In the West yoga has been marketed as a system with many benefits, so I am not going to go into it in depth. We all know how yoga can enhance your mood, calm the nervous system and focus our attention, however, most of us also know that these benefits don’t last as long as we want them to last. Sometimes, moments after leaving a class the world will challenge you with a bombastic road user or a crisis at home. We are confronted with the same issues, problems and challenges once we leave a class, which leaves us frustrated and to an extent exhausted. It seems the more we want peace and harmony, the more the world would through the opposite to us. On your yoga mat and meditation cushion, yes we can taste the POTENTIAL for growth, we feel the peace and love and light and harmony, yet off the mat we encounter greater resistance. But how can we affect a more lasting change then?
I would frequently sit before a class and just talk to my yogis and if you listen carefully most of the time they complain about tension, stiffness or even pain in the hip area and sometimes they would refer to their chests and how tight it may be after a cold or flu. The hips and heart seem to be receptacles for frustration. “My hips are so tight!” people say, or “How do I open my chest—no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to respond!” This is because much of our emotional issues are concentrated in the hips and heart. It seems to me the heart, chest and hips are receptacles for our painful memories, hurtful emotions and unresolved issues. But on the other hand they are also the founts from which creativity flow, so we express a need to open the heart and hips in order to open ourselves to connect more deeply with our bodies and innate creativity. And in this connection lies the solution to our sometimes very complex emotional states. This is the gift of yoga to you, greater awareness unravels the emotional issues, yes difficult at first, but transformational as we grow and continue of our yoga path.
THE ISSUES ARE IN OUR TISSUES
Yoga doesn’t rid us of our anxieties, our fears, our sorrows or our stress: it just creates awareness that we have these fears, anxieties, sorrows and stresses and if we stay long enough on the yoga path, we start to understand why we harbour these emotions, I call it: awareness that the issues are in our tissues. From a purely Western point of view, it may not make sense that we store our “issues in our tissues” for that Western medicine has alienated us from our bodies and why we have certain diseases and illnesses. However, from a spiritual point of view, it starts to make sense that our mind, body and emotions are inextricably linked. We are much more what we think rather than what we eat! However, we are always surprised when yet another issue arises just as we think we have now worked through it all. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to call it stirring the coffee grounds. There is always something more, yoga seems to penetrate our membranes of defences to reach the deepest, most primitive layers of experience. So the practice of Yoga can feel like opening Pandora’s Box: a primal storehouse of memories, emotions and experiences awaits us. The problem is that this storehouse of memories, emotions etc. seem to evade us most of our life until we start to practice something like yoga which brings us within reach of the subconscious mind. And this is the power of yoga, it transforms us, yoga forces us to live in the present, to focus on what is now in front of us and to being mindful of the here and now.
Once our yoga practice starts to be more than just another set of exercise and we connect deeply with ourselves, our body, emotions and mind, in other words when the transformation starts, we are confronted with unexpected consequences. We seek peace, but yoga brings anger and disharmony, we see happiness, but yoga brings sorrow and sadness or we seek love and yoga brings us rage and anger! We all respond differently to what yoga throw our way, I have noticed two kinds of responses:
- The nervous system sounds the alarm and moves us into a fight or flight lockdown.
- Or, the emotional energy that comes surging forth from our depths creates a state of denial or cognitive disassociation.
Whatever option we choose, each one forces us in a different way to look at ourselves and to start to acknowledge that we are on a path of change, of self-healing and making peace with the story of our lives.
Every life on this planet is worth a book! We all have a story to tell and in that story there are different chapters, actors and scenes. We constantly move in and out between the different stories and scripts. Some is simple stories: my grandmother died when I was 10 years old – this is what this sadness is about. Or more complex: my partner is abusive, cold and emotionally distant, he/she isn’t taking care of me – why I feel such anger and frustration. Or another scenario might be: look how my teacher is assisting that person over there; I’m clearly not one of his/her favourite students – reason for my resentment and jealousy. Our story usually fits our mental and emotional patterns (or samskaras). And this is the amazing aspect of yoga, it creates awareness of the patterns and the reasons why we repeat these patterns so that we can mindfully start to change our mind and say: I am not my father or I am not this pattern I am repeating, I am not this anger, this rage, this jealousy or depression. Once we cognitively start to recognise and realise that we are just repeating old samskaras, then the healing, the transformation can start to happen.
We have this amazing power within us, the power to change our story. Change is the only constant we can be sure of, so instead of fighting change, why not accepting it lovingly into your life and see how different your life might become!
Unfortunately affecting this change in our lives doesn’t come easy, the Ego will try to dissuade you from change, from transformation, it will always try to navigate back to the old familiar patterns and this is the challenge: to change before the pattern become too deeply ingrained. Our mind has specific way to cope with the different stories in life, it likes to run away with a story, give it so many add-ons that we later become confused and in this chaos of confusion we start to repeat old patterns, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment etc. reach into the depths of our consciousness and takes residence there. The danger is that later we cannot remember what the original issue was! This coping mechanism of our mind and Ego lure us away from the original and deep emotion that needs our attention. In this way, it reinforces the very patterns that clearly contribute to our suffering. And it short-circuits the opportunity the story gives us: to go inward and root out the long-standing samskaras that cause us suffering.
