Yoga: Balance Body, Mind, and Spirit

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Double tap. Scroll. Keep scrolling. Double tap again. Better answer that call, it’s a customer. Nah, I’ll get to it later, I need to text my brother back. Did I close the garage? Dammit, my lower back is so sore, I’m never playing softball again. This douchebag in front of me is driving like lunatic. Double tap.More scrolling. Skip this song, it reminds me of her. I need to hit Starbucks, I got shit for sleep last night. I’ll just get it half sweet so it’s healthier. Nice dress- Double tap. Oh whoops, she was actually a bitch to me at that party. Double tap again… fuck her.

The above internal dialog might sound eerily familiar. Sure, the exact thoughts and feedback are unique to each of us, but we’ve all been trapped, perpetually running on the hamster wheel of our minds at one time or another. We are so distracted by and immersed in our thoughts, that we confuse them for reality, not understanding they are merely our own internal feedback. We constantly live in the cortex of our brains, trying to rationalize away every obstacle in our path of pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. This confusion has put us in a state of separation, leaving us fearful of nature and the world outside of our skin. What’s more, we have lost awareness of what is happening inside of our skin, and our physical and mental health is unraveling into chaos. The only reason I’m taking this time to remind us of these uncomfortable truths is to make one simple point: we are fucked… and we need yoga… more than ever

What is yoga? The answer to this question might seem obvious due to the recent influx of crystal filled yoga studios and the inexhaustible variety of yoga pants, but the practice of yoga goes much deeper than stretching. It is also a philosophy and spiritual path that predates Christ, Plato, and western society altogether. Over recent decades, yoga has taken the west by storm and made its way into most major U.S. cities, integrating into forward-thinking universities, festivals, and companies. When and where did yoga come from? Yoga has its very old and very deep roots in India, where it is revered as the highest ascetic and spiritual discipline. The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ is defined as union– to join- to yoke. Yoga is referring to the union or joining of Atman and Brahman- the Self and the Universal Spirit (which we will dive into a bit later). The earliest written text we have mentioning yoga is the Rigveda of ancient India, dated to around 500 BCE. However, there is an ongoing debate to the true age of yoga and many believe the philosophy and early practices of yoga to be much older. Some evidence suggests that yoga was developed by the Indus Valley Civilization as much as 5000 years ago, but either way, the path of yoga has been walked by seekers for a long-ass time. 

I too have fallen down a yogic rabbit hole of sorts. Since developing a yoga practice 15 months ago, I’ve upgraded my physical, mental, and spiritual well being. I’ve radically increased my flexibility, strength, dexterity, body awareness, mental awareness, calmness, equanimity, confidence, and discipline. I’ve decreased pain, tightness, stress, anxiety, depression, incessant thinking, negative habit patterns, and existential dread. I’ve also totally or partially healed several injuries. Yoga has had such an impressive impact on my life that it’s hard to really quantify. Not only has my body and mind come more into balance and harmony, but I’ve awakened a spiritual element in me that I had no idea even existed prior. In fact, I used to scoff at the term ‘spiritual’ altogether, thinking it to be the talk of uneducated and mislead fanatics. This new path I’ve taken has lead me to Asia, where I am studying and practicing yoga in a more immersive and extensive way. Along with regular yoga practice and meditation, I’ve also just completed a 200-hour training to dive deeper into all things yoga. In this post, I will summarize what I’ve found in my training, in yogic philosophy, and in my own being. In short (this post is actually not short), I’ll tell you why you should give a shit about yoga.

Unfuck Yourself, with Practice

I’m going to start by making what I would consider a fairly obvious statement: when it comes to health, Americans are fucked. This post isn’t just for Americans, but since I am one, I feel obligated to point some shit out. I could write an entire blog post about the current epidemic of chronic disease, substance abuse, mental disorders, and suicide that riddle our societies, but that’s a rant for another day. I’ll just hit you with a couple of fun facts that should illustrate my point:

  • 23% of all Americans die from heart disease, the leading cause of death in America. 
  • The leading cause of death by accident is self-poisoning (aka overdose).
  • The average American spends 24 hours per week staring at a screen. 
  • 50,000 Americans kill themselves every year, and another 500,000 people annually are treated for self-harm or suicide attempts. 

Now here is another statement that might seem less obvious, unless you’ve been practicing yoga (for like one minute): yoga will unfuck you. There’s a whole myriad of ways this comes about, but I’ll focus on the 3 major ones- physically, mentally, and energetically. Feel free to fact check me on any of this stuff, as I’ve tried to link to evidence for most of the claims I make. 

