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From Sound to Silence

This was the title of a 5 day meditation retreat I went on at Mandala Yoga Ashram in August 2015, led by Swami Gyan Dharma.  An ashram is described as a secluded place for retreat or spiritual practice and  Mandala Yoga Ashram is definitely that, sitting in a beautiful, remote corner of south Wales fairly near the Brecon Beacons.  It was set up in 1986 by Swami Nishchalananda so next year it'll celebrate its 4oth anniversary.  I recommend it highly as a wonderful place to experience.  See the website www.mandalayoga.net  You can register to receive regular bulletins and blogs, not to mention advance information about the 2016 programme.  

The programme for each day began with the sound of a hand bell waking us up at 5.30. The first class of asanas and pranayama was at 6.15 am, followed by mantra chanting and a meditation guided by Swami Gyan Dharma.  Then we had karma yoga, which for me was in housekeeping /cleaning.  As I was alone rather than in a group, it was done largely in silence and was definitely part of the practice.  Formal sessions with Swami Gyan Dharma included learning (or rather trying) the Sanskrit chants for the daily havan, the ancient Vedic fire ceremony.  Other forms of sound-making included learning and practising the Indian musical scale and OM chanting in a circle as a round (that was particularly powerful).  We also experienced seated and walking meditations, an evening satsang with questions, riotous kirtans (Swami Gyan Dharma's serious expression disguising a keen wit and a warm sense of inner joy that had us all laughing) and fantastic food. There were various periods of silence (mouna) as well as the lovely deep reflective silence after many of the practices.  Before lunch and the evening meal we chanted a mantra and ate in silence for the first 15 minutes.  Mouna began immediately after the evening session so we tended to be in bed by 9.30 pm.  I returned to Edinburgh inspired and deeply refreshed, with even more CDs to add to my collection.

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On balancing the mind with yoga

I prepared these notes for  a seminar I taught for Edinburgh and Lothians Yoga Association in November 2014.  The whole of Yoga is of course about balancing the mind, with many different pathways, so I gave myself an impossible task!

Here are some extracts from the background material:

What is the mind?

How does the brain,  that 3lb mass of tissue inside our skulls, relate to the mind?  This problem has exercised philosophers (including spiritual masters of many traditions) for thousands of years. 

Cogito, ergo sum:  I am thinking, therefore I exist.  (Descartes, 1637)

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738).

Psychologists and other scientists have joined the search in the last 150 years or so.  In modern western thinking, the mind is defined more or less as consciousness - as our capacity to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, and to feel.  It can also mean a person's ability to think and reason; the intellect, or a person's attention.  BUT – over 100 years ago Sigmund Freud established that consciousness is only a small part -  the tip of the iceberg of mental processes.  Consciousness and mind are not synonymous.

In modern cognitive science the mind is identified as the reflection of the activity of the brain and nervous system, which is seen as a fantastic unimaginably complex (100 billion cells, each with tens of connections) information processing system linking us to our environment, both external and internal.  Neurotransmitters convey electrical impulses from neurone to neurone.  This is an active and ever-changing field of research.  One suggestion is that, if the brain were a book, the mind is the information contained within it.

Yoga philosophy sees the mind very differently. 

The Mandukya Upanishad – a Vedantic text dated around 1st century CE (though this is disputed by some scholars and it may have been earlier) – explores 4 levels of consciousness:

  • the waking state
  • dreaming (this includes not only night time dreaming but also daytime musings and reverie)
  • deep dreamless sleep
  • the fourth state, turiya or superconsciousness: enlightenment.

These four levels are symbolized in the Sanskrit word OM, where each of the curves represents one of the states of consciousness. 

The Buddha taught (for example in the Dhammapada) that

All things have the nature of mind.  Mind is the chief and takes the lead.  If the mind is clear, whatever you do or say will bring happiness that will follow you like your shadow.

All things have the nature of mind.  Mind is the chief and takes the lead.  If the mind is polluted, whatever you do or say leads to suffering that will follow you, as a cart trails a horse.

So no, Dr. Aaron T Beck didn't invent cognitive therapy!

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

Chapter 1, v.2

and another favourite quote - Chapter 1,  v.33

The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated .

One that resonates with me is from The Bhagavad Gita:

 “O Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, and violent.  Trying to control the mind is like trying to control the wind.”

   "It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, O Mahabaho, through regular practice and detachment.”

