Yoga - an exercise regime or a way of life? (Interview)


Yoga has become very popular in the last ten years or so with stars from Bollywood and Hollywood endorsing it. It has suddenly become the new trendy exercise in town. So is it merely an exercise regime or a way of life? To find answers to these questions we called upon Mamta Arora, Yoga Sadhak and instructor, who runs the Yoga Blessing studio. Excerpts from the interview:

Yoga's become a fad these days with the classes mushrooming everywhere particularly with Bollywood popularizing it. Many Yogis offer miracle cures for chronic ailments and fast weight loss. How do people differentiate the good yoga classes from the bad ones? What should they adopt?

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Mamta Arora:Yoga as a discourse has its roots in the ancient texts like the Vedas and the Upanishads. Not only has it has been extensively written about by learned sages and gurus, it also features prominently within the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita revolves around the principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga.

The Bollywood fuelled trends prevalent today (such as hot yoga and power yoga) do not make an appearance anywhere in these texts. Combining yoga with other forms of exercises is resulting yoga losing its roots. While it is true that yoga does enhance physical fitness, the benefits of yoga transcend physical benefits. It rejuvenates the mind, body and soul.

Should yoga be treated only as a form of exercise in order to lose weight? What are the other benefits of yoga?

Mamta Arora:No. While yoga is indeed a very rewarding form of exercise, it is not just exercise. It is a way of life. When a person practises yoga, he or she embarks upon a journey into a world of self-discovery and spiritual growth and experiences both physical and mental changes over time. Yoga harmonises thought, action and speech. It is based on 5 holistic principles:

- Proper exercise

- Proper breathing

- Proper diet

- Proper relaxation

- Positive thinking and meditation

It is this umbrella approach of yoga that differentiates it from solely physically-oriented pursuits such as aerobics or weight training. Thus, yoga is a strict and holistic discipline that has no shortcuts. Physical exercise focuses on the health of body, but yoga focuses on the health of mind, body and spiritual growth. Furthermore, physical exercises don't have the cleansing power that yoga does. With the help of kriyas(internal cleansing techniques), yoga brings a sense of internal discipline and change. The superficial nature of pure physical exercise drawsprana out of the body while yoga draws in the prana within a person and contributes to spiritual growth.

Yoga has innumerable benefits that physical exercise does not. It leads a person from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge and makes a person feel complete. It also increases productivity, improves immunity, enhances clarity and heightens self-awareness.

How important is a good guru for practicing yoga?

Mamta Arora:In the traditional yoga practice, a guru is regarded as God and it is said that the words of God can actually be heard through a guru. A guru is a guide and mentor with the power to spark the true understanding of yoga within the disciple. The teachings and writings of renowned gurus such as Swami Sivananda have touched the lives of several students and helped them use the power of yoga to face adversity. A guru is a Jivanmukta or a liberated soul. The powers of a Jivanmukta are always prevalent even though he may not be physically present.

A guru gives a clear guidance to a student based on her years of tapasya and sadhana, which helps the student to follow the path of yoga with no obstacles. The grace and blessings of the guru keep guiding the aspirant throughout his journey like a light in the darkness. There is no path without a guru. An aspirant or Sadhak is like a blind person without a guru.

Students who follow in their guru parampara or tradition absorb their teachings and spread the light to other students in their path based on the teachings of their guru. Therefore, when choosing a teacher today, one must take into account not only the years of practice put in by the teacher but also which guru he/she follows and how closely they follow their teachings. It is highly recommended to seek out a personal guru rather than following an online course or DVD as it is impossible to truly experience yoga without the presence, knowledge and guidance of a teacher.

Could you tell us a little about the various different schools of yoga?

Mamta Aurora: Yoga has several schools including Hatha, Ashtanga, Kundalini and more. They all have their own names based on the guru and the teachings, although Yoga in its purest form is only Yoga and nothing else. Yoga was defined by Sage Patanjali, as a discipline free from ideological divisions. In the yoga sutra, he outlined "sthir sukham asanam"or steady comfortable posture as the sole and all-encompassing definition of yoga which will lead us to the light. Some yoga ashrams like the Bihar school of yoga and Sivananda ashrams worldwide follow Patanjali's teachings by having a gurukul system wherein a student practises yoga and is completely detached from the family for months together.

Teachers like BKS Iyengar, (fondly known as Guruji) have strived to simplify yoga through the use of props. Guruji has still devoted his entire life to yoga and given hope to many. Thus, his own practice is known as Iyengar Yoga. At the Sivananda center, a student experiences a synthesis of bhakti yoga(satsangs), jnana yoga (Vedanta and bagvad gita) and karma yoga(selfless service). While it is important to study the different schools of yoga in terms of lineage and history, the main purpose of creating name-based distinctions is so that the student can understand yoga as the guru means it to be understood, thereby helping them gain a deeper understanding than the lay person. Thus, while the different 'schools' of yoga are outlined and known, the goal remains the same: journeying into the self and moving inwards, from the materialistic to the spiritual.

How can it help us deal with the stressful situations we encounter every day?

Mamta Arora:It is a little known fact that most of our stress in life originates from our own living habits our ethics, food, clothes and thoughts. The basic principles of yoga help people streamline their habits by strengthening the mind and body.

On the physical level, asanas and postures generate oxygen in the blood and strengthen the spine and brain centres. Combined with breathing and meditation, yoga relaxes the entire nervous system and releases stress in the mind and body. Regular practice also increases willpower, thereby increasing a person's capacity to accomplish more things and avoid stressful situations.

The teachings of yoga from the Patanjali yogasutras to the Vedanta philosophy helps students deal with difficult situations. The awareness about kleshas (afflictions of the mind), SakshiBhava (witness-like attitude) and pratipaksha bhavna (to counter negative thoughts with positive) are among the many aspects that go deeper to give a student a broader outlook to life, thus helping him or her rise above materialism and make life more worthwhile.

What about people with specific health problems? Can they practice yoga?

Mamta Aurora: Yes. Yoga gives hope to the sick, strength to the weak, and light to the ignorant. As mentioned earlier, yogic cures are available and proven for several diseases, both physical and mental. Yogic treatments have benefited patients of autism, asthma, slip disc and even cancer as they make the body more receptive to cure and healing. The student must not hesitate to make the teacher completely aware of the nature of their problem so that the teacher can customize the structure of the lesson. The teacher will also assist the student in finding alternatives to certain postures and tailor the lesson to his/her needs. Yoga certainly helps one cope with a disease even if it doesn't completely cure it.

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