Physical Benefits

I remember exactly how I felt after I took my first ever yoga class- fucking exhausted, but somehow peaceful. The practice of asana (physical yoga postures) has been developed over centuries and has evolved into a refined series of movements and positions that purify the body. All it takes is one downward dog to realize this yoga business can be deeply uncomfortable, but also to notice that you really haven’t been giving your body the attention it desperately needs. The fact that yoga is so challenging for us physically should be a prime indicator that we need it more than ever. Why can’t I touch my toes? Why does my entire body tremble and shake when I come into chair pose or plank? Why can’t I sit back on my feet without them cramping and making me want to scream at the teacher for keeping us in this pose for a goddamn eternity?

The asanas instantly show us exactly where we are at physically, making us painfully aware of every injury, every limitation, and every malfunction of our bodies. It’s quite easy to get ruthlessly slapped awake to the reality of your imbalanced or aging body and fall into a pit of discouragement. The ape mind goes ape shit and gives you all the ape reasons to get the fuck out of there: This is death by stretching… why did I pay money to get tortured and hold in my farts for an hour… that bald dude next to me isn’t holding in his farts… this is bullshit, yoga isn’t for me. However, if you manage to tune the monkey out and power through the first few classes, some pretty awesome things start to occur. These asanas begin working their magic and your body begins to level up. Yoga has been show to have benefits on all of the major systems of the body:

Skeletal/Muscular/Connective

At some point in our lives, all of us will experience some sort of shitty joint pain. Whether its nasty back pain from lifting something the wrong way, a bum knee from a sports injury, or chronic pain from a degenerative joint disease like arthritis, we’ve all experienced this state of misery at some point. Yoga is the best physical therapy and a tremendously effective method for relieving pain, healing injuries, and preventing future structural problems in the body. Yoga dramatically increases flexibility and elasticity of muscle and connective tissues, counteracting the major causes of spinal and joint injuries. Recent studies suggest that yoga reduces the chronic pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis. While we are tooting the science horn, here is some more evidence to plug in your data hole: yoga increases overall strength, balance, and flexibility in athletes, as well as overall mobility and flexibility in elderly people

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

Respiratory/Circulatory

Inhale. Exhale. These words are repeated over and over in a yoga class (unless the teacher is completely clueless). The term Vinyasa means linking breathe to movement, and this concept is key in yoga. Through continuous conscious breathing during asana practice, the blood is hyper-oxygenated and overall circulation is improved. This occurs due to a combination of taking deeper inhales and exhales, as well as increasing heart rate which bumps up blood circulation throughout the body. All this is compounded by moving the body in all kinds of strange twists, inversions, and binds to get the blood to the right places. Remember how heart disease is the leading cause of death in America? Well, yoga helps reduce blood pressure and avoid heart disease, but also has been shown in studies to stop the progression of heart disease as well. In addition, yoga increases cardio-respiratory endurance and vital capacity. If you have asthma, lung disease, or if you smoke/vape, yoga will make sweet love to your lungs… its science. 

Immunity/Digestive/Cognitive

Inflammation kills. Chronic inflammation is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. BUT WAIT! You guessed it, yoga has been shown to reduce inflammatory markers and regular yoga practitioners appear to be less inflamed overall. Also, eat turmeric… that stuff murders inflammation, but I digress. Plenty of yoga postures are awesome for stimulating digestion and making you regular (just trust me on this one). In fact, Pavanamuktasana literally means ‘wind relieving posture’… you can’t make this stuff up. If headaches or migraines got you down, well, do yoga! Yoga helps stimulate the Vegas nerve which has been linked to migraines. More science.  

Sleep/Misc

Sleep is generally considered the #1 factor in overall health and wellness, and good sleep should be our highest priority… even higher than the new season of Game of Thrones. Poor sleep or missing sleep regularly is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and blah blah blah… the list goes on for days. If you want to be absolutely freaked out about how bad missing sleep is for your physical and mental health, check out this podcast with Matthew Walker- it’ll make you want to take a nap immediately. The good news is that yoga can aid in getting good sleep by increasing the secretion of melatonin. A yoga routine aids in falling asleep faster, reduces sleep disturbances, and lessens the need for sleep medications. I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but its science. AND NOW FOR A SPEED ROUND! Yoga also: fixes posture, prevents cartilage damage, drains your lymph, regulates your adrenal glands, lowers blood sugar, maintains your nervous system, releases tension, and prevents

I R R I T A B L E  B O W E L L  S Y N D R O M E

Don’t judge the dude farting in class next to you, he’s looking for the cure. 

