Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Introductory Examination of Physical Practice and Asana (Nadi Yoga Part 13)

In our discussion of the different limbs of yoga, we have now covered the yama, niyama, and also the preparatory stage of the vyayama, the physical preparatory techniques. I would like to discuss next the main format of the physical practices, including of course within this discussion the practice of asana, the traditional third limb of yoga. Today this limb has become all encompassing, sometimes without deeper understanding as to its proper relationship with the whole of the practice. We will examine this limb and also the format of physical practice.

Asana means seat. It traditionally meant the place one sat to do practice. This term is still used with this meaning today. There are some other interesting meanings of the word given which may be discussed at a later date. Asana is the 3rd traditional limb of yoga. In this particular limb, asana takes on the meaning of the seated position itself used to perform the yoga practice. In the Hatha Yoga tradition, over the centuries, many different types of bodily positions came to be associated with the word asana. In this particular article I will focus more on the hatha yogic mode of asana as any number of various positions. Later I will discuss its meaning more in terms of seat.

It is interesting to look at the postures given in the various Hatha Yoga texts that come down to us through the centuries. The Vasistha Samhita and Yajnavalkya Samhita, probably from 10th, 11th century (my approximate guess) both give 7 seats with the addition of Mayurasana, the peacock pose. Later on the Hathapradipika, one of the more famous of Hatha Yoga manuals from about the 14th century, gives quite a number of different postures, including backward and forward bends, the classical twist, savasana, and of course a number of different seats. The Gherandha Samhita from about the 16th or 17th century gives 32 classical postures, all of varying types. Later texts like the Hathatatvakaumudi and especially the Hatharatnavali give quite a number of different poses.

You hear varying accounts of asana numbers in the Hatha manuals. One will say "Siva created 84 postures" or another will say "Siva created 840,000 postures" or other varying numbers. What does it mean? Ultimately this means that the numbers of different possible yoga asanas are truly infinite in number. Really there are so many of possible combinations of positions that the human body can take.

Why do we take the body into so many different positions? Many reasons. A good quote from Gheranda Samhita 1.8-1.9 is relevant here that will explain :
"The body invariably wears away like an unbaked earthen jar immersed in water. Therefore the body should be conditioned by tempering it with the fire of yoga. The seven aids for conditioning the body are Sodhana (purification), Drdhata (strength), Sthairyam (steadiness), Dhairyam (composure/calmness), Laghavam (lightness), Pratyaksam (realization), and Nirliptam (isolation). The Satkarmas purify the body, the Asanas strengthen it, Mudra brings about steadiness, Pratyahara results in calmness, Pranayama leads to lightness, Dhyana gives realization of the Self, and Samadhi leads to isolation which is verily liberation."

It is interesting to note that in this quote from GS on the conditioning of the body, all of the traditional limbs of yoga are given above (minus the yama/niyama, which of course would also be relevant) and not just the practice of asana. Gheranda tells us basically that time is short and the body, being the vehicle of consciousness should be taken care of through the practice of yoga in order that one can discover and deepen the knowledge of Self.

If one applies all of the above to the physical practices, one comes up with a form that involves many of the limbs of yoga, including asana, mudra, pranayama, the senses and the mind aspects of meditation/dhyana. Shatkarma we have not talked about yet in the blog. I'll save that for a later date. But we can also include its function here of purification. So our practice should involve purifying, strengthening, steadying, composure, lightness, realization, and the isolation of consciousness.

When we really sit with all of these aspects that are discussed in the function of bodily conditioning we realize that all parts of the mind/body system are included. The body is not just some vehicle or beast that is worked in isolation. Body is utilized with breath, utilized with correct sensory application, utilized with mind and the highest aspects of consciousness. To really come to this deeper understanding of the physical practice we have to truly start seeing that to have success here, we have to approach the practice not just in terms of physicality but realize that our mind is inseparable from our body. Our breath is inseparable from our mind. Our senses are inseparable from consciousness. That consciousness is inseparable from body. All of these aspects are one energy, one field of potential and movement.

Where do we begin to discover this one field? It may be difficult to discern this in the beginning as our thoughts tend to separate ourselves from our bodies and also separate the different parts of the body from each other. This mode gets reinforced when we work with styles that break things down and separate elements in a reductionist sort of manner. One of the main points that I try to bring to the table in the practice of Nadi Yoga is the developing of a deep sense of one connection between all fields of awareness. This is equivalent to the instrumental layer of consciousness that Patanjali discusses in the Yoga Sutra. In this work it is vital to learn to work in the instrumental level of awareness, right from the start. Otherwise, we stay trapped in the objective mode of the mind and we actually experience a disconnect between mind and body or at best we only get blips of that connection. Please see the other blogs on the instrumental layer for further information on the instrumental layer definition.

Mudra, which is employed in the deepest possible sense here, relates to many of the limbs of yoga as described in previous blogs. Pratyahara and the deeper meditative limbs start to come alive. The technique of breathing discussed in the Vyayama blog, the pranic/apanic tantric breath method, is a powerful technique of pranayama that will start to bring the lightness suggested in the GS. With proper attention to mudra and the breath field we will be brought more consciously into the instrumental mode of working and already be fulfilling the condition of yoga required by Patanjali.

