Don't let me be lonely

Shanti-DevaThis morning I'm reading Shantideva- an 8th century text that will form a frame for this weekend's deeper practice meeting. I want to be clear about the deeper practice group: there is a 12 module syllabus, with a backbone of reading and personal study, that you go through. But each time I teach, I'll be teaching from those bones, differently. Each time I'll be introducing a different text or practice for us - for you - to work with. So you can start at anytime - the backbone is there for you to work with. It's a thread you pick up and follow, regardless of whether you can make every month this year or not, the thread is there. And you should come back: the changing skin and deeper textures and tones aren't things you could understand or live with one brush through. We're trying to create community, create a sanctuary of depth practice. That is a rare thing. I'll give you a certificate and you can register as a yoga teacher once you've completed the syllabus. But that is only the surface. Shantideva's text is a handbook for living the way.

We'll be using it because the heartwood of the book talks about the middle. The time after the honeymoon. We all fall a little in love with this practice, have moments of awe or startle or release. But those don't last. So it's important to tend to our practice, after the first fire has been lit. I think this is an important reflection for us to have, as teachers and students. How do you go on? How do you protect the practice and it's insights? How do you develop trust in the practice even when your body can't practice, or life throws you a little chaos, or you remember - because we're all going to have to remember - that there is such suffering in the world? What is the point of practice if there remains such suffering?

To me, Shantideva hears that hearts cry out: don't let me be lonely. Don't leave me. He understood, and he wrote this book.

I was talking with a friend who has had a lot of grief in his life, about my grief. We fumbled. Grief is such a hard question. It touches that bone: please don't leave me. We all want to feel secure, to feel love, to feel at home, to feel like ourselves. And we're all a little neurotic because at base, we know we might lose the job, or our health, or our family.

When we find a practice, we tend to think it'll stay. Just like when we fall in love or get a good job. We think we've finally found it.

Then life kicks in.

Shantideva helps. Come read with me, come sit. There are photocopies of Shantideva's chapters on the table in the prop room if you want to come. I want you to come.

Anyway, I came across this in one of the commentaries: bodhisattvas are passionate about awakening. I say again: this is a passionate practice. Wake up.

Guided Savasana and the Generous, Open Heart

I spur of the moment decided I should offer the Art of Self Care course a gusavaided savasana, and then couldn't figure how to host an mp3 on the forum, so it will live here.  Lucky you. Some of the most important work we do happens in savasana.  It's often seen as a time to rest.  It's sometimes simply called 'final relaxation pose'.  It's often skipped and students can spend years not really liking it, not feeling able to relax, or being uncomfortable with how silly it feels to lie down and do nothing, so vulnerable, such a place where tears are likely to come.

The fact that tears come in savasana might, though, be indicative of how psychologically important it is.



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In savasana, we are practicing.  We're practicing the final act of our lives.  We're practicing dying.  It's worth the time to try to die, well.  There is no point to the yogic path if it doesn't culminate in that moment.  The yogic path starts with that moment in mind.  The instructions for savasana are relatively simple: lie down and play dead.

We either minimize it or completely misunderstand it.  In our culture, death is portrayed as loss. It's the moment at which everything is taken from us.

From a mindfulness perspective, death isn't a loss but the moment we become supremely generous, and give ourselves completely.  In meditation, we work to realize the instinctive clinging of the mind and the limitations of perspective.  In savasana, we practice going so deeply into our own open hearted awareness that we can give back everything.  We give our weight back to gravity, first.  And then we give our breath back to the atmosphere.  Slowly, we give the heat of our blood away to the warm elements of the universe, and when they have gone and we are bone dry, we give our very dryness.  We give until we are not.  And this isn't a loss, but a moment in time.  It's the moment our greatest illusion passes out of our awareness and a next moment arises in its wake.

Many of us love postures, love a good yoga session, and bask in those sensations when it comes time to lie down.  But the real physiological and psychological work comes in the ability to feel what was turned on in us and allow them to be flipped back off.  Asana heal us and cause physiological transformation in the body.  But in order to really transform, we have to let the tools of transformation go.  If we don't, than we're rejecting the transformation in trying to be the person we were prior to transformation, in trying to hold on.  This is yoga philosophy, pure.

Savasana quiets any agitation out of the body.  Agitation or restlessness (is said to be one of the five hinderances to meditation or panca nirvavanas.  The other hinderances are sloth, doubt, and clinging or what I've been calling stickiness.  Stickiness can either be clinging to what we want, or the attempts we make to avoid what we don't.

Savasana brings equilibrium to the five tattvas of the body, corresponding to the five elements.  What belongs to privthi or earth becomes earthy again.  What is composed or flourishes with fluidity (such as the lymphatic system and the movement of Cerebrospinal Fluid and hormones through the endocrine system, especially the adryenal glands and the waters of the kidney line) is brought to an even tide.  Agni tattva, which lives in our blood, digestion, organs of perception especially the eyes, is clarified of it's oily burn and residual scum.  And akasha tattva, the space element, creates freedom for the mind heart to begin healing.

In somatic therapies, being able to sense how we hold ourselves against gravity and then allowing our movement through the world to become more of an embrace, a loving dance, is said to be the primary mechanism of healing.  That is, it's less about rearranging our insides or alignment than it is being able to feel our alignment, including our alignment in the world, and to finally recognize that how we move on the surface of the earth can be liberating or crushing.  Savasana is the absolute fulfillment of such somatic awakening.  Which is probably why Moshe Fedenkries had people lie that way for 16 minutes to release the psoas and rearrange absolutely everything.

