Yoga and Weight loss

Does Yoga help me loose weight?

This is a question that sometimes comes up and the answer is clear, but not straightforward. So I thought I would address it today.

When we think about any type of physical exercise for weight loss, we usually think about how many calories we burn, how much we sweat, raise our heart rate, etc.

In Yoga, it is not about burning calories. We don’t even aim to raise our heart rate. It isn’t even just a physical exercise  – although of course if you are practicing Ashtanga full primary series with all it’s Vinyasa jump backs and throughs – you will certainly sweat and burn calories! But it’s not the main reason why it’s great for loosing weight…. In fact I believe that any traditional style of Yoga could be the best way for anyone to loose weight – if done the way it was intended to be practiced.

Yoga is a science of the Mind. As Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutra: “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha” – Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.

We practice our physical Asanas (Postures), with the purpose of balancing our whole system, including the endocrine system and lymphatic system. We become stronger and more flexible, which leads to more physical comfort. We cleanse and detoxify and recreate balance within our energy system, which leads to overall better health.

We practice the breath, so we can calm and also strengthen the nervous system and lead us into a state of inner calm and awareness.

We practice concentration, so that (over time and with practice), we begin to experience a meditative bliss within the fluidity of our practice.

And we practice awareness.

The more we practice on the mat, the more apparent it will become that our practice spreads out into our everyday life. We become more aware of our own actions and the world around us. We become more comfortable in our own skin and come to terms with who we truly are. We walk through life with more peace and easiness.

Which leads us to make better choices.

How? Have you ever been drunk, on your way home from a party, stopping at a fast food place and gorging yourself with chips or burgers?

Have you ever been run down and tired and not been able to stop yourself from eating a whole packet of cookies? You get the idea.

When we are in a good place, aware and feeling confident, we don’t have to force ourselves to eat better – we just do.

If we feel like we deserve to be treated well, we will treat our own bodies well too.

And we will be motivated to do so without having to force a discipline on us that is hard to keep. What changes is what we WANT.

So – does Yoga help for weight loss? Yes. It certainly isn’t a quick fix but it is a lasting one that has the potential to change your lifestyle permanently.

 

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Understanding the practice of Ashtanga Yoga

 

As it is September and a new beginners class is starting up, I thought it was a good time to write about the meaning of Ashtanga yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga has never been intended as a purely physical Asana practice and I believe it is important to understand, at least in the very basics, the philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga.
The name itself – Ashtau (eight) + Anga (branches, or limbs) = Ashtanga Yoga (the Yoga of the eight limbs) tells us that there is much more to the practice than only a physical exercise.
Only if all eight limbs are practiced, it is truly Ashtanga Yoga.
What are these eight limbs? Scripted in the famous “Yoga Sutra” written about 200AD by the Indian sage Patanjali, they give us a concise description of the theory and practice of Yoga, including the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga:

Yama – (controlling our behaviour toward the external world)
Niyama – (controlling our behaviour toward ourselves)
Asana – (posture practice)
Pranayama – (breath control)
Pratyahara – (withdrawal of the senses from external to internal awareness)
Dharana – (concentration)
Dhyana – (meditation)
Samadhi – (deep contemplation or the blissful state that arises from merging with the object of meditation)

All Yoga should really be drawing instruction from these 8 limbs but the difference in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is that we attempt to practice all these 8 parts together in a daily practice.
Asana (Posture) Practice is only one eighth of the full practice that makes up a true Ashtanga Yoga practice.
It does however play a particularly important part, as it becomes the entrance point through which we begin to connect to our inner self, working our way from the physical body (which is immediately available to us through our senses and nervous system) through the breath, calming our mind and in this stillness, finding a better connection to ourselves. This connection is vital for all of us, whether we strive to find spiritual enlightenment or merely look to achieve better health and more happiness in life.

I will explain the eight limbs in a little more detail:

YAMA:
A set of 5 guidelines that, if we follow them, can help us to achieve a better and more peaceful relationship with the world around us. We can practice them in our daily Asana practice so that we become familiar with them and plant seeds that can grow into better habits and attitudes for the rest of our lives, on and more importantly off the mat.
These guidelines are
Ahimsa (non-violence), the first and most important principal of the practice of Yoga. On the mat we should practice to treat our own bodies kindly and with love, never push or pull in an attempt to stretch further than we can or work harder than what is good for our bodies. Once we become familiar with an attitude of non-harming ourselves, it will make us more aware in our daily life and it will be more natural for us to take peaceful actions rather than those that cause harm to any other person or living being.
Satya (truthfulness) – when practicing on our mats, at home or in a class, we need to be very honest with ourselves and assess where we are at in this moment in time. Even though the Ashtanga sequence is always the same, your practice will never be the same. It serves like a mirror. A constant measure against which you can measure the state of your body and mind and breath each day anew. We need to look at it and accept it with love and honesty, even if we may wish ourselves to be different. To truly see and accept ourselves as we are is the basis for any kind of happiness. Over time, we become more in touch with ourselves, more happy with ourselves and ultimately with the world around us.
Asteya (non-stealing) is something very important that we need to practice on our mats in order to become aware of it in our everyday lives. It doesn’t only mean to not take our friends pens and lighters or shoplift, etc. It means to not want or take what is not ours and follows on from the practice of truthfulness. On the mat we often look around, if we are in a class situation and see someone stronger, more flexible, younger, thinner, etc and we become envious and competitive. We want to look like them, practice “advanced” postures like them, etc. This is when we have to remember the practice of Asteya.
Brahmacharya (continence) has often been interpreted as “sexual abstinence” however this would have been in a cultural context. Literally it means to “walk with the divine”, meaning to acknowledge the divine in everything we do and not waste our actions (and our energy) on unimportant things. It means to save our energy for things that truly serve us and others. On the mat it means to use your energy wisely, look for good concentration and good alignment, don’t lose you’re breath, modifying or slowing down when needed, etc, rather than racing through the sequence. To become wise with how to use our energy will obviously be an advantage in all our actions in life.
Aparigraha (non-grasping) – meaning that we should practice with dedication but without grasping on to any outcome we may desire. We should just be in the moment when we do our practice, not focusing too much on any goal we might have, as this would just keep us from being truly present. A goal, whether it is to achieve a certain posture, calm our mind, heal our body or even to be enlightened, should never be the focus of our practice. Any goal will either be achieved, or not but practice should be done anyway. It’s about the process, not the achievement.

NIYAMA:

Sauca (Purity/Cleanliness) – refers not only to the necessity of showering regularly and keeping a good hygiene practice but also, maybe even more importantly, of internal cleanliness. Yoga Asana practice in itself is in part designed to detoxify, purify and activate the self regulating systems of our bodies but how helpful would it be if we went straight from the mat to the table to eat a big bacon and sausage breakfast? Any regular practitioner will have experienced the difference in practice after a heavy evening meal or drinking wine, or during a phase of eating a lot of junk food. It is not pleasant and in our regular practice of the same sequence we begin to realise those differences in the state of our body and mind that is influenced by our diet and lifestyle. The desire to eat more healthy foods often naturally follows a regular yoga practice.
Santosa (Contentment) – not to be confused with the western notion of complacency. Contentment in the yogic sense is one of the highest forms of happiness, as it does not depend on outer circumstances. It does not mean to be passive in our life choices and just put up with anything we experience, but it means to be able to truly be happy with what we have been given in life. On the mat, we may experience restrictions in our body, feeling that we “should” be stronger, more flexible, better able to concentrate, etc. But wherever we are at in this moment in time, can be a source of happiness, if we don’t take things for granted and wish our life away. We are all perfect.
Tapas (discipline) – meaning “heat”, it refers to the fire of motivation that we need in order to even get up and go on to our mat to practice. Without it, there is no practice. We need to find what motivates us, learning that discipline is not a rigid thing, forced upon us by some external force or even by our logical mind, but a motivation from deep inside us. What this motivation is, is different for everyone, but we need to find it in order to become disciplined, in our practice as well as in daily life.
Svadyaya (self-study) – an important part of our practice is the continuous learning process. We need to learn about ourselves, on the mat, when we pay close attention to our physical sensations, strength and weaknesses, the state of our breath, our energy levels, the state of our mind, our emotions, our insights. In our daily practice we have a great opportunity to study ourselves. In addition, reading the underlying philosophies and texts of Yoga will help to deepen this understanding.
Isvara Pranidhana (dedication) – to dedicate our practice to a higher purpose, to acknowledge that there are greater forces than ourselves and that in the end, we are all part of the same, beautiful, omnipotent forces of the universe, means to transcend our own Ego nature. Transcending the Ego is a necessary step in order to see the “bigger picture”, to see things not through the lens of our limited, emotional reactive egoic selves but from a higher perspective, really is one of the highest goals of the practice of Yoga.