Students in the beginning, and even students that have been working for some time get frustrated that they are unable to "accomplish" the activity of the different postures and physical exercises. This is the mode of objective thinking that acts as the very wall between the student and the fulfillment of the activity. Since thought is mind and mind is in an obstructive mode ("I can't do this"), the barrier acts through the mind and body to create an effective barrier to completion. This is a simple idea but it acts on some level through even the most advanced practitioner. Injuries are another barrier that are often placed in our own way of practice. I'm not saying one should push on through their injuries mindlessly here. But we oftentimes miss the deeper significance of what injuries actually are on the deeper levels of our beings and we usually fail to address them on these deeper levels, instead resigning ourselves to look at them as mere physical phenomena, entirely separate from our minds and emotions and life. To truly "accomplish" then the physical acts of yoga, we must be willing to take in the entirety of our life wholistically, acknowledging that everything in our life affects our ability to bend our head to our knee. My main yoga teacher was a true master of this understanding. His "remedies" for students most oftentimes involved looking at areas of life that the student was neglecting.

In the light of wholistic understanding necessary for the successful execution of asana and physical practice it is vital to remember the importance of yama and niyama in the practice of yoga. Yama and Niyama will help to sort out the various life energies that may be tangled and distorted and affecting our abilities to work on a physical level.

Yoga is union. One major aspect of this union is the union of all of the various elements that make up our energetic configuration. If these various aspects of our being come together, the physical practice of yoga will be seen to be much greater than it actually is.

Vyayama - Physical Preparation (Nadi Yoga Part 12)

            Nadi Yoga is ultimately about working with the body/mind system in it’s entirety. To this end, the attitudes and practices of the yama and niyama are both necessary and also not complete in themselves. Since we are embodied beings, we are not going to understand the fullness of the deeper layers of instrumental and below without really going into our body. This involves at least in the beginning a certain faith that the entirety of our energetic being is undivided by body, mind, emotion, and sensation.
            These particular exercises of the vyayama come from preparatory techniques given in the old texts married to current teachings of techniques given me by my teachers. They are also informed by my practice of the tantra. There are many techniques of vyayama and all ultimately are designed to help one to connect with that deeper continuum within us all. They also help to point out in a very direct way the holes that we have in our energetic structure and lead us back to a deeper understanding of how well we are engaging with the practices of yama and niyama.
            I have chosen sixteen practices of vyayama. Sixteen is a powerful number in the tantra. It includes the 15 phases of the moon as well as the hidden sixteenth phase. It is a number of the Goddess, the power behind all that moves us and sustains us. I will go through each technique in turn to help give the beginner and the more experienced student some practices to follow and learn more deeply from.
            If one follows just the techniques of the vyayama alone, it will help to introduce the student to the deeper layers of oneself. These are not just mere warm ups to a more advanced practice. They contain the seeds and the structure of the entire bodily form of the Nadi Yoga techniques. All of the techniques are designed to open up the nadi pathways of the body and to start to build a deeper sense of connection to our continuity. They start from the periphery of the body and gradually move in towards the central column. The last vyayama introduces the techniques of pranic/apanic breathing and the Shambhavi mudra which are key elements of the practice utilized in the major forms.
            To assist the student in learning this foundational form, please see my youtube videos which go through each of the techniques in turn over the course of 8 short videos. The link to part one of the videos is: You should be able to locate the others from there. Let me know if you have any troubles. The different browsers should have apps that let you download the videos into a format which would work for you.
            In the beginning, one should do 5 to 15 of each of the exercises given in order. As one gains more experience, one can even do up to 100 of the exercises each, in order to more fully savor the depths that they will take one. They are a complete practice in themselves and can also be seen as an entry to the major forms of Nadi Yoga.
            In all of the techniques, one should stay as relaxed as possible. Breath should be allowed to be as it wants to be. Eyes should be held slightly down in a gaze across the end of the nose (not gazing at the end of the nose). If one knows the Shambhavi Mudra technique (given later), keep it constant throughout the practice (not necessary in the beginning). In all the techniques, unless otherwise specified, stand with the feet hip width apart, feet parallel.

Basic Warm Ups
The first techniques are basic rotation techniques given in the Hathatattvakaumudi, an ancient hatha yoga text. They help to release certain centers of tension and to free up the muscular and fascial systems of the body.

Technique 1 - Ankles
            Stand with feet hip width apart, feet parallel. Keeping thigh pointed down, bend left knee, lifting left foot back til off the floor. Drop foot down till the tops of toes are on floor. First roll left foot in a counterclockwise manner, rolling around the top of the big toe top. Think of a circle with big toe top at center of circle and ankle as the radius of the circle. Toes should ideally bend to the base of all toes. Go around in continuous circles for designated number of times (10 good to start). Then go the other way clockwise. When done repeat with other leg/foot.

Technique 2 – Neck
            Bend arms to hold the top arm bones across the chest. Alternately the arms can hang freely at sides. Drop the chin towards chest, swing chin up to right so head faces right, swing chin up towards sky, swing chin down to the left so head faces left, then swing chin back down to chest. In this way, roll the head in a continuous manner up to the right and down to the left in full circles. The entire neck should be mobilized, the shoulders and arms should remain completely passive and unmoving. After doing number of times on right, do the same to the left.