Just try it.  Try it more than once.  Practice it for a long time.  If you want the yogic promises to start working in your body and heart, you can't skip it.  In a sense, it all starts with this.

from the pradipika:

Lying flat on the ground with the face upwards, in the manner of a dead body, is savasana.  It removes tiredness and enables the mind to relax.

Savasana is the corpse pose.  Shav means 'corpse'.  This asana has been adapted from the tantric practice of savasana in which the sadhaka sits on the corpse and practices his mantra.

This practice is useful for developing body awareness and pratyahara.  When the body is completely relaxed, awareness of the mind develops.  Its effects influence the physical as well as the psychological structure.  It is very useful in yogic management of high blood pressure, peptic ulcer, anxiety, hysteria, cancer and all psychosomatic diseases and neurosis.  In fact, savasana is beneficial no matter what the condition is, even in perfect health, because it brings up the latent impressions buried within the subconscious mind, and the mind which operates during waking consciousness relaxes and subsides.  It is, therefore, necessary to practice savasana for developing dharana and dhyana.  Even though it is a static pose it revitalizes the entire system.



Moving, into Still

I've spent weeks getting technical, workshopy, precise in my own practice and, I suppose, in my teaching.  I've taken one tiny aspect of a pose and approached it from standing, against a wall, lying down, and upside down.  I've done it over and over again.  I've practiced going in, coming out.  I've studied the anatomy and memorized terms, repercussions, hormonal shifts.  This is science, and craft, both. This morning I found myself practicing without technicalities. I woke early for it being a Saturday, the house still full of sleeping others, and without knowing why I'd woken or thinking much at all I cleared a space on my hardwood floor and I practiced. I practiced twice; after that first, whispery practice I went through my day: errands and people and breakfast and lunch and more errands, more cleaning.  Halfway though washing the windows I wanted to practice, again.  Both times I stepped into the first pose without much foresight, without a sequence jotted down or memorized.  There was no music, no plan, no reasoning.

I remembered, later, being a kid and the irrational, heady urge to simply run.  To run far and fast until my legs burned.  To swing and swing and swing until the hinges of the swing's chains seemed welded to my internal gravity and inner ear and rocking brain.  Back.  And forth.  I did this as a teenager, driving.  Just driving on and on.  I've watched others do it.  I've read about it.  Sufi mystics, those whirling dervishes, spin around and around and around until their thoughts surrender and their hearts take over and they find themselves dancing and tangled up and god. Runners talk like this.  And jazz musicians.

When you practice chanting, you repeat a word or a phrase over and over again until you chant yourself into silence.  When you practice movement, vinyasa, or flow, you move yourself into stillness.

I tend to believe all music, and all efforts at speech and communication, ultimately bend back to silence.  And all movement is wrapped up in stillness.  It is only noise, distraction, chattering mind and confusion that tell us otherwise.  We can stay caught up in the layers of noise forever, I think.  Like an argument that goes on and on, a tangled ball of yarn that can't be undone.  We can, and there is not anything particularly wrong or bad about this.  There is much to be said, and we should speak.  We should think, and reason, and plan, and create.

But we should also revere silence, and listen to it.  We can find rest in movement.  We should recognize the oxymoron of the awe-some world in which stillness is never really still, infinity is immediate, and words don't say anything at all.

I can and do often talk about what happens, on an anatomical and philosophical level, of what happens in a pose or a generalized practice.  Inversions do this, say.  Backbends open the heart and ease the spine; lateral bends tone the obliques and the intercostal and release the secondary muscles of respiration; twists press against our pancreas and thus regulate blood sucrose levels.

But it is an altogether different thing to simply say what it is I feel, when I practice.  It isn't a simple thing at all.  It can't be said, but felt.

The density of muscle and bone, a strange increase in their loudness and articulation, distinction, twitches and burns and deep releasing in places I hadn't felt at all, before.  A gravity, a heaviness, a weight and stillness and thud.  But under that heaviness a kind of rippling burn, an electrical wave of flying and thrilling and being energized.  A calm that is poised, more poised than feeling tired or spent or asleep.  But an awake that feels more firey than cocaine or coffee or fear, simple adrenalin, or any combination of them all.  There are lights inside my body, under the skin, and my stomach burns with something I don't quite know a name for.  Joy, perhaps.  It lurches and pinches.  Excitement.  Passion, surely.  It is a fire under the ass.

To practice in this way is to be lulled, to let the breath and the moving become a lullaby and the brain become mesmerized and swooned.  There is sinking, falling in, surrender.

And at the bottom of the breath there is a rising up again, more so.

When I practice this way, I hit a depth that is not always there, that seems elusive.  After a practice this way, the edges of things seem different for hours if not days afterwards.  Colors are brighter, as though my eyes had been covered with a scrim of sepia and brown, or are milky as a newborns, and suddenly I am given sight again.  The edges of pine needles, the fibers of blankets and carpets and denim, the roundness of grapes and the shout of sunshine riot as if springtime and noise had both been reinvented and updated and newly strut in their best shoes.

As if the depth sounded inside were reflected out there, too; all things have a terrible depth and profundity and it is luxurious just to dip your fingers in sudsy water or watch the droplets of water shimmering out of a garden hose.

Things have meaning, after all.


- expect lots of dynamic movement, moving meditation, focus on breath this week.

