Showing posts with label breath. Show all posts
Showing posts with label breath. Show all posts

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Joy is no "Object" : The Land Beyond Our Dreams

How odd it is that in the English language we say: "Money is no object" when we mean to say "Don't worry about the money, spend what you want or need!"
Image result for gold coins
But it is also true that money is indeed not an object, as such. Yes, you can hold in your hand a 10 rupee note or a $100 bill or a gold coin. But as an "object" these things have no intrinsic value beyond the idea and perception we have of them and which is shared with others. Money is essentially an abstraction. A mere idea. We could use sea shells or cows as money for all the difference it makes to the idea.

Well, when I say "Joy is no object" I do NOT mean that joy is a mere thought or abstraction. Rather, I mean that true joy cannot be found and held fast in any thought, emotion, object, or sense experience!

Yogis discovered long ago a secret that even our bodies do not know: we can live without or with very little breathing. Normally our bodies are designed to keep us breathing at all costs and I, for one, wouldn't argue with its design and intention.

But, as I say, long ago yogis discovered that by specific and exacting methods one could suspend the breath and not "just" remain alive but in fact enter into a blissful experience that, with regular practice, can be summoned at will even later while breathing and acting normally in daily life.

This is not merely some healthy way to get "high." Discovering that life exists more fully in a state that is transcendent of the physical body is an enormous release of self awareness from the prison of mortality itself.

Like so many things in life: it's a step by step process. Yogis tell us, moreover, that this is the reason we have been created: to discover who we really are. We are to discover that we are not the personality confined to one human form and condemned to live impermanently and all too precariously, chained by our breath and heart beat to this form.

Admittedly, the vast majority of human beings are quite eager to pursue as much pleasure and accumulation as they can get. Few are ready to embark on an inward journey towards consciousness Itself: to our Creator, Consciousness and Bliss, one and the same.

Nonetheless, the spread of yoga and meditation throughout the world heralds the awakening of an innate and intuitive desire for universality in both self-definition and in society in an increasing number of people. The history of yoga and the existence of great yogis--masters of life force--provide a continuous testimony down through the ages of what is possible.

I recall as a boy being taught that the term "Catholic" meant "universal." I found the idea thrilling though only later did I discover it wasn't quite the case for my Catholic faith as such! But all faiths more or less teach that we are children of God and in this lies the seed of the actual, inner experience, born of meditation (and cessation of breath) that we are One; we are not this body.

Therese Neumann
In a similar vein, we have modern evidence that it is possible to live without food or water. In the person and life of Therese Neumann, we have validated proof of this fact. For more see:

Using the methods of yoga-meditation, bringing the breath steadily and naturally under control we approach the zone where our thoughts are stilled and, not unlike the pleasure of sleep but while remaining conscious (indeed, MORE than merely conscious: intensely aware), we experience a state of wholeness, of satisfaction, of security that is incomparable, persuasive, and pervasive like no other worldly pleasure or accomplishment can ever match. It is ours; our home; no one can take it and it depends on no outward circumstance!

Image result for the last smile
Paramhansa Yogananda - "Last Smile"
What is interesting is that daily forays into this "land beyond my dreams" begins to transform one consciousness with an all pervading sense of calmness; quiet joy; confidence (without ego); insights and love for all without thought of self.

Paramhansa Yogananda coined the phrase "land beyond my dreams" to express this state of "super" consciousness, as opposed to the dreamy state of subconsciousness. 

With proper training, focused discipline, and a pure motive linked with intense yearning, it's not difficult to achieve the beginning states. These alone are worth the effort even if going beyond them into states described down through ages (using terms like cosmic consciousness, samadhi, moksha, liberation and the like) has yet to arrive.

For the sake of description, if not for instruction, imagine your mind crystallizing into a simple but pure state of quiet, inner awareness. Your thoughts have gone to rest, like thrashing waves that have become becalmed and that have dissolved into the resting sea. It's somewhat like gazing out the window at a panoramic scene. But, instead of your gaze going out and away from yourself, it is turned inward as if upon the mind or the awareness itself as an "object" of contemplation. 

Imagine gazing inwardly at your own awareness. Consider the image of looking into a mirror when there's a mirror behind you and the images are multiplied toward infinity. This is more complex than I would actually suggest beyond the simple idea that you are looking at your own awareness which, not being a thing at all, leads you into this "land," a place of feeling which is thrilling in a deeply calm and knowing way: like coming home.

Such experiences can come upon us under any number of circumstances in life. Much poetry is written about such things, being described in an infinity of ways for it brings us to the hem of infinity itself.

But the yogis discovered how to reach this land by the daily practice of specific, often called scientific, methods of breath awareness and control. Yogananda's most famous and most advanced meditation technique is called Kriya Yoga. See Chapter 26, "Kriya Yoga," in his landmark story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." Yet most any time-tested technique that suits one will suffice for the beginning stages of meditation. 

Yogananda taught a mindfulness technique of concentration using the mantra, Hong Sau (which loosely means "I am He" or "I am Spirit" Peace" etc). Hence the technique itself is called "Hong Sau." Its essence however appears in every tradition of meditation, east or west, down through the ages. It does so for the simple reason that breath awareness is the key and the link between ordinary consciousness (of body and personality) and the higher state of awareness whose most notable outward characteristic is absence of or reduced breath. To learn Hong Sau you can go to:

As the breath, so the mind. "Heavy breathing" is intense and passionate body or ego awareness. By contrast, deep mental concentration requires or is accompanied by quietness of breath. Thus body transcendence requires stilling the breath and heart. It's truly that simple, though the vistas of awareness that open up are Infinite! 

I'll stop now for I have accomplished my main point of inspiration and sharing.

Joy to you,

Swami Hrimananda

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What is the best meditation technique? What is Kriya Yoga?

What is the best meditation technique? Can a device with sound or images or other electronic stimulation really deepen your meditation? Should I use a pre-recorded, guided meditation aid? Are all the techniques which use the term "kriya" the same? There are so many mantras and pranayams and gurus, where does one even begin?

