Guru Purnima

As the sun sets tonight, I plan on making my way outside to sit in the moon.  Tonight is Guru Purnima: a time in which the 'guru principal', or that which dispels darkness and wakes us up, is a thousand times stronger than any other day.  Traditionally, this night marks a time of honoring spiritual and academic teachers.  The ones who saw us, lit us up, called us out. According to Buddhist tradition, Buddha gave his first public sermon on this night.  According to the yogic tradition, Shiva became a teacher on this day, and Vyasa, the author of the sacred Mahabarata, was born.

I think of the nights I've spent laying flowers and candles at the feet of teachers.  But I also think of the happenstance people who've helped me on this path, whether they knew it or not.  Whether I knew it, or not.  My folks who didn't know if it was a decent career goal, but supported my trying.  The girlfriend who pulled me into a class.  My mentors who've said, go and see.  Teachers who held space for me to doubt, to cry, to fly and to fall.  In busstops and church basements.  In doctor's offices and university hallways.  In a parked car, while we tried to get to the bottom of it or simply sat back in quiet wonder.

We are so lucky.  So privileged.  That at some point, a path was shown to us.  Take a moment tonight to light a candle, touch on gratitude, do a little puja (ceremony) to recall the folks, living or dead, who held the light before you.  Thank god, we've been inspired.  Good gracious, but we've been ignited.  Soak in the principal of light, the dispelling of darkness, the possibility of waking up.  Gratitude to the moon, who ignites women and sages and seekers, those who don't believe the dark is impenetrable.  May we all know this inner light.  May we never think it ends.

Come chant with me tomorrow morning, and feel the light of bones.

guru purnima

Asana: psalm of the flesh

"Enter eagerly into the treasure house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure house of heaven...The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you."  sixth century Christian mystic St. Issac the Syrian

handsI'm faced with this problem:

I teach, mostly, asana.

I tell people the asana don't really matter; yoga begins with a desire to wake up, with ethics and personal observance, with self study and commitment.

And I tell them the way is through asana.

You see the problem.  I'm contradicting myself.

We all walk into yoga knowing it has to do with postures.  A few of us figure out, along the way, that yoga has nothing to do with postures.  If we've made the commitment to a regular practice, if we keep knocking on that door of the body, if we practice when we are tired and when we've not slept well and when we don't want to, practice when we're too busy and when we're happy enough without it, eventually we feel joy come to answer the knocking.  Joy erupts as deeply as an orgasm and as incorrigibly as age.  Grace only ever happens in real time.

But those things - ethics, commitment, self study - remain abstract for most humans.  Asana offer a discipline, an opportunity, a path. Maybe a ladder.  They give a way in to meditation, to healing, and to the present moment.  Most of us wouldn't have the guts or the time to get there on our own.  Asana is the teacher, is the commitment.  Asana is the guru.

We show up and are prodded into the present moment.

The body lives in the present.  When you are aware of the body, you are connected.  To what I won't bother to say.  Maybe the global throb of life.  The on-goingness of it.  The truth of dailyness.  Eternity.  God.  An underlying okayness. The realization of how small and irreal your hang-ups are, considering reality.  How big they are, as hang-ups.  The present, via the body moving and the mind watching, will reveal the stories you tell yourself day in and day out.  If you manage to trace edges with your breath and your toes, the present will prove to you that these stories are untruths.  Half truths at best.  Signals of compromise.  Misunderstandings. vaparita dwi pada dandasana

The present, via the body, is the one place from which you can see reality.  Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

Pema Chodon writes "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man's land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die, over and over again."

Asana throw us directly into no-man's land.

I think that is where we need to be.


The simplest explanation for why, in the eight limbed path, there are asana is this: if you want to reach the inner self, you have to go through the self.  It is hard to feel alive, let alone awake, if you are stuck in a body that is unwell.  If you want to go the depths of who you are and what you are capable of, it helps if your most immediate and constant tool - ie flesh and blood - become resource rather than hindrance.

It is hard to find reality if you are unaware of your own heartbeat.