This might sound like a cliché, but there is great truth in the statement of my life partner: “Let’s not confuse the issues here!” Whenever we have a difference we need to sort out and I would bring in too many other issues, he would call a time-out moment and remind me of this. It is hard not to bring in other narratives and even harder to focus all our attention on this one story in the here and now. It is human nature it seems to reach to the depths of our minds and to pull out old stories and trying to connect them to what is happening in the here and now. Staying present, being mindful of the moment are tools that can assist us on our path, it can help us to handle our stories better, resolving them quicker, reaching an understanding of the why and how on a deeper level of our being. So yoga is about inhabiting our bodies in a deep way and teaching us to be mindful.
HOW YOGA HELPS
I have written about this, but I am going to repeat it here again: I have this little experiment I do in my yoga classes to illustrate certain truths – I would ask my yogis do to a simple Tree Pose, focusing all their attention on that pose for that moment. Amazingly, when we breathe deeply, focus our attention and will, we can all do a well balanced Tree Pose. I would bring them out of the pose, ask them to feel what they have done and then I would do the other side. Once they are in the pose I would ask them to think about their day, their problems, work, money problems etc. and like clockwork they would all lose the balance and focus. Yoga helps us to sort the issues, by forcing us to be in the moment, focus on what is at hand and to do that well. In that way yoga transforms us, makes us more focused, looking at the issues one by one and transform each one over time.
Google “yoga and hypertension” or “yoga and high blood pressure” and the number of articles are just staggering in support of yoga being beneficial in assisting to regulate blood pressure. One thing is also very clear from all these articles and research and that is that yoga is not a cure for hypertension, just an aid in helping to ensure a lowered blood pressure. The one thing that is missing from most of these articles is the data to support their findings, so when one of my yogis who is busy doing her Yoga Teacher’s Training Course with me reached the module on yoga and high blood pressure, we decide it would be a good exercise for her to collect some data on blood pressures pre and post a yoga class.
The class was a normal Hatha yoga class of 45 minutes followed by a 15 minute period of relaxation. We basically took everybody’s BP before class and then again after class directly after relaxation session. And the info from that is in support of what most studies find, yoga does lower the blood pressure. With the exception of three blood pressures that showed an increase, the rest all decreased. Here with a chart of the pre and post BP’s:
Yoga can be a very effective and non-invasive way of reducing high blood pressure. It is particularly effective in reducing the diastolic number – which is the most important. It is suggested that people with high blood pressure should only practice certain asanas (postures), whilst acknowledging that there are other asanas that are not suitable for them. The yogic practices of meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) are also particularly beneficial for people who suffer from high blood pressure. We did not include any specific pranayama, but focussed throughout the class on proper deep breathing. As an inversion we did include Halasana (plow pose) followed by Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose). I gave no special instructions or warning during this class about what they could and couldn’t do, we decided that all classes would be uniform and the same practice was repeated for three classes.
People with high blood pressure are usually cautioned to be careful in approaching exercise. This is generally because vigorous exercise puts stress on the cardiovascular system, including raising heart-rate and blood pressure. Before engaging in any sort of exercise program, including yoga of any type or variety, people with any sort of cardiovascular condition including high blood pressure should consult their physician. However, yoga asanas are not considered to be cardiovascular exercises as such. Rather than placing the focus on cardiovascular fitness yoga is more about achieving a balance between body and mind, energizing your body in the process. According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali an “asana is a steady comfortable posture”. During most exercise practices the heart is put under stress as the requirement for blood and oxygen is increased. In asanas however, the requirement for blood and oxygen decreases as there are not strains and every muscle is relaxed. When done with conscious breathing asanas balance and stabilize autonomic nervous system resulting in the regulation of blood pressure.
The asanas that regulate the blood pressure belong to the forward bends, supine, sitting, and some of the inversions group. However forward bends are the fundamental asanas to be practiced by persons suffering from high blood pressure, as the sense organs: eyes, nose, throat and tongue are relaxed thereby resting the sympathetic nervous and creating a positive effect on the parasympathetic system. It the appendix of his book Light on Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar recommends the following asanas for individuals suffering from high blood pressure: Plow Pose, Head to Knee Pose, Heroes Pose, Accomplished Pose, Lotus Position, Corpse Pose and the Pachimotonasana Series: Half Lotus Intense Stretch Pose, Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch and Seated Forward Fold.
Research also indicates that shoulder stand is particularly effective as the pose calms the body, “lowering blood pressure by clamping down on the carotids effectively making the local pressure very high. This sends a message to the parasympathetic system, which assumes that the brain tissues are suffering from too much blood, and orders the heart and circulatory system to compensate with pressure cuts.”[sic] (The Science of Yoga: the risks and the rewards – W.J Broad).
In addition to practicing asanas, Yogic breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure. Even for those who’ve never been exposed to yoga before, deep breathing can help to reduce the effects of constant daily stress, including rise in blood pressure. Conscious breathing lowers blood pressure (as well as the amount of the stress hormone cortisol) that is present in the body. Extended pranayama can lead to a sustained lower heart rate. A recent study showed beneficial effects even from short-term practice of regular pranayama and meditation techniques, with significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure. Pranayama has been shown to influence the cardiovascular system with decrease in heart rate, and blood pressure:
- Uijayi Pranayama (or Victorious Breath): This is a balanced and calming breathing technique which builds heat in the body and increases oxygenation, it also this also affects the cartiod sinus which helps to normalize high blood pressure, and
- Naddi Shoddi (or alternate nostril breathing): This is very calming to the nervous system as a whole.
Meditation is another beneficial yogic practice for people with high blood pressure. The body’s physical reaction to stress is not always the same for everyone, but with negative stress there is no real relaxation between one stress situation and the next. Meditation is the study of concentration. The mind and body are very intimately connected; when the mind is completely at ease, the whole body gains complete rest. Practicing meditation techniques in times of physical or mental stress helps to manage the “fight or flight” response to negative stress and lower blood pressure.
