1. Morning prayers at dawn on the river Ganges in Varanasi
2. A priest celebrates aarti before the sacred Ganges in Varanasi
3. With Guru Swami Pranavananda in the temple of his hermitage in the Kolli Hills, Tamil Nadu.
Habits, Routines and Rituals
Being aware of everything around and within us, and what we are doing, is regarded as a very important attribute in our yoga lives. It is sometimes said that we should be aware of every breath we take, every action, every response our bodies make to the world around us. There is also an idea that we should do everything as though it were a new discovery. In real life this is impossible to achieve. What we need to do, is to differentiate between those actions which can be repeated without always having 100% attention, and those which do. Both mindful, and mindless actions, can have positive and negative aspects.
Mindless Habits and Routines
a) Can save time. Experienced drivers perform manoeuvres which tax every fibre of brain power a learner might have. The danger of course is that we do not concentrate when we need to.
b) They may remove the need for decision making. Knowing that on a particular day you change the bed sheets, allows you to forget the issue for the rest of the week. Conversely they could mean that you miss out on spontaneous variety in your life.
c) It is reassuring to have routines, but they can become very limiting, especially if others are involved. Visiting an elderly relative at the same time regularly, can create tensions if the routine is broken. There is also the danger that routines can become empty repetitions, or social niceties without meaning.
Mindful Habits and Routines
a) Can accentuate experiences. Sometimes even doing simple things like brushing our teeth slowly and with total concentration can make us aware of feelings and the meaning of our actions.
b) They can heighten awareness. Savouring wine and fine food in the mouth, against swallowing quickly is yogic in the awareness which is developed. We need to recognise that in so doing we may have to divert resources. Trying to enjoy a good meal, watch TV and have a discussion on an important issue, can`t all be done at the same time.
c) We can enrich our lives by focusing on one thing at a time. Rather than expecting our overworked left brain to cope with everything at once, we can also open the right brain to become much more creative and involved in our actions.
Rituals, ideally are repetitious actions which are done with awareness. Unfortuanately they can easily become meaningless habits or routines. Often they are the codified remains of ancient practices whose origins are now all but lost. Many of the rituals of our festivals, such as bringing in the holly at Christmass, eating fig pudding on Palm Sunday, baptising babies or giving horseshoes to brides are seldom understood, and remain as quaint survivors from another age.
Like all habits, rituals can however help to reinforce the meaning and value of what we do. In our yoga practice meaningful rituals have a valuable role.
Symbols can be seen as ritualistic objects or icons. Again to be useful they need to be meaningful to us. Some symbols are universal affecting us on both conscious and subconscious levels. Some symbols which might be useful in your practice of yoga could be:-
A picture or statue of your god - keeps the ultimate experience, becoming one with the Divine, in you rmind.
A Candle - in yoga caln be seen as the Akhanda Jyoti, the eternal flame, it represents the element fire, our masculine nature, and the living aspect of God.
Incense - smoke is used in many cultures to cleanse the air. Smoke is also seen as a prayer rising to heaven, and represents the element air.
A container of Water - as the element of water. Water is cleansing and cooling. It represents the feminine within us.
A Stone or bowl of earth - reminding us that we are of the earth.
Your mat - represents your sacred space.
Removing clothing or restrictive watch straps etc - symbolises the freedom yoga offers, and that we are opening ourselves to the Divine. Yogis who wear the Indian lungi (sarong), choose cloth which is unstitched, again representing the lack of ties.
Bhakti yoga, is the Yoga of Devotion, where the aspirant focuses their actions on their love of God. It is the path attractive to those of a religious nature. The rituals and prayers then become very special offerings to God. Rituals can be incorporated into many different aspects of your day. To begin the day with a few minutes of prayer or meditation is a particularly valuable way in which to start.
A puja is a daily ritual, honouring ones own chosen diety, or concept of god (ishta devata). Sometimes they are seen as invocations, receptions and entertainments for our god. In traditional Indian yogic and Hindu circles morning and evening pujas, called aarti, may be highly developed and very complex, especially in temples. For yogis the morning puja is always done before breakfast. Keeping our puja simple can help to make it both easier to maintain, and also more acceptable in our western minds. Essentially what we are doing is welcoming the Divine into our lives at the start of the day, and giving thanks at the end.
Create a shrine to suit your own beliefs and tastes. This may be an ornate altar with rich coverings and the finest silver vessels and icons. Or you may prefer a simple board with wooden and ceramic vessels
On your shrine, place an image or statue of your god, a candle or light, and any other symbols you choose.
Each morning visit the shrine taking an offering, a few flowers which can be left, a coin to be sent to charity, or even a small scoop of bird seed. Open nearby curtains to let in the morning light. Clean the shrine and light the candle or burner. Burn incense if you wish. Place your offering on the altar as a gift.
Now spend some time in thoughtful prayer. There is no need to presume to ask God for what you want. Focus on realising that your God is with you and will be with you through the day. Hindus recite the Gayatri mantra. You may wish to use the Lord`s, or other prayers. Try to allow a little time without structured thought. Let your mind be open and receptive.
To finish, take your leave in whatever way seems appropriate. It may be necessary, or wise, to snuff the candle. Offerings like bird seed can be taken and sprinkled outside then, or the next morning.
At any time using the anjali mudra (palms together, thumbs touching the heart) honours your conception of god or the divine.
And then to breakfast - eating with awareness and appreciation.