So the body itself becomes an object for meditation.  The body itself is medicinal, therapeutic.  Asana provide a genuine high and a refuge.  Asana gives us a place to go.  It lays out pathways and intricacies of mastery and skill.  They strengthen and sooth, open and release.

ardha padma uttanasanaBut there is something more than the simple explanations.

If we can manage to show up in the body, to drop in, we experience.  We feel something.  Something is known that wasn't known before.

Because it is body - or whatever it is that is real inside and outside the body -  it is not a thing of the mind.  Language can only approximate it.  Like love, asana is a thing that has to be experienced, rather than talked about.  Also like love, asana is expressed in metaphor and poetry.  It involves ecstatic release, profound rest, changed brainwaves.  Like love, the entirety of the experience can never be understood from the outside.

But we've touched something.  It's eerie at times.  The fact that there is something there.  To reality.  To body.  This isn't necessarily what we came looking for.


A deeper understanding reveals itself.  Our brain is everywhere the nerves go.  Heart is everywhere the blood is.  The practice of asana teaches fairly quickly that our bodies are much more complex, or perhaps more stiff, than we'd known.  What we took for granted, as reality, as limitation, proves to be conditioning or simply a  process we haven't completed, yet.  It also teaches, in little shivers of recognition, that we can know our bodies more profoundly.  Where body is, mind and heart and emotion can go.  Meditation and awareness can go deeper.  What was unconscious in us is brought closer.

If the simple reason for asana is clarification and refinement of the body, the more complex reason is the fact that bodies are our most direct route to reality and its depths.  Deep involvement and attention to asana brings us directly to (perhaps, perhaps...through...) mind and it's shadows.  You can't work physical patterns very long without banging smack up against psychological patterns.  namaste

You cannot practice asana for long without having to acknowledge that even mind and emotion, urge and insight, knowledge and clarity, are more profound and shadowy than you thought.  In the deep silence underlying your breath, you'll recognize you're facing a door.  To enter possibility, to to turn away.  The pose begins exactly as you most want to leave it.


Psalms, songs, beatitudes, and prayer are all words that come to mind when I try to write about asana.  There seems to be no more literal way to commune than to examine what it is we do with our hands, or to open our heart.  To touch gratitude, acceptance, dedication.  It is one thing to understand such concepts.  Another, deeper thing, to embody it.

sirsanaI teach asana.  Sometimes I can hear resistance and disbelief roaring out of my students bodies.  My foot, where?  The hell you say.  I practice asana, and I hear that same roar inside myself.  Here I am, lurching through no-man's land, all over again.  But it has been in asana, in that very place of disbelief and breath, that revelation comes.  There have been times I seem to break through in a pose I've done for years; the body shifts a millimeter, perception gets brighter, it seems there is bliss inside the hamstring. There have been other times, crumpled on the mat with my knee no where near where it's supposed to be, that fear has been revealed.  Or longing.  Absolute surrender and behind the surrender the sensations which are moody and pithy and cogent and altogether sweet.  There's the thought I didn't know I could feel this.  There are poses, too, that I have doggedly practiced - without success - for months and months and years on end without much believing I'll ever truly get there.  When suddenly, I am there.  The foot lifts.  The rib moves out of the way.  The heart stretches.

We have potential in our gristle.  The root truth is this: if we experience pleasure, pleasure is experienced through the body.  If we experience fear, grief, or longing, it is because our physicality has been shifted and touched in fine or blatant ways.  If we honestly desire health, wellbeing, contentment, it must involve the chemistry and patterns of hormones, digestive proteins, cellular structures.  If we have ever longed for god, or felt our heart clutch in some manner of loneliness, it has been a physical pang.  Therefore, we come closer by going through.  We bend back on our selves, attention revolved back toward itself, the body a mirror in which we can begin to see.

Asana is a dedicated form by which we turn the abuse and denial of the body back into humility, feeling, and meaningful gesture.  Asana is how we turn our bones to dancing, our wrinkles to poems.  Asana is a psalm made of flesh and bone.

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.