There is no single meditation technique that is best for everyone. The right technique is the one which focuses the mind and to elicit the relaxation response. Some examples of meditation techniques are:
- Deep Breathing Meditation: This meditation can be practiced almost anywhere and is the cornerstone for many other relaxation practices.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A technique for reducing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. As the body relaxes so too does the mind.
- Mindfulness: By focusing attention on a single repetitive action such as a word, mantra, breathing, picture or candle the mind becomes calm and focused, bringing the nervous system into balance.
- Yoga Nidra: A guided practice, which puts the body and mind into a deep state of relaxation.
According to many studies, high blood pressure is influenced by the stress and strain of the modern lifestyle. There is a wealth of clinically significant research that suggests adopting yogic practices and principles can help to improve health and mental well-being, increasing resiliency to stress, and, by extension, to high blood pressure. It may seem like stating the obvious, but if one reduces stresses on the mind and the body by eating healthy diet focused on pure, wholesome and nutritious foods, practicing yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation the blood pressure can be controlled within normal limits.
Important note: If you want to try any of the previous suggestions, do not stop any prescribed medications without consulting with your doctor first. Most of these studies have shown that alternative therapies have the ability to help people with pre or mild hypertension avoid medication, or help people who can’t tolerate medications, but are not effective enough for people with severe cases to get off medication altogether. People with hard-to-control blood pressure, however, can use these therapies in conjunction with medication to help bring their numbers down even more.
Most of us want to do yoga 3-4 times a week, however there are time, money and other constraints such as family life and work. And on top of that it is for most of us a challenge to know where to start. By the time you get home, you have most probably forgot the intricate yoga class your teacher sequenced and tomorrow morning you are stuck because for the life of you, you just can’t remember what your teacher did or even said. So where do you start? I would like to share a few tips with and hope it will put you on the right path as it helped me years ago to develop my own home practice.
Space & Time
First set a special spot aside where you will only practice yoga, where your cats and dogs can’t distract you or bother you for attention and where you can build your yoga energy. If you would like to do your yoga in your garden, choose a spot and make sure you feel comfortable there. What time to practice? I personally like to practice at the end of my day, late afternoon, but this is me, you can choose a time that would be more conducive to you and your practice, but make sure you can stick to that time on the days you have selected to do a home practice.
Have a goal in mind
The next tip is to decide initially why do you want to develop a home practice. It is to relief some physical pain? Do you just want to do it to relax? Or do you want to develop your core? Choosing a specific reason why you want to develop a home practice assist you in sticking to that programme and time. If the objective is just to add more yoga to your life, there is little motivation behind it for you, which will cause you most probably to abandon the practice.
But, having a specific goal in mind – for example I want to do yoga to help with my back pain – helps you to stick to programme and it also narrows down the asanas you have to remember. If your yoga teacher has knowledge of you back problem, he/she has already indicated in class which asanas are beneficial for your problem. So listen in the class and remember the asanas that are specific to your problem.
Or, do you want to develop a yoga home practice to help you to relax after a hard day, again listen to your teacher, he/she will indicate which asanas are calmative and relaxing. Also remember the ones that made you feel relaxed and more in tune with yourself and add them to your home practice.
Practice a shorter flow
It will be a long time before you will be able to remember a full 45 minute sequenced class. So, what is the solution? Practice a shorter version of a class and do the asanas you can remember. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, use to say that the benefit of yoga is not in the doing of the asana, but in the holding. Why not try to do a few asanas, but really try to hold them and repeat them, there is no rule that says you can’t repeat an asana for, five or even six times! And limit your time initially to 15 or 20 minutes, stop, relax then and get off your mat and continue your day.
Add Pranayama & Meditation
A home practice isn’t just asanas. How about adding pranayama as part of your home practice? In class there is most probably very little time for a long session of pranayama, but at home you have the perfect opportunity to get into Anuloma Viloma Pranayama for example and work on those in breaths and activate those stomach muscles to help with the out breath. And, after that pranayama you have the perfection moment for a good meditation. Remember the Eight Limbs of yoga doesn’t consist of asana and pranayama only, there are the yamas and niyamas, pratyahara, dharana (do candle gazing to add to your concentration), dhyana and then samadhi – these can all be added to your home practice.
The most important aspect of your home practice is that you do what is good and fun for you. Sometimes you can challenge yourself with an asana you struggle with, but please always remember – Safety First! If you want to, add props like straps, blocks and bolsters to help you with your home practice. And lastly, always end your practice with a relaxation in Savasana (corpse pose), you can use your favourite music or some guided relaxation on a CD or DVD to end your session.
If you go onto many yoga websites and especially yoga forums and start to read through the issues and comments and pay attention to who publish them, one soon realises that there are two huge misconceptions prevalent under most users. The first misconception under Westerners is that yoga is just a set of exercises and they don’t want to acknowledge or have anything to do with the spiritual side of yoga. The second misconception is prevalent under the Asian users, especially Indian, who think that yoga in the West has been perverted to a set of exercises only by those who want to line their pockets. Both misconceptions of course carry some truth in it, but both also generalise tremendously.
My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to say that it doesn’t matter for what reason you practice yoga, whether it is purely as exercise or for more, the spiritual impact and implication of yoga on your soul is inevitable. I am doing yoga now for 14 years of which I am teaching 6 years. In all these years I have seen it over and over how people come to me for yoga and they are only interested in the physical exercise aspect, but end up so absorb and enchanted by their spiritual growth en newly found spirituality. At this point I usually remind my students that yoga is a process of transformation and every aspect of you are touched by that transformation, you cannot avoid it, as sure as the sun will rise and set, so sure this will happen.
