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Archive for the ‘Yoga and Meditation’ Category

Last night I was watching a TV show on the story of The Buddha.   There was a part in the story where, “Siddhartha saw a man lying on the ground and moaning. Out of compassion, he rushed over to the man. Channa warned him that the man was sick and that everyone, even noble people like Siddhartha or the king could get sick.” Later, “Siddhartha lost all interest in watching the dancing girls and other such pleasures.  He kept on thinking instead about how to free himself and others from sickness, ageing and death.”

When Siddhartha looked at the beautiful young dancers, he saw them as old, dying women and felt empathy for the suffering they would endure in their lives.

This part of the story reminded me of the way mass marketeers often use sexuality to market yoga, and the backlash it creates.   I thought that this moment in Siddhartha’s life really captured the “true” spirit of yoga/Buddhism – in stark contrast to so many slick, sexy advertisements.  Yoga and meditation – while enjoyed by many young and beautiful people – provides something deeper – a path to cope with the painful, frightening and inexorable loss one’s health, (outer) beauty, memory and breath.

I’d be a hypocrite to say I’m averse to the “sex sells” media, but Siddhartha’s insight is one to keep in mind – and heart.

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Thanks to Yoga Dork for this great post on yoga at the NY Giants!

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signaling (animated)
Image by Genista via Flickr

One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.

Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”.  The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment.  From the introduction …

Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.

… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts.  As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us.  Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities.  Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):

“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary.  The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”

Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world.  These notions are a core of yoga spirituality.  As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is,  in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14)   …   Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance.  The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject.  (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself;  it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)

So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it.  To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff.  I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.

Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!

The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here).  I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:

This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.

I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!

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gamma waves.
Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever wondered what is the proper musical note to sound when singing AUM at the beginning of class?

Tonight, I was blessed to chant along with Girish who led a kirtan at my yoga shala.  According to him, “AUM” is traditionally played using a low E-chord.  He played his low E chord on his harmonium and we chanted aum – again and again and again! He also said (just paraphrasing his informal comments tonight), that this E-chord is not just a random choice, but that its also the sound that comes from within our minds when we meditate.  Hmm, I wondered – cool thought indeed – but is he just making this up? I mean, what could he know (or ancient yogis for that matter) about what is really, actually happening in the mind?

It turns out that modern science can actually “listen” to the brain when it is meditating – by placing listening devices (small electrodes on the scalp) and measuring oscillations of neuro-electrical activity (electroencephalography or EEG).  Experienced meditators show an increase in the strength of one particular “note” or frequency – a so-called gamma wave, or gamma frequency of about 40Hz when they reach deep meditative states.  According to wikipedia:

A gamma wave is a pattern of brain waves in humans with a frequency between 25 to 100 Hz, though 40 Hz is prototypical. … Experiments on Tibetan Buddhist monks have shown a correlation between transcendental mental states and gamma waves.  A suggested explanation is based on the fact that the gamma is intrinsically localized. Neuroscientist Sean O’Nuallain suggests that this very existence of synchronized gamma indicates that something akin to a singularity – or, to be more prosaic, a conscious experience – is occurring.

OK, so modern science measures brain activity in deep meditators and finds that 40Hz is the vibration associated with deep meditative states.  Girish says AUM is also the vibration of deep meditative states and is traditionally a low E-chord.  OK, so then, is he right?  What’s the frequency of low E?  Is it 40Hz?

41.2Hz! Pretty darn amazing!

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Raging River, Preston WA
Image by Preconscious Eye via Flickr

As a parent, there are times when I realize that the world of my children is not the world I grew up in.  Yes, the Readin’, ‘Ritin’ & ‘Ritmetic are still just as important … and there is nothing as precious as apple pie and little league in the spring … and yes, kids must eat their vegetables and say their prayers at night.  Just as its always been – and will always be.  The wider technological and economic world of my children, however, is much different – most obviously altered by the recent rise of computer technology that “creatively destroys” all forms of industrial activity (media, finance, trade, healthcare) across the globe.  Such change, while unsettling, is, itself, nothing new.  Just teach the children to adapt and, like every generation before, your children will be fine.  OK.