The short answer ("All roads lead to Rome") has some validity and is a tempting rejoinder and end to all these questions, but . . . . the "real answer" is both subjective (personal) and objective (demonstrable).

A proper response also requires an understanding of the purpose of meditation, whether, too, from the one's personal motivation or from the tradition and history of meditation itself. But I have addressed the question of "What is Meditation" in other articles on this site. For my purposes, I will assume that our shared understanding of the purpose of meditation is primarily a spiritual one.

"What works best for you" is a fair yardstick although be forewarned that you risk "the blind leading the blind and both falling in a ditch" of ignorance. It's like practicing hatha (physical) yoga because it's a good body workout experience: just because everybody does it, it still misses the true purpose of yoga by a "country mile."

Let's start with the personal: the meditation technique that is right for you has to work for you; it has to appeal to you: enough in the beginning to be attracted to it, and enough in the end to stick with it. This is not the same thing as saying your technique is effortless, easy, and blissful. Think of marriage (or a meaningful profession or career) as a comparison.

Notwithstanding the internet, CD's, DVD's and old-fashioned books, it is also worth noting that no effective (and long-term) meditation technique is divorced from its source: the teacher (or tradition). Partly it's a matter of your own confidence and faith in that technique. If John Smith down the street writes a book on meditation, it might strike your curiosity but I doubt it's going to change your life through daily, deep practice. Both the message and messenger are equally important. Meditation is personal: never forget that!

Not only, therefore, must the technique appeal to you and work sustain-ably for you but you must feel a connection, confidence, inspiration and/or faith in the teacher and/or tradition from which your chosen technique has come. I will stop short of talking about gurus and a disciple-guru relationship. I have written of that in other articles on this site.

There is one further point on the question of personal: the teachings and philosophy that surrounds your technique and teacher. Meditation, viewed in the vacuum of this article discussing technique (as such), might seem disconnected from the need for philosophy, theology, or teaching. Indeed, many meditation teachers say just that: you can be an atheist and practice meditation. Fine: who would argue with that! (I've said it myself!) But that, too, is a philosophy and a teaching. And maybe that really inspires you!

Thus some meditators practice under the auspices of one of the many Buddhist traditions; or Indian traditions; or Christian monastic traditions, or Sufi, Taoist, or Shinto and so on.

So, on a personal level, and as my own teacher, Swami Kriyananda put it in a talk he gave: we need to find the "right teacher, right teaching and right technique" for US and OUR spiritual evolution. All three (like Father, Son and Holy Ghost) are integral components of a successful (i.e. life changing) meditation practice.

Now, let's move on to the "objective" aspects of techniques. Almost any sincere and intelligent effort to meditate will produce positive results. That being said, we enter into the science of meditation. Keeping this article to a reasonable length, let us simplistically say that a successful technique or sitting in meditation experience will yield a mind that is focused and free from random thoughts; a body that is perfectly still (being relaxed but alert); and a "heart" or "mind" that experiences an expansion of consciousness and/or deep satisfaction in the form of inner peace (joy, love, etc.). Let's just leave it at that for now, ok?

The science of meditation teaches us that there is an intimate connection between our mind and body through the medium of breath. Our breath (in its various and measurable attributes of inhalation and exhalation) reflects our state of mind. Our state of mind affects our breath. This relationship is the bedrock of meditation.

The mind, however, can be influenced by conscious and intentional body movements (think yoga, martial arts), by mental concentration (mantra, visualization and affirmation), and by inspiration (chanting, prayer, and devotional images). Each of these, relative to breath, are still somewhat "outside" ourselves. They are effective when employed intelligently, consistently, and as guided intuitively. But the ultimate tool and the source (both) is the mind which in its purest form transcends any specific mental image or physical form. The breath has more directly than any of these other techniques a psycho-physiological impact upon the mind.

I am not saying that breath techniques are BETTER than mantra or devotion, for example. Rather, I am saying that the breath, relatively uncolored and free from the image-making faculties of the mind (which, in the end are abandoned in the higher states of meditation), works directly upon the mind. In the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, the core sutra states that oneness is achieved when the mind transcends creating and reacting to stimuli (mental or otherwise): Stanza 2: "Yogas chitta vritti nirodha."

That fact doesn't invalidate the wide range of meditation techniques. St. Teresa of Avila discovered from direct experience how to go from formulaic prayer to silent, inner prayer and finally beyond all mentation into ecstatic, breathless states of divine communion. She was known to levitate and even bi-locate.

Nonetheless, the discovery of the mind-breath-body connection IS the science of meditation. It is HOW the mind rediscovers the transcendent state of pure consciousness even while in a body. Thus it is that breath techniques (aka "pranayama") abound and are very often at least part of the most effective and popular meditation techniques that are taught and practiced today.

I practice the popular Kriya Yoga technique as taught by Paramhansa Yogananda and his lineage (Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar). It has been made known principally through his famous story, "Autobiography of a Yogi." Chapter 26 of that book ("Kriya Yoga") can be read for free online:

While most of the popularly used pranayams focus on the breath, diaphragm, and lungs, Kriya Yoga focuses on the internal, subtle breath whose movements, yogis tell us, cause the physical breath. These currents of energy (known as "prana") revolve up and down in the subtle (or "astral") body which inhabits (creates, sustains, and, at death, leaves) the physical body. The intelligent vital Life Force of prana flows out to the physical body through doorways known as "chakras." Kriya Yoga organically and gradually teaches one how to control this life force so as to consciously coax it inward and away from its captivity in the organs and tissues of the physical body so its power and intelligence (which is divine) can reunite with its commander-in-chief, the Soul, residing in the higher(est) chakras in and around the head. This goal is the state of yoga: union with the Soul and then, eventually, with the Infinite Oversoul which is God.

