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The Truths Behind an Ancient Practice
Being a Chiropractic Sports Physician and an avid sports freak, I am always on the lookout for new ways to keep physically fit. I was lucky enough to inherit an open mind from my mother, who incidentally talked me into trying yoga several years back. Now, I will have to admit that the thought of being stuck in a room with a group of barefoot and sweaty earth-children, twisting myself into a pretzel while chanting the sound "om" was not my idea of a fun time. Furthermore, even though I was sure yoga would do wonders for my flexibility, I could not imagine it offering much benefit outside of that.
It has been two years now since I started regular yoga practice and let me just say how wrong I really was. Not only did I finally rid myself of that nagging hamstring injury suffered during the 1999 L. A. Municipal softball season, but I also found it to do so much more. I have found an increase in my overall energy levels as well as a greater sense of calm and well-being. I have also noticed a change in how I relate to the world around me. I seem to exhibit more patience, and as anyone who knows me personally can attest to, that's a pretty big step.
I have become such an advocate for the practice of yoga that I suggest it to anyone who will listen. But I do understand that the unknown can be both scary and uninteresting to those who have not had the opportunity or the immediate desire to try it. I therefore set out to provide you with the most accurate and pure information that I could find on the basics of yoga. To do this, I had the good fortune of speaking with and interviewing Mr. Arun Deva (email him: firstname.lastname@example.org) so that we may attempt to demystify this ancient and artful practice.
Doctor Campos: I am sitting here with yoga instructor and yoga student, Arun Deva. Arun where do you teach?
Arun Deva: I teach privately and out of two studios. I teach regular classes at the studio YMI Yoga on La Brea in West Hollywood, as well as Jiva Yoga in the Pacific Palisades and I teach workshops in different studios around the city, but mainly concentrate on City Yoga, which is also in West Hollywood.
DC: How long have you been a student?
AD: Well actually, I grew up doing yoga, but at about the age of 11, I was sent to boarding school by my parents. As a form of rebellion, I let my yoga practice completely drop away. So officially I've been practicing for about 11 years now.
DC: And teaching? How long?
AD: I've been teaching in studios for about four years, but I've been teaching privately for about six.
DC: In one or two sentences, how would you define yoga, or is it even definable in those terms?
AD: Well, yoga can be defined in two words and you can spend a whole lifetime defining yoga. The literal translation of yoga means, "to yoke" so therefore yoga means to unite, to put together, or to yoke yourself to higher power.
DC: What does that mean, "to yoke yourself to higher power?'
AD: Well, I guess the most simple way to put that is "to create practices and lifestyles that promote the more sensible and life enhancing forces within you".
DC: So it's more than just a practice, it's a lifestyle too?
AD: Yoga is about a way of creating a lifestyle, yes. But what you're talking about in terms of practice is, especially as taught in yoga studios, is the practice of only one of the eight limbs of yoga.
DC: What are the eight limbs of yoga?
AD: Yama - personal code of conduct.
DC: Where does yoga come from and how long has it been around?
AD: That's a very debatable question. Officially, yoga is attributed....the first writings in yoga are attributed to a seer or sage by the name of Pantanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras. We're not quite sure when it was first written, but opinions vary between 250 B.C. and 400 A.D., although Pantanjali alludes in his work to yoga being much more ancient. So there are statues in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa* that depict yoga postures that we believe were practiced by a version of Lord Shiva as far back as 2500 B.C. So, according to some scholars, yoga would actually go back at least 10,000 years. *(Editors note: Mohenjo-daro and Harappa are ancient cities that existed along the banks of the Indus river in Pakistan over 4000 years ago).
DC: What is amazing to me is that from what we know through western biomechanical science, the practice of posture...asana, is completely biomechanically correct. How did the yogis know this at that early time? Where did that knowledge come from? Was it divine inspiration?
AD: Well, according to mythology it is a divine boon to us, but...what is a divine boon? It means being able to inspect the inner most part of you and 2500-3000 years ago...4000 years ago, when people were dwelling...perhaps in caves, meditating very deeply. They were scientists who were exploring the inner world, and by doing so, they found the truths that we have tried to discover these days through the outer world, and having a hard time doing it. They obviously did not have a hard time because they chose to pursue truth through the inner world. And in seeking the inner truths, they had no distractions to take them away from the actual meanings. They were able to figure out skeletally how we should be aligned. They were not constricted by such details as mind separated from body, and body can be calibrated but mind cannot. They did not have the instruments we have, so they used the instruments they did have, which was the mind. They were able to figure out that the mind is not just a part of the whole being, but it can also be codified.