With this in mind, I enjoyed the recent NY Times article, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” that describes a rafting expedition of neuroscientists who ventured down a remote river in Utah – purposefully out of touch with computer technology – in order to ponder how computer technology, in the form of our email, video gaming, texting etc., etc. shape our mental experience and mental health.  According to the article:

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.

In particular, the team was focused on the neural systems that help us pay attention.

David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science.  “Attention is the holy grail,” Mr. Strayer says.”  “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.

Every parent knows that kids are increasingly hooked on this and that computer device.  We know that these devices constantly serve up all manner of entertaining news, sports scores, gossip, visual images, games, etc. etc.    Unfortunately, we also know that so-called “intermittent reinforcement”, “variable ratio of reinforcement” or “random reinforcement” can be just as addictive as any drug (the red line in the chart here shows how much more reinforcing “random” rewards are than fixed, predictable rewards).  This is why these devices are – in every sense of the word – ADDICTIVE.  They offer up a steady, but unpredictably so, stream of rewarding images and bits of information.  I mean, how many times a day do you check your email and favorite websites?  Do you feel disappointed when there is nothing juicy – but can’t help checking “just one more time”?

Hence, computer technology presents a quandary for all of us – grown ups and kids alike.  How to adapt to, and manage this “new normal” of hand-held, computer-based, ubiquitous access to social and entertainment information?

Although the trip did not yield THE definitive answer, it seemed to prompt the scientists to take a closer look at the effects and value of conecting/disconnecting from computer technology.  For Professor Todd Braver, a neuroscientist from Washington University:

When he gets back to St. Louis, he says, he plans to focus more on understanding what happens to the brain as it rests. He wants to use imaging technology to see whether the effect of nature on the brain can be measured and whether there are other ways to reproduce it, say, through meditation.

Boy, it sure would be nice to head out with the kids and shoot the rapids for a few days every time I felt overloaded!  Unfortunately NOT one our our family’s economic realities!

Professor Braver’s comments on reproducing the effect of the rafting trip through meditation, however, got me wondering, and also reminded me of a quote that is painted on the wall of my yoga shala – from the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”

Although I can’t get away with the kids for a rafting trip, I can – and do – enjoy spending time together in a place where “CrackBerrys” and all other forms of digital technology are not to be found.  A quiet spot in NJ near the, ahem, scenic Rahway River.  One thing my kids have been learning in their children’s yoga classes are the rudiments of mindfulness meditation.  Might this be what Professor Braver had in mind?  Can it help reproduce the cognitive and emotional effects of a river rafting trip?  As noted in the article:

Mr. Strayer, the trip leader, argues that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river, the sounds, the smells, you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.”  … “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys.”

Hmmm, this kind of stuff is oft said about meditation.  As many parents fret about their way kids become attached to their digital devices, it is perhaps too early to know whether meditation is an effective counter-balance to the new digital reality.  Can it provide the same cognitive and emotional benefits experienced by the river rafters who were truly “disconnected” for a few days?  Perhaps – with practice, and more practice.  Nevertheless, a relaxing walk through the forest is different for kids today – as their digital devices buzz away in their pockets.  What’s a modern-age kid to do?

To begin to explore this question further, check out these 2 review articles on the physiological and psychological benefits of both meditation and yoga in children.  The first, Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy by David S. Black, Joel Milam and Steve Sussman, published in Pediatrics Aug 24, 2009  and Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature by doctors Mary Lou Galantino, Robyn Galbavy and Lauren Quinn from the University of Pennsylvania.