Technique 3 – Shoulders
            From the head (top) of the upper arm, move in slow backward circles. Care should be taken that the heads of the upper arm do not come up too high, resulting in tension of the neck. It is a very mild movement and should create a sense of opening across the upper back and the chest regions. After doing a number of times in backward moving circles, then reverse the direction and do the same number forwards.

Technique 4 – Under arms / Ribs
            Keeping right arm straight, swing it in a half circular arc upward, keeping hand open and alive feeling while holding the side ribs in place with the left hand. It is important to keep the right ribs held in place as the right arm goes up so that the under arm /armpit region is opened. Right arm should stay straight and as it goes up, the elbow should trace a half circle. Right arm swings down in reverse direction and fluidly switch sides. Repeat 5 to 10 times each side.

Grounding / Clearing techniques
            The next 3 techniques are clearing techniques designed to introduce you to the nadis and helping to flush them.
There is a transitional technique that is used next and in between each of the clearing techniques. This technique is not technically one of the sixteen and is used in between the next 3 techniques to clear the system.
Transitional Clearing Technique
The feet should still be hip distance apart with inner feet parallel. The arms come out to each side with elbows slightly bent and the wrists bent in a little. The arms should also slightly be rolled in. Bring the middle and ring fingers strongly together, straight, while separating the index and little fingers away from the center fingers. A mild pushing tension should be felt through the tips of all fingers with the thumb as relaxed as possible. As the middle fingers push out, the shins of the legs should push down strong. It should feel as if both arms and legs feel a push of energy from the naval center out. This technique should help to clear the system and ground it. Shambhavi mudra should be employed.

Technique 5 – Gomukha clearing
            Here turn the right palm forward and left palm backward. Raise right arm up and lower left arm to side. Bend both arms at the elbow until each hand can grab the fingers of the other (or as close as you can) behind the back.  Turn the head to the left (away from upper arm). Attempt to make a feeling connection between the eyes and the navel and the ears and the navel. Let the eyes and ears remain open and come into “focus”. Allow yourself to feel that focusing action and the release of that which impedes the focus. After some time come back to the transitional clearing technique, hold that for some time and then switch to the other side. After working that side come back to the transitional clearing technique and hold.

Technique 6 – Garuda clearing
            Next cross the right elbow forward over the left elbow and intertwine the hands, little fingers away from face. Pull the elbows down and release the head back from the base of the ear. Release the jaw, allowing the mouth to open slightly and let the eyes open up and come into clear focus. Feel that focus all the way into the navel. Let the head release and feel the pull from the base of ear down through the sternum. Hold for some time and then take the transitional clearing technique. Hold that and then switch sides with left elbow on top of right. After the left side go back to the transitional clearing technique and hold.

Technique 7 – Nadi Flushing
            Next take the arms up to about shoulder level and have the arms open in front of you like you are wrapping them around a 3 foot wide pillar. The hands should face towards you. Imagine/feel that your arms begin in the earth, rise up and become the arms that you see. Keep rooted through the earth and then begin to take the arms in and out in a rhythmic motion. The rhythm should move the arms and not some forced intention. You want to feel the rhythm which develops and it should be equally balanced inside and out. Let the breath move through the sides of the mouth, with the mouth slightly open. Let the eyes come into clear focus and let the spacious quality open up in the ears. Let the 2 nostrils come into balance. Feel the pathways of all the sense doors leading to the navel and feel the empty clarity of those pathways as you do this, feeling that the movement occurs simultaneously along all of the pathways. Do this exercise for as long as you like and then at the end of it feel that the earth pulls the hands together around a ball about the size of a basketball in front of your navel. Hold briefly and then let go.

Heating and Activating the Fire Principle
            The next techniques involve the forearm, waist and sides. These areas are all fire regions of the body and help to activate the inner fire. It is really important to activate the forearm correctly in these activities. There is a marma (potential place of vulnerability) in the forearm called Indra Basti. This region has relationship to the small intestine of the body which is another fire region. To correctly activate the forearm you have to learn to bend your wrist in either direction, pushing from elbow to wrist outward. Unlike the previous exercises in which you stay very relaxed, here in this practice there is a little tension/resistance which is created in the forearm and waist regions which helps to activate the fire.

Technique 8 – Forearms
            From the previous technique, the hands should be as if holding a ball in front of the navel. From here push the hands from elbow to wrist forward, keeping hands about navel height. Tips of fingers should turn in towards each other, with wrists strongly bent, palms away from you. Simultaneously the shoulders should stay relaxed. Activity has to be isolated as much as possible in the forearm. Then immediately bend elbow slightly and bend wrist the other way, tip of thumb to the first joint of middle finger from the palm, all other fingers straight, palm toward you, fingers now pointing down. Push from elbow to wrist (direction of movement). Then switch again to the palms away and finger tips towards each other. Do many sets. This technique should bring heating to the body.

Technique 9 – Waist
            For this technique, the position of the hands remains the same. Instead of forward, push the left hand to the right, turning fingers toward the body as you push out with palm. The right hand goes behind the body, with fingers straight and pulled toward the wrist, thumb tip to 1st knuckle of middle finger. Then pull in both hands toward navel and push right arm forward, left arm back in the same way. Each time you push with the arms to the sides, the waist turns/twists. Keep the hips as fixed as possible, pushing down through the shins to ground, emphasizing the twisting movement through the waist and spine. Do 5 to 10 rounds.

