Yoga — the ancient path of balance and integration
A multi-dimensional approach will keep you connected to your body and the world outside, including the environment
One of the major problems in modern life is the lack of awareness and integration of the different areas of ourselves and our lives. Many in the whirl of modern life are out of touch with their body. They wake up in the morning, and like getting into a car and going to work, get into their body and start their business. The question, “How does my body feel?” is not a question they consciously consider. The body is treated like a car that breaks down occasionally, and then they go to the doctor to fix it.
When am I hungry? When am I tired? When do I need to rest? Am I feeling restless or dull? — we often don’t notice any of these things carefully until they hit us hard.
The same disconnect extends to the mind too. If one is not busy, one does not know what to do. Tolerance to ‘boredom’ is low. Consequently, people do not know how to manage their mind when things go against them: stress and depression are rising rapidly. We need internal resources for self-management, a purpose, identity and philosophy of life.
At a lower level of our nervous system, modern life puts us in a state of disconnect with the body. At a high level of the brain, the mind is struggling to establish an integrated and clear sense of the self. This disconnect is contrary to how we have evolved and how our body and mind work.
An animal with a simpler nervous system, for example a dog, does not follow life philosophy or have complex, abstract thoughts like how the humans do. It doesn’t have that capacity nor does it have the need for it. A dog doesn’t think about its future and get stressed over that. But as humans we can be disconnected: we have a story in our head about our future or past, and the body becomes something to be used in service of an abstract goal. Why am I pushing myself even though I’m sleepy? Why am I staying up late at night to watch a video? My mind is telling me that I have to do it for the sake of a future achievement or for entertainment, and so I ignore the needs of my body. The dog doesn’t do that and that’s protective of its health!
As human beings we have a double problem. We have the capacity for abstraction and higher thinking, which means we can ignore the body. But that higher thinking is itself a problem, as it often slips into stressful or depressive mode.
We see this profound disconnect magnified in the modern industrial and digital age. Machines do most of the work that humans do, thus disconnecting us from our body. Technology serves as the medium of communication, cutting off humans from the intimacy and care that come from face to face connection. From this disconnect with ourselves and our fellow human beings comes a greater disconnect with our environment and the planet and the damage done to our environment.
Ignoring the problem of disconnect is not going to make it disappear. Instead, bringing an awareness — about ourselves and to our connections with our fellow humans, and our environment, is the healing force we need to reintegrate in order to bring wholeness and well-being to ourselves, our communities, and to the planet.
Yoga is the original template of reintegration from thousands of years ago. ‘Yoga’ literally means ‘to unite.’ Reintegration requires a multidimensional approach. Here are the dimensions and ways yoga can help us work with this reintegration:
Nurture and nourish
While we offer our best to the world everyday, the practices of yoga guide us towards nourishing and supporting ourselves too. Age-old practices reaffirm the connections that exist between the outer world and the inner world. Mother Earth in her bounty offers us nourishment and support. This Yoga Day, it is worthwhile to pause and take time to also nourish the feminine within each of us — the power of nurturing.
As we offer kindness and compassion to those in need, bringing those intentions of self-compassion and kindness to our own body and mind with a little more understanding and sensitivity will make us the stronger and more grounded individuals, who will then connect and contribute to the outer world more meaningfully.
Start with small steps. Big changes often collapse quickly while gradual changes last. Examine your motivations and value systems and align your goals accordingly. Take support from others and be part of a community that is moving in the same direction as you. Accept that there will be lapses — just pick up and carry on .
Stable awareness is the foundation of a mindful life and the antidote to the feeling of being scattered that so many suffer from in modern day. Cultivate this skill through mindfulness and meditation — on the breath, on a mantra, on compassion, on the divine and more.
We all have a voice in our heads that narrates a story of our life to us. Challenge that voice when it says negative things. Challenge that voice when it says negative things. Change that inner dialogue to be kind and supportive.
We all like to have positive emotions, like love and compassion. but negative ones are a reality and should not be suppressed. Learning the skill of emotional balance, coming back to peacefulness and positivity as we go through the ups and downs of life is a great gift to oneself and others in our lives.
Many who look at yoga are intimidated or impressed by the extreme asanas on display. But such extremes are not important. What is important is whether you can move functionally throughout your life: strong and soft, mobile and stable, confident and relaxed. That comes from a daily mindful practice of useful movement skills.
Importance of breath
Research about the importance of breathing keeps growing. Long, easy, smooth and comfortable breathing patterns are vital to our organ health, stress modulation and longevity. And yoga teaches various breathing techniques. If you can manage your breath, you have taken a big step toward managing your mind, body and your life.
When are you tired and when do you have energy? Can you honour your body’s need for sleep? What are you feeding your senses — what books do you read, what movies do you watch, and what music do you hear?
Food as nourishment
How does your food make you feel? Can you be aware of how different foods affect your body and mind? The skill of healthful eating is not about following a strict diet, but about being connected to food as nourishment.
Stress is itself not bad; it is also the foundation of challenge and achievement. It’s how we manage stress that matters. If we can bring safety, relaxation, empowerment to manage the stress response in all areas of our life, we can convert it into a friend.
One of the greatest skills for wellbeing is forming good connections and relationships with other living beings and with nature. Good relationships also require ethics and boundaries.
We must begin with the basic principle of ahimsa (non-harmfulness) and with the practice of kindness. From that respect and positive intention, connections can flourish.
Wisdom in speech
So much of life depends on how we speak with others; it can take years to undo a few harsh words. Bringing patience and clarity to speech, with wisdom and good intentions, is a key to building partnerships and promoting positive change. It’s important to speak not just about what is wrong but also what we can do to heal it, to make ourselves and the world, whole.
Touch as connection
Touch and other non-verbal communication are evolutionarily deeper and older than speech. Yoga traditionally uses gestures such as mudras, nyasas to communicate the intentions we hold in our hearts and minds. Just bringing our own hands to our heart or other parts of our body can shift the way we connect to the body, and by extension, to others.
The purpose of life, in one view, is to find a purpose! A strong commitment to ethical and meaningful engagement in life — to do good for other living beings and the world — is a powerful support for a rich and satisfying life.
Power of spirituality
Faith and spirituality can be a great support for a troubled mind, provided they are aligned with the greater good of the world. By connecting with the deep wisdom transmitted through spiritual traditions, we can find insight and continuity in our lives and transcendence to what lies beyond.
Expression and arts
From prehistoric times, art and expression have been a conduit for expressing what humans cannot show through other means. Music, for instance, has a profound and distinctive impact on the nervous system and the well-being of body and mind.
Engage with the world
Faced with the disconnect of modern times, it can be attractive to turn away from engagement with the world, or fall into stress and feel scattered. But there is another way, one of reintegration: within ourselves, (through) mind and body, with others through connection, and with the world and the environment through meaningful engagement.
Bringing well-being to the world requires bringing well-being to ourselves, and vice versa. We are all connected. Yoga provides the framework and wisdom to bring this wholeness to ourselves and the world: it is the ancient and timeless foundation for reintegration.
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.