Both articles examine existing scientific evidence – in the form of controlled clinical studies – on whether these very ancient practices provide benefits to kids in the modern world.  In short – they do – but more research is needed to better understand how much benefit is provided.  How many sessions are needed?  Does it last after practicing stops?  How do the benefits work?  How to best engage children of different ages?  From the abstracts:

“Sitting meditation seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth.” … “The evidence shows physiological benefits of yoga for the pediatric population that may benefit children through the rehabilitation process, but larger clinical trials, including specific measures of quality of life are necessary to provide definitive evidence.”

Its fun to meditate and fun to spend quiet time with my young children – so there is no real downside to spending some time meditating and “disconnecting” from our digital devices.  Might they be learning a skill that protects their creativity and emotional well-being?  I hope so.  Perhaps one day when they are older, they will email me to let me know!

To learn more about meditation for children, visit The David Lynch FoundationUCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (adapting ancient practices to modern life),  the Committee for Stress-Free Schools, Dr. Elizabeth Reid’s six week curriculum to encourage mindful learning in a class of fourth grade students and an interview with my former postdoctoral mentor on the science of attention training.

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Are they practicing breath control?  No.  Are they practicing postures?  No.  Are they desperately seeking meaning and a connection with divinity?  Yes.  Are they pulled in one direction by the wants of the body, and in another direction by the wants of the spirit?  Yes.  Do they cope day to day with grim realities of suffering and loss in a place where, “gravity is stronger and you can feel it pulling you closer into the earth everyday”.  Yes.

These are the very themes of yoga.  Beautifully captured in picture and sound in the 2003 film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus“.

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Manipura chakra
Image via Wikipedia

More on CG Jung‘s famous “chakra lectures” …

In lecture 2 he opines on symbolic and psychological aspects of the 3rd chakraManipura – shown here with a yellow center and red triangle that symbolize fire.  Interestingly, the location of this chakra overlaps with what we, today, call the “solar” plexus – not because of its symbolic connections to the fiery sun – but rather, simply because the neural projections from this plexus, located between the stomach and the spine, radiate outwardly in a sun-like fashion.

Jung notes that fire symbolism often follows water symbolism – just as occurs in the chakra hierarchy where the previous chakra is symbolized by water.  This ancient pattern of symbolism is common across many religious traditions.

“One sees all that very beautifully in the Catholic rite of baptism when the godfather holds the child and the priest approaches with the burning candle and says: Dono tibi lucem eternam (I give thee the eternal light) – which means, I give you relatedness to the sun, to the God.”

So, I guess, after a person emerges from the murky depths of water, the next stage of their spiritual journey or subconscious “awakening” is a time in their lives when they grow to feel connected to something greater than themselves, to something eternal, beyond the everyday world, perhaps cosmic or goldly, etc.  Jung suggests that this initial connection to “god” has long been symbolized by the sun and by fire.

“This is a worldwide and ancient symbolism, not only in the Christian baptism and the initiation in the Isis mysteries.  For instance, in the religious symbolism of ancient Egypt, the dead Pharoh goes to the underworld and embarks in the ship of the sun.  You see, to approach divinity means the escape from the futility of the personal existence, and the achieving of the eternal existence, the escape to a nontemporal form of existence.  The Pharoh climbs into the sun bark and travels through the night and conquers the serpent, and then rises again with the god, and is riding over the heavens for all eternity.”

Furthermore, Jung suggests, there is a shared, underlying psychological reason why so many ancient cultures used the common symbols of fire for this phase of their development.  It would seem that for many, that once they let go of the closely-held, relatively petty details of their day-to-day life and acknowledge a connection between themselves and the wider universe and things divine – that, upon letting go – their own fires of passion and emotion become alight.

So it is just that – you get into the world of fire, where things become red-hot.  After baptism, you get right into hell – that is the enantiodromia.  And now comes the paradox of the east: it is also the fullness of jewels.  But what is passion, what are emotions? There is the source of fire, there is the fullness of energy.  A man who is not on fire is nothing: he is ridiculous, he is two-dimensional. … So when people become acquainted with the unconscious they often get into an extraordinary state – they flare up, they explode, old buried emotions come up, they begin to weep about things which happened forty years ago.