Why does this happen? All beings strive to attain and maintain a level of happiness and in yoga this happiness is referred to as Ananda or Bliss. The truth about Ananda is that it cannot be acquired through education, wealth, toys and gadgets or the fulfilment of other earthly desires through entertainment. But Ananda is achieved through a spiritual practice and discipline such as yoga and the spiritual practices associated with yoga such as meditation, satsang, karma yoga, bhakti yoga and more.
When students become aware of this spiritual growth and evolution in themselves, they usually ask me what they can do to ensure greater progress and maintaining this level of Ananda. As with most things in life, we needs rules and discipline to ensure that we hold onto that what we have achieved and spiritual progress ask for a spiritual practice which is aligned to a few basic principles. These are my basic principles and I trust that you will find their value in your own life as well as they have proof themselves over the years to be highly effective:
1. The summit of the mountain is the same for all
When we start out at the foot of the mountain we are usually not even aware that just a few metres away somebody else is also starting to climb the same mountain. The paths start far apart, but as we progress up the mountain and the paths draw closer to each other and the summit, we suddenly realise we are not alone on the mountain. There are others as well and we all are heading to the same place – the Divine.
It is important to recognise that there are as many spiritual paths as there are people. As a yogi and spiritual traveller we need to understand this and respect each path as truth, no matter how much we might feel that ours is the one and only and correct path. The notion of correctness must be abandoned and replaced the awareness that all is appropriate.
In a spiritual context each of us is a unique blend of the the following parameters.
- According to the composition of the 3 subtle basic components (Trigunas) i.e. whether one is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic by nature.
- According to the five cosmic elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether)
- According to the degree to which, different aspects of spiritual practice, have been completed in prior births.
- According to the individual karmic account of give-and-take, destiny and wilful action.
- According to our temperament – person may also adopt a certain path depending on his/her temperament.
2. Our essence is One
For many Western yogis who come from a Christian background this is an easy concept to understand and grasp as we grow up with the notion that God is One. From a spiritual point of view we have to take it a step further. We need to realise that “the kingdom of heaven is within us” and as such our essence is the same even though we may differ on the outside. The underlying awareness is that we are ALL Divine in essence and that we need to recognise the Divinity in each other and respect it.
Just as we realise that the true essence of the gold earring, necklace and armband is gold, although each looks different and functions differently, we recognise and realise that the underlying truth of those items, their commonality, is gold.
3. Progressing from gross (tangible) to subtle (intangible)
As we progress on our path the next step is to cultivate awareness regarding the states of existence around us. If we want to make progress we need to transform our spiritual practice by going from just physical actions to a practice at a more subtle level. A subtle spiritual practice is more powerful than a gross one.
To explain: Sometimes you will meet a person at a meeting, you will shake hands with that person and will be courteous and cordial even to the point where others around you might think you two are good friends and like each other. However, the physical display of friendship was merely a façade from both sides in order to get a favourable outcome to the meeting. On the other hand, two people may feel genuine goodwill towards each other, even though there may be no physical contact.
Likewise, when it comes to practicing Spirituality, simply going through the motions of external ritualistic worship (gross level), with no devotion, needs to be replaced by having real inner devotion to the Divine and an intense desire for spiritual growth (subtle level).
4. Your spiritual practice must reflect your inner level
This is one of the great dangers of the spiritual path and can throw many off the path if they are too impatient initially on the spiritual path. I have seen this many times, people discover their spiritual path and the more you as the teacher try to caution them to take it slowly, the more they push forward. It is like going to school, just because you can suddenly read and write doesn’t mean you can now skip grades and progress instantly from grade 3 to grade 6! Many aspirants look at the teacher and think teacher has attained his/her level overnight, not realising that their teacher and fellow travellers are on their own paths for years now already.
However, for the patient student who is willing and prepared to follow the teachings of their teacher, progressing according to their spiritual ability and capacity, the reward at the end is great. Just as we must heed against impatient and forced development, so we must heed against getting stuck on one level of our spiritual practice as well.
Let us go through the various stages of development from the more gross forms of worship to the more subtle forms as per the level of the seeker:
- At an initial level, we feel that we can make contact with the Divine, only by going to a place of worship and through praying to a statue of God or a Divine being.
- As we progress the next steps is when we feel a connection with the Divine, not just through rituals, but through reading spiritual books whilst sitting in the place of worship, while doing yoga or just watching nature.
- Usually the next step is that we even feel that words are too gross and we become aware of the “vibrations” of a place. Just experiencing the vibrations in a church, temple or at a spiritual place such as the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo or going to India are enough to spiritually nourish a person.
- After that we do not need to even go to a place of worship but can experience the Divine in the beauty of Nature, high up in the mountains, at a serene lake, watching a bird feed or the sun setting.
- At an even higher level, we do not need nature anymore but can experience the Divine even in daily living and at great will. No matter where you are, there is a quit presence within that permeates all in your life now.
5. Making your spiritual jumps now
The parable of the sower in the Bible immediately comes to mind here. I know many would like to read this parable as an indication that karma and reincarnation is present in Christian dogma and I am myself very partial to it. However, I also feel this parable has a deeper lesson for us and that is that we need to understand that there is an appropriate time for all things to happen in life. If seeds are sown in the dry months instead of the rainy season, then we will have no harvest. Similarly on the spiritual path, certain spiritual practices are more conducive according to the time (yuga) or era we live in.