ASANA

This is the practice of postures. Although Yoga in itself is an ancient practice, originating more than 5000 years ago, Asana practices have been evolving, always changing with the needs of the people of the times. Postures as we practice them today are merely about 200 years old and are influenced by western exercises as well as eastern philosophy. The primary series of Ashtanga Yoga (also called Yoga Cikitsa, or Yoga therapy), has been designed to strengthen, cleanse and relieve tensions and tightness in every part of the body, not only superficially but also deep inside our core, even having a healing effect on our organs and particularly on our nervous system. They work not only on the physical body but also on the system of Nadis (Energy channels, in Chinese medicine known as meridians). It is a set sequence that should be used continuously as a guideline but modified in whatever way needed individually. It is likely that during practice, imbalances and weaknesses will show up. If this is the case, they will need to be addressed by further modifying, adding appropriate postures and where needed seeking other more specialised therapies before returning to the full sequence again. Whatever shape our posture practice takes, each Asana should be practiced with a balance between being grounded and strong, being dynamic and active and also expanding in all directions, creating lightness in our body.

PRANAYAMA

Breath control – The breath has a direct influence on the nervous system and is the link between body and mind. Our breath is influenced by the state of our emotions and can in turn influence them, calming our mind almost instantly. By learning yogic breathing techniques we can learn to control the breath and therefore our nervous system and our mind. In Ashtanga Yoga there are many pranayama practices but, to begin with, we just use mainly one technique called Ujjayy breath (“victorious breath”) which helps us in many ways. By learning this technique (which at first can take a little practice) we can keep our breath long and even, therefore sending messages to the nervous system to relax the body and mind, even though we are moving a lot, even sweating through our physical practice. This will help to stay centered and focused and we learn to keep our concentration for longer. Ujjayy breath also keeps our core activated during the practice, which is of great importance for proper function in postures. It can also help to create heat and fire in the body (if practiced strongly), which is what helps with purification.

PRATYAHARA
All the attention we give to our physical body, our breath, our sensations and emotions during our practice session helps us to stay present in the moment. We need to learn to disconnect our senses from the outside world. In a class situation, we may be tempted to check the time, see how strong the person next to us is, get distracted by noises etc…but the practice of Pratyahara allows us to access a deeper place within ourselves, away from the everyday noise of the world and getting a little closer to the core of our being.

 

DHARANA
Once we stop getting distracted by the outside world, concentration can begin to happen. During our practice we concentrate on our breath and on our focus points (drishti). Drishti helps us not only to direct energy to a certain point or direction, but also it helps our vision and inner focus to stay steady and concentrated on one particular point in space. This trains our ability to concentrate our mind and stay focused on one particular object of attention.

DHYANA
As we get more and more practiced in concentrating on one object of attention, our state of concentration begins to remain for longer periods without interruption. This state is a state of meditation (dhyana). Here is where the real practice of the mind begins.

SAMADHI
With even more practice (a lot of practice!) this meditative state of the mind begins to deepen and our awareness seems to completely merge with the object of meditation (ie we feel as if we ARE the breath, there is nothing but the breath, or the body). This is accompanied with a feeling of complete bliss, were we are one with ourselves and the object of our meditation. It is also accompanied by the ability to completely let go of everything we hold on to, to experience only oneness, even just for a moment.

In conclusion, we can see clearly that there is a lot more to Ashtanga Yoga than just ploughing through a series of postures and achieving more and more difficult shapes with our bodies.
We can also see that an advanced Yoga practice really does not mean that we can wrap our legs behind our head or stand on our head for a long time. It does however mean that we have achieved a regular and consistent practice of all of the above limbs (at least up to Dharana – the rest will come by itself) and we are able to maintain concentration and an even breath throughout the practice. It also means we have studied ourselves enough to know where our weak spots are and where we need more or where we need less of something. We need to know when it is wise to modify and take it easy and when it is wise to overcome fears or feelings of laziness. All this is part of our practice and if we keep that in mind, Ashtanga yoga will be a truly healing method for anyone, old or young.
Or, as my teacher David Collins put it by quoting Dr. Jigar Gor and Judith Hanson:
“Yoga is not about touching your toes but about what you learn on the way down”.

(For more historical information on the development of Ashtanga Yoga please refer to my blog post “a brief history of Yoga”)

 

 

 

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What makes a true Yoga practice?

Yoga Sutra of the month

Samadhi Pada

1.12

ABHYASA VAIRAGYABHYAM TANNIRODHAH

(the restriction (of the fluctuations of the mind) is achieved through practice and dispassion.

This Sutra is, in my opinion, one of the most important ones to remember for any serious Yogi – and one that is easily forgotten.

Abhyasa (practice) – is the more obvious part. If we want to achieve a steady and clear mind (which after all is the main goal of Yoga) and harvest the fruit of our efforts, we must first put in the work. We cannot be lazy and think “tomorrow I will practice” or only practice what comes easy to us. If we do so, even though all practice will bring results, the results will be very limited.

What shape or form the practice takes can be personal. For some it can be based around a seated meditation, for some it can be chanting, a strong posture practice in the Ashtanga tradition or any other devotional practice, as long as it is practiced with dispassion.

The second part of this sutra, Vairagya (dispassion) is what makes the practice a truly yogic practice. It is also the part that is easily forgotten, especially in our posture practice, when we strive to achieve. We want, so badly, to reach our toes in Paschimottanasana, to bind in Marichyasana, to stand on our head without wall support, that we fall into the trap of delusion all over again – the delusion that achieving a certain shape with our body is Yoga. In class, we may think in our mind of the postures that are still to come, of the time still left in class, of the person next to us who we somehow think of as a “better Yogi” than us because their head touches the ground in Prasarita Padotanasana.

But this is a dangerous trap that can keep us from practicing Yoga.

To practice dispassion means to practice letting go of any attachment to the outcome of our practice. It means practicing with complete faith in the practice. It means being completely in the moment. Letting go of the wishes and demands of our egoic mind and actually transcending the Ego little by little until we feel just one with our bodies and minds and our practice.

Even the ultimate goal of Yoga – complete self realisation – is a goal and while it is a commendable goal, it is better to let go even of this. The only true yogic practice is done as a mindful and meditative practice of being in the moment, giving our effort to the practice without wanting anything in return.

Abhyasa and Vairagya are two sides of the same coin of yogic practice. Only when the two come together can a state of yoga be experienced. One side only does not work – Practice alone, without dispassion, is no more than exercise, or gymnastics. Dispassion without practice is nothing but  lethargy. 

But both together is what makes a true Yoga practice.

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The only practice we really need..

Yoga Sutra of the Month

One of my favorite Sutras, because there is so much to get out of. Because if we only practice by this one rule, the world would be a wonderful, kind and peaceful place.

At least if we all tried to keep it in the forefront of our thoughts throughout our everday life, we would all be much happier.

Samadhi Pada

1.33

MAITRI KARUNA MUDITA UPEKSHANAM SUKHA DUKHA PUNYA APUNYA VISANAYAM BHAVANATAS CITTA PRASADANAM

“The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness and equanimity towards objects (be they) joyful, sorrowful, meritorious or demeritorious (bring about the pacification of consciousness.”

(translation by Georg Feuerstein)

Yoga is all about the “pacification of consciousness” or in other words, the calming of all the agitations of the mind, so that we can become peaceful and able to see clearly into the depths of who we truly are.