I think I can relate to this notion.  Perhaps when you accept that you’re just a part of a larger plan, or just a single link in a long continuum, you stop worrying about the petty stuff which then allows your own deeper passions and emotions to flow more freely.  Both the good emotions related to creativity and love as well as feelings of sadness and loss that come along with recognizing your fate and limitations  – all begin to emerge.  These feelings make a person feel more “alive” than they would just playing it safe, workin’ 9-to-5 payin’ the bills etc., etc. and never allowing themselves to embark on their spiritual journey.

So it seems, as suggested by Jung, that we begin our spiritual awakening as humans have for thousands of years, by “taking the plunge” and choosing – not the “safe career” path – but a path in life that “means something” to us.  From the dark, uncertain waters, we emerge – and then the inner fires begin to burn, to inflame our passions and give us energy, to live and to create.

… can’t wait to see what’s in store next!

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The most tenuous shaping breath were here too ...
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From wikipedia:

The Ātman (IAST: Ātman, sanskrit: आत्मन्) is a philosophical term used within Hinduism, especially in the Vedanta school to identify the SOUL whether in global sense (world’s soul) or in individual sense (of a person own soul). The word ātman is connected with the Indo-European root *ēt-men (BREATH) and is cognate with Old English “æþm”, Greek “asthma”, German “Atem”: “atmen” (to BREATHE).

The English word SPIRIT comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “BREATH” (compare spiritus asper), but also “soul, courage, vigor”, ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European *(s)peis, as opposed to Latin anima and Greek psykhē. The word apparently came into Middle English via Old French. The distinction between soul and spirit developed in the Abrahamic religions: Thus we find Greek ψυχη opposite πνευμα ; Latin anima opposite spiritus; Arabic nafs (نفس) opposite rúħ (روح); Hebrew neshama (נְשָׁמָה nəšâmâh) or nephesh (in Hebrew neshama comes from the root NŠM or “BREATH“) opposite ruach (רוּחַ rûaħ).

Similar concepts in other languages include Greek pneuma from which is derived the term “Pneumatology” – the study of SPIRITUAL beings and phenomena, especially the interactions between humans and God. Pneuma (πνεῦμα) is Greek for “BREATH“, which metaphorically describes a non-material being or influence.  Similarly, Scandinavian languages, Slavic languages and the Chinese language (qi) use the words for “breath” to express concepts similar to “the spirit“.

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This picture depicts the seven major Chakras w...
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Am really enjoying reading  Carl Jung‘s 1932 lectures on The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga edited by Sonu Shamdasani.

Jung focuses on the chakra symbols – which have many different biological, physiological and psychological interpretations.  To Jung, the chakra symbols reflect a natural psychological process of self-awareness and spiritual development.  In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, there begins a “natural awakening” that occurs in life that motivates a person to pursue endeavors that have some sort of personal “meaning” rather than be content with just the basic ordinary existence.  I guess we all get tired of just payin’-the-bills, so to speak?

According to the ancient vedic texts, the “Kundalini” refers to a symbolic female serpent that awakens and starts to rise up inside of us.  In the very earliest stages of this awakening one goes from the low self-awareness of ordinary day-to-day life to a higher state of self-awareness – a more personal inner-awareness of our devotions, purpose or motivations.  His words from lecture 1:

Some strange urge underneath forces them to do something which is not just the ordinary thing.

This is a common, wonderful aspect of our lives right?  Don’t we all hit a point where we want to do something “special” with our lives?  I can’t help but think of all the coaches, music teachers, artists, etc. etc., that I’ve met in my life who weren’t happy just payin-the-bills and opted to do something “special” with their time.

But there lies some danger in trying to do something “special” !

