The secrets of the ancient science of yoga were passed down from rishis, saints and sages who came to the Himalayas for divine inspiration. Through their meditation, austerities and prayers, a treasure chest of wisdom was bestowed upon them for the benefit of humanity.
Yoga is not a religion. It does not require you to believe in a certain God or to chant certain mantras. It is an ancient science which leads to health in the body, peace in the mind, joy in the heart and liberation of the soul. Nowadays people take yoga classes to learn all about the various techniques of asanas, Pranayama and meditation. But yoga is more than that. Yoga is a from your actions to your speech to your thoughts.
An asana session has a beginning and an end. You start at 8:00 for instance,and you finish at 9:00. Your Pranayama has a beginning and an end. You start at, say, 6:00 and you finish at 7:00. Even meditation – at least in the beginning – has a fixed starting point and a fixed ending point. You sit in meditation for a certain number of minutes or hours each day.
But, what about the rest of the time? How to live yoga even when you are not doing asanas, Pranayama and meditation? How to practice yoga in the grocery store? How to live like a yogi in your family, in your work place, when you are stuck in traffic?
Yoga is an eight-fold path. Asana is one part; Pranayama is another; meditation is still another. Two other aspects of this path are called yama and niyama. These can be loosely translated as righteous living. These are the rules for life. By following these moral, ethical, and spiritual guidelines, one’s entire life becomes yoga.
In general, yama is exercising restraint over our lower, baser, animal-like instincts; for instance, overcoming greed, lust, anger, and envy, and definitely never acting based on these impulses. Niyama can be seen as the embrace of higher, spiritual, humane values; for instance, being generous and selfless, cultivating piety, devotion, compassion, loyalty and humility.
Yama and niyama can be summed up as “Do good and be good; do divine and be divine; have the Lord’s name in your heart and on your lips, and do His work with your hands.”
These moral and ethical principles affect us whether we believe in them or not. People may say, “But, I’m not Indian” or “I’m not Hindu, so I don’t have to follow these ethical laws.” However, this is not true. As I mentioned, yoga is not a religion. That means none of the eight aspects depends upon one’s spiritual belief system. Just as Shirshasana is beneficial whether one “believes” in it or not, similarly these moral and ethical laws of the universe affect us, whether we believe in them or not.
They are like the law of gravity. One can certainly stand on the top of a ten-story building and say, “I don’t believe in gravity so I am going to jump.” Perhaps as one falls through the sky, one temporarily thinks one has succeeded in defying this pervasive law. Yet, inevitably, one will hit the ground and one’s life breath will be immediately whisked away.
Similarly, people may live lives full of greed, anger, lust, arrogance, and disregard for their fellow humanity for many years, thinking they are immune to these natural laws which affect us all. However, eventually, they, too, will hit the ground and be destroyed.
I remember once, when I was abroad, I saw a sign that said, “Follow the rules and enjoy your stay.” It is like that in life as well. There are so many things we do, that perhaps we realize are not right, but we do them anyway. We lie; we covet things which are not ours: “Oh, how I wish that beautiful car was mine instead of his.” We harbor bad thoughts about each other: “Oh, if only he would fall sick, then I could have his job.” We deny these to ourselves or we rationalize them with excuses. However if we are going to live truly yogic lives then we must subject every area of our life to scrutiny.
To Eat Like a Yogi
What we eat…is our diet in harmony with a yogic life? I know that people are learning a lot about sattvic food, which means food that is fresh, easily digestible and leads to health of the body and peace of mind. However, I am not going to talk about the intricacies of a sattvic diet. Rather, I am simply going to ask, “Are you vegetarian? Do you teach vegetarianism to your children?” There is virtually nothing we can do to our bodies that is more contrary to the yogic life than to eat meat.
