Rebalancing Humanity’s Relationship with Self and the Natural World
The practice of yoga—as in, “I am going to yoga”—refers to classes where people collectively do postures to strengthen the body by resisting one’s own weight and stretching to keep the body limber.
Clearly, many people have benefitted from group yoga classes taught in many fitness centers. But what is a yogic “lifestyle”? The expression suggests something more than visiting the gym.
In its lifestyle manifestation, yoga means a broad range of mental and physical disciplines to increase a person’s vitality and bring the mind to a state of equipoise or balance.
Aside from postures, a yogic lifestyle involves a deeper penetration of many of the following practices, which affect many aspects of life, from without and within.
It is said that “breath controls the mind, not the other way around.” To enhance concentration, to modify mood, and expand a feeling of calm, breathing exercises can be quite beneficial.
While yogis evolved systems of breath control ages ago, much has been confirmed by science. A 2019 article in the Scientific American magazine explains, “slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve,” a part of parasympathetic nervous system that controls, and also measures, the activity of many internal organs. “When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body. The heart rate slows and becomes regular, blood pressure decreases, [and] muscles relax,” the article says.
Dietary fads abound, but yogic diets are based on time-honored principles. In general, yoga emphasizes vegetarian food. Fresh vegetables and fruits are believed to have the most “life force” or prana. Further, meat is considered to weigh down the mind and make it harder to sit still for meditation. Beyond this basic guidance, there are many schools: lacto-vegetarian, vegan, lacto-ovo, etc. But what is right for an individual? Many factors should be considered, as no one diet will work for everyone.
This is where the environment comes into play. A journal article in Nature Food states that greenhouse gas emissions, which are deemed responsible for global warming, are twice as intensive for animal-based foods than for plant-based foods. The article, and many like it, show that there is large variance between animal-based foods, with beef causing much greater greenhouse gas emissions than, say, poultry. This is also part of the yogic lifestyle— being conscious of the effects of one’s personal actions on others.
And what about stimulants, recreational drugs, and alcohol? Those are basically out, although some serious practitioners do take moderate amounts of tea or coffee.
This is a popular topic, and there are many schools. Some hold classes in rooms that are quite hot. Others have friendly animals, such as goats, walking around while the class is in progress. While many people have received great benefit from yoga postures, as with any form of exercise, it is possible to get hurt. Amidst the diversity of yoga styles, it is important to find a qualified teacher. One way to help make sure that yoga teachers and schools have met learning standards and are committed to ethical standards is to check with Yoga Alliance. This nonprofit professional association representing the yoga community has over 7,000 Registered Yoga Schools (RYS) and more than 100,000 Registered Yoga Teachers (RYT) as of April 2020. Anyone can search for individual teachers and schools on their website.
Mindfulness and Meditation
The diversity of meditation teachers and styles of practice is even more wide-ranging than yoga schools.
Meditation can mean everything from just watching the river flow to intensive concentration techniques practiced in austere monastery-like environments. Most people have heard of Transcendental Meditation Technique, Vipassana, and other meditation schools. Some are accompanied by philosophical or religious teachings, while others are not.
In the search for a good school, students should look at the teachers and community around them. Are they happy, healthy, and open to questions? Or, do they seem more interested in getting paid than doing service?
There is more that lies beyond the common manifestation of yoga in contemporary culture. There is the meaning of yoga, which is “unity.” Yoga, akin to the English word “yoke,” means the uniting of the small “s” self and the inner capital “S” Self. This fullest expression of yoga centers one’s life not only on personal health and balance of the body-mind system, but also on the inner connection to one’s place in the cosmos, to a deep unification with all existence, the Oneness of all Being.
Practitioners of this yoga seek to live with a subtle type of morality while focusing the mind’s eye on the inner spirit in all things. From this core, an outward yoga can emanate for rebalancing the economy, improving social justice, and rebalancing humanity’s shared relationship to the natural world.
It is the consummation of the yogic lifestyle to bring balance to the body, the mind, to the inner spirit and from there, a sustainable harmony between oneself and others.
This all-around “unity” is, in final form, sought through service. This is not the same as retail service, as in “billions of burgers served!” Instead, this is a striving for the good and happiness of all through thoughts, words, and actions.
This kind of yoga—a continuous flow of Self-awareness and expression of kindness—integrates meditation with outward acts. When all this works together, the “lifestyle” becomes something even greater: a mission. It becomes one’s mission in life.
*Gregory Henschel is also known as Acharya Govinda. Acharya means “one who teaches by example.” He has been a dedicated meditator and practitioner of yoga for 50 years and has been teaching classes since the mid-1970s. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Francey and their parrot Scarlett.