Just read this very interesting book on an amazing capacity of the human body and mind. The book is called Freediving by James Nestor. This post is not to be a review of the book though it is highly recommended to many.
What interested me were the thoughts I had while reading it concerning the process of deep awareness and meditation. James Nestor is a noted journalist having published in Outside and many other publications. He writes in this book about some “oddball” athletes/adventurers and researchers (off the beaten path) about their unusual deep explorations of the ocean and the innate human’s capacity to “freedive”.
He began researching FreeDiving as a competition initially. These divers are the ones who use no equipment, taking just one breath of air into their lungs before diving. Now for a short movie segue. If you haven’t seen the 1988 movie (which stands by itself) called Le Grand Bleau (The Big Blue) with one of my favorite film artists (Jean Reno), you must try to watch it. Now back to the book.
Nestor’s research at the beginning looks at what these freediving competitors talk about as the amphibious reflexes of the human body. In his book he states that it is a real phenomenon that science recognize called the mammalian dive reflex or simply the Master Switch of Life. Please read about this sophisticated physiological response that occurs when we stick our face into the water. Many start to describe it in esoteric terms, though the reflex is quite neuro-biologically based.
In the olden days there are stories of pearl and sponge divers taking a gulp of air and then working under 100 feet of ocean pressure for 10-15 minutes. These reports are hundreds of years old and the details and veracity have been lost. There are few traditional divers working this way and seemingly the art/science has not be passed on.
Here is what amazes me about this unusual response. These same pressures experienced at these depths in the ocean, if experienced on land would crush and kill us. The ocean and our relationship to it through “getting wet” just has it’s own rules. So what is true in one setting is not in another. This point is very important to think about when looking at the exploration of the mind.
My mind starts relate these described changes in the “Master Switch of Life” to some but not exactly what happens in meditation.
Let’s say you have been meditating for at least a few years. You have had some “good” moments, maybe even amazing moments. Yet we sometimes plod along in a more haphazard way than we would normally recognize. We often just sit and “try” to watch our breath and mantra let’s say. We do some exercises with the body and breath.
Is there any overall incremental plan of progressing from one milestone to another? Do we even describe what the practical milestones or bench-marks are?
Meditation can mean so many things to so many people. Right now I wish to restrict it to the traditional deep sense of moving towards and experiencing the different levels of Samadhi according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Meditation is not about relaxing and getting quiet. That is all preparation. The preparation is key but it is not the goal.
Meditation has these high states of awareness where true Yogis have developed amazing capacities. Just look at the initial studies of Swami Rama at the Menninger Foundation. He demonstrated autonomic control of the body (and much more) never before thought possible.
In this journey of quieting the body, breath and mind there are also reflexes that are elicited. There is now a lot of scientific discussion of neurological and physiological adaptations. The literature is quite wrapped up in EEG, fMRI and PET scans showing flow and electrical changes with these deep states of meditation.
What are the practical implications and influence on how we are organizing our practices.
Diving in the ocean without equipment elicits these well described changes noted above. Diving into the depths of awareness also elicits physiological changes.
There are changes in blood pressure and heart rate that are well described. The breathing rate slows and the depth of breath can dramatically be increased. The posture relaxes and popularly collapses. There are many other changes including the described brain wave changes from beta to alpha to the deeper states involving theta and delta waves.
How many of us are measuring some simple biometrics to help organize ones process of meditating.
It seems most people start to meditate and continue to meditate in the same way they go out and casually exercise. There is no real design, you just go do it. Maybe you follow some initial program. Are there regular progression in your training program that you follow? Do you monitor your progress or is it all just following the lowest common denominator of one’s habit.
Reading the book “Deep” brought again to my mind this beautiful journey that awaits us all–whether it be the depths of the ocean or of the mind.
Maybe we need to look into how we are practicing and ask if we are truly moving progressively into the depths of the mind. It seems we are settling into habits that make this journey just a casual practice. If there is no rigorous program design with proper progressions and regressions and constant re-evaluations, then how can we experience consistently these depths that are mentioned and offered in the Wisdom Teachings.
OK, now where do we go with our meditations. We are learning different practices and often adding them one after another. When we add something and do not look at our overall sequence of what we are doing and what next we should work on, we fail to progress.
Do we treat our meditation as some magical practice that if we keep doing it we will just get better. Maybe that is true at times. How effective is it?
This is where re-evaluation is key. If we try different practices, how are they helping our core practice. When and how much would we use them? What are the attributes and biometrics that we are monitoring? Often we are just doing different things. We are adding variety without reflecting on how it helps or hinders our program. The level of sophistication that we use to examine whether we do one practice or another is often based on some blanket recommendation.
These recommendations maybe well intentioned. They may be very effective for some, but where are we at at this time and where do we plan on going next week and next month and next year.
Take high level sports or movement arts. If we casual approach playing soccer, how good will we become? In the olden days we just focused on playing the game and not on the method of acquiring the necessary attributes and skills for performing at a high level. Whenever a team was notably better, we just assumed the individuals were gifted. Now we know that talent can be highly overrated and skillful training hours are underrated. If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, consider it. Many more things in those books are discussed and they are a quick, enjoyable read.
Now we can see that a majority of high level performance is predicated on having the right training program, at the right time with the most skillful coaching available. Do we do this with the majority of our meditation practices.
Again remember that the level of meditation here is based on achieving very high levels of awareness.