- practice, at least once, letting go of as much technicality and 'progress' as you possibly can, surrendering over and over and over again to moving with your breath.  Breathe more deeply.  Make your movements more full.  Give over to that place that is rhythmic and graceful and oddly, still.

- tratakam is candle watching, fire watching meditation.  Odd that such an ephemeral, never still thing should inspire such stillness and reflective states in us...and have done so throughout different eras and cultures.  Spend a few minutes staring into a flame and afterwards wonder about stillness and movement; notice how still and calm and steady and heavy the experience truly is, while not being 'still' at all.

-vinyasa your way to a dance, or while washing dishes, while walking, while rocking a child to sleep.

- pick a word, any word, and repeat it to yourself fifty times.  Or five hundred.  Until the word SOUNDS different, becomes nonsense, starts to mean something other than what you thought at first, or simply becomes silence.  Maybe because I'm a poet and words have always been magical to me, I remember doing this as a very young child.  I'd like to think all kids do it.  Maybe they don't.  If you did, remember that.

- Notice how dynamic savasana is.

- Try to keep ujjayi breath steady throughout a practice.  Notice, how at the end of practice, the breath itself has built up a momentum; it doesn't stop the moment you lie down in savasana.  It might take a few minutes to actually let that breath pattern go.  No particular lesson.  Just power.  Just awareness.  Just a new found respect for how freaking real pranayama is, outside of consciousness and what we say it is.




Ashtanga: Patanjali's 8 limbed path

It is impossible to say when or where yoga started.  It exists back in shadowy pre-recorded history and was, for the most part, handed down from one teacher to one student through face to face practices, not spiritual or historical texts, and not in holy books. But we do know something of what the earliest yogis were doing and looking for, what, in essence, yoga is: it is a set of proven, tested, accessible practices for bringing our bodies and minds to their fullest capacity and to ease human suffering.  Yoga is a path of liberation and souls on fire.  It is a path, if you will, of deep healing and soul work.  But it is more than identifying or ‘fixing’ what is wrong; it is also a means to find life beautiful, meaningful, and profound.

Those practices are not strictly physical, no matter how athletic the word ‘yoga’ has become in our culture.  Yogis realized that a ‘soul awake’ was a soul unfettered by fear and interpersonal conflict; living a good life involves not only a strong and properly functioning body but a deep sense of purpose and meaning, connectedness to others, right relationship with the world.  While we spend a lot of time talking about ‘balance’, ‘strength’, and ‘flexibility’ in our practice, we might catch glimpses of the fact that we’re not speaking of the physical body, only.  The physical is a mirror and truth teller of the interpersonal, the deeply personal, and the spirit.  Don’t underestimate the value of being balanced, strong, and flexible: these are the means to sift through the false to hit on what is true and meaningful.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the path is called Ashtanga Yoga (ashta, eight and anga, limb).  The Yoga Sutra is the oldest extant text on yoga practice and philosophy, but it is understood to be a compilation or summation of practices that were already ancient when Patanjali wrote them down.

Some say the eight limbs are like a ladder one can climb toward enlightenment.  Some say that traditionally, a student would spend years mastering the first two limbs – ethics and personal observances – before he’d be ‘ready’ to begin a physical practice.  There is some truth to the idea that the limbs are progressive, as step; a student truly integrates the physical asanas only once the elements of ethics and personal practices have been glimpsed.  Many point out that the word asana, which we generally translate to ‘yoga pose’ or ‘yoga posture’ literally translates to ‘seat’, as in the seat one takes to meditate.  The point of each and every pose was to prepare the body and open it to a meditative experience.

But no spiritual path has a beginning or an end so much as it does aspects or variations on major themes, like verses and chorus of a song.  Or the inhaling and exhaling of the breath, the rising and setting of the sun. The process is organic, rhythmic, and cyclical.

Truly, one can enter anywhere.

One day, a student approached me after her very first class.  She called it amazing.  Life changing.

I believe that it is.  And I believe that she had touched and experienced many of the 8 limbs in a single class, although she wouldn’t have any reason to know that’s what she was doing or that these things have Sanskrit names, each with thousands of exercises and practices and theories attached to it.

She simply felt it.  She felt the effects of expanding and opening her body, compressing the glands in asana; she felt the immediate, energizing effect of rapid abdominal breathing and the calming, grounding effects of slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths (pranayama); when she focused her attention on the breath in our centering meditations, she is withdrawing her mind from external stimulation (pratyahara); when I guide her to use a mantra or listen to her breathing during the holding of a pose, she is concentrating (dharana).  During the holding, if she follows her intuitive sense and my cues to stay in touch with the sensations happening in her body, her mind is absorbed and she is meditating (dhyana); there may be times during the holding or releasing of a posture when she touches on, glimpses, or is washed with the deeply healing state known as samadhi.

Interestingly enough, Patanjali starts not with promises or should and oughts.  There is no description of god or the meaning of life, no attempt to make you believe anything at all. He starts, instead, by listing the ways human beings suffer and the mental/emotional/physical ramifications or symptoms of that suffering.  Yoga, he says, is the calming of sufferings.

We touch on the experience of yoga without having to know the whole philosophical system or intending to re-wire our brain or balance our pancreas.  Those things just happen.  That student may or may not have understood that yoga is a prescription, a positive how-to list, in the treatment of anxieties and depressions and physical diseases, a path toward whole.  It is a systematic and proven process.  Yet it is enough to simply experience and know you feel better for days after a practice, and that’s maybe all any of us need.