Patanjali gives us here a very direct and simple (yet not easy) practice, through which we can achieve this state of peacefulness of mind.

The meaning of “objects” (visaya) in sanskrit is much broader than in our western understanding and includes all thought forms, beings and things that can be encountered with our mind.

In this case, the most obvious “objects” we can encounter carrying those attributes are our fellow human beings.

The people we meet in our lives usually fall into one of those four categories – they can either be joyful and happy, sorrowful and suffering, meritious in doing and achieving good things in life, or demeritorious in behaving unethically.

Usually we encounter a mix of people who, just like ourselves, all have a little of each category within them. It would be easy to fall into the trap of being merely reactive and letting these attitudes spark of our own agitations of our minds.

It’s easy to react to someone’s unethical behaviour with anger or to someone’s success with jealousy.

But if we put the advice given by Patanjali into practice in our daily life, we can become accomplished in being friendly toward the happy and joyful people, compassionate toward those who are suffering, glad for those who are doing good and things and achieve successes in life and cultivate a feeling of equanimity or indifference toward those who are acting unethically.

In Buddhism this practice is known as the Brahma Viharas or the four immeasurables

(Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity) and are beautifully expressed as a prayer or meditation practice:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,

May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,

May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,

May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

Love means to want others to be happy.

Compassion means to want others to be free of suffering.

True Joy means to be happy for and with someone else’s fortune and happiness.

Equanimity means to have a clear minded and tranquil state of mind.

(From www.viewonbuddhism.org)

It is truly a beautiful practice we can all do on a daily basis, in everyday life, in our daily meditation and even during our daily Yoga practice.

If we just bring it into our minds regularly, it will soon become easier and eventually will become the “default” setting in our minds. Just imagine how much happier we will be!

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Greed and the Heroin Addict

Yoga Sutra of the month
2.39
APARIGRAHA STAIRYE JANMA KATHAMTA SAMBODHA
“When steadied in greedlessness (he secures) knowledge of the wherefore of (his) birth(s).”
(Translation by Georg Feuerstein)

 

This Sutra is probably a little confusing at first glance, but I’ve been pondering about the subject of greed quite a lot lately and after re-thinking this Sutra, i want to share my thoughts with you.
I feel very strongly that greed, is one of our most prominent and destructive affliction that has accumulated in our collective mind and is in this moment in history coming to a peak that may well be responsible for the destruction of the world.
Most of us would probably say that they are aware of this dilemma. And yet we proceed to destroy the planet, knowing that what we do has an impact. We proceed from one acquisition to the next, letting material possessions overrule all common sense or compassion, even love for our closest friends and family.  Our desires for things have become so strong that we often cannot control them anymore, while our minds developed ingenious strategies to make us believe that what we do is justified.
Why are we so caught up in this web of greed?
According to Patanjali, greed is born of ignorance. In our ignorance, we cannot see who we truly are, so we cannot know what makes us happy, we are confused. In our confusion, like a blind person reaching for something to hold on to, we grasp at the next best explanation provided by our own Ego, the function of our mind that helps us to distinguish Me from You. And our Ego tells us the only thing it can tell us, the only thing it is programmed to look for – that we are separate from each other and to look out for what distinguishes us from others, how to compare and judge what makes us seem superior. This feeling of separation is, whether we are aware of it or not, naturally a scary one. Deep inside we all must feel lonely, an emptiness maybe that we can’t explain. And we look to fill this emptiness with things.
In our desperation we try to fill our void with an image of who we think we are.
We believe that we are what we can see on the outside – a man, woman, beautiful, ugly, tall, short, a teacher, a student. We identify with only external and fleeting attributes. Of course this leads to even more fear. If we think that we ARE something that is very short lived (like youth, beauty, strengths or our place in society), that by it’s very nature must change sooner or later into it’s opposite, we must, deep inside, be constantly worried about losing our identity. So we hold on to anything we can that may affirm this false identity in an attempt to make it last forever. We collect things, like pretty clothes, houses, cars, items that symbolise something we want. And because we think that we are separated from everyone else, we only (or firstly) look out for ourselves. And yes, for  a short moment, after we acquired something we were longing for, we experience happiness. But what most of us are not aware of, at least not in these moments, is that the reason for this happiness has nothing to do with whatever it is we had acquired, but only with the temporary relief of wanting. For a short while, we experience no desire, and we equate the cause of this feeling of contentment and happiness with the thing we acquired, so we want more things. And so it continues. We confuse our wants with our needs a hundred times every day. We buy plastic even though we are aware of it’s detrimental consequence for nature, we eat meat even though we know how the animal industry works, all because we say to ourselves that we “need” this or that.
We have entered a cycle of addiction, following the same patterns as any alcohol or drug addict. We are under the spell of consumerism just like a heroin addict is under the spell of his or her daily high that fills the same void – that of lost connections to ourselves, we can only glimpse in the feeling of unconditional love.
Our greed overtakes our common sense and our mind helps to feed the addiction. The question is, how can we break out of it?
If we treat our everyday greed like any addiction, we may at first need a substitute for our drug of choice, something to wean us off and make the transition easier, like the Methadone for the heroin junkie. Instead of being addicted to buying pretty things or overeating, we may begin the sweet addiction to our daily yoga practice.

A daily dose of Asana practice, mixed with deep breathing and the stilling of the mind that comes with concentration, ending in the blissful cloud of Savasana, will make us feel so wonderful, like a natural “high”, that it can become an addiction in itself. But instead of lulling us with delusion, this kind of “drug” will be more like the famous “red pill” Morpheus offered Neo in the the movie “The Matrix”, in order to wake up from his state of dreaming and begin to see reality as it is. More and more, like this pill, our yoga practice will make us aware of the different aspects of life and of ourselves. And as we continue the practice,  with growing awareness, our greed will diminish bit by bit. And just like the heroin addict who has been so consumed by the addiction that he or she was not able to maintain responsibility for everyday tasks and has been so distracted as to become blind toward his/her own senseless actions – once the addiction subsides, clarity and insight can set in again.
I don’t believe that most of us are very much different to any drug addict, only our problems are a little less immediate, sometimes more subtle and more widely accepted.
The more we can manage to rid ourselves of much of our greed and lose our desire to grasp at things that do not serve us on our journey, the clearer will our sight become towards the truth, enabling us to understand ourselves and the world around us far better and with much more compassion, so we can treat it with respect and responsibility.
Even after a relatively short time of sincere and regular Yoga practice, one can feel the fruit of this kind of development.
I imagine that after lifetimes of the practice of Aparigraha (Greedlessness), we may reach a state of completion, in that we are fully free of desire and have developed such a clear understanding of even the subtlest aspects of ourselves. We then may, as Patanjali hints at in this Sutra, become so subtly aware that we can remember our past lives and the karmic imprints (Samskaras) that have lead us to our current birth and lifetime. With this kind of understanding we may truly be able to free ourselves of the karmic bonds that keep us returning here again and again.
However at any stage of this journey, we gain more understanding, deeper insight and a increased happiness and feeling of compassion.

Maybe Greedlessness (Aparigraha) provides the key for us to live in peace and harmony with each other on this planet, so we can feel the connection that binds us all again and realise that we are not alone but that we are all part of the same divine consciousness, depending on each other and on nature, sharing the same worldly experience in all it’s glory.

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Consciousness and the physical body

The material universe isn’t created out of nothing.
It is an accumulation of subtle energies.
Our own body is a network of cells, which are an accumulation of molecules, which in turn are formed by atoms. These were previously thought to be the smallest particle in natures existence but with the development of scientific technology, it was soon found out that Atoms consist of protons, neutrons and electrons and that those are made up by smaller fundamental particles like quarks and leptons.
Wether this is the end of the line or not is not yet clear, we may be surprised by new findings at some time in the future where technology might have advanced even further. In fact it is quite likely that we will never get to the “end of the line”.

Eternity seems to be a given, only whether it is the eternal rhythm of the birth and death of new particles and organisms or the idea of one basic eternal matrix, or core of the cosmos (as dualistic Samkhya philosophy suggests),  that gives birth to everything else makes a great – and long lasting – debate.