If we step off the path of the ordinary, practical concerns of daily life to do something unconventional or “for the love of it”, we risk losing the safety and stability of our everyday life.  The banker who leaves work early to coach a little league team may put his career at risk.  The kid who chooses music as a major instead of accounting similarly trades a staid (boring) future for a more impoverished (but perhaps fulfilling) future.  And so on and so on.  We’ve all been there.

In terms of the chakra symbols, the shift from this lowest, ordinary, root, muladhara stage to the next swadhisthana stage involves a symbolic shift from earth to waterThis can be seen in the images on the chakra symbols:  a stable elephant in the root chakra and the sea with a leviathan as depicted in the next higher level chakra symbol (shown here).  Jung says the shift from “ordinary life” to the pursuit of a “meaningful life” is naturally fraught with psychological fear given the inherent risks, uncertainty and possibility of failure.

This very normal and common human psychological transition, he points out, has long been recognized by other ancient cultures.  Similarly, they characterized this very common psychological shift as one from earth to water.  I guess its not all that surprising if you think of the fear you’d have if thrown in the water and unable to swim (no such thing as swim lessons back in the day).  Jung opines:

The way into any higher development leads through water, with the danger of being swallowed by the monster.  If you study the beautiful mosaic pictures in the Baptistry of the Orthodox in Ravenna … you see four scenes depicted on the wall: two describe the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the fourth is St. Peter drowning in a lake during a storm …  Baptism is a symbolic drowning.

So perhaps the very first steps in taking on a new “meaningful” direction in life – from simply payin’ the bills to doing something personally fulfilling – is to face the inherent uncertainties and fears.  To move into the murky depths and confront the possibility of failure and loss.

OK.  I will try and ground my sit bones into the water – rather than the earth!

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The Monkey Baba
Image by orange tuesday via Flickr

Is there such a thing as a “true” guru?   A gentle sage atop a mountain who lives only to practice and nurture the spiritual growth of students? Like many students, I’ve always carried this idealized and universal notion close to my heart.  Back in school, my favorite professors were the genuine, off-beat ones who really lived for their work.  Today, as a new yoga student, I feel the same way about the teachers who genuinely seem to live and breathe yoga.

Nevertheless, in the real world, this ideal can, understandably, be hard to live up to.  Ask Jews, Catholics and Protestants as to which group is more “true” or follows the “real”, “orthodox” or idealized tradition.  Better yet – don’t go there.  Nor Sikh, Hindu, Shia or Sunni, etc. etc.  Since their dawn, spiritual pursuits have had a natural tendency to splinter and sub-divide as zealous followers strive to maintain the “pure”, “true”, “uncorrupted” ideals of their faith – hence, thousand years of religious war.  Indeed, the desire for spiritual purity is a powerful force.

Recently, the blogospere was buzzing about John Friend, a well-liked and highly regarded teacher and founder of Anusara yoga (nicely summarized here).  Some of the buzz centered on the age-old question of whether the new tradition of Anusara yoga is really, truly valid and also whether Friend is a “true” guru or more of a (now rather wealthy) profit-seeking entrepreneur.

True or phoney.  Its an age-old, passion-inflaming topic to be sure – great for driving blogosphere traffic!  Even for yoga, its an issue that is thousands of years old (see David Gordon-White‘s “Sinister Yogis“).  From his book page:

Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.

Of course, the recent blogosphere buzz about John Friend is nothing of this sort – its just a few impassioned blog posts here and there (watch Yoga Inc. for a more intense debate).

Perhaps this reflects one of the great things about yoga.  Even with its own age-old debate of “true guru vs. showman”, it remains so uniquely free of the epic strife and hard feelings associated with other spiritual traditions.  Its bare-bones, bare-foot simplicity offers little for debate and intellectual hang-ups and makes it easy to accommodate its many splintered traditions within any given yoga shala.

I came across these remarks by Carl Jung made in 1936 in his work, “Yoga and the West” – who seemed to parse the issues quite handily and foresee the over-hyping to come:

“Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. … Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes.  In the course of several thousand years these introversions became gradually organized as methods, and along widely different ways.”