But knowing the limbs exist invites us to a new depth of the practice, a way to circle around and around again until we hit revelation. And then start over again, because there is more revelation. It is a path, a prescription, that has been followed by billions of people; we can trust their experience.  We are given good directions and a ladder to grab on to, if not to climb.  Ladders, things to grab on to, are sometimes hard to find in our shiftless, startling world.

Over and over again, spiritual paths and spiritual truths will teach a humbling reality: it isn’t a thing you understand or philosophize about; it’s a thing you must do.

The path of yoga begins in acknowledging reality: this being human is difficult.  Like the Buddhist first noble truth (Life is Suffering) it could be seen as a bitter pill, a hard way to look at life.  It is.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that revolution is possible.  There are ways out of suffering.  It is entirely possible to approach your own potential and fulfillment.  A purposeful, deep and richly nuanced life is both the goal and the path yoga takes us down to reach that goal.  Yoga is perhaps unique in that it doesn’t start with the origins of the universe, the ends of the world, or explaining human relatedness to the divine.  There is little point, yoga says, in trying to wrap our faulty minds around things that are larger than those faulty minds.  There is power in the here and now, in unraveling illusions and abstractions to the solid abiding ground beneath.

The First Limb: Yamas

The heart of yoga is ethical.  It recognizes the absolute truth of interrelation, connection, and disconnection.  We are hardwired to desire understanding, compassion, forgiveness, love, and laughter, as well as a sense of justice.  Most, if not all, of our pains in life come from misunderstanding our self and our connection.  Most suffering is an experience of being alone, unworthy, separate, as though we are viewing life through a window and cannot touch or hear or live as we suspect others do, or we ourselves should.

Yoga seeks to lay down palpable ways to disentangle ourselves from a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, shame, anger, and greed.  To reveal the false self for the true.

The word yama translates to restraint.  There is an element to ‘self-control’ or moderating our own desires and motives to a bigger picture, and in many ways this is hard to swallow.

But it is a way to be more happy, more free, and more in touch with our core.  They invoke a self that is confidant, unafraid, with depth of character and inner resources.  They way we behave in our relationships – and our ability to change our behaviors to act in accordance with compassion and regard – is ultimately a self-loving and self-enlarging thing to do.  As we change our behaviors and ethics, our souls are able to be more at ease.  Imagine what it would be like to walk through the world without shame.

The Yamas are five:

Ahimsa: non harming

Satya: truthfulness and non-lying

Asteya: nonstealing, not craving or keeping what does not belong to you

Bramacharya: chastity or continence, usually sexual or interrelational

Aparigraha: greedlessness, non-hording

The Second Limb: Niyamas

If the first limb concerns our relationships to others and to world, the second limb is usually seen as indicative of our relationship to our self.  It involves our private practices, our solitude, our self regard and self mastery.  Each of the niyamas can be an endless practice (or diagnostic, or exploration) on its own.  Each can be taken very strictly and literally, or endlessly unfurl into sublte layers of meaning and intention.  For example, shauca, purity, is all fine and well as an abstract concept.  But it becomes a lived thing if one actually decides to practice making one’s bed every day.  The idea is so simple as to be laughable.  But the smallest practices tend to have enormous effect on our experience moment by moment, and the tiny pepples add up to gravel that becomes a road that lead to an altogether different life.

Shauca: purity (of body, of mind)

Santosha: contentment with oneself and one’s life exactly as it is in this moment, including self acceptance

Tapas: austerity, fire, heat or zeal

Svadhyaya: self study

Ishvara-pradnidhana: surrender to the Whole, Real, God, or the It-Is.

The Third Limb: Asana

This is what most of us today tend to think of when we think of yoga; those series of postures that stretch, heal, invigorate and remodel our physical selves.  They are both a science and an art.  It is astounding how profound the study of the body can be, and how western medicine continues to realize the limitations and misconceptions we’ve had for centuries about what this being human, this human body, means.

The physical postures are one branch of an eight limbed path (similar and related to the Buddhist 8 fold path); further, while the physical practices do increase health, improve immunity, foster longevity and allow, with practice, a heightened sense of be-ing and moving in the world, the aim was not some kind of Olympic athleticism.  The aim was wholeness.  A purely physical path is not whole.

Although it is a way to begin.

A yoga teacher friend and I were chatting, and he talked for a long time about his other job as a psychotherapist.  In particular, he talked about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the practice of learning to identify thoughts and feelings rather than be reactive to them, the power of knowing one’s own mind (and it’s false beliefs or cruelty to the self and others).  He spoke of how our emotional or cognitive set of patterns deeply affects our physical bodies.  This isn’t new.  It’s science.  The way we think changes both our immediate biochemical reality and has the power to literally form or deform our physical tissues.  The body, he said, is attentive to every thought the brain has.

Yes, I said.  But the brain is also very attentive to the body.

The secret is you can work both ways.  You can enter, anywhere.


The Fourth Limb: Pranayama

restraint or training of the breath.  Yogis recognized that the breath is both a root source of our being-aliveness and a easy way to observe and participate in that aliveness.  They learned the experiential reality that an awareness of and participation in the breath can influence our health, energy levels, and mood in ways that nutrition, exercise, and cognitive thought simply cannot do.