Each conscious rotation of the prana in the astral body through the chakras is equivalent to living one full solar year in perfect harmony with the body, with the world and with the soul. Excluding the seventh chakra, the soul, the remaining six chakras becomes twelve by the polarity of the movement of prana up and down and through these chakras (producing, in turn, in each rotation, one breath cycle of inhalation and exhalation). These twelve constitute the true inner astrological constellations under which our karma (past actions) reside and which must be untied and released so their energy may seek soul-union above in the seventh chakra.

In this manner, Yogananda taught that the practice of Kriya Yoga is the "airplane route" to God because it accelerates our spiritual evolution by resolving karmic patterns without having to wait many lifetimes to work out each and every desire and make good each and every debt.

Kriya Yoga is not only a technique: it is a spiritual path. It therefore uses devotion, chanting, affirmation, mantra and good works, right short all the tools of the spiritual "trade" that one sees universally employed. By adding this direct perception and control of our inner, soul anatomy, we have a meditation technique suited to our cultural inclination toward science (and away from sectarianism).

I will not conclude by saying "Kriya Yoga is the BEST technique" but it is a great gift to the world for those who feel drawn to it and inspired by its preceptors and precepts.

Blessings to you,

Nayaswami Hriman

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to Quiet the Monkey Mind (in meditation)

Once a person decides he or she wants to meditate, there's no question that the most common struggle for meditators, both new and seasoned, is the restless, "monkey" mind. If I could give you a prescription that would solve that I would be, ah, 'er, well............but, there are ways to tame the monkey.

But be forewarned that there's no pill, no bio-feedback device, no music or guided CD that's going to make restless thoughts go away effortlessly. There's no substitute for your own, finely-attuned, sensitive efforts linking mental focus, clear intention, and refined feeling.

But let's review some steps and basics that can help you. "Mind you," there's no lack of them, either:

Part 1 - The Basics

  1. Do you meditate consistently, day in and day out? Without consistency of effort there can be no progress.
  2. Why do you meditate? Remind yourself frequently of "why." This will include a quick review of the benefits and intentions. Without the motivation to meditate we become burdened by ambivalence or mental resistance and it is difficult to go deep. Paramhansa Yogananda put it bluntly when he said "The soul loves to meditate, but the ego hates to meditate." Be clear; be firm; be inspired!
  3. What is meditation? It is not thinking things over and, ultimately, it's not simply sitting with eyes closed enjoying a steady, random stream of consciousness thoughts, however interesting or pleasurable such an act may be. If you don't know what meditation is, any meditative efforts can be called "good." I am not going to be so presumptuous as to define the undefinable but let us say (as I paraphrase my spiritual preceptor, Paramhansa Yogananda) that real meditation (only) begins when thoughts subside into stillness. Hang onto this concept because it's the baseline measure of meditation. Yes, there are times when in a given sitting we never achieve this, or, only do so for brief fleeting moments, but it is important to know "what meditation IS" and what it is NOT. [Quoting Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "Even a little practice of this (meditation), will free you from dire fears and colossal sufferings."]
  4. Re-directing points 2 and 3 above, your calm but focused intention with each sitting should be to achieve quietness of mind (when thoughts subside into clear but silent perception) with each sitting. Be clear and firm about this EACH TIME! Don't be tense about it, however: that is counter productive.
  5. The Secret. The secret is this: you have to want to achieve stillness. Note the word "want." This is similar to "desire." Desire is similar to emotion and emotion, when refined towards true meditation, becomes devotion: intensity of aspiration that is, as yet, calm and non-attached. The secret to a calm mind is calm feeling. "Reason" (or thoughts) follow "feeling," my guru, Yogananda, often said. Jesus said that before going to the temple to pray, reconcile yourself with your brother with whom you've had a disagreement. When our emotions are calm and refined towards devotional aspiration, it's much easier for the mind to let go. Awaken, then, the desire to meditate before beginning to meditate. You will need to figure out how to activate this "desireless desire" to meditate according to your practice and temperament, but it is essential.
  6. My mind, a kingdom is. According to evolutionary biology, our human body and brain has developed in response to the impulse, among other things, to survive. Our brain, as investigated by science, is incredibly efficient and designed to watch for and respond to both internal and external threats, pleasure and pain, and ego satisfactions. Meditation, by contrast, seeks transcendence of the body-bound, instinct-driven mind. This takes time and re-training. What we have been given is a very good thing but what we seek is not only better, it is our truer essence. The "pearl of great price" cannot be bought with the debased currency of "that was easy!"
  7. I am of three minds. Our mind has three basic expressions: subconscious, conscious and super-conscious! Restless thoughts originate from the chatter and influence of the subconscious. Being "sub" conscious, this part of the mind is more like a restless child, hence the monkey analogy (and an apt one, pun intended). Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but generally restless and wanting attention and often mischievous. We should no more smack a child when he keeps whining at us for more candy than we should attempt to "sit on" the monkey mind. We have to coax it, train it patiently, and reward it for good behavior. The conscious mind is what "wants" to meditate (being inspired by the silent inspiration from the higher, or superconscious mind). Meditation is quieting the monkey mind, then turning the conscious mind to "look up" and offer itself to receive the inspiration, grace, power, and transforming influence of the superconscious, intuitive mind. 
Part 2 - Suggestions