“I can, however say something about what it [yoga] means for the West.  Our lack of direction borders on psychic anarchy.  Therefore any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline, and therefore a method of psychic hygiene.”

“Yoga is mainly found in India now as a business proposition and woe to us when it reaches Europe.”

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Synthetic made gold crystals by the chemical t...
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As I mentioned earlier (here), I really enjoyed David Gordon White‘s  The Alchemical Body – an in-depth exploration into the interplay of yoga with spiritualityalchemy and the local political economics of India from 1,500 years ago and even earlier.

Before science and spirituality became dis-integrated, separate explorations (in the past 200 years), they were tightly intertwined and integrated for thousands of years in the practice of ALCHEMY.  Just as alchemists (yogis were among the first and best alchemists!) tried to transmutate lesser metals into gold, they also sought to improve and perfect their bodies and minds.  Eventually, the process became quite standardized across cultures along both chemical and psychological dimensions.

Here is an awesome blog post from Modus Vivendi entitled, “What I learned as a scientist from the 7 steps in alchemical transformation“.  I love the first of 7 steps:

Calcination – Basically this means to destroy the substance.  Normally by burning it to ashes. Mentally it is the destruction of the ego.

Yoga postures can be so darn difficult.  Practice certainly has a way of crushing the ego.  Much to explore here as modern science increasingly seeks to re-integrate science and spirituality.

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The picture above is a seal unearthed in the 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-daro excavation, showing a human-like form sitting in a yogic pose.  In Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Mircea Eliade covers a similar archeological find from the site (p.355):

But the most important fact for our investigation is the discovery at Mohenjo-daro, of an iconographic type that may be considered the earliest plastic representation of a yogin.  Here, the Great God himself, in whom the prototype of Siva has been identified, is represented in the specifically yogic posture.  Sir John Marshall describes the figure as follows:  “The God, who is three-faced, is seated on a low Indian throne in a typical attitude of Yoga, with legs bent double beneath him, heel to heel, and toes turned downwards. … Over his breast is a triangular pectoral or perhaps a series of necklaces or torques. … The phallus [is] seemingly exposed, but it is possible that what appears to be the phallus is in reality the end of the waistband.  Crowning his head is a pair of horns meeting in a tall head-dress.  To either side of the god are four animals, an elephant and a tiger on his proper right, a rhinoceros and a buffalo on his left.  Beneath the throne are two deer standing with heads regardant and horns turned toward the center.”  One of the most recent writers to express an opinion on the question, Stuart Piggott, writes: “There can be little doubt that we have here the prototype of the great god Shiva as the Lord of Beasts and the Prince of Yogis;  he may have been conceived as four-faced, and with his four animals looks to quarters of the earth.

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Hindus believe in reincarnation, the process w...
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The concept of “immortality” lies deep in the core of Indian spirituality and the religious traditions of many other cultures.  Its probably not a coincidence that one of the first and, still, most influential books on the history of yoga is entitled, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade (you can read the book online here)

Most of the time, this refers to some part of a person – the soul, spirit or otherwise – that lives on forever after the physical body decays.  That we are able to recognize and ponder our mortality and the suffering of the physical body, is an integral part of why, in the first place, we seek to practice religion  (covered here).

I mean, no one ever took the concept of immortality LITERALLY, did they?  Perhaps not.  Until now.  Check out the trailer for a new movie that opens tonight in New York City on the science of Aging:  To Age or Not To Age – a film by Robert Kane Pappas. At the center of this film is likely the so-called longevity gene known as SIRT1 (covered earlier here).

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Gita Chapter 11:32
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Pointer to a neat lecture on humans’ natural predisposition toward empathy which seems to be rooted deeply in our species’ need for social belonging as well as “grounded in the acknowledgment of death” (related post here).   The virtue of compassion is obviously deeply rooted in Bhagavad Gita and certainly a mental and emotional capacity that should grow and flourish with yoga practice.  Nice to see its biological roots under investigation in mainstream science!