The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara

withdrawal of the senses.  Looking within, sensitivity to internal processes and patterns, finding the inner witness.  In a world where we constantly look without for answers and direction, where we identify ourselves as the objects and events of our lives, pratyahara is a radical practice.  It teaches the root truth of how impermanent objects and events are, and how an over identification with them leads to pain.  It also reveals a level of constancy, depth, and unchanging in the midst of chaos.  We are conditioned beings, and often react rather than respond to ourselves and our world.  We have brains that categorize, evaluate, and judge.  The practices of pratyahara teach us to step away from judgement and rest in a place that is beyond judgement and can see whole pictures, as opposed to dualities of black and white, good or bad.  With time, withdrawal of the senses leads to increased discretion, discernment, and compassion.  It is a heart of equanimity.  We become able to respond, rather than react.  Our beings become like the depth of the ocean, rather than the surface of ripples and waves.

The Sixth Limb: Dharana

Intense focus, building of concentration and discernment; the ability to think and see clearly, to heighten one’s powers of thought and cognitive ability, free us from all the layers of misperception and avidya (blindness).  It is interesting that many people think of yoga and meditative or mystic traditions as turning off the mind, when the truth is the practices aim for clarity of mind and right thinking and seeing.  Science is showing in remarkable ways that yoga actually works to change or improve our intelligence; areas of the brain we typically use or do not use actually change with eight weeks of a regular practice; ability to access ‘subconscious’ levels of intuition, insight, memory and self awareness increase.  Study after study shows that a yoga practice improves school and work performance.

The Seventh Limb: Dhyana

Related to the ability to focus and concentrate is the state of Dhyana, or meditation.  We could say that meditation is a deeper level of concentration, but that might lead to judgements of better or worse.  Instead, Dhyana implies a different way of being, not a better one.  Again, science is proving that contemplative states and mindful movements actually result in changed brain waves and cause restorative, rejuvenating processes to happen across the body and mind that are in some ways more profound than REM sleep.  The mysterious ‘gray matter’ of our brains lights up with all sorts of things we can’t identify, yet.  Theta brain waves – unconscious, according to our western science – are increased.  Areas of the brain connected to empathy and compassion flare up and stay more active for days after a practice, and long term meditators seem to have access to this state more quickly, more profoundly, and more frequently.  The hemispheres of the brain increase their communication, balancing our analytic and creative selves, our introversion and extroversion urges, our states of creativity and experiences of ease all increase.

The Eighth Limb: Samadhi

state of oneness or bliss.  We may have touched on moments in our life in which we felt ourselves absolutely alive and deeply connected or in tune with the universe.  Science calls it peak performance or the flow state.  It might be stumbled upon in the most mundane of activities or cultivated through practice.  It’s heart is a genuine recognition of ‘okayness’ and even more than okayness; an understanding or affinity for beauty, power, the order of the cosmos.  A friend describes his first experience of samadhi in the summer of his junior college year, when most of his peers were away and he was engaged to paint and upkeep a professor’s home.  The long, repetitive, rhythmic days spent alone in the sunshine, touched by the sounds and the schedules of birds and insects, drifting on the sensations of sun on his skin, summer grasses in his breath, and long periods of uninterrupted, moony thought peaked in a sense of aliveness that was both cognitive and physical.  Call it epiphany.  It is what Einstein chased after in his long hours of solitude drifting in a little sailboat.  What Beethoven heard – even though he was stone deaf – as he composed his 9th symphony.  It is very nearly an experience of feeling ourselves more than we typically do – the human animal or soul in all its beauty.  Many experience it as a connection to god.  But it may also be a connection to an infant or a puppy or a sunset.  This state, according to yoga, is the ground of who we are.  It is true and trustworthy.  It is a recognition of oneness and a moment of living beyond fear.

Pranayama or meditation on the breath

Class notes, April 22 2012 Doubt, fear, and wondering how to live our best life are essential parts of being human.  So, too, are experiences of deep love and reverence such as we feel in the face of beauty, a loved one, a stunning human achievement or a breathtaking moment of raw nature.  Those experiences, as well as all of our internal drives and longings, form what have been known throughout time as ‘spiritual paths’.

So often we experience this path as one of confusion or loneliness.  So often we find the very places we go for answers confusing or alienating because they may not answer the questions for us. This is painful.  But in pain, just as in physical illness, there is an element of healing and wisdom: we feel pain because we also know something that is not pain, even if it’s shadowy and hard to define.

One of the difficulties of spiritual paths is that we can’t take the paths of others.  There is a paradox, here: it is difficult, but also the root of its most endearing promise:  there is a spiritual path and a way that is very much ‘for us’, a way of answering our longings that is absolutely personal and unshakeable. We do best on the spiritual path, weather in a traditional religious setting or as we try to pick ourselves up off the couch, not by becoming a worshipful devotee of any particular teacher, but by seeking our own inner center and thus tapping perennial, universal wisdom directly. Ourselves.  Wisdom is not a thing that can be taught.  It is a thing we must discover and understand on our own.

One of the funniest things about human beings is that each of us possesses a vast potential for expanding our awareness in ways that bring great insight, joy, peace, and fulfillment to our lives – yet we habitually maintain our consciousness in tightly woven grooves.  We stay distanced from our deeper spiritual nature and potential.  We live in a strange kind of exile from our own true self.

The first and most obvious way to see this is by looking at our relationship to our own breathing.  It’s been known for thousands of years – known to every human culture in history – that the simple act of being aware of our breathing transforms our lives for the better.

Furthermore, there is nothing inherent in our bodies or our circumstances that stops us from devoting a part of our awareness, however small, to our breathing experience moment by moment.  We would feel better, function at higher levels, and be more efficient and healthy if we gave our breathing some attention.  But even so, most of us go around with our minds entirely oblivious to our body’s root source of pleasure and inspiration.

