Decoding Yoga: myths and reality

Munmun Ghosh
Wednesday, 20 June 2018

If you think yoga is like an allopathy medicine and can cure all diseases, or asanas are like any other physical exercise, think again 

The word yoga conjures up images of humans in different postures, some easy, some complex and some seemingly impossible, with strong suggestions of physical fitness. However, yoga is much more than asanas. Today, on International Yoga Day, we bust some important myths about yoga.  

Yoga is a physical fitness regime

While yoga charts a way to maintain good health, it has actually more to do with the mind than the body. Yoga is basically education of the human mind, which is habitually as restless, turbulent and uncontrolled as a “drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion,” to use an analogy given by our ancient rishis. Taming this unruly mind such that one is always in a balanced state and able to concentrate at will on any subject, is comprehensibly a big challenge. A challenge that the yoga student assumes. 

The great sage Patanjali, a grammarian, physician and philosopher, who first recorded the practice of yoga in 250 BC, in 195 sutras, defined the objective of yoga as ‘Chitta vritti nirodh,’  meaning stoppage of the fluctuations of the mind. Of course, you cannot steady the mind if you are in bodily pain or discomfort. And thus asanas and pranayamas are practised to strengthen the body and keep it disease-free. Patanjali described yoga as an 8-fold path (Ashtanga Yoga) comprising yamas (don’ts), niyamas (dos), asanas, pranayamas, pratyahaar, dharana, dhyaan and samaadhi. 

Hatha Yoga, which developed later, focused more on the body, on asanas, pranayamas and kriyas (cleaning actions), as Hatha yogis realised that it might not be possible for everyone to fulfill the high ethical demands of Ashtanga Yoga, but even Hatha yogis were clear that the final aim was to advance to Raj Yoga, that is, Ashtanga Yoga. Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as maintaining a state of mental equilibrium — ‘samatvam yogah uchchayate.’ 

Yoga is union of mind and body

This is a common misconception, stemming probably from the requirement of mind-body involvement in asanas. Etymologically, yoga derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ which means union. But union with what, of what? 

In samadhi, the last stage of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the difference between subject and object of concentration disappears and they unite. The individual soul fuses with the divine, universal soul. You can call it jivatma uniting with parmatma. Yoga is to be ‘one’. When I am concentrating on any work, that is doing yoga. When I am singing and my full being is absorbed in it, I am doing yoga. Yoga is finally a state of maximum concentration, in which alone highest self-realisation or self-development is possible. 

Asanas are like any other physical exercise 

While the word ‘exercise’ implies effort and generally movement, an asana, by definition, indicates steadiness and comfort. Patanjali defined asana as ‘sthiram, sukham, asanam’, a posture in which one is steady and comfortable enough to hold and meditate. Of course, all asanas help strengthen our circulatory, digestive, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal-muscular, excretory, and, particularly, our nervous and endocrine systems. 

However, unlike most other forms of physical exercises, asanas need to be done slowly, with full awareness, synchronising movement with breathing patterns, and are aimed at generating certain attitudes in us. Forward-bending asanas like Yog Mudra and Hastapadasan engender a sense of humility and submission to the universe, while backward stretches like in Bhujangasan imbibe in us confidence and a sense of aishwarya (power).               

Yoga is a system of medicine and can cure diseases

Yoga is a way of preventing rather than curing diseases. Once a disease has set in, yoga cannot instantly cure it. It cannot cure organic defects. However, when one embarks on the path of yoga (comprising asanas, pranyamas, meditation, yogic diet, etc) while not giving up conventional medicinal treatment, slowly one regains one’s health or at least is able to adjust to live with the health issues better.         

Yoga requires you to renounce family life 

One does not have to give up family life necessarily to walk the yogic path. Yoga can be practised effectively even as a householder, because yoga is an education in living — a retraining of one’s physical, emotional and spiritual self. Owing to the stability and enhanced powers of concentration that yoga yields, a yoga practitioner can contribute greatly to society and excel in their chosen field of endeavour. Thus yoga is ideal for all humanity without exception. 

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