  1. Take note. In your at-home and private meditation, have a small notebook and pen nearby. Promise your subconscious mind that should an important thought or reminder appear during meditation you will be happy to write it down provided the subconscious then subsides into silence. This is an agreement that each side must honor. 
  2. Counting. I can't know from here what techniques you use, but there are a ba-zillion breath control techniques (pranayams) and mantras. Most meditation routines do something or another with breath or heart rate. So, without wanting you to change the technique as you've been taught, I would propose that you consider this suggestion (i.e., counting) as a warm-up to your technique and not a substitute for it......
  3. Counting con't. Let's say you are doing simple, diaphragmatic breathing as a warm up. Mentally count your inhalation, retention (if any), exhalation, post-exhalation retention (if any). Counting can help your mind focus. There are variations from the equal count system (equal length of inhalation, hold, and exhalation) so let your counting follow the pattern of your choice or as you've been instructed. Important: your goal is to be counting without intrusion of thought(s). If you discover thoughts taking place, stop, and begin again. Start by setting a goal of between 5 and 10 breaths (counting all the while) without an intruding thought. If at breath number 3, a thought intrudes, stop and begin again. Continue until you achieve your goal. (Set the goal lower if need be to get some momentum and success in this. Set a higher goal if you can.)
  4. From here....Do not allow yourself to enter into your usual meditation routine until your mind cooperates  and settles down according to the goal you've set in your counting. 
  5. Other. Yes, it is true that the general recommendations include doing some yoga or stretches first, a prayer, chanting, and so on. I certainly don't exclude these items but it may be that for you, you do all of these things and still have the monkey on your mind. So, let's not exclude these more standard suggestions. It may be that you are jumping too quickly into meditation without making the requisite transitional steps like stretching, prayer and chanting to relax and energize the body, awaken inspiration and set your intention. (see part 1 above re intention). If you are ill or upset, the most you can accomplish in meditation may be only to chant, do affirmations, or read inspirational thoughts and be quiet but momentarily. (But this is a temporary condition, whereas we are speaking of longer term monkey mind syndrome.)
  6. Positive focus. I don't want to interfere with your meditation technique  but there are two points of internal focus that are most helpful (on several levels). The first is the heart (chakra) and the second is the "third eye" (point between the eyebrows). In my tradition (of raja/kriya yoga), the latter is the most important but one's focus in the prefrontal lobes must be energetically supported by the calm and refined feelings of the heart lifted upward to that point. They must be, in all events, balanced or at least both activated.
  7. Heart centered meditation. If you tend to be feeling oriented by temperament, rest in the heart center (not the physical heart, but opposite near or above the sternum, in the center of the body) for a good portion of your sitting time, especially in the beginning, and touching in, as it were, throughout your sitting time. As you do so, feel the heart relax and an invisible, inner smile appear, relaxing your face.
  8. Oneness meditation. Focusing (gazing inwardly) at the point between the eyebrows must be done correctly in order to achieve optimum effect. I can say that to the degree my attention is wholly engaged there, random thoughts evaporate or are, at least, kept at bay. (In the latter situation it's like being in one room and hearing the sounds of voices from another room nearby.) With complete, one-pointed, heart-supported focus, thoughts don't have a chance. This fool proof method, however, is among the most difficult even if ultimately the best. For starters, too much will power tends to "hurt." You can even get a headache or feel sore in the forehead. For another, you have to know exactly where to focus your gaze. This blog is too clumsy to get into this aspect. (You can make a special point of warming up with a few minutes of inner gazing at the spiritual eye, adjusting to the relative darkness behind closed eyes, calming your mind so that you can hold in a steady gaze whatever visual sensations you observe at that point.) Write to me if you want to know where to focus. But gazing through the point between the eyebrows should be the kind of intensive interest that you equate with fascination, aroused curiosity, and positive interest. In short, it should seem natural, interesting and engaging, not forced. Connect it with the heart's energy and power by offering your calm feeling upward into the (as yet unseen) inner light at the point between the eyebrows.  
  9. Two-ness leads to One-ness. Thus it is that the two-ness of the two energy centers (heart and spiritual eye) can gradually lead to complete, steady, absorption in which all subconscious, random thoughts vanish. Another and more complex variation on the technique of gazing through the point between the eyebrows (and another way in which 2 becomes 1) is to use the power of visualization at that point. You might practice a little bit visualizing the eyes of your guru gazing back at you at that point; or your image of God, whether personal or abstract. By abstract I mean you might visualize a golden light bathing your mind with enlightenment. Or, you might visualize a sacred mountain, the ocean, a rainbow or other aspect of nature that suggests to you certain qualities of higher consciousness: such as peace, wisdom, vitality, love, calmness and so on. Practice this technique to steady the mind. Again, use this as a concentration tool separate and apart from any techniques you've been given and are otherwise committed to. This way it is a warm-up for your real practice(s).
  10. Counting on steroids. To return to counting, a more complex technique, perhaps for more experienced meditators who are familiar with various chakra meditation techniques is to chant syllables or mantric words with the breath. This is complex enough that there's little chance for the subconscious mind to get a word in edgewise! I'll give one example but there are countless ways to apply this. My example is to take the eight words (in Sanskrit) which comprise the stages of Patanjali's famous 8-Fold Path. For my example I'll use the fourth stage which is called "pranayama." Thus each cycle will take eight breaths. As you inhale you mentally and slowly chant the word (in my example, then): "pra--na--yam--a." Pause and hold the breath if you wish, or not, but with the exhalation you slowly and mentally repeat the syllables of that stage. Gradually let the inhalation and exhalations equalize. Continue through the eight stages of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Repeat at least four cycles, perhaps eight, (as you feel) until your mind quiets down. (I use an even more complex version of this not fit for blogs.) Keep in mind that this is not merely mechanical. The Sanskrit words of the 8-Fold Path from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are incredibly ancient and more or less constitute the equivalent of mantras. In any case, there is power and vibration and deep meaning in each one. You draw into your consciousness their vibration if you practice this not just as a mental exercise but as a meditation. You can choose other "lists" such as the Sanskrit names of the chakras, a line of gurus or masters, chakra qualities and on and on. Try to keep it simple enough that you can get it down fairly quickly, though.
Conclusion. You can see from these suggestions that we are giving the conscious mind something more interesting and meditational to focus on. The suggestions above may be warm-ups for those of you who have been given a sacred or otherwise effective technique but are struggling with the monkey. Ultimately however, true meditation transcends any meditation technique as an experience of superconsciousness which might be described as intuitive perception and realization of higher states of consciousness in which "knower, knowing, and known" merge into one. And even a little bit of this experience will bring you back to the cushion day after day drinking in the nectar of soul-bliss.

Bliss-filled meditations to you,


Saturday, June 7, 2014

"What do you mean by "yoga"?

