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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

Nehru gandhi
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As much as I might fantasize, I know I’ll never attain the lofty state of Samadhi or enlightenment that purportedly comes with a lifetime of dedicated practice to yoga.  For one thing, my life presently revolves around raising my 2 children – meals, homework, sports practices, camps, yoga lessons etc. – leaving just a small amount of time to write and practice yoga.  This is, of course, far from the ideal ascetic life of a yogi on a mountaintop – even though the thought of all that peace and quiet seems, itself, rather divine.

Alas, I’m all too aware that to attain the “great inward awareness”, one must withdraw from the typical everyday routine and sequester to a place of solitude.  Mircea Eliade remarks in his book, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (p.45):

The resistance that the subconscious opposes to every act of renunciation and asceticism, to every act that could result in the emancipation of the Self, is, as it were, the token of the fear that the subconscious feels at the mere idea that the mass of as yet unmanifested latentcies could fail of their destiny, could be destroyed before having time to manifest and actualize themselves.

To me, this very dilemma – to step out of, or to renounce the world vs. to live and partake in it – is one that seems at the core of any aspiring yogi’s spiritual journey.  Eliade continues:

This thirst for actualization on the part of the vasanas is nevertheless interpenetrated by the thirst for extinction, for “repose”, that occurs at all levels of the cosmos.

Its a deep personal conflict for all of us.  The desire to focus oneself and seek simplicity and perfection vs. the desire to embrace the diverse workaday world with family, friends and always lots of fun stuff to do.  The conflict may even bubble up into discussions of national identity where some political leaders advocate a quiet, withdrawn, simple life (ie. Mohandas Gandhi) while others advocate an embrace of modernity and internationalism (ie. Jawaharlal Nehru).  Indeed, almost every country copes with some type of internal conflicts of religion vs. secularism – perhaps just a macroscopic side-effect of this deep personal conflict.

Of course, I’m not qualified to offer advice on these BIG questions, but much enjoyed a blog post by Mark Eckhardt’s Zen Bite column over at This Emotional Life.  He makes the case that attainment of “enlightenment” might not be THE final endpoint and that ascending the mountain is only HALF the journey.

Integrating your enlightenment is where the work really begins — this is “Descending the Mountain.” Doing so is humbling, often turbulent and requires that you face some tough realities. By this I mean that you accept the impact of your thoughts and actions on yourself and others.

Through regular practice, greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of ourselves develops. As this happens, the ability to detect a wider spectrum of emotional and psychological states makes it possible to take advantage of the small gap between thought and action.  In fact, neuroscience researchers have discovered that this is approximately 2/10 of a second — more than enough time to take or prevent action that otherwise would be unheard of. In Zen we refer to this as pausing and growing thoughtful, and it is the gateway to improved relationships, courage, inspiration and satisfaction.

So, it seems that I should try and climb the spiritual mountain (like Gandhi), and then come back into the world (like Nehru) and use the benefits – to live – rather than withdraw.  Perhaps just a little bit each day.

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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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The 14th Dalai Lama, a renowned Tibetan Buddhi...
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In this essay, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama addresses the question, “What possible benefit could there be for a scientific discipline such as neuroscience in engaging in dialogue with Buddhist contemplative tradition?”

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Mood Broadcasting
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Like many folks, I generally feel better ever since I started practicing yoga.  Outwardly, my body is (slowly) growing stronger and more flexible and perhaps (hopefully) soon, I’ll even lose a few pounds.  However, even if I was to convince myself that looked slimmer (skinny mirrors?), the only way to really know if I’ve lost weight, is to stand on a scale and record my weight each day (darn! no fatness lost so far).

That takes care of the body right – but what about the inner, emotional improvements I might be experiencing?  How to measure these?

Here are some mobile- and web-based tools to help one track one’s emotions.  Most of these websites, like Moodstats, Track Your Happiness, MoodJam, MoodMill, Finding Optimism and MoodLog seem to function as online diaries which keep a running tab on aspects of ones moods and emotions.  Perhaps such tools – if used over long durations – would enable one to verify a shift toward a less anxious and more contented inner feeling?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the real proof of “inner” progress would be that I had closed my computer and put away my mobile device and, rather, was outside enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.  Perhaps best to avoid mixing yoga and digital distractions.

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Samadhi Statue
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In some ways, the 8 limbs of yoga described in the yoga sutras, seem a bit like a ladder, rather than a concentric set of outreached arms or spokes on a wheel.  It seems like I’m working toward something.  But what?  I certainly feel healthier, and also enjoy the satisfaction of getting slightly more able (ever so slightly) to shift into new postures – so am quite motivated to continue the pursuit.  Perhaps this is how yoga got started eons ago?   Just a pursuit that – by trial and error – left its practitioners feeling more healthy, relaxed and more in touch with their outer and inner worlds?  But where does this path lead, if anywhere?

I was intrigued by a report published in 1973 by an 8-day study carried out on the grounds of the Ravindra Nath Tagore Medical College and Hospital, Udaipur, India and subsequent letter, “The Yogic claim of voluntary control over the heart beat: an unusual demonstration” published in the American Heart Journal, Volume 86 Number 2.  Apparently, a local yogi named Yogi Satyamurti:

Yogi Satyamurti, a sparsely built man of about 60 years of age, remained confined in a small underground pit for 8 days in what according to him was a state of “Samadhi,” or deep meditation, with all bodily activity cut down to the barest minimum.

The medical researchers had the yogi’s heart and other physiological functions under constant watch via electrical recording leads, and watched as the yogi’s heart slowed down (their equipment registered a flatline) a remained so for several days.  Upon opening up the pit, the researchers found:

The Yogi was found sitting in the same posture. One of us immediately went in to examine him. He was in a stuporous condition and was very cold (oral temperature was 34.8O C) [the same temperature as the earth around him].