Technique 10 – Sides
            Use the same hand positions for this activity also. This time bring hands together toward the center of body and then push the left arm over the head to the right as far as possible, with arm straight, keeping the shoulder blade from lifting too much. The tips of the fingers of the left arm should be kept pointing toward the ground with fingers straight, forearm pronated. The right hand drops toward the ground with arm straight, fingers straight and pulled back toward the inner wrist, thumb tip on 1st knuckle of middle finger. The bottom arm as it comes down by the knee will look like the arm of a monkey. The waist contracts to the right side. Emphasize as you bend, going down and not out to the side. This will give an intense stretch to the lateral body and spine and also trigger the side waist strongly. Immediately come up bring the hands in toward center and repeat on the other side. Do 5 to 10 rounds.

Circulation and Chalana
            These next techniques deal with calana or churning in the standing position. They start to activate the spine and also open the hips. The finger and hand positions in techniques 12 and 13 are difficult to get correctly in the beginning but keep practicing and it will come quickly.

Technique 11 – Circulation
            For this technique push down through the shins, ground yourself and connect to your navel. Begin to rotate/twist the waist back and forth like the movement of an upright washing machine. Let the movement come up through the arms and let the wrists lead the movement back and forth. The fingers should stay straight and the hands should follow the movement of the wrists. The little fingers stay on top with the thumbs below. The movement resembles horizontal paint brush strokes with the wrist as the end of the paintbrush stick and the hand the bristles of the paint brush. Let the movement come naturally and very relaxed. Stay open and clear. Pay attention to the transitions before switching to the other side. The transition should not be choppy or halted but rather very flowing, keeping in a constant state of movement. Do this activity for 1 to 5 minutes.

Technique 12 – Standing Chalana part 1
            Inhale and raise the arms up in front of you, arms bent, wrists bent in, with fingers pointed down. The left hand should be at the level of the heart and the right hand should stay at the level of the navel. For both hands the middle and ring fingers should stay firmly together and the little and index fingers should open away from the central fingers. Keep all fingers including the thumb as straight as possible. The central fingers of middle and ring should stay lined up with each other and the palm side of those fingers should stay facing the torso, with finger tips of those fingers pointed straight down. Emphasize opening the outer fingers (the little and index) from your waist. The important point here is the feeling of connection from the navel center to the tips of the fingers. There should be no tension in the shoulders. They should be kept relaxed and down. There should be a feeling of openness and expansion in the front and underside of the armpits. Don’t let the elbows drop. Stay with this feeling of connection for a short time.
            When you feel connected, begin to simultaneously rotate the tips of the central fingers and also the hips clockwise. Draw as wide a possible circle as you can with the hips. It will resemble hula hooping. Keep the legs straight. The finger tip movement should align with the movement of the hips and the right and left fingers should move together. If you do this correctly you will notice a feeling that the finger movement connects directly to the spinal movement and thus the top hand will go more with the upper spine (moving less) and the bottom hand will connect more with the lumbar spine (moving more). Keep the palm side of the fingers still facing toward the torso. All fingers should be kept straight. After some time moving in the clockwise direction, switch to the counterclockwise direction. The left hand should stay on top for the second direction.

Technique 13 – Standing Chalana part 2
            At this point the feet come together, toes forward and the legs bend. Tuck the tailbone as you drop, “giving length to the kidney region”, and sink into a bent squat with hips still higher than knees. The arms and hands raise forward into the same position given in technique 12. Left hand still stays on top for the whole exercise. Repeat the hand movement as in part 1 but move the spine more from the lower spine not from the hip. It feels like someone is reaching through your spine, grabbing it in the lower section and churning it. First go clockwise and then counterclockwise. This exercise should bring up heat.

Activating the Central Column and the Breathing
            These last exercises activate the central column and start us on the breathing exercise which we will use for most parts of the remaining practice. Try to really connect with the feeling in the spine.
            The breath technique given in the 16th technique is a classic technique described in texts such as Yoga Vasistha and Vijnanabhairava Tantra. It is utilized to get us in touch with the twin fields of the breath, prana and apana. More will be discussed on this breath later in the book. For now just attempt it without thinking about it too much.

Technique 14 – Moving into the central column
            In this technique, stand up from the previous exercise and turn lightly to your left, extending the left leg a little forward and out about 45 degrees. Use the same hand and arm position as in techniques 12 and 13 with the left hand on top. Connect the fingers to the spine. This time instead of moving the spine in circular directions we use the fingers to direct the attention in the spinal column upwards. First pull the fingers back and down and then pull them into the base of the spine and upwards all the way to the crown. The fingers don’t actually come in to touch the spine but just come in a little way. Nevertheless there should be a feeling of connection with the fingers and the spinal energy. As you take the movement up the spine, the spinal curves should decrease and the spine should become straighter. The weight should go into the back leg more. After pulling the energy up just relax and come gently back to the first part of the exercise. After about 5 rounds switch sides. This time on the right side let the hands switch places so the right hand is on top. Then repeat 5 more times on the right.