In the past two articles I made the case that the practice of (true) yoga is the future of spirituality, whether in the context of established faiths or no faith. Obviously I am referring to something beyond the practice of the physical stretches and poses (the physical branch of yoga, known as hatha yoga). Just as obviously, by "future" I don't mean next year but perhaps the next century!

While I attempted to explain this prediction, I did NOT really describe "What is this yoga I speak of and how is it practiced?" I only really went so far as to explain that the term yoga is a reference to a state of consciousness that, for a shortcut, one could call God but which, in fact, is called by many names but, allowing that poor 'ol "God" carries a lot of baggage (owing principally to some stone tablets, I'm told...there's no "d" at the end of stone, btw), let's use the term Oneness.

Further, I explained that the term "yoga" (which means "yoke" or "bind") refers both to certain psycho-physiological disciplines that lead to Oneness as well as to Oneness itself.  This interesting fact warrants explanation but I refuse to give it, as I know you, the reader, are so perspicacious as to have already drawn the correct conclusion.

Unfortunately, that left a lot of readers hanging very high and very dry: both "shaken" and "stirred." Some of you muttered, "What's that got to do about 'What's for dinner?'" Or, "Why is Putin causing so much trouble in Ukraine?" In short, my prior article begs the question, "Is there a takeaway here?"

Yes, there is! For starters, let's start with where "we" are: the worldwide popularity of the yoga postures! Hatha yoga demonstrates a very practical takeaway, even if hatha yoga is only a toe in the yoga-water. Add to this the exponentially growing practice of meditation, and you've dipped an entire foot in.

[Now: I want to pause here and make my language simpler. Despite the fact that it must be obvious that I am on a campaign to educate the world that "yoga" is more than hatha yoga, I will henceforth drop using the term "yoga" to refer to true yoga. Instead, I will use the term "meditation" even though as my prior article pointed out, the term "meditation" is unsatisfactory.]

I stated before that one of the attributes of meditation that makes it a good candidate for universal adaptation by religionists and "spiritual but not religionist" is that meditation is "scientific." Meditation techniques are simple, demonstrable, and specific. Virtually anyone can receive instruction in its simple breathing or concentration techniques. Anyone who practices the techniques (as taught to them) will achieve similar and consistent results. No faith or belief system is required to get consistent results. Just search on the internet for "benefits of meditation" or "benefits of yoga."

While the same could be said of fitness routines or time-tested diets, meditation works directly with and upon our mind. By "mind" I include emotions, feelings, thoughts, insights, and levels of consciousness (ranging from dreamy subconsciousness to clear-minded everyday consciousnesss to elevated states of heighted awareness and intense feelings of joy, or peace). Meditation can produce experiences that are readily and commonly compared with, and considered to be, states of spiritual consciousness. And, it requires no drug use. Because it can produce feelings associated with spirituality and because it doesn't require or derive from any specific faith or ritual, it is ideal as a universal spiritual practice that can be integrated into any faith or no faith.

The primary tool of meditation is self-awareness. But traditional meditation practices often include some physical component to relax and energize the body. Like most faiths in general, there are guidelines regarding fasting and diet. It is much easier to meditate when the body is fit and healthy and the brain well oxygenated and the blood stream decarbonized. Indeed, hatha yoga is an excellent preparation for meditation. It can assist the body in sitting for long periods of time without discomfort.

But this primary tool of consciousness is linked to the physical body via the breath. Breath is more than oxygen and carbon dioxide; the one flowing into the body, the other out of the body. Breath includes the circulation of oxygen and of intelligent vitality the subtler aspect of which is termed "prana" (or "chi"). The awakening of one's awareness and control of this "life force" (prana) is one of the cornerstones of meditation.

Breath is life. A person is alive (usually!) when breathing and not alive when not breathing. Our breath links our mind (consisting of feeling, perception and self-awareness) to our body and this mind-breath-body conversation operates in both directions. It is easily demonstrated that quieting and calming the breath quiets and clears the mind. But the reverse is true, also: a quiet mind reflects in a calm breath. When we are excited or upset, our breathing is out of control, uneven, ragged. If in extreme fear, our "heart" leaps into our throat! (A figure of speech, merely.)

Paramhansa Yogananda in his now famous life story, "Autobiography of a Yogi," quotes his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar describing the highly advanced technique of kriya yoga as: “Kriya Yoga is an instrument through which human evolution can be quickened. The ancient yogis discovered that the secret of cosmic consciousness is intimately linked with breath mastery. This is India’s unique and deathless contribution to the world’s treasury of knowledge. The life force, which is ordinarily absorbed in maintaining the heart-pump, must be freed for higher activities by a method of calming and stilling the ceaseless demands of the breath.”

At an earlier point in his story, he wrote: "Like any other science, yoga is applicable to people of every clime and time. Yoga is a method for restraining the natural turbulence of thoughts, which otherwise impartially prevent all men, of all lands, from glimpsing their true nature of Spirit. So long as man possesses a mind with its restless thoughts, so long will there be a universal need for yoga or control."

Meditation shows that a very effective way to calm one's restless thoughts (spurred on by our emotions) is to work with the breath in very specific ways. Thus, the real secret of yoga is to bring the breath under control using time-tested, simple, and scientific breathing methods. As the breath becomes calm, then the emotions and consequent restless thoughts begin to subside.

Once the mind is reasonably stable, it is often the next step to focus the mind on a single object, usually internal to the mind itself. Chanting a mantra, or a syllable, or an affirmation can be very effective for focusing the mind and awakening inspiration (usually done mentally, silently). Visualizing a deity, the eyes of one's guru, or an image from nature, or an abstract quality or state such as peace or love.........all of these mental images can calm the mind and in turn calm the breath. Where one goes, the other follows! They are two sides of the same coin. Visualizing the moonlight, a vast ocean, rushing water, a majestic mountain, the rising sun......all of these images drawn from nature convey higher states of awareness such as peace, power, adaptability, wisdom, strength and so on. In deeper states of meditation and using special mudras or other techniques, one can attune oneself and meditate upon certain subtle, astral sounds universally recognized in all traditions and symbolized by the sounds and images of a bell, a reed or plucked instrument, sounds of water or wind, a motor, or a bee and so on.

