Breathe slowly and steadily…

The last “Simple Tip” (look under the categories menu tab) I shared was utilizing the complete relaxation technique.  In the systematic style of meditation expounded in the Himalayan Tradition, complete relaxation is only the second stage–it follows a postural practice.  Let’s pause for a moment– if you’re new to this blog, or yoga meditation, no worries–you don’t have to have a perfected postural (asana) practice to continue.  Furthermore, if time is a constraint, simple stretches– even a nice walk– will get you “into” the body.

Now, assuming you have worked with relaxation, which is a necessity– you cannot meditate if you are anxious and distracted— you begin to move further towards your Self via the breath.

We have all heard, anecdotally, about the importance of breathing deeply.  But, it’s more than just the decompression of a sigh– shallow breathing negatively impacts our physiology.  It is further exacerbated by, to name a few co-factors: poor posture, obesity, and incorrect breathing techniques.

In this tradition, the breath is the more “gross” manifestation of the “subtle energy” (prana) that animates the physical body– like electricity conducted along a wire. Therefore, we must refine the breath: make it deep, smooth, even (or seemless), and silent.  The key to this is diaphragmatic breathing. The following video by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati elegantly explains the physiology of the technique.

It is important not to get frustrated if the technique feels alien at first–no one would expect us to run a marathon without training.  The upper abdominal muscles have to become stronger; furthermore, the chest and the belly have to be reeducated.

After your complete relaxation–or while you are lying on the back in savasana– you can sit tall and well and begin to work with the breath.  Take your time with it.  Keep the facial muscles and shoulders relaxed.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, less is more in the beginning.  Focus, completely, on diaphragmatic breathing for a predetermined amount of time–five to seven minutes.  You may find this metronome helpful to keeping a steady cadence; I set it to 60 bpm and then inhale for about 5 to 6 seconds and exhale for the same length.  After a while, try to lengthen the breath cycle– but, as a beginner, keep the breath even.  Then just notice the difference in your body.  What sensations do you feel?  You are laboratory and Yoga practitioners are scientist who explore themselves from the gross to the subtle– and beyond.

Where two or three have gathered…

This week has been one of many opportunities to connect, spiritually, with many similarly minded individuals.  I travelled to my teacher’s ashram in Fort Walton Beach and participated in meditation sittings and two group discussions, I had a birthday and (experienced Facebook at it’s best) received prolific blessings from loved-ones and associates, I lead an ongoing meditation group, I participated in Unity’s World Day of Prayer, I began a new weekly meditation group, I participated in the Women of Unity meeting, and lead a workshop in the North Georgia mountains–phew!  Now, that is not a typical week; I feel as though my spiritual cup is full to the brim.  I also feel that this chance to share sacred space was a reminder of the importance of satsang–keeping company with the truth.

It is so easy to get caught up in the mundane: work, family obligation, and general busyness.  Therefore, the Himalayan Tradition recommends sitting to meditate daily– connecting with your source regularly.  When you are “plugged in” to the source, you are more inclined to remember that all that is “outside” of you is merely the “Divine Play“.

However, sharing space adds another dimension to one’s spiritual practice– above and beyond merely sharing similar ideas.  When you are with other sadhakas (aspirants), you are reminded that your center is the same as theirs.  It injects you with an optimism that there are others on this quest and reminds you, that despite all the negative images and sound bytes in the media, that there are others who are on a quest to really know themselves as well.

We all here about retreats; it is good to get away and be alone. But, propagate that energy and get together are share sacred space too!

Can you really relax?

Currently, relaxation is not our intrinsic state. Perhaps it was at birth; however, it is obscured by all of our obligations and expectations–my twelve year-old is already being told his math scores, now, may affect his collegiate endeavors… Talk about a catalyst for tension!

However, I subscribe to the idea that our reaction to stress has to do with our perspective. I believe, as do many other renowned professionals, we can make stress our friend.  The reality is “relaxation is a skill unto itself” (Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati). What does that mean, relaxation is a skill? Let me elaborate…

…Notice the anxiety planning a vacation can induce, observe the fidgeting of a “restless leg” at dinner, or witness the unconscious clenching of our jaw while lying in bed at night… all times when we are supposedly relaxed. We haven’t been trained to relax, to really let go, to really set down.

One problem is we aren’t really in our bodies; do you feel your fingers pressing on your tablet, do you feel your foot on the gas pedal? We are outside in the world of the senses, stimulation, and flux. Our stress reaction partially comes from being “outside” of our true center which is not subject to change, corruption, and decay.

In this tradition, the physical body is not viewed as something other than the self– it is viewed as a layer that has its origins in the eternal.  Therefore, the physical body needn’t be deprived by extreme measures–nor inundated with sensuality.  The physical body must become a participant on the inward journey.

Pratyahara, sense withdrawal, is the process of disengaging ourselves from our sensory experience.  We move from being outside in our experience to being in our own body.  Hence the need to dim he lights and seek a quiet place to relax or meditate.  Using music or “white noise” is still stimulation– this is using an extrinsic source to “feel” relaxed.  Ultimately, relaxation must come from within.

Postural practice (yoga poses), asana, can assist with getting “in” the body.  However, many practitioners feel that this is the apical experience of yoga– it’s only a preliminary one. After asana practice, the body is prepared for profound relaxation– this relaxation is essential to deep, sustained meditation.

