project mind: journey to the core

“The physical body is not only a temple for our soul, but the means by which we embark on the inward journey toward the core.”

BKS Iyengar, 14 December 1918 – 20 August 2014

This is week three of project mind. Each week, I select an image or an idea to focus my daily meditation practice, inspired by this article in the Huffington Post, titled Everything Changed When I Started Meditating Every Day.

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BKS Iyengar: Best of

“We were just coming out of the ’60s change-your-consciousness thing, and many of us were in our heads, and wanting to meditate, and reach Samadhi,” or enlightenment, Patricia Walden, a longtime student of Mr. Iyengar’s, said in an interview in 2000. “Iyengar was, like, ‘Stand on your feet. Feel your feet.’ He was so practical. His famous quote was, ‘How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?’ ”

Upon reading Patricia’s comments in this New York Times article, a burst of lightness giggled its way out of my body. What fabulous simplicity, and yet enormous profundity. I quickly realised these are also the exact ingredients that draw me to working with children. Iyengar’s journey with yoga started when he was a very young, very ill little boy. Little did he know at the time that he would grow into one of the great fathers of yoga of the modern world by taking this ancient practice to the west. Iyengar’s system of yoga opened up the practice to anyone and everyone. Although he was insistent with his students about perfecting poses through principles of alignment, earning him a reputation as a particularly stern teacher, he was also a pioneer of therapeutic yoga. He designed special exercises and equipment, like blocks and straps, for pupils struggling with postures or who suffered physical problems or disabilities.

As a student, Iyengar studied anatomy, physiology and psychology which invariably showed up in his work as a teacher. I have selected some of my favourite quotes that have given me insight about yoga and about life. Even with his passing, Iyengar’s legacy will continue to reverberate for many years to come. And for that I am ever grateful.

As you found happiness in life, now see your majesty in death. Namaste.

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Iyengar on yoga…

“Yoga is like music: the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.”

“In order to find out how to reveal our innermost Being, the sages explored the various sheaths of existence, starting from body and progressing through mind and intelligence, and ultimately to the soul. The yogic journey guides us from our periphery, the body, to the center of our being, the soul. The aim is to integrate the various layers so that the inner divinity shines out as through clear glass.” – Light on Life

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” ― Light on Life

“Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.”

“As breath stills our mind, our energies are free to unhook from the senses and bend inward.” ― Light on Life

“Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.” ― Light on Life

“It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”

Iyengar on life…

“Change is not something that we should fear. Rather, it is something that we should welcome. For without change, nothing in this world would ever grow or blossom, and no one in this world would ever move forward to become the person they’re meant to be.”

“Before peace between the nations we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being”.

“As animals, we walk the earth. As bearers of divine essence, we are among the stars. As human beings, we are caught in the middle, seeking to reconcile the paradox of how to make our way upon earth while striving for something more permanent and more profound.” ― Light on Life

“One’s spiritual realization lies in none other than how one walks among and interacts with one’s fellow beings.” ― Light on Life

“You must purge yourself before finding faults in others.
When you see a mistake in somebody else, try to find if you are making the same mistake.
This is the way to take judgment and to turn it into improvement.
Do not look at others’ bodies with envy or with superiority.
All people are born with different constitutions.
Never compare with others.
Each one’s capacities are a function of his or her internal strength.
Know your capacities and continually improve upon them.” ― Light on Life

project mind: the mountain in the clouds

We are a mountain.

Our thoughts pass around us like clouds in the sky.

While the clouds dance around, the mountain remains motionless.

mountain_in_the_clouds_by_jessica_rossier-d7432boImage Source

This is week two of project mind. Each week, I select an image or an idea to focus my daily meditation practice, inspired by this article in the Huffington Post, titled Everything Changed When I Started Meditating Every Day.

project mind: we are planets with atmospheres

A friend recently asked me what has changed since finishing my yoga teacher training. He was graciously catching a heavy load that I, in turn, was wrecklessly vomiting all over him. Good friends really are good like that, aren’t they? I was wading through a rough patch on all levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, and not sure how to pull myself out of that thick, muddy swamp. I wasn’t even sure what the mud was made up of or how I managed to come to be stuck in it in the first place. So even if I did manage to drag my dishevelled self out of it, the likely next step was going only going to land me in some wide, expansive unknown place, covered in shit and without a compass, a watch or another living soul in sight.

