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It's Yoga Month: Give Yourself a Break and Stretch Your Mind

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September is National Yoga Month, the brainchild of Los Angeles resident and yoga enthusiast Johannes Fisslinger, who calls it an awareness campaign "to educate about the many benefits of yoga and inspire our fellow citizens to live healthier, happier lives." It's a good opportunity for anyone unfamiliar with the ancient system to find out what all the fuss is about. If you've been wondering what the 16 million Americans who go to yoga classes are up to, the official website, www.yogamonth.org, will guide you to nearby studios that are offering free classes, free weekly passes or special events this month. And if you have sampled some yoga, this might be a good time to take it deeper.

There are any number of excellent reasons to take a yoga class. Motivations range along a continuum from looking fabulous and meeting hotties, on one end, to attaining spiritual enlightenment on the other, with a host of mental and physical benefits in between. My advice to yogic neophytes is: any potential reward can serve as your starting point, but don't ignore the depth of meaning in the yogic tradition.

Yes, it is now a 6 billion dollar industry, but it is more than a fitness trend. It's a system of holistic development that is universal enough to be of value to anyone, on either secular or spiritual terms. If you're looking for better health and reduced stress, you'll find it -- and an online search will turn up more than 1,000 scientific studies documenting those benefits. If it's expanded consciousness and spiritual development you're after, you'll also find that, and you'll find documentation in classic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras.

The word yoga, as even curiosity seekers know by now, comes from the same root that gave us the word "yoke." It means union. You will hear union described in many ways -- as the unity of mind and body, as kinship with others or with all of humanity or as a sense of oneness with the planet. But the principle union that yoga stands for is the unity of the individual with the universal, of the personal self with the infinite Self. In religious terms, it can be understood as the union of the soul with God. In the mahavakyas (great utterances) of Hinduism, the realization of ultimate unity is expressed in phrases such as "This Self (Atman) is Brahman" and "Thou art That."

In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali defines yoga at the outset (in the second verse, after a pro forma opening verse) as "the cessation of the mind's fluctuations." You will see that translated in different ways, with terms like "suppression" or "control" replacing "cessation" (the differences are not trivial; they lead to different emphases in practice), any of which points to an inner silence in which unity is revealed as an ever-present reality obscured by the habits of mind. That is "yoga" as a state of awareness. The other, more common use of "yoga" depicts a system of mental and physical practices designed to achieve that unified awareness. The familiar stretching and bending exercises called asanas (literally, posture) were traditionally used as a prelude to deep meditation, as were the breathing exercises called pranayama. You might say one practices yoga to attain Yoga.

You might be content with feeling healthier and more vital; you might be satisfied with reduced tension and a taste of inner peace; but you would be doing yourself a disservice if you ignored the deeper, more profound fulfillment described by the yogic sages and experienced, to one degree or another, by millions of practitioners in India throughout time and recently here in the West.

Yeah, you might be intimidated by magazine photos of lithe, shapely yoginis and muscular, limber yogis bent in seemingly impossible poses. Forget about it. Sign up for a beginner's class and you'll see plenty of stiff, chunky bodies that can't bend forward and touch their knees, much less their toes. As any good yoga teacher will tell you, it's about the process, not appearances or achievements. And this month, you can get free samples.

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