The word inspiration means “to be breathed” or “to be breathed into”: to have the flood of insight, intuition, god, beauty, or art, fill us up.

We are meant to be filled up.  We are meant to experience joy.  We are meant to feel a whole range of emotions and to experience ourselves as alive and inspired.

Think, for a moment, of the way your brain and your body feels after an intense period of laughter.  Or after singing your heart out while driving your car.  Or after an orgasm.  Think of the physical sensations of breathing after an intense, grief struck crying jag.  Remember the feelings that wash over you after panic or fear has passed.  It feels good to breathe then.  It may not be conscious.  It might not be something we’d think about or name.  But our breath has changed. We feel it.


The primary psychological insight into the power of meditation is that spiritual awakening, the flow state, and moments of feeling ‘on’ or entirely ‘with it’ only happen in the immediacy of the present moment.  In fact, all human feelings and experiences happen only here, and right now.  Even memories are a way of re-experiencing something that happened, in the present.  Fear, worry, daydreaming or planning are all ways of experiencing the future, in the present, not an actual or reliable prediction of what will actually occur.  The present moment is the only place where we encounter both the inner world and the outside world immediately and together.

And nothing grounds us so deeply and immediately in the present moment as an ongoing awareness of our breath.


The following brief exercises sum up and borrow from classic breath work (pranayama – the next essay will explore what prana and yama mean) or breathing meditations proven by science and thousands of years of spiritual seeking.  Every single one aims to bring you back to your own path, back to your own breath.


The primary culprit that makes ‘meditating’ so hard and us so stressful is the tendency of the thinking mind to drift away from the here and now into memories, imaginings, plannings, judgements, or thoughts about thoughts.  We judge our own thoughts even as we are thinking them.  And we judge the input coming to us from our senses – both inner and outer experience – constantly.  Driven by our flustered ego’s attempts to navigate and control these storms, we spend most of our days and most of our lives lost in often conflicting, self-defeating, or just plain unreasonable ways of thinking.  We problem solve our way toward success, worry about the future, plan our next move, daydream about being somewhere else.

The initial challenge in meditating, then, is to learn ways to shift some of our attention away from past-future fixation and regain precious breathing space in the here and now.  To be less thrown about by the tantrums of ego, so that we can touch a bit of the ‘something more’ indicated by our questions and longings and true self.

This is not to say we should judge our minds for being minds.  Minds are brilliant.  They have tremendous power.  Mind has beauty and subtleties the most advanced computers and neuroscience are at a complete loss to understand.  The trouble is not that we have minds, but that we ask our minds to do things that are not its job.

Meditation will not take your mind or brilliant thoughts away.  It is not a disparagement of creativity or intelligence. In fact, it will hone your powers of concentration, intuition, memory, and creativity; so that when you want to think you can think more clearly.  Meditation doesn’t belittle the mind.  It just gives it a rightful role to play.

Many of us think of meditation as something we need time to do, or need a quiet mind and peaceful body to accomplish.  So we put it off.  We think of ‘meditatation’ as something Buddhist monks do, or starry eyed hippies, just as we tend to think of ‘spirituality’ as something handed down by special people or found in sacred spaces, written down in ancient books.  We don’t think of ourselves as saints or mystics.  That view, an unfortunate correlate of religion, culture, and self doubt, forgets that all spiritual insight and every vision of truth, every single yoga pose, was discovered by a human being.  You are a human being; you have this same capacity.

It might be better to think of meditation as a kind of awareness or consciousness that is a constant; it is there every moment of our lives.  It is an inborn part of us that has been forgotten, dismissed, or willfully silenced.  Meditation is simply learning to letting ourselves become a little more conscious, wheneve

whenever we want to.  While washing dishes, while practicing yoga, while walking.

Think of it as of being aware of your breathing at any time, in any situation.  Like right now, for example.

At this very moment, you are only one effortless expansion of awareness away from being on your way to the infinite.  As you continue reading, simply allow your awareness to expand.  Without any effort at all your attention can spill wider to also include the actual physical sensations you’re feeling in your nose and your mouth, as the current of air you’re breathing rushes in…and rushes out…and rushes in again…

As you continue breathing and reading at the same time, notice that you don’t need to change what you’re doing in order to experience consciousness expansion.  Nor must you make any effort to expand your consciousness a little further to include more and more of the present moment.  You can continue reading, become aware of your breath, and then become aware of your body in a particular position, a particular place, any sounds or absence of sounds around you, any movements in your body or around you.  Your breath just keeps rushing in….and rushing out…and rushing in again…

Consciousness wants to expand.  That is it’s nature.

As you read these words and at the same time experience your breathing rushing in and rushing back out again, you are meditating.  You can deepen that meditation at any time.  Indeed, for the rest of your life, no matter what you’re doing, you can develop this primal and human capacity to be aware of your breathing; you can merge breath meditation and the rest of your life into one seamless whole.