According to all Indian philosophy the subtle always precedes the gross. Which is only common sense, as to build a molecule, the atoms had to be there first.

In the non-dualistic teachings of the tantric philosophy for example, it is pure consciousness that lies at the source of every living organism, while every molecule, every cell, even every thought form of these organisms are an expression of this eternal consciousness, endowed with it’s own cosmic intelligence.

If we think of our bodies that way, we recognise that each cell in our body is a perfect expression of our own pure consciousness (soul) and has it’s own, living intelligence which never tires to work only for the purpose of our soul’s higher good – which is to experience life in order to evolve, to expand our consciousness until all boundaries are dissolved and it merges with it’s highest and purest form, unbound to any individual life or karmic causalities.

We also realise that our bodies are far from being just mechanical constructions (as modern medicine may sometimes try to make us believe) but in fact are in constant movement. Never still, cells being born, maturing and growing, heart beating rhythmically, molecules in constant movement and communication with each other. Our body is in fact a never ending process, even after we die, when the clusters of molecules and atoms break up, having fulfilled their purpose, and re-join the earth’s own connective tissues – the soil, the water, the air – only to form again at another time to fulfil a new purpose.

We often think of our bodies as one entity, made up of different kinds of tissues, a skeleton, muscles, etc. But in fact, each of our cells has a skeleton of it’s own, different tissues and organs and acts within it’s own intelligence and means of communication.
Stem cells for example respond to the amount, and the kind of stress they are put under and develop, accordingly, into tissue cells that can resist the amount and type of stress they have been under -for instance, if they have been under a lot of stress they may turn into stronger bone cells, etc. They learn and are shaped through their experiences, just like we are.
Understanding this, we begin to realise that every act we impose on our bodies – be it what food we eat, how we move, what yoga posture we hold, how we breathe and even how we think and feel – is a direct communication with our intelligent cells. And our cells listen and respond accordingly.
And what’s more – they are not alone.
Our bodies are made up of about 40 trillion human cells – which comprises only about 10 % of the total amount of cells in our bodies. The rest are foreign organisms – the cells of bacteria and viruses, most of which are “friendly” and are carrying out essential tasks for us, mainly in our digestive and immune system – our lives literally are depending on them. So that means that 90 % of us are not really “us” – which really puts a different perspective on the idea of being interconnected!
Viewing our bodies not as mechanical machines but as a multitude of living, intelligent expressions of consciousness continuously acting in servitude of a greater purpose may help us to keep in mind our own responsibility to offer respectful communication filled with love and wisdom toward our own bodies – and the bodies of all other beings, as we all have in common the same consciousness that also pervades the whole universe.
And it is this consciousness that (according to non dualistic Indian philosophies) manifests in intelligent awareness, thoughtforms, emotions and eventually the physical realm.
Consciousness creates awareness, awareness creates thought, thought creates emotion and emotion creates physiology.
Therefor, to create true change in your body or any other aspect of your life, it has to begin with connecting with your own consciousness. Becoming aware and practicing extended awareness that can eventually permanently influence the more subtle realms of thought, emotion and the physical body.

Our nervous system gives us the ability to communicate with our surroundings. We can not only directly taste and touch anything outside (or inside) our bodies but even connect with the wider surrounding via our sense of sight, hearing and smell. Our nerve endings pass on those messages to our internal system so our bodies can respond accordingly.
Waves of energy vibration (electrical impulses, according to traditional western science) pulsating through neurones, are continuously communicating the dynamics of life to our bodies.
The specific dynamics of life in our modern times however have, as we are all well aware of, become increasingly overwhelming, confusing and contradictive to our inert and instinctive nature and can hardly be understood by the simple processes of our cells without causing havoc within the living organism that we call our body.
However we do have a very powerful means to control this overstimulating communication of the nervous system and that is our breath.
The breath has a very direct influence on wether the pulsating messages of the nervous system are delivered in a clear, calm and steady way, in agitated panic or are disrupted and lost on the way.
The breath can bind the intelligent consciousness of our cells to our the intelligent consciousness of our mind. It interacts between the outside and the inside world, between our  body and our mind. It can help to unify our whole being, giving us a sense of wholeness. (Yoga = to unite)

Each action we take, each Yoga pose we execute, each bite of food we take, is a communication. We can choose what we communicate and how – if we are aware of what we are doing.
To be aware 100% of the time and able to act only out of wisdom, love and respect for our bodies and those of other living beings is a very difficult task for any human being living on this planet.
But as with everything, practice makes – eventually – perfect.

For me, this practice begins on the Yoga mat. Here we can become aware of this amazing, vibrating, living expression of our true self – our body. We can truly take the time to pay attention and listen. We can communicate by placing the right kind of stresses on areas of our body that will result in stronger, healthier cells who can do their work optimally, like the removal of blockages and unwanted organisms. We stretch, so our body can experience greater freedom of movement (in the external as well as the internal micro environment of our body). We remain aware so we can consciously feel and project the love and respect we can give to our body.
And we can breathe. We breathe in a way that will tell our nervous system: It’s okay. Everything is safe. No need to panic anymore. You can relax now.
And with this message – of safety and relaxation – we can carry out even the most difficult tasks, or the most challenging asanas without the accumulation of stresses that are too much for us to handle.

Our mind becomes clear, our emotions are more balanced and our physical body cells can use their energy for what it was really intended – the greater good of serving YOU.

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Dualism vs Non Dualism

Dualism vs NonDualism

Indian philosophies and it’s six points of view (darshana) vary slightly in many ways, as this knowledge was collected from different sources at different times and and places and based on different experiences.

Samkhya for example is very much a philosophy of Dualism (Dvaita – on which Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are based on), based on the belief that there are two separate eternal forces, that where never created but exist, in their pure potentiality eternally. They are both real. These two forces are Purusha, the pure consciousness or soul the cosmos and of every living being  that is unchangeable and does not have creative power – and Prakriti, the ever changing matrix of the cosmos, the core of the cosmos, the cosmos itself, in all it’s shapes and forms, both gross and subtle.

Prakriti consists of three qualities, or Gunas, which are in complete balance and pure potentiality as long as Prakriti and Purusha are separate.

These Gunas are Tamas (Inertia), Rajas (Movement) and Sattva (Illumination).

gunas-illustration

Purusha and Prakriti exist in an everlasting attraction to each other. At some stage, when the attraction becomes too strong, they begin to merge into each other.

When this happens, the perfect balance of the Gunas is disturbed. In an eternal effort to come back into a balance, the Gunas move, increase, decrease and begin the “dance” of evolution and life.  The first evolute is created: Buddhi, or the higher mind. At this stage, the potential state of Prakriti is still in a very subtle form and Buddhi (or Mahat, the cosmic intelligence) becomes a discerning and intelligent force, born out of the imbalances of the gunas and closely connected to Purusha, the soul and pure consciousness. It doesn’t in itself have a consciousness but reflects the pure awareness of our self. Here there is access to all higher knowledge.

The second evolute emerges from Buddhi – Ahamkara, the I-Maker (Ego). Out of the intelligence of the Buddhi emerges another, more concrete and less subtle power of discernment. Ahamkara is able to distinguish Me from You. It compares. It judges.

Growing out of this instinct to compare and distinguish comes the lower mind, or Manas – a much less subtle force that we can sense – as well as the five subtle sense potentials through which Manas is working. These are the potential of hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting and smelling. And on a lower level still, situated in the gross body, are the corresponding sense organs – the eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue and the organs of action – hands, feet, anus, sexual organs and mouth.

These consist of the gross (material( elements of fire, water, earth, air and space (ether).

So the evolution of any living thing, according to Samkhya, consists of Prakriti in it’s potential state, and her 23 evolutes.

From the dualistic (Dvaita) point of view, Purusha needs Prakriti in order to experience itself and live out any karmic impressions that may have accumulated. But it also has to emancipate itself from it, in order to be free. Maybe this can be compared to a mother guiding us through the experiences and lessons of life but eventually we need to become independant. 