I do not think most of our programming supports this goal well at all. Now the general programming does. We just lack many details between where many students of meditation are now and where the goal of liberation is pointing. Our overall goal is defined but the enabling goals to get there are poorly defined.
These intermediate goals must have ways of determining how and by what standard we have reached them.
Ok what is the answer. There evidently are answers given by the great Masters and Guides. You can read them in the classic texts like the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. You can hear them at the feet of a Meditation Master. Is it then only through initiation that the answer becomes evident?
All the rest is preparation as they say. So what is the best preparation. Again the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras state it clearly. It is worth the study of these texts and ancient teachings. In the meantime, our practice can use some additional guides.
Simple measurements of our attributes of the breath and the minds focus can be used. Taking your resting heart rate, resting breathing rate, and how long you keep a focus on the breath through breath counting are easy ways to train and check on the breath and mind at the beginning.
As the breath moves so moves the mind. As the mind moves so moves the breath. Same with the body. They are all inter-related. Their skillful implementation needs specific programming that is not being appreciated by many training programs.
We can use these aspects of the breath and mind to deepen our practice and deepen our meditation. They will help settle and calm the mind. A settled and calm mind then opens up to who we are and where we are and where we going.
Every morning before rising (you are still in bed lying down after just waking). Simply take your pulse and count it for 1 minute. Simple, yes? If you have trouble taking your pulse, practice with someone who can. In 2 weeks or sooner you will be able easily find it and count it for the minute. Do this for 30 days to get an average of your resting heart rate. Try to keep some log or record of the things of that day and week so you can reflect on the relationships of what was going on at the times of the daily record.
Someone who is well conditioned and in good health will have a resting heart rate of below 60. If you don’t have that it is not important. The relative changes are most important. What is important is that you start paying attention to yourself through physiological measurements. They can give you a surprising bit of information of how you are responding to your life and practice.
Each of these parameters by themselves do not mean a lot. They are to be put into context of your lifestyle. They will just add, not replace your current guidelines.
Once you derive an average, you can see how it changes with different practices, different relationships, different seasons, etc. It is a very fascinating way to create a better understanding of ourselves.
Again each morning before rising take your breath rate. This rate is the number of breaths in one minute. One breath is both an exhale and an inhale.
Your breathing by now should be belly and/or lower rib cage style of diaphragmatic breathing. Chest breathing noted in the early morning (even in the day) is an indicator of change that needs to be noticed. Upper chest breathing is inefficient and poorly handled by the mind and body.
An average untrained person is often breathing 15-22 breaths per minute. It is quite fast but is a cited average often in the literature.
With simple breath training that average at rest is around 8-12 for beginners. Later 4-6 breaths seem to be common to those who are training and able to manage their lifestyles. 1-3 breaths become more common the more you train and lead a more sattvic lifestyle. The latter will occur in spurts and for short periods. It is difficult to sustain under all conditions until significant changes occur.
Also a lower breath rate doesn’t mean anything by itself.
Performance of any of these parameters will lead to a false sense of superiority and over inflated ego. At the beginning that is normal. Just get over it as soon as you can.
Here is one of the keys in diving into ones own depths. The mind has to learn to settle down and maintain a single focus. It is a very difficult endeavor to make happen. We all can be focused on something we enjoy or are good at. We can even be laser like focused on the opposite. Under high stresses we forget about everything else and only focus on the thrill or agony of that moment.
So it isn’t that the mind cannot focus. It is that the ability to choose a focus that is not a habit and maintain that focus under consistent times and trials that seems to be the key.
Therefore training the mind to stay on a focus is very helpful in this preparation of concentration. If you will the mind to be quiet or still, the habits of the mind are so much stronger and we move into our familiar reveries and mindlessness. We keep repeating this lack of concentration only to try again and again with pretty much the same success. Maybe overtime we get a little better, but at that rate we will dead before we have trained well enough. (And don’t default just to future lives in order to deal someday with a wandering mind. Tomorrow never comes, as they say.)
Breath counting is a very simple and effective way of focusing the mind. These are simple techniques that also are embedded in a training program of cleaning up our emotions and thoughts. The Yoga Sutras and the oral tradition speak of stabilizing the mind by making the breath long, steady and subtle. (Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 1.34: prachchardana-vidhaaranaabhyaam vaa praanasya).
There are many systems for counting the breaths. I have tried many. You must find one that resonates and works for you.
The most effective way for me was to follow my teachers advice (Swami Veda Bharati). He has introduced counting 1-5 and 5-1. (among many others) This means as you:
You continue this same pattern for a prescribed time or number of breaths. I like this pattern and it’s rhythm.
At the beginning, I would lose count as my mind wandered. Then I would have to start over again, egads. It took awhile. In fact, I dropped the practice after just a week, long ago when I first started it. It just didn’t work. Then I tried another counting practice. The same thing happened, so that I got to try lots of different ways of counting. This was long ago but still very familiar.
None of them worked. Hmmmm, what was my problem? I’m a little slow here and finally figured out the common denominator was myself. That is why it took so long because I was looking for a solution outside of myself and thinking that I just had not found the correct or best technique. Sound familiar?
One thing I find with people who practice and don’t get results is the very same problem. It is not always what we are doing but HOW we are doing the what. This cannot be overstated in training.
Yes you need proper guidance but you really need to look at the design, execution and re-evaluation of your practice. It is not “just” practice, practice, practice. Let’s get clearer about our training. This is why we are recording and working with these parameters that can be measured.