Pause and reflect

You might want to pause a few moments after reading this paragraph, to put these words aside….let go of words for a bit…stretch perhaps to bring your awareness to your whole body…and gently become a witness to your own breathing…tune in to the actual sensations at the tip of your nose…at the upper lip…on the inner lining of the nose and into the mouth…as the air rushes in…and leaves your body completely…and then rushes in one more time…notice how each breath is slightly different….there is no one breath repeated over and over, but small shifts in fluidity, in texture, in sound, in depth…every breath you ever breathe will be unique as a snowflake…rushing in…and rushing back out of you…before it rushes in…again…and again…you may expand your awareness to include the movements in your chest, your ribcage, your belly as you breathe…give yourself permission to enjoy yourself…for the next 10 seconds…or 10 minutes…or any time you want…be open to a new experience as you are open to a new breath…not something you do…but something you simply allow  and accept as a gift…



Yoga and breath

Imagine a spiritually focused culture.  Because we are a materially based culture, this is nearly incomprehensible and impossible to take seriously.  Try.  In this culture, the most brilliant minds of each new generation, for hundreds of generations, accepted as their primary occupation the challenge of observing, from the inside out, the workings of the human mind and body, spirit and soul.

When we explore the ancient  meditative tradition, we’re accessing the accumulated discoveries and reflections of hundreds of thousands of brilliant human beings.  Human beings who devoted their entire lives to looking inward, employing the tool of consciousness itself, to explore how it is and why it is and how different things affect it.

One of the first things the yoga tradition discovered was that most human beings do not come anywhere near living to their fullest potential.

The second thing they discovered was that virtually all human beings can.  It doesn’t require genius or wealth or physical giftedness.

Yoga is the practice of waking your soul – your very own soul - in this lifetime.

In yogic teachings, the wisdom runs from the most obvious to the most sublime and difficult to understand.  Indeed, some of the Vedic texts or the yoga sutras venture into some of the most revolutionary mystic teachings in human history.  Some of the yogic accomplishments – twisting into pretzels, walking on coals, living in the winter mountains without anything but one’s internal heat to survive – are baffling to science and yet proven by that science.  But over and over again, the teaching of yoga is that it begins at the beginning, at the most basic.  The wisdom is present at all times.  It rides on the breath.

Patanjali, said to be the author of the Yoga Sutras, suggested that at the beginning a student observe the breath experience by noticing specifically:

When you are inhaling

When you are exhaling

And when you are temporarily paused in breathing (suspension)

Pranayama as taught in traditional yoga involves concentrating on each of these three phases of the breathing experience in turn.  By observing more closely, you discover a universe of experiential subtly in each.  The art, or energy, or process of attention reveals the incredible nature of what is already there and already real in each moment.

In pranayama training, you also develop the ability to control each of the three breath phrases.  As you consciously vary the ratios (remember that you are literally intaking oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide, influencing the biomechanics of every cell and tissue in your body, starting with the brain), you learn to quickly change your energetic state.  That means you can change the levels of energy, ability to focus or concentrate, ability to relax, ability to enjoy, ability to sleep or feel or experience a piece of music…

Patanjali, following the ancient yogic formula for breath control, called the inhalation by the Sanskrit term puraka, the suspended or paused breath kumbhaka, and the exhalation rechaka.  Let’s take a moment to explore each in turn.

Inhale: Puraka

As you go on with your reading, for your next few breaths notice especially your inhales…notice how the air flows in through your nose and  the channel of your throat.  Notice how your stomach relaxes and moves outward, your chest expands, and your upper back and ribcage move outward…

The inhale is primarily a process of expansion.  Your diaphragm muscle under your lungs contracts downward, and your rib cage muscles expand to create a relative vacuum inside your two lungs, thus making air from the outside come rushing into your lungs.  Therefore, many traditions and have likened the inhale to the expansive nature of the universe.  As you develop the ability to feel more and more subtle sensations in your body, you may notice that every bone in your body externally rotates on and inhale…the whole of your skeleton is expanding…

Scientifically speaking, it is not our muscles nor our self that is breathing: it is a process of atmospheric pressure that our body participates and responds to.  It is more accurate to say that the air – the universe – is breathing us than to say “I am breathing”.  Meditations on the breath reveal us to be a part of the universal symphony, a response to the ebb and flow of cosmic shifts.  This is both humbling and, at times, beautifully empowering.

Pause and experience:

For the next few breaths, inhale strongly and deeply through the nose….feel your nostrils flare out and expand to take in more air…feel your chest expand rapidly…perhaps sit or stand more upright…notice how your physical body might change…your thoughts might shift…the physical sensation of being alive (aka your mood) changes when you breathe deeply, strongly, and fully.

The held breath: kumbhaka

The held breath occurs after the inhale or exhale is complete, and sometimes midbreath.

At the top of your inhale, a short held breath allows your lungs to absorb much more oxygen.  With that extra oxygen, your whole biochemical system becomes more energized and alert.  Holding the breath after the exhale leads to a deeper and deeper experience of emptiness.  In the Zen Buddhist tradition, the held breath after the exhale is of vital importance in letting go of ‘everything’ and being empty on a regular basis.  In our culture we tend to focus on being full and having a lot, not empty.  A regular meditation upon emptiness is of greatly liberating value.