How can we be true yogis, full of life, if our bodies are graveyards for dead animals? How can we be at peace if our food choices bring pain and suffering to others? Additionally, one of the most important aspects of “yoga for daily life” is honesty. How many of us consider ourselves honest people? How many of us can say that we do not tell lies? We would very much like to believe that we are righteous, honest people and that we are passing these values onto our children. Well, if we eat meat, we cannot say that we do not tell lies. Here is why: if we wanted to be honest and still eat meat, we would have to go outside, chase down a live cow, and bite right into it. Or we would have to go to one of those chicken “farms,” take the animal while it was still alive, tear its head off, pull out its feathers and eat it raw.
Of course, we do not do that. Instead, we order a hamburger. We cannot even call it what it is, let alone kill it ourselves. So, we call it beef, instead of cow. We call it pork instead of pig. We call it poultry instead of chicken, and we eat it packaged in neat, nice ways that allow us to forget what we are eating. How many people stop and think that the thing between the tomato and the bread on a hamburger used to be a living, breathing creature? That it was someone’s child? We can’t. We cannot even admit to ourselves what we are doing. How then, can consider ourselves honest people if we are lying every time we eat? These are not lies that only cause misunderstanding; these are not “little white lies.” These are lies that are killing our planet, our animals, and us. This is what the true yogic life is contemplation, introspection. We ask ourselves, “What right do I have to take the life of another?” We must pause and think about the decisions we make.
A yogi is calm; a yogi is centered; a yogi is in peace, not in pieces. We cannot be calm and in peace if we eat meat. Eating an animal with stress hormones coursing through it, leads to stress in us.
Meditation is not a pill which quickly wears off and carries unpleasant side effects. Rather, meditation changes the very nature of your being. It brings you back to the world from which you come: the realm of the Divine.
A yogi is calm; a yogi is centered; a yogi is in peace, not in pieces. We cannot be calm and in peace if we eat meat. Eating an animal with stress hormones coursing through it, leads to stress in us. Let me explain: When animals (humans included) are threatened, we secrete large amounts of hormones. These numerous hormones are frequently referred to as adrenaline. Their purpose is to prepare our body to fight, to save our lives. Have you ever noticed that when you get scared, a lot of things happen inside you? Your heart beats fast; your digestion stops; your palms sweat and your physical impulses become very good and sharp. These are the result of the hormones, and they prepare us to either fight or run away. Thus, they are sometimes called the “fight or flight” hormones.
When an animal is about to be killed, its body is flooded with these stress hormones which remain in the animal’s = tissues. So, when we eat those tissues, we are ingesting those hormones (which are the same as our own bodies make). Thus, our own bodies become flooded with these “fight or flight” chemicals, making us even more prone to simple survival instincts.
Thus, the saying, “you are what you eat,” comes alive. If we eat stress hormones, then we are eating terror and of course it is no wonder that we cannot find peace in our lives.
So, if you are a vegetarian, great. It will not only improve your health, but it will change the very nature of your being. If you are not a vegetarian, at least think about becoming one. The yogic life is one of contemplation, honesty and integrity.
How our food is prepared is as integral to our overall health and peace as what we eat. I am not going to go into all the details here, but it is very important that our food is prepared with love, with devotion, and with purity. The energy of preparation is absorbed into the food, and just as the animal’s stress hormones affect our own bloodstream, we are physiologically affected by the energy of the cook and the place of preparation. Thus, chant, sing, meditate while you cook and encourage devotion in those who cook for you.
Eat pure, fresh food. Then, you will see the magic of it!
So, if being a vegetarian and taking care of the food you eat is all you can do right now, then do it. But, let me go further and explain how to let yoga saturate every aspect of your life. For, remember there is both yama and niyama. Yoga is not simply yama, or refraining from lower instincts. It is also niyama, the embrace of and adherence to higher principles and laws. Remember what we said about, “follow the rules and enjoy your stay.”
But, how does one put these laws into daily practice? How to truly live and breathe yoga instead of simply following a set of rules like a robot? Let me give you three capsules – a multivitamin you can take every day. If you take all three every day, and let them deeply saturate your being, then you will experience true health of body, mind and spirit.Then, you can say you are truly practicing yoga .