DC: Amazing...and simple too. We tend to complicate things in Western culture, don't we? Speaking again about the postural portion of yoga, or asanas, what are the benefits derived from them?
AD: The benefits are manyfold. Obviously, the best benefit that you get out of it is good health. And good health in yoga and Ayurveda, which is the science of living and the science of well-being, is to promote the integration between mind, body, and spirit. For the mind to exist comfortably in the body, the body itself must be in a comfortable position. In the original Yoga Sutras, the original meaning of Asana is posture, or seat. One of the things it refers to is to be comfortable in your seat. On a physical level, that means being actually able to sit comfortably for however long it takes for you to...meditate. To be able to do that, we have to be able to move into remedial seats, where we have to learn how to distance ourselves from our habitual deformities, so to speak, that have been created either inherently, through childhood mimicking of adults, and through other bad influences...such as a couch, which is not going to promote you to sit with a straight and strong spine. So yoga works on the three portions of the body which are the hip girdle, the shoulder girdle, and the spine. Bringing all three of those into alignment with each other make the extremities also go in alignment and create a comfortable house for the spirit to sit on.
DC: I am a very active person. I lift weights, ride bicycles, play basketball, play softball, and racquetball. I gain a lot of health benefits from doing these...and I enjoy them too. I started practicing yoga about two years ago, and I've been pretty committed to it, but of all the activities that I do...I feel differently when I do yoga regularly, not just how I feel physically, but how I relate to the world. Why is that?
AD: Well...let's take weight lifting for example. Weight lifting is a strength building activity. It does it by engaging the muscle on a very continuous basis and it starts to build muscle mass. The way muscle mass builds is that there are seven tissues of the body that comprise the whole body, muscle being only one of them. When you take all the tension and focus it on just one of the seven tissues of the body, then you are going to increase disproportionately to the other tissues of the body. In other words, you are going to build up excessive muscle mass at the expense of the fluidity of the muscle. What happens is that fluidity is sacrificed to create more bulk. Creating more bulk without fluidity creates stress. When you see somebody walking around with muscles that are fairly obvious, what you are looking at is someone who has exaggeratedly muscular sculpture. The moment he turns 60...you know, you take a look at him again, he's going to look a little...unhealthy, because his muscles are full of stress. Whether he undoes his arm or bends his elbow, the bicep remains in a state of stress at all times. This is not healthy. In terms of practicality, if you got in a fight with this person and he hit you...yes, you would be in tremendous pain, because he has so much power. But...he may not be able to get to you. He may not be able to take that power and also have flexibility. You'd have to literally stand there and wait for him to hit you. If you actually started to run away from him...and you're a runner, there's not much help for him. So he's not rounded. Yoga works everything. As you've been practicing for two years, you know that yoga is not something for wimps. It requires a lot of strength. On top of that, it requires a lot of stamina, and of course it requires flexibility. So...yoga is more all-rounded than any of the others exclusively because it works all seven tissues of the body.
DC: Interestingly I see the effects of those tissue imbalances in my practice, especially with muscle tissue. Much of what I see is the stress and contraction that the muscle tissue has accumulated. It is very damaging and sometimes it is very difficult to work through.
AD: Sure it is...because it is ego-enhancing. Anything that is ego-enhancing as a habit is going to be very difficult for you to take people away from, which is what is so wonderful because yoga itself is ego-enhancing. It gives them an alternate form of enhancing the ego, without stressing the muscles. For example...bike riding is wonderful. It builds stamina, but it is also very, very stressful on the hamstrings. It can shorten the hamstrings...so can jogging...it can shorten the hamstrings so much, that you have a hard time just doing natural walking. So those who bike ride...that I know of...that have started incorporating yoga into their practice, actually find their bike riding getting easier.
DC: What about the fact that I feel a greater sense of well-being and my responses to events and the world around me are different since I've been practicing yoga? Is that all in my head? Obviously, it is all in my head, but how is yoga helping me to achieve this state?