In keeping on with my list of ‘Things That I Know To Be True’ (which you may have read in a previous post here), I am often reminded of this one particular Thing:
I do lots of things well. What I don’t do is one thing with my whole being.

I’ve never had just one job for the simple fact that I hold back on really committing to something. And it’s clear that the only reason for this is fear. Fear of failure, fear of what others will think, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of fear itself…

I could go on. But there’s no need. The point is I know when I feel alive and energised. It’s a physical reaction that is felt with my whole being, on every level. And when I don’t, I am swamped by fear and indecision.

I’ve had enough. It’s time to actively participate in my own life. As was so eloquently put to me recently, ‘I don’t want to get to the end of my life and have been a visitor in this world’.

So I am adding this to my list of ‘Things That I Know To Be True’:
I felt alive and energised during teacher training.
What has changed since then is my writing practice and my meditation practice. Consequently, but also additionally, I am not listening to my body or my true nature.

I am setting myself a series of projects. Starting with this one: project mind. Each week, I will be selecting an image or an idea to focus my daily meditation practice, inspired by an article that I read in the Huffington Post today, titled Everything Changed When I Started Meditating Every Day. Hopefully, when I find myself stuck in the mud again – as it is an inevitable part of the process – I can trust that in time the ‘stuff’ and the ‘way out’ will reveal itself and I will walk forward into something or somewhere new.

So here goes week one…

We are planets with atmospheres.
Thoughts and feelings pass through, sometimes at great speed.
Other times they travel slowly, or with greater or lesser density.planet_atmosphereImage Source

a Matilda moment

matilda meditatingImage Source

A very strange thing happened today…

As I sat quietly on my usual spot, deep in meditation, I started to feel a pressure spreading through my chest. As the warmth spread through my torso, a familiarity crept in alongside. Something reminiscent of a loving hug. It melted into gentle vibrations, the deep quiet tone of the sea swimming around inside me. Out of this deep quiet tone I heard the faint call of the universe, trickling life into every cell of my body.

After a moment, it gently faded away. But floating somewhere in the distance, I was sure I heard a tiny chuckle, dancing on the breeze. I couldn’t resist. I opened my eyes, drawn forth out of my meditation in search of something…someone. But there was no one there.

A second later a flash of golden hair danced across my eyes. A toothy grin. Two big, blue eyes staring into me. Deep and knowing. Just for a moment. This meeting of souls. Pure and light.

“Hello you.”

And then she was gone.

Relax! (for goodness sake)

Did you know?
The officers of Napoleon, the 17th century general and emperor of France, have reported that he possessed an unfathomable and tireless source of energy and inspiration. At the very height of battle, just when the outcome was in balance, he would hand over his command to a subordinate, leaving instructions that he was not to be disturbed for twenty minutes under any circumstances. Then, retiring to his tent and stretching out upon an enormous bearskin, he would enter yoga nidra. Within seconds his loud, regular snores would be emerging to mix with all the desperate sounds of battle. Precisely twenty minutes later he would emerge, fresh, invigorated and inspired, remount his horse and inevitably lead the French army to a decisive victory.

In his book, Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyanananda Saraswati tells of his experience with hardened criminals at a detention camp in 1968…
He was invited to the camp to teach the criminals yoga. However, when he arrived the six hundred odd prisoners converged on him, hooting, laughing, pulling his dhoti, one even gave him a packet of cigarettes – total dishonour and disrespect rained down on him. He decided there was no way that he would be able to teach them yoga in this state. So he asked them to lie down quietly on their backs and get ready for the practice. They could not lie still – they kicked and pulled each other, shouted and spat. For half an hour all he persisted with just these words ‘Please close your eyes. Don’t move your body.’ He waited for them to become quiet, but they never did.
He resolved not to return the following day, assuming it was a lost cause. However, the man in charge begged him to reconsider. ‘You have cast a spell over them. They have been quiet ever since you left.’ And so he returned. The prisoners attitudes towards him were completely transformed. They didn’t want to practice the physical asanas of yoga, they wanted the yoga nidra they had experienced the day before. For the six days that followed, he taught them yoga nidra, how to relax from top to bottom, outside to inside, every part of their being. Daily reports came to him about their improved dispositions and the dramatic reduction in quarrels.

What is the secret of this transformation? Sermons? No. Admonitions? No. Release of tension, relaxation and peace of mind are the secret of transformation. When a man is under tension, his behaviour is influenced, and when he relaxes, he becomes natural. He knows the reality, the truth. Then he also knows how to behave, because the knowledge of truth is necessary for right behaviour. And knowledge of truth only comes when you are free of tension.

