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Yoga: Oneness of body and mind

by Howard Kent(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

One thing is clear: there is no panacea. Yet we know also that something inside us nags away, saying there is an answer, there has to be an answer.

A central difficulty is the way in which we try to divide life up into a series of compartments – little boxes as the old song had it. We may talk increasingly about body/mind and similar concepts, but there is a big difference between what we say and what we do. Looking after the body becomes rather like taking the dog for a walk; dog and owner are together, but the owner’s thoughts may be anywhere while the dog is scampering around. All too often our exercising follows a similar pattern. Similarly, if we become involved in mental or philosophical concepts, we tend to push the body away as being an irrelevant interference.

In recent years the word holism has played an increasing part in our vocabulary. It goes hand-in-hand with ecology as a late twentieth-century buzz word. Holism is the understanding that parts or aspects of life interweave and are not just side by side. It comes from the Greek word for whole. How it lost its ‘w’ along the way is uncertain.

Many, many years ago, sages living in the Indian sub-continent sought to puzzle out an understanding of existence which would bring about a state of internal peace. One of these sages, Kapila, who lived around 500 BC, declared: “Man’s supreme goal is the elimination of suffering”.

Stillness and meditation played a central role but their experiments also took them into other areas. They realised that life depends upon breath and that breath truly is a subtle force over which we have remarkable voluntary control – therefore control over our lives. Experimenting further, they introduced bodily positions, but not on the ‘man-dog-walk’ basis, instead as part of wholeness, integration.

Thus they established that there are no divisions in life, every aspect merges with the others. If we operate out of little boxes we can never have wholeness and this separation of an organism designed to operate integrally will inevitably lead to suffering. They called this discovery yoga, meaning unity, one-ness.

The growth of yoga in the West over the last 25 years or so has been remarkable. Yet what so many of its contemporary practitioners do not realise is that you cannot take something which arises from the concept of one-ness and then apply the ‘little box’ principle. Even today there are yoga ‘teachers’ who proudly advertise: “No philosophy or meditation”. That is a yoga class without yoga! The application of yoga consists of challenging the negative emotions and thereby developing an even approach to life. Some people can do magnificent headstands yet still have the temper of the devil. Others can salute the sun time after time and still harbour frustration and resentment. The idea that we must use tough measures to bring about improvements in our life is a delusion. Instead, we will do well to start the other way round and build up from simplicity.

Here is a physical-psychological tip: when something annoying or concerning happens we tend to respond with impaired breathing and muscular tension. Change this attitude consciously: sit with the hands on your lap and breathe quite deeply out. Then breathe in slowly, bringing the arms up and out and letting the head rise. A classical act of joy. When you breathe out, slowly let the hands come back down on to the lap. Repeat this a few times. It will not solve the problem, but it will change dramatically your capacity to cope with it.

Now for a psycho-physical tip. When the pressures of life are getting you down, sit with the trunk comfortably erect, the eyes closed and the hands linked on the lap. Begin to breathe slowly and on an in-breath say to yourself, “Wonder”. This is a realisation of how much there is to wonder at in our universe. As you breathe out, say, “Peace”. For peace can only come when we stop striving and let the spirit of wonder flow. On the next in-breath say to yourself, “Strength” – not merely strength of the body, but strength of mind also – and on the out-breath, “Joy”. For joy, internal happiness, comes from a feeling of strength and control. Continue this process just for two or three minutes – wonder, peace, strength, joy. The pressures will be eased and the capacity to cope will be enhanced accordingly.

Starting from simple, but important, linked mind/body activities such as these, one can build up a firm foundation. Always remember that the yoga ‘exercises’ – asanas – developed out of meditation, to create that integral roundness of approach.

When you bring about beneficial changes in daily life in these simple ways, you will then be ready to move a little further along the path. Remember what happens when we try to run before we can walk!


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About Howard Kent

Howard Kent, Director of the Yoga for Health Foundation, is an advisor to the International Integrated Health Association, the International Association of Yoga Therapists, the American College of Yoga and other bodies. His current book is The Complete Yoga Course (Headline) and his next, Breathe Better, Feel Better, is published next January. Yoga for Health Foundation, Ickwell Bury, Ickwell Green SG18 9EF, has its own residential centre and runs groups throughout Britain. It is also represented in more than 20 countries around the world.

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