In some traditions one is simply given a mantra, nothing else. In others (my own, e.g.), we combine a mantra with watching the breath (two for the price of one!) The combinations are endless.

Imagine standing in a field at the base of a tall mountain, like Mt. Everest or Mt. Rainier or Mt. McKinley. It's a long way up but many people have done it: one step at a time. The peak is that state of Oneness where our ego-separateness is expanded (or dissolved, if you prefer) into Infinity! Just as one takes one step at a time to ascend the mountain, so one takes one breath at time to transcend the bondage of heart/breath that ties our awareness to the body and its five sense telephones, ringing incessantly! As we are given life when we take our first breath and as we leave this body with our last, so it is that while the breath ties us to the body it is also the only way out! What at first is an elemental obstacle soon becomes with the science of breath and mind, the way of transcendence! As I have heard it said: "The only way out, is in!"

As the breath is calmed, thoughts subside; as thoughts subside, our awareness expands (or shrinks away from the body). We do something similar every night when we sleep. We "dump" the consciousness of our physical body and personality into the peaceful realm of deep, dreamless sleep. But sleep only refreshes us; it doesn't change our consciousness. For that we must expand our consciousness, raise the level of our awareness past the formidable and thick barrier of skin, bones, organs and ego-self-involvement and everything represented by them.

Advanced meditation techniques, like kriya yoga, might start with the physical breath but then leave the physical breath behind in favor of working with the astral breath (a term that describes the life force, subtle energy, prana or chi). As the physical breath subsides, this subtle energy is withdrawn from the senses and the periphery of the body and organs and is directed by advanced techniques to return to its main spinal channel through specific psychic plexuses (doors) located along the spine called "chakras." From there, life force is coaxed or magnetized up the subtle spine to re-unite with cosmic energy at the point between the eyebrows. It is here that enlightenment occurs. But to go further in this aspect of meditation is to go beyond the scope of this article.

The fact that the techniques of meditation bring enhanced health and well-being even to the veriest beginner attest to the substantial and elemental nature of the techniques and their goal. It feels like home; like Om; like the real "me."

But meditation is more than hygiene for the mind, kind of like brushing your teeth everyday. Instead, it becomes a way of life, a life of living yoga. Why seek inner peace through daily meditation if during the day (when you are not meditating), you are angry, irritable and selfish? Makes no sense! Hence, meditation as a way of life is supported by a lifestyle that includes a simple diet, pure thoughts, calm emotions and harmonious actions. As we become transformed by meditation, we become less and less self-referencing and more and more Self-realized. We become more joyful, happy, content, compassionate, wise, and on and on!

There's another aspect to meditation. This aspect is more personal. It is also easily misunderstood and is most certainly rejected by the ego. (Yogananda described meditation, in general, thusly: The soul loves to meditate but the ego hates to meditate.) And yet for all its subtlety it is also essential, even if the form it takes is unique to each person. It's called devotion and it's the fuel that powers the engine of meditational motivation. If the fuel is diluted by a weak will or unclear intention, the engine runs rough and has no pulling power up the mountains of life's challenges and temptations. If the fuel is high octane it drives us quickly up the Mt. Carmel of the soul's aspiration toward liberation in God!

In its traditional and outward forms throughout the world and throughout history, you will see devotion expressed in poetry, dance, prayers, hymns, chanting, rituals and sometimes extravagant displays of self-offering and even, seemingly, self-abasement. Ok, so, I've let it all out. These outer forms are NOT the essence of devotion; they are but its husk. Sometimes a husk is dry and empty, other times it is like the discarded first stage of a rocket.

Devotion is related, in some ways, to the disciple-guru relationship. We see Buddha, the founder of Buddhism; or Jesus, the founder of Christianity. We see the great disciples of these world teachers as great devotees, whether they lived with their "christ" or whether they lived a thousand years afterward (like St. Francis).

I say devotion and discipleship are related and I mean this in many different ways, but for now I mean it in the sense that both are personal and neither can really be faked (except to outer appearances, that is). For God watches the heart.

What we have here is the intuitive recognition by the ego that it must die or at least surrender to the higher power of grace, of God, or of God in the form of the savior/guru (who leads us to God and who is God incarnate for this purpose).

Admittedly, most meditators, most spiritual aspirants, most orthodox religionists are considered candidates for heavenly reward if they just try to be good; go to church on Sunday; take the sacraments, punch their meditational time card, and so on. But devotion and discipleship are the inner "meat" of what meditating for long hours every day symbolizes for the average meditator who struggles to do so for even just a few minutes each day. But we don't gain much by measuring ourselves by the yardstick of giants. We might only get discouraged (much to the delight of the ego). Yet, if we don't have the courage to see where the path leads we are far less likely to get there anytime soon (in relation to repeated rounds of rebirth, that is).

Real devotion is what you see in the lives of great saints, like Milarepa, Tibet's greatest yogi. Fortunately for us, we are encouraged to start where the sign says, "You are HERE!" Krishna promises us in the Bhagavad Gita that "even a little bit of this practice (of meditation), will save us from dire fears..."

However hot or tepid may be your inspiration and devotion, you can be sure that without at least some of it, regardless of what form of expression it may take, one cannot make real progress on any spiritual path. Dedication to truth, my teacher, Swami Kriyananda once said, is a form of devotion. Dedication to your daily meditation practice, too, is a kind of devotion. Don't fret about it. Your inspiration to meditate is already a kind of devotion. Let it guide you but be open to what the real winners (the saints) have modeled for us.

Indeed, as stated in the beginning, yoga presents such a high goal that it, too, suffers from the same tendencies of being dumbed down to feed the ego just as much as other high ideals or other forms of religion and spirituality. Someone told me, for example, that there exist yoga classes called "naked" yoga classes (I guess you practice sans clothes for some reason not difficult to imagine.) All aspects of spirituality can be polluted by ego consciousness.

