Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Books: Passage Meditation, by Eknath Easwaran July 5, 2011

Filed under: books,meditation,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 3:29 pm
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Eknath Easwaran’s book Passage Meditation: Bringing the Deep Wisdom of the Heart into Daily Life is a kind, thoughtful guide to meditation for beginners and more experienced practitioners alike. Mr. Easwaran takes the tone of a helpful friend and mentor; the book is an easy read that makes meditation seem doable.

Mr. Easwaran starts by discussing the many benefits of meditation, describing how he came to meditation in the first place as a busy young professor at a university in India. He then details his method for meditation: in essence, to find a passage from spiritual literature that appeals to you and touches you deeply, to memorize that passage, and then to repeat it, word by word, in your mind during your meditation practice. Remembering each word of the passage gives your mind something to focus on. In addition, Mr. Easwaran believes that we are what we think about, and if you spend time thinking about an inspiring passage, that passage will become part of your consciousness, enabling you to become a better person.

You could probably start practicing this simple passage meditation technique just based on my description above, but Mr. Easwaran’s book is so finely written and so pleasant to read that I recommend it strongly.  The rest of the book discusses the benefits of a personal mantra in daily life and of slowing down instead of racing through each day; Easwaran also talks about improving concentration and training the senses (pratyahara), and other just good ideas for spiritual practice, such as putting others first and finding companions to practice with.

Not since reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step have I been able to recommend a book of spiritual instruction so highly. I loved this book. It is appropriate for any spiritual seeker regardless of religious tradition, as Mr. Easwaran is conscientious about using inclusive language and making his meditation techniques accessible to all. Mr. Easwaran is well read in the religious scriptures of many traditions and recommends spiritual passages from writers as diverse as St. Teresa of Avila to the Buddha. I highly look forward to reading more of Mr. Easwaran’s work.

 

books: Moola Bandha: The Master Key, by Swami Buddhananda June 25, 2011

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:58 pm
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Moola Bandha: The Master Key, by Swami BuddhanandaMoola Bandha: The Master Key describes a system of muscle exercises and locks that lead to a release of pranic energy in the body and ultimately to spiritual enlightenment. Swami Buddhananda defines a “bandha” as a bind, restraint, or lock. The idea is that “by locking or contracting certain muscles on the physical level a subtle process of ‘unlocking’ goes on simultaneously on mental and pranic levels” (2). By working with bandhas in conjunction with pranayama breathing exercises, a variety of physical benefits are said to occur, calming the heart rate and blood pressure, harmonizing the function of bodily systems, and creating a sense of relaxation. Bandha practice is also said to improve flow of pranic energy in the body, activating the chakras and leading to the release of kundalini energy and to heightened states of consciousness.

The most important of these muscle locks or bandhas is moola bandha, or perineal contraction, the subject of this book. “Moola” means root or foundation, and moola bandha refers to the contraction of the muscles at the “root” of the spine/trunk at the perineum. The physical contraction of moola bandha is useful in treating problems of the lower abdomen such as digestive or sexual disorders. However, moola bandha also involves a spiritual/psychic contraction of the mooladhara chakra. This has the effect of activating our latent sexual energy and channeling it upward for spiritual awakening.

The first half of the book gives background on bandhas and moola bandha in particular, as well as on mooladhara chakra and kundalini energy; it situates moola bandha in the context of ancient scripture, discusses physical aspects and pranic effects of moola bandha, and describes how moola bandha can be used in a therapeutic context. Thus prepared, the reader can move on to the second half of the book, which details several practices of moola bandha, including specific instructions and illustrations. This provides the real meat of the book – everything that came before is simply building to this point. The section on practices opens with techniques appropriate for any beginner, then moves on to gradually more advanced techniques as the aspirant progresses in her practice. Attention is paid to the anatomic differences between men and women as applied to the practice of moola bandha, making this book a good resource for truly any spiritual seeker.

