Thoughts & Ideas

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Yoga Again

Ernest Hemingway once said, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know". William J Broad has written this one true sentence in his article “How Yoga can Wreck Your Body” published by the New York Times when he echoes Glenn Black that “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you'll end up causing problems.” It is a pity that this one true sentence is the second last sentence of the article, coming after nearly 3500 words of pure gibberish!

Yoga means union and the subject matter of the philosophy of Yoga and its associated practices is union of the Atman (human soul) with the Parmatman (Supreme God). What Mr. Broad seems to be referring to is not “Yoga” but the “Asanas” of Hatha Yoga practice. These asanas (literal meaning “easy”) is to help prepare the body and mind for sitting undisturbed for prolonged periods of time required for the practice of deep meditation.

As any yoga teacher would explain, asanas are not exercise but part of spiritual practice (sadhana). They are techniques which place the physical body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation, concentration and meditation. Second, asanas should not be done to the extent where the body starts sweating, becomes tired, or any difficulty in performing the particular asanasis experienced.

I would like to quote from Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s classic text book on Yoga - “Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha”. In its first chapter (Introduction to Yogasana) under general notes for the practitioner, it lays down “the following practice notes should be thoroughly understood before going any further”. These instructions run into about 4 pages and include:

a) No Straining: Never exert undue force while doing asanas.
b) Relaxation: Do shavasana before, during and after asana sessions, taking care to relax the body as much as possible.
c) Contra-indications: People with fractured bones or who are suffering from acute infections or backache, or chronic ailments and diseases such as … should consult a competent yoga teacher or doctor before commencing asanas. Carefully observe the contra-indications given in the introduction to each section, and those given for individual asanas.
d) Termination of asana: If there is excessive pain in any part of the body, the asana should be terminated immediately and if necessary, medical advice south. Do not stay in any asana if discomfort is felt.

The chapter also prescribes that the beginners group of asanas should be performed by those who have never practiced yogasanas before. Only a selection from this group, tailored to individual needs, should be practiced by those who are infirm in any way, weak, or sick. The intermediate group consists of asanas which are reasonably difficult and are recommended for people who can perform the beginners group without discomfort or strain. The advanced group is intended for people with extensive control over their muscles and nervous system, who have already mastered the middle group of asanas.

It would be highly unfair if such misunderstanding of the essence of what is Yoga is attributed solely to Mr. Broad, since legions of Yoga Gurus pedaling their wares to the gullible public both in India and the affluent west have built up a false identity for this ancient practice as a simple, harmless panacea for all ills and continue to do so. It would not take too much effort to recollect at least half a dozen world famous yoga exponents who have propounded a warped version of yoga. Say for example, the person who is often referred to as that “dirty old man” and who for some time heavily influenced the British rock group The Beatles, or the modern day Chanakya who also ran an arms factory and died in an air crash, or the highly popular sanyasi who runs an even larger corporate empire and can be found at any time of the day on one of his TV channels, and of course the refined expounder of making Living an Art, or the proponent of the oxymoronic cult of Power Yoga.

Confidence tricksters come in many shapes and sizes. Being a yoga guru is only one of them and a practice which is well known and established. A couple of incidents which I am privy to would I think justify my being skeptical of these confidence tricksters.

A close friend, in good health attended one of the courses conducted by one of these confidence tricksters. He was introduced to the large range of fairly advanced asanas including the Surya Namaskar over a 6 day part time course. No one cared to mention to him that anyone with back related problems should avoid forward bending exercises or that Surya Namaskar while being a powerful practise, should not be attempted unless the body is well prepared for it, something which can take at least 6 months of regular practice of the basic asanas. Or the exposition of kapal bhati on TV as a universal remedy for all and sundry without the caveat that this results in elevation of blood pressure and should not be practiced by people with hyper tension or for that matter any one with weak lungs.

To give an analogy from modern day medicine, as is well known there is a very small difference in dosage between a toxic (and possibly fatal dose) and a curative dose in case of many of our miracle drugs. Therefore, most drugs are sold only under prescription of qualified medical practitioners. Why should a different set of values be used for Yoga?