The Fundamentals of Yoga and How They Fit into Your Life

Yoga is the science of self-realization.

Yoga has been the talk of the town. But not in the best way I’m afraid. Too many people think of yoga only as postures and poses. Despite all its might, it has been reduced to merely a relaxing, fat-burning session for most people.

I, too, once thought of yoga as a bunch of postures I could never do. As a child, I was the most embarrassed kid in the yoga class. While others were elegantly relaxing into poses, I was sweating trying hard to touch my feet with my hands. Naturally, I was made fun of and developed my apprehension ever since.

A couple of years after that, I got disciplined enough to get my act together, lose weight, and build muscle. Yet, when I heard about a meditation and yoga class near me, all those moments of embarrassment came back.

To my surprise, however, I realized that I’d painted an incorrect picture of yoga altogether. The ‘modern’ yoga teachers had tarnished my understanding. Yoga is much more than a few poses and flapping your legs like a butterfly.

Shiva or Adiyogi (the first yogi) taught the principles of yoga to seven sages — called “Saptarishis.” *(“Sapt” means seven and “rishi” means a sage.) *Shiva taught different segments of yoga to each of them. Over a period of time, these seven segments led to the evolution of various other teachings.

Before 400CE, Patanjali combined these teachings into his “Yoga Sutras.” It contains 196 Sutras, which defined yoga as having eight parts. It is therefore referred to as the “eight-limbed” path of yoga.

Asana (posture), is just one of those eight paths. In fact, the purpose of asana is to help the yogi sit comfortably for meditation. And that’s it.

What people are now using only to lose weight was actually meant as a preparation to achieve a higher state of awareness.

I’m not saying that looking at yoga from the lens of physical fitness is wrong, it’s rather limited. And it creates a false conception in the mind of students who learn it this way.

Here are a few insights from yoga that can help you live a calmer life.

Proper Breathing

“Pranayama” is one word you’ll hear a lot in every yoga class. “Prana” means energy. “Yama” means control. Therefore, pranayama means energy control.

Some think of prana as the breath. In reality, the breath is a means to control the energy in the spine and raise our consciousness. We can’t really control energy by willpower. We need to use the breath to do so.

It’s astonishing how humans don’t often know the right way to do something they do every second! Most of us are shallow breathers at best.

We breathe through our chest that leads to improper postures and all kinds of ailments and diseases. Whether it’s an attempt to look slimmer than we are or just a bad habit, our breathing techniques need to change.

The main problem is that we don’t expand our stomachs fully when we inhale. When you inflate your stomach, you give your diaphragm space to expand. The lungs can then fill themselves with the air that they need.

Remember, the air is a form of prana *or *chi like the Chinese call it. It is so powerful that many saints have been able to survive without food — relying on prana. This makes it important for us to learn how to breathe before we even think about meditation or yoga.

To re-train yourself, lie down at first with your knees folded and start taking deep breaths. Inflate your stomach slowly and deflate it. You can close your eyes and focus on your stomach if it helps.

Further, you can place a light cushion or a packet of thermocol balls on your belly. Each time you inhale, see the packet rise and fall. That way you can be even more conscious of your breathing.

After a few rounds, when you feel comfortable, you can sit upright and continue the practice. It can be difficult if you’re new to it, but it gets easier with time. With conscious effort, you can re-train yourself to use this abundant form of energy.

Once you do that, here’s a simple technique to help you relax at all times. It’s called “even-count breathing.” The practice is simple — inhale, hold and exhale for the same count. Start with four-counts — inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4. Gradually increase this as your lung capacity deepens.

While doing this, also try to focus on the point between the eyebrows, called the “Spiritual Eye”. It’s the esoteric center of concentration that will help you raise your consciousness and feel more relaxed by stilling the mind.

Principles of Eating

The science of yoga takes the concept of food much beyond its nutritional value.

According to Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, everything in this world is made of three Gunas (or qualities) — sattva (goodness, constructive, harmonious), rajas (passion, active, confused), and tamas (darkness, destructive, chaotic).

Therefore, the food we eat also has these three qualities. The food which has the sattva guna prominent is sattvic. Similarly, the other two types of food are called rajasic and tamasic.