Yuga in Hindu philosophy is the name of an ‘epoch’ or ‘era’ within a cycle of four ages. These are the Satya Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and finally the Kali Yuga. According to Hindu cosmology, life in the universe is created and destroyed once every 4.1 to 8.2 billion years, which is one full day (day and night) for Brahma. The lifetime of Brahma may be 311 trillion years. The cycles are said to repeat like the seasons, waxing and waning within a greater time-cycle of the creation and destruction of the universe. Like Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, each yuga involves stages or gradual changes which the earth and the consciousness of mankind go through as a whole. A complete yuga cycle from a high Golden Age of enlightenment to a Dark Age and back again is said to be caused by the solar system’s motion around another star. Currently we are in the Kaliyug and as such we are very far from the Sun. The ages see a gradual decline of dharma, wisdom, knowledge, and intellectual capability, and life span, emotional and physical strength, here follow a brief explanation of each yuga:
Satya yuga: This was a very pure era when the average spiritual level of a person was 70% (this is the level of a Saint). These people were so pure spiritually that the Path of Knowledge was best suited to them as they had the potential to spontaneously understand the implied meanings of all the spiritual scriptures.
Treta yuga: This was the era when the spiritual level of the average person dropped to 55% and so they lost their potential to follow the Path of Knowledge. But they were spiritually capable enough to undertake penance (the kind that allowed a seeker stand on one foot for 12 years) and meditation (the kind that made a seeker meditate long enough for an ant hill to grow all over him).
Dwapara yuga: In this era, there was a further decline in the average spiritual level to 35%. People lost their potential for rigorous penance and sustained meditation. Thus it was Divinely ordained that they would be able to make progress through ritualistic worship. These rituals and sacrificial fires (yadnyas) were very time consuming and laborious as they had to be done after searching for the right ingredients. Along with this there were numerous steps that had to be followed to the last detail. But in this era people were religious-minded enough to spend the time, effort and money to do these rituals.
Kali yuga: This is translated as the ‘Era of strife’ and is the current period. The average person’s spiritual level has dropped to only 20%. Our capacity to do any of the above spiritual practices has greatly reduced. But considering the turbulent times we live in and the extent of the spiritual pollution we experience – the Divine has made a simple provision for us to still grow spiritually. And as Sri Durga always pointed out, your greatest spiritual jumps you can make in the kaliyug as the opportunity to grow spiritually is also magnified for those who stick to their path and their discipline.
6. Give according to your talent
All of us have some kind of resources at our disposal. A basic principle in spiritual practice is that we use these same resources to serve the Divine as part of our spiritual practice and grow spiritually. The resources we have fall broadly into four categories: our body, our wealth and worldly connections, our mind and intellect and lastly our sixth sense.
We can use our body to serve the Divine by for example cleaning a venue before a yoga practice or spiritual lecture starts. We can use our body to drive other seekers to the venue or we may offer our body to assist with the lecture or teaching.
When we are unable to offer our body, we can offer our financial resources as way to serve the Divine. We can help to pay for others who don’t have enough, we can ensure that out contributions to our spiritual teachers and institutions are regular and on time in order for them to serve us spiritually.
It is important to apply your good intellect and mind to spiritual practices that may advance others on the path. For example, you can be a guest writer on a blog such as this one if you feel you have something to share, or you can share your knowledge and experience of yoga and spiritual forums.
Lastly, all of us were born with a sixth sense; some just allow it to develop further than others. If you are gifted with a strong sixth sense the onus is on you to use it to facilitate spiritual growth in yourself and others.
The spiritual path is like any other path, there are signs that will indicate where you must go now or what you must do next. Some signs will stop you for a while and then there may be obstacles on your path which will require much effort and persistence to overcome. Sometimes there are exits on the path and we are tempted to take those exist, but I implore you to stay on your chosen path. If you cannot even see you hand in front of you so thick is the fog on your spiritual path, realise that you are not alone and ask for help as well sometimes or accept help when it is offered – it might just clear the fog for you. Stay on your path, but if you need to change tyres or even the vehicle, then follow your instinct and do it.
Same on the spiritual path, to make progress we must traverse all the signs, obstacles, spiritual potholes and other conditions to make progress. Sometimes we need to change from one teacher to the next, but ensure that it will further you on the path. Sometimes your own teacher might give you warnings about upcoming dangers, heed these and don’t think your teacher is just difficult or feeble. However, also take time to enjoy the journey, stop sometimes and remember to just breathe as well!
If you read this post you most probably had one of two experiences while doing yoga:
1. You were extremely down before a yoga class and by the time you finished the class you are amazed by the fact that you feel emotionally refreshed, positive and uplifted.
2. You went to class in such a good mood, but during class you started to experience a swell of emotions which totally engulfed you to the point where you just started to breakdown and cry in class.
My own teacher Sri Durga told us that yoga has the uncanny ability to purify us on all levels and more so on the emotional level. We think that we have our emotions under control or that we have dealt with certain emotional issues in our lives, just to discover through yoga that in fact we haven’t. And if you haven’t, your yoga practice will bring forth those emotional issues until you have positively dealt with them. I am a great proponent of Louise L. Hay and her work on how our emotions affects our muscles, our internal organs and ultimately leads to dis-ease and illness. But, as a yoga teacher and practitioner I have learned how yoga can help us to face these emotional challenges and assist us to overcome them.
