What Lies Beneath

Yoga has to reach beyond the mat and into daily life, says holistic yoga teacher Chandrika Gibson.

Yoga has to reach beyond the matand into daily life, says holistic yoga teacher ChandrikaGibson.

Whatdoes it mean to cherish something? To hold tightly toit? Or to tenderly encircle it for a moment and letit go willingly? What is worth cherishing? Where arethe real jewels of human experience? The yogis wouldsay all the jewels worth cherishing are in the mind.So what should we cherish in our minds?

Certainly not the whirlwind of thoughts that followeach other around, repeating themselves, justifyingtheir own existence. Not our attachments to people,possessions and philosophies. The thing to cherish isthat which lies beneath all the permutations of ourlives. That permanent ocean of bliss that exists evenwhen we are making shopping lists, watching movies,caring for families, working, exercising, eating andsocialising.

In yoga, that cosmic consciousness that pervades allexistence is called Parama Parusa. The ancient yogismay have had simpler lives than their modern counterparts,but they still had many tasks to perform to keep theirlives running. So the spiritual science of yoga hasadvice and techniques for keeping our minds in touchwith our highest wisdom so that we can stay aware ofwhat is worth cherishing.

Every action can be transformed from the mundane tothe sacred by using our conscious attention wisely.By paying attention to the pauses in our lives we canfind the way in to a deeper space, the underlying peacebeneath the action. Observe the pauses in your own life.First think of the big ones like the recent holidayperiod. Then the weekly pause created by the weekendor a day off. Within each day we take rest overnight,but also, if we observe more closely, there are manysmall pauses in our sometimes hectic daily lives. Wepause at traffic lights, before performing ablutionsand hopefully when we stop to take nourishment. As weslow down we see that each breath has a pause. In yoga,this awareness of the natural rhythm of the breath isthe beginning of pranayama (breath/prana control).

Hatha Yoga teaches breath awareness and uses the timingof the breath to bring movements into a harmonious flow,connecting mind and body through the subtle prana ofthe breath. This is a perfect analogy for daily life.In order to move through life in harmony with the naturaldharmic flow of the universe, it is helpful to stayconnected. By cherishing each breath and the pausesbetween them, our minds can rest in the supportive oceanof consciousness, cherishing the wonder and beauty oflife while doing all the normal stuff.

A suitable starting point to help people consciouslylink their minds and bodies is asana classes. A commonpractice in yoga asana classes is to link simple movementswith the breath. You can try this wherever you havefloor space and a few minutes to look inwards. Lyingsupine in savasana (corpse pose) allow your body torest heavily on the mat or floor. Begin to observe,without altering, your natural breathing. As you inhale,raise your arms from the sides of the body, up throughthe air and over your head, placing the backs of thehands to the floor behind your head. Arms remain straightthroughout the arc of movement. Let your arms rest amoment and then when the natural impulse to exhale comes,allow your arms to float up and over, bringing themback to the sides of your body. Again, let the armsand hands rest in the pause between breaths and thenlift them up again with the next inhalation. Noticehow the inhalation seems to give the arms lift, allowingthem to float effortlessly up and over. The pause whenthe lungs are fully inflated is made more pronouncedby the contact between fingers and floor. The instinctualimpulse to exhale gently propels the arms skywards againand carries them back to the sides as the lungs seemto empty out.

Always there is a resting place between breaths. Wedo this all day and all night throughout our lives andyet we seldom pay attention to it. Our breathing canbe an external indication of our internal state of mind.When we are particularly anxious, our breath tends tobecome shallow and rapid. Similarly, emotional statessuch as anger, shock, excitement or grief affect ourbreathing patterns, sometimes leaving us gasping forair.

Asthmatics, sufferers of emphysema, CPD, pneumonia,bronchitis, lung cancer and even common colds are forcedto become aware of their breath. Acute respiratory illnessesaffect many people and cause them to be grateful forthe gift of easy breathing when the illness abates.For most of us that gratitude is short lived. As soonas there is no physical problem, we allow our autonomicnervous system to do its thing with no conscious awarenesson our part. We quickly forget to cherish our breathand be grateful for our vitality.

Just as athletes and yogis approach breathing in amore conscious way, we can all learn to apply our consciousnessto all the areas of our lives, increasing our capacityto cherish each moment. The pause at the top and bottomof each breath is symbolic of the dusk and dawn of eachday. Inhalation can be seen as night, a time of regeneration,and exhalation as day, a time of outward activity. Ineach breath, there is a cycle of rest and activity,just as there is in each day, week, month, year, decadeand lifetime. The planet and indeed the universe followsthe same pulsating rhythm. We are just miniscule microcosmsof the vast cosmic consciousness, Parama Parusa. Itis in the gaps, the pauses between breaths, that wecan sink into a deeper awareness of the connectionsbetween all of life.

Off the mat, wise people still need to shop, preparefood, eat, clean, wash, fold laundry, make phone callsand engage in relationships. The challenge for sadhakas(spiritual aspirants) is in maintaining that inner peaceand cosmic awareness they have gleaned from spiritualpractice throughout the ups and downs of life in society.It sounds tempting to take the sadhus' (wandering ascetics)approach of renouncing all worldly attachments. A lifelived in hermitage has plenty of time for yoga and meditationwith few distractions. Some paths of yoga do advocatelong retreats and solitary practices. But most teachersin the great yoga traditions of India advise studentsto maintain the life of a householder. It is withinsociety that karma can be worked out. Isolation maybring some insights, but the test of wisdom is in dealingwith the conflicts and foibles of other humans. It isalso very easy to go off on a tangent and forget thepurpose of your practices without the forces of a sanga(community) to pull you back on track.

A frequently repeated story illustrates well, how thenovice yogi can cherish something valueless even whileattempting to grow. This story has been passed on byteachers to their students as a cautionary tale.

"A master sends his novice to meditate alone ina cave in the Himalaya for seven years. In the processof his practice the novice receives the siddhi (power)to walk on water. So enamoured is he with his newfoundskill he practises it over and over until it is perfected.Considering himself enlightened, he forgoes the meditationpractice set down by his teacher. At the end of sevenyears, the Master returns for his pupil. Together, theytravel down from the mountains and on the way come toa river crossing. Gleefully, the student takes the opportunityto impress his teacher and glides easily across thesurface of the water to the other side. The elder paysthe ferryman a small sum of five rupees and reachesthe riverbank a few minutes later. Expecting great praisefrom the teacher, the younger man is instead met withdisdain. The Master admonishes him. "You spentseven years on a skill worth a mere five rupees. Youhave wasted your opportunity my child."

This story usually serves as a warning of the dangersaspirants face as they are tempted by such things aspsychic powers. But it also illustrates the simple wisdomof being present and patient with the many seeminglymundane activities of worldly life. The enlightenedmaster could well be found on public transport, butis unlikely to be found levitating. The supraphysicalpowers that spiritual practice may bring are a sideeffect and not the goal of yoga. It is wise to cherishonly that permanent goal and not the ever shifting milestonesalong the way.