Category Archives: Meditation

Changing seasons

It has been a while since my last post but life as always throws curved balls your way and plans are often destined to change to meet current needs.  As I sit here and write this I am gazing at the glorious colours of  autumn here in the southern hemisphere.  The sky is a brilliant blue and contrasts so beautifully with the reds, yellow and green of autumn.  What has all this got to do with yoga you ask?

Being able to sit in the present moment is very much a part of yoga.  You may have heard  about mindfulness over the last few years.  In fact it is something that everyone is advocating lately.  Well the yogis were practising mindfulness long before this phrase became popular.  What is mindfulness from a yogic perspective?

I personally think of mindfulness as consciousness of the present moment, an awareness of where you are, what you are doing.  It is being awake to life.  Not simply moving through one experience while planning the next or reviewing the last.  It is total presence. So you can be mindfully brushing your teeth, watching leaves blowing in the wind, listening to people who are speaking to you, driving your car or observing your breath.

In yoga we hear about Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga which include Dharana and Dyhana ..concentration and absorption.  Dharana where you are relieved of outside distractions and the distractions of the mind (its desire to move between the past and the future)  You keep returning to the single point the present, often using the breath as your anchor.   Dhyana is a refined meditative practice where the mind is totally absorbed in the present.

Both Dharana and Dyhana are developed by building on the earlier 5 limbs of yoga including the Yamas (restraints) the Niyamas (observances), Asana (postures) , Pranayma (breathing practices ) and Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). *  For information of the Yamas and Niyamas see blog post DEC 2014  and for those of you familiar with the practice of Yoga nidra you will have experienced Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses when your yoga teacher gets you to focus first on the sounds in the surrounding area and gradually draws your focus to the inward to the breath , heartbeat.

In this way these previous practices prepare you for  both Dharana and Dhyana the sixth and seventh limbs of yoga according to Patanjali …with the ultimate aim of Samadhi the eight limb pure contemplation …an experience of bliss where you merge with supreme consciousness.

That is not to say that you must complete the first 5 limbs to achieve the 6th and 7th but when you practice asana, pranayama, the yamas and niyamas and pratyhara you are drawn to the others.  Your body is more supple, you understand your breath and the effect it has on mind and vice versa, you treat yourself and others with respect and kindness and you can more readily withdraw yourself from the current going ons.

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Slow Yoga

Hello and thanks again for checking out Beechworth Yoga.   I know my posts have been a bit erratic but felt it best to write only when I had something that I thought was really important to say.

I have been contemplating the question of what has now been coined as slow yoga.  What is slow yoga you say ? Well from my understanding it is a desire to get back to the basics of yoga to develop a practice that allows for reflection.   Postures are held with an emphasis on the breath and allowing yourself to explore the sensations within the body and the fluctuations of mind.   Perhaps it has been a reaction to the westernization of yoga to be another form of exercise to tone and shape albeit with a focus on breath.

We live in a fast paced world where there is pressure to achieve, attain and move on with little opportunity for savouring the experience and yoga is an experience.  It is not something that you do as you would a bike ride or a cross fit class.  It is much more about the way in which something is done and making it a way of living.

To experience yoga in the true sense is to live yoga.  How do you live yoga?  To live yoga you must be prepared to live consciously.  To be aware of the effects of your actions, your thoughts both upon yourself, others and your environment.  You need to discipline yourself to slow down, to find  balance in all things.  To become aware of the effects of all things on your body and mind, from what you eat to what you read.  If this sounds familiar that is because it illuminates Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga ..the yamas the nyamas,  ( your ethical practices and and self discipline) asana, ( your movement of the body to enhance it) pranayama, (your control over breath ) pratyahara, (your ability to withdraw the senses) dharana, ( your concentration) dhyana  ( meditation) and finally samadhi. (the state of bliss ..transcendence).

Winter is a great time to reflect on these things..to find the still in your life for yoga is not about the shape of your body but the shape of your life.

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The Koshas 2

100_8643The second Kosha or layer identified by the yogis in yogic physiology is the Pranamaya Kosha .  Prana is the vital force permeating the body and every layer of matter.  It is related to energy.  In fact Prana is associated with all the koshas and it is vital for life.  It animates the body.  However there is energy specific to Pranamaya kosha .

It occupies only about 2 per cent of our awareness and takes up the same space as the physical body.  According to the ancient yogis prana flows through energy channels in the body referred to as Nadis which correspond to the physical nerves.  There are said to be 72000  nadis with three prominent ones — Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.  Both Ida and Pingala wrap around the main energy channel Sushumna like the double helix…where the networks converge at 7 points are the chakras ( or wheels of energy ).