Mental Benefits

Stress, depression, anxiety and other mental illness are the bubonic plagues of our time, carried to us by the rats of Instagram, cubicles, and drive-throughs. This shit is epidemic. Chances are you don’t have to look farther than your own life, or maybe to a close friend or family member to see the havoc that these demons reek. Yoga isn’t just a physical practice, but one that brings peace to the mind. In fact, besides purifying the body, asana practice is seen as a prerequisite for meditation. By consciously breathing, practicing asana, and meditating, we can free our minds from the cage of the endlessly unsatisfied ego. When practicing difficult asanas, the mind goes absolutely crazy, bringing up thoughts, emotions, and memories we don’t want to face. By continued yoga practice, these thought patterns (Samskaras) are brought up to the surface of the mind and removed, one by one. The mental benefits of yoga are hard to overemphasize, so let’s dive into it.

Stress

The leading motivation for westerners to start practicing yoga seems to be stress. Stress is also a killer and like sleep deprivation and inflammation, it is linked to numerous health concerns. With so many humans finding stress-relieving benefits in their yoga practice, there is actually quite a bit of research now to show the tangible benefit yoga has on the mind. Yoga practice has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol– the primary stress hormone. Not only is it physically reducing the secretion of stress hormones, but yoga gives our busy minds a much-needed breather, creating new internal space. While practicing yoga, there really is nothing to do besides just be present, move the body, and breathe. This brings stillness to the mind, especially during poses like Savasana (corpse pose) at the end of a challenging class. The horrific dialog in the mind seems to be paused, or at least minimized, and one can observe what it feels like being alive without the incessant bombardment of monkey mind madness. As the practice progresses, the quality and the content of the mind improves dramatically, and the stress melts away.

Anxiety/PTSD

Few things in life are harder to face than an anxiety attack. Anxiety is the embodiment of fear. It rises up from the shadows of consciousness with varying levels of intensity, but the effects of anxiety can be debilitating. Several studies have shown a correlation with yoga and the successful treatment and reduction of anxiety. It’s not completely clear to western science how this correlation occurs at present day, but the sense of inner peace that accompanies a yoga practice has a tremendous impact on anxiety. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a severe form of anxiety that can also be combated with a yoga routine. One study showed 52% of participants didn’t meet the criteria for PTSD after 10 weeks of regular yoga practice. 

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Depression

I’ve personally had my own run-ins with depression, the bulk of it happening a few years ago. My coping mechanism was alcohol, which naturally only dug the hole deeper. I’ve also lost a friend to suicide, so I know very well that depression can kill. Twice as many Americans die from suicide than from homicide each year, and we need as many tools as we can find to combat this evil. Yoga is one such tool. As mentioned earlier, cortisol is the primary stress hormone. It has been shown to reduce levels of serotonin, which leads to symptoms of depression. Along with reduced cortisol levels, yogis have shown to also have lower levels of ACTH, a hormone that is responsible for triggering the release of cortisol. In addition, yoga also reduces levels of monoamine oxidase- an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters, like serotonin.

So to simplify, yoga reduces stress hormones and increases happy neurotransmitters. There’s plenty of evidence out now that shows depression is combatable with a regular yoga practice and should be a no-brainer for anyone reading this who is currently battling depression themselves. What do you have to lose? You can turn it around. I believe in you.

Misc

Not to further mutilate the body of the sufficiently dead horse or anything, but yoga also: increases concentration and focus, makes you a more conscious eater, brings inner peace, increases self esteem, improves discipline and willpower, connects you to an amazing community of conscious minded people, benefits your relationships, encourages self care and healing, encourages serving others, builds awareness, and makes you less of an asshole. 

Energetic Benefits

Let’s all be adults about energy. On the one hand, talk of human energy or chakras is seen as some woo-woo fairy-talk without any relevant scientific implications and a conversation best confined to drum circles and crystal shops. On the other, people fall down the rabbit hole of New Age spirituality, buy all the crystals, grow all the dreads, and skip all the showers. I think there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle… besides the shower part… please just fucking shower. Let’s take a look at what science says about energy and our relationship to it, then we’ll bounce over to the other side of the pond and see what eastern mystics have been saying for millennia about the same topic. I’ll also dive into my personal first-hand experience with awakening my chakra system (yeah I’m one of those freaks now). 