Complete Relaxation is a beautiful way to work on entering into this state.  It is an approach of moving through the body and not ignoring it.  It is a beautiful finale to a postural practice. It can be practiced alone or in preparation to a seated practice.  For a beginner, it is a way to increase your time in stillness– while satisfying the need to have a little stimulation.

This seems like a paradox; relaxing to meditate. It isn’t so antithetical– imagine trying to sit and meditate if you’re agitated and distracted. Once you are able to establish a relaxed state, a regular meditation practice reduces this inclination toward a negative stress response.


My Mental Meditation Pillow

A few months ago I was being coached by a wonderful teacher, Radhika Shah-Grouven, about how to keep doing “this” when I am so busy.  I know we all feel very busy– and, with regards to scheduling, I am: the family, full-time job, additional clients, commuting, this blog… this list could be endless.  However, I find that I am only as overwhelmed as I believe that I am– of course, this falls within certain physical parameters: I must get sleep (although I get 5.5-6 hours), I must eat well, I must drink water, I must exercise, and I must meditate.  Meditation doesn’t cause me to suddenly have a “stress”-free life.  However, it does cause me to be very aware of my reaction to stress.  It has afforded me enough self-awareness to realize how much I can take on or how much I must put down. I definitely experience times of ambivalence and apathy– times where I would rather sit on the couch and veg-out.  However, I would rather allocate predetermined amounts of “free-time” to meditation.  My lineage recommends four times a day– that may seem daunting to a newcomer.  I would recommend a newcomer dedicates time for one to two sittings.  As I have stated previously, five to seven minutes; but, commit and do it.  In the same way you wouldn’t consider leaving the house without brushing your teeth, commit to going inside.  My teacher, Swami J, says to make it an appointment, like lunch with a friend.  Furthermore, if you are late, you postpone and make it up, as soon as possible– like your lunch date.  Life happens, I understand; but, as Radhika taught me, you have a “mental mat”– it goes with you every where.  She explained that there were times when she just touched the mat while riding the train!  The more you return to center, the more it stays with you.  Many times my meditation pillow is in the cockpit of my car and my meditation room is a parking lot.

Sitting to Meditate

Writing a blog is as much a spiritual endeavor as any of my other practices. I now realize there is so much that goes into making this page useful. I will be adding a gentle asana section soon, the poses I highlight will specifically assist with developing a seated posture. Until then, I’ve linked Ma Tri’s beautiful asana chart and a little YouTube Video of asana for posture below.

Sitting well is foundational to a meditation practice.  However, this can be a major obstruction to going inside. In this system, we work with the many levels of ourselves, moving from the gross physical body to the superconscious core. Therefore, the physical body must be prepared to support this endeavor.

This is where the conventional asana class is supportive. If you followed the link above, in the Yoga Sutras, “asana” means a “comfortable seat”. If one is seeking the highest state of existence, asanas are an opportunity to prepare the body and experience meditation in action–but, they aren’t the apex.

Sitting tall and well, is much more than about aesthetics. It is essential to proper physiological functioning. Furthermore, it is an anchor to hold you in the present moment. One should release any idea or preconceived notion of the ascetic, sitting cross leg and semi-nude on a mountain top without any creature comforts. If you’ve been a desk jockey, you need a chair. Using a chair is not admitting defeat, it’s acknowledging the physical limitation and working to transcend it.

Try to find a quiet place, free from outside distraction. I suggest you do some gentle stretches; then, as I posted before, observe the unfolding of the mind. For those  who want to go a little further, begin to work with the breath. Just start to bring awareness to the breath–sit in absolute silence and observe the natural rhythm. Try to sit without moving for adjusting and observe for a predetermined amount of time. In the beginning, it’s best not to try to do this for too long; you don’t want to strain and develop an aversion. In the early stages of sitting I recommend three to seven minutes at the most. Think of simply sitting well, also, as meditation in action.

I Am Everyone…

I recently read a blog post, “I am (Not) Mike Brown“– which deeply touched me.  Although my aim is not to politicize my blog, the title of the post evokes powerful concepts that are addressed in the Yoga tradition.  There is an idea in conventional circles (I say conventional and not the West– some of the most amazing teachers live in the West), that Yoga is associated with an “anything goes” sort of attitude.  While I cannot speak for other schools of thought and movements, I can say Yoga, at its center, has an ethical core.  In my last post, “Begin to Meditate“, I present the concept of the Yamas and Niyamas from the Yoga Sutras.  The first principle of which is Ahimsa, non-violence–to your Self and others.  Some people have called the Yamas and Niyamas, the “10 Commandments of Yoga”– which I refute as having a punitive, patronizing tone.  Yoga is about Self-direction, the sages do not tell us to fear the wrath of an anthropomorphized deity. However, they explain that we are all one.  If we go inside, regularly, and establish a relationship with our transcendent existential core we will, inherently, not wish to harm one another.  The brilliant late, Georg Feuerstein, a German-Canadian Yogi and Scholar, wrote extensively about morality as it relates to the Yoga tradition as well as an eloquent ethical guidelines for Yoga teachers. His writings affirm our natural ability to emanate goodness and to seek harmony when we frequently return to our center.