In the Western 21st century world, there is so much that is out of balance, and that imbalance shows up in our lives and also in us. Our work-life dynamic, our food sources and choices, our health, our emotions. We work ourselves into exhaustion and then catch a cold or the flu and are forced to slow down for a few days. When we’re tired, we eat either unhealthy food or food that has been so overproduced it has little value. We feel fatigued and we deal with the symptoms instead of the root causes. Often we even get mad at or blame our bodies for failing us. This whole process can easily get into a downward spiral of one unhealthy choice leading to the next.
So What Does Viniyoga Say About This?
Yoga is a science of experience. It is a description of the way our experiences impact us; how they influence the way our body, mind, and emotions function. Everything that happens over the course of a day is an experience that consequently has an impact on us. Whether we are sitting alone in traffic or in the park with our family, that experience affects how our system functions. It affects how we think, feel, and behave. If we continually have experiences that take us out of balance, then we’ll become imbalanced and in turn, feel, think, and behave poorly! Alternatively, if we have experiences that promote and restore the balance of our system, then another way of operating will become possible, even dominant, in our system.
Yoga is Both a Practice & a State of Being
In important ways, Yoga is a way of being or a state. It is a description of a way that the mind (and indeed our entire system) can potentially function, if and when we are balanced. And it is also a description of how to encourage that way of being. The means of encouraging the state of Yoga is what we call practice.
Yoga as a practice, as something that we do to bring us into that balanced state, is really a system of intentionally engineered experiences. That is why we practice–because what we do when we practice will change the way our system is functioning. If we’re practicing appropriately, our system will respond by gradually becoming more balanced.
So we should ask, what is it specifically that we do in practice that encourages the development of a state of Yoga?
Patañjali, the author of the Yogasūtras, gives his answer when he describes the qualities that should be present in our practices.
- For the body, he says we should practice in a way that is both stable and comfortable (YS II.46).
- For the breath, he says to make it long and keep it subtle (YS II.50).
- For the mind, maintain your attention continually (YS I.3).
Why? Because these are the ways that the body and breath and mind naturally function when they are in a state of balance. So practice is literally practicing being balanced. It is asking the body, breath, attention, etc. to operate as though they are already balanced. And the experience of doing so moves the entire system towards a more balanced state.
Another Kind of Spiral
Of the many definitions of Yoga (equanimity, skill in action, meditation, etc.,) the one which Patañjali uses in the Yogasūtras is related to the behavior of the mind. Yoga, he states (YS I.2), is the ability to keep the mind from wandering. When the mind is directable, i.e. when we have some influence over where our attention goes, we are able to make better decisions about how to spend our time, what foods to eat, and how to take care of ourselves.
In other words, a directable mind gives us greater capacity to choose the experiences we have. It expands our capacity to more frequently choose things that lift us up (rather than knock us down). It facilitates our making the choices that support how we want to feel. Patañjali indicates that this is only possible when we have some balance in ourselves and in our lives. He indicates (YS I.31) that the ability to focus the mind, or to direct the attention, is one of the symptoms of a balanced state.
Practicing Yoga creates balance, which makes it easier to choose the things in our daily life that support being in a balanced state, which in turn creates more balance and makes better choices easier. It’s a positive spiral.
The Benefits of Balance
Imagine if we were able to operate from balance every day, even in stressful moments: Your body is stable and comfortable; your breath is long and smooth; your mind is focused; in your emotions, there’s peace.
This is the true power of Yoga, this is what’s possible in our lives. The result is we’re less negatively affected by things. We develop the ability to stay calm in challenging situations and to remain stable in difficult moments. And then we will have more freedom in our choices, that comes from having a peaceful mind.
Consider this: If you’re practicing being stable and comfortable, what will that do to your decision making? Will you eat better food? Will you find a few moments to rest in the midst of the chaos?
If you’re practicing being focused and peaceful, will you be more patient with yourself? Will you have a better perspective when dealing with other people? The answer is almost certainly, “Yes!” Simply put, the state of Yoga is only possible when your system is in balance. How do you come back towards balance? You ask your system to function in the way it does when it’s in balance. That’s what studying the Yogasūtras can do for you.
View our upcoming class, Yogasūtras in Action, to begin finding your way back to balance.