So much of the attention cast on yoga highlights its physical benefits—strength training, muscle definition, leanness, weight loss, and other blahblah—that, while beneficial, aren’t really what yoga is about. Whereas mindful yoga can be likened to hiking outdoors, this manner of yoga sans philosophy is like a treadmill in a dim, dank gym. There are no natural wonders like towering trees or colorful birds by which to be awestruck, fresh air to rejuvenate the body, or sparkling streams to come across to quench one’s thirst. Mindful yoga is about being present and one with the greater universe.
Yoga, the Self, and the Cosmic Self
In Hindu myth, birds often play the role the gods’ messengers. Their ability to take flight to the heavens is honored in many yogic poses, including the Heron, the Eagle, and the Swan. The swan is in fact the vehicle of Brahma, the creator god, and its name (hamsa, more literally translated as “wild goose”) is part of the mantra, hamsa.
According to one interpretation, inhalation during hamsa sounds like “ham” and exhalations sounds like “sa,” and so hamsa is inhalation followed by exhalation. It is also, like the mythic swan flying from the earth to the heavens, the embodiment of the aspiration to merge the individual self (aham in Sanskrit) with the universal, cosmic self (so in Sanskrit).
Soham is the direct opposite in that it is exhalation followed by inhalation. Soham translates as, “This I am.” Some say that a newborn infant’s cry is actually the question, Koham-Koham, meaning, “Who am I?” Soham is the universe’s reply: “You are as I am.”
The Sanskrt word yoga, while multi-facted, can boil down to one word embodied by hamsa and soham: “union.”
What That Means to You
At work, we stress about the pay raise we haven’t gotten yet, the gossip by the water cooler, the one-up-manship that makes us look bad if we don’t partake and makes us feel dirty if we do. At home, there may be unruly kids running around painting the walls with their newly made PB&J sandwiches and a spouse who’s too exhausted after work to help with the dinner preparation. At night, before we go to bed, we pick at our aggravated skin and wonder how much better we’d look without wrinkles.
With fast-paced workplaces, constantly evolving technology and science, and an increasingly powerful and superficially-minded media, our lives are more stressful than ever. If now is not the time to take a minute to breathe and become present, then when?
Tips for Mindful Yoga
- Don’t buy yoga mats you really don’t need. Practice on wooden floorboards instead of buying a mat; many yogis are going sans-mat these days, so you won’t look out of place at your yoga class by going sansmat.
- Don’t get sucked into the yoga commercialism. Yoga is not about how you look. Don’t buy yoga-specific clothes made in Taiwan by little underpaid and malnourished Taiwanese hands. You can save money, the planet, and your dignity by practicing yoga in your pajamas or any clothes in which you can move comfortably without constriction. So what if everyone else in yoga class looks super cute in their new clothes in pretty colors? Others don’t matter, especially to true yogis. What matters is that you’re one with the universe, remember?
- Focus on breathing. Imagine positive energy coming in through your nose and all of your negative energies coming out of your mouth. Your coworker who’s constantly one-upping you in front of your boss? She doesn’t exist during yoga. That zit on your chin the size of Abraham Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore? It doesn’t matter. Remember that the air you breathe is becoming a part of you, and that you are thereby becoming part of the world around you. Remember hamsa: the urge to become one with something intangible, something bigger, something that makes everything else not matter. Remember soham and stay present.
- Close your eyes when you hold poses to focus on your breathing and to banish any visual reminders of things that don’t matter during yoga. Don’t mind the time and if you practice at home, request privacy and solitude. Play calm music or practice in silence—whatever allows you to focus on you, the universe, now. Mindful yoga can remind us that the things that deep down we know don’t matter, actually don’t matter. What matters is being positively present.
written by Maria Rainier
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