In Yoga, we are trying to free ourselves from this dependency on Prakriti by involution, by reversing the process of evolution, by going backward.

We are trying to access through the gross, physical body and work our way, via the nervous system, to our mind and eventually transcending our Ego mind to enter our Buddhi Nature. From here, we can feel the presence of our true soul, Purusha.

samkhyachart

(Diagram from http://www.santosha.com/)

Vedanta on the other hand, from which the Bhadavad Gita draws in it’s dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, is mostly (although not completely) based on the metaphysical concept of non duality (Advaita).

Only one pure state of consciousness exists that is the substance of the cosmos, the one supreme reality. This reality is called Brahman.

All living things are created from this one reality and are all connected. 

In their individual state (ie our own individual souls) it is called Atman, although they are absolutely the same (much like the space inside a room and outside a room are the same – the only difference are the walls that make it hard to see out).

Everthing else, including our thoughts, emotions and the perception that we are separated from each other, is referred to as Maya (Illusion). This illusion comes from the distorted perception of our own reality, like a mirror that is warped by our own karmic imprints and caught in the web of cause and effect. Almost like we are in a dream, which we are witnessing but are not waking up from, and as long as we are in it, we believe it to be real.

Advaita Vedanta believes that if we can remove this veil of wrong perception and see clearly, experience, remember our own true divinity, we can experience the true bliss, happiness and unconditional love that is the true nature of Atman. Then we become free from a conditioned existence, where we can only be happy IF.. rather than in a true state of bliss. (Moksha).

Non Dualism also has a concept of evolution, as explained best through the model of Pancha Kosha (the 5 Sheaths or Bodies of Existence):

Here, we also begin with the lowest vibration, the densest of Sheaths that is most accessable to our perception, the Physical body (Anna Maya Kosha) and work our way internally toward our true inner nature.

In both cases, we need to have certain experiences that arise from the seeds of karmic imprints that have been planted at the beginning of time. And in both cases our destiny is to free ourselves from these karmic bondages and either emancipate ourselves or wake up from our cosmic dream.

d9930-210560_orig

Another point of view of indian Philosophy, slightly newer and often described and the 7th Darshana is the Tantric point of view.

In this strongly non dualistic philosophy it is believed that everything IS consciousness.

There is only one reality, which has 2 aspects, like two opposing poles making up one magnetic force – Shiva and Shakti, Consciousness and Nature.

In this model both aspects are part of the same reality, but only Shakti is capable of creation. Everything we experience, every living being, every part of living nature, is an expression of divine consciousness. Therefore there is no need to seperate one from the other or judge good from bad, we just need to experience everything with divine awareness in order to awaken to our own truth.

Much like Samkhya, Tantra (Shaiva Tantra, or Kashmiri Shaivaism) also refers to an evolution of experienced existence but adds more detail by counting 36 instead of 24 evolutes (Tattvas).

tattva10

(Diagram from http://www.bhagavadgitausa.com/)

These are all different descriptions of the same truths, as seen by different eyes.

What all these have in common is that we are all divine beings, pure consciousness and connected to each other because we are all the same source. Our true state of being is bliss, an eternal happiness that does not depend on any outer circumstances, and pure, unconditional love, that connects us to each other and all other beings.

The only thing that stands in the way of us experience this true, blissful state of ourselves, is ignorance and the wrong identification with things that are impermanent and not true reality.

So the solution to the problem, according to Yoga, is to resolve our ignorance.

By removing any obstacles that stand in the way of seeing clearly, we try to make our minds calm and transparent. We try to clean and enhance our energy, we create a healthy body, so that nothing stands in the way of achieving this clear state of mind.

And the most obvious place to begin, is in our physical bodies.

By practicing postures and eating healthy, we try to achieve a state of physical health.

By practicing breath control and relaxation, we calm and strengthen our nervous system and increase the flow of energy. By the practice of concentration and meditation, we clear our mind so that eventually all aspects of ignorance, even of a karmic nature, can dissolve.

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Yoga Sutra in a Nutshell (chapters 1&2)