So back to the 1-5 and 5-1 count of my breaths.
My problem is that I did not stick to the training for very long. I find this out all the time in training people. They were given an exercise and they are not stronger or better. When asked are they doing it they say yes, but…
This means that they are doing it infrequently and with not much effort. Once they learn the value of proper training methods and are working hard for weeks and months they then begin to see progress. It is guaranteed or your money back!
So recently I did a variation of this counting for 6 months. It was a great practice and very helpful. I kept records of all three components and they markedly changed over the 6 months. Again this practice was embedded in lifestyle changes that allowed for the training.
When counting the breaths after the first month you will notice and become very sensitive to the count and the breath flow. When your mind wanders you will immediately note the change in the count. What I am saying here will become clear when you do the practice.
Then each month thereafter you can work on an particular attribute of the breath flow with deeper concentration of the mind. This means that while you watch the smoothness of the breath in counting you watch the smoothness of the minds focus. Just little disturbances of the breath and little disturbances of your focus become noticeable. Your sensitivity here really increases. The mind becomes like the breath. They work together and deepen into the subtle aspect of the breath and mindfield.
This stability of the mind through the breath allows the breath to flow as prana into the akasha or space element. The mindfield becomes more quiet and the sense of the observer becomes clearer. Now meditation begins.
Many more philosophical explanations can be received from the multitude of teachings by Swami Veda Bharati on these topics.
You can now carry these attributes to your meditation seat.
Diving deep has definite physiological and psychological correlates. We can use some of the simple measurable parameters outlined here to assist and organize our training and feedback of our methods.
The rest is skillful practice. It is much easier to just sit and hang out. For many who do just that–I ask: How is it going?
Be honest in your re-examination of yourself. Be brutally honest sometimes. Again as the great teachers have taught us, how we are doing is answered in our living of our lives. Are we loving and being surrounded by love, even in the midst of pain and turmoil. Can we recover from the ups and downs of life and continue. Do we only train in sterile environments of the familiar and friendly?
What does are training prepare us for in the real world?
Our depth of practice is the light that shines not because of us but because the light always shines, though we cover and obscure it.
Always my wish is that we share our efforts, both trials and triumphs. Share in a community of support and then move along the path together.
Also wishing much hard work, sweat and tears. Then enjoy the warm embrace of the love of life.
yours in practice
This question is frequently asked in meditation classes. Even people just starting to learn meditation are wondering why some systems are so strict in how you sit (Himalayan Tradition) and others fairly casual (Transcendental Meditation).
We usually associate sitting with paying more attention. If most of us were in a class (let’s say an online video class at home)–don’t we start off sitting. Sometimes we decide-“Hey let’s just relax a bit lying down and we can listen more comfortably.” Well you know what the rest of the story is–we wake up suddenly and the find the screen is blank–having slept comfortably but missed the class.
Some of us can sleep sitting and even standing. Lying down seems to be a big trigger to relax and often we move into sleep very easily. This habit of falling asleep when lying down serves us well at night. It doesn’t work for many of us at other times. Many of the advanced subtle body relaxation techniques in Hatha Yoga are taught in this supine or Shavasana position (as pictured above). For a practicing spiritual seeker, they cultivate the capacity to delay/control sleep in this shavasana position in order to complete these deeper relaxation practices consciously.
Still meditation is not recommended for us in this supine position. Why?
One of the prime reasons to use proper alignment and balance in upright sitting for meditation is the proper establishment and flow of the diaphragmatic breath. A posture that doesn’t have the spine erect in neutral and balanced dimension and tensions will utilize upper chest breathing frequently.
A neutral spine here means that the spine is straight from the head, neck and trunk while maintaining ones three normal curves of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.
A balance of the head neck and trunk means there an evenness to several parameters. The orientation, dimensions and tensions on the front/back/sides top and bottom of the trunk container are in proper equilibrium to support this neutral erect posture.
Many are familiar with this building block example of stacking the body parts like blocks into proper alignment. The bodywork systems and others utilize this incomplete paradigm of alignment. Here is a picture from the Rolfe Institute.
Here is an important rationale for sitting vs lying for meditation as well as any event requiring greater focus and attention. When we sit we elicit a variety of neurological/pranic reflex activity. We have certain postural reflexes that keep us more or less upright. These include other righting and equilibrium reactions. If our eyes are open we often also try to keep the visual field oriented properly to the horizon–so there are ocular reflexes too. There are many more reflex activities throughout the flows of movement in the body, breath and mind. Here are some simple ideas first.
Sitting well for meditation means besides alignment of the body, that there is this balance of tension and dimension of the body. Creating this balance of activity of the movement of the information/prana of the body is what enhances centering in this position.
This level of upright centering creates (just in looking in the sagittal plane, i.e. front to back) an interiorization of these flows that maintain this upright aligned/balanced nature. If we sit mis-using the alignment concept and therefore popularly overuse the back (vs the front), we are in too much extension often where we have these common complaints of discomfort/pain. When balancing the muscular tension of BOTH the front and back (and all the others) along with the dimensions and weight/forces, etc.–we arrive at a focus that takes us inward. (Not enough of us activate this front of the lower trunk (ie belly) nor the back of the upper back nor the front of the neck. These points are barely accepted intellectually and mostly absent in ones “sensory” practice.)