Saraswati says that ‘During the last hundred years or so, the way of life has changed throughout the world.’ He believes this has left us in a dramatic state of imbalance, which has led to a spate of stress-related illnesses caused by ‘our inability to adapt to the highly competitive pace of modern life
Psychosomatic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, migraine, asthma, ulcers, digestive disorders and skin diseases arise from tensions in the body and the mind. The leading causes of death in developed countries, cancer and heart disease, also stem from tension.’
Modern medical science is struggling to care for those people as ‘the real problem does not lie in the body; it originates in man’s changing ideals, in his way of thinking and feeling.
The international problem today is not hunger, poverty, drugs or fear of war. It is tension, hypertension, total tension. If you know how to free yourself of tension, you know how to solve your problems in life. If you are able to balance your tensions, you can control your emotions, anger and passions. You can control heart disease, high blood pressure, leukaemia and angina pectoris.’

The three basic types of tension that yogic philosophy claims are responsible for all the agonies of modern life are:
1. muscular tension – caused by physical exertion
2. emotional tension – caused by not being able to express our emotional selves freely and openly
3. mental tension – caused by excessive mental activity
Unless you are free from these three tensions, no amount of sleep will leave you feeling revived, refreshed and relaxed. Think about a time when you’ve seen people who seem to be happy and calm, but they have a habit of biting their nails, scratching their head, can’t sit still, can’t stand still. Most of the time they don’t realise they are doing these things until someone else points them out – they are unaware of their inner tension, and believe that they are relaxed. Even while sleeping, unless these tensions are dissolved, you will continue to wake up exhausted. In order to relax completely, the inner tensions of the body, emotions and mind must be released.
However, Saraswati states that if we adopt the yoga nidra technique, a single hour of practice is as restful as four hours of conventional sleep.

So if you find yourself hopping from one foot to the other when you’re having to talk to a group of people, or perhaps you’re like me and have issues with insomnia and waking up still tired, give it a go. Notice how you feel before, during and after. And then try again the next day, and the next, and see how it not only changes within each session, but also from session to session, week to week, and so on.

Go on…it’s for your own good. So be good to you.

Basic Outline of a Yoga Nidra sitting

Prepare yourself for practice
– find a comfortable position (either lying down or sitting) and close your eyes

Set an intention/resolution or mantra

Rotate your conscious attention around the detail of your physical body
– left and right sides
– front and back

Become aware of the body in contact with the floor

Awareness of sensations
– awaken the idea of heaviness in the body, gradually becoming heavier as you travel through the different body parts
– awaken the idea of lightness in the body, gradually becoming lighter as you travel through the different body parts
– alternate between heaviness and lightness
– awaken the experience of heat as vividly as possible
– awaken the experience of cold

Visualisation
– you may choose to take yourself on a journey somewhere or to focus on a colour, a chakra, your initial intention or mantra

Finish

The Sounds of Prana

As I race towards the final week of yoga teacher training, I have been madly writing essays, reflecting on my practice and prepping for the final practical elements of the course. This weekend I am scheduled to host a meditation session – something I have never done for a group of people before. Sure, I feel very cosy in my little yoga family bubble, however, this only inspired me to want to make the experience extra special. There’s been a variety of relaxation and visualisation practices in my fellow trainees sessions, but I decided I want to opt for something a little different. Step outside my comfort zone. I can hear my mentors’, Ari and Elina’s, voices in my head saying ‘You can’t control your students’ experience, Erin…!’ Yeah, yeah… I know! But it did make me reflect on when my experience was a little bit different – when I allowed myself to try something new. And loved it.

Back when I first discovered yoga, one late Sunday afternoon, I sheepishly walked through the door of my local studio  to what was entitled a ‘Sea of Om’s’ group meditation class. I felt like a total hippy – but not the calm, cool and collected ones you just want to while away the afternoons with, I’m talking the far-out-dude-I’m-totally-wacked-out-on-love-juice-bro(-wanna-toke?) ones. Yep. I went there. Judgement 101.

What I experienced though, was something really special.

I spent a lot of my childhood with music – either listening to it, singing it, bashing it out on a piano or tootling it on a clarinet – it was and always has been a huge part of my life.

I lose time with music. And I find my self.

