Several years back, I came across the following passage while reading the Conversations with God series by the renowned author Neale Donald Walsch —
The combination of exercise and meditation is extremely powerful. When this combination becomes part of your spiritual discipline, you create possibilities for enormous growth.
[Source: Communion with God, Neale Donald Walsch, Chapter 18]
These words powerfully resonated with me, as they were in perfect agreement with my own experience of yoga. In fact, these words capture the heart of why yoga practice is so powerful.
The practice of yoga is holistic (wholistic) — it attends to our system as a whole. In addition to exercise and meditation, the holistic aspect of yoga combines many more elements, such as breathwork, regulation of sensory inputs, focusing the mind, and even social and personal ethics. Maharishi Patanjali enunciates 8 limbs of yoga in the practice of yoga which makes it holistic.
The power of yoga comes from this synergistic combination of practices. Synergy — the combination being far greater than the sum of its parts — lies at the heart of yoga practice. To see how the mechanism of synergy works, consider the example of meditation (dhyana). Prior to meditation, the practice of yoga postures (asanas) helps to bring ease and stability to the body. That way, we are not entrapped by the concerns of the body during meditation. Likewise, the practice of breathwork (pranayama) helps to simultaneously calm the mind as well as promote alertness, again setting the foundation for deeper meditation.
It works in reverse too — the practice of meditation helps with making progress in asanas. I remember while studying with my teacher Yogacharya R. Subramanian sir, many students would enquire about how to make the body more flexible. My teacher would always give a surprising answer — “meditate more!”. By calming the mind with meditation, we relieve unnecessary tension and stress in the muscles, therefore promoting lightness and flexibility in the body.
The role of yamas and niyamas (loosely translated as social and personal ethics) is also crucial for the holistic practice. Without ethical conduct in one’s life, the practice of meditation can become uncomfortable or even painful, as feelings of regret and guilt surface into the awareness. These ethical principles can also be applied during the practice of yoga. For example, non-violence (ahimsa) is one of the five yamas enunciated by Patanjali. We can practice ahimsa by listening to and respecting the body during asanas by adjusting the posture to relieve pain and discomfort.
How can we tap into the power of synergy in yoga?
The best way is to ensure that our yoga practice contains all of the holistic elements. Perhaps there is a tendency to focus exclusively on one aspect of yoga, such as asanas. When we recognize that we’d make far more significant progress in our chosen endeavor by integrating all of the other elements of the holistic practice, we discover the power of synergy in yoga.
Allow me to conclude with another insight offered to me by my teacher Sri R. Subramanian. I once asked him whether it is ok to split the yoga practice into two segments — can I do asanas in the morning, and the remaining practices (pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana etc) in the evening. He responded by saying that while it’s certainly better than neglecting some of the limbs of yoga, it is more beneficial to do them in a single session. “By practicing asanas, pranayama, etc you are preparing the mind for such an amazingly deep experience of meditation; why do you want to squander the opportunity?”
So yes, the combination of exercise and meditation (and breathwork, and …) is indeed extremely powerful! Holistic yoga creates a foundation for exuberant health and wellness to blossom, and a space for extraordinary personal growth.