Yoga has become a household word. It has been incorporated into television shows such as Dharma and Greg as well as commercial advertising. Yoga has been so popularized in the West that in many instances the essence of yoga has been sacrificed in its becoming the latest fad. Most people who practice yoga are aware of the numerous health benefits.
Some of the health benefits are:
- strength, tone, flexibility and stamina
- improved breathing
- increased lung capacity
- stimulation of the flow of lymphatic fluid
- enhanced functioning of all of the systems of the body
- balance of the endocrine system
- decrease in depression and anxiety
- increased concentration and focus
- mental clarity
- balance of emotions
- increase in self-confidence, self esteem and body image
- stress management
- experience of balance, integration and wholeness
Hatha Yoga is the type of yoga that is most widely practiced in the United States. In this type of practice the focus is on doing postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama) and guided relaxation. Hatha Yoga is a part of Classical Yoga (Raja Yoga- the royal path). It is a vital part of the journey but not the destination.
Maharishi Patanjali wrote the classical yoga text the Yoga Sutras around 200BC. This text describes an eight-limbed path (ashtanga) that is a systematic approach to Self-Realization. The eight limbs are:
1. Yama: moral precepts - truthfulness, non-violence, non-stealing, chastity,
2. Niyama: qualities to nourish - purity, contentment, austerity, study, devotion
3. Asana: a calm, steady stance (posture) in relation to life and for meditation
4. Pranayama: control of breath and life force energy
5. Pratyhara: withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana: concentration
7. Dhyana: meditation
8. Samadhi: ecstatic union
The yoga Sutras 2 and 3 as follows describe the true goal or aim of yoga.
Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.
When this happens, the Seer is revealed resting in its own essential nature.
The above interpretation of the sutras is from Mukunda Stiles, creator of Structural Yoga Therapy. Mukunda goes on to say, "The goal of yoga is to merge the mind into the True Self, and thus to be true to your Self in all thoughts, words and deeds."
Hatha Yoga represents stages 3 and 4 of the eight-limbed path. Hatha Yoga brings about the Unity of the mind, body and spirit. Through this practice, the body is toned, strengthened and healed so that a transformation in consciousness can occur.
Through hatha yoga, we begin the practice of moving into stillness in both body and mind. As we move into, hold and move out of the postures as a form of dynamic meditation, our awareness increases and we become a witness to our experience in a loving and non-judgmental way. In doing so, we strengthen our capacity be fully present in our bodies and in our lives.
As we hold the intention to simply be present, our hearts open more fully and we become aware of the vast spaciousness of our heart. We begin to understand that our heart has the capacity to embrace with compassion and love the full range of our life's experience - the joy, pain, bliss, sadness, confusion, and clarity.
As we learn to keep coming back to the breath as a way back into our bodies and as an anchor to the present moment, we feel our minds moving into stillness. This does not mean that we stop all thoughts or feelings but rather we acknowledge their presence in the field of our awareness. We hold an intention to not react to every thought but rather to see thoughts and feelings arising and dissolving as waves or clouds drifting by. We learn to not buy into our thoughts and we begin to divest them of their emotional charge. We can then see that out thoughts are separate from who we really are- that we are not our thoughts.
Just as a lake reflects the clouds and trees on a calm, still day, so to our minds can reflect our true Self when it is undisturbed.
As we drop deeper into stillness, we begin to move through the layers of our being (koshas) from the most dense - our physical body to the most subtle – the bliss body. It is as if we are peeling an onion and as we move through these various layers, the mind stops identifying itself with all of the mental constructs that have defined us for so long. We are not our bodies, we are not our thoughts, we are not our ego, personality, roles we play, and identities we have taken on. When we dive deeper inside we feel the mind, body and spirit in balance and we experience unity consciousness – the “harmony and at-onement”* that we are. Our true nature reveals itself and we realize we are luminous, radiant, eternal, blissful energy beings. We feel how the Divine energy within us connects us to all other beings and with all that is. All separation between self and other fades away and we experience the conscious union that is yoga.
* Gerald Jampolsky's description in Love Is Letting Go Of Fear
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Stephanie Kristal is is a Hypnotherapist and Integrative Yoga Therapist with a private practice working with individuals and couples in Woodstock and Kingston, New York. Stephanie's work is creating safe and sacred space in which she guides people in accessing their own inner wisdom and insight for healing and developing inner and outer resources for self-empowerment and to support their journey. Stephanie has been a practitioner of yoga and mindfulness for over 30 years and these disciplines inform both her personal and professional life. She also teaches workshops for girls and young women on developing positive body image, self-esteem and taking a critical look at the negative impact of media and advertising related to these issues. Stephanie is also the author of numerous articles and a contributor to the book Help Me To Heal by Bernie Siegel and Yosaif August. Stephanie resides in upstate New York with her soulmate John, two beautiful daughters and various animal friends. You can e-mail Stephanie at [email protected].