A Sattvic diet, simply, means light and healthy food. It does not go to any extremes of taste — neither too sweet nor too salty or spicy. It follows the golden rule of moderation. It purifies the body and calms the mind. It specifically consists of pure food (not processed) that is light in potency, and rich in prana (life force). It energizes the body and mind.

Food that is produced by harming living beings like meat and fish is considered as rajasic or tamasic. Food that’s gone stale or is too spicy comes under the rajasic category. Also, sattvic food prepared in a tamasic environment (say by a person who’s angry) also becomes tamasic. (Read more.)

For this reason, a yogic diet tends to be vegetarian. And it’s for good measure. I’d refrain from getting into more detail since the veg vs non-veg debate can get quite heated online!

But remember that yogic food choices play with energies — not nutrients as much, even though sattvic foods sure are nutritious. The purpose of a yogic diet is to calm the mind.

Eating too much rajasic or tamasic food produces unpleasantness in the mind which manifests as ailments in the body. On the other hand, sattvic food increases prana (life-force) in the body that helps a yogi in his practices.

The higher the prana, the better you feel — mentally, emotionally, physically and of course, spiritually.

Finally, know one thing — as your spiritual awareness deepens, you’ll find yourself shifting towards a vegetarian diet automatically. You’ll no longer crave the excitement that comes from rajasic and tamasic foods. It’s a subtle change of energy that you may not feel now.

Calming the Vortices of Feeling

“Yogas-chitta-vritti-nirodha-” Yoga Sutra 1.2.

This is Patanjali’s definition of yoga. It means the goal of yoga is to calm the vortices of feeling. Chitta means the feeling side of the heart/mind, Vritti means a whirlpool or a vortex, and Nirodha means cessation.

We all experience life differently because our lenses are tainted with our feelings. If we all remove these lenses by calming the feeling in our minds and hearts, would see Reality as is — the pure Oneness of life.

These vortices have to do with desires, aversions, attachments, ignorance, and the ego’s sense of “I” and “me” and “mine.” All these things make us sit on the roller coaster in life. What yoga teaches us to stand and observe the roller coaster from a distance by being non-attached.

All the limbs of yoga that Patanjali describes have a singular purpose — to calm these vortices, remove desires and attachments until only the Reality remains.

In that sense, spiritual growth is just like peeling the layers of our false self-definitions over a period of time until we reach Cosmic Consciousness. All the meditation practices, ways of living, and dietetic disciplines have this singular goal in mind.

In one sentence, Patanjali has beautifully given us the goal of life for all human beings.

Yama and Niyama

Of the “eight-limbed” path of yoga given by Patanjali, the first two are the most practical ones — Yamas (Not-to-do’s) and Niyamas (to-do’s).

Together, the Yamas and the Niyamas help you raise your consciousness towards a higher state of awareness.

You see, our energy just isn’t controlled by the breath. It’s controlled by the kind of thoughts we think, the words we speak, and the actions we perform.

Everything you do in life will either raise your energy or make it descend. When energy rises in the spine, you feel good. Perhaps, this is why people say “I’m feeling ‘uplifted’.” When the energy goes down in the spine, you feel (literally) ‘downcast’. Your head turns downward and negative emotions surround you.

Thus, as aspiring yogis, our goal is to do all those things that raise our energy.

Yama and Niyama help us do exactly that. By giving these rules for life, Patanjali has shown the traits we need to aspire towards. Here are the Yamas followed by the Niyamas:

1. Ahimsa (Non-Injury or Non-Violence)

Non-violence is not only about not hurting anyone physically. It has a much deeper meaning.

It’s not about your actions but about your mental attitude. Wishing someone harm, having negative feelings for them, demotivating, and judging them — are all acts of violence.

The goal is to realize the oneness of all life. It’s a common principle in all religions. When you grasp the oneness of life, you’d not harm anyone — physically, mentally, or emotionally — because you’d be harming yourself.

2. Satya (Non-Lying)

People think truthfulness and honesty are textbook virtues because they’re unrealistic. This is because they think they have to tell the truth in all cases. But, it has a subtler meaning that you need to grasp.

It means that first of all, you must be truthful to yourself. You should not give in to your likes and dislikes, your delusions, and your fantasies of how you want the world to be. You should recognize situations as they are, instead of wishing them to be something else. You can only work with what is.

3. Asteya (Non-Stealing)

Most people think that “Non-stealing” means not robbing someone else’s property. But it also means not desiring anything that is not yours.