Multivitamin of Spiritual Health
Meditation: Meditation is the best medication for all agitations. People have so many troubles today, mainly related to the stress in their lives. To address this anxiety, this sleeplessness, this inability to simply be content, they may take pills or fill their lives with excessive material “pleasures.” For example, when people feel stressed they may attempt to forget about it by going to the movies, or by getting drunk or by indulging in simple sensual pleasures. Yet, these are not solutions. They do not address the underlying issues. They are simply band-aids to a wound that runs deep below the surface.
Yet, meditation will truly calm the mind, fill the heart with joy and bring peace to the soul; the serenity and joy last throughout the day and throughout your life. Meditation is not a simple diversion which works only as long as you are actively engaged in it. Meditation is not a pill which quickly wears off and carries unpleasant side-effects. Rather, meditation changes the very nature of your being. It brings you back to the world from which you come: the realm of the Divine. As you sit in meditation you will realize the insignificance of that which causes anxiety; you will realize the transient nature of all your troubles. You will realize the infinite joy and boundless peace that come from God.
You will learn (or perhaps you have already learned) meditation techniques. Do not worry if you can’t do it perfectly, or if it is difficult, or if you can’t remember everything. The point is to do it. Make a time that is “meditation time.” It’s okay if it’s short. Don’t worry. Just do it. Do not say,“Well, I don’t have an hour to sit so I won’t bother.” Commit five minutes to meditation each morning. Then you will see the magic of it.
Then let this meditation become your life. Yes, of course, one should have a time set aside for meditation, and there should be a quiet, serene place in which to meditate. However, even when it is not “meditation time,” or even if you are away from home, away from your “meditation place” do not think that you cannot meditate. Take five minutes at work to simply close your eyes, watch your breath, focus on the oneness of us all, and connect with the Divine. Eventually, the goal is to let your life become meditation.
No reaction: We must learn to be calmer in our lives. We must learn to remain still and unaffected by all that happens around us. We must be like the ocean. The waves come and go, but the ocean stays. Even a large rock, thrown from a great distance, with great force, will only cause temporary ripples in a small area. Most of the ocean will remain unaffected. Yet, we are always jumping into the ocean, right into the waves, letting them carry us. This is our choice. We must learn, instead, to be like the ocean itself, unaffected by these small, transient things.
So many times we act as though we are the waves of the ocean – up one minute and down the next, changed by every gust of wind and every passing boat. Yet, we are not these waves. I am using the analogy of the waves of the ocean, but you must realize that the waves I am really talking about are the waves of anger, anxiety, jealousy, greed and lust that are just as vast, just as strong and just as restless as the waves of the sea.
We are not waves, pulled this way and that by every passing breeze, by the daily changes in the moon. Yet we act like that.
We act as though we are light bulbs and anyone who wants to can simply switch us on or off. Isn’t it true? Can’t the slightest comment or look or action of another change our mood 180 degrees? Isn’t it frequently that we are in a wonderful mood and someone at the grocery store is rude to us, or someone on the freeway passes in front of our car, or a friend is cold and distant? Any of these things can immediately switch our mood as though we were a light bulb.
So many times I hear people say, “Oh, I was in such a good mood, but then Robert called and told me what Julie said about me,” or “Oh, that phone call just ruined my day.” The same works the other way. We are sad or depressed and we get a nice phone call or letter in the mail or we eat some good cookies. Then we feel better.
How is that? How can one phone call or one rude comment from a person have so much control over us? Are we so volatile in our emotions that others have more power over our moods than we, ourselves, do?
Aren’t we more than this? Aren’t we bigger, more divine, and deeper than this? Isn’t there more to this human existence than the law of action and reaction? We must learn to keep that light switch in our own hands and to give it only to God. Otherwise we are switched on and off, on and off, all day long and the only effect is that the light bulb burns out!
Let us take whatever comes as prasad, as a gift from God. Let us remain calm and steady in the face of both prosperity and misfortune. We must not lose our vital energy in this constant action and reaction to everyone around us.