YOGA SUTRA IN A NUTSHELL CHAPTERS 1&2
Hi there everyone,
today, as promised, I am writing about the Yoga Sutras.
Some of you have asked questions about them and so I decided to give you an overview of what they are all about. There are many great books and commentaries but the three that I know and learned to love are by G.Feuerstein, BKS Iyengar and Swami Satchidananda. If what you are reading intrigues you and you want to read more, I recommend you get either of those three (the easiest to read and most accessable to anyone I believe is Swami Satchidananda’s translation & commentary but that’s just my own opinion.. )
I will go through some, but not all Sutras in a nutshell just to give you an idea of what it’s all about.
So I hope you will get something out of this, please feel free to comment on the actual blog post here!
An indian Sage named Patanjali, who lived some time between 200 and 500BC and who became known for his teachings and written documents about medicine, grammar and Yoga, wrote down the text that later would become symbolic for a whole era of Yoga (classical Yoga).
The sanskrit word “sutra” means thread and is comprised of 196 short aphorisms strung together like beads on a thread and divided into four chapters, that sum up the teachings of Yoga as described in
the Vedas. (For more about the history of yoga please read my previous blog post here.
THE YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI
CHAPTER ONE
SAMADHI PADA
In chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras, the Samadhi Pada, Patanjali defines the meaning of Yoga and explains the workings of the agitated mind as opposed to the pure state of Samadhi. The sanskrit word “Samadhi” directly translated means something like “above level” or “above virtuous” and refers to the complete state of bliss one experiences after succeeding in meditation. It is a complete “absorption” or “contemplation” on the object of meditation that leads to a dissolving of any agitations of the mind, including our Ego and lets us experience our pure conscious being. It is the deepest state of meditation and the ultimate goal of the practice of Yoga in the classical sense.
He opens with the first Sutra
1.1 ATHA YOGANUSASANAM
(Now begins the exposition of Yoga).
and then defines what Yoga is:
1.2 YOGAS CITTA VRITTI NIRODHAH
(Yoga is the restriction or cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.)
Each moment our mind is in different states of consiousness. The mind constantly moves from state to state, from thought to thought, from emotion to emotion.
This causes our inner vision to be blurred, we can’t see through this thick veil of incessant movement of the mind and can’t recognise our own true nature.
1.3 TADA DRASTUH SVARUPE VASTHANAM
(Then, the seer, or the self, can abide in it’s own true nature. )
But when we manage to still the mind, to clear our thoughts and emotions continuously, the veil disappears. Like a dirty lake, full of currents, waves, mud, seaweed, etc, we can’t see the ground but when the waters become still, the mud settles to the bottom and the water eventually becomes clear. Then we can see all the way to the ground. In the same way, when our mind settles, we begin to see through it and into our true nature.
1.4. VRTTI SARUPYAM ITARATRA
(At other times, the self appears to identify with the forms of the mental modifications.)
If the waters of the lake stays agitated, all we can see is the seaweed, the mud, etc. If our mind stays agitated, all we can see is the nearest or most prominent thoughts, feelings, etc. And without knowing our true nature, we believe that whatever we see in front of us our self and wrongly identify with it.
The following Sutras are a discription of the different kinds of mental fluctuations or modifications.
Then Patanjali tells us what we should do to achieve this goal of Yoga:
1.12 ABHYASA VAIRAGHYABHYAM TANNIRODHAH
(The restriction of these fluctuations can be achieved through practice and dispassion/non attachment.)
Patanjali tells us that by practice he means the continuous, firmly grounded and uninterrupted effort toward steadiness of mind.
By non attachment, he means the liberation from all cravings.
Both is needed for a successful Yoga practice, no matter where in our practice we are.
Daily practice is important to create a steady habit and to maintain a daily practice we need to be able to withstand temptations of our own mind, which might tell us that it would be much more satisfying to stay in bed or have a big breakfast instead of practicing Yoga. But with steady, slowly increasing effort we can create a new habit that will leave a new imprint in our mind. We will associate our practice with the joy and happiness that it brings into our life and we will eventually begin to crave this more than any instant gratification.
And further down the road, eventually, when we have practiced continuously for a long time, even those cravings will leave us and we will experience the bliss that comes from true freedom of all dependencies, needs, wants or cravings.
1.21 TIVRASAMVEGANAMASANNAH
(To the keen and intent practicioner Samadhi comes very quickly.)
1.22 MRDU MADHYADHIMATRATVAT TATO’PI VISESAH
(The time necessary for success further depends on whether the practice is mild, medium or intense.)
Let’s not forget that so far, Patanjali only speaks of the practice of the mind. Physical posture has not been mentioned yet (this will happen in chapter 2).
The practice patanjali suggests is the practice of contemplation on either the true self (Purusha – our soul) or the supreme consciousness (Isvara – the ultimate consciousness).
1.23 ISVARAPRANIDHANADVA
(Samadhi can also be attained by the complete devotion to Isvara.)
In indian philosophy, every living thing is an expression of a transcendental consciousness (purusha) which in reality is the same in all of us. All of us are essentially the same purusha. And together we make up a bigger form of purusha. All living things are interactive systems, held together by smaller systems and holding together a bigger system, like the earth, the universe, etc. The ultimate Purusha, the final system, the pure consciousness or supreme soul is called Isvara. By meditation and devoting our actions to this highest purusha we surrender our own purusha to a higher good. We acknowledge that we are part of something greater, that we are all one.
In our everyday life this can mean to practice to always see the bigger picture and let our action be guided by the higher good.
For those who are religiously minded, the practice of devotion to god has the same effect. Yoga in itself is an atheistic practice but it encourages the practice of all religions as long as they are felt in a true sense of our being rather than following a dogma in order for them to be of benefit and to help achieve this pure state of mind.
Patanjali explains also that Isvara is the concept that is free of all afflictions caused by any fluctuations, actions or fruits of actions. It is pure consciousness, unaffected by karma.
1.27 TASYA VACAKAH PRANAVAH
(The symbol for Isvara is the syllable OM.)
As a method for contemplation on the absolute consciousness, Patanjali suggests the repetition of the seed mantra OM, which carries the sound vibration of Isvara and therefor helps us to connect with it.
In the next sutras, Patanjali warns us of a variety of distractions that commonly disturb our efforts and how to counteract them.
1.32 TAT PRATISEDHARTHAMEKATATTVABHYASAH
(In order to counteract these distractions, the Yogi should take up the practice of concentration on a single principle.)
And further:
1.33 MAITRI KARUNA MUDITOPEKSANAM SUKHA DUHKHA PUNYAPUNYA VISAYANAM BHAVANATAS CITTA PRASADANAM
(By cultivating an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked, mind can retain its undisturbed calmness.)
This is one of my favorite sutras, as this advice alone really can lead to a happy and fulfilled life for everyone if we make a serious effort of it.
In the following Sutras, Patanjali gives further suggestions on what objects to contemplate for the practice of meditation, keeping in mind that the mind takes on the quality of the object one chooses for contemplation. For example if I choose to meditate on the image of a clear crystal, my mind will steadily become more and more clear like the crystal I am absorbing into my mind.
These objects may become more and more subtle, until they are undefinable and not needed anymore. Then we can truly contemplate on the pure self, the soul, the purusha and have reached the highest form of Samadhi.
1.48 RTAMBHARA TATRA PRAJNA
(This is rtambhara prajna, or the absolute true consciousness.)
In this state of consciousness we have access to all our potential. We can access all the knowledge that is within ourself and therefor have a deep understanding of everything.
1.50 TAJJAH SAMSKARAH ANYASAMSKARA PRATIBANDHI
A new life begins with this truth bearing light. Previous subliminal impressions are left behind and new ones are prevented.
These subliminal impressions refer to the deep seated, unconscious, karmic seeds that are planted in each of us with each action we take, be it good or bad or neutral.
A person who has reached rtambhara prajna has left behind all these seeds and is planting no more, which means that the cycle of karma is over and true freedom from consequences and actions has been reached.
CHAPTER 2
SADHANA PADA
After instructing us on the practice of Meditation and describing to us the state of Samadhi, Patanjali gets into some more detail about what actions to take to reach this goal. The practice (sadhana) of Yoga, or Kriya Yoga (the practice of Yoga or Yoga in action) begins with the following advice:
2.1 TAPAH SVADHYAYESVARAPRANIDHANANI KRIYA YOGA
(Self discipline/motivation – Tapah, self study – svadhyaya and surrender/devotion to the ultimate consciousness – isvaraprahidhana are the practices of Yoga.)
These are the key qualities we need for a successful practice.
Self discipline comes from being motivated, having the desire to practice. (Tapah) At times we may be tempted to give in to excuses. Then we are required to take a good look at ourself and learn about our own patterns and issues. (Svadhyaya) To overcome them we need to trust in the process, have faith in ourselves and surrender to the higher good. Surrendering to a higher force means not to follow the wishes of our own Ego but follow a divine inspiration (Isvarapranidhana).
To cultivate these attitudes will help us to minimize or remove any obstacles that might stand in the way of our success.
Patanjali describes these obstacles:
2.3 AVIDYASMITA RAGA DVESABHINIVESAH KLESAH
(The five obstacles are Ignorance – avidya, Egoism – asmita, Attachments – raga, Aversions – dvesa and Fear (of death)- abhinivesah)
Of these five obstacles, Patanjali describes Ignorance as the seed of all the others. Because we mistake the ever changing outer conditions and expressions of life as permanent, we mistake our Ego to be our true self, we cling on to what we perceive as desirable and feel aversion toward what we perceive as uncomfortable. This leads to further confusion and keeps us from truly experiencing life in it’s deepest form. Ultimately it leads to a deep seated fear of the unknown, of death.
But these feelings can be rooted out by starving them of attention. This is practiced in meditation.
Patanjali also tells us about the consequences of allowing these obstacles to pervade:
2.12 KLESA MULAH KARMASAYODRSTADRSTA JANMA VEDANIYAH
(All our actions and their consequences have their roots in these obstacles. They will bring experiences in the present or future lives.)
The sanskrit word Karma refers to both Action and the Consequence or result of an action.
Patanjali introduces us to the concept of subliminal impressions, caused by the 5 obstacles (Kleshas), which are like deep imprints into our psyche and like seeds, will lay there until the right conditions make them grow and mature. The fruit of these actions will be experienced sooner or later and can influence our life span, the circumstances of our birth (in a next life) and any experiences within a life, now or in a later life.
Just like the seed of an apple can only grow into one particular kind of tree – an apple tree – the seeds sown by our attitudes and actions can only grow into the same kind of consequence (Karma) – the soil in this analogy being our subconscious mind which records and stores all our actions and will later attract experiences accordingly. So happiness causing actions will grow into joyful experiences, pain causing actions will result in painful experiences and so on. This is the concept of merit and demerit.
Patanjali then points out that once we recognise the impermanence of nature we become aware of the fact that even the most pleasurable experiences eventually bring with them the grief of loss and that the only way to avoid this or any other kind of pain or suffering (dukha) is to stop identifying with impermanent aspects of nature (like our body or the contents of our mind) or grasping on to things that are never going stay with us forever and completely detach or disassociate with them. (not to be confused with indifference – we are just loosing our fear, not our love. Lessening the five obstacles will in fact enhance qualities like love, compassion and freedom – as the natural state of our self is unconditioned love, bliss and happiness.)
He then describes in a little more detail the qualities of nature and the purpose of our physical existence:
2.18 PRAKASA KRIYA STHITI SILAM BHUTENDRIYATMAKAM BHOGAPAVARGARTHAM
(Nature has three qualities (gunas) – brightness/illumination (Sattva), Activity (rajas) and inertia (tamas) and is embodied in the elements (fire, water, earth, air, space) and the sense organs and serves the purpose of experience of our own consciousness (purusha) through the sensual quality of nature (prakriti) but also of our own liberation from this dependency.)
This is quite a big statement – he basically tells us the meaning of life. We are here to experience  ourselves and once we do, we remember our true nature and don’t need the identification with any aspect of prakriti anymore. Just like in our everyday life, we experience ourself through the mirror of relationships, so does our soul experience itself through the mirror of our senses.
Once we have learned our true nature and are able to identify with it without the need of a mirror, we are free.
The reason why we need the sensual experience of nature is that we are ignorant of our own permanent, all knowing nature. Our goal (in Yoga) is to come back to this eternal knowledge and experience of ourself. We do this by removing ignorance as the root cause of other obstacles of the mind.
Then Patanjali tells us with great clarity what concrete steps we should take in order to achieve this goal. The following Sutra is probably the most famous of them all as it describes the 8 limbs of Yoga which all classical forms of Yoga are based on (Ashtau – eight, angani – limbs/components. In short Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbed path of Yoga).
2.29
YAMA NIYAMA ASANA PRANAYAMA PRATYAHARA DHARANA DHYANA SAMADHAYAH
(Practices of restraint (how to act in harmony with your surroundings – Yama), Practices of observances (how to act in harmony with yourself -Niyama), Physical Postures (Asana), Breath control (Pranayama), sense-withdrawal (relaxation & inward focus of the senses – Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana) and the bliss of complete absorbtion in the self (Samadhi).)
2.30
AHIMSA SATYA ASTEYA BRAHMACHARYA APARIGRAHA YAMA
(The Yamas (practices of restraint) are
Non-harming (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence (brahmacharya – preserving one’s energy, particularly sexual energy) and non-greed (aparigraha).)
These should be observed at all times, in this order of importance, no matter of any circumstances of your life.
2.32
SAUCA SAMTOSA TAPAS SVADHYAYA ISVARAPRANIDHANANI NIYAMAH
(The Niyamas (practices of observance) are purity/cleanliness (Sauca), contentment (Samtosa), discipline/austerity/zeal for practice (Tapas), self-study (Svadhyaya), and the surrender to the absolute consciousness/the highest goal (isvarapranidhana).)
Patanjali also tells us that negativity is only overcome by positivity and further explains the 8 limbs and the consequences of their practice. About physical postures (asana) he advises us:
2.46 STHIRA SUKHAMASANAM
(Physical postures should be steady/stable/strong and comfortable/balanced/relaxed.)
In our physical posture practice we are bringing the Gunas into balance.
We need to find a balance between dynamic effort (rajas), strong, grounded stability (tamas) and expansion, lightness and ease (sattva).
2.47 PRAYATNA SAITHILYA ANANTA SAMAPATTIBHYAM
(Perfection in Asana (physical posture practice) is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.)
When we begin to relax our bodies and minds in a posture, when we stop trying too hard in trying to compete with ourselves but instead become fully conscious and feel the balance of all our qualities, the mind can become still and undisturbed and we begin to experience the timeless consciousness of our inner self.
2.49 TASMIN SATI SVASAPRASVASAYORGATIVICCHEDAH PRANAYAMAH
(When the posture is achieved, the movement of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.)
Correctly practiced pranayama will relax the nervous system and lead to the senses becoming relaxed and detached from outer temptations (pratyahara). They turn inwards and the mind becomes focused and ready for concentration and mediation practice.
These inner practices of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi and the consequences of their practices are then described in the next Chapter, Vibhuti Pada.
So far, in Sadhana Pada, Patanjali described the yoga of action (Kriya Yoga), what we can actively do in our lives to achieve the ultimate goal.
In the next chapter he describes the inner, more passive practices (samyama yoga) and tells us – and warns us – about our minds potential.
However this will be for another day!
I hope you enjoyed this so far and I really hope it may inspire you to read one of the many amazing books written about the Sutras.
If you would like to comment please go to my original blog post here. – your input is much appreciated!
And here again are my suggestions for further reading:
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A brief history of Yoga