Western Science

This is obliviously a massive subject that has been the topic of numerous books, but I’ll link you to a good article that covers it here, and I’ll just touch on a few key points. Newtonian physics has created a paradigm in the West that views human beings, nature, and the universe in general, as mechanical and material. Everything was believed to be made of matter, with said matter being acted upon by complex but predictable forces. Now Isaac Newton was a genius, and we should all tip our hats to him for helping us pull our heads out of our medieval assholes of blind worship and violence. I mean we were lost up there for roughly 1000 years and the enlightenment was desperately needed, but now Newton’s paradigm is being updated.

A few dudes by the name of Planck, Einstein, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, and Born (among others) pioneered a new science called Quantum Mechanics in the 20th century. These new laws of physics state that nothing in the universe is solid at all, but only appears that way. We discovered atoms aren’t the smallest particle in the universe but are actually made of much smaller electronically charged subatomic particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons… AKA energy. In fact, the atoms that form “matter” are not solid at all, but 99.99999% space. This has been proven numerous times from several Nobel prize winners, and it’s time to dispel the illusion in our minds that we are living in a merely “physical universe”. Atoms are energy and everything is just different combinations of atoms. So the universe as we understand it at the present day is all simply energy. You are energy. I am energy. Donald Trump is absolutely energy folks. Cannabis is the dankest energy. Red Bull is poisonous energy… but it’s all “made” from the exact same shit. There is no separateness, just endless patterns of energy constantly in flux. 

“If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet. Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”

– Niels Bohr

What’s more, the energy seems to respond to being observed. The famous “Double Slit Experiment” showed that photons exist in a superposition of both a particle state and a wave state, and the act of observing the photon determines the state that will materialize. This suggests that by simply observing the universe, consciousness affects what’s being observed. Further quantum-black-magic-fuckery like entanglement theory and implicate order expound on this and state that everything is interconnected and that everything that exists contains the information of everything else that exists. AKA the universe is fractal. Just writing that makes me want to go drink a beer and stare off into space. What a mind fuck, right?

Mysticism and Chakras

This idea that energy is fundamental in the universe, isn’t a new one- at least not to the ancient cultures of the world. It’s long been believed that there is a deeper connection to some subtle force or frequency that alludes our physical senses. It has been called spirit, soul, life force, qi, and in yoga it is called prana. Prana means breath or life force. Chinese medicine is based on an energetic meridian that spans the body and is the basis for techniques like acupuncture, acupressure, and reflexology. In Ayurveda (Indian science of life), prana is seen as universal energy that flows throughout the entire human body in currents called nadis. As we breath, we infuse our bodies with life force energy (prana) and it is then distributed throughout the body through these nadi channels. The largest nadi in the body runs the length of the spinal column and is called the sushumna nadi. Along this column are 7 spinning wheels of energy called chakras. The prana flows into these energy centers and is dispersed to the surrounding cells, tissues, and organs, bringing harmony and balance to the body. Each chakra has its own specialized function in the overall energetic system, much like how the heart does something entirely different than the liver. The status of these chakras is of vital importance to the overall well being of the individual and practicing yoga creates inter-cellular space for the natural flow of prana, thereby healing and maintaining the chakras.

The force of prana is subtle to those who are not tuned into it, and for most of us, this probably sounds like some witchy-bullshit, but Western Science is beginning to gain more of an understanding of the subtle body as well. However, most of us are oblivious to the existence of chakras, and to the force of energy in our bodies in general. The practice of yoga is designed specifically to fuel the body with the necessary prana and bring balance to all aspects of our being. When we have blocked energy channels, our chakras are shut off from the flow of prana and stop functioning optimally. Not only does being closed off to prana have detrimental effects physically and mentally, but it also cuts us off from our intuition and inner power. The Wim Hof Method is another, more recent technique for imbuing our bodies with prana and tapping into the full potential of the human being. I’ll write another blog post detailing this method further, but you can check it out for yourself here.

Unfortunately, the majority of us are asleep and oblivious to our true potential as throughout our lives, nobody really mentioned anything about it. We go through 12 years of school, then college, then maybe grad school, and not one single person teaches us of this potential, much less how to access it. Well, you’re hearing it now… I’m here to tell you that there is an untapped river of boundless energy all around you, just waiting for you to access it and level up your life. Breath is the vessel that we use in yoga to access this energy, promoting radiant health, and awakening the human spirit. 