Technique 15 – The double serpent
            In this technique take the feet hip distance apart with inner sides of feet parallel to each other. Bend the knees and ankles and then push down through the shins, slightly pushing the hips forward, letting the upward wave go all the way up the body, traveling upward through the spine until it reaches the skull. Don’t let it stop there though. At the crest of the wave, instead of stopping let the wave turn around and descend back down through the spine and legs, creating a “double wave”. In addition the wavelike movement should also be manifested through the arms, hands, and fingers, set up at about a 180 degree interval with the spinal wave. In other words, the arms will be moving in a wave slightly off timing with the spinal body wave. The arms and body will resemble the moving of serpents. Care should be taken not to initiate movement from the shoulders, keeping them relaxed. As well, keep the movement up and down more than forward and backward. Although the body will go forward and back, it should not be exaggerated. Do this technique for some time, feeling the connection to the central column.

Technique 16 – Pranic/Apanic field activation
            At this point in the vyayamas, we are either finishing or ready to transition to the main body of the form work. There are 2 stages to this technique, first the warming and second the field activation.
            In the warming activity, the feet are still hip distance apart, the hands come together about a hand or two distance in front of the navel, fingers pointing away. Care should be taken to open the armpit spaces. Begin to rub the hands together vigorously. Simultaneously stay as relaxed as you can so that you can allow the feeling of heat to disperse and flow through the body. If there is tension anywhere in the body, see if you can allow it to be converted to heat. Let the heat transform into clarity through the technique of the Shambhavi mudra. The mudra is a powerful eye and meditation technique which will be described in more detail later. If you know the mudra, apply it here very strongly waking the eyes up. If you don’t know the mudra at this point just focus on distributing the heat through the body. If excess heat goes to the head, breath out through the sides of the mouth. After you feel the whole body warm internally, clap the hands together once, pulling them apart several feet with palms facing each other.
            At this stage the focus of attention goes to what is called the bahya dvadashanta. This term means the external periphery distance around the body of about 12 angulis. An anguli is the width distance of one finger, in other words the thickness of the finger (let us use the index finger for this purpose). So in other words it is the distance of about 3 hands minus the thumbs away from the body on all sides. This external field is like our external skin or aura. Take in as much of this field as you can at this time. If you know the Shambhavi mudra apply it here very strongly. If not just take in the field as best you can. When you get more experience with this it will start to feel like the field itself is supporting the body from the outside like an exoskeleton. It will feel like the arms themselves are being supported as they are held out. Let the breath do what it wants to at this point, focusing more on the field.
            Next, when you have held the external field for some time, allow your attention to suddenly switch to the antar dvadashanta or the internal field, which is the central column of the spine (technically 12 angulis down from the nose internally which puts us at the heart. For our purposes in working with the body we have expanded it all along the central column). As the attention shifts to the central column, simultaneously allow the hands to be pulled in, slowly closing the fists around an imaginary pole held in front of the body a hand distance or so, with armpits open. The right hand should be on top of left maybe a fist distance above the left with the right hand more in front of the heart and the left more in front of the navel. It should feel like the hands close from the inside, with a deep connection of the hands to the navel center of the body. Hold the field awareness in the spine and pull it closer and closer, making the awareness more like a thin line through the spine. As you pull the attention tighter to the central column the hands will feel like they want to close more, like inner strings attach them to the central column. The Shambhavi mudra if you know it should be very strong. Hold this central column of awareness for some time and then allow the awareness to shift back out to the external field. As the field switches again, let the arms be pulled out back into their wide position. At this point let the fields switch with the breathing, focusing the outer field on the exhalation and the inner field with the inhalation. Alternate the hand on top with each inhalation. 
           Work with these techniques until they are memorized. Work with them daily for 10 to 20 minutes and a strong foundation for the physical and mental practices will be established. Utilize the videos on youtube for help. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Tantra Part 2 - Initiation and Practice

Tantra is a practical science. I see many books and posts these days with many flowery descriptions of what tantra is. I see much talk and debate and discussion of what it means to be liberated, what the good of this or that mantra is. Phds and "experts" discuss the tantra. The debates and the mental gymnastics go on endlessly. To me, this is information that goes down like junk food. Tastes ok going down and hurts on the way out.

The fact is, tantra can only be realized through practice. For this, initiation is required. I have my own opinions about how initiation can come about but ultimately to debate the "correct" way for this to happen is also to fall into the mental junk food trap. But initiation is definitely required. For those who read the instructions and the texts that describe what occurs beyond initiation is just to engage in elaborate mental play. It is theoretical and as different from the actuality as the map is to the territory that represents it. Contemplate truly how different the map is from the territory. Imagine that map to be of a foreign landscape. Can we truly imagine what it is really like? Remember a trip that you took to a far off distant land. Remember how you felt the place would look like before, and how it actually looked when you got there. Were they the same? Probably not even close. Thus, to attempt to describe these later places to those who do not put in the practice is like giving calculus to those who do not have basic math. It might seem like I am being harsh or critical and I am in a certain way because I feel that there is serious misunderstanding and false assumptions that are occurring when information is given out like this. Because the practice of tantra is quite unlike many other disciplines. It is like the unlocking of a zip file that is downloaded directly into you by the shakti of the Guru. Tantra is an initiatory tradition.