In Chinese medicine there are twelve main meridians. Along the path of the meridians, there are certain places where the energy pools, making the qi of the meridian more accessible there than at other places. These pools of energy are called acupuncture points. When we do asana in yoga, we either stretch or contract, putting pressure on or taking pressure of these points, affecting the flow of energy in our bodies. It is taught in yoga as in Chinese medicine that there are several emotions identified as having a specific attraction to particular organs. An excess of fear damages the kidneys. Too much anger damages the liver. Excess hate damages the heart, while grief in overabundance damages the lungs. Too much sympathy damages the spleen and sadness destroys the brain. Conversely, equilibrium in the emotions causes the body and its organ systems to work more efficiently.
It is therefore the natural teaching of yoga that every asana have an effect not only on the muscles but also on the emotions. When we awaken to the emotional side of yoga asana and accept the impact of asana on our emotional body, we become more sensitive, perceptive, and responsive to the emotional challenges we have to face both on and off the mat. According to Patanjali yoga asana is a position that is both steady and comfortable, a place where one can feel completely present. From this silent backdrop, we watch the agitated mind. Practice then becomes a purifying method of listening to the inner workings of the mind and emotions. It is important to be patient and compassionate with yourself even in the face of negative emotions leading the way. Don’t judge, but use discernment to enhance your awareness, in other words pay attention to your emotions and how they affect you. And remember above all you are not those emotions, you are merely going through that experience like going through a traffic crossing.
When we come to yoga we all approach yoga from where we are – some might be already flexible and find yoga a breeze, for the next person every asana may be extremely difficult to perform due to stiff and inflexible muscles, some already have severe back, neck, shoulder or hip issues and the next person might be diabetic or have heart issues. It is the intention of yoga to meet you where you are and working with you on all levels, including the emotional level. You may find that practicing downward facing dog pose deeply stretches the shoulders, the spine, hamstrings, feet, and the Achilles tendons, but we can also use this asana to decrease depression and anxiety. A simple asana such as cat-cow breathing can reduce fear. Supine twists are excellent asanas for relieving back pain, but they help us to accept our stresses in life and prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by all our challenges. So gradually you learn to relax, you learn to release the emotions through your sustained yoga practice in a positive and sympathetic environment and you learn that it is save to release those built up emotional tensions in your body, guiding you to greater equanimity, peace, harmony and tranquillity. The ripple effect of this release of even very deep and old emotions, will eventually lead to understanding our bodies and ourselves much better.
Your yoga experience is unique and highly individual according to your body, it follows that the affect on the emotional body or Manomaya Kosha will also be unique and individual, depending on where we store stress in our bodies. In yoga philosophy, we are taught that the emotional body has its own sheath or layer. The Manomaya kosha (sometimes called the astral body) houses all our emotions. When the emotions in this layer get stuck – fear, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion – they can cause energy to become trapped in the physical body, including the internal organs. While some people may manifest anxiety in the throat (i.e., have a difficult time expressing or voicing their emotions) others will experience that same stress in the digestive organs, or the liver (i.e, they have a hard time digesting their feelings as in “I can’t stomach this.”)
Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation and opening of the chest, backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as forward bends tend to calm an agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale-oriented postures are executed in order to create equilibrium in the body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.
Examples of a few asanas and how they can deepen our understanding and awareness of our emotions:
- Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks— inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.
- Balasana (child’s pose) sends relaxing signals to both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Garudasana offers relief to the scattered mind and works on the balance of the external and internal worlds.
- Marichyasana (sage pose) is one of yoga’s greatest harmonizers because it both calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.
- Janu shirshasana (head to knee) relieves feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, and stress. On each exhalation, let the torso sink further toward the legs.
- Dhanurasana (bow) helps stimulate the inhale and arouses the adrenal glands.
- Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. While standing, lift your imaginary ax on your inhale, and with a forceful “Ha!” on the exhale, chop the imaginary wood between your legs.
Though every person’s experience of yoga is different, the following are some common emotions that arise in varying poses:
Forward bends – these asana can trigger a release of egocentric attitudes. They force us to face our fears as we turn inward. Those of us always looking behind to see what the world is up to will have difficulty in forward folds, and may have to confront emotions which have to do with surrendering to our own strength. Forward bends calms the mind and body and emotions and tends to bring greater understanding into our consciousness.
Backward bends – these asana are important when dealing with attitudes of embracing life – of being wide open to receive the good, bad and the ugly, to rise to life’s challenges. When practicing backbends, we may have to deal with emotions of being a doormat to others – literally bending over backward to please them, letting go of co-dependent patterns and building our own self-esteem without relying on others excessively to give us a positive self-image. Just as in forward folds, backbends can bring up fears associated to these emotional patterns. Those who are extremely shy or have had their heart broken repeatedly may feel feelings of sadness as psychic wounds of the heart are healed. Because we are exposing our whole self to the world in backbends, they can also bring up feelings of confrontation experienced in the past with the self or others. But on the plus side backbends tend to calm the mind and bring harmony and peace into the body.
Balancing asana – Have you ever noticed that your one side is sometimes more balanced than the other? In yoga philosophy the left side is the female side, it is the ida or moon side and deals with our more feeling and artistic expressions. The left side also deals with issues of the past. The right side is our male side, it is pingala or the sun side and the right side is more logic and calculated and deals with the present. Balancing asanas are extremely indicative of a person’s emotional state. Someone with an un-easy emotional state, or a mind busied with too many emotions, will find balancing poses very difficult. As they find equilibrium in these poses, whatever emotions that are causing the mind to become agitated may increase before subsiding to a more peaceful place. Balance poses help to build a calm, resilient, steady mind.