Further, it means not desiring something that is, in fact, yours. Why? Because desire kills happiness. When you feel you need something to be happy, you will never be happy.

When you realize whatever you need will come to you (provided you take the right actions), you will be happy. Because your happiness will be unconditional.

4. Brahmacharya (Non-Sensuality)

When we feel low or tensed — we indulge in outward pleasures. This can be eating dessert, having sex, watching TV, sleeping, etc.

We might feel relieved after all these activities but our energy gets sucked out. In other words, we do these activities to please the human senses and desires.

Non-sensuality advocates that you must learn to transmute and not dissipate your energy. You must find a way to release tension without releasing energy.

If you lose your energy, you wouldn’t feel good. That is why after ejaculation you feel like sleeping or even depressed in some cases. Or after eating sugary foods (sweets, fast food, etc.), you do not feel energized but lazy.

In Think and Grow Rich, Napolean Hill dedicates a whole chapter to this called “Sex Transmutation”. But as I said, it isn’t limited to that. It can be applied to all forms of energy, not just sexual.

5. Aparigraha (Non-Greed)

Non-greed differs from non-stealing. The latter says not to desire something that is not yours. The former advises you to not attach yourself to the things you already have.

It’s true in the case of material possessions, your relationships, and even your own body. When you detach yourself from your own body, you realize that you are the ever-new Spirit that can never die. You don’t give in to bodily temptations, fatigue, and diseases.

When you detach yourself from your relationships, your happiness does not depend on your partner.

It aims to remove greedy attachment to things in life. Excessive attachment will only bring you suffering in the long run.

6. Shaucha (Cleanliness)

Cleanliness not only means that you keep your body and your surroundings tidy. You should take care of your body. Internally with a proper diet and externally with proper hygiene. Similarly, you should work and stay in places that are clean because they will give you a positive vibe and tranquility.

But, so is true of the heart as well. When your heart is filled with impurities like anger, lust, hate, and attachment, you cannot be successful in any field.

Even more importantly, you should take care of the people you surround yourself with. The vibrations and energy of your peers influence your own life. Choose them carefully.

7. Santosha (Contentment)

Yogis call contentment the supreme virtue. Because if you’re content with yourself, you can endure any situation in life and triumph. Your joy would increase, independent of what happens in the world.

On the flip side, if you have everything going in your favor, but you are not content, your success is of no use. It is not passive work. You have to feel content right now. Only then you’ll be content. If you sit and wait, it would not magically come to you.

8. Tapasya (Austerity)

Austerity means a certain level of sternness. You may not realize, but you need the sternness of will to do anything worthwhile.

Every action that you take should be deliberate. Don’t go with the flow and indulge in outward pleasures to waste time and make yourself miserable. Command yourself and your body to do what you intend to do.

You may think you’re missing out on the fun in your life. But the joy of concentrating your energies to create something of value is permanent. Petty joys and moments of fun, are transient.

When you sit in a chair, don’t let yourself fall into it — but sit with control. It starts with the small things in life. Live life as though you are the master of your mind. Don’t be its slave.

9. Swadhyaya (Study of Self)

Self-study does not mean studying books, scriptures, and papers by yourself. But it means studying yourself. It is the process of self-discovery. It is important to perceive the truth rather than just know it. You need to observe your own thoughts, patterns, judgments, emotions, feelings, and motives.

Certain realities in this universe cannot be taught — they can only be experienced.

10. Ishvarpranidhana (Devotion/Contemplation of God)

According to Patanjali, one does not simply move towards a higher state of consciousness until he believes that there’s something bigger than himself.

Atheists and egoistic people cannot progress beyond their current state of consciousness. Even if they practice various yoga techniques, they would miss one critical piece — devotion.

Communing with God is not as simple as practicing a few postures and touching your head to your knee. Every pose is to be done with a sense of worship to receive the full benefit.

The postures were not made by P.E teachers for a slim waist; they were made by sages who recognized the inner movements of the soul in all the postures they practiced.

Final Thought

These were a few basic insights that are simple to learn but are the fundamentals of every class you pick up. What I’ve done is just explained them briefly so you don’t think of yoga in its limited aspect anymore!

Yoga is the science of self-realization, of enlightenment, using which our soul can trace its path back to its origin, to pure bliss.

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Written on March 9, 2021