I am proposing in these series of articles on the tantra to truly focus on the practical side of things. Theory can support or help only so far with this work. To truly understand the work, practice of the techniques has to be done. "Armchair" tantra is next to pointless and only leads to the gilded cage.

In the Sri Vidya tantra, one can explore stotrams such as Lalitha Sahasranama and Khadga Mala or the many others before beginning initiation to get a sense of whether or not one feels a certain connection to this particular path of Goddess based tantra. I did this for over 2 years before my initiation and began to feel the irresistible pull towards initiation until I was drawn like a moth to the flame of my Guru's light. So one at a certain point will decide (or it may seem like you don't have a decision) to dive into the power of the initiation.

Every tradition is slightly different and of course there are differences between Gurus, even of the same lineages. To say tantra is all the same is a bit of a gross oversimplification. Basic principles are the same but there can be some vast differences. For example, one Guru in my tradition makes the students forgo the eating of meat. When I asked my Guru about it, he told me it didn't matter. Some Gurus will attempt to control the student. Others, like my own Guru, give nothing but absolute freedom of will. My recommendation would be to find one like the latter.

When a Guru asserts control over the student's will, there is a big problem. There is a limitation of the divine expression, which is necessary to flow forward in this very path of tantra. Tantra is ever expansion. It is freedom. It is divine movement. This is inhibited when the Guru's ego comes in to take over the disciples. I have seen nasty propagation down the lineage lines affect students in the same way. And sometimes, students cannot handle the intense freedom that is given by the Guru and the student goes back to a mode of contraction and control. Why is it so many of us actually want to be bound?

So having found the Guru, having found the initation, practice must be undertaken according to the instructions and the lineage. At this point, something starts to really come alive inside the individual. I say this from experience. The vidyas themselves begin to reveal things. Reality itself begins to "talk" to you. You begin to have a true dialogue with God. There is no point in debate at this point because the conversation that God has with each individual is very unique. Truth is not necessarily going to look or feel the same with different individuals. Why debate this point?

So to reiterate, I am writing these series of articles to elaborate and discuss the practices of tantra. Initiation is required. How you get that is up to you. Otherwise it is just eye candy or food that doesn't digest properly. I have been inquiring with myself and my Guru about the possibility of Self-initiation. I do believe that it is possible and may talk on this in a later post. Some or most may ridicule this idea and I wish them peace. Others will realize that we are living in a time of extreme and powerful means and that the only obstacle between us and our higher selves is us.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Svadhyaya and Isvara Pranidhana (Nadi Yoga Part 11)

I have chosen to join the last two niyamas in this post as there are fundamental interrelationships between them.

Svadhyaya is meditation or attention on the Self/self. Isvara Pranidhana is surrender or alignment with the highest aspect of Self within.

You will note that I included a small self and a big Self under svadhyaya. Examination and meditation must be done on all aspects of one's being, not just focusing on the highest aspect. In fact the meditation on highest Self cannot truly even begin unless we start to see the whole picture. Sometimes in the traditional way, we seek the cause, in an effort to undo the entire house of cards, assuming that somehow the small ego must die. Relying on others words we seek to undermine the entire foundation and bring the house down. Everything has a place in this universe. It is important to understand all elements of ourselves if we are to truly access higher Will. Proper and healthy relationship must be brought to our "lower" selves, all of our lower selves (see the post on Union and Psychological Alchemy) before we attempt to access our higher layers. Otherwise we attempt the "spiritual bypass" that leads us only into darkness. The meditation that is required here involves deep self reflection, careful analysis, intuition, the ability to feel, a full acceptance, and consistent application of effort. If we lack these tools then we act on autopilot, moving forward without true understanding as to the deeper movements of our personal and collective unconscious forces which guide us. This is a long process. There are no immediate shortcuts. This is gradual work. Otherwise we take the direct path and forsake the flowering of reality that is shining forth through us and as us. We are not only timeless presence, we are beings of space and time. We have jobs, families, purpose that is driving us forward. Do we understand all that is at play in what takes us forward?

There are many techniques, techniques that help us to sort, heal, purify, and align our different energies and wills and to list them all here is not the proper place. Perhaps more in a future blog. In the beginning it is enough to pay attention. To pay attention to our selves. To pay attention to all aspects of ourselves. Can we be open to the idea that our "external" reality is but a reflection of our self? Everything we need to study our selves is staring us right in the face daily, even moment to moment. Life is our study. Life is our self.

When we start to come to a deeper alignment internally with our different forces and energies, we realize also that there is something deeper inside of us. We are part of something much bigger. When we label this "something bigger" we have what is called Isvara. Isvara is not just some Hindu god but rather is the personal symbolic representation that our limited selves give to the highest aspect of our being. We may choose a God or some other form to represent this higher aspect or it could exist in our minds in some formless way. Isvara exists to our lower self in a form of relationship. We begin to relate to our higher Self and then as we recognize and know deep inside that this is truly us, we begin to align with that, we begin to surrender to that.

Surrender to the higher self is not just as easy as "ok, I'm going to now surrender and just give all this up". It involves the highest intensity of burning effort. The supreme alignment of personal will is required. If we choose not to do this work of surrender to our highest truth then we instead choose to swim in the murky waters of our own conditioning, the dreamlike nature of our lower movements. In the beginning, this work of surrender involves two, our lower and higher aspects. There is relationship. As we proceed, we realize that we are none other than our higher aspect and there is a deep union which takes place. A union that dissolves into the oneness of our Self.