(From a personal standpoint, I realized while reading this book that I won’t be making any forward progress on my spiritual journey, at least not through moola bandha, until I can get over my inner 12-year-old boy. This book is about clenching all the muscles in pelvic region! The author uses words like “heighten”, “sensitivity”, “stimulation”, and “contraction” all on the same page (65). Kundalini energy is depicted as a big snake. The beginner practices instruct one to focus on the genitals – really focus your awareness intensely, breathing into the genitals – and then to contract and relax the genitals rhythmically. After this practice, one is intended to go on to meditation. Meditation! After sitting and focusing intently on the genitals, contracting them rhythmically, who’s going to be in the mood for meditation next? (The short answer here is: probably not me.) On the other hand, improved muscle control in the genital region can’t really ever be a bad thing, so I figure I’ll try out the exercises. Whether it leads me to becoming a calmer, more enlightened person or not, my husband won’t be complaining.)

 

books: Science of Breath: A Practical Guide, by Swami Rama, et al. June 12, 2011

Filed under: books,breath — R. H. Ward @ 6:49 pm
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Science of Breath, by Swami Rama, et al.This slim book provides a practical introduction to the yogic concept of breath and how to utilize it to link body and mind. With chapters written by Swami Rama and by medical doctors, the book explores both Eastern and Western perspectives for a well-rounded view of the topic, helping the reader to understand first the mechanics of how and why we breathe before delving into the yogic breathing techniques.

The Foreword, Introduction, and Chapter 1 give background on the breath and explore the rationale behind focusing on breathing. Prana, or life energy, is defined and discussed, and the authors describe the benefits of developing a deeper awareness of our breath.

In Chapter 2, Dr. Alan Hymes explains the physical mechanics of breathing: what respiration is and why we do it, how the lungs oxygenate the blood, which muscles are involved in inhalation and exhalation, and how those muscles work. Hymes also explicates the differences between diaphragmatic breathing, thoracic/chest breathing, and clavicular/shallow breathing. The chapter reveals how breathing, a seemingly simple process, is actually a complex and vitally important function for the body.

Chapter 3 by Dr. Rudolph Ballantine details the anatomy of the nose, nasal cavity, and sinuses, and how these areas shape the air currents we breathe and the odors we smell. Ballantine gives strategies for keeping the nose healthy and functioning properly, including nasal wash (neti pot) and alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhanam).

Chapter 4, written by Swami Rama, expands upon how to regulate the breath and use it to control energy in the body. Rama likens the mind to a kite on a string: when the string is held skillfully, you can guide the kite where you want it to go, but until you learn to control the string, the kite will flap around directionlessly. Like a kite’s string, pranayama is a tool we can learn to use to control the mind. Rama states that there’s a reciprocal relationship between breath and mind. We’ve all observed that a certain mood (for example, anger, fear, or passion) can result in a change on one’s breathing pattern; the converse is also true, that consciously changing one’s breathing can affect one’s state of mind. Rama explains, “By consciously making the breath deep, even, and regular, we will experience a noticeable release of tension and an increased sense of relaxation and tranquility” (84). Rama goes on to offer a series of breathing techniques that one can use to achieve this result.

Overall, this is a useful book for anyone interested in pranayama and meditation. The photos and diagrams throughout the book are quite useful for understanding the medical anatomic concepts and the physical yoga positions described. The medically focused chapters on respiration and nasal function are particularly helpful for readers more used to Western science than Eastern philosophy, making the book a good stepping stone towards further reading, but the book is highly worthwhile in its own right as a comprehensive discussion of the function of breath.