BG chapter 6, verses 34-35

Isn't it great to think that we can train the mind; we're not its slave!  Incidentally this resonates well with what we now know about neuroplasticity – that we can change the brain neuronal pathways by repeated practice.  These verses tell us that any practices we adopt in order to train the mind must be carried out with abhyasa: regular, systematic practice, even (or perhaps especially) when we don’t feel like it; and vairagya: detachment from our own opinions, actions and ego. 

More to follow.........................

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Pranayama practices for the Autumn Equinox

I'm creating this  post from my contribution to the teaching at the Autumn Equinox retreat we had at the weekend, September 19th to 21st.  As a small group of Satyananda teachers in Scotland 5 of us (and a warmly welcomed Sivananda teacher) contributed sessions to the retreat held in the most beautiful setting, on the Isle of Skye, with views of the Black Cuillins from one side and of the Red Cuillins from the other.  We were blessed with beautiful weather and a walking meditation on Sunday was exquisite. 

My session took as its basis the links between Ayurveda, the Vedic science of healing both body and mind, and Yoga, the Vedic science of Self-realization.   Ayurveda and Yoga are considered to be sister sciences and the link between them is PRANA or life-force. So my session involved breathing and pranayama practices.   

Ayurveda is based on the five elements or tattwas, expressed in the body as the doshas.  We all have a doshic constitution at birth, and the balance changes as we grow, mature, and age.  The doshas vary not just by age, but also by time of day.

The kapha sections 6-10 am and pm are the most stable.  For better or worse, our deepest habits are established in these time periods – maybe that’s the origin of the old saying “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”.  Hopefully that applies to women too!   The morning kapha period is ideal for yoga practice, with the evening time being next best.

Pitta energy in the daytime, 10-2 am, aids our ability to focus and concentrate.  Pitta energy is needed for digestion therefore Ayurveda recommends that we take our main meal between those daytime hours.  Pitta energy between 10 pm and 2 am may be responsible for fridge-raiding munchies, so best to be asleep before this happens!

Vata dosha, the least stable, predominates between 2pm – 10 pm and 10 pm -2 am.  We may be prone to changeable moods and impulsiveness, but also are at our most creative.  And as vata governs elimination, this may be connected with night time trips to the toilet, especially as one gets older, which is dominated by vata.

The doshas also vary by season.   Autumn is the vata season - the most unstable element, subject to variability, bringing creativity, but also easily upset, perhaps being involved in impulsivity and mood swings, with anxiety as a symptom of what is sometimes called vata derangement!

The practices I taught were for calming.  The slower and more controlled the breath, the more prana we cultivate.  Find the stillness in the pause between breaths.

1. Chaturdik pranam mudra (Swami Pragyamurti’s book) – salutations (Oms x 3) to the four directions.

2. Savasana, letting the breath find its own length and rhythm

3. Relax and breathe – a vata calming practice, in savasana.  Raising and lowering arms with the breaths.

INHALE = EXHALE                                5 rounds

INHALE-HOLD-EXHALE                       5 rounds

INHALE-HOLD-EXHALE-HOLD OUT      5 rounds

Then pause in savasana at end, reflecting on effect of practice, aware of grounding & stabilising.

4. Sit up in vajrasana. 3 x Mukha bhastrika – crow’s beak breath, whoosh out (no breathing in, just continuous interrupted exhale until lungs empty) as bend forward, observe spontaneous suspension of breath.

5. Healing breaths: hasta mudra pranayama.  Mudras to connect with abdominal, AAH; mid-chest OOO; and upper chest breath MMM, then OM with Brahma mudra.

6. Nadi sodhana stage 1 x 3 rounds

7. Vayu mudras and chants.

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Guru Poornima - 12th July 2014

Havan image

In yogic traditions, Guru Poornima is celebrated every year on the full moon day in July.  In 2014 it falls on Saturday 12th July.  This auspicious day gives us an opportunity to pay our respects and offer our heartfelt gratitude to all spiritual masters, past and present. The guru (giver of light or spiritual teacher) may be embodied in a living person or may be the principle that exists dormant in all of us – the inner guru.  

What is it we are to know about Guru Poornima? It is an opportunity for a spiritual stocktaking, a chance to renew and strengthen ourselves through coming together as a ‘sangha’ or group of people interested in rededicating ourselves to spiritual practice and inner growth.  Whether you have a guru or you don’t, whether it is inner or outer, whatever tradition, you are most welcome to come to join us in this celebration.

