Friday, 21 February 2014

Two Kinds of Meditation

“Yoga is restraining the thought-streams customary to the mind.
  Then the seer dwells in his true nature.”
                                                                Yoga Sutras  1.1-1.3

Four months ago I discovered Yogani's method and restarted my yoga practice with meditation firmly at its centre. A far cry from my asana-driven practice of recent years. I'm happy to notice I am now in line with the Yoga Sutras's definition of yoga - if there is one yoga method that 'restrains the thought-streams', then meditation is the one. The eight limbs of yoga now look to me more like a backbone (meditation) and seven limbs.

Over the last few months I have done some reading about meditation practices. There seem to be two main types of meditation methods:
  1. Meditation with an object focuses the attention on an image, sound (laya yoga) or syllable/group of syllables (mantra meditation).
    Yogani says that mantra meditation is the most efficient for going deep into silence.
  2. Mindfulness meditation promotes self awareness by turning the attention inwards, to the body, breathing or thoughts. The aim of mindfulness meditation is to dissociate the self from the contents of the mind (you are not your thoughts, nor your feelings), placing it instead at the hub of consciousness (also called The Witness). The thoughts and feelings are like the spokes of the wheel, always in motion while the hub remains unmoved. The attitude of The Witness is one of openness and acceptance toward the contents of the mind.
  3. The best-known methods of mindfulness meditation are Vipassana (believed by some to be the method practised by Buddha's) and Zazen (Zen Buddhist meditation).
As for my own practice, I am doing mantra meditation using Yogani's I AM mantra. However, I can't help noticing a fair amount of vipassana going on during my mediation sessions. I think this is not incompatible with Yogani's instructions i.e. favouring the mantra and easily coming back to it when you notice you've lost it. The mantra is not to be used to suppress thoughts and emotions surfacing during meditation. Letting these come out into the open, acknowledging and accepting them is part of the purification process which meditation is aiming to achieve.

Would I ever abandon mantra mediation for pure vipassana? No. I think the repetition of the mantra is an effective method for stilling the mind. Just letting the mind randomly wonder from one object to the next might allow trivial thoughts to gather significance purely by repetition. On the other hand, the mantra gives the mind a stable point from which it can go into silence once emotional tensions have been resolved.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Discovering AYP

Have you ever had the feeling you're stuck in a rut with your yoga practice? Assanas and more assanas, a few breathing exercise, but no sign that your teacher might eventually move onto more advanced practices? I used to – I tried several yoga classes, two of which I attended regularly for long periods of time. They were good for fitness and flexibility, but not much progress in a true yoga sense. The nagging feeling that I wasn't really going anywhere finally turned into discontent. Some three months ago, I decided I had to get into more advanced yoga, even at the risk of practising without supervision. I started to look for books and websites that could help me stitch together an advanced yoga path. Risky? Yes, I braced myself for trial and error and the though of going it alone was unnerving. I decided to take the risk and give myself a chance to progress.

I first came across a set of books by Swami Rama, which do contain some guidelines on meditation and breathing techniques. Then somebody pointed me to the Self-Realisation Fellowship and Yogananda's books. It was the third time lucky for me, when I came across Yogani's AYP website. Everything I need in the way of yoga is there! I won't even have to take much of a risk, as the method seems to be tried and tested, with plenty of people following it in distance-learning mode.

Yogani's method looks like a straightforward succession of steps, clearly explained. And without too much jargon and even without the mystical mumo-jumbo. Because, keen as I am on yoga, I have no intention to depart from my discerning self. (Paranormal powers and miracles might exist, but I'm still waiting to see some evidence.)
If I had dreamt up my teacher myself, he could not have been more to my liking than Yogani has turned up to be. It was a very exciting few days, reading through his book and reassuring myself that the method really is complete, down to the very advanced techniques that normally come with a 'do not try this on your own' tag. Yes, we are responsible adults who can self-pace and practice safely - thankfully there is one yoga master out there who takes that view. He also does his best to clarify the details of his technique and can be contacted with questions if anyone needs clarifications.

Yogani even sorted out my confusion about following a devotional path. Since I am not religious, I thought a devotional path was not for me. But I am devoted to my goal of finding the truth, to become the best I can be as a human being and realise whatever potential was given to me by nature or God. As I read Yogani's lessons about devotion, the long-felt disappointment about lack of progress and many years' failure to find a teacher suddenly took a positive turn. That same emotional drive can and will power my progress from now on. Thank you Yogani! I am more grateful than words can say.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Art of Meditation

The Art of Meditation book coverIn the last month or so, as I have resumed my daily meditation practice, I have also been looking for reading about meditation. One of the books my local library had to offer was “The Art of Meditation” by Matthieu Ricard. The author is a Buddhist monk who left a career in cellular genetics in order to practice Buddhism in the Himalayas.

