The ancient practices of yoga and meditation have become very popular in recent times. And while it is true that yoga and meditation ought to be a regular part of every human’s life, do you really understand the depth and scope of these practices and to what extent you should practice either/both of these?
Yoga and meditation first came into practice through Sage Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga – which simply meant an eight-limbed-program of union of body, mind, and spirit – The Trinity; to help human beings achieve their highest human potential by effectively and efficiently harnessing energy – the basic unit of life.
Yogic Asanas or postures are the third step of this program, while Meditation is the seventh. The other steps in the order are Yama (moral code or principles), Niyama (personal disciplines), Pranayama (yogic breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration on an object), and finally Samadhi (salvation).
Ideally all these steps are formulated to step-by-step lead us towards salvation/ mukti / nirvana. And all the steps are important as they guide our energy flow in a certain manner – from outwards to inwards and downwards to upwards. Just practicing the third step without the first two or the seventh step without the first six, not only doesn’t work but also may harm us, for energy is not something to be played with. It is powerful and can get out of control.
Most people think that our aim is not Samadhi, so we have nothing to fear; we are simply practicing yoga to get into shape. It is just another form of exercise. Yes, when we use the word as ‘yoga’, the image of contorted bodies in various yogic postures come to the mind, but when we use the correct word as ‘yog’, which means ‘to join’, we can’t help but wonder what is being joined with what? And that question changes our understanding.
The systemic process of yoga and meditation make our energy flow in a conscious manner – making the subconscious conscious. When we begin practicing ‘yog’ with this understanding we realize that ancient yogis knew what modern science is discovering now - that our subconscious mind resides in our body cells, while the conscious mind resides in our brain - particularly the frontal cortex or the Neo-brain; which is most developed in man than in any other animal. Through various asanas, we join the Conscious mind with the Subconscious Mind Or in other words, we make the subconscious conscious.
In our 'unconscious' way of everyday living, we tend to bypass (or simply don't recognise) the messages sent by our body (the subconscious mind), which tries to tell us when our needs are not being met with - or when we are overindulging. While performing yog-asanas we willy-nilly become aware of these signals. Soon we remove ourselves from the outside interference and hear ourselves. An inner dialogue between the mind and the body happens. Listening to and interpreting that dialogue takes intention, inclination, willingness and understanding that this dialogue is the Key to our ALL-round health (physical, mental, emotional, relational, financial, and spiritual).
What yoga asks of us is simply an "honest" effort - going as far as we can, on any given day - right up to the threshold of discomfort - holding our body position there and being 'present' with it, without straining or forcing the body in any manner. Thus whatever position anyone can hold is just RIGHT for that person - it is ENOUGH for that moment. Unlike the outside elements that force us to force ourselves in our daily life; yoga releases us from all obligation or need to "prove" ourselves. Results show up because our effort is exactly up to the right level needed in that moment - the level of our discomfort - no more no less.
To strain to achieve more (whether in yoga or in life) pushes us past our limits. Such straining is an act of impatience. We force ourselves because we are unwilling to wait - and such forcing causes unnecessary pain and injury.
The mindful practice of yoga makes us "embody" the truth that things/people/life/yoga-postures develop naturally of their own accord without seeking to force the situation/people/body. There is no need to rush around in ever-increasing circles because speed/performance/perfection are not of essence - only right effort is.
Meditation done soon after yoga practice helps us go deeper into awareness: from simple relaxation to higher, truer states of consciousness; from mind to no mind; from gross to subtle; and from asana to nirvana. These stages are various levels of inner journey of energy, through direct experience.
For example, in initial stages of meditation, the earth element is experienced as the solidity of the body. The air element is experienced as the movements of the body. The fire element is experienced as energy and heat. The water element is experienced as emotions. And the space element is experienced as stillness.
As the meditation progresses, energy moves through the subtler aspects of tatvas and their subtle components of gunas – namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Tamas is experienced as lethargy. It makes us fall asleep while meditating. Rajas is experienced as restlessness, and Sattva as calmness.
In yet deeper states, the energy moves from the gross level of ‘observation’ of breath to the ‘experience’ of underlying prana. In the deepest state, the energy merges with the experience of Self – that which it is. This stage leads to Self-realization – which lies beyond the personality traits, wants, wishes, images or forms. It is an entirely different level of being; beyond any conceptualization.
Putting it more simply, energy moves from the body to feelings to thoughts to universal laws of nature to insights to bliss and stillness – from the gross to subtle to subtler to subtle-most level of being, which cannot be described in words. It can only be experienced.