After a few hours, the yogi had recovered from the experience and displayed normal physiological and behavioral function – despite 8 days underground (air supposedly seeped in from the sides of the pit) with no food or human contact!

An amazing feat indeed – one that has some scientists wondering about the psychology and physiology that occurs when advanced meditators sink into (very deep) states.  John Ding-E Young and Eugene Taylor explored this in an article entitled, “Meditation as a Voluntary Hypometabolic State of Biological Estivation” published in News Physiol. Sci., Volume 13, June 1998.   They  suggest that humans have a kind of latent capacity to enter a kind of dormant or  hibernation-like state that is similar to other mammals and even certain primates.

Meditation, a wakeful hypometabolic state of parasympathetic dominance, is compared with other hypometabolic conditions, such as sleep, hypnosis, and the torpor of hibernation. We conclude that there are many analogies between the physiology of long-term meditators and hibernators across the phylogenetic scale. These analogies further reinforce the idea that plasticity of consciousness remains a key factor in successful biological adaptation.

Practice, practice, practice – towards an ability to engage a latent evolutionary adaptation? Sounds hokey, but certainly an interesting idea worth exploring more in the future.

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Practice Yoga, Be Healthy! {EXPLORED}
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Have you ever noticed how everything healthy these days is “anti-oxidant” this and “anti-oxidant” that?  Green tea, dark chocolate, vitamin E and vitamin C – just to name a few.  Surely, its all the rage to be “anti” oxygen these days (indeed, there are currently 458 clinical trials open now for the study of anti-oxidants!).

But wait.  Isn’t oxygen the stuff we BREATHE?  Don’t we need it to live?  How can we be so “anti” oxidant?

Herein lies a very sobering chemical fact of life.  We need oxygen to breathe – while at the same time – the very same oxygen produces so-called reactive oxygen species (hydrogen peroxide, hypochlorous acid, and free radicals such as the hydroxyl radical and the superoxide anion) which cause damage to our lipids, proteins and even our genome.  What gives us life – also takes away life – a little bit each time we breathe.

Such is the basis for the healthy foods and myriad dietary supplements that (promise to) counteract and biochemically scavenge the toxic reactive oxygen molecules in our bodies.  But for the fact it would make me even fatter, I’d promptly say, “Bring on more dark chocolate!“.

But what if we could just forgo all those dietary supplements, and just USE LESS oxygen?  Might that be another way to enhance longevity and health?

With this thought in mind, I enjoyed a research article entitled, “Oxygen Consumption and Respiration Following Two Yoga Relaxation Techniques” by Drs. Shirley Telles, Satish Kumar Reddy and H. R. Nagendra from the Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, India.  The article was published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2000.

In their research article, the authors noted that – with practice – yoga can help an individual voluntarily lower their cardiac and metabolic levels.  A number of previous studies show that advanced meditators and yoga practitioners can lower their heart rate and respirations to astonishingly low levels (more posts on this to come).  The scientists in this study asked simply whether a relatively brief 22min routine of “cyclic meditation” (CM) consisting of yoga postures interspersed with periods of supine rest led to a greater reduction in oxygen consumption when compared to 22mins of supine rest (shavasana or SH).  Their question is relevant to the life-giving/damaging effects of oxygen, because a lower metabolic rate means one is using less oxygen.  According to the authors:

“We hypothesized that because cyclic meditation (CM) has repetitive cycles of ‘activating’ and ‘calming’ practices, based on the idea from the ancient texts, as discussed earlier, practicing CM would cause greater relaxation compared with supine rest in shavasan (SH).”

In the results and discussion of the data, they found (using a sample of 40 male adults) that the when they measured oxygen consumption at the beginning and at the end of the session, that the yoga postures/rest routine (CM) resulted in a 32% reduction in oxygen consumption (this is the amount of oxygen used when sitting still at the end of the session) while just laying in shavasana led to only a 10% reduction in the amount of oxygen used at the end of the session.

Wow!  So even after moving through postures – which admittedly gets one’s heart pumping and elevates one’s breathing – I would be using less oxygen (when sitting at the end of the session), than if I had just decided to lay in a supine position.  In this instance, I guess I may be using more oxygen overall during the session, but perhaps would be glad to improve the efficiency of my breathing – and intake of oxygen – in the long run (after many years of practice I’m sure).  Maybe this is a physiological/biochemical basis for the longevity-promoting benefits of yoga?

How does the effect work?  Does the act of moving in and out of postures engage the sympathetic nervous system (something not observed for shavasana)?   Much to explore here.  The authors point out that these effects on improving the efficiency of breathing and oxygen consumption may not be specific to yoga, but to any MODERATE exercise regimen, where exercise and some sort of mental focus is practiced (Tai Chi for example).

Move and pay attention to your breath.  I will keep this in mind tonight in my beginners class.  By the way, there are currently 93 clinical trials involving yoga!

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3rd Dalai Lama,
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Just a few excerpts from a lecture by the renown social psychologist Paul Ekman who is known for his work on the biology of human emotion.  Here he relates conceptual bridges between the writings of Charles Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama.  Ekman notes that both Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama intuit the existence of an organic natural source of compassion wherein humans are compelled to relieve the suffering of others so that the discomfort we feel when seeing others in pain can be relieved.  HH The Dalai Lama further suggests that these emotions are spontaneous, but compassion can be enhanced through PRACTICE!

Seems that science and ancient traditions can have a fascinating way of re-informing each other.

(more…)

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