The book is an enjoyable account of Buddhist mediation. The Buddhists distinguish between mediation with an object (Shamatha) and introspective meditation (Vipassana or Vipashyana). The first aims to still the mind, the second to gain insight into its workings. Stilling the mind is a prerequisite of successful introspection. I believe introspective meditation  is what some yogis call “witnessing” - letting ones toughs and emotions come and go, while the mind acknowledges them as an objective judge. It occurs naturally during object-focused meditation and the two are often practised together as one technique.

Although I have no plans to focus on introspective mediation as a separate technique from my mantra-focused routine, I have found the chapter about introspection thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly liked the river metaphor as an analogy for the ego. It goes like this:  What gives a river its identity? Is it the water that flows through it? No, because the water changes with every hour and week that passes. Is it the river bed or the shape of its banks? Take the water away and the river bed becomes a stretch of land. In the same way, our ego has no tangible identity or definition. It feeds on memories of the past and anticipations of the future. It either dwells on past triumphs and failures or sets itself up as a victim.

“We are not this ego [..] Our most fundamental level of experience is pure awareness”. Abandon grasping onto your ego, cease to identify with it, urges Ricard, and you will find complete inner freedom. Then you will be able to relate to everybody you meet with candour, “goodwill, courage and serenity. Having nothing to gain and nothing to lose, we are free to give and receive everything.”

I guess the river analogy resonates so strongly with me because I have just started to be more aware of the workings of my own ego. When I began practising yoga, back in my early twenties, my ego  appropriated the benefits of my practice – bags of energy, self confidence and feeling happy all the time. I could not be more wrong – as my practice dwindled, the benefits slowly faded away.  I am now approaching yoga again in a very different spirit.  I know very well that I am, at best, just an honoured vessel.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Diaphragmatic Breathing

I've just got back into a regular meditation practice and the first question that sprang to mind was “What is the right way to breathe? Do I use any of the Pranayama methods?” Casting my mind back to the time – years ago – when I was first taught how to meditate, I could not recall my teacher giving any instruction on the matter. So I have researched the question afresh and the answer appears to be diaphragmatic breathing – the breath the body automatically uses during relaxation and deep sleep. This sort of explains why my first yoga teacher didn't think it necessary to mention it, but it is nice to have it spelt out (thank you Swami Janaeshvara Bharati for doing that).

The concept “diaphragmatic breathing” is very often used as synonym to “abdominal breathing”. I do not think merging the two is helpful, and I will personally use the former to designate breathing powered by the diaphragm only, without abdominal or any other muscles involved.

The diaphragm is a wide muscle dividing the thorax from the abdomen. It is shaped like  an upside-down bowl, whose concavity increases on the out-breath. On the in-breath, the diaphragm contracts, flattens and pulls down, increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity and pushing downwards the digestive organs underneath. As a result, the upper abdomen passively expands (without any abdominal muscles having to engage in the movement). The lower ribcage also flares out passively, solely as a result of the diaphragm's contraction, with no thoracic muscles needing to be activated.

Practising diaphragmatic breathing

The aim of the exercise is to make your breath as deep as possible by contracting the diaphragm only. Awareness of abdominal and thoracic muscles you have developed using other breathing methods helps – the better this awareness the better you will be at leaving those groups of muscles  relaxed during this exercise.

I have personally found that it is easiest to practice diaphragmatic breathing in a seated posture. While lying down, the abdomen sinks a lot further at the end of the out-breath, which in turn calls for a deeper in-breath and the temptation to engage the abdominal muscles. Perhaps lying down is useful at a second stage of practice, to add an extra challenge.
  1. Sit comfortably on a chair or on the floor, in a sitting pose.
  2. Start by focusing on an out-breath. Breathe out as far as you can and wait for the inhalation reflex to kick in by itself.
  3. On the in-breath, feel your diaphragm pushing down into your abdomen. If you need to develop more awareness of your abdominal and thoracic muscles, placing one hand on your lower belly and the other on your upper chest can help – these parts of your body should not move during diaphragmatic breathing
  4. Relax into the exercise.
    Diaphragmatic breathing is the most relaxing of all types of breathing, so the more you practise it the more relaxed you should feel.