No longer are we facilitating too much extension energy/forces or starting to slump forward in flexion energy/forces–but we create a equilibrium. This equilibrium will automatically elicit these bandhas that everyone is trying to do and make happen. These bandhas and mudras will spontaneously occur.
The mind subtly that let’s say had 2 foci of attention on the front and back now can collapse those two into one. This subtlety is not popularly appreciated nor trained for properly.
Also as mentioned in previous posts the style of diaphragmatic breathing that uses the belly mainly places the diaphragm to face more anteriorly. This belly aspect of the diaphragm lacks the postural stability of the trunk that the diaphragm can provide (when used this way). Belly breathing over activates the extensors of the spine/back, etc.
When you place the lower ribs which the diaphragm attaches (in part) to face the pelvis you have an opportunity to use more three dimensional breathing. When you breathe diaphragmatically more from the lower rib cage rather than using the diaphragm of the belly–you have centrated this huge/forceful, very repetitive motion of life. You now sit with greater stability and ease. This aspect of the diaphragm of the lower ribs is also poorly understood and not properly trained. This type of centrated breathing more easily facilitates the centering of the mind also.
Can we lie for meditation or should we sit?
- Lying implies resting and sleeping of both the body and mind for the average person
- Sitting erect is both an advantage for proper breathing and alignment of the spine
- Proper sitting includes centrating both the diaphragm and tensions/dimension of the body to create an automatic/spontaneous interior response
- One must properly practice the steps in preparation
- These steps must include specific drills of linking ones attention at these different foci
- Developing concentration that is stabilized then increase these deeper flows and movements towards absorption and silence
The preparation and program design for meditation is revisited here. Favorite and popular methods can be mis-represented by both the current crop of teachers and students.
Meditation spoken of here is not just the casual quieting of our “monkey minds”. It is not about becoming some great ego-centered teacher or accomplished practitioner of some arcane esoteric science. Meditation starts with proper preparation that slowly and gradually leads to a laser like focused mind that moves deeper inwards to these states of absolute silence and absorption. The beginning of meditation starts in that state. Everything else is preparation.
Meditation seems to have it’s popular times and localities and experts. Suddenly people in fitness are jumping on the bandwagon of “meditating” and finding wonderful success. The East from India to Asia has the market cornered. Buddhist teachers advise Yoga (meaning asana) practitioners to learn to meditate from them and then “do” Yoga. In the USA, mindfulness meditation has taken the academic and general population’s fancy.
There is veracity in many of these above mentioned approaches and view points. But what is needed to begin preparation for meditation?
We all need many things in life. Food/water and shelter can be a good start. Maybe having a job or life purpose could be good. How about a personal relationship that helps us understand ourselves beyond what we think at the moment. Traditionally this meant getting married and raising a family.
There are all these basic needs that connect us to the world outside and the world inside. Meeting these basic needs and stabilizing them are often a first step in the preparation for mediation.
If one’s lifestyle is too chaotic and unstable, relaxing and breath awareness is a good alternative. Hey just eating better and exercising can be worth much more than forcing yourself to sit for long periods of meditation hoping someday to become enlightened.
Always re-evaluate your program to see if you are moving towards your goals in life. But do not under value the power of proper lifestyle management. Make it practical and doable first. Then when your life allows, come into a proper practice regimen.
Is it not uncommon to want NOW what we want. We want to be slimmer by tomorrow. We expect our chronic problems to be better after just a few days of effort. We wonder why have not met our “soul mate”. We have been looking for years. When asked what a person is doing to meet people they actually have only talked to their friends and not anyone much else out of their normal circle of relationships.
The actual methods we use are woefully insufficient to reap the benefits we are envisioning. We do this with our 10 minute a day fitness routine for our 6-pack abs! The proper preparation over the appropriate time is missing in many of our programs.
Often we don’t even have a progressive program. We bite off way too much or way too little. Our expectations exceed our efforts. It is not for lack of trying for many of us. It is just such poor program design and follow through that we end up not noticing much progress.
The most impactful and important things of our life that we want to achieve take time and good programming. Mediation is no different.
First we have to realize that the mediation we are talking about here is that which leads to silence and absorption. It is a very high goal. So the first steps are basically getting ones life in order. Check out your lifestyle and examine our thinking. Are we over worked, over fed, under exercised and literally starving for love and affection.
Really take time to live life properly. Establish a lifestyle that supports this interior journey of discovery. If life is constantly taking our focus outward to deal with major stresses surrounding us, then address them first. The power of life lived well will take us deeper than any artificial practice of meditating or whatever it might be. This one sentence/thought needs to be considered more deeply than just a casual reading of it will give to us.
Examine not only what we are doing in life, but also what are we thinking and feeling in life. This is not to prescribe a particular world view or provide some great psycho-therapeutic insight. It is just important to examine where our thoughts take us. Do we have a ton of negative thoughts that we are controlled by?
All the wisdom traditions and many religions have their commandments and guidelines for “right/good” thinking and actions. Do not rush over the examination of what preoccupies our minds and hearts. Do consider what is our philosophy and what guides our thinking and action. In today’s world many have no philosophy of life that is lived—it is only thought of—and then only on Sunday or what ever rare occasion is which it is superficially and poorly addressed. This topic is expanded greatly by others and will not be detailed here.
Realize that life is not lived in some uni-linear progression. Even if at the moment our life seems in order, just hang on to your hat for that next moment when it totally seems to fall apart.