My Journey

I don’t have time in this post to go through the full spectrum of the transformation that I have undergone in the last couple years or so, but I will say this: yoga has been an essential part of it and I truly don’t know where I would be without my practice. I discovered the power of prana through Wim Hof’s breathing method in a sensory deprivation float tank back in January of 2018. This resulted in the opening of 5 of my 7 chakra centers and a complete paradigm shift in my life. I googled around to find out what the fuck I had experienced, and ended up joining a yoga studio the next day. I haven’t looked back.

Chakrasana 

Since finding my yoga practice, I’ve opened the other 2 chakra centers, had surgery to remove a metal screw that had been in my hip for 12 years, and I’m well on my way to totally healing my body. I’m more flexible, pain-free, mentally clear, and emotionally balanced than I have ever been in my entire life. I have more energetic awareness of my body and I trust my intuition as much as I trust my reason. What’s more, I feel like I have begun to find my actual path in this world. I’m no longer wandering through the dark fog of confusion, depression, and intoxication that I was in for years, and my life is filled with much more purpose, discipline, and optimism. My objectives have shifted from material possessions and notoriety to spreading love and serving those around me. I’m not saying I’m anywhere near perfect, and I’m definitely not saying any of this to jerk my ego off. Rather, by speaking up, I hope to inspire anyone reading this to ask themselves one vital question: Is there more to life than this? If there is… go live it. 

Realization with Yoga

I’m not writing this next part to claim to be enlightened or more wise than anyone else, but instead simply sharing the philosophy of yoga as I understand it. It’s quite impossible to talk about this philosophy without mentioning the Bhagavad Gita– The Lords Song. Originating in India during approximately 500 years before Christ, the Gita is the most renowned of all the yogic scriptures and plainly lays out the path to liberation and enlightenment in a dialog between two characters: Krishna- an incarnation of God, and Arjuna- a human being engaged in the contest of good and evil within him. In just 700 stanzas the Gita not only poetically lays out a path to realizing the divine but also acts as a practical manual for daily living in any age. It’s one of those timeless classics that many consider being India’s crowning achievement and ultimate gift to the world. Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by the Gita and referred to it as his “spiritual dictionary.” The Gita has also received high praise from prominent westerners such as Aldous Huxley, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Carl Jung. Here is a translation of the Gita by Eknath Easwaran that I absolutely loved as it includes commentary and analysis that made the wisdom so clear and tangible. Read that shit. 

When a single cell in an organism decides to do it’s own thing, regardless of the well being of the whole, it is seen as a high priority threat called cancer. If cancer spreads and is not contained or eradicated, the organism will eventually perish. In the same way, the Gita tells us that we can never fulfill ourselves by going our own way, separate from the whole. We only find meaning and joy by contributing to the fulfillment of the whole- of which we are an inseparable part. This message is particularly relevant in our current modern age if our species is going to survive. We are plagued by fear, greed, and self-promotion that has resulted in the raping of the environment in which we exist. We are facing an extinction crisis, the oceans are acidifying, and the trash piles up as we make a mockery of this once pristine planet. The cancer spreads.

Photo by: https://phys.org/news/2018-03-pacific-plastic-dump-larger.html

Just as quantum physics tells us the universe is one continuum of energy, the Gita speaks of one ultimate reality that pervades all- Brahman. The process of realizing this unity of reality has been called salvation, self-realization, nirvana, and in yoga it is called Moksha- liberation. Having been liberated from the illusion (Maya) that we are separate from anything else, we reach a state of Samadhi. Samadhi is a super-conscious state that we can attain right here in this life, in which there is no longer an “I” or an “experiencer”, but only God. With the liberation of just a single man, the collective human consciousness is elevated, as those he encounters will feel the impact of his freedom. As we reconnect ourselves to the source, we are enabled to face even the biggest problems of the modern world. 