Friday, 6 September 2013

My New Approach to the Cobra Pose

Many years ago, when I was first learnt the Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), I received a set of instructions very similar to those given by the "Yoga Journal" website: “Straighten the arms to lift the chest off the floor, going only to the height at which you can maintain a connection through your pubis to your legs”. I was quite flexible at the time and I thought I was doing this posture quite well,  following my yoga teacher's instructions to the letter.

Fast forward twenty years and three yoga teachers later. One important thing I have learned in all this time is that  approaches to yoga vary hugely from teacher to teacher, even staying within the Hatha Yoga domain. After relocating and becoming unable to attend the classes of my very first yoga teacher, I found it difficult to warm up to different teachers and different styles. But at some point I realised that listening to different points of view was useful. And that comparing approaches and making up my own mind about the best or most useful way to execute a posture was after all a good thing.

The Cobra pose is a good example of questioning and re-learning. The first piece of information that made me question my Cobra execution is in "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga" by Joan Budilovsky and Eve Adamson. They make the point that a snake doesn't have arms, so “you shouldn’t rely on your arms for this pose”. The following image is the illustration of Bhujangasana featured in this book:

The Cobra pose as illustrated in “The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga" - legs and feet together and arms bent at the elbow

Compare this with the Yoga Journal photo, and you will notice straight away that the arms are bent and the arching of the back is nowhere as impressive. And no, this is definitely not because we are looking at a beginners' book. One of the instructions given by Joan Budilovsky says: “your heels and toes are together”. If you try the posture this way, you will find  that keeping the feet and legs together seriously limits the arching of your back. Maybe this is not the pose you want to show in the photo that could prove to the world what an accomplished yogi you are. But the point is this: Joan Budilovsky's version of the posture is the one that really works the back muscles. As the authors point out, Bhujagasana is about “allowing the strength of the spine to move you”.

Joan Budilovsky is not the only one to take this view. Check out this website - Advaita Yoga Ashrama written by Swami Atma and you will find a very similar approach to this asana.

My own conclusion about the Cobra is that the version described by the "Yoga Journal" is about spine flexibility - the arms carry the weight and the back lets itself be bent as much as the flexibility of your spine will allow it. But if you want to strengthen your back muscles through Cobra, then you should follow the advice of Joan Budilovsky and Swami Atma.

Friday, 16 August 2013

A Trip to Lyveden New Bield

The unfinished building project at Lyveden New Bield
Lyveden New Bield is an Elizabethan building project unfinished to this day. Located in East Northamptonshire, it is now a National Trust property.

This grand shell was meant to be a summer house. It has been standing like this, without a roof since 1605, when - on the death of its owner - work was abandoned never to be resumed.

It tells the story of a rich family brought not only to ruin, but to extinction. The building was started by Sir Thomas Tresham, a staunch catholic, openly opposing the then newly created Church of England. The extortionate fines the family had to pay for not attending Anglican Mass were ruinous. Sir Thomas Tresham spent time in prison because of his religious convictions. His son, Francis was involved in the Gunpowder Plot and died in the Tower of London awaiting trial. His spendthrift son, Lewis lost whatever was left of the family's wealth.

I visited the place this summer and I took in the story with very mixed feelings. I would have sympathised a lot more with Sir Thomas' devotion to his faith had I not heard how he made his fortune. It was in the time when sheep was more profitable than having peasants work the land and sir Thomas had no qualms charging extortionate rents and driving the peasants off his land in pursuit of profit.

It was touching to see the never fired bread oven in the never used kitchen in that house that never got to be a home. And I could sympathise with Sir Thomas' homely pursuits – his letters show how he was thinking of his orchard and garden even when a prisoner in the Tower. But there was also the uncomfortably low back door for the servants. Even short people would have had to bend to get through it – what must have been like having to pass through that door tens of times a day, every day of ones working life? And – in the same vein – the back of the house was planned so that the comings and goings of the servants would be hidden from view – an eyesore that could not be tolerated to obtrude into aristocratic eyes.

I would have liked Sir Thomas better if he had cared a tad less about religious symbols and more about the many people working away to put money into his purse and to keep him comfortable in his home. On the way back from Lyveden I found myself thinking that compassion and true kindness have a timeless quality, which our truths - be they religious or scientific - very rarely, if ever, attain.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Love Itself

Streams of light in a forest


"In streams of light I clearly saw
 The dust you seldom see,
 Out of which the Nameless makes
 A Name for one like me."

From "Love Itself" by Leonard Cohen