There’s a new voice in my head. But this one, I added quite consciously about a month ago. Surprisingly, this new entity- I like to call the ‘better me’ hasn’t really added to the conundrum of otherwise constant chatter inside. If anything it has shut some of the more inane ones up and assigned useful tasks to many others. So far, it seems, this voice has been one of my better finds. I should admit though that I didn’t exactly find it all by myself. I got a little outside help- from a four day Yoga program I attended May-end, called Surya Kriya, at Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation. They call this voice- the Inner Self. The point of waking people up to this entity is quite simple- to help watch-over and guide the process of performing the Kriya accurately. Every time one slides a bit, it is meant to kick in and help you pick up the slack. It already knows the right way and is supposed to hold your hand to take you along on the right track.
Ingenious I’d say. There were some 40 odd folk taking the Yoga lessons in the 6-8am slot for those four days and when we were introduced to this ‘Inner Self’, everybody quite easily managed to find it lurking around. I guess it just means it was always there, but not everyone, including me was happy at first with the mirror this ‘better me’ held out constantly. After all, it tends to reflect things we don’t always want to see or acknowledge, even if we are looking straight at it. Its usually the negative stuff that the mirror shows up- the things you could do right but are just stopping short of. In this instance its just the simple things like bending your back a little more backwards, in Urdhvasana or perhaps trying to lay your palms flat down parallel to your your feet while bending down in Padahasthasana or holding your breath just that much longer during Nadi Vibhajana, stretching the leg backwards enough to feel the strain in the right places and align the spine in the right position in Ashva Sanchalana- all the things that look so simple when being performed by a trained practitioner in front of you, yet, Yoga poses that feel back-breaking the moment you merely try to replicate them.
One month later, I’m still trying to get it right- most of it, and as I try to do the best I can by myself at home, I’ve had to get used to that ‘better me’, whether or not I like it much. At first, I struggled with the urge to enter my head to deliver one hard punch each time, this know-all buddy would pop out and say, “Uh oh, your shoulder’s all bunched up in Ashva Sanchalana… stretch that leg some more… pull the head up more, flatten the foot and align the hands next to them…now take a deeper breath”. “To hell”, my usual self would say and then proceed to wander off to the next interesting thought- what I’d have for breakfast when I was done, or wonder about when I’d finally get that blog going, after so, so many false start etc… Yes, distractions galore, the mind tends to travel to so many places at the same time taking cues from any and everything, the ‘Inner Self’ really needs to assert its presence! So, gradually, I’ve learnt to make friends with it and decided to call it the ‘better me’. That way all inner voices stay happy and there’s less dissonance about whose turn it is to speak or be heard!
While trying to figure out the basics of Sadhguru’s principles of ‘Inner Engineering’, as a natural extension of my own personal journey towards general wellbeing I couldn’t help feeling really odd about the very loud conundrum outside. The noise over- ‘International Yoga Day’! My first reaction was of course to dissociate with it. One because my own switch to Yoga had nothing whatsoever to do with a ‘government initiative’ that by then had taken all manner of political hues, and secondly because of the bizarreness of the drama that came packaged with it, as a deal. The unnecessary controversies, associations with religion, opposition, and counter-attacks… “Really??” I wondered.
The truth is, the practice of Yoga is a commitment. If you intend to go with it, its a lifetime thing. There are no short cuts. You can’t switch on for the cameras and then go back to whoever else it is, you really are. Yoga demands its own discipline from it’s practitioner. Whether people criticise it or support it, the hard reality is that, only a stubborn and persistent person will be able to continue doing Yoga everyday (everyone else will try to get a few extra hours of sleep instead).
But its important to swat down the bugs of misinformation released by the detractors. Of course Yoga doesn’t imply any change in one’s belief system, religious conversion etc. You can very much follow Yoga as a science if that’s what you choose, or accept its spiritual dimensions if you prefer, but nothing is binding on you. The practice of Yoga if anything is likely to make you more flexible in both body and mind. And that flexibility lets you be many things at once. It doesn’t take anything away from you, except maybe unnecessary body weight, the pressures of stress and maybe a range of issues that may be bogging you down from dependencies and addictions like cigarettes and alcohol to painful conditions like depression, insomnia, and so many things in between. Religion, has nothing to do with Yoga. I agree with the Sadhguru when he says Yoga is about looking inward and attuning oneself to the universe in a sense of union. The outcome of that can be manifold and only positive. It has nothing to do with letting go of any particular religious belief anyone might hold, or embracing a new faith.