There of course will be times of both good and bad. Those that remark that life is always fine and wonderful—are either very advanced beings (which there are probably a handful in history) or under a huge illusion both of themselves and life.
So these preliminary steps that we take over the years to properly prepare, will have periods of adjustment and interruption. All of us will have to revisit and revise our lifestyles and re-examine where we need to be practicing in life. Initially (probably many decades for many of us) life will take us up and down. Much later as life continues to go up and down but we don’t rise or fall as far.
Slowly with a stronger and deeper practice we can stabilize our connection to our changing lifestyles. We develop an equanimous capacity or even tempered ability in a difficult situation. Again this capacity takes a lot of trial and effort over a long and arduous life. A life lived with ease is often a very sheltered and control life at the beginning. Many people fool themselves too early on their too easily arrived at accomplishments. Only when life has given much and then taken away do we truly test ourselves.
Getting these preliminaries in order is not just in acquiring a good life. It is in living that life and experiencing the losses of that life and then going on to live fully once again.
Life well lived is the preliminary preparation needed for mediation practice.
Asana in today’s nomenclature and today’s popular practice is different from the traditional use of asana in classic yoga. I will be addressing asana from a perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We will not cover the validity or place of the “modern posture practice” that is prevalent for the past several generations of teachers.
Please refer to the second pada (chapter) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS 2.46-48). Here asana is defined in the YS 2.46. The next sutra describes how to perfect the asana. The last one here describes the result of accomplishing the asana.
Sthira-sukam ãsanam YS 2.46 (Asana is Steady and Easeful)
Isn’t it interesting that the asana is described and defined in terms of stability and ease. On one level these terms relate to proprioception and kinesthesia. Both of these relate to sensations of the awareness of the effects of position and movement. Note that the Sutra does not describe how to do something. It describes or states the “feeling” sense one is left with or the awareness of the qualities of this asana.
Again to emphasize–it is the sensory part not the doing part that is the definition. Asana is not the bodies position in space or on the floor. Asana here is the mind’s awareness that settles in this body. The body is just this lump of clay. It is only in relationship to the mind and breath that asana exists.
Asana must emphasize and come from this sense of flow of information. This flow is the awareness that pervades both the body, breath and mind. In Traditional Yoga, we speak of these flows as prana. Pranic flows exist throughout the body, breath and mind and even beyond (taking one to atma and beyond). So now let’s look at the basic concepts and principles that will help us come into our asana.
These steps are all preparatory to asana. Many practitioners have been skipping these critical steps. They have mistakenly assumed that the end point was the beginning point of their practice. It never is but is often romantically envisioned by early enthusiasm. Much hard work is needed to prepare us to begin. This discussion is only a part of the preparations that are needed.
We often start with the body (conceptually it is easy to relate to in a simple way). Here we start looking at the anatomy of the body. Again we need to expand our perspective of the anatomy of the body.
The anatomy is a Map of Energy Flows. Here we are referring to Yoga Philosophy that speaks to the gross body as a manifestation of the subtle body and flows. Our embryological development is derived from the coded instructions embedded in our DNA. Yoga just talks of Prana. I will consider them to be similar enough for this presentation. Now back to a bit more familiar territory.
There are three areas of the anatomy that we can look at in organizing our movements to arrive at a stable asana.
We will look at these three areas to develop some of our principles of movement.
In arranging an asana/posture we are talking about moving. Posturing is all about movement and it’s organization. Asana/Posture is not static in this sense. It is a dynamic relationship to sensing and doing.
In a modified standing Tadasana/Mountain Pose, let’s say we reach our hands over our head towards the ceiling. Now we need to ask two questions:
As we sense/observe this reaching in students, we can see that what is moving in general might be the same for many. It is instructive then to notice that WHERE they are moving from is often different and done at different timings.
In this example of reaching, some people will have more mobility of their shoulders. Others with stiffer shoulders will begin to use their back/spines to complete the task of reaching overhead. Using the back (to early and too much) to move the arms overhead changes the patterns of activation and stability. Often when we think (not feel) that we are stretching our shoulders we are really over using our backs.
What we feel is what we feel. Our feelings are not wrong. They are just misinterpreted in this case. For those with tight shoulders we often do not notice that we are using our back and not emphasizing mainly our shoulders and chest, etc.
We use this same lack of awareness or misplaced awareness in sitting for meditation. Often people are just doing a movement of straightening the spine to sit from their favorite place in their back. This lack of sensory training cannot be learned from reading and thinking about this material. This type of sensorial based learning takes a lot of practice on developing the sensory cues and questions to lay down the new information (pranic) pathways that have been atrophied over many years of poor movement patterns.
Again just learning to do the posture is no where close to coming into an asana. Just doing something and not really experiencing the sensations that we cannot currently feel is inadequate. We may “think” we look “right”. Only thinking and visualizing is limiting ones perception and knowing. The asana is not the mental-visual picture of the bodies organization.
Most reading this statement above will understand it conceptually in the familiar thinking aspect of the mind. Many of us will miss that it is not a mental appreciation of knowing. It is a sensorial based, atrophied awareness that takes much training and practice to re-discover. The lack of feeling cannot be accomplished by just thinking and understanding.
This mental appreciation of thinking is over-rated in asanas. Then once people understand this concept of needing to feel–they then set too high of a task by repeatedly asking themselves to feel, feel, etc. That is the same thing as trying to do what you cannot do. Just asking yourself to do it repeatedly will not allow you accomplish this task.
