The Healing Principles of Yoga
by Amy Weintraub

A Patanjali provides the foundation for Yoga, a basic instruction for “union in action” (kriya Yoga). Union in action is daily life lived in a clear and conscious way—actions taken from an awakened state. This state, available to you always, is the blue sky beneath the weather of your current mood. Union in action rests on a sturdy tripod of willful practice (tapas), self observation (svadhyaya) and surrender (Ishvrara-pranidhana). Patanjali’s formula—combining cleansing, energy-building practices (tapas) while developing a calm mind through self-study (svadhyaya), with the capacity to surrender (Ishvara-pranidhana) is the key to positive mental health.

The ancient Yogis believed that tapas or inner fire develops through the practice of self-discipline or “austerities.” For modern Yoga practitioners, this doesn’t mean standing on one leg in the sun and rain for days on end. Rather, it is the self-discipline that brings you to the mat each morning to purify and strengthen your system through willfully held postures and breathing exercises that eliminate impurities in your body, your mind, and your emotions. “Tapas” refers to both the willful practices and the purifying inner fire that the practices produce. With each session on your mat, you are building the strength to break through old patterns and past conditioning. With each session, you are strengthening your vital energy or prana.

Practice alone will not support union in action, but as we practice, we have the potential to cultivate self-awareness. Here, the word “svadhyaya” is used, which means the study of self. In ancient times, without the availability of books, knowledge was an oral transmission from teacher to student. As devotees chanted the sacred texts, committing them to memory, they were also gaining knowledge of the self. As your Hatha Yoga practice begins to burn away the impurities, you begin to cultivate a listening—to your body, to your mind, to your emotions—right on your Yoga mat. You can cultivate this listening by observing your breath and the sensations in your body as you practice. This takes intention and attention. It is easy to practice Yoga as though it were exercise, moving from posture to posture, with little awareness of the sensations in your body or your feeling state. This is unconscious Yoga, and though you will feel good afterwards and will receive many physiological and psychological benefits from your practice, you run the risk of energetically reinforcing old patterns and habits of mind.

As you grow in self-awareness, you begin to have glimpses of what it means to feel utterly and wholly connected, how your small self is not separate from the Self of the universe. The moments of awareness may be like slender threads that you follow as you release from a Yoga posture or as you sit, observing your energy after a pranayama breathing exercise. But as your practice deepens, the threads begin to weave together, and you may begin to carry this awareness with you off the mat. The cultivation of self awareness through your practice is an essential aspect, not only for your own positive mental health, but for the ultimate goal of your Yoga practice—to become a jivan mukti, an awakened one.

But with only willful practice and self-study, we might become somewhat analytical and harsh—a kind of Yoga Nazi. So it’s surrender, the third leg of our tripod, that softens the heart and strengthens it, too. One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is when to let go—of a relationship, a dream, a fantasy, even a depression. Yet once we learn that we can’t control people, things, and emotions, when we surrender to reality as it is, we are happier.

Ishvara-pranidhana literally means surrender to the Lord, but Ishvara is a special kind of Lord, not one well known in the pantheon of Indian deities. Rather Ishvara comes closest to being the Lord of the transcendent Self, the self that is highest within you. It is your “personal” God. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, the great Vedanta sage who first brought the concepts of Yoga to the West when he appeared at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, “Personal God is the reading of the Impersonal by the human mind.” When you release from a posture after a long holding into a spontaneous flow of movements or into stillness, guided not by your mind but by your awakened energy, you are cultivating surrender to that “personal” God, your higher self.

Adapted from “Yoga for Depression” by Amy Weintraub (Broadway Books, 2004) and used with permission of the publisher. Weintraub is a senior Kripalu Yoga teacher and teaches workshops internationally. She is featured on the CD, “Breathe to Beat the Blues.” For more info, please visit: www.yogafordepression.com.