Twisting asana – as you may have imagined, these asana have to do with untangling the knots of life. All twisting asana initiate feelings of dealing with obstacles we face, and developing strength to face whatever comes our way. Twists, along with backbends give us more confidence through sustained practice, and develop overly introversive personalities.
Finally, inverted asana – when we practice these asana, we are literally turning the world on its head – changing our perspective completely, turning our behavioral patterns upside down. Inversions help us to see ourselves, and our world from a different angle, so you can imagine all the emotions that can arise from turning your whole perspective around. Inversions help to purify the mind and bring greater peace and calm even when our worldview feels shaken.
Finally a few pointers in assisting you to cultivate greater awareness of your body-emotion connection and dealing with them:
Practice Off the Mat – Notice the situations that cause you to become tense. Are you an anxious driver, talker, or worker? When you cook or do the dishes, does your back feel strain? Whether the tension is in the shoulders, neck, back, or navel center, practice moment-to- moment body awareness. This will help you cleanse your negative emotions and trapped issues so that they don’t find a permanent home in your body.
Wise Words – Following the path of yoga cuts through the roots of suffering. Hatha yoga teaches us control of breath and control of body. Through awareness we learn concentration, control of our thought patterns, and emotional control. The serious yoga practitioner will cling less to life’s negative matters, permitting the practice to have a levelling effect on the emotional body.
Frustration in the Body – When we feel frustrated, it generally means that we’re not flowing with the experiences of our lives. Instead we’re pushing away or resisting something. Frustration then collects in the body. Many of us feel it in the shoulders, neck, low back, and hips. Problems in the shoulders represent irritability and resistance to change. Issues in the back can be related to a repression or restriction in your life, hurtful issues from the past, or the need to carry the weight of the world. Repressed anger creates tension in the neck as you force your feelings down your throat instead of saying what you want to say. You can literally experience a pain in the neck from something or someone who makes you angry. The hips are related to general frustration. Notice the person who often stands with her hands on her hips. This is a gesture of feeling frustrated and out of control.
Feel what you have done – Whenever your teacher stops during class and ask you to feel what you have done, take that time and cultivate awareness of your emotions and body and how the influence each other.
Intention is everything – The natural outflow of awareness is intention. Set your intention for each yoga class to work through those emotional challenges your body manifest at that particular point in your life.
Breathe regularly deeply – The breath is everything, my teacher used to say. Cultivate breath awareness and learn to breathe deeply into your belly, putting all of your awareness into the breath. Feel all the emotions of your respiratory system—the air in the nostrils, throat, and chest, the belly and chest rising. Feel the rib cage expanding to the front, to the sides beneath the armpits, and all the way into the lower back. Gently move your attention from your mental state to your breath so that you can more easily observe and step back from your emotions.
Embracing Change – Change is one of the most difficult aspects we have to face on a daily basis. Through the practice of yoga, we awaken to how life unfolds moment by moment. Things are constantly changing—the breath, your state of mind, the phases of the moon, the seasons. This can be both a profound revelation—life is like a flower that blooms continuously—and a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even your body will let you down in the end.
When we resist change, the ego will try to hold on to the body as it is. Consequently the body contracts and tenses, and the natural flow of energies slows down or may stop completely, creating blocks in the form of a tight hip or frozen shoulder. That’s why until we accept the changes that occur from day-to-day and from year to year, and until we surrender to the natural course of existence, little progress can be made along the path of yoga.
Asana practice shows us how our bodies, minds, and the world around us are constantly changing. Today, through breath, patience, and a watchful eye, we’ll honour our changes from movement to movement and embrace the reality of change.
- Embracing change creates ease and freedom in your world.
- The only constant is change.
- Give yourself room for expansion. Give yourself room to change.
- Allow change to happen to you. Don’t resist it.
- Sunrise and sunset are obvious reminders of change.
- May we learn to accept life’s constant changes.
Shortly after people started doing yoga with me, they want to know when will I teach them meditation. And great is their surprise when I usually tell them that they are already busy learning meditation since the very first class. Yoga in its very nature is a meditation of the body and once the body and nerves have sufficiently been calmed and prepared by a regular yoga asana practice, then only can I start to teach meditation. This process in the West takes anything from about 6-8 months.
As Westerners, we need to understand that our bodies and nervous system is condition to our very active and rajastic lifestyle, work and play environment. Another problem initially is our bodies itself, as we are not used to sit cross-leg for long periods of time, within five minutes of an untrained body the body will become restless, legs will start to itch and needles and pins will develop, this is all signs that your body needs more yoga asana and that your nervous system is still too excitable to sit for meditation. As I live in South Africa, many white people doing yoga with me have the typical large Germanic bone structure and many of the Africans have also a large structure, which makes sitting in meditation that more challenging. Back issues, poor core strength and very inflexible hips makes the sitting worse for many.
It is my experience that a person who starts with meditation in an unconditioned body don’t persist with the practice, while a person who has sufficiently being prepared through an asana practice is much more persistent and successful in the long-term with their meditation practice.
This meditation article addresses the techniques to lead you to meditation and how to choose your own daily meditation practices.
Meditation: Practice the Art of mindfulness
“Calmness is the ideal state in which we should receive all life’s experiences,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, in the book Inner Peace. Yogananda is regarded as one of the great spiritual teachers melding East and West. Through meditation, he writes, one can cultivate a wonderful inner quiet that will melt away stress and nervousness.