The Gita depicts a scene of war, a metaphor for the conflict of good and evil within each of us. Arjuna is the man caught in the mayhem, but he is assisted by his charioteer or spiritual guide- Krishna. Krishna just so happens to be an incarnation of God (Brahman), and throughout the discourse of the Gita, he shares the wisdom of yoga with Arjuna. Yoga is described by Krishna as the method of yoking or joining yourself with God, and is characterized into 3 paths: Karma yoga- selfless action, Bhakti yoga- devotion to God, and Jhana yoga- knowledge or wisdom. This yoga laid out by Krishna is rooted in meditation and is the supreme weapon for facing the enemy of separation consciousness and ego within us. At first, Arjuna is hesitant to fight against the enemy- in the same way, an alcoholic struggles to kill his addiction, even though it is slowly killing him. He identifies with the ego and losing it would seem like losing life itself. However, Krishna makes clear to Arjuna that separation consciousness is a state of endless misery, a state of seeking but never being content, a state of clinging, a state of hell; and he ensures Arjuna that there is nothing to fear, for if he embodies devotion, meditation, and selfless action, the illusion (Maya) of his separation will be lifted and he will reach a state of unity consciousness (Samadhi). Arjuna learns that ego is simply an ugly mask, and the supreme beauty and love behind the mask is the Atman- our true Self.

Art by Alex Grey

The Atman is the soul or higher self- eternal, immutable, and supreme. It is by identifying with the ego, the sensations of the body, and the thoughts of our mind that we are trapped in the cycle of birth and death (Samsara), but by waking up from this dreamlike state we discover we are in fact immortal. Below the ever-changing world of senses, thoughts, and objects, is the unchanging reality of Brahman- of which the Atman is inseparable; they are one and the same. The Sanskrit phrase Tat Tvam Asi means literally ‘Thou Art That‘… or as Christ put it: “He who has seen me, has seen my Father.” 

“The impermanent has no reality; reality lies in the eternal. Those who have seen the boundary between these two have attained the end of knowledge. Realize That which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging, imperishable Reality.”

– Bhagivad Gita, 2:16-17


Everything I have covered up to this point can be called Sankyatheory or intellectual concepts. The Gita tells us that one cannot attain true knowledge or wisdom with Sankya alone, but must do the actual practice of yoga. One must gain experiential knowledge and is encouraged to discover this Truth for themselves rather than just entertain the concepts or blindly take faith in the scriptures. The practice of yoga as laid out in the Gita is one of meditation, selfless action, and devotion to God.

This practice is expounded upon and added to in the Yoga Sutras– 196 aphorisms on the practice and theory of yoga, compiled by Sage Patanjali also around the 5th century BCE. The Yoga Sutras break down this practice of yoga into 8 limbs- Astanga. These Sutras explain the standard we should live by, the method for reaching the highest state, and the obstacles that will arise in our path. This more expansive 4th path of yoga is called Raja yoga (The Royal Path), and it combines the elements from the other 3 disciplines.

This Royal Path was again expounded upon in Hatha Yoga by defining many asana postures, and it is this lineage of yoga we are familiar with in the West. Hatha in Sanskrit means ‘force or determined effort‘ and emphasizes the rigorous discipline required on the Royal Path. The roots of Hatha yoga can be traced all the way back to 11th century CE but the most prominent Hatha text comes from the 15th century CE- the Hatha Yoga Pradipika compiled by Swami Swatvarama.

In the 20th century, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya added to this Hatha discipline and popularized the physical elements of yoga (asanas) that we see today. This influence was furthered by several of his students that went on to develop styles of yoga of their own and rode the waves of the Hippy and New Age movements into the West. B.K.S. Iyengar was one such student, and he wrote a comprehensive guide to Hatha yoga called: Light on Yoga, which I highly recommend. Yoga now permeates the U.S. from Las Angeles to Austin, to New York City, with around 6000 yoga studios nationwide. It’s estimated that roughly 36 million Americans are currently practicing yoga, but do we practice the full scope of yoga, or are we just practicing asanas?

http://www.yankell.com/
Art by: http://www.yankell.com/

The 8 Limbs of Yoga- Astanga

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali breaks down the path of yoga into 8 limbs. The process of applying the 8 limbs into one’s life whole-heartedly will result in purifying the body and mind, and will also make you woke as fuck, bro. The 8 limbs are:

Yamas – Universal Ethics: The Yamas are the moral code that society should live by, regardless of age, country, creed, or time. There are 5 yamas:

  1. Ahimsa – Non-Violence: The yogi believes that every creature has as much right to live as he has. He believes that all of creation is one, so harming any other being is essentially harming himself. This is why the path of yoga eventually leads to vegetarianism, as killing for sustenance is seen as immoral and unnecessary. Ahimsa also implies non-violence to our environment and living in harmony with nature. Violence is rooted in fear, and the yogi strives to become free from fear. This yama isn’t just a commandment to not kill, but rather an ideal to be filled with love towards all of creation. Also, don’t be an asshole.
  2. Satya – Truth: Mahatma Gandhi said: “Truth is God, and God is Truth.” This yama is about more than not telling lies or deceiving others. When we have true thoughts, it results in true speech and true actions. Embodying truth means following your intuition and listening to your inner truth even if it means breaking away from the crowd or taking a less traveled road. In the same way that colonics blow last months shit (literally) out of you like a hurricane, so too does truth blow out the spam from the bowels of your mind… if this metaphor doesn’t make sense, you need a colonic, friend.
  3. Asteya – Non-Stealing: This yama reminds us not to take that which is not ours (obviously), but also to not steal the time and energy of others. On a slightly deeper level, it means not violating trust in any way. If your friends nicknamed you “the Violator”, that’s a good indication you need some Asteya in your life.
  4. Brahmacharya – Continence: This yama is sometimes interpreted as living a celibate life, free of sex. However, brahmacharya refers instead to moderation, restraint, and discipline over the physical body. It is about channeling the powers of sexual energy and vitality for the cause of growing love and truth in this life. You don’t have to be a celibate, but is that hentai porn addiction helping you or hurting you?
  5. Aparigraha – Non-Coveting: Not only should we not covet what others have, but we should not seek after that which we do not need. Aparigraha means not hoarding or accumulating more than we need to live a simple yet fruitful life. The yogi does not hoard possessions out of fear for the future but trusts that he will always have whatever he needs, as he is one with God. Minimalism anyone? Ridding yourself of that which is not essential is one of the most liberating things I have done, and continue to do. 

Niyamas – Self Disciplines: Rather than social ethics, the Niyamas are disciplines applied on the individual level. The 5 niyamas are:

  1. Saucha – Purity: Saucha reminds us to be clean and pure in our bodies and minds. We should take care of our bodies with pure and nutritious foods and plenty of sleep. Just doing this alone will completely transform your life and fill you with vitality. We strive for purity of mind by surrounding ourselves with the good things of life and keeping our environment clean around us. Also, just because you’re vegan and woke as fuck, doesn’t mean I need to be completely debilitated by the musk hitting me like a radioactive wave of death. Shower, you smelly hippy.
  2. Santosa – Contentment: Through gratitude, the yogi is satisfied and fulfilled in life. He is not continuously craving that which he does not have, for his cup is overflowing. Just take a moment to realize what you have. Realize the gift of each and every breath you take. Now smile. I’m grateful that I get to write this post on a beautiful remote island in Asia and all of you reading get to connect with me on a deep and intimate level. After all, what’s more intimate than our thoughts? We constantly have the opportunity to connect with each other, build each other up, and celebrate life together, regardless of massive obstacles between us- like the Pacific Ocean. Life is pretty fucking rad.
  3. Tapas – Ardour: Having a burning fire in your heart to achieve some definite goal, is tapas. Passion, resilience, and discipline will not allow any obstacle to remain in the yogi’s path for long. Tapas is the continuous conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the divine. You might also think of it as never settling for anything less than love.
  4. Svadhyaya – Study of the Self: Svadhyaya speaks of bringing the best out of oneself through education. By studying the mind-expanding texts, podcasts, videos, and vast teachings of the world, the yogi begins to realize that all of creation is meant for adoration, not merely enjoyment. The rise of the internet has made this part easier than ever. Maybe we should switch our Netflix memberships for Audible memberships and start using Amazon for books instead of mindless consumerism.
  5. Isvara Pranidhana – Devotion to God: By living this niyama, the yogi turns his entire heart and will to God. He is single-minded in his devotion and serves only one master- love. E.L.E.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana

Asana – Physical Postures: This is what most people refer to when they say, “let’s go do some yoga.” We went over the many benefits of asana earlier, but to summarize, they bring balance, strength, and great vitality to the body. Just as importantly, they train and discipline the mind, preparing us for meditation. Through asana, the yogi frees himself of physical disabilities, mental distractions…. and…

I R R I T A B L E  B O W E L L  S Y N D R O M E. 

The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit. He knows that it is a necessary vehicle for the spirit. A soul without a body is like a bird deprived of its power to fly.”

– Light on Yoga

Pranayama – Conscious Breathing: You might think of pranayama as the science of breath. Through different variations of extending, holding, alternating, and modifying his breath, the yogi fuels his body with vital life force- prana. Pranayama is essential for calming the mind, removing its cravings, and creating ideal circumstances for meditation.

“The yogi realizes that his life and all its activities are part of the divine action in nature, manifesting and operating in the form of man. In the beating of his pule and the rhythm of his respiration, he recognizes the flow of the seasons and the throbbing of universal life.” 