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Yoke
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As I’ve mentioned, I’m a new yoga student – very new – very, very far away from the archetypal, experienced yoga practitioners one often sees in books and videos (ok, maybe not these guys).   I’m inspired, and do realize the journey will be a long one.   However, is the journey a straight path?   Does it have twists and turns?  What IS the endpoint anyway? and how do I know I’m there?

According to Patanjali‘s yoga sutras:

“Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness”  (I.2  yogah cittavritti nirodhah).

This is echoed in David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body (Chapter 9):

Reduced to its simplest terms, yoga (“yoking”) is concerned with impeding movement, with the immobilization with all that is mobile within the body.

Ultimate stillness.  The kind demonstrated by the elderly yogi who was able to voluntarily slow his heart for 8 days (covered here).   So this is where the practice ends – in physical and mental stillness – awareness with stillness. 

More compassionate?  More patient?  Healthier? Perhaps this comes with the stillness?  My gut and experience so far says yes, this is where I want to go.  Not to withdraw from life, my family and friends like a lone yogi on a mountaintop, but to acquire a more peaceful and patient disposition that helps myself and others to better cope with life’s twists and turns.

However, David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body suggests that the pathway is anything but a straight downhill ride to samadhi.   There are myriad natural bodily desires and mental tendencies that push against this pathway, making it an arduous journey where the student can be bucked sideways while fighting against the tide.  As DGW interprets the ancient texts in Chapter 9:

One first immobilizes the body through the postures; next one immobilizes the breaths through diaphragmatic retention; one then immobilizes the seed through the “seals” [bhandas]; and finally one immobilizes the mind through concentration on the subtle inner reverberations of the phonemes.

What a difficult, even heroic undertaking the immobilization of the body constitutes, yet what fantastic results it yields!  For immobilization leads to reversal, reversal to transformation, and transformation is tantamount to bodily immortality and, precisely, to the [supposed] supernatural ability to transform, reverse, or immobilize whatever one desires in the physical world (siddhi).

Reversal?  Transformation?  Much to explore here in the years to come.

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chakras
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One thing that draws me to yoga, apart from other pure meditative practices, is that it places an emphasis on the body and mind, and not just the mind alone.  By paying attention to one’s diet, working diligently on postures and breathing, etc., there comes a transformation (still many years away for me) of both the body and the mind.  The concept of Kundalini seems to capture this – wherein a kind of psychic energy is awoken and driven slowly up through the spinal column and into the brain – releasing all sorts of desirable cognitive and physical benefits.

Transform the body and the mind will follow?

Today I was reminded of this when I saw a research article entitled, “A novel pathway regulates memory and plasticity via SIRT1 and miR-134” that was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.  In this article, the researchers examined a gene called SIRT1 which encodes a small protein that regulates the structure of chromosomes in response to the overall energy state of cells.  Most famously, it has been shown that SIRT1 mediates the longevity, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory health benefits that occur when individuals observe a diet that is calorie restricted.

In his book on Ayurvedic medicine and Kundalini yoga, Sri Swami Sivananda remarks, not on SIRT1 (obviously), but on the importance of a calorie-restricted diet as a part of the long-standing commitment to certain virtuous observances or Niyama:

A glutton cannot at the very outset have diet regulations and observe Mitahara. He must gradually practise this. First let him take less quantity twice as usual. Then instead of the usual heavy night meals, let him take fruits and milk alone for some days. In due course of time he can completely avoid the night meals and try to take fruits and milk in the daytime. Those who do intense Sadhana must take milk alone. It is a perfect food by itself. If necessary they can take some easily digestible fruits.