A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA

Yoga is practiced by a lot of people these days, all with different – and very valid – reasons why they begin their first class. Some want to get more flexible or strong, some want to improve their general health, some have asthma, old injuries, postural problems, mental health problems, even drop a dress size, etc. And Yoga can help them all in some way, if practiced regularly, intelligently and with awareness. But for whatever reason anyone begins their Yoga journey, soon enough they find that it works on many levels, that there is much more to it. Students sometimes ask: “Is Yoga a spiritual practice? Is it for the mind or for the body? What is the difference between this or that Yoga” I think it helps to understand the background and history of Yoga a bit better, to know where it comes from and how it developed. So I am writing down a little bit of the history and background of Yoga as I understand it in a short and simplified version.
I hope this will be of some use to you.
Please feel free to comment.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA
Origins

Even though most experts agree that the evidence of Yoga practice can be found as early as about 5000 years ago (some think even much earlier), the actual origins of Yoga are unknown. They go back a long time, possibly longer than we can imagine…
Some even believe that it was passed on from the Satya Yuga, the golden age of humanity, where humans were  peaceful and pleasant, never sick, grew to an enormous size and lived to 100 000 years. They did not kill, fight or even mine or plough the earth, as the earth provided freely and the weather was always nice and humans were aware of their divine origin.
According to Hindu cosmology, over the Aeons this awareness began to diminish and problems occurred. During the second Aeon, Treta Yuga, divine awareness and with it Dharma was forgotten by a third and so people began to be divided by languages, class and culture and wars began to happen. Agriculture and mining introduced the concept of greed. Even land was divided by the sea.
During the third Age, Dwapara Yuga, Dharma was diminished by half. Fighting and disease increased, spiritual blindness began to take a hold of people. Lifespan is only a couple of hundred years. Jealousy and fear become more predominant and religious differences lead to wars.
The fourth and final age of the cycle is Kali Yuga, the age of darkness, where Dharma and awareness are reduced to only a small percentage present in the people of this age. Slavery, lying, killing and stealing become the norm. This is the age we live in now.
But remnants from knowledge and awareness of the people from the previous ages have been preserved by oral transmission (often in form of chanting) for a long long time. When the ability to retain this oral knowledge also diminished, some great and wise sages began to, over time, write it down.

Vedas

These scriptures are known as the Vedas (Veda = Knowledge) and are the oldest existing scriptures today.
But this knowledge was written down in bits and pieces, according to whatever the direct experience of the seer at the time was (much of this knowledge was gained through direct experience, in meditation or other states of hightened awareness) or as it was passed on orally, and didn’t necessarily follow a “logical” thread as we would understand now. So, to better access the knowledge they were categorised.
First they were divided into four sets of texts:
The Rigveda, which is the oldest of them (written about 1500 BC), is a collection of ten books of hymns and verses about deities, mythologies ad rituals.
The Samaveda contains chants and songs, Yajurveda contains detailed descriptions of rituals and is one of the base scriptures of Hinduism and the Atharveda, with it’s incantations and metaphysical descriptions, also a later addition to the hindu texts.
Based on the Vedas, indian philosophy was then split into 6 different viewpoints (darshana):

Darshanas

Nyaya, founded by Gautama Rishi, focuses on “correct knowledge” and how to find it. It explores the rules and laws of the universe based on logic and methodology.
Vaiseshika, the practical “partner” school of Nyaya, applies this logic and explores the natural world It contains one of the earliest descriptions of atoms.
Sankhya (also called Samkhya), founded by Kapila, is a dualistic metaphysical philosophy, describing the universe as born from two dualistic forces (Purusha, or consciousness and Prakriti, or nature). It is atheistic, not theistic and it’s system of elements and gunas (constitutions of nature) forms the basis for eastern medicine (ayurveda).
Yoga is the practical path to liberation based on Sankhya (and also Vedanta) philosophy.
It provides very practical guidelines to increasing consciousness and preparing body and mind for the event of enlightenment.
Mimansa (sister school to Vedanta and later integrated into it) concerns itself with the reflecting on the knowledge contained in the vedas and how to implement it in life (Dharma).
Finally, Vedanta (meaning “the end of the Vedas”) summarizes the teachings of the Vedas, contains reflections and commentaries (Upanishads), the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.