I haven't given any techniques here. They exist but each must truly find them for themselves. In truly allowing the uniqueness of Self/self study and Self surrender to come forward we have to be very courageous and be willing to realize that our path is ultimately our own. To truly be willing to open up to the unique and powerful depths of our unique movements is the highest kind of courage one can have. And it allows for the beauty of this creation to unfold in the way that it was truly meant to do.

The Questioning of Tradition and Ralph Waldo Emerson

In light of recent questions on my blog I wanted to say a few words about "spiritual" traditions and the work undertaken by the individual in working for freedom.

To this end, I wanted to start with some quotes by R.W. Emerson in his lecture on nature.

"Our age is retrospective. It builds the supulchres of the fathers.... The forgoing generations beheld God face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? ..... The sun shines today also.... There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship...."

"The best read naturalist who lends an entire and devout attention to truth, will see that there remains much to learn of his (or her) relation to the world, and that it is not to be learned by any addition or subtraction or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility. He (she) will perceive that there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility..."

We can apply all of these thoughts to our modern "spiritual practices". It is like we are building a divine house and we continually get distracted by those who tell us how to build it. We get distracted by the comparison or judgement of the right tools. We get lost in the tools themselves. We are conditioned with ideas of how to build the house. We forget constantly the most powerful possibility that life and God him/herself wants to evolve, wants to express, in the deepest fullest way that only we can bring forth. We distrust our very dharma, replacing it with the "appropriate" or "historical" or "politically (spiritually) correct" dharma of another.

To question. To question everything. To really question the axioms. To really dare to question and examine our conditioned motivations. To dare to discover the depths of ourselves and our movements without fear of consequences, judgment, and falsehood. To really examine deeply what is "right" and what is "wrong". To dare to step outside of tradition. Simultaneously and paradoxically to dare to claim those traditions that we feel connected with as our own. To make them our own. To examine that which brings us true greater freedom and that which leads us only into a shiny golden cage. To dare to be free. To dare to move in space.

These are my own inquiries. I invite all to share in the same inquires. There is not one truth. There are many. No one person or tradition holds the key to your liberation. The cage is created and accepted by yourself.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Nadi Yoga Part 10 - Preliminaries - Tapas

One of the many meanings given to tapas, the 3rd niyama, is heat. Heat is a quality that implies movement. Tapas is an active principle. Movement is necessary to overcome the imbalance of tamas, the guna of solidity, which at its extreme can manifest as torpor, tiredness and rigidity.

When our lives become out of balance and we find that we are stuck, not moving, we can overcome this either through shauca or tapas. We may find that we need to free up space, clear out the house, clean up our body, in order to be able to move in the first place. This is where shauca comes in. Sometimes though, we have to ignite our inner fire, start up our engines and just get moving. This is the function of tapas. Shauca and tapas can easily go together, tapas providing the heat and movement to clean things up in our life.

There are many forms that tapas can take. Tapas can be inhibitory. For example we may find that we are lethargic due to bad foods or habit patterns that are governing our life. Tapas can take the form of restricting certain things from our life in order to free up the energies that are blocked from the bad habit patterns. If I notice I am tired after drinking every night, I may choose a form of tapas that eliminates alcohol from my life for some time. If I notice that I can't seem to get anything done because my life is a mess around me, I may have to take the time and energy to clean it up (tapas and shauca combined). Tapas can also be a practice which focuses our energy. The later limbs of yoga like asana, pranayama, and mudra can be powerful forms of tapas which help to align our energies and concentrate us.

It is more effective if we choose forms of tapas carefully and work with only one or a few at at time. In this way, if it is used with consistency and moderation, it can build power over time and slowly eliminate the blockages that dam our inner rivers of movement potential. Pick one practice to begin with. It may be abstaining from a bad food. It may be going for a walk at the same time everyday. It may be forcing yourself to write or do that project you have been holding off on. It may be choosing to abstain from certain speech or actions. It may be taking a yoga class or learning a particular pose. It may be learning to slowly hold a pose or meditation for longer and longer. The forms that tapas can take are literally endless and should be adapted with care and discernment according to temperament and ability.

Tapas has the potential, if not used with discernment, to quickly fall into the trap of asceticism and extremism. Like santosha, tapas should be used in a balancing way, being careful not to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction from the imbalanced direction that we were correcting. If used with careful discernment, tapas can be a powerful tool for bringing the gunas into a state of harmony.
If we are not careful to choose a form of tapas properly, or pick a form of tapas too extreme for our abilities, we may fail. In failing we run the risk of falling back into the tamasic patterning that led us to the tapas in the first place and it may be more difficult to start up the movement again. For example, we may decide that the project we have been holding off on for so long needs to be completed in one day. We try and fail and decide that it "just isn't worth it". Or we attempt to quit all at once eating ice cream, which we have eaten every day for the last 10 years. If we fail, we may decide to just eat more ice cream and feel bad about ourselves. Better to start the project with reasonable consistent goals, or to start out our plan only eating 3 to 5 small spoonfuls of ice cream a day and slowly cutting down, than to push ourselves right to the finish line in one go.