In different parts of the body  the yogis believe that prana serves different functions and they identified 5 pranas or pancha pranas as they are called:

  • Vyana – flows through the whole body and is always present, it is said to be the last to leave when we die
  • Udana – flows through the head, arms, legs and is associated with the mind and senses and movement..energy used in actions.
  • Samara – is equalising and balancing  the mid torso and has a side to side movement.  It regulates the flow of prana and Apana.
  • prana – is the upper torso navel to throat flowing up with inhalation and down with exhalation ( Think of the practice of the So Hum breath here)  ..the lungs, heart
  • Apana – flowing from navel to pelvic floor.. a downward movement associated with excretion and childbirth

Obviously breath has a very close association with Prana and the way to become aware of the actions of prana and to effect change is through breathing (Pranayama) practices By practising these techniques even something as simple as natural breath awareness  you become aware of your own personal breathing patterns.  You notice changes in breathing patterns associated with your state of mind.  However things like meditation and asana also affect Pranamaya kosha so your yoga class may contain all of these elements.  A balanced personal practice would include not just asana practice but also time for pranayama practice and some meditation.  Remember this does not have to be a long time but it is worth thinking about making your practice (or sadhana) well rounded.

 

Building a foundation

DSC_0125As we move into the season of Autumn it could be a great opportunity to look at what is truly important in your life. It can be a busy time over the summer with friends, relatives, holidays, work and getting children back to school.  It is at times like this when our yoga practice can suffer as we get caught up in all the “doing” of life, but one thing is for sure if you have built a  strong foundation in your yoga practice then it will support you as you navigate your way around the “busy-ness” of life.

How do you build a strong foundation?  One of  the most important features of yoga is its ability to keep you grounded.  When all around you seems to be flying off in many directions…taking  time to be still and focusing on the breath is the perfect way to ground yourself.  The many pranayama or breathing techniques taught in yoga provide tools to help (literally)  keep your cool ( try Sheetali or Sheetkari breathing) and focused on the here and now.

Asana practice too will provide you the opportunity to be in your body…. to feel the parts that feel good, the parts that need more TLC, the parts you worry are not quite right and the parts you love (yes loving your body is part of a solid foundation!!).  As you move through a small sequence of postures listen to the messages from your physical body, not the chatter in your head and allow your body to move with the breath.  No matter what state you are in when you move to your yoga mat it is as if all the other stuff dissolves  (sometimes it takes a little longer but it will happen) …

Developing your own meditation practice is also the basis of a strong foundation in yoga.  There are many different meditation techniques and it is worth exploring different ones to find what suits you.  If you find sitting still difficult try a walking meditation.  You don’t have to meditate for very long for meditation to be effective.  Again it is the practice of often being present …of allowing yourself to simply be.  Some people find the regular activity of simply lighting a candle and some incense or exploring nature as way to stop the clock for a brief moment.

All of these practices contribute to what we call a sadhana.  A sadhana  is a regular spiritual practice that helps you to find balance in your life by giving you the opportunity to turn inward.  It is not a religious “thing” ( you may or may not have a connection to some higher God and you could incorporate this)  but it is an attempt to connect with the bigger picture…nature, your place on this earth, the bigger YOU.

Having a sadhana means you are making a commitment to yourself.  It requires discipline (even if it only 10 mins a day) so cultivates this.  It allows you to grow as a person affecting your relationship with yourself and others. A sadhana  provides an opportunity for self reflection…to look at the patterning of the mind, to see your thoughts as they come and go…to discover that your thoughts are not you.  And of course it builds a foundation…just like your sankalpa ( see post from Jan 2012) .  A strong platform from which you can make decisions about your life, your work, your health, your relationships with others.  This foundation is strengthened by the repetition and regularity with which your sadhana is performed.  No matter how small you start, by developing this regular practice you will slowly notice a shift in the constant demands of the mind…you will not feel so swayed by the fluctuations of mind and emotions and find yourself more accepting of yourself and life ups and downs.

So how do you go about this?  First of all find a space that you feel comfortable in – a part of your room,  a separate room, somewhere outside.  Decide how long you wish to practice each day and what your sadhana components will be.  Remember this can be as small as lighting a candle and sitting quietly for a few moments.  It may include asana practice, breathing practices, chanting, singing, meditation, walking in nature…choose what you know makes you feel good.  It does not have to be a long session…it is the regularity that provides the benefit not the length of practice.