– Light on Yoga…. what a great fucking quote, amirite?

Pratyahara – Withdrawal from the Senses: In this limb of yoga, the yogi strives to bring the senses under control. He does not react to or identify with every sensation he experiences, but learns to identify with that which is the perceiver of the senses (float tanks are bomb for this BTW). As he becomes more aware of sense objects, he begins changing his relationship to them. No longer seeking instant gratification, he forgoes sense objects that seem sweet in the moment but turn poisonous over time. The yogi knows the path of sensual desire leads to his ruin… usually via heart disease apparently. 

Dharana – Concentration: Once the body is balanced by asana, the mind calmed by pranayama, and he withdraws from his senses, the yogi can develop great focus and deep concentration. The mind is absorbed by a single point of focus, and the object of focus is reflected in the mind like a mirror of perfect clarity. With intense concentration, the yogi can master anything that becomes his point of focus. He doesn’t need the TL;DR, because his attention span isn’t 15 seconds. BTW, if you’re reading this, kudos for sticking around for a post this long. You’re now part of an endangered subset of homo sapiens- people who still read.

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Dhyana – Meditation: When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, it can be called meditation. Through meditation, the mind of the yogi becomes transformed into that which is the focus of his meditation- the divine. Every element of his being is completely absorbed and lost in his meditation, exchanging the monkey mind for supreme bliss and tranquility. Once again, float tanks are the bomb for this.

“As water takes the shape of its container, the mind when it contemplates an object is transformed into the shape of that object.”

-Light on Yoga

Samadhi – Super-consciousness: By definition, the state of super-consciousness cannot be truly understood while in a state of normal waking consciousness. During the peak of meditation, the yogi passes into a state of complete oneness with all. His body and senses are relaxed, his mind is alert, but he has gone beyond consciousness. This state can only be expressed by profound silence, as there are no words to describe it. You cannot truly depict this state with concepts or language, as it is limitless, formless, and non-specific. Alan Watts called it a “Do-Happening“, as you are both doing everything that is happening, and experiencing everything that is happening.

“Neither knowable, knowledge, nor knower am I, formless is my form,

I dwell within the senses but they are not my home;

Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound

-Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is where I am found.”

-Atma Satkam, by Sankaracharya

Conclusion… Finally

I often find myself engaging with the overload of negativity that’s so easily accessible in today’s connected world. We do our best to distract ourselves from the harsh realities of life and death, but they seem to ooze through the cracks of our comfort zones. I often get discouraged or even misanthropic when I see how we are turning the planet into a landfill, how our health is in shambles, and how we are commodifying each other and every other being on Earth. It pains me deeply to see how we have been debased down to a cost per click transaction, and how our attention spans are shorter than our tempers. But even these are ‘first world’ problems. I am continuously reminded of how blessed I am as I see the reality of Southeast Asia- Poverty, pollution, and trash everywhere. When we solve one problem, we are almost immediately faced with another. When we get that shiny thing that is going to make us feel beautiful or confident, we find our focus is now on something a bit shinier. This is the vicious cycle of craving and aversion.

I used to cope with these evils like most of us do, I would spend more and drink more. I had a 3 bedroom house full of things that I thought would make me happy. Then I sold most of my things, rented out the house, and realized the material possessions were contributing almost no happiness to my life. In fact, I’m happier traveling and living out of a backpack than I’ve ever been. When I finally broke my self deprecating cycle of drinking, I dropped 30 pounds and felt new passion and energy for life. I’ll still have a good cocktail or cold beer from time to time, but I’ve realized that slowly poisoning myself to death isn’t exactly ideal. Yoga and meditation are now my main source of grounding, and consistently bring me back to center. My yoga practice has helped me re-calibrate and decide what I really wanted in my life, and what wasn’t serving me. It has also helped me deal with the newest wave of problems that travel, contemplation, and being in a relationship have thrown at me. However, yoga is much more than just a coping mechanism for the anxiety and depression that was birthed by the modern age. It’s much more than a series of postures that will make you more flexible and strong. It’s much more than an antidote to stress and chronic disease. Yoga is a method of realizing what we truly are: God. Following the 8 limbs of yoga will lead us out of our confused and disabled state. It will expand our consciousness and bring us to a state of harmony with each other and our environment. Through practice, we will unfuck ourselves, bringing balance to body, mind, and spirit.   

Art by: John Dalton