Thus tapas needs to be carefully tempered with discernment. If it is utilized in this way with intelligence it can be a very powerful tool for purification and clearing.

There is an important point about tapas which follows from the laws of physics. If we look at the law of momentum, it tells us that momentum equals mass times velocity. In other words to get mass in motion we have to "give it a push". However once that push is given, it will continue with the same velocity minus the occasional friction that attempts to impede it. Tapas functions in the same way. We will feel the most difficulty in the beginning as we are setting things in motion. Once the motion is set, the pushes required to continue the motion become much easier. To see this in action, start to push a car from neutral on a flat road.

The only thing that slows momentum down are external forces like friction and gravity. Assuming a fairly level ground of movement, this will require occasional pushes to keep the object moving. From this principle we learn that tapas really only bears fruit if it is joined with consistency. It will do no good to have a practice for one day or one week. To really bear its fruit, tapas must be a daily endeavor. This is why it is important to choose one's tapas carefully as we only have energy for so much. Choose a form of tapas that truly works for you, according to your abilities and then once chosen, attempt to stick with it for a set number of days. Traditional tapas periods are 40 or 44 days. If one can stick to that time period with success, then one can decide if one is ready to increase the number of days to a longer period. It may be with certain addictions that one has to really come to terms with a lifelong tapas and makes the decision due to health and other factors that one needs to keep the constant fire lit throughout the remainder of one's days. This is difficult in the beginning but like the law of momentum in physics, the hardest part is always in the beginning. Once the ball is rolling, you only have to overcome occasional friction, and if it is kept consistent, the initial pain of overcoming the weight itself is kept at bay.

Nadi Yoga Part 9 - Preliminaries - Santosha

Santosha is a very powerful niyama. Traditionally translated as contentment, I don't feel that this translation gives the full power of its meaning. Contentment as we know it in the English language can be seen in positive or negative lights. In the positive, it can imply a total peace that comes without any need for things external to ourselves. In the negative it can imply almost a complacency or indifference that can develop due to the non-attachment of all things. In this way, contentment can be a double edged sword. It is worth while to examine this niyama with more scrutiny and discernment.

I believe that in the highest light, from an absolute perspective, this niyama of Santosha can be translated as "perfect OK-ness of Being". This translation is fairly liberal, I realize, but it takes into account the deepest possible level of contentment that we can have, that of perfect OK-ness. What does this mean? It means that everything is perfect as it is. Some might balk at this and complain that everything is NOT ok, that we need to fix, that we need to change things. However, I believe that from the ultimate perspective, everything that exists, AS it exists is all part of divine plan and order. To fully have santosha, we must at some level be ok with this divine plan, we must have a deep, deep level of acceptance. This is not easy, but if it can be done our world transforms around us.

If one is able to fully come to the deepest light of acceptance in one's life, then one has a place from which to move which is unimpeded. The will is released from guilt, shame, and fear and can move forward to act with full range of motion. This allows for the deepest level of creativity to blossom forth in the material world. This allows for all of the pathways to function in an unobstructed way. One realizes a depth of freedom that previously had only been defined conditionally.

There is also a second mode of santosha, a more relative mode, which relates to the three prime qualities we call the gunas. This form of santosha is the contentment that arises when our energy is frenetic and busy. This form of santosha is like a balancing and grounding anchor, that steadies the intensity and movement of our mental, emotional, and bodily energies. This santosha is like a beacon that calls us back to our home ground when we become lost in the display of the moving wheel of life. This santosha attempts to balance the intensity of our pendulum-like swings of emotion and thought energy.

This second level of contentment, the relative santosha can be useful to ground and balance out the intensity of the rajas guna. When our minds and bodies are highly rajasic, our ability to concentrate and to become still is compromised. Our judgements and decisions and movements can be unclear. It is akin to being lost in a storm. So the calming power of santosha is extremely useful here. Santosha helps us overcome the patterns of deep attachment, aversion and fear. All of these qualities will ultimately interfere with our lives and practices if we are not attentive to them. 

I would argue that to have this second type of santosha, the first form of santosha should be realized first. In other words, if one cannot return again and again to the deepest level of acceptance of one's self and the world, then it will be difficult when our different energies become excited to know where to ground.

We might be tempted to "just be content" when we find our energies are highly rajasic. This way of thinking has the potential to be problematic though as this mode could be coming from the place of thinking "calm mind is good, busy mind is bad." Many forms of modern spirituality tend to place a certain negative emphasis on the movements of mind and emotion. Even though it might not be stated explicitly, implicitly these negative judgments are laced throughout western and eastern traditions. In this way, our idea of simplifying and becoming more content come more from a place of "should" than a genuine place of actually seeing the full "OK-ness" of what is.

To summarize, it is useful to recognize whether santosha or contentment is coming from a relative or absolute place. The absolute place is already "OK". The relative mode is always a balancing act, which can be useful if we have swung really far "out there" but we have to be very careful not to swing too far in the other direction in coming back. The first level of santosha discussed above is more in the absolute vein and from this perspective, the swinging of the pendulum doesn't matter. From the second level or relative level of santosha, we try to find balance in the swinging.