I find practising my sadhana first thing in the morning the best for me..it allows me not to get caught up in the day and make excuses for missing it and I always find mornings more peaceful (mind you I am well past the age of having little ones awake before me and making their own special demands on my time!!) so if mornings don’t suit find a time that does and make it your time.

May you find time to be you.

 

 

 

 

 

A day in silence

Having just returned from  a wonderful yoga retreat in Ubud Bali I would like to share some of my experience of the the beauty of a day of silence.  What better place to explore the joy and peace of silence than in lush tropical jungle surrounded by timeless rice paddies.

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On waking on the day of silence I was able to be fully present in my surroundings to explore the splendor of nature.  To notice the vibrant colours of the birds, the vivid and varied shades of green of the jungle, to  see dragonflies and insects industriously going about their day.   Everything I observed seemed to leap out at me …as if I was truly seeing it for the first time.

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Each mouthful of food was savoured as there was no distraction from conversation to the business of eating.  I was able to discern subtle differences in taste and texture..my sense of smell was heightened.

There is something very freeing about not having to speak to anyone..to make conversation ( which I might add I normally love!).

I spent my time simply using my senses to be fully present at each moment as the day stretched out.  It seemed almost timeless with no pressure to be anywhere or do anything in particular.

We were given instruction to try to avoid reading as reading in itself engages the left brain.  If anything we were encouraged to explore using our right brain….to be creative.  I chose to make a flower mandala and found this to be very calming.  Playing with the colours and textures of the flowers felt so natural and I was soon deeply engrossed in the activity.

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Earlier in the day I spent time simply staring out into the jungle whilst  using the singing bowl ….feeling the vibration of the sound in my whole body.  Eventually every cell in my body began to sing with the sound.

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It was not until the following morning after practicing our sun salutations to the rising sun overlooking Lake Batar and the surrounding volcanoes that we were able to speak again.

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It felt strange to hear the chatter of voices and although I was pleased to talk with others and share my experiences I could not help feeling a little sad that the time of silence was over. Experiencing a day like this is something we could all incorporate into our lives, allowing  the richness of silence to fill our hearts, minds and souls…it is so refreshing!

Changing seasons, changing direction

Having just returned home from a wonderful yoga retreat in Bali with One World Retreats I have found myself looking out at the most glorious autumn color here in Beechworth.

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The retreat in itself was a great opportunity to stop, reflect, challenge myself and meet new friends but returning home has reminded me that with the changing of each season we also get the opportunity to stop, reflect and challenge ourselves…you may even meet new friends ..people who will help you on your journey of inner discovery.

As the trees prepare for winter by shedding their leaves so too can we prepare for the next stage in our lives by looking at what is no longer serving us and letting it go.

We had a lovely ceremony in Bali where during the week each person was asked to write down on small bits of paper what we would like to let go of and at the end of the week we gathered together to burn these unnecessary thoughts or behaviors and send them off down the river with a colorful spray of flowers.  It was very moving for all and I somehow suspected that much of what we had written down would be the same! Bali retreat

We often find ourselves plagued with doubts, fears and negative thoughts,  all of which do nothing to serve our higher purpose but these patterns of thinking can be very hard to let go of as they are quite entrenched. The old saying that what you practice you get good at comes to mind here!!

So here is the challenging part!  To look closely at ourselves…not with anger and judgement but simply to observe the way we think and behave.  The practice of silence or mauna is a wonderful way to do just this.    Learning to be silent is a practice of pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.  According to Swami Sivananda the practice of mauna develops will power.  It checks the impulse of speech and is a great help in the observance of truth.   Spend some time each day not interacting just watching and notice what is going on…you may be surprised! You may notice thoughts and patterns that you want to let go of and just like the autumn trees you can choose to release them.  You may even like to create a small ceremony for yourself ..using the autumn leaves.  It is up to you.

I know that it is not easy to let go and it may be that this becomes a regular practice of yours but then again the changing of the seasons is a regular practice too!

 

Body Stillness

InspirationDuring the last few weeks our meditation class has been working on a practice known as Kaya Sthairyam or body stillness. This practice is considered to be one of the essential elements in establishing  a good meditation practice and this is probably because the first step in learning to meditate is to sit still! (unless of course you are practicing a walking meditation).

