Mind, Body, Breath

10 January 2017

Despite its popularity as a contemporary workout, the practice of yoga carries an ancient philosophy – one that is championed by Master Manisekaran, founder of the Malaysian Yoga Society (MYS) and the Malaysian Association of Yoga Instructors (MAYI).

For the uninitiated, the practice of yoga in a modern and urban setting has become a caricature of stereotypes. From impressive yet aspirational contortionist poses on Instagram to overt hippie ideals synonymous with yoga, it’s often forgotten that this fitness trend was predicated on an ancient philosophy of hatha yoga, which is to attain enlightenment through perfect health.

“Perfect health is good physical, mental and emotional wellbeing,” says Master Manisekaran, founder of the Malaysian Yoga Society (MYS) and the Malaysian Association of Yoga Instructors (MAYI). He advocates the traditional concept of hatha yoga to his students (yoga instructors), and they subsequently run yoga camps, workshops and community outreach programmes for underprivileged children.

“Hatha yoga was designed to maintain perfect health through slow, smooth, structured movements while being mindful of your breath,” says Manisekaran, who’s quick to add that it’s not just about breathing but how the practice encapsulates all three: “The physical movement of the body has to coordinate with the medium of breathing, and your mind being in the present moment.”

Most fitness centres and yoga studios promote yoga practice as a form of physical exercise. This also includes contemporary iterations such as hot yoga (yoga practiced in a hot room) to yogilates (a combination of yoga and pilates). While the poses and moves are still considered asanas (traditional yoga poses), most of them tend to skim the surface of what traditional yoga espouses.

“They’re just different schools of thought – they may use hatha yoga poses but the traditional intention which includes mind, body, breath and inner power, may not be there,” explains Manisekaran, adding that most of these contemporary techniques take on a more athletic approach for physical fitness and building body strength.

However, Manisekaran doesn’t see these modern forms as taking over from traditional yoga schools and ashrams as he views them as mutually exclusive. “They [fitness centres] will attract those interested in fitness, and not take away those practicing traditional yoga,” he says.

For yoga, it’s not enough to work on physical strength. You may achieve a balancing pose that strengthens your core and arms but the mind remains unchanged. “It has to include the mind because in the philosophy of yoga, fitness of the mind is attained when breath is managed,” Manisekaran explains.

According to the long-time yogi, a healthy mind is an aware one, aided by steady breathing and mindfulness. For example, a soldier or athlete may be at the top of their game in physical fitness but can be prone to violence, angry outbursts and cruelty, which is a sign of turbulent thoughts and an unhealthy mental state.

Historically, the practice of yoga is to quell a mental state – to slow down the mind to a healthy pace to later achieve enlightenment. It is a form of moving meditation, to bring the awareness of your environment inwards to yourself and working from the inside out.

“Yoga is to be more aware of yourself; being a yogi is not for the world, it’s for yourself,” says Manisekaran. “But when you’re doing it for yourself, you’re also doing it for the world,” he adds. Much like your own breath and pace, yoga is like a fingerprint – unique to each individual. A focus on oneself causes a ripple effect of calmness and mental clarity, which extends to compassion and awareness of yourself and the people around you.

While achieving enlightenment is often linked to spirituality, Manisekaran doesn’t see yoga as a spiritual process: “Yoga is not meant to be a spiritual process and not disassociated [from] normal life.” He reiterates that anybody can practice yoga without the need to go to an ashram, be spiritual, become a vegetarian or stand on his or her head.

“When we have a greater appreciation for our own breath, balance and body, we become compassionate towards ourselves and naturally take this love and extend it to other human beings and living things,” Manisekaran concludes.

By Mabel Ho

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