In our busy lives, many of us struggle to find balance, harmony or peace of mind. If you, like many, function at a high energetic frequency (go-go-go) slowing down to “smell the roses” often necessitates conscious and gradual down shifting. Conversely, if you lack motivation or feel stuck in your life, you may need a push or inspiration to get moving in the right direction in order to realize your dreams. The practice of yoga can help to disperse energy through movement, facilitate a shift in perspective and manage the fluctuations of the mind through controlled breathing. If we are moving too fast or aren’t moving enough (physically and figuratively) we risk missing the joy available in each moment of our lives. It is natural to move from activity to rest throughout our daily lives. It is also natural to move from seeking accomplishment to feeling contentment or even ebbing backwards on the imagined path of life. How can we embrace these natural rhythms of life in a way that supports our spiritual growth and happiness? How can we experience peace of mind?
The concept of balance
Within the philosophy of Ayurvedic science and yoga exists the concepts of the three gunas. The gunas are elements of our prakriti or our natural state. In a perfect world, this state is one of equilibrium gently swaying from activity to rest. The three gunas are sattva, rajas and tamas. These are respectively balance or intelligence, energy or turbulence and inertia or substance. You will fluctuate within these three states throughout the day. I imagine a sine wave and the gentle oscillation from activity to rest with the line crossing the middle, sattva often. Many of us do not cross the middle, but instead linger in a rajasic or a tamasic state embodying the qualities associated with these states.
The gunas defined
The three gunas underlie matter, life and mind. All living beings possess various combinations of the three gunas. Sattva is the quality of intelligence (in its pure form – truth), virtue and harmony. Sattva is balance and stability. When you increase sattva, you acquire peace and are less affected by the chaos of your surroundings. Consider moments in your life that you’ve felt this way, content and undaunted by the commotion or drama in your immediate environment or the world. It does not mean you don’t care, but stability of body and mind shape your attitude and perspective. David Frawley in his book Ayurveda and the Mind, describes an inward and upward motion associated with this state inducing awakening of the soul. Rajas is the quality of change and creation. Rajasic people are ever seeking (pleasure, goals, power) and often emotionally frail due to relying on external sources as a means towards happiness. Tamas is the quality of inertia and dullness. It has a heavy and dull nature limiting growth and retarding motion. Tamasic people tend to lack awareness of their impact on others. They may seem lazy, insensitive, and are often attached to rigid belief systems. Being in a rajasic or tamasic state for too long can be considered unsafe (risking harm to self). If our goal driven behavior is not balanced with self care and social bonding, we risk damage to our health and happiness. Contrarily, if you maintain a rigid belief system you may be unable or unwilling to see or accept opposing views. This conviction may squash relationships and slow your spiritual growth. There are many ways to look at the extremes of rajas and tamas to interpret where unsafe habits may develop. Frawley summarizes “It is the principle of materiality or unconsciousness that causes consciousness to become veiled”.
How can I use my yoga practice to improve a sense of balance and awareness?
The benefits of asana (the physical practice of yoga) include moving energy, blood, and oxygen through the body. Science recognizes that posture and mental attitude will affect physiology which influences our well being. Certain postures like back bending and heart opening positions tend to increase heat and lift energy and mood, while other postures facilitate a downward flow of energy or a calming effect. Cues that you give yourself and the depth and rate of your breathing may help to ground or to energize. Stepping onto your mat and assessing your prakriti is helpful in understanding what techniques to utilize for balance in your practice.
A brief smart-safe example
Not smart: You are feeling rajasic. You choose a practice that is very stimulating and heating and push through it because you need the workout. Doing this and adopting this attitude may tempt your nervous system further into rajas and out of balance. You often confuse exhaustion with relaxation and tend to live your life burning the candle at both ends.
Smart: You choose a different type of class today that intuitively feels more grounding. Or, you go to the same class as intended, but with an intention of balance and grounding. You focus your attention on your breath and the ease of breath throughout the practice. You utilize techniques you have learned such as cooling type breathing or slowing the exhale when appropriate to lessen turbulence of mind/body. You replace upward facing dog pose with cobra which tends to be less stimulating and find new things to work on in this pose like grounding through the pelvis and lengthening the spine. You appreciate the effects of the pose in a new way metaphorically opening the heart and mind.
Smart: If you feel heavy in heart and mind, movement may be best to promote rajas and shift your perspective. If you lean towards a tamasic state you may need encouragement to get on your mat. I suggest embracing the routine of practicing every day even a short, simple standing flow. Asking a friend to hold you accountable may help. A commitment to move may be the first step in creating a mental shift in your life.
There are many techniques you can adopt to create awareness and stay smart in your practice rather than automatically going through the motions. Mindfulness and awareness can help us move towards sattva as we sense the deeper connection of mind/body and breath. What happens when you switch the inhale and exhale with cat/cow for example? Can you achieve a pose from a different way and explore its effects on your breath or body. The cues you give yourself are often more effective than the actual poses you choose for fostering awareness and balance.
Develop awareness on the mat and then utilize these concepts in your life
We often don’t consider our busy lives as being unsafe – especially in our goal-directed society. A perpetual state of go-go-go becomes unsafe when it begins to impact our emotional stability, relationships and our health. A sedentary life (mentally and/or physically) is also unsafe if it cultivates a closed and opinionated view of life. Your yoga practice can provide tools for finding balance and serenity in a stress-full life. Keeping yourself safe on the mat involves introspection, mindfulness, awareness and curiosity which aren’t easily accessible if you function too high or low energetically. Realizing the subtle fluctuations of your nervous system can empower you to modify your practice and your life with the goal of sattva or unity of mind, body and spirit. What do you need today? Only you know how to keep your yoga smart and safe.
I would love to hear comments of how your practice helped you move towards or away from a balanced state. How do you address balance in your practice and what guides those decisions?