AD: As we said right in the beginning, yoga is the integration of mind, body, and spirit. So when you do even the simple practice of asanas, there is no question that your mind is very much involved in what you are doing. For example, if you go to attend aerobics class, they make sure you have tons of distractions. They may even have a T.V. screen up that you are looking at...and you go onto some of those stationary bikes, and you sit there, and you have this screen that you look at...
DC: And internet now too...
AD: Yes...you are not fully present in what you are doing. So you can continue your mental stresses when you are doing any of those forms of exercise. And you continue to keep a division between the physical and the mental. In yoga, you pretty much...well, in at least most forms of yoga, there are so many different forms...you are forced to use the mind...you are forced to connect your movement to your breath...and the breath is the pathway to the mind. By being intelligently involved in creating each and every pose, you are also actively engaging the mind in the activity you are involved in. The activity that you are involved in is very stress relieving, therefore it's going to relieve the stress of the mind. When the mind is relieved of its stress, the peripheral vision begins to expand...and obviously, the way you look at things is naturally going to be affected as a result of that.
DC: What is the spiritual message behind yoga?
AD: Well, you can take it on many different levels. I think a good way to approach it is to think of it as...If you accept the concept that man is a microcosm of the universe, and the universe is a macrocosm of man...Let's say that you are talking about the blood in your body...your white blood cells, your red blood cells, your plasma, and let's include nutrition...all of these things moving through the channels of the blood. Now, if all of these stop getting along with each other...our red blood cells may get a little upset...they may start rubbing up against the walls of the channels...and you get arteriosclerosis. The white blood cells might start to coagulate, and you get a thrombosis. In other words, you need all of these working together to have a healthy channel in which the blood flows. Similarly, when you start to think of yourself as a separate entity and your welfare is all you're concerned about, it is very difficult to be spiritual because being spiritual means recognizing similar qualities between all people, at the very least...and then by extension, all life...whether it be organic or inorganic. That includes plants and even rocks. So yoga moves you towards a state in which you first create harmony between you and the society around you...and harmony between society and the eco-environment around you, and so on and so on. And that's the spiritual message in yoga.
DC: I often hear that yoga is very much like life. How so?
AD: I'm not sure yoga is like life. Yoga is a way of life. Bodybuilding is not a way of life, although for some it is...a livelihood. Yoga is not a livelihood either. Yoga is moving your consciousness from one plane to another. In the course of doing so...hopefully a higher plane...you begin to alter your life. In this process, you begin to integrate the different factors of your life until they all become one. In other words, you are no longer breaking your life into...this is my rest time, this is my work time. I have my job life. I have my private life. I have my social life. I have all these different lives. Yoga says, "No, you are fragmenting yourself. You are breaking yourself up into pieces. How on earth are you going to find peace? Integrate all of them into one." In that sense, yoga is a way of life. In that sense, yoga is life.
DC: You mentioned the breathing aspect of yoga, pranayama. Can you explain the importance of breath in yoga?
AD: Pranayama is not so much the art of breathing. It is about breath control...and it is a very difficult concept to explain in just a few words. So...I guess I will explain it in the context of asana practice. In this context, it is...as I said earlier, the connection of the breath to the movement. In this connection, you create a much better flow of not just oxygen, but what we call prana. Prana, in a sense, could be very similar to the Chinese concept of chi. It's not oxygen...it's an energy form that flows in and out through you. Prana is in actuality, your connection to the universe. Prana is something you draw into you and you return out. Prana is something without which you would not live. So, when you think of the breath in those terms, you realize how important it is in our lives. But because it is something we continue to do, whether we pay attention to it or not, we tend to not pay so much attention to it. We seem to ignore the fact that it is the most essential component of our lives. Without it, essentially we would have no life. Once you start to understand that concept and you start to pay a little more attention to prana, then you begin to understand that the control of prana can completely alter how you perceive things and you can alter the state of your health.
DC: You teach workshops on prana?
AD: I teach workshops on Ayurveda, yoga, the chakra system, pranayama, the eight limbs of yoga, yes.
DC: Mainly at City Yoga?