To meditate, you need to break away for a brief moment from your everyday schedule and life. Start by switching off your cellphone, unplug your landline, shutdown your computer, ask your family to allow you some time on your own and ask them not to interrupt you. In other words you need to ensure that you won’t be interrupted during this time.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Where Should I Meditate? You may wish to set aside a special corner of one room, your own private sanctuary, a calm, quiet and peaceful place. You might furnish the area with objects or icons that have spiritual meaning for you, developing a little altar or shrine. Use what will put you into a contemplative frame of mind. You may want to enlist the help of Mother Nature by bringing a lovely rose with a beautiful fragrance or spend time at the ocean listening to the surf crashing upon the rocks in you live near the sea, or for me a peaceful walk barefoot through my own garden puts me immediately in the right frame, or stand near a stream with water, a waterfall or even a water feature in your garden, anything that you know that will calm you down will be appropriate.
- How Should I Sit When I Meditate? The classic posture is to sit with legs folded and hands resting quietly on the lap or the knees. And I would suggest that you make yourself as comfortable as possible in this position. Use more cushions under the tailbone to give your pelvis a tilt and a more comfortable position, the key is to find a way of sitting that is comfortable for you. I do not recommend laying flat on your back as this position reminds the body of sleeping and this usually happens very quickly.
- Should My Eyes Be Open or Closed? I recommend closing the eyes, especially if you are new to meditation, this way you withdraw a key sense from the outside world and it already becomes so much easier to still the mind if there is one less sense that stimulates it. Also keep the face “soft” by relaxing all the facial muscles, drop the jaw slightly and these simple steps should already make it easier for you to become more relaxed and mindful.
- How Long Should I Meditate? There is no fixed time frame. Initially I recommend a sitting of just five minutes for about three months just to condition the body and then a gradual increase over time. The secret is to listen to your body, over time it will tell you how long it will and want to sit. Another big issue is how much time do you have? If you have only about ten minutes say in the morning, then you sit in meditation for only ten minutes. Flow with your own time is key for me. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “your practice should bring you bring you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence.” To begin, try short sessions; then break for one minute. “It’s often during the break that meditation actually happens!” writes Rinpoche. It may also be useful to get into the habit of setting aside the same times every day, be they for prayer or meditation. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, recommends rising 15 minutes earlier than usual to give your day a “contemplative dimension.” Without these precious moments, he says, “your whole day can slip away into a mad chase,” but with them your entire day can be imbued with meaning and joy.
- Other considerations: Add ritual to your meditation, ritual creates familiarity for the mind and it relaxes the mind. Do things such as lighting a candle, put a flower on your altar and burn some incense. Avoid modern mixtures such a vanilla, cinnamon and strong fragrances such as rose. Start with either sandalwood or frankincense, it is said that they aid meditation and relax the mind and body. Create some ritual for yourself. After I have lit my candle and incense, I immediately go to my seat, sit and then peacefully I offer myself and my day to the Divine, then I start with a few breathing exercises and usually after the breathing slipping into the mindful state is much more easier. To end your meditation say a peace prayer or the Universal Prayer or some prayer that you like. Then add some ritual again by putting out your candle and incense if it is still burning.
Four Basic Ways to Practice Meditation
- Follow your breath: This is the most universal of all mindfulness techniques. First, exhale strongly a few times to clear the base of the lungs of carbon dioxide. It is helpful to review the technique for following the deep breathing method of imagining a lotus blossom residing in your lower abdomen; as the breath fills the belly, the petals of the blossom expand; as you exhale, the petals close back up. Slowly and gradually as the mind relax, let go of the conscious breathing and allow it to just happen as the mind become still and contemplative. The moment the mind wanders off, worrying about problems, start to consciously breath again and repeat until the mind learn to let go and relax.
- Observe an icon or object: Allow your mind to rest lightly on an object. If you come from the Christian tradition, this might be an image of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit. Images of the Eastern gods and goddesses may also help you or a statue of the Buddha may be the object of you focus or even a candle flame. Again, focus with the eyes open on the image, as the image become etched in your vision slowly close the eyes and keep that image in your mind’s eye as long as possible, the moment the image disappear and the mind starts to wander, open the eyes and concentrate again on the image, repeating this process until the mind can relax and keep the image.
- Recite a mantra: A mantra literally means “that which protects the mind.” So reciting a mantra protects you with spiritual power. It is also said that when you chant a mantra, you are charging your breath and energy with the energy of that particular mantra. Again, choose something with meaning for you within your spiritual tradition: recite the Rosary, for example. Tibetan Buddhists use a mantra for peace, healing, transformation and healing. “Recite the mantra quietly, with deep attention, and let your breath, the mantra and your awareness become slowly one,” writes Rinpoche.
- Do a Guided Meditation: Guided meditation is akin to guided imagery, a powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination toward a conscious goal. However, for this meditation you either need somebody to instruct you on what next to imagine or you need a CD with guided meditations.
Is It Really Meditation?
The techniques described here are meditation practices rather than meditation itself, which is often described by experienced practitioners as “a state of being — a state of receptivity without expectation, a merging with the Divine.” All of the techniques are practice to get to this final merged state.
Therefore, meditation practice is not meditation. One might practice meditation for years to achieve a meditative state of being. An experienced meditator might meditate for an hour to achieve a few moments of meditative consciousness.
The Benefits of Meditation Are Subtle
While you may not feel flashes of insight when practicing meditation, its effects will become apparent to you later, when you may notice that you responded to a crisis with uncharacteristic calmness, or failed to get “triggered” in a situation that would normally disturb you. Trust in the process, let go of your expectations of achieving “results” (after all, meditation is not a contest), and you will reap the results.
The real miracle of meditation, says Rinpoche, is a subtle transformation that happens not only in your mind and your emotions but also in your body. And, this transformation is a healing one. “Even your cells are more joyful.”