Our feeling/sensory pathways have atrophied just like a skeletal muscle has atrophied. One is not going to be able to feel it anymore than one could lift 200 pounds off the floor at the beginning.
Say you where an average Hatha practitioner. Never lifting heavy weights. You now wanted to be able to lift that 200 pounds off the floor. So everyday you practice to grab it and try lifting it. Well nothing happens the first day or first week, right. Well you just keep trying and someday in the future you can lift it, right?
Wrong! Trying to do something without the proper preparation and training is a good set up for failure. The nervous system and neuromuscular system, etc needs a proper slow progression to establish pathways that can gradually help you attain your goal. This means training at lifting with say 15 pounds and slowly and incrementally increasing every third or fourth session or whatever increment is needed. So that in months and years you will be able to pick up 200 pounds because you have not started with the end task but have built a program that leads you to the end task.
The sensory system is no different. In training to feel what we don’t feel, we often ask it to do an end task. This end task represents the 200 pound lift in the previous example. One has to develop a progressive program that goes step by step to slowly build up ones ability to feel. We are not understanding this idea. We mentally understand it but not in our own sensory experience. We constantly cognitively confuse the two.
You cannot easily feel what you cannot feel. We think we can. That is the point. You cannot necessarily think yourself into feeling something. Although it sometimes does work that way. It is still a poor design for ones training program. As this cognitive/thinking style of feeling really misses the pathways of sensorially appreciating the stimuli/information.
In a workshop, these principles are easier to see. Again it takes more work in unfamiliar areas than most people realize. Training to place the mind to feel by merely moving the minds attention in some generalized pattern will never train this capacity. The mistake I often see is that people then say feel everything and note all the places that you are moving at. Again you can only note and be aware of what you feel. Remember the problem is “atrophy” of our feeling senses. Just like atrophy of our lifting muscles. It is not there!! So you cannot ask “it” to help out here. It has to be acquired over skillful training time.
The particular of sensory based learning will not be covered in detail here. We use a lot of contrasting of movement directions. We use a lot of exaggeration of movements in order to feel things that normally are not that available. We us lots of time for exploration of similar and different directions, etc to help sensitize our feeling system.
After hearing this discussion many of you may still feel you understand and can do this feeling/sensory training. I would caution you that ideally you would take workshops that would explore this sensory based training. One system that handles this type of learning well is the Awareness Through Movement lessons that the Feldenkrais practitioners teach.
Asana represents (in part) the organization of the body/breath and mind. Remember though that it comes from the organization of the subtler flows. Here the flow of information is called prana.
The asana is often shown as an end position. We then have a visual image and memory that represents to us what it is. This image is very incomplete and inadequate.
Most people are teaching asana from this “picture” that represents the asana. It seems like a static pose. This asana is a dynamic representation of all the flows of energy in a particular direction with ones very specific intention and attention.
Let’s look at direction first. If we are doing a side bending asana like a simple konasana, the direction is let’s say to the left. We are side bending left. Sometimes we inadvertently add other directions like turning or rotation. In a simple side bending there should be no overt rotation of the trunk, shoulder or pelvic girdles. The energy is mainly in side bending to the left. The rotation bleeds or leaks the energy in this other plane of movement.
Also commonly seen in konasana is too much extension of the trunk. Often this hyperextension is in the lower rib spine or thoracolumbar area. Again we are using another plane of movement (extension here) to substitute for a lack of side bending to the left.
Also we can see flexion in a konasana when a student “tries” to DO the asana. They are not so flexible in side bending and then try to get as low as they see the picture of the asana as demonstrated. The mistake again is in focusing on doing vs feeling the flows of the side bending energies or forces. This will be addressed again later.
This over extension (as well as the other planes) of the trunk distorts the pranic flow from being fairly “sattvic” that blends/integrates the right and left side bending energies–into being fairly “rajasic”.
Of course ones intent and application can change any of the above planes of movements and their proposed correlatives. For example some rotations can be very enlivening and activating or rajasic as well as the opposite.
Let’s stay with a konasana. If our intention is to bend and reach our hand down our leg as far as the instructor/picture, we will compensate in our areas of immobility and instability as previously described.
We need to focus on developing the proper flows of prana and information. Again it is not how far one can reach in side bending. It is about activating the system of information/prana along the designated pathways. We are activating the side bending movement and all the other areas that need to stabilize. (We will return to these concepts of mobility and stability later).
Our intention is in a particular direction. That direction is the initial design. If we move in other directions we have changed our intention (maybe we don’t even have one) and also changed our attention.
There is a complexity and sophistication to the design of the asana that many are missing. We have gotten lost in the achievement of some hyper flexible design of this mental picture. That is not asana. Asana is not a look it is a feeling. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali constantly only refer to this feeling of stability and ease. It never talks about the particulars of placing this part to that part. It never describes a visual image.
We are still mistakenly doing asana vs revealing these deeper pranic flows of information that we have blocked from our awareness by our mis-representation of a visually oriented practice.
Therefore it is not the depth that one stretches to or not. It is all about the proper activation of the nadis or currents of flows of information. Stop this stretching and exercising business.
Now let us redirect our attention along particular lines or channels of intention that follows the proper directions.
Once one comes into this feeling along these lines of proper activation, then slowly we become stable. It doesn’t happen overnight. Many more considerations need to be included.
