It's fascinating to deconstruct our daily habits and investigate why we make certain choices and develop a particular lifestyle. Have you ever paused to ask yourself, Why do I exercise this way? Why do I eat and drink these things? Why do I work these hours? Why do I get into similar relationships? Why do I have these same thought patterns? The ultimate answer to all these questions is often the same—we are looking for ways to increase pleasure and happiness and we think it can be attained from other people, objects, and accomplishments. This approach is analogous to driving a boat without a rudder and inevitably leads to disillusionment and suffering.
For example, due to conditioning, the tastebuds crave foods that don't nourish the body optimally and often times lead to fatigue, mood swings, and illness. The ego seek identity through relationships and possessions and develops false expectations that frequently are impossible to fulfill. Overall, being led by our senses, desires, and outward focus without introspection leads to a lifestyle full of seeking and searching without consistent balance or rootedness.
On the other hand, developing habits that increase inner focus and awareness flips this situation and enables us to operate from the perspective of our natural, permanent, blissful state. From this anchored, centered, soulful perspective we acknowledge our needs and desires without identifying with all the inevitable fluctuations. Yoga is a scientific and methodical system of techniques that facilitate this transition from seeking the unattainable to embracing the omnipresent. Swami Vishnudevanda, the founder of the Sivananda Yoga School, summarized the yogic lifestyle into five key points:
1. The first point is exercising and moving in a way that increases health and wellness. This sounds logical and obvious, yet the modern exercise culture is usually driven more by ego and accomplishing new feats rather than by an understanding of what the muscles, joints, organs, and nervous system need to increase longevity and optimize performance. From my experience competing in sports, on several occasions my ego pushed me to continue exercising without healing from injuries sufficiently. Conversely, practicing yoga has increased my inner awareness to train in a holistic way that makes me feel energized and relaxed at the same time. In yoga the classical progression of postures or asanas was developed and refined for thousands of years in order to optimally balance strength and flexibility while increasing circulation, life force, and rejuvenating the inner organs.
2. Breathing is the second key point of the yogic lifestyle. When you break it down, there's nothing more important than the breath; it's the first and last thing we do in life. Yet due to stress most people breathe incorrectly from the chest or collar bone instead of the belly. Watching a baby breathe is a simple way to remember the natural breath cycle—yet due to the hustle and bustle of modern life we tend to speed up the breath and develop habits that lead to more stress and anxiety. Pranayama is the scientific approach that yogis developed in order to use the breath as a tool to develop mastery over the mind and body.
3. The third point of the yogic lifestyle is proper relaxation. The fundamental goal of exercise and all other activities is to expend energy and remove tension in order to increase relaxation to experience inner peace and wellness. Yet modern culture associates and promotes relaxation with stimulation from movies, TV, drugs, and active entertainment. This has created a modern epidemic of insomnia, depression, and attention deficit disorders. As a result of these detrimental habits, the sympathetic nervous system is frequently stuck in overdrive and the body stays in fight or flight mode for disproportionate amounts of time. The remedy for this vicious cycle is to learn and develop proper relaxation habits and techniques. The more we can let go of unnecessary tension, the more we can shed layers of distractions, quiet the ego and mind, and be present in our natural state of bliss. In classical yoga, savasana (relaxation pose) is the most frequently practiced posture and often times considered the most advanced posture. Instead of doing and accomplishing, savasana trains us to let go and shed what we don't need.
4. Proper nutrition is the fourth point in the yogic lifestyle. One of the first lessons we learn as a child is that you are what you eat; yet, as we grow older we develop habits and cravings that often lead to reckless consumption. Fortunately as we adopt a yogic lifestyle and start to exercise, breathe, and relax properly, we tune into the body and mind more clearly and start to feed it better fuel. A proper diet is centered around vegetarian foods since they're foods that have not been processed and contain the highest prana, or life force, directly from the sun. Additionally, foods that grow in nature are most rapidly and easily digested, allowing the body to use energy most efficiently.
5. The fifth point in the yogic lifestyle is meditation, which leads to positive thinking. A good way to think about meditation and its benefits is to think about the deep sleep experience. We all experience deep sleep (not the dream state) in the same way. It's an individual, inward, silent experience free from ego and mind in which we do not have any roles, objects, or identities. This experience in deep sleep is impossible to articulate precisely. We all know that waking up from deep sleep is a refreshing, delightful experience; on the other hand, when we sleep poorly or miss a night of sleep we feel disturbed and miserable. One way to explain this is that each day in deep sleep we go back to our natural, blissful, peaceful inner focus and recharge. Following this stream of thought, the key in the waking state is to prolong that charge and not dissipate energy unnecessarily or inefficiently. Meditation is the most powerful way to accomplish this goal since as we focus inward and observe the fluctuations of the mind, in a conscious way we strengthen our ability to let go and not identify with all the dramas. Practicing meditation techniques consistently helps us develop greater familiarity and a stronger relationship with our peaceful, still, blissful, true nature.