If you actually follow the rules that the classical practice of Yoga calls for, chances are it could fix a range of problems that you hadn’t quite anticipated. Consider this- you need to begin on an empty stomach free of fresh or digested food and shouldn’t have eaten for at least 4.5 hours before performing Yoga. If you drink, then your last alcohol intake should have been some 14 hours earlier. There are similar rules related to smoking and substance abuse is not permitted. You also need to take a cold shower first. Basically you need to be clean and build on it. If a tipple is a must each night, or your body won’t function without the first smoke, tea or coffee, then you’re going to have to step past these dependencies. In essence, the purpose of Yoga is quite simply to keep body and mind clean to begin with, so it can focus on generating its sense of joy and satisfaction from a state of health and take it towards wellbeing, so you can focus on more important tasks. For those of us who discover Yoga in later life, the process is also about discovering how rigor mortis has already set in, into so many parts of our being- physical, mental, emotional… Switching back to the living state, where organs actually perform to capacity unaided (chemically) and without complaint can seem hard to achieve. But Yoga does that for you.
Now, to unnecessarily rake-up an ill-informed controversy about a procedure like Surya-Namaskara and liken it to some pagan practice of worshipping a sun-god is just so silly and pointless. But perhaps such a notion can find some takers where there is general ignorance about Yoga and its practice. If an individual has a problem with what ‘Yoga’ means- which is ‘union’ with the universe- nature, the air we breathe, the trees and birds around us, the sky, earth and water, then it might just be unfortunate. However, the tendency of some to sell the idea that Yoga is connected with the Hindu faith and then to stretch that idea to include Indianness or the lack of it is, well, just a stretch.
I happen to be Christian by birth. I could well have been born into a family that practiced a different religion. But to suggest that accepting Yoga might make me a Hindu-Christian is sort of ridiculous. I have no issues with Hinduism or its preachers/ followers. But I don’t see why Yoga should be sold as being Hindu. Yoga as a practice has a history of over 15,000 years. It has survived and flourished without any religious link, force, strong advocacy or conversion. Yoga has in fact survived solely on the basis of efficacy. It will continue to do so if it is propagated on its intrinsic strength- efficacy. Other associations are distractions and could only undermine its popularity.
I believe respect and gratitude is owed to the Guru. The Guru is the master- one that is enlightened and knowledgeable and willing to impart that knowledge to anyone who cares to learn. Now that Guru maybe a Hindu- a Brahmin or a Shudra, a Muslim or a Catholic… how and why should that matter? The learner likewise may come from any background- religious and social and why would that be of any consequence? Indian and Indianness include much more than merely Hindu or the priestly Hindu. And Yoga is not about them. I find it hard to let any political group or party appropriate Yoga. No such entity qualifies as ‘Guru’, and their tendency to be militant in their method and message to spread Yoga as if it were a virus is plain loathsome. A little more humility- the kind associated with the practice of Yoga, might work wonders instead. Yoga is perhaps the most empowering tool anyone can offer another. If it is rightly presented, why wouldn’t it be accepted with open arms and gratitude? Politicising it is likely to have the opposite effect.
Surya Namaskar and Surya Kriya are not about praying to the Sun as if it were a god. Both are about awakening the latent energy- likened to the Sun within oneself- body and mind. It is also an acknowledgement that life as we know it on planet Earth would hardly be possible without the Sun.
There has also been considerable opposition to ‘chanting’ during Yoga, implying that it is a surreptitious attempt to introduce the Hindu religion to those who might follow other belief systems. As Sadguru says, this is not true. All Yoga practices do not involve chanting. Chants are practiced by those opting for ‘Nada Yoga’- which is based on the science of resonance of vibrations. The chants happen to be in Sanskrit which reflect their origin and antiquity. Those who choose not to chant, need not. There actually is something quite magical about chanting, if you care to experience it. I remember that I quite enjoyed learning up Sanskrit shlokas when I was in school. In fact I took it to another level by participating in shloka recitation competitions and winning some. At the time it was mildly amusing, that I was the only ‘Roman Catholic’ amongst the participants. It never occurred to me then that I might be what the RSS calls a ‘Hindu-Christian’! I don’t need Ghar Wapsi, trust me. India is home to me, as I am. I accept everything, India has to offer in the right spirit and it might be nice if right-wingers learnt to live and let others live. It may also be nice if those who are convinced about Ghar Wapsi bothered to check why many Hindus turned to other religions as an escape in the first place. They might want to reflect on a thing called the Caste system. I also wonder if the homecoming implied by Ghar Wapsi means every ‘returnee’ gets to become a Brahmin. Not a BC or OBC!