When you think of someone doing asana do you think of someone who is stiff or flexible. Flexibility is only a part of coming into an asana. Most people today who are doing and enjoying asana are fairly flexible in their bodies. So we easily start to emphasize this mobility aspect.
Proper movement includes both what is moving and what needs to provide stability for that movement to properly occur. This movement does exist not only for the body but includes the flow of the breath and the focus of the mind. At this time we will continue to highlight the role of the body.
If asana is not about the depth of ones pose, then flexibility is no longer a prerequisite for doing and enjoying asana!! Here we must emphasize stability. It is the stable areas of our system that allows for the proper flows. If we are not stable at the pelvis and trunk in simple side bending asana, we begin to include other planes of movement often in flexion and extension. We can easily go too far at our knees and hips because we again are stretching.
Our stable pelvis and trunk in this example allows for the proper flow of forces/prana in the orchestration of this side bending direction. It is the flow of prana that develops our stability and ease. It is not the acrobatics of the posture.
It is the depth of our flowing breath that is a result of this proper combination of stability and movement. Then as our body settles and becomes stable, the breath deepens and the mind also settles into a depth of paying attention from the inside. The depth of the mind is past the normal analysis of the proper preparation. It takes time to allow the depth of the mind to reveal itself.
Then (after years of skillful practice) we come into relaxing our effort. This type of relaxation takes much practice. It does not occur from simply commanding oneself to relax.
Activation and relaxation relate to a dynamic process of the neuromuscular and pranic system (very similar–like brother and sister). In the movement system, there is this interplay of facilitation and inhibition. Always there is some areas of the neuromuscular system that are ramping up or turning up (activating) their activity while other areas are turning down their activity (relaxing).
In order to perfect an asana, Patanjali states that one should loosen the effort as the first step. Often relaxation in asana is heavily emphasized. There are good reasons for this emphasis. We cannot move mindfully with great tension. Also we cannot move when we are collapsing and unstable.
If you observe an accomplished dancer, you will notice and ease and relaxation in their movements and postures. This type of relaxation and ease is not primarily practiced at the beginning (except mistakenly by beginners in asana). It takes year of long, hard, diligent, skillful practice to then arrive at this type of relaxation. Some people who start out practicing try to put the proverbial “cart before the horse”. Effort in practice comes before ease of practice. Practically even this idea is not always correct. Training is never linear in it’s expression of these concepts.
There is always a balance between what, where, when and how much we should participate in these simultaneous and integrated activities of activation and relaxation. Just remember the doing part is driven by the sensing/feeling part. (Feeling here is more the proprioceptive vs emotional context).
We don’t move in isolation. You can easily experience these patterns vs isolated movement by looking at any of the cultural asanas. Here as in the centering asanas many nadis and areas are involved. We move and posture (remember posture is very dynamic, not static) often in our habitual patterns. We don’t really think about it. This habit is where our sensory apparatus has gone to sleep. It seems like we move and don’t even know it. Think about getting in your car, turning on the radio and the next thing you know you are at work, hmmmm.
Habits are not bad. Thank god we don’t have to pay attention to everything. It would cause total arrest of our sensory and motor system. Remember balance is both turning on/up of some things and turning off/down of others.
During asanas though we want to heighten our awareness to discover our deeper layers. We want to properly prepare this container of the body, breath and mind so that we can access or have revealed that which is not this material substance (as per the Samkhya Philosophy).
We can start with examining our habitual patterns. We can look/feel only what we are use to looking and feeling. So we want to structure our sensory experience. Doing something perfectly is not helping us become aware.
One of the principles here in movement is to exaggerate what you are doing so you can more easily feel the information. This exaggeration should be in both directions. Let’s look at an example.
In standing, raise your arms overhead. Note what you feel moving and where is the movement you feel taking place. One may readily say they feel the arm at the shoulder doing the movement. Well the trunk is also involved to some extent because we move in an integrated set of patterns that are not contained only at one joint or place.
When lifting your arms/hands up the chest and spine will extend. Some times you will bend excessively backwards to raise the arms overhead. Now it is not about should you do this or that. It is about training the sensory/feeling system to awaken and become more sensitized to what you are feeling and doing.
So in this case you want to move several times in your exaggerated pattern. Use the trunk in a large enough fashion so that you can appreciate this relationship, ie feel it more easily. Then move your arms overhead again for another set of repetitions where you keep your trunk slightly flexed and very braced. This latter style prevents that movement. Your focus is on feeling the differences. Keep practicing until you can lessen the efforts in both directions until you can feel the slightest accompanying pattern of trunk extension or flexion or neutral (no trunk movement). Now you have trained your awareness vs perfected a false imitation of a posture.
There are many other ways of training the sensory system. The sequence in which you initiate, move through and then end the movement can be varied to again create more sensitivity. We will just mention one other very important one next.
All of this sensory training is coming from the overuse of the model of just doing something and thinking that it “looks” right. Awareness/sensory based training being discussed here is an adjunct and supportive method to create more balance and deeper levels of awareness than in the previous models of see and do.
It is this type of awareness training that is not emphasized enough in our practice of asana.
Let’s look at a sitting asana for meditation. Pick your favorite from Sukhasana/Maitriasana to Siddhasana/Padmasana. (We usually don’t teach Padmansan for meditation but is used for many advanced Pranayamas). Cat and cow asana preparation is often used to prepare the spine and trunk for subsequent asanas.