The essential appeal and beauty of true yoga is that it really is for everyone. You can start with the motivation to improve your health, both physical and mental. As you "awaken" to the "joy within you," you may "fall in love with your (higher) Self!" You begin to identify and realize that happiness is within you; it is a conscious choice! This is increasingly freeing. Bit by bit your are bitten by the cosmic snake of divine joy lifted up the brass staff of the straight spine (a reference to Moses in the Old Testament) and cured of the satanic bite of delusion.

Just as life begins with the first breath, you can say that yoga begins with the first conscious breath! Start with "watching your breath". There is a pleasure, a little bubble of happiness that comes when we come self-aware. Follow that thread, like Theseus in the labyrinth, to inner freedom!

Joy to you,


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Is Yoga Spiritual or is Yoga Exercise?

I'm supposed to be preparing my talk for Sunday Service tomorrow. So, instead, I'm going to write this because it's easier. Ok, it is somewhat related but my talks rarely are anything like these blog posts---so there!

Millions of human beings are practicing energetic health-inducing disciplines like martial arts and yoga. These help over-active people to slow down, get centered, and learn to move in the body and through the world with calm, conscious vitality.

The other day I was speaking with a fellow who has decades of experience in more martial arts systems than I had ever heard of. He had only been introduced to yoga and meditation recently. He made a simple comment of distinction. He said that in martial arts one gets hold of one's chi (energy) and directs it outward. In yoga, by contrast, you do the same thing but direct the prana (chi) inward (and upward to the brain). I found that helpful and it seemed intuitively clear (though I've had no experience in martial arts).

Is the practice of yoga (the physical poses, that is) simply another exercise system? This, in fact, is being debated around the world, from New Delhi, India to Delhi, California. As exercise, various governmental and non-profit organizations seek to monitor, license and otherwise control the quality and consequences of the practice. This patterns how we think about the sale of goods and services in the marketplace and how we think about the role of government to protect us from shoddy or fraudulent business practices.

Is yoga a spiritual practice or is it exercise? If spiritual, governments or other bodies may be forced to leave it alone in the name of separation of church and state and/or freedom of religious practice. If exercise, then government is likely to view its role as to protect our citizens from inadequately trained or even fraudulent yoga teachers.

Is meditation a psycho-physiological mental-health system or is it a spiritual practice? In the spiritual tradition from which yoga (including meditation) has arisen, a student seeks a teacher and undertakes what is usually a lengthy and rigorous training. The student may, or may not, be authorized, instructed or permitted to go out and teach others; or, he may simply do that with or without his teacher's sanction when his training is complete. Because the outer form of yoga practices are infinitely varied and because in the yogic tradition the purpose is to awaken a higher consciousness (which cannot, by its nature, be measured or quantified to the satisfaction of government bureaucrats or proven by consumer surveys), only the most egregious applications can be sanctioned and those, usually, by being unmasked, ostracized and "run out of town."

Yoga claims to be practical, scientific, and independent of religious belief or affiliation. Paramhansa Yogananda's mission statement when he came to America in 1920 was published in the ghost-written book, "The Science of Religion." (In recent years this was clarified and conformed to his actual teachings by his disciple, and founder of Ananda, Swami Kriyananda with the book title, "God is for Everyone.")

Because of this claim, yoga opens itself up to the view that it is therefore not spiritual! Let the battle begin! This is where "spiritual but not religious" enters the fray. But the fact is, much of physical (hatha) yoga IS taught and practiced strictly (or, well, mostly) as a form of exercise, with some mental health benefits in the form of calmness, relaxation, and self-awareness added in for good measure. So, some do; some, don't.

It's a perfect dilemma for a left brain, rule-bound society! In Washington State a few years ago, a state agency held hearings on this and some of us from the yoga schools testified. For the time being they concluded that in certain contexts yoga classes were off limits to their oversight, and in others, the practice had to be licensed with them. Ananda, being already a church and practicing yoga overtly AS A spiritual practice, we easily received exemption. Fitness studios and gyms, by contrast, did not. Seemed a reasonable line to draw.

It drives the orthodox religionists (except Hindus, of course) crazy. I read an article about yoga practice in Iran, for example! Yes, there are some 200 yoga studios but they are frowned upon big-time. A yoga teacher in my area re-named her yoga class (held in a Christian church) to suit the tastes of her orthodox Christian members.......Movement and Prayer, or something like that?

But the dirty little secret about yoga is that it IS this sense, at least: with consistent and focused practice (and irrespective of beliefs or expectations), some students will begin to experience states of awareness that enter their lives bestowing, as if from "nowhere," unconditioned joy, steady calmness and an experience of sacredness and reverence. Is that a threat to orthodoxy? That depends on orthodoxy, but it need not be so because all religions possess (somewhere) this same sense of reverence and sacredness.

Some, more than others. Not Unitarians, of course, but more likely Catholics, well, you get my meaning (all poking fun, aside). In principle, a Christian could direct this sacredness towards her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The orthodox religionist, however, detecting that this sacredness appears without being prompted by or without having an initial identification with an orthodox-approved outer form might call it satanic because it has no known source and takes no orthodox form (or has the potential to take UNorthodox form). So, again, we have cup that is half empty or half full.

But the reality remains that yoga practice MIGHT awaken its practitioner to state of being independent of outward circumstances and possessing the potential to find within ourselves the happiness we normally seek outside ourselves. This is, and probably should be, a threat to orthodoxy for the simple fact that orthodoxy wants its adherents to receive their spiritual wisdom and graces through the authorized vehicle of their priestly class and its sacraments and chain of approved dispensations.

Whether government has the right to control who can teach yoga (and meditation) must be left to society and government. The way these things are encircling the globe more or less leaves governmental control at least partly in the dust, if you include the internet as form of learning and practice. No doubt some ridiculously lame circumstance will be so outrageous that public cries for reform and control will bring the hammer of government oversight down again and again. Such is the way of the world.