AD: Well...I have a very close, symbiotic relationship with City Yoga. We support each other. I have a very close, symbiotic relationship with Anusara Yoga and so because of that, I do try and at least premiere all my workshops at City Yoga, before taking them elsewhere.
DC: When is the next one?
AD: That is a good question. We are actually working out the dates on that right now, coming up very shortly...
DC: Please let me know...because I will be there for sure. Now, you have been practicing yoga for 11 years. Throughout that practice, I imagine, it has evolved. What changes have you noticed as a result of that evolution?
AD: I don't want to take up too much of your time and give you a long-winded answer on all the wonderful benefits that entered my life since then. Let's just say I have moved from a space of very poor health into a space of very comfortable health. Comfortable in a sense that...I may catch a cold once in every five years. I may catch a headache once in every three. Still working on my stomach...but that is a chronic issue that's already almost 80% taken care of. I know that my eating habits have changed. I know that my social habits have changed. In a nutshell, I am healthier today than I was when I was a teenager...and I am far from being a teenager now.
DC: I ask the question because I am gearing this interview towards people who are not yet practicing yoga. What can a beginner expect to experience, especially what changes may they experience, as a result of committing to a regular yoga practice?
AD: Rejuvenation...literally slowing down the aging process.
DC: I imagine that since everybody is different, every person will experience different changes, but do you feel that "slowing down the aging process" is something that will be common to everyone?
AD: In yoga we believe that there are three manifestations of energy within you, the energy of clarity, the energy of movement, and the energy of inertia. At all times, these three energies are vying with each other for prominence in your character. If you are committed to energy of action, there is a good chance you are going to burn yourself out. If you are committed to the energy of inaction, there is a good chance you are going to enter a state of depression. But, if you commit yourself to an energy of clarity, then what you are doing is you are allowing the breath to keep your cells from aging at either a faster rate, in terms of burning up, or a faster rate, in terms of inertia and blockage through wastes...so when we talk about three energies, we talk about....being able to live in a state of comfort.
DC: Can yoga be used therapeutically?
AD: It is used therapeutically. All yoga is therapeutic and on top of that, there is yoga therapy...in which I am certified as a yoga therapist. As you know...with your mother...I did work with her for a little while, and I believe she felt fairly comfortable with it.
DC: You've already mentioned "anti-aging", but is the practice of yoga also "preventative" in the sense that it can prevent illnesses, injuries, and disorders?
AD: There seems to be a consensus in Western medicine that a disease is not a disease until it completely manifests and is recordable. So...it can never be a preventative medicine. Yoga on the other hand, which is connected to Ayurveda, believes that all diseases go through five stages. What we call the "stage of manifestation" is actually the fourth or maybe even the fifth stage of disease. So yoga says if you can approach disease at its first stage, which is when just the energies of the body go into a state of disharmony, then you are actually attacking the disease process itself. Whereas in terms of Western medicine, or allopathic medicine I should say, that would be considered preventative medicine.
DC: We are so "proof" oriented in Western society. We always ask, "Where is the research? Where is the proof?" Is the research on yoga present?
AD: Yes...there is a large study going on in India right now, which the government is sponsoring. Dr. Dean Ornish was one of the ground breakers in this. He did some amazing research in yoga and heart disease. But...proof is as proof does. You are only going to be able to prove that which you have the instruments to prove with. So all that you are going to be able to prove through the instruments you have is the curing of diseases that you are familiar with. You are never going to be able to prove anything else. The proof is also in the pudding. If you are starting to feel better...to me, that's proof.
DC: Agreed...and very well put. Recently there was a CDC (Center of Disease Control) report that said...well, first...is yoga stretching?
AD: Yes and no. Stretching is a part of yoga.
DC: But it is not just stretching, right? O.k....so this CDC report came out saying that their studies indicate that stretching neither prevents injury nor adds any benefit to health. What do you think about that?
AD: And there are also studies that show the opposite. We can always do studies to prove our point of view. All I would say to people is the very same thing Buddha said to anyone who came to him. Don't come to me because you think I have the answer. Come to me because the answer is something you can prove to yourself. So, if somebody has questions as to whether yoga can help them...instead of looking through reports of the CDC, I suggest they go take a yoga class...or two, or three, and at the end of it, decide for themselves. Don't let somebody else decide for you what is right for you and what is wrong for you.
