogi.” A yogi is defined as one whose life and activities are geared toward reestablishing this “link” between her consciousness and that of the Supreme Being.
THREE MODES OF MATERIAL NATURE
Yogis orient their lives with the three modes of material nature: Goodness, passion and ignorance.
According to Veeraraghavan, the mode of goodness, described as indifference, comes from giving the right thing to the right person at the right time. For example, if someone angrily accosts you, your reaction would be one of indifference rather than retaliation.
The mode of passion says “I want…” and is considered a selfish mode. It is giving the right person the right thing at the wrong time.
The mode of ignorance is giving the right person the wrong thing at the wrong time, and is described as laziness.
In using the above example of a confrontation with an angry friend, if you were in the mode of ignorance, you would not react — and your non-reaction would be because you are lazy. This is different from a non-reaction in the mode of goodness because in goodness, you would choose not to act; your non-reaction is based on insight or knowledge. If you believe in timing, then you likely understand this essence of right and wrong timing.
When you live in a yogic manner, your day is separated into three “times” and a mode is assigned to each time. The morning is the mode of goodness, passion is assigned to the afternoon and the mode of ignorance is assigned to the evening and night.
Engaging in yoga to your fullest potential when you are in the mode of passion or ignorance is difficult. Therefore, before you can even begin the asanas, you must be in the mode of goodness to reap the most mind-body benefit from your poses.
THE YOGA LADDER
Time is separated into ages, or yugas, that are about 4 billion years long. A different kind of yoga is assigned to each age, and only that form of yoga will carry the yogi beyond consciousness. The yoga prescribed for the current age is called bhakti yoga.
To re-establish the relationship between consciousness and the Supreme Being through bhakti yoga, one must follow the yoga ladder:
Step 1: Karma Kanda. At this stage, one performs rituals for elevation to heavenly planets and seeks to control the senses.
Step 2: Karma Yoga/Sakama and Nishikama-Karma Yoga. At this point, one renounces the fruits of his labor and sacrifices them to the Supreme Being.
Step 3: Jhana Yoga. In addition to renouncing the fruits of one’s labor, the yogi is introduced to the notion of the Brahman, the Supreme Being, and austerity.
Step 4: Ashtanga Yoga. A yogi at this stage has renounced his fruits, gained knowledge about the Brahman, controlled the senses by the Eight-Fold Path and practiced meditation.
Step 5: Bhakti Yoga. This is the highest and most unattainable step in the yoga ladder. At this point, the yogi has mastered all of the tasks of the previous four steps and connected with and maintained a loving, devotional service to the Supreme Being.
THE YOGA DIET
Yogis stress that consumption of “good” food, though not the goal of yoga, is an important step in the yoga ladder. Food is also considered in the three modes.
Mode of goodness: Food in the mode of goodness increases longevity, purifies one’s existence, and gives strength, health and satisfaction. The ideal diet includes only milk products, grains, sugar, fruit and vegetables.
Mode of passion: This mode contains foods that are too bitter, sour, salty, pungent, rich, dry or hot. Like the effects of passion and desire, this type of food causes pain, distress or disease to the body.
Mode of ignorance: This mode includes foods that taste stale, putrid, decomposed or unclean, or lack taste entirely. This includes leftovers, meat, fish, eggs and liquor. Foods of ignorance should be avoided to reach the perfection of yoga.
Mode of purified goodness: This mode, one above the mode of goodness, is considered unattainable to the average yoga practitioner. The food in purified goodness is only the remnants of a saintly person or a spiritual master — a virtual impossibility for most.
HOW TO GET STARTED
Though these rules and restrictions can be daunting, do not be discouraged. You do not have to be spiritual to practice yoga and go through the rituals of holistic yoga. But yoga will become holistic for you only if your goal for practicing goes beyond the exercise and controlled breathing.
The goal of holistic yoga is to attain and sustain a higher consciousness in which you can control your body, mind and soul. “Yoga is science,” Veeraraghavan says, “If you want to do it, it will work for you. We are talking about principles that are universally applicable. A fire will burn you if you touch it no matter who you are. You just have to experiment.”
If two hours of going through the yoga steps at 4:00 every morning sounds impossible, start out slowly. First try meditating for 10 minutes. Then gradually increase the amount of time.
Try not to get frustrated. Treat it more as a sport to get the hang of it. Just as in any sport, the foods you eat, the number of hours you sleep, and the way you take care of yourself contributes to your performance.
The transformation Veeraraghavan sees in himself has been the motivating factor for him to embody holistic yoga and be an avid practitioner and guide. “Through the practices I am doing, I can see a very clear insight into what I am,” Veeraraghavan says, “In order to operate in a world, in any environment, you have to understand who you really are.”
By all means, continue to do yoga for exercise if you enjoy the physical results. But consider engaging both your mind and body to reap the highest benefits from this age-old form of meditation, calm and holistic fitness.