So, to sum it up, Yoga is one of 6 schools of thought of indian philosophy and has been practiced in various forms for a long time (about 5000 years or more) with the aim to connect to our true self . The word Yoga comes from sanskrit Yuj – to yolk and is mostly translated as “to unite” or “to connect”. This aim, to become completely aware and realize our own true divinity is still the same but practices have changed a lot since these early days.

Forms of Yoga
Yoga in it’s traditional form concerns itself with practical ways on how to achieve self realization. Taking into account the differences in people’s personalities, it is divided again into four main branches:

Karma Yoga (Karma = Action) for those of an active constitution. Using our actions to serve the higher good with constant awareness, elevates us to a state of higher consciousness.

Bhakti Yoga, for the emotionally inclined, this is a path of love and devotion, usually using religious deities to connect to higher states of consciousness.

Jnana Yoga – the path of Knowledge, for those who are intellectually minded. Studying the scriptures to evolve our mind to higher states of consciousness.

Raja Yoga, the royal path, uses forms of meditation to connect to our true self and realize our own true nature.

Classical Yoga
Raja Yoga also is often called classical Yoga (as it follows the teachings from the classical period of indian philosophy), or Ashtanga Yoga (the eight limbed path of Yoga).
In this period, a sage called Patanjali wrote down 196 short aphorisms, divided into 4 chapters (The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali) describing the path of yoga according to older scriptures. In it, he gives a concise description of Yoga and how to practice it.

Styles of Yoga

Out of Raja Yoga developed several other styles of Yoga, focusing on aspects of the path to enlightenment, like preparing the body, working with internal energies, etc, like Hatha Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga.

Hatha (Ha=Sun, Ta=Moon) is the “forceful” Yoga which uses physical postures, pranayama and cleansing techniques to prepare our bodies for prolonged meditation.
It’s main text is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which was written sometime in the 15th century and describes physical practices like Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breathing techniques) Bhandas (Energy locks), Mudras (Hand gestures) and Shatkarmas (cleansing practices). It is noteable that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mainly describes seated postures with only a few additional asanas, so it was still very different to the kind of practice we do today in the West.

Given the aim of Hatha Yoga (and all other forms of Yoga) – to achieve enlightenment – it was practiced mainly by those who really devoted their lives to this goal. They lived in forests and in mountain caves and performed their daily practices as a means to support their long hours of meditation.
As ascetic they lived “off the grid” of society, often with long dreadlocks and very simple clothing.

Modern Yoga

This image did not appeal to the British when they began their occupation of Indian in 1773 and they did their best to ban it’s practice and raise a negative image of Yogis. This worked well (supported by wealthier indians) for a while. Yogis were shunned and wandering Yogis were banned in the cities.
However near the end of the 18th century the British introduced a new policy in which they encouraged the celebration of indian traditions. This in turn encouraged Indian intellectuals to give some traditions – including Hatha Yoga – a make over.
Inspired by western practices like gymnastics and body building, postures were added and combined with more traditional methods and so a new era of Yoga was born.

In 1893 an indian monk –  Swami Vivekananda – came to the US and presented Yoga demonstrations to the public, which was probably the first time big western audiences have seen and heard about Hatha Yoga.
In the early part of the 1900’s two teachers in particular raised the profile of Hatha Yoga in India and became probably the two most influential Yoga teachers in the world today:
Swami Sivananda
He later wrote almost 300 books
on yoga and related subjects
and founded the divine life society.
His teachings form the basis of
Bihar school of Yoga.
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Krishnamacharya (born in 1888) was a brahmin who had studied all six darshanas and was well respected. He learned Yoga from his father and some other teachers until in 1919 he sought out a Yogi called Ramamohana Brahmachari who lived in the himalayan mountains. He spent 7 years with him, intensively studying Yoga Asanas, Pranayama and the Yoga Sutras as well as the Yoga Kuruntha, (a book on that has  not been found yet but is said to describe the Vinyasa way of posture practice).
As it was custom, at the end of the 7 years, when he finished his studies, his teacher had the right to ask him anything he wanted in return and Krishnamacharya was obliged to give it to him. What Ramamohana Brahmachari had asked of him was that he was to raise a family and become a yoga teacher to spread yoga to the world.

So Krishnamacharia eventually married, moved to Mysore and taught Yoga to the Maharaja’s family. As the Maharaja was so impressed with Krishnamacharyas skills, (he felt he had healed him of several conditions) he provided him with premises for a Yoga Shala (Yoga Centre).

Four of his students during that time were later to become the most influential teachers of Yoga in the western world:
Indra Devi, Desikachar (Krishnamacharyas son), Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.

Indra Devi

Her real name was Eugenie Peterson, she was originally from Russia but lived in Berlin as a dancer and actress. She traveled to India for acting and dance reasons. Her family was aquainted with the Maharaja of Mysore and it was only because of pressure from the Maharaja that Krishnamacharya reluctantly accepted her as a student (being a western woman was not in her favor in the traditions of that time).
Later on she taught in China, the US and in Mexico, spreading Yoga in particular among actresses and celebrities, significantly raising the profile of Yoga in the west.

TKV Desikachar
As Krishnamacharyas son, he studied with him for all his life. Watching his father teaching Yoga in different ways to different people, according to their needs, and seeing the results, he stresses the therapeutic effects of Yoga and teaches, as his father did, a Yoga that can be adapted to each individuals needs.
B.K.S. Iyengar

Iyengar was Krishnamacharyas brother in law. When he was very young he had many health problems, struggled with a lot of illnesses and was generally of a very weak constitution. When he was 15, Krishnamacharya invited him to Mysore to learn Yoga to improve on his health. His health did begin to improve but Iyengar struggled a lot with achieving difficult postures and also seemed to have a difficult relationship with his very strict teacher. Later on he also injured his spine in an accident, making asana practice even harder. His determination to achieve success lead him to spend a lot of time in analysing each posture and finding new ways on how to master them. He used props like bricks, straps, chairs and blocks and was eventually encouraged by Krishnamacharya to teach in his methods to the public. His method became very popular and known as Iyengar Yoga.

Pattabhi Jois

Pattabhi Jois was attracted to Yoga practice from a very early age, when as a child he watched one of Krishnamacharyas Yoga demonstrations. He began to practice daily in secret (as his family were not supportive of Yoga practice) from the age of 12. Eventually he ran away from home to Mysore where he studied sanskrit and yoga.
He studied with Krishnamacharya for a long time and became one of his assistant teachers.
In 1948 he opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research 791tttto learn about Yoga. Later he wrote a book about Yoga which had Pattabhi Jois’s address in it. After the book became known, more westerners began to travel to India to learn Yoga from him and brought it to Europe and America.
His method of teaching is (according to Jois) almost identical to the way he was taught by Krishnamacharya, with only few adaptations. It became known world wide as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (or in short referred to as Ashtanga Yoga).

That’s all for today…
If you feel like finding out more about this vast subject, there are some very interesting books I could recommend for you:

“The Heart of Yoga” by Desikachar
“Light on Life” by Iyengar (one of my favorite ever yoga books)
“The Bhagavad Gita” translated by Eknath Easwaran (another favorite)
“Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Iyengar (there are many translations of the Sutras. I have read 3 and this was my favorite).
“Light on Yoga” by Iyengar (on Yoga posture & practice)
“Yoga Mala” by Pattabhi Jois (a description of the original Ashtanga Yoga Primary series)
“Guruji: A portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois” by Guy Donahaye (a selection of interview with Jois’s different students. I found it very interesting to read)
“Health, Healong and Beyond” by Krishnamacharya
“Wholeness or Transcendence?” by Georg Feuerstein
“The Yoga Tradition” by Georg Feuerstein
“The Hatha Yoga Pradipika” by Swami Muktibodhananda

There are many more books so please feel free to add to this list in your comments.

 

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Chakras and Endocrine Glands

CHAKRAS AND ENDOCRINE GLANDS

So, it’s time for another blog post.
It’s been too long.
This one is a little bit of a cheat, as it is mostly an old piece written during my teacher training but I’ve changed it a little bit and wanted to post it here as it coincides with what we are talking about in our wednesday night class.