So I have decided to take on The Sea of Om’s with my meditation session. I have been on an investigation to get to the bottom of why we chant in yoga and what it actually means to integrate this love of music and sound into my teaching and my practice.

What follows here are extracts from the Prana and Mantra chapter in Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati’s Prana and Pranayama. I believe it goes some way to explaining why chanting and music has such a profound affect on me.

An intrinsic relationship between sound and prana underlies all creation. At the beginning of creation, when the first movement arose within the field of dormant consciousness and mahaprana manifested, sound also came into being. With the first movement of cosmic energy the first sound manifested, which was Om. This transcendental sound is also called nada, the highest level of sound vibration. From nada came kalaa, the manifest universe of time, space and object. In scientific terms, this may be related to the event of the Big Bang.

In the Bible also it has been said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” In order to become manifest, the unmanifest and indivisible has to take on form. The first form was sound, and it came into existence through the medium of energy or prana.

Aren’t we all just looking at the same world through our own lens and making meaning out of the song that resonates deep inside our ‘self’?

Sound is a form of energy that has frequency, pitch, volume, and tone, as well as subtle qualities. Scientifically, sound is a vibration at a particular frequency, and it is able to produce physical changes in an organism. Some vibrations can be harmful while others are beneficial. Sound can be concentrated to such degrees of intensity that it can shatter and destroy objects. Holes can be driven into solid metal by using sound alone. It is thought that the great stones of Stonehenge, Easter Island and the Mayan monuments were moved into place using the principles of sound.

The principle behind the use of mantra in pranic practices relates to this intrinsic relationship between sound and energy. Every movement of energy manifests sound, and every sound carries energy. The pranas are activated with the chanting of mantras, and the orientation of existing pranic flows are altered or emphasised, so that the mind and perception changes.

Ever wondered why music makes us feel so good?

In scientific terms, mantra repetition regulates and balances the autonomic nervous system. It facilitates synchronous breathing, directly resulting  in cardio-pulmonary resonance, which is indicative of autonomic balance. The powerful and coherent electromagnetic heart field of one person can affect the heart fields of others, leading them to coherent synchrony. There is a greater concentration and the mind can be utilised for higher flights. Therefore, when pranayama is performed with mantra, the practice is more effective.

The best mantra is Gayatri, as it corresponds to the ideal breathing pattern of pranayama. It is comprised of twenty-four syllables which contain the entire form of prana. As it appears in the Rig Veda (3:62:11) is:

Om tatsaviturvarenyam

Bhargo devasya dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat.

Om. We meditate on the divine light of that adorable Sun of spiritual consciousness. May it stimulate our power of spiritual perception.

Gayatri is created from Om. In the order of creation, this sound is further developed, and the developed state of the mantra Om is known was Gayatri.

According to Vedic philosophy, prana has three forms. So Gayatri, as the presiding deity of prana, is seen as a little girl, innocent and childish, in the early morning; as a charming young woman in full bloom at noon, and as an old woman, embodying wisdom or jnana, in the evening. The colour of Gayatri in the morning is red like the rising sun; at noon she is golden, and in the evening smoky grey. These are the characteristics of prana, represented by the different forms of Gayatri, and this is how Gayatri worshippers may visualise her during their thrice-daily worship.

Some believe that the Gayatri mantra is directed  towards the external sun, but ultimately it is directed towards the brilliance of the internal sun. The internal sun must shine so that the consciousness becomes enlightened. In the external firmament, first there is darkness, broken only by the flickering light of stars. Then a dim light shoots forth from the horizon, indicating the break of dawn, and finally the brilliant sun rises, lighting up everything. As it happens in the external horizon, so it is in the inner horizon. That breaking of light is called Gayatri. It represents the sun which illuminates the whole world and also the inner self which illuminates all the planes of existence and consciousness. The external sun only illumines the gross world, but when inner enlightenment takes place all the planes of existence become perceptible.

Gayatri is referred to as the Mother of the Vedas and the Gayatri mantra appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest written literature  int he library of humankind. Thus, human beings have been chanting the Gayatri mantra for a long time.

The Upanishads say that Om (or Aum) is the primordial sound. Everything has come from Om and, at the time of dissolution, everything will revert back to Om. The word Om is the universe. Everything that exists in the past, present and future is Om, and that which exists beyond the threefold division of time is Om.

And so there you have it. Our course it set. Come Saturday, I shall endeavour to set sail with my yogi crew as we take on the Sea of Om’s. Who knows where – or when – we will end up.