DC: Is there any situation where someone should stay away from yoga?
AD: Absolutely! If you are being taught yoga by an unqualified teacher. There are so many different schools of yoga today, unfortunately one of the end products of that is that each school wishes to promote its own way of doing yoga. What we are trying to do is reinvent the wheel. We don't want to do that. In the process of reinventing the wheel, we may actually stop doing yoga. There is yoga for spinning, there is "hot room" yoga...there are all kinds of yoga. Find a yoga that doesn't hurt you. Find a teacher that is qualified, who understands the biomechanics of yoga, as you put it, at the very least, even if they don't completely understand the spiritual end of it...at least they understand enough of it that when you leave the class, you feel better than when you went in, as opposed to worse. And yes...there are ways in which you can hurt yourself. You can go into a level three class when you are a level one, and you will attempt to do things that you are not quite prepared for. There is a good chance that not yoga, but you and your instructor have ended up creating a bad name for yoga and you've ended up hurting yourself.
DC: At what age should one begin yoga practice and is it ever too late to begin?
AD: The Queen of Denmark was taught how to do a headstand at the age of 80 by Mr. Krishnamacharya. Never too late to start. It is too late to start with an unqualified teacher. If you are a kid, you might have an unqualified teacher and get away with it. As you get older, it is more important that you find someone who can understand your needs, and work on them.
DC: So, children can do yoga?
AD: Well...there are many different schools of thought...I started my daughter at the age of five...thank God...but there are very few schools that think you should start them before the age of five.
DC: Last question...I see so many people doing yoga now. Where do you see the practice of yoga in this country over the next decade?
AD: I was at a seminar on yoga recently and the speaker, Kausthub Desikachar, who is the descendant of TKV Krishnamacharya, who was directly involved in the yoga we have inherited today, said something very interesting, which hopefully answers your question. He said, "Yes, yoga has been commercialized because it is in a commercial country." You know...so yoga is going to undergo many, many changes. Those who are looking for the deeper meaning of yoga will always be able to find a teacher. People have attempted to suppress and change yoga for 2500 years. We are not seeing anything new. There will be commercialization of yoga. There will be many changes to yoga. There will be all forms of yoga, including bad ones. But for those looking for the true practice, they will always be able to find yoga.
DC: When the student is ready the teacher will appear, right?
DC: Yoga spinning...I love it. Thank you very much.
*(Editors note: Sanskrit for "I salute and honor you and all things in the universe).
Upon reflection of my interview with Mr. Deva, I was most impressed with his description of energy flow and breath, or pranayama, and his description of the five stages of disease. For me it made sense that, in this ancient practice called yoga, they saw life as energy, and health coming from the proper flow of that energy, which incidentally we can control.
It is then no surprise to me that I feel more than just physically stimulated when I do yoga. I feel completely energized and connected to a greater source of power. Call it Universal Energy, God, Allah, Buddha, whatever. There is no doubt that all things are comprised of energy (E=MC2) and the movement of energy is the source of all thoughts and actions. Yoga then, as I see it, is the art of harnessing and moving that energy, at least when we speak of doing asanas, or yoga postures.
If we in Western society could only adopt the concepts inherent in yoga into our consciousness, we could live healthier and fuller lives with more consideration of our fellow man and the society and world around us. No doubt we would be able to slow down the aging process and even halt many diseases before they happen. The current belief in Western medical science that disease is only present during its manifestation is severely outdated. Disease and ill health are the consequence of the disruption of energy flow within an organism.
Chiropractic has always subscribed to the same school of thought. Prevention means doing the right things before disease processes manifest. Chiropractic and yoga share the same philosophy. Maybe that is why both practices have been helping millions of people around the world find health and maintain it. The two also work together hand in hand. They both increase the benefits of each other by virtue of allowing the body to tap into its own energy resources and stimulate its natural healing powers.
I encourage anybody reading this article to start yoga practice right away. As Mr. Deva said, "The proof is in the pudding." Commit to it for at least one session per week for the next three months and I am convinced you will emerge an entirely different person. But do not take my word for it, instead try it. Let the results speak for themselves. Have fun...and Namaste.
If anybody would like to contact Arun Deva for private instruction or upcoming workshops please contact him at email@example.com
Dr. Nick Campos, D.C.
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