Notice that the movement of the spine (that normally in neutral has three curves), is moved in an undifferentiated pattern. The whole spine is flexing or forward bending in cat pose. The whole spine is extending or backward bending in cow pose.
Now when we sit for pranayama or meditation we are actually asking our head, neck and trunk to act in a differentiated way. In sitting straight in a neutral spine (maintaining the normal curves of the neck, chest spine and lower back spine), we are often asking the chest spine to straighten without over extending the neck or lower back spine.
Now notice how we have practiced the cat/cow maneuver. Our practice has led us to a feeling of when we extend any part of the spine, every part of the spine is extending. That is not a bad thing by itself. It just becomes a popular pattern of spinal movements that feel normal. What ever you practice regularly becomes your default from which you move and posture.
You will see in many standing poses as one straightens their spine, many will over extend generally throughout the spine. Often we only need to move in one area. There are way too many people standing with an exaggerated lower back to lower thoracic spine. You can see their upper chest is often behind their pelvis. Another compensation here is the forward head.
This mal-configuration starts to feel normal and “neutral”. When do we practice separating out these directions of these movements of the spine. We really don’t practice much to differentiate or separately move one curve in the opposite direction of the other (in the Sagittal Plane).
Differentiation of the spine in the cat/cow would mean that as you extend the neck and chest spine you would also flex (forward bend) the lower back spine (and vice a versa). It is not easy to do initially because we cannot feel and control opposite movements in this sagittal plane.
This differentiation in the feeling and proper execution of this movement is needed to sit with a balance and straight spine.
There are many examples that we could explore here to expand and practice these movement principles. For now we have covered some of the basic movement principles for an introduction of some of the key concepts. Let this be a start to refining your exploration of asana in your practice.
A hands-on workshop is highly recommended. Being involved in a training practice that emphasizes the sensory exploration needed for movement and postural feedback is needed.
Then asana becomes a state and condition from the mind to the body. It is in that state of the mind that
From this condition stability and ease simply appear. They are revealed through a rigorous practice of which the fruits are stated in the Yoga Sutras (YS 2.48).
Tato dvandvãnabhi-ghãtah YS 2.48 (Then one is no longer affected by the pairs of opposites)
From this asana ones sushumna is open/the mind is singularly focused and meditation begins.
Well who wouldn’t have a smile on their face/mind when they deeply rest. In a series of articles I wish to comment on this process of establishing and stabilizing ones asana in preparation for meditation. These first several articles will discuss pertinent background information and perspectives. We will not be addressing the cultural asanas at this time.
When your asana is established properly and stabilized there is a spontaneous emergence of the deeper pranic flows. Briefly summarized as you sit straight and balanced, automatically you will feel these internal sensations of the bandhas and mudras from the foundation of the asana activating up through your posture. Of course more than just activation of these standard bandhas and mudras are integral part of the asana.
What is sitting straight and balanced? Is it only the bodies structure.
Does asana include these pranic flows of the
At the beginning with asana we are speaking about the physical gross body representation. Whereas one practices more the asana must include all these pranic flows.
The asana is not something you do only. At the beginning, it is arrived at after much hard work and preparation. Later it just emerges spontaneously with a shift of ones attention. It will be defined and expanded in another article in relationship to Patanjali’s treatise in the Yoga Sutras second Chapter (to include Vyasa’s and other’s commentary/bhashya)
How focused is your meditation? Do you consistently experience a depth of your practice that takes you beyond the normal habits of the mind (waking, daydreaming, dreaming, sleeping, etc)?
The organization of the asana needs to be established and then stabilized. It also must be linked proprioceptively/feeling-wise to the breath and mind flow. Each step has to be stabilized and then linked. This linking means that two things have become one thing in the mind. This is a critical step to progressively arrive at deeper states of focus. Otherwise when these relationships/links have not been stabilized the mind easily slips out of the current focus. Examples of stabilizing and linking will be given later in other articles.
As your practices truly progresses your meditation more quickly arrives at these deeper states and deeper pranic flows. Then over time the mind becomes absorbed within. This is where the true meditation and silence starts.
We are the gross representation of these natural and normal flows of prana. Also you could say we are these flows and just have a gross set of clothes called a body to wear. If this all is sounding too weird, it is because the references are from a very different perspective than most of us have experienced.
Embryological development follows a sophisticated and methodical code of instructions. In one way, this is the same as saying that man is a field of energy currents flowing along definite channels. (see Swami Veda’s excellent book: Philosophy of Hatha Yoga)
Asanas follow this flow of energy. So when we truly have a proper asana there is this natural emergence of a stable and comfortable form and the breath becomes deeper and the mind becomes very focused yet deeply calm and quiet.
Asanas are not passive–they are active–representing a summation of the energies of that system. Subtle energies are very alive–they are just not apparent to us. Do you see or are aware of all the workings of your internal milieu of organ and neuro-fluid functions. OK, so maybe there is something subtler going on that the Yogis speak of as “their” normal experience.
How we organize these energies is the key to deepening these natural pranic flows that then spontaneously emerge
(While submerging the previous poorly organized postures with short shallow breaths and frenetic over active minds)
Remember when you placed a magnet underneath a sheet of heavy paper and then sprinkled iron filings on top. The iron fillings formed themselves in an arrangement along the lines of the magnetic field.