Just what are people talking about when they tell us that the practice of none other than yoga “nourishes the mind,” making it stronger, calmer and more flexible, that it helps us escape from the heavy shroud of ego, creates “space in the body,” and even lowers blood pressure? All this while, from the outside, we see yoga as keeping the practitioner in one small space, on a mat usually, focusing on things as simple as breathing, and on “postures,” in seated, standing or lying down positions.
A good starting point to understand yoga as mind food brings us to the universally unique, now brutally occupied, ancient nation-state of Tibet, where yoga has some of its deepest roots, and where their understanding of the mind is framed in a clever but simple explanation. Let’s consider what they teach of the mind. Then we can absorb their teaching of yoga’s necessary purpose. One remarkable resource to read about this is found in “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” an international bestseller by Sogyal Rinpoche.
So take the mind as divided into two parts, something in the way of the conscious and unconscious, but really more than that. They call the ORDINARY mind the part that we know well, the part that thinks, desires, manipulates, flares in emotions, likened to a monkey always and forever hopping to every tree branch. But Tibetan masters also see the ordinary mind from an additional angle, as the part of the mind that gives a false, dull sense of stability, a stone-like calm of ingrained habits, or a smug, self-protective inertia. The ordinary mind is, however, usually the chaotic, repetitive, confused level of the mind. It is where we struggle with change, some to our liking, some not.
For the mind’s second part, as the Tibetans explain, there’s the very NATURE of mind, its “innermost essence,” which is untouched by change. Hidden within the ordinary mind, this inner nature of mind is surrounded by the ORDINARY mind’s confusing, rapid movement of our thoughts and emotions. So the ordinary mind envelopes the nature of mind.
Yoga, and the meditation that’s a major part of yoga, give us a chance to glimpse our own, inner nature of mind. Reaching our inner mind is to reach who we are, or to reach our spirit, our essence, our pure selves, and to grow from that process. Each time as we practice moving our body and ordinary mind into this process, we gain a mental strength, quite noticeable according to many. Here is where we come upon an interesting paradox – a rigorous, physical workout seems to exercise the body primarily and the mind secondarily, while a calm yoga and meditation practice seems to exercise the mind primarily and the body secondarily.
The fitness benefits of yoga practice on strictly a physical level are all about flexibility and balance, recently found in science to be of equal importance to cardiovascular fitness and muscular fitness. So a physical workout routine of cardio, strength, and flexibility and balance, the last two being by-products of yoga practice, is the ideal workout combination for any lifestyle. And a healthy spine, a holistic goldmine in itself, is also realized with yoga practice.
In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, a police officer shares concerns about efforts to train police with new use-of-force guidelines still being drafted by the PD brass. She writes of being able in her police work to tell early on how regular practice of yoga helped her to handle people more calmly, winning people’s cooperation and compliance as never before. She argued that training police to mull things over in grim situations, and step back, may jeopardize the safety of all, but on the other hand, simple yoga practice creates an ability for calm but quick and sensible thinking.
More on this law enforcement take on yoga emerged in a recent letter to the editor of a LI newspaper, authored by a retired Nassau County police officer with 27 years experience, mostly on the beat, who urged that training of police should include a “page from yoga.” Why? She pointed to “flexibility,” “stability,” and gaining an aptitude of quickly but effectively “changing direction.”
Covering it only generally here, the meditation part of yoga, also called mindfulness, at least for some practitioners, starts with calming down, staying still, best seated, while clearing thoughts out of your ordinary, thinking mind.
Sounds impossible but you can actually get there with, again, practice. And is it worth it! It’s all in the breathing, while keeping your mind “in between thoughts.” Some people begin a mindfulness journey by giving all their attention on that interval starting with the end of a thought. Stop there before the next thought comes in. Stay between thoughts, that mental interval without any thought, if only for a few seconds. Try to lengthen your place in that mental interval with practice. That and breathing are the basics for many who try meditation. And a key point is never try too hard each time you start. All this sure beats meds.
It makes sense for anyone, in any lifestyle, at any age, to try a yoga class. More than likely it won’t be at all what you may think. Most classes have beginners. No one really pays attention to other yoga class participants. It is quite the individual thing – the focus is on the teacher, and on how to do the postures with the all important breathing – that is where everyone’s attention stays. It’s about the inhale and the exhale. So there’s none – really not any – of the self-consciousness of a newbie in a yoga class. And remember, skeptics make the best converts.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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