So what is involved in Kaya Sthairyam?  It is a practice that focuses the awareness on the body quite intensely so that the mind eventually loses interest in the body and the body becomes quite steady and still.

There are 12 stages in the practice and it is important to develop mastery with each stage before progressing to the next.

Stage 1 is about preparation: finding a comfortable meditation asana and adjusting your position so that the spine is erect and that you  have a solid foundation.

Stage 2 concentrates the awareness on body posture: by observing details of the posture such as alignment, balance , shape, body parts etc.

Stage 3 enables you to visualise the body from different angles …as if looking into a mirror. The aim here is to saturate the mind to the point where it no longer has any interest in the body.

Stage 4 is the visualisation of the body as a tree:  using the mind’s imagination and capacity for visualisation and occupying its creative tendencies.

Stage 5 explores sensations in the body:  these are the factors that are most likely to cause distraction so once again the mind is saturated with these so it will lose interest.

Stage 6 draws attention to the body parts  and moves through them systematically to keep the internalising mind engaged.

Stage 7 focuses on the immobility of the body:  the practitioner resolves to be still.

Stage 8 develops the feelings of steadiness and stillness in the body.

Stage 9 is  the experience of psychic rigidity:  here there is total awareness of the body, its immobility and a sense of being fixed in the position.

Stage 10 is breath awareness:  allowing the breath to become more and more subtle as you focus on the natural breath.

Stage 11 is a state of concentration where the breath becomes very subtle and the mind becomes one pointed and still…a state that enables the practice of dharana or concentration.

Stage 12 is the gradual externalisation that allows the practitioner to move slowly back to the external environment.  This is also a very important part as it allows you to become more grounded and aware of your present environment.

You can try the practice  with Dr Nalini Sahay  This particular variation of Kaya Sthairyam was taught by Paramahamsa Swami Satyananda.

A few more thoughts on meditation

For many people the thought of sitting “doing nothing”  is pretty scary…..so is that what meditation is really about??

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I guess it is important to clarify here what we mean by meditation.  There are certain elements that need to be present to be meditating and perhaps the most important of these is being relaxed.  When you are relaxed your whole body is able to sit comfortably, or move more fluidly and there is a correlation between relaxing the body and the mind.  When your body is relaxed the mind is able to relax – when your body is tense then the mind tends to run at 100 miles an hour!

Meditating does not mean not having thoughts.  Thoughts are constantly flowing in the mind but someone in deep meditation is able to “let the thoughts go”… to not get caught up in the mental chatter.  At the retreat in central Australia, Ian Gawler who was leading the retreat used a lovely analogy of blue sky and clouds which I really liked.  He suggested that the blue sky represented the still, quiet mind that is always there and the clouds represented the thoughts (the active mind).  In meditation what we are hoping to achieve is to “break through” the clouds to the quiet mind.  He said that there were 2 ways to do this directly or indirectly.

The direct approach according to Ian is to just “do it”..sit in a relaxed quiet state and wait for the clouds to disappear.  (this may prove challenging for most of us and we could be waiting a long time!!)  The indirect approach is to use some technique to lead you to that quiet state and this often involves engaging the active mind in watching the breath, counting the breath or repeating a mantra.

Ian spoke of the difference between relaxation, mindfulness, concentration and meditation.  The first three are the basis of most meditation techniques — you are training your thinking or active mind but the purpose is to lead you to meditation.

In the Satyananda yoga tradition one of the first things we learn in preparation for the practice of meditation is Pratyahara or withdrawal of the awareness from the senses.  The purpose of this is to allow an internalisation of awareness.  Developing body stillness through the practice of Kaya Sthairyham …learning to sit  relaxed  in  a comfortable meditation posture without being distracted by the body is also very important.   The next stage is inner concentration or Dharana ….training the thinking mind and this may well be done using the breath as a focus or chanting a mantra either out loud, in whisper  or mentally.  The final stage is known as the state of meditation and  is called Dhyana where you have achieved internal concentration and develop the experience of unity, internal harmony and equilibrium.

According to Sw Satyananda  “There is a fine difference between Dharana and Dhyana.  In Dharana the mind continually tries to think of things other than the object, and the practitioner  has to bring the awareness back to the object; distractions still exist in one form or another.  In Dhyana however the mind has been subjugated and is totally and continually absorbed in the object.  It is in meditation that the deeper aspects of the object start to manifest themselves.” (Meditations from the Tantras 1983,  p 80)

Both Sw Satyananda and Ian Gawler  stressed the point of regular practice to develop  concentration ….to break through the clouds and experience the blue sky beyond.  This practice does not need to be considerably long the most important factor is really regularity…start small and it will build of its own accord.