The programme includes a simple havan.  Havan is a time-honoured deeply symbolic practice that is used in domestic settings for particular purposes.   It utilises the power of fire (agni) to have a subtle but palpable effect on the individual, community and environment.  As the fire is lit and fed, mantras are chanted and samagri or rice grains are offered to the fire.  It is believed to develop spiritual purity and transformation as we discard old unwanted attitudes. Yajna is also a type of fire ceremony but it tends to be for larger gatherings and to have a more universal theme. 

Havan and yajna are both rooted in ancient Vedic history, for example in the Katha Upanishad when Yama, the god of death, says to Nachiketa:

Dear Boy, that sacred fire which is the means

To heaven and is the support of all the worlds,

Actually burns deep within the hidden cave

Which is in the heart of each person.

 

And after the havan we have a feast!

Venue: Dechmont Memorial Community Hall

More information to follow

 

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Pranayama - what is it and why do we practice it?

In my first yoga teacher training, despite the best efforts of our tutors, I now know (though I didn't at the time) that I just didn't "get" pranayama.  It felt too slow and I often ended up gasping and having to take extra breaths.  But in 2001 I  discovered that Philip Xerri was going to run his year-long Pranayama Foundation Course in Edinburgh.  It's not an exaggeration to say that it completely changed my practice - and of course my mind, which is intimately connected with the breath.  Philip himself encountered  pranayama originally with Phil Jones in Wales, and went on to train in India with Swami Gitananda.  Philip would tell us stories of how Phil, an ex- miner, survived on very little remaining lung tissue because of his pranayama practice.  Philip gave us a daily practice schedule, building up progressively,  that would often take 45 minutes.  Three quarters of an hour of conscious breathing in different patterns!  But I became utterly involved, and the time flew.  

Since then, and particularly since becoming involved in Satyananda Yoga, I've done other valuable courses, including Swami Vedantananda's 6-month Pranayama Sadhana course, using the Yoga Chudamani Upanishad as its main text. Now pranayama and I are good friends; the kind you turn to for varying needs - comfort, energy, quietness, enlivenment, and sometimes natural "highs" that are perfectly legal! 

The word pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words - prana meaning energy or life-force; and ayama meaning extending or enhancing.  Prana is energy which manifests and is responsible for the action and motion of physical organs; and also for the motion of mind, in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviour, attitudes - in fact all inner and outer activity.  Pranayama practices enhance life force.  They are at the heart of hatha yoga practice.   

In his book Prana Pranayama Swami Niranjanananda writes

“The medium of pranayama is the breath.  The practices involve guiding the respiration beyond its normal limit, stretching it, speeding it up, and slowing it down in order to experience the full range of respiration on both the gross and subtle levels. Once this has been achieved, prana can be guided further by the practice of prana vidya.  (page 106).

"We inhale, we take in prana.  We hold our breath in, we harmonise, channel and balance the prana we have received.  And we exhale. Inhalation, retention and exhalation simply represent, not the breathing technique, but a process that affects our pranic body, the pranamaya kosha."  (But the koshas are a topic for another blog!)

 

Some quotes from ancient texts:

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - a text of classical or raja yoga - written down, it is believed, around 2000 years ago:

 “Once firm posture has been acquired, pranayama is the regulation of inhalation and exhalation. {Pranayama} manifests as external, internal and restrained movements of breath." Chapter 2 v 49 & 50

"Or {stability of mind is gained} by exhaling and retaining the breath".  Chapter 1 v 34

Yoga Rahasya is a text said to date back to the 9th century CE but rediscovered and edited in modern times. 

“One whose mind is stable has happiness and tranquillity.  For him everything is easily achievable.   For people who are agitated by objects of the senses, pranayama is the best solution”.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika - approx 13th century CE

Chapter 2 verse 2

“When the breath is unsteady, the mind is unsteady.  When the breath is steady,the mind is steady, and the yogi becomes steady.  Therefore one should restrain the breath."

Yoga Chudamani Upanishad -Probably composed around 700 CE.  Name means Crown Jewel of Yoga.  121 mantras dealing with the practices of kundalini yoga.  

“Just as the lion, elephant and tiger are brought under control slowly and steadily, similarly the prana should be controlled, otherwise it becomes destructive to the practitioner” (verse 118)

 

And finally I hope Philip doesn't mind my taking from his website www.yogaquests.co.uk

"Pranayama is initially the process whereby this immense {cosmic} energy is accessed directly by the systematic application of structured breathing practices.  Continuing pranayama practice utilises this connection with the primary cosmic force to profoundly influence the individual on all levels - physical, emotional, energetic, mental and spiritual."

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