But how – how to remain unaffected by the waves of life? This is called spiritual practice! I always say that one of the best ways to learn “no reaction” is through silence. When we are anxious, angry, tense, or frustrated, we tend to say things which we later regret; we tend to let our words fuel the reaction in our hearts. So, let us learn the power of silence. Silence on the outside will lead to silence on the inside. This is why so many saints and other spiritual people have “silence time;” it’s a time of remembering that we are more than our reactions, a time of tuning in to the Divine Insurance Company, a time of charging our inner batteries.
So, let us learn to meet life’s waves with silence – that will make “no reaction” much easier to achieve.
There was once a huge elephant crossing a wooden bridge high above a raging river. The bridge was old and rickety and it shook under the weight of the elephant. As the elephant was crossing the bridge he heard a voice, “Son, Son” the voice said. The elephant looked around him, but he was all alone. “Son, Son,” the voice continued. When the elephant reached the other side of the river, he saw a small ant crawl onto his nose. “Son,” the ant cried. “We almost collapsed that bridge, didn’t we?” Our weight was so great, so immense that the bridge almost collapsed beneath us, didn’t it, son?” Now, of course the elephant knew that the ant’s weight had been completely irrelevant to whether the bridge would have collapsed. Of course, he knew that the tiny ant was not his mother. However, what good would it have done to engage in a battle of egos with the ant? Instead, the wise, calm elephant simply said, “You are right, mother, our weight almost broke the bridge.”
The elephant retained his serenity, retained his peace and joy. The ant, for what it’s worth, was allowed to continue believing in its own greatness. But, how many of us could be like the elephant? Aren’t we always trying to prove ourselves to others? Aren’t we always ready to shoot down anyone who trespasses on our egos?
We must emulate the grace and divinity of the elephant who knew that only harm would come from the fight. So, we must make “no reaction” the sutra, the mantra for our lives. Then, and only then, will we know real peace.
We must learn to remain still and unaffected by all that happens around us. We must be like the ocean. The waves come and go, but the ocean stays. Even a large rock, thrown from a great distance, with great force, will only cause temporary ripples in a small area.
Introspection: So, in the morning we begin with meditation. All day we practice no reaction. And at night, we try introspection. At the end of the day, a good businessman always checks his balance sheet: how much has he made, how much has he spent? Similarly, a good teacher reviews her students’ test scores: how many passed, how many failed?
Just as a serious daily asana practice can bring the glow of health to our body, a serious daily practice of meditation, no reaction and introspection can bring the glow of peace, joy and divinity to our lives.
By looking at their successes and failures, they assess how well they are doing. Are the businessman’s profits
greater than his losses? Are most of the teacher’s students passing the exams?
In the same way, each night, we must examine the balance sheet of our day: what were our successes, what were our failures. For all the successes, all our “plus-points” we must give credit to God. For, we have truly done nothing but let Him work through us. All credit goes to Him. He is the one who saves us, who maintains our dignity and our success.
Just imagine if God had put one television screen on our foreheads and everything we thought was broadcast for the whole world to see! All our reactions, all our inner sarcastic comments, all our judgments, all our weaknesses…just imagine. We would never succeed nor would we have many friends! Isn’t it true?
So, it is by His grace that the world does not see our thoughts, only He sees our thoughts. For this, we thank Him.
We can say, “Thank you, God, for bringing success to this venture,” or “Thank you God for letting me truly make a difference in someone’s life today,” or simply, “Thank you God for all that went well today.”
Our failures, we must also give to him. The fault is ours, definitely. Yet, He is so forgiving and so compassionate that He insists we turn these over to Him as well. We must say, “God, please take these minus points. You know that I am weak; you know that I am nothing. See all my failures, all my minus points for even just one day. I cannot go even one day without accumulating so many minus points. But, still you love me. Still you protect me from having the world see all my minus points. I am so weak, but you protect me.” In this way, each night we check our balance sheet,and we pray to God to help us have fewer minus points, to make us stronger, to make us better hands doing his work, to give us more faith, more devotion.
If we practice these three points everyday then our lives will become beautiful. Just as a serious daily asana practice can bring the glow of health to our body, a serious daily practice of meditation, no reaction and introspection can bring the glow of peace, joy and divinity to our lives.