Meditation in the Desert

Having just returned from a 10 day retreat on Meditation in the desert of Northern Territory I can honestly say that it was one of the most challenging things I have done.  Each day was broken up into 45 minute meditation sessions, including walking meditation interspersed with other activities.

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The first thing I found challenging was the environment.  Beautiful as it was in a very raw and earthy way it was also very hot and windy and it was the first time I had needed a fly veil to practice my meditation. (very annoying when the little devils managed to sneak under occasionally and get trapped!!) Needless to say here I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of creating an environment conducive to meditation and then settling in to “as good as it’s going to get”  It was interesting to watch my ability to develop a “let go” approach to all things beyond my control.  A great start for any meditation practice!

The second challenge was the sheer number of meditation sessions.  I like  to practice meditation in the mornings before breakfast and last thing at night. Now I found myself  doing 5 or more sessions a day and again there was a learning opportunity here.  Why was it that I felt I should be doing something else?  It seems that I had placed a value on meditation only if it fitted in with the rest of my life.  Well of course out there in the desert there really was nothing else I had to be doing but I was somehow conditioned to feel that simply sitting doing “nothing” was idle  of me!!  This took a few days to leave me and once I settled into the pace of the desert I found it much easier.

The final challenge was actually getting sick whilst I was there and wrestling with my ego’s need to be “doing everything”  and my body’s need for time out to rest and recover.  I had to find that compassion for myself….to let go once again!

So whilst I did not wander the desert eating locusts and wild honey I did experience the soul-searching that occurs when you remove yourself from the familiar and your comfort zone.

So what were the benefits you might say??  Well it is a truly wonderful experience to meditate with others.  We had a big group of about 40 people and the positive energy of the group was just marvellous.  I would recommend group meditation to anyone who is thinking about beginning a practice.  You may have even begun some meditation practices in your yoga class.

Another great benefit was having the opportunity to practice walking meditations.  I have done some of these at the Ashram before but have never really integrated them into my practices.  It was exciting to walk in such an ancient land and feel the connection to the earth below whilst carefully focusing on the breath not the scenery and then when we did some whole senses walking I was amazed at just what I could see, hear, smell, feel and even taste (though  I think this was mainly dust!) Opening up to all of your senses gives you the perfect opportunity to be fully present.

Each day we had a teaching session on meditation which built on my previous knowledge and gave me many new insights into ways to approach meditation. More on this in the next post.  So to sum up for now …

  • Meditation is about letting go!
  • Meditation can help you learn more about yourself
  • It is Ok to sit quietly in the moment…you are not being lazy!
  • Maintain that compassion for the self!
  • Meditating with others can be a very enriching experience
  • Vary your meditation practice by including a walking meditation

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Maintaining the momentum

Have faith ...keep following the path.

Have faith …keep following the path.

One of the difficulties you can encounter when you commit to any significant change in your life is maintaining the momentum.  People often come to yoga because there has been an impetus for change in their life.  They have decided that they need to “become more flexible”, “learn to relax” or “combat stress”.  Whatever the reason for commencing yoga there is guaranteed to be some benefits that you never expected and some times when you feel that because of changes in your circumstances or health,  it is difficult to maintain.

How do you maintain that momentum?  Well the first thing to realise is that yoga is all about listening to your body.  In some instances your body may just need some rest.  There may be times when the most important part of your practice is simply doing a yoga nidra and some breathing practices.  At other times sitting quiet and still for meditation may seem impossible and what is really needed is some solid asana practice to ground yourself.

Listening to where you are at is the first part, having compassion for yourself is essential.

That is a little harder for most of us. Living in a world where we are supposed to “toughen up”, “be strong” and “keep on going” is not such a compassionate place to be. Compassion requires really opening the heart and listening ….listening to the birds, listening to the breeze, listening to the breath, listening to the feelings and often makes one feel vulnerable but vulnerability in itself is a beautiful and honest expression of self. It does not mean that you put up with everything that is thrown at you and devalue your worth but it means being true to who you really are…that wonderous inner spirit of self.

So if you are having trouble hanging in there ….STOP…listen and love. Be gentle with the practices, do only what feels right not what you think you ought to be doing or what you used to be able to do and you will soon find that yoga WILL bring you back to your equilibrium, BUT please be patient !!!