Indeed, a restricted diet (but not a fasting state) is a part of the yoga practice.  This observance has long been known to confer tremendous bodily health benefits – that, it turns out, are mediated by SIRT1!  Indeed, if ever there were a “longevity gene” SIRT1 would be it.  When it is over-expressed (in mice) the mice show many of the same health benefits as seen in mice that are on calorie-restricted diets (even though the mice can eat as much as they want).  Conversely, when the gene is inactivated, the mice die early and are in poor health.

In any case, today’s research article takes the SIRT1 story from the body and pushes it upwards (like the awakening kundalini) to the mind.  The article demonstrates that overexpression of SIRT1 improves cognitive function while inactivation of SIRT1 in the brain lessens cognitive function.

So it seems that body and mind are ever more unified and that – even on the molecular level – what is good for one has benefits for the other.

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Yoga Relaxation Pose - Savasana
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Am having a great time reading David Gordon White‘s  The Alchemical Body (here also)  – an incredibly in-depth exploration into the interplay of yoga with spiritualityalchemy and the local political economics of India from 1,500 years ago and even earlier.

Man, there is just so much to learn about the early history of yoga and the origins of the rituals and practices of today.

One basic and central theme that emerges early in the book is that ancient religious practices are rooted in a fundamental notion of “body-world”, “spirit-world” and various “in-between” or “transitionary” states.   This 3-fold view of the world is rather universal to human cultures and perhaps extends very far back in human history – perhaps emerging early in our evolutionary tree as humans/neanderthals evolved a mental capacity to recognize and contemplate their own mortality.  For instance, evidence for religious behavior and burial rites reach as way far back as 300,000 years ago in the Middle Paleolithic seems to suggest that early humans acknowledged “something” beyond the physical earthy body.

So it seems that the concepts I personally contemplate in my own practice – my inner self, reaching for a deeper connection to something beyond, etc. – are the very same issues that our ancient ancestors struggled with as well. Clearly the contemplative practices – like those borne out in yoga are old – Mohenjo-daro old – which makes it hard to know their ancient history.  In some way though,  it feels wonderful to partake in this very old, very primal tradition – to push my gaze inward as humans have been trying to do for millennia.

With a recognition of our mortality in mind, many contemplative and religious practices – just like yoga – are very much centered around making transitions or connections from the earthly body to the more pure and immortal spirit world.  White points out that for millennia, one universally intuitive way that humans would make such bridges was via ritualized sacrifices.  By offering animal, blood or other types of sacrifices to spiritual beings, early human cultures attempted to open a connection, offer appeasement or other intermediate linkage with the spirit world.

Interestingly, what seems to have happened at some point on the way to our modern yoga is that ritualized sacrifice morphed from the outward slaughter of an animal to an inward-looking type of self-sacrifice.  From Chapter 1 of TAB:

Within a few centuries of the composition of [the Satapatha Brahmana], a revolution in Indian thought would issue into the notion that humans too could internalize the sacrifice and thereby entirely bypass the mechanism of external sacrifice.  This inward turn, which would ground the entire gnostic and nondualist project of the Upanisads, also sowed the seeds for the innovation of a body of techniques for internal bodily transformation – i.e. for the practice of hatha yoga.

And from Chapter 9:

Of vital importance to the yogic tradition is the fact that the sacrificial fires in question are gathered together in one’s body.  There they serve as both a cremation pyre – by which the now-obsolete mundane, social body is shown to have truly died to the world – and, in the post-crematory existence of the sannyasin (the “renouncer”), as the seat of sacrifice, which has now been internalized.  It is here, in the inner fires of tapas, which fuel the offerings of one’s vital breaths in the inner sacrifice known as the pranagnihotra, that the practice of yoga very likely had its theoretical origins.

So perhaps at a very deep, very primal level, my yoga practice is a type of sacrifice – an ancient, hopeful attempt to make a connection with a spirituality or something larger and more everlasting than my flabby, aging body.  To recognize – most poignantly during “corpse pose” – that I am mortal, but wish not to be so.

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