 

Gilgamesh and the Yamas and Niyamas April 17, 2011

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 6:25 pm
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Reading the yamas and niyamas this month, I was reminded of one of my favorite literary passages. Gilgamesh is an ancient epic poem, chronicling the adventures of a long-ago king. Badly shaken and grieving after the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh sets out on a journey in search of the secret to eternal life, but what he learns is that we can’t control life or the future. What he learns is to live the life he has as best he can. Here’s my favorite quote:

“Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.”
– Shiduri the tavern keeper, to Gilgamesh

I see the yamas and niyamas in every line here. If Gilgamesh follows Shiduri’s instructions, he’ll also be following the yamas and niyamas, and he’ll be a better man with a simpler, more joyful, more spiritual life. I love that this wisdom isn’t just in spiritual books like the Yoga Sutras but also in one of the earliest stories known in human culture. I love that this epic isn’t just about adventure and ass-kickery, but about coming home and finding the best way to live.

 

books: The Royal Path, by Swami Rama April 13, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 8:42 pm
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The Royal PathYesterday I finished up with this month’s assigned reading: The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga, by Swami Rama. This slim volume is a guide to Ashtanga Yoga: “ashtanga” means “eight”, so “ashtanga yoga” is the “eightfold path” of classical yoga described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The eight steps of the path are as follows:

  1. yama: moral restraints
  2. niyama: moral practices
    (you know all about these now)
  3. asana: posture
  4. pranayama: control of the breath
  5. pratyahara: withdrawal and control of the senses
  6. dharana: concentration
  7. dhyana: meditation
  8. samadhi: superconscious meditation or enlightenment

Rama explicates each step on the eightfold path, providing a chapter for almost every step (yamas and niyamas are covered together in one chapter). He does include some description of yoga postures (asana), and some helpful photos, but this is only a portion of what Rama covers; he spends much more time on morality, breath, prana energy, concentration, meditation, and the mind.

For the most part, I really enjoyed what Rama had to say, and I found that reading this book deepened my reading of the Yoga Sutras. There were a few areas, though, where this book fell a little flat for me.

First, Rama’s prose can be dated at times. The original book was published in 1979, and Rama’s writing is surprisingly gendered. Here’s an example:

The central teaching of yoga is that man’s true nature is divine, perfect, and infinite. He is unaware of this divinity because he falsely identifies himself with his body, mind, and the objects of the external world. (2-3)

The sentiment here is interesting and well worth discussion, but his phrasing makes me cringe: man‘s true nature? He falsely identifies himself? I thought we got away from that sort of rhetoric years ago, even before the 1970s when this was written, and even so, I would have thought that the Himalayan Institute would have updated this in the new editions published in 1996 and 1998. Clearly Rama is talking about not man but humanity, not male yogis only but any yoga practitioner, but it still feels exclusionary to me, and the whole book is written like this. I did not feel like I personally was included in Rama’s definition of a yogi except for the parts where he specifically discusses women. This could be easily corrected in future editions, and I hope the Himalayan Institute does so.

Another thing that bothered me is that Rama fully believes that any disease can be cured with the mind. I know full well that the mind has astonishing powers for healing, but at one point he says, “If unwanted and undesirable thoughts are controlled, all diseases will vanish” (94). Really? Rama’s sentiment has some value, because we’ve all heard stories about people who were able, through prayer or positive thinking or holistic measures, to cure themselves. But not everything can be cured that way. What’s more, to say that diseases can be cured by positive thoughts could lead to blaming the patient for not getting better or for getting sick in the first place. That one line on page 94 bothered me so much that I had to shut the book for a day.

Similarly, Rama will talk about how meditation has been known and practiced in the Western world for generations, but most of Western society wasn’t ready for it, so all our Western saints practiced meditation in secret, as if there’s a big esoteric cover-up going on. Yes, St. Teresa of Avila communed with God, and what she practiced may have been a form of meditation, but was she practicing techniques passed down in secret from Indian gurus? I think probably not. Hinduism and Buddhism are strong and powerful traditions, but there are many paths. When Rama made claims like this, I couldn’t help reading it skeptically.

I’m describing the things that I found troublesome in the book, but really these things are pretty minor in comparison to what Rama does achieve, which is a strong book and a good guide to the practice of yoga. It’s definitely a worthwhile read and I plan to return to it in the future as I progress through the sutras and work more on meditation.