It may be recalled that 21 June has been declared as the International Yoga Day by the United Nations General Assembly on 11 December 2014. As is well known, yoga is a 5,000-year-old physical, mental and spiritual practice having its origin in India, which aims to transform body and mind.
The declaration came after the call for the adoption of 21 June as International Yoga Day by Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi during his address to UN General Assembly on September 27, 2014 wherein he stated:
‘Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.’
It is a fact that yoga has now spread all over the world, and it is estimated that in the USA alone there may be about fifteen million active practitioners of yoga. In the UK, YogaBugs is the largest children’s yoga inspired activity, offering classes for children from walking age to seven years and beyond. The YogaBugs classes bring stories to life through specially developed moves inspired by yoga. Combining fun with exercise, children go on wild adventures where they may roar like a lion, fly like a bird or blast into outer space!
The classes aim to increase confidence in the children, as they are encouraged to be vocal during a class and express their emotions physically, and through creative visualisation techniques they are helped to believe that they are unique and special.
Further, the children improve their concentration through balancing postures that help them to focus their mind, and through concentration techniques to keep the mind in one place instead of letting it wander. Fun is not forgotten – after all, that’s what children (oh, and adults too, isn’t it!) like most – as the children are taken on wild adventures where they are encouraged to use their creative imagination. The impact has been visible in better behaviour on the part of the children, and improved school scores.
On the other hand, though, there are some instances where countries have objected to yoga being introduced, on the ground that it is a Hindu practice, meaning it is part of Hindu religion. Sadhguru of the Isha Foundation, New Delhi, who has an international following, gave the best reply to this objection: ‘Yoga is as Hindu as science is Christian!’ And the same applies to meditation, which is equally a millennial-old practice found in many civilizations.
In the same way that modern science along with scientific thinking is a discipline that originated and was developed essentially within the Christian tradition, similarly did yoga and meditation originate and develop within the Hindu tradition. And just like science has its specific nomenclature for its concepts, laws, principles, so too is the case with yoga and meditation, with Sanskrit being the language of nomenclature. As such it is neutral, and has not got anything to do with religion. And, to paraphrase Sadhguru, yoga and meditation are as universal as science is universal. This means that wherever we are in the universe, the concepts, laws and principles pertaining to these disciplines will be equally valid – call them by whatever name. It is mere context and history that has placed them in their lands of origin, and that should in no way limit their benefits to beyond these regions, to the whole of humanity, to the world at large.
And thankfully, this has been happening. In fact, in recent times the interest of scientists, philosophers, gurus, practitioners of the art and many other open-mined thinkers has led to an increasing exploration of these disciplines. All these good people are coming together in various institutions and laboratories, and their cooperation and collaboration, through new branches of science (such as neuroscience) using innovative scientific techniques (such as imaging methods and IT tools for analyzing complexity) have been yielding significant and very insightful findings. The latter, firstly, confirm the soundness of the foundational postulates of yoga and meditation and, secondly, open up the possibility of many practical applications that potentially have numerous benefits not only for the health and well-being of individuals, but of society and populations at large.
Thus, a new study carried out at the UCLA (University of California in Los Angeles) Brain Mapping Center and published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has shown that meditation might slow the age-related loss of gray matter in the brain. This is good news because since 1970 life expectancy around the world has risen dramatically, with people living more than 10 years longer, but are at increased risks for mental illness and neurodegenerative disease. Fortunately, this study shows that meditation could be one way to minimize those risks. More studies are certainly required, but already, conclude the authors, ‘accumulating scientific evidence that meditation has brain-altering capabilities might ultimately allow for an effective translation from research to practice, not only in the framework of healthy aging but also pathological (disease-related) aging.’
Numerous publications, both lay and specialist, regularly highlight the latest studies, discoveries and findings that show the benefits of meditation (and yoga). Thus, the French magazine L’EXPRESS in September 2014 had a special feature on the subject, titled ‘Comment l’esprit soigne le corps.’ The series of articles are introduced very positively: ‘…que l’esprit guérisse le corps – les preuves en ce sens ne cessent de s’accumuler grâce, notamment, aux dernières découvertes en neurosciences… Les pensées et les émotions qui siègent dans le cerveau ont en effet une influence sur la santé.’ While this influence can be negative, leading to disease and ill-health, on the other hand, ‘le mental, quand ses resources sont bien utilisées (that is, channelled though meditation), est capable de voler au secours du corps.’ In other words, ‘elles permettent aussi d’éviter la maladie.’ And who would not want to avoid being sick?
An equally strong positive message comes from the American journal Scientific American in its issue of November 2014, with the front cover announcing in big bold letters – ‘The neuroscience of MEDITATION: how it changes the brain, boosting focus and easing stress.’
It is noteworthy that one of the authors of the article (‘Mind of the meditator’) is Matthieu Ricard, ‘a Buddhist monk who trained as a cellular biologist before he left France to become a student of Buddhism in the Himalayas about 40 years ago.’ Matthieu Ricard works closely with the Dalai Lama, and did his doctoral training under the French Nobel Laureate Jacob Monod in Paris before he ‘left it all’ to go to the Himalayas.
In a conversation with his father the eminent French thinker Jean Francois Revel, published in book form with the title Le Moine et le Philosophe, he explains that he had a choice to pursue further studies in cellular biology, but he realized that this would have only led to ‘une atomisation de la connaissance’ (I am quoting from memory). He wanted to have a grander, more holistic perspective on knowledge – and that is how he found his way to India, Tibet and became a Buddhist monk.
Buddhist monks are reputed for their contemplative practices – which are elaborated upon in the article he has co-authored with two other authors specialising in brain and mind science, showing that these contemplative practices which date back thousands of years have ‘a multitude of benefits for both body and mind.’
Shiva, Lord of the cosmos, is the meditator supreme. The pilgrimage to Ganga Talao is not only a physical act. It is about us meditating on Shiva, and sourcing the cosmic boon of the energy that flows into us from Him in so doing. And it is not only about that one night of Mahashivaratri: if we want the complete benefit, so that our lives are transformed, such meditation must be woven into our daily lives.
As Swami Suddhananda says, every moment must be a meditation.
* Published in print edition on 13 February 2015