Yoga came about around 5000 years ago when oldmate Lord Shiva shared the knowledge of yantra with his wife-slash-disciple-slash-himself-in-another-form, Parvati. The train of thought Shiva had come up with was how humans could reach enlightment, and after much beseeching on part of Parvati, Shiva shared it with her. (There’s this bit here about her falling asleep in the cave where they were, but Shiva didn’t realise and kept yarning away; a fish in a pond overheard and came back reborn as a sage a few centuries on called Matsyendranath and this fella came up with the idea of Hatha yoga, but I’m going to gloss right over that).
From there, yoga schooling was only passed on through oral communication in the form of guru-pupil conversation. You see, it was seen as quite the sacred stuff for only the uppermost bhadralock to learn, so aside from some shrouding symbols nothing was written down.
A long time a’passed. Enlightenment remained to the elite. Then along came a lad called Patanjali who wrote a thesis, codifying and recording in word the principles of this ancient art form.
Patanjali talked of there being eight limbs to yoga; Yama (one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life; nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence and noncovetousness); Niyama (self-discipline and spiritual observances; cleanliness, contentment, heat – I didn’t quite get this one, but it was explained to me as being such as digestive fire in the belly – self-study and surrender to God); Asana (physical postures); Pranayama (breath control); Pratyahara (sense withdrawal, pulling away from the external world and its constant stimuli); Dharana (concentration, that being awareness on a single point); Dhyana (meditation) and the eighth as Samadhi (once again, the ultimate ecstasy).
The first four limbs concentrate on refining our personalities and gaining mastery over our bodies to prepare us for the second half, being the senses, mind and highest state of consciousness.
So yes. You can sort of see that the asana aspect (the active “yoga” class the western world knows it as) is just one small segment of the science.
But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to eludicate (just a little, I promise) on pranayama.
So pranayama is more often than not described as breath control, but it also goes a step further; “ayama” translates as “extension and expansion”, meaning PY is the practice of lengthening your vital force. PY ascertains there are four parts to every breath; inhalation, exhalation, antar kumbhaka (internal retention) and bahi kumbhaka (external retention).
And just to confuse you even more, it’s not just the oxygen flow that PY focuses on. You see, in such philosophy, there’s the belief that each object in life is made up of a thing called prana: a vital life energy life force that is more subtle than the air we breathe, flowing around the body in currents called nadis (I apologise, this is getting somewhat esoteric. It’ll calm down in a sec, I swear). PY practices activate and regulate this prana, allowing you to control its direction and lead you into a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness. (There’s also five major and five minor types of prana, but we’re not getting into that).
This might help grasp it; once again in my wandering woman Bible (Eat, Pray, Love) there is a fantastic quote on p. 152: a man called Bob tells Lizzie G, “Just as there exists in writing a literal truth and a poetic truth, there also exists in a human being a literal anatomy and a poetic anatomy. One is made of bones, teeth and flesh; the other of energy and memory and faith. But both are equally true.”
The breath is intimately linked to all aspects of human experience. The majority of people actually breathe incorrectly, using only a little skerrick of their lung capacity. This in turn disrupts the rhythms of the brain and leads to emotional, mental and physical blocks.
PY practices give you the ability to take conscious control. There are a number of different types; kapal bhati (“breath of fire”), sheetali (pretty much, sticking out your rolled tongue, breathing in through it then exhaling out your nose), bhramari (inhaling then exhaling through your mouth with your fingers closing off your eyes and ears as you make like a humming bee and, well, hum), sheetkari (breathing in through clenched teeth), then the dog breath (panting like a canine) and alom vilom (my fav – alternate nosehole breathing).
And it really does work.
At first I fucking hated PY. It was what I looked forward to least out of every day. Having to sit cross legged for half an hour would have my feet a’tingle and soon in slumber, while having to focus on nothing but air going in and out made my brain buzz.
But three-point-five weeks on (how are we here already!) and I seem to have swayed my stance. While I still have to stand in humming bee to get my feet feeling alive, I find I fare well with all the others. The length of my exhalations have elongated, I’m much more aware of how I’m taking in air throughout the day and my mind manages to acuminate on my exact action in the moment of PY (well, most of the time). I visualise surges of synergies swirling from my toes to my tips, sore and tired and injured and deadened bits being repaired with the influx of inspiration.
I sound like quite the hailstoned hippie, don’t I?
As I sort of eluded to in the previous post, the aim of the yoga isn’t to get a “bikram bod” and bring your knee behind your head for a rad Insta post. Nor is it to simply flex out and lengthen your limbs. In the deep, deep idea of yoga, the aim is (apology again; the following is arcane and recherché) to awaken dormant Kundalini through self purification and concentration of the mind, leading it up through the chakras (hustling ida, pingala and sushumna on the way) to sahasara, where as pure energy – Shakti – it unites with pure consciousness – Shiva – for ultimate mousha (liberation). I know I know; pardon? Trust me, it truly makes sense if you learn it.
But as I have started to see it, yoga is the practice of accepting and tolerating the consequences of being yourself. (It reminds me of the serenity prayer my Nanna used to love when I was little, about granting the courage to change what should, serenity to accept the unable and wisdom to know the difference). Yoga goes beyond just being exercise, becoming a lifestyle that teaches you and aids in clearing out residual demons of the mind, body and emotions to find a peace through discipline and quiet in the chaos of 21st century life.
And I love the idea of all the asanas. Each christened in Sanskrit (the ancient language now extinct in India aside from some prayer, mantra, religious terms and yogi yarns), almost every pose is named after the movements of an animal or aspect of the natural world. Ancient sages observed the world around to see how best the living functioned their forms, adopting the positions and mimicking them in postures. Think about it; “downward dog”, “pigeon” and “cat-cow” – they all follow what each animal actually does to make their bodies best.
I still don’t quite feel comfortable with chanting out mantras. The prayer-type ones about happiness are ok, but with us sitting about on cushions with our eyes closed I tend to feel it becomes a bit cult-like at times. And I don’t like chanting to a God I don’t know; Ganesh and Shiva and Brahma and such. But Mahesh, the metaphysical man, made me feel much better about it the other day; he said how gods came about as a result of people needing a visual to relate to in such an abstract area, and said something along the lines of my belief that all the terminology denotes the same spirit and story, just in a different light. “You can have a faceless and nameless God,” he said. “It’s all the same thing really.”
I don’t know what I believe in, but that gave me a sense of security.
I love all this stuff. What was initially weird has – for the most part – become wondrous and considerably conceivable. It’s so at odds with what I’ve learnt in my time alive, but it holds so much ground in how I see the world and see myself.
I’m starting to see my body for its capabilities and not always just its flaws. I’m turning in tune with myself. I wake up each day with malleable muscles, pliable protuberances and a partially pacific psyche. I’m not so appurtenances to my diary and getting an A plus in every aspect of life is not the bee all.
I’m really trying to shake the stuff I struggle with, both in myself and with myself. It’s slower going than I anticipated; each day is definitely having its downers. But I see the hurdles as necessary to get to the highs.
I’ve never been so hell bent in my life.