Yoga, as a science and discipline of mind and body, is incredibly rich, diverse and complex. This complexity tends to get quite lost on Western practitioners, focusing mostly on Hatha Yoga as a physical practice of body and sometimes breath. Hatha is, in fact, only the first step, although it lies at the heart of the psychological transformation which is the true fabric of an authentic and transformative yoga practice.
The definitions of the word “hatha” are many, with the most common being "sun" (ha) and "moon" (tha). Another more subtle definition is "force", which, in this case, suggests that we force unproductive habits out, while forcing more evolutionary and progressive habits in. This "forcing" is not really forceful per se (remember ahimsa, or non-harming that applies to ourselves first), but rather, the shaping of the subtle intention for change and then applying our will to follow it.
And it all starts with the body. We are all such physical creatures that many teachers insist we wouldn’t be able to understand the implications of all other yoga practices if we ignored the body or would bring it into alignment, control and a changed state of being.
Certainly, working on the body through different asanas fosters mindfulness and the first we discover through that enhanced focus and awarenesss are the habits of the body. We all are very much creatures of habit and our bodies are no different. Actually, most our psychological, emotional or behavioral habits express themselves through the bodies.
You start noticing how you stand, sit, bend, lift legs and arms, how movement is initiated and what muscles are over- or under-active, for example. Weight shifting and tension holding are another two of our movement patterns, too. Noticing this eventually gives us a clue how we hold ourselves and react to life challenges, how we think and feel and even how those thoughts and feeling have shaped, where they came from and what we do or don’t do about them. In this way, our posture and movements become markers of our state of mind on one hand and a way to change that state of inner being on the other.
Actually, in some respects, that is where the notion of yoga as a science comes into play. Recently, it has become evident that our previous model for the brain as a static element within the body is incorrect and that the brain is, in fact, a dynamic organ whose physiological profile changes in response to behavioral changes. This is called neuroplasticity.
The rishis rightly reasoned that simply by engaging in a specific physical posture one fosters the mental state associated with that posture and vice-versa. As our attention to the posture deepens, so does our attention to its associated state of mind, which requires but also enhances deepening awareness. This notion was the genesis for the evolution of hatha yoga from a general sense of "firm and steady posture", as suggested by Patanjali, into the collection of specific postures we recognize as hatha yoga today.
Next time you feel overexcites or anxious or frightened just notice what your body does. Do you slouch? Shrug your shoulders? Can’t keep still? Wring your arms? Bite your nails (Ok, you maybe not doing this, but…) Try to notice what you fell like doing in that moment even if you don’t actually act on it because of shame, politeness or up-bringing.
Then sit with your back straight and breathe focusing on your breath. In and out, just watch your breath and sit upright. This very simple experiment will convince you that if you change your body your mind will also change. There is no other way.
If you are a practicing yogi, next time on the mat notice how your body changes when you look at (and surely compete with – yeah, we all do, let’s be honest) the 20 year old blonde next to you. Then drop it and see for yourself.
You might really be surprised and that’s a step further towards your own transformation of mind and body.
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