But there will always exist either secretive or at least less public esoteric practices and practitioners reserved to whom those go who are willing to give their all to the "way" and who understand that true "yoga" is an "all-or-nothing" proposition in respect to the ego. There simply cannot be a more "religious" or "spiritual" end-game than "union with God, the Infinite Power!"

Never before in recorded history has something like yoga happened. Millions discover a wellspring of spirituality within themselves. What do they DO with that living water? It's as varied as the individual, of course. To keep the spring flowing it is essential to share it somehow; to associate with others who share it with you; to find some outward form of expressing it. No surprise, then, that "spiritual but not religious" is like a rising tide. Those who keep it to themselves will, in time, lose their source.

This article has already taken an unanticipated direction on me. So I'm going to go to a different vantage point and take it home for now. What I had intended to write about is on the theme that yoga (meaning, really, meditation, or for sake of clarity, "raja yoga") is coming to the fore of human society because our souls crave to balance our commitment to materialism and outwardness with inner Self-awareness. Modern life has given millions the freedom for ego to explore the candy store of the senses and the world. This inevitably brings over-satiety, suffering, nervousness, depression and existential dread. Truth simply IS and the truth IS that our true nature is greater than the ego, the personality and the body. We can never be satisfied with possessing material abundance and its satisfactions. Death itself mocks us.

Yoga is the natural antidote to a world, in historic terms, gone wild with newly-won freedom to grasp for life, liberty and the pursuit of material happiness. Egos everywhere have been freed from centuries of bondage in medieval caste consciousness and far too many now worship at the altar of selfish indulgence unaware that pursued to the extreme will destroy the very pleasure, prosperity and illusive security it worships, and in the process, harm many others around! It is impossible for everyone on the planet to be rich, young, beautiful, famous, and live the "good life" defined by today's rate of resource consumption in suburban and urban life in countries like America. We CAN be healthy and happy but not by living that way, by ignoring the consequences to others and future generations. Happiness comes from living in harmony with ourselves and with others, and the world around us. They are not the result of technology and wealth.

The cure for society's ills lies within us, for as Jesus said so long ago, "The kingdom of heaven is within you." Many up and coming nations are busy in the world's candy store but millions, like you and I, know that "dissatisfaction" is guaranteed. Humanity has the potential to destroy itself and all life if enough people do not claim our soul's birthright as children of God. Ego-aggrandizement ensures destruction when practiced worldwide. Ego self-offering to God, in service, in devotion, and in silence can save us from ourselves.

Yoga teaches us the science of mind: how our consciousness is connected to the body through the neutral medium of Life Force (chi, prana). Yoga teaches us how to use the breath and body to awaken that intelligent energy, bring it under our control, withdraw it from the senses, and direct it upward toward the brain, the only true "garden of Eden" in the East of the body (forehead) where true and lasting happiness is found. Finding that happiness exists within us, we no longer have to go begging for it in the marketplace of sense satisfaction and resource consumption. We can live simply, harmoniously, with health, vitality and friendships born of divine attunement.

Well too much said already. Enough a'ready....

Blessings to all, yoga is for everyone!

Nayaswami Hriman

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Am I Breathing Yet?

Isn’t it rather insulting to pay to attend a class that teaches you how to breathe? Haven’t you been doing that rather steadily now for a few years?

But that’s the problem: we fall asleep. Breathing is natural and so integral to our life that we no longer notice it. It’s just like our habits in food and relationships: our problems arise when we “fall asleep” and live on auto-pilot. We get overweight or unhealthy because we are not paying attention. We may find ourselves in divorce proceedings because we didn’t pay attention.
The act of breathing signifies we are still alive! It is the beginning (and its cessation, the end) of life in a human body. Yogis put it this way: breath is that which connects our mind to our body. Yogis view “mind” in a much broader way than western culture and language. Mind is, in yoga, synonymous with consciousness and individuality (at least as far as “we” are concerned).

To be more clear, mind is divided into four parts: buddhi, mon, chitta, and ahamkara. Buddhi is described in various ways to include intellect, perception, and intuition. These three are different but share in common the aspect of consciousness that we call “knowing,” or gnosis. We can see a horse and “know” that it is a horse. We can experience the astral light in meditation in the forehead and “know” that it is not our own imagination. We can “know” that a friend is in trouble before we get the phone call.
Mon is that aspect of consciousness that depends upon and works in tandem with the senses: receiving sense stimuli and “re-constructing” those signals in the “mind” in some orderly way. It is pre-cognitive in the sense of one looking out the window and seeing objects in the field of vision prior to labeling those objects. For example: smelling an odor before identifying it. This is a lower function of mind but one necessary to survival in a physical body. It is also dependent upon the healthy functioning of sense organs.

Chitta is our feeling nature. This can range from our emotions and emotional reactions to either sense stimuli or our own thoughts and perceptions, all the way to a deeper level of feeling that is unconditioned by either but at least as powerful (if not more).
Ahamakara is consciousness identified with oneself: one’s body and personality. This is our sense of individuality and separateness from all other objects in our field of vision and perception. This is commonly labeled our ego.

Yogis teach that there is a deep and abiding connection between our breath and our consciousness. Try noticing that moment when you “fall” asleep. It’s while nigh to impossible, but do-able. When we are busy with rapid fire thoughts or actions, we virtually cannot notice our breath (unless we really practice — enhanced by long and deep meditation).
Your awareness therefore of your breath under all conditions (from sleep, to action, to meditation, during emotions and any intense state of being or activity) will bring to you awareness of your own state of mind. (I like to joke that we begin meditation with being mind-full, but seek to go beyond so that we are mind-less: in a state of non-verbal, intense inner awareness)

If while sitting still with eyes closed you observe the flow of breath within you, especially for an extended period of time (no less than ten minutes) with continuous and unbroken awareness, you will find your powers of observation, concentration, and baseline level of deep and enjoyable feeling greatly enhanced.
Why don’t I leave at that, for now?

Breath in joy, exhale peace!