Pause and experience:

After reading this paragraph, put the book aside and experiment with the Kumbhaka or suspended breath.  Hold your breath at the top of the inhale, simply for the count of one or two….then gently let the breath go.  Don’t feel you need to do this at the top of every breath.  Simply inhale and exhale without control or judgment for a few cycles…when you are ready, take an inhale…and allow yourself to pause just slightly, like a swing on the playground pausing at the top of its ascent before it comes down again…exhaling…so subtly there may not seem to be a ‘pause’ at all.   Experiment with repeating the hold for three inhales in a row…and then allow yourself to relax all control of your breath again…just noticing the difference.  Perhaps play with extending the pause…to the count of three or four…no more really than five…

Give yourself a minute or two to notice the effects of this and then consider exploring the pause at the bottom of the exhale…perhaps even the next time you practice, rather than now…any of these experiments can happen whenever you want them to…

Let yourself be fully empty for a slightly deeper count than you normally do…for a count of two or four…

Perhaps you want to explore holding the breath slightly at both the top and the bottom…

Whenever you feel complete or need to move on, allow yourself to let the inhales and the exhales go completely…coming and going at whatever speed they naturally want to…simply observing the breathing process for eight or ten or twelve breaths…and then letting all of it go…

The Exhale: Rechaka

The third stage of the breath, exhalation, is similar to the inhale in that it likes to be continuous and fluid.  The exhale is extremely important physiologically because it is active detoxification and connected to the parasympathetic (calming, rest and digest) nervous system.  Meditatively and philosophically, it is important because it reflects an emptying not only of the lungs but also of the mind.

As you become empty of air, and also of your usual thoughts and tendencies and self-senses, you will often experience your ego letting go its control of the mind.  This allows the wider consciousness room to breathe.  This allows more reality to enter your awareness.  It is often experienced as a unique awakening-rebirth experience that comes on the next inhale.  You can also use a focus on the exhale to breathe out (detoxify) emotional tensions, fears, doubts, or hang ups as you empty yourself of negative feelings…and experience the refreshment, the sustenance, the power of the next inhale.

Pause and experience:

After reading this paragraph, put away the book for a few moments and experiment for a few breaths as you focus on long, relaxed, exhales…and also hold the breath at the bottom of exhales, as you feel comfortable…see what it’s like to move toward emptiness…and then be empty of air…empty of thought…empty of need…empty of should and oughts…empty of your self….before the next inhale comes.

Yoga and Breathing Patterns

From that spiritually grounded Vedic culture, we have literally thousands of different breathing exercises and experiments connected with yogic practice.  Our modern science and medicine are providing their own thousands of different studies to show how breathing influences health and mood.  The practice of watching and exploring the breath is literally one that takes a lifetime.  For our purposes, here and now, it isn’t important to know all those details.  It is simply important to know that the way you breath affects you deeply, and that you can at any given moment in your life bring some awareness to how you breath and what you are experiencing.

In particular, it may help you to know that we each have a breathing ‘signature’ that is as unique to us as our handwritten signature.  While each breath is unique, we tend to have patterns.  For example, some people tend to inhale more quickly and fully than they exhale.  Others tend to breath through their mouth.  Most of us tend to breath with only the upper third of our lungs – which directly contributes to physical stress and emotional imbalance.

Generally speaking, inhales are energizing, uplifting, revitalizing; exhales are nourishing, grounding, calming, soothing.  This is not to say one is better than the other, but may help if you spend five minutes getting to know your own breathing pattern.  For example, I have lived with major depression most of my life: once I began studying my breath I realized my exhales are more than twice as long as my inhales.  Hence: grounding and calming are well and good, unless you become so grounded you are stuck in the mud and feel you can’t move, think, or speak.

One of the reasons yoga works – without you having to do or understand the science behind it – is because it balances the inhales and the exhales to a steady and equal count.

The simple (but not really so simple) act of balancing the breath will quickly generate deep reverberations throughout your being.  The most common way to balance the breathing is to inhale for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 4, and repeat.  See if you can do this for 12 breath – so that you fully calm and balance both the inhale and the exhale.

Some find it helpful to say “puraka…rechaka….puraka…rechaka…” rather than count.  Or even “inhaling…exhaling…inhaling…exhaling…” or even more simply “in….out….in…out.”  It’s up to you to find your best speed for counting, and the best way to count.  If you practice a few times, you may notice that it is a different count on different days…or easier to say inhale exhale…or to count to 12 breaths only…

You’re always in charge of pacing your own practice.

Pause and experience:

Give this a try, for eight breath cycles: inhale for 4 counts….exhale for 4 counts…and repeat.

At some point over the next week or two, invite yourself to get to know your own breath.  Ironically, even though it is perhaps the most important aspect of being alive, most of us have never stopped to inquire into our own breathing…or what it means to be one who breathes…

Give yourself a period of at least five minutes to simply count the way you breath, without trying to change or manipulate it in anyway.  Each of us breathes differently.  Count as you inhale…notice if you pause or not…and then count again as you exhale.  If you lose track or find your mind wandering, just notice that you’ve been distracted and start again (a kitchen timer or cell phone timer might help).

There is no right or wrong to this exercise.  It’s simply one more way of knowing the parts of who you are…and knowledge is always power.  How do you inhale…and how do you exhale….

This is your resting breath; the way you typically breath when you are sitting or standing still.  You may want to experiment with noticing how the counts change while you are walking or exercising.

You may want to check in with yourself in moments of anxiety, or sadness, or anger.  How do you breath, then?

There is no right, no wrong.  There is no amount of knowledge or one trick secret or breathing pattern that will suddenly make it all make sense, either.  There is only an effort to return, over and over again, to feeling the breath in your body.  Each time you do so will take your practice, and your life, to a new level.  It will flash backwards and give you insight into what has already happened in you and your practice, your moods and your energy.  It will flash forward and make the things we do in a yoga practice more profound and more interesting, a thousand new ways to grow deeper.

You will never know everything.  You will always know a little bit more.  That is your path.  To grow ever and ever more alive, more and more yourself.

Yoga will do nothing but help you.