Silence and Motion
Yoga is more than just stretching the hamstrings and releasing tensions. Yoga, in its essence, is learning how to control the mind, how to use the mind constructively and then choose to turn it off when not needed. It sounds simple, but it is not!
Our minds are like monkey minds, hopping restlessly from one branch to another from morning till night and even during the night in our dreams. We think we are in control of our minds, but most of the time it controls us.
All meditation practices train us to quiet and control the mind. If any of you have tried to meditate, you know how hard it is to sit in silence. Often, within minutes or even just a few seconds the monkey mind hops away from one branch to another. And before we know it, we are lost in a forest of thoughts. We are not in control. It controls us.
The Yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras, tell us that Yoga is the process of stilling the movements and fluctuations of the mind that disturb our consciousness.
B.K.S. Iyengar says in his new book, Light on Life:
“When the waves of consciousness are stilled and silenced, they can no longer distort the true expression of the soul. Revealed in his own true nature, the radiant seer abides in his own grandeur.”
And B.K.S. Iyengar explains this more poetically:
“The pure waters of a lake reflect the beauty around it, and one can also see right through the clear water to the bottom. Similarly, a pure mind can reflect the beauty in the world around it, and when the mind is still, the beauty of the self, or soul, is seen reflected in it.”
But it doesn’t mean that we are supposed to always walk around with a quiet mind. A harmonious, happy life is having a balance between silence and motion, a balance between using the mind constructively and then consciously turning it off when it is not needed. It’s like being in charge of the remote control to the TV, choosing channels that are enlightening, and then turning off the fluff that we don’t need.
Most of us are trained to use the mind from early age, through school and onwards. We have been trained to acquire knowledge by categorizing and analyzing life around us. We have learned to label things with value judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, pleasant and painful. Our human thoughts and mind stuff are important tools for social communication, yet all words and thoughts are man made. Before humans walked on this earth, there was no such thing as hours, days, or years; names of trees, rivers or mountains; or good or bad, right or wrong. We humans have fixed names and ideas to the life around us.
The law of nature is that everything is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. And there is more to life than we see and perceive with our human eyes and senses. An eagle in the sky with her sharp eyes sees land and details below her very differently than we can see with our human eyes. But we look out into the world through our human lenses and categorize the world around us with our fixed labels.
As we daily fill our consciousness with mind chatter, we also fill our surroundings with noise from morning till night. The alarm wakes us up with music or news. The noise continues with TV, radio, cds, dvds, computers, game boys, ipods, and cell phones. Could we possibly be addicted to noise, and do we fear silence? The mind stuff has helped us evolve technologically, but it has also caused us misery and suffering. Our modern lives have become obsessed with internal and external noise. To bring sanity back to our lives, we need to take time out daily to cultivate silence.
As explained, we have had lots of training in motion, in developing the mind, but little training in silence. Yoga trains us in silence so we can go beyond the mind stuff—with its accumulated knowledge—and return back home and connect with the core of our being, our soul. It is in the core of our being that we can connect with our inner guide. Our “inner guide” is linked to a universal guide, the intrinsic law of nature, which seeks balance and harmony in all areas of life. It’s like fine-tuning our inner radio, with a big antenna, and letting the music of the universe flow into us with wisdom and clarity.
So, the practice of Yoga helps us cultivate silence and we use the body to train the mind to be quiet. The body doesn’t lie; it’s a great feedback machine and guides us with honesty.
The first step towards silence is concentration. When you do a Yoga asana, a Yoga posture, you train the mind to become present. In Yoga class you learn to listen fully to the teacher’s in-depth instruction. It’s like the game “Simon Says,” training the mind to listen intently and be fully present. But the mind wants to wander, and while the rest of the class is moving into the dog pose, some of you might still be lost daydreaming in the lunge pose, mindlessly picking your toenails.
Next, in each asana you focus on alignment, action, and breath to cultivate silence. First, you focus on “alignment,” which brings health to the joints, but also trains the mind. In the Warrior II, you align the center of the knee with the center of the foot and the heel under the knee. This focused alignment is like a mantra to cultivate concentration. But the moment the mind wanders away, the knee wanders away, too.
Second, you create an “action,” a movement with a counter movement, to stimulate energy, but also mindfulness. In the triangle pose, you press the feet down into the floor, and simultaneously extend your arm up to the ceiling while lifting your kneecaps. Lifting the kneecaps firms the quads, but also trains the mind. The moment the mind drifts away, the kneecaps drop.
Third, you focus on the breath. While holding an asana for an extended time, you focus on a calm, smooth, and even breath, which keeps the circulation flowing, but also keeps the mind present. For example, when you do the hamstring stretch, you focus on relaxed breathing and pause for a few seconds at the end of each exhalation, which quiets the mind. When the mind is quiet, you can let go deeply of tension in the muscles. In the silence, you can tune in and listen and explore your inner balance and happy edge, which is forever changing. So, the breath connects you with your inner guide and inner wisdom.
After your asana practice, you finish your session by lying down in Savasana or relaxation. My teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, says, “When you have stretched completely, you can relax completely.” If you have practiced the asanas with full concentration, the presence of mind that you have cultivated will take you into a deep state of relaxation, silence, and pure meditation. Concentration is stillness. Meditation is silence and expanded awareness.
In Iyengar Yoga, we emphasize the practice of Pranayama, or Yoga breathing. Students of Yoga are ready for Pranayama after they have practiced asanas regularly for a year or longer. The asanas prepare you for Pranayama, which trains the mind in a more concentrated way to be quiet and mindful. With regular practice of Yoga asanas and Pranayama, you cultivate a deeper level of silence and intuition that will echo into your daily life.
The silence cultivates the power of listening, which is the secret to all harmonious relationships with ourselves and with others. We learn to listen to our own true needs regarding diet and exercise, and with intuition choose our own healthy lifestyles as they change with season and age.
And we learn to listen to the needs of our loved ones, our neighbors, and people around the world. Listening leads to understanding and understanding leads to kindness and love. This morning, August 20th, in my book of daily inspiration, Indian Wisdom 365 Days, Swami Prajnanpad says, “To love is to understand and feel that the other person is different.” And we can all use more understanding, kindness, tolerance, and love in our world today.
As our daily practice of Yoga asanas and Pranayama deepens, it teaches us to ride through the changes of life, especially the difficult ones, with grace and equanimity. And we learn to dance through life with silence and motion, through the ever-changing flux of life guided by inner wisdom towards wholeness, inner peace, and ultimate freedom.