Monday, December 7, 2009

Yoga as the Art of Sculpting the Body, Heart and Mind

Hinduism gave birth to three major faiths of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as well as to the spiritual discipline of Yoga. As offshoots of Hinduism, each of these offspring emphasizes a unique characteristic of the parent religion by making that aspect its core principle. For example, the focal point of Buddhism is compassion and love for others; the primary emphasis of Jainism is the sanctity of life and an attitude of reverence towards all creatures; the major concern of Sikhism is experiencing meaning in life through the service of other human beings and the crux of Yoga is the disciplining and molding of the human body, heart and mind in order to live a spiritual life on this earth.

Patanjali, a scholar-sage of India, presented the basic principles of the original Yoga system in a book called the "Yogasutras" in 500 B.C. During its 2500 years history, Yoga, through the presentation of a down-to-earth philosophy and a step-by-step scientific method to live by, has provided a fulfilling way of life to its practitioners. Yoga's explicit goal is to empower each individual with a clear worldview and a practical method so that a person could take control of one's life and its destiny.

Yoga's worldview is simple and clear. First, it regards human life on earth as a wonderful gift. This reward is bestowed upon us by the underlying spiritual component of nature. The physical body, heart and mind are given to human beings so that through their cooperative-harmonious-effort, the spiritual essence or the life-force within finds expression in everyday thought, speech and action. To be born a human being is a privilege, an excellent opportunity to conduct one's daily life so that one's short life on this earth becomes a delightful spiritual journey.

How do we accomplish this laudable goal? Yoga gives a realistic philosophy consisting of ten simple principles and a practical time-tested experiential method of living a spiritual life here and now. Both philosophy and method must become a way of life for the seeker. Each step needs to be perfected first before one could move on to the next one. The ten philosophical principles are non-violence, non-lying, non-craving, non-stealing non-possessiveness, purity, contentment, self-discipline, reflection and egolessness.

Non-violence gets the highest priority and is the requirement for the other nine. Violence, which involves destruction, is the root cause of all personal, social and spiritual stress. In contrast, non-violence stressing sanctity of life, when practiced regularly in thought, speech and action, minimizes hostility towards others.

For Yoga, the adoption of these principles leads to many beneficial consequences: when the attitude of non-stealing is cultivated, wealth comes to the person; control of one's desire leads to unusual vigor; practice of purity and contentment results in one's independence from addictions leading to a non-stressful life; and regular indulgence in reflection and egolessness is conducive to knowledge of one's inner self and spiritual connectedness to other human beings. A practioner realizes that though human beings come in different colors and forms, the same brush has painted them.

Skeptics might doubt the practicality of these Yogic principles. However, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, and Bishop Tutu stand out to be the model practitioners. They gained much spiritual strength from adopting the Yoga principles of non-violence, truthfulness and sanctity of life. They used them to end the British Colonial rule in India, racial inequality in the USA and apartheid in South Africa respectively.

These ten philosophical principles provide necessary wisdom, which equips the practioner to pursue the scientific method of Yoga consisting of physical, breathing and meditation exercises. Since the body is the field for the growth of the spirit, it can be transformed into a perfect vehicle through the practice of physical postures. Yoga provides 64,000 exercises to make the body disease-free and ageless. In the West, due to the influence of Hollywood, most people associate Yoga only with the practice of 15-30 of these physical postures.

Since breathing purifies blood and effects emotions, Yoga emphasizes its systematic regulation to gain voluntary control on one's emotional life. Yoga offers proper breathing techniques, which help reduce stress by strengthening the lungs and heart.

Yoga provides meditation exercises to slow down the hold of the analytical mind thus freeing one's spiritual resources for a fuller expression. Meditation reshapes and retrains the mind with the help of a mantra or sound-symbol (Aum or So Hum). By teaching good physical, emotional and mental habits, Yoga helps to sculpt the body, the emotions and the mind thus leading to the living of a disease-free, emotionally balanced and joy-centered spiritual life. In the words of a popular writer of the new age, the Yoga technique offers the promise of an ageless body and a timeless mind.

By Ashok Kumar Malhotra

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New Exhibit Sheds Light on a Lost European Civilization

There's a new exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University that will be of great interest to the ISCSC. The exhibition is called The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC. According to the Institute,

"The Lost World of Old Europe brings to the United States for the first time more than 160 objects recovered by archaeologists from the graves, towns, and villages of Old Europe, a cycle of related cultures that achieved a precocious peak of sophistication and creativity in what is now southeastern Europe between 5000 and 4000 BC, and then mysteriously collapsed by 3500 BC. Long before Egypt or Mesopotamia rose to an equivalent level of achievement, Old Europe was among the most sophisticated places that humans inhabited."

This past week, John Noble Wilford wrote an excellent New York Times article about the exhibition, in which he notes how remarkable it is that this society -- now elevated to civilization status -- appears to have had no written language.