Ok, now I have an ‘Inner Self’ digression alert going off! Am returning to track. In my particular case, I discovered Yoga mostly as a means for physical fitness after a considerable amount of trial and error with other kinds of exercise routines. At varying stages I tried the gym or created my own routines to work on at home. Depending on when I would hit a particularly bad trough, the intensity of focus on dealing with the crisis would build up for me. About a year ago, for instance, I finally admitted (after a longer-than-necessary phase of denial) that I was spilling out of all my clothes. I realised that I had started buying a lot of dupattas and long scarves and would invariably hang it down my neck to ‘cover up’. I would invariably pull it sideways or thicken it in the areas I wanted to conceal most. I realised I was nearly beyond repair and the weighing scale said it all. I was almost 12 kilos over my ideal height-weight ratio. I was obviously overeating. The gluttony was in itself a symptom of other things- psychological issues- stress inducing work, life events, a series of triggers, all of which had taken over. I was playing victim and my body and state of mind said it. I wouldn’t go out much. I went into self-imposed exile, became a shadow of myself and the dimensions of that shadow seemed larger than life.
When it became too much to take, I cracked the whip myself. Ha, so I had that ‘better me’ lurking around after all! I struggled, and sweated through my own routine of workouts- a half hour of comprehensive stretches, then weights- dumb bells and kettle bell, the stepper and floor exercises to tame the midriff. An hour and a half of sweat and soreness daily for about a year had its payoff. I shed over 10 kilos. Consistency is key, when it comes to working out. But when you’re a single parent and are juggling a bunch of tasks and responsibilities, there are other priorities that tend to pull the rug from under you from time to time.
Invariably, these regimens would however cause some damage. I nearly dislocated both my ankles by not using the skipping rope properly once, and had to stay bandaged for weeks to repair broken ligaments. There were also sore muscles and catches. But while I was doing things my way, others in my family had already switched to Yoga. I presumed it was too passive for me. I was sure I wouldn’t even break into a sweat if I tried Yoga. When I finally took to it, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Apart from finding out that I am not half as malleable as I’d like to be, I have found that when I do the Asanas right, the body does very much generate ‘ushna’ (heat) that makes me sweat considerably. There’s nothing aerobic about ‘Surya Kriya’, like my previous workouts, but then there is no comparison.
Crucially, there’s no huffing a puffing involved. All breathing is strictly through the nasal passage. While performing Surya Kriya, I get to pay attention to my breathing for a change- focus on each inhalation and exhalation. I learn to focus. My eyes are shut and I’m neither talking nor listening to anyone else. I only hear my own breathing and learn to stretch it as far as possible. I have renewed respect for the butterfly in the garden after trying to perform ‘Patangasana’ for a month. It isn’t easy to get your legs to move like a butterfly’s wings for two whole minutes if your have your feet pressed together and held tightly by your own hands, as close to the perineum as possible. It can take the breath out of you… yet you have to try to inhale and exhale slow and long in preparation for the 21 step Kriya coming up ahead. Shishupalasana, likewise, is like the answer to any overhanging love-handles that you may have nurtured over the years not so lovingly! It gradually tightens the flab all around, leaving you feeling quite sore on your arms and legs, but the soreness is only temporary. It hardly lasts into Nadi Vibhajana that follows. Getting to imitate a cat or dog, stretching the spine outward and inward, and getting the knee to touch your forehead takes some getting used to, but eventually nothing is impossible!
During the Kriya, everything from Urdhvasana to Padahastasana, and Parvathasana, Ashva Sanchalana, Sashtanga and Bhujangasana are complete tasks cut out. Each need practice and resilience to perfect and that perfection can seem slow and distant… but again, not impossible. At first the process of remembering the sequence of 21 steps and keeping track of the breathing pattern for each, itself, seemed impossible! But that’s where the ‘better me’, came in handy. A little tweaking of concentration and visualisation with closed eyes, with the ‘Inner Self’ at work, managed to get the mind to piece together the jigsaw.
Sushanti Meditation- which involves Shavasana- the art of relaxing the body and mind in a death-like state has to be the best part of the Kriya as you close. Concentrating on 61 points of relaxation all over the body, in sequence, including my little toe with my eyes shut, makes me feel alive and become aware of myself in an altogether new way. The almost sleep-like state is relaxing and rejuvenating at the same time.
I never imagined I’d able to do anything close to what Baba Ramdev does with his diaphragm. But Uddyana Bandha- which is about locking the diaphragm is a detoxing mechanism that comes at the end of the Kriya and brings me closest to living that experience.
My assessment of the effect of one month of Yoga on me is firstly to wonder why I didn’t come to it earlier. I certainly am not quite as sore as I was while using the conventional route earlier, but all that toning certainly helped ease me into Yoga without much struggle. I feel more relaxed, stronger, lighter and flexible now. Its an entirely new approach and discipline and one that has made me re-evaluate everything that really matters to me. Surya Kriya strengthens the spine amongst other things. The strength and tenacity of one’s spine both literally and figuratively, is a great starting point for most things in life. This could well be the start of other good things…