Tips to Lead a Healthy Lifestyle Through Yoga
The ultimate purpose of Yoga is freedom from suffering. Can the way we behave affect our health and wellbeing? We know that our diet and lifestyle, the environment and seasonal changes all affect our health. We know also that mental stress and even positive or negative attitudes can affect health and recovery but what about our conduct and behaviour? Modern medicine is relatively silent on this subject. Modern science and ethics are discrete and separate domains; science steers clear from ethics, leaving this to the domain of religion/spirituality to guide us on how we should live and behave. Yoga has a lot to offer in this realm however as yoga has become more popular in the modern world, it has, by many, become associated with physical postures on a mat. In fact, Yoga is indeed much more than that; it is a way of life for wellness, happiness and harmony. Freedom from suffering and bliss is the ultimate goal of Yoga. This is not to undermine the physical aspects of Yoga as a healthy body helps retain a healthy mind; when one is healthier one at least does not have to suffer the aches, pains and strains of health and is able to focus on the higher purposes more easily.
The asanas or physical postures may appear physical but in fact when done properly under the guidance of qualified Yoga Teachers, they help detoxify the mind and body, optimise metabolism thereby regulating the ingestion of food and experiences through the senses. Asanas facilitate the flow of vital energy through the mind and body thereby enriching it with a sense of ease and vitality. ‘SukhamSthiramAsanam’ (to maintain any posture with happiness and stability) is considered the purpose of asana. When we are able to do this, we can have peace within that cannot be affected by our inner or outer environment – in other words nothing phases us. To understand the rationale behind the lifestyle practices given in Yoga and its sister science Ayurveda, an ancient science of healing going back 5000 years or more, it is important to understand the gunas (the qualities of nature) as they reflect what we consume, not only through diet but through our senses and the thoughts we have; these in turn have an effect on the entire human organism.
What are the Gunas?
There are three gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas; they are present in varying proportions in the entire cosmos and all that is contained within it. Broadly speaking Sattvicsensory impressions are harmonious, clear, uplifting and calming. whether these be sounds, sights, fragrances or touch. A Sattvicenvironment is clean, light, clear and harmonious. The colours are gentle pastel colours. Music and chants which are harmonious and peaceful generally have a Sattviceffect. Sacred and peaceful music and chants and other harmonious activities generally have a Sattviceffect on the mind. Not only this but the mind is nourished and uplifted with positive thoughts and tendencies.
Rajasicsensory impressions activate and stimulate the passions. This includes sounds, music, images and odours that stimulate and excite the mind. Watching thrillers, passionate dramas, violent movies, listening to rock music or other exciting music will all agitate the mind. Bright colours also have a Rajasiceffect.
Tamasicimpressions have a negative and dulling effect. These are dark images, negativity, discordant sounds, unpleasant smells. Negativity in the content of what is seen or heard will have a dulling and lethargic effect. An environment which is dark, dull and neglected will have a Tamasiceffect.
Enhancing Sattvamay accord a certain mental peace and stability. In fact Sattva is the natural and inherent state of the mind. Rajashas a role in achieving goals and being dynamic in society. However, in excess it can cause anxiety, restlessness and agitation. Tamasis also important in inducing sleep, without which we cannot function. However, in excess it can cause heaviness, lethargy, dullness and feelings of depression. Our five senses are constantly consuming impressions, and these are a form of diet which shapes the mind. Everything we do has an influence on us and shapes what we become. Hence the importance of our sensory diet, our environment and our company. As Rajas and Tamasare the qualities which when in excess are said to cause disturbance of the mind, these need to be kept in check.
All three Gunasare essential in nature but strong Sattvais helpful for a clear and calm state of mind. Mind being the subtle part of the body is influenced by everything that the body takes in through its diet and senses; it therefore follows that ‘you are indeed what you eat!’ If we are what we consume in this very broad sense, then this gives us a degree of control in shaping the way we want to be and to take charge of the forces that govern us.
Wholesome conduct in Yoga
The most fundamental principles of Yoga are rooted in Yama and Niyama, the 10 practices for the body/mind to generate a sattvic harmonious life. These practices have been carefully devised by the ancient sage Patanjali, the sage and author of the ancient text the Patanjali Yoga Sutra.Yamas(restraints)
- Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence in thought, word and deed)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (celibacy or ‘right use of energy’)
- Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding)
- Sauchya (cleanliness of mind, body and speech
- Santosha (satisfaction, contentment and gratitude)
- Tapas (austerity and discipline)
- Sadhana (self-study and introspection)
- Ishvarapranidhana (acceptance and surrender to the higher intelligence)
When we strive to follow the above practices, we can reduce our suffering in the world, be it from the mind ‘playing up’ or external circumstances. This is the ultimate goal of Yoga and so for enhancing one’s yoga practice the niyamas and yamas are to be taken seriously for they are the very foundation of Yoga.
Ayurveda, the ancient science of healing and sister science of Yoga states that the mind is the root of many diseases. It therefore offers practices for holistic positive well-being on the level of body, mind and spirit. Ayurveda describes health as a balance of body, mind, social and spiritual well-being. In order to achieve this, Ayurveda prescribes certain codes of conduct known as Sadvritta. The root 'Sad' means good and 'Vritta' means regimen. We prefer to term Sadvritta as wholesome lifestyle practices to prevent them being understood as moralistic. After all, every action has its place to protect Dharma (ethical living)
Sadvritta – wholesome lifestyle practices in Ayurveda
The ancient science of Ayurveda does not exclude any area of human experience in terms of its impact on human health and happiness, as everything is regarded as interconnected, and everything is associated with qualities that ultimately exert their effect. Sadvritta is a code of conduct which pertains to the use of the body, speech and mind. The underlying principles are timeless and universal and not specific to a particular culture. These codes of conduct help in preventing the development of disorders which can occurs through the incorrect use of our senses, our mind, our intellect and discrimination faculties. The senses should not be overused, underused or used in an improper way. For example, the overuse of the sense of sight might be through sitting in front of screens all day or reading in low lighting, underuse spending too much time in the dark and abnormal use may be using eyes to watch disturbing images. Likewise for the use of the intellect. These are considered important causative factors in disease development. Sadvritta helps guide us to health, happiness, vitality and harmony. Let us touch on the principles in turn. The detailed guidance themselves are too detailed to be given here.Body
- Ayurveda emphasises cleanliness of body, clothing and environment. Cleanliness and purity are Sattvic properties and they enhance the feeling of peace and wellbeing. We all know too well how unpleasant it feels when we feel unclean or when we are in a dirty and messy environment. The mind feels very unsettled and restless in a chaotic environment. Lack of cleanliness increases Tamas, the property of dullness and inertia in the mind.
- To protect the body, one is advised also not to stress the body by overexercise or by using it in an unnatural way. Examples are given. We should not overburden the sense organs that are through our mind; we should exert some control on their use.
- Ayurveda stresses the importance of regularity in our daily regimens such as sleep/wake cycle, mealtimes and so on and advises against excess sleep or night vigils. The body/mind thrives on regularity and prepares itself in anticipation for sleep or the meal to come. This enhances digestion and the metabolic processes. Irregularity on the other hand leads to disturbance in the optimal functioning of metabolic processes
- Ayurveda states that our actions should not harm or injure another as this will inevitably disturb the mind and this then impacts on the body. We know how a wrong action affects our wellbeing and makes the mind restless but this does not mean that we should not stand up for ‘justice’.
- Actions such as stealing, excessive/improper sexual relations are considered harmful as these create disturbances in the mind. Any improper actions can create guilt and veiling of the mind which disturbs peace and obstructs the experience of joy.
- Actions which are helpful to others in terms of service to parents, elders and those in need, increase our humility, sense of respect and love. Selfless service of others also gives a feeling of joy and expands the spirit. These actions are encouraged.
- Our speech would ideally be courteous and respectful. Speak softly and that which is pleasant to hear is helpful but of course this may not be appropriate in situations of self-defence or in the defence of others.
- Speaking the truth gives clarity, peace of mind and strength to the spirit. We know from experience that if we do not speak the truth, as it is, we feel disturbed.
- Speaking harshly or injuring others through our speech, lying, gossiping, criticising, quarrelling with others or disclosing secrets can create a sense of dis-ease in the mind. The mind becomes disturbed and polluted as do the minds of others involved.
- The manner and tone of speaking are also important as this has an impact on the mind. So, one is advised not to speak with too high pitch, low or a deranged voice or to speak too fast or too slowly and so on.
- Exercising self-control over our passions and exertinga certain self-discipline to keep the mind in check is important so that we don’t end up with unwholesome habits and an unruly mind. If we allow the mind to become our master and we the slave, we are pulled higher by its never-ending desires and whims.
- Patience, forbearance and courage are extolled as virtues. They give us the strength to endure whatever life throws at us without losing our balance, to accept success and failure, gain and loss without excitement or depression. Maintaining equanimity of mind and remaining cheerful in all situations is encouraged.
- Avoidance of jealousy is advised as this clearly robs us of peace of mind. Not only does it disturb the mind, but it pollutes our relationships.
- Humility and a respectful attitude are considered health-promoting.
- We are advised not to act under emotions of anger or excitement as these will inevitably affect our judgement and lead to wrong actions which will further disturb our minds. Anger is ultimately a punishment to one’s self unless used prudently.
When we study in detail what has been written by the great sages of old, we can understand their wisdom and see how all that we do, say and think has a potential impact on the body/mind. We know from our personal experience that it does. When anything becomes a habitual way of being, speaking and thinking, the effect is cumulative, and it can create disease.
There is no domain of human experience that should be neglected in the holistic understanding of human health and happiness. The way we behave with each other in society, the way we speak and the nature of our thinking all exert an important influence. Hence the stress in Ayurveda and Yoga to exert a certain self-control and discipline. These may sound like unpleasant words in the modern world which values above all freedom of expression but actually self-control with discrimination allows us greater freedom from the demands of the mind so long as it does not become suppression and false through spiritual bypassing. Thus we are able to experience more of what is our true nature when the mind is not disturbed or clouded. It actually gives us greater freedom to become master of the mind! Such is the wisdom, depth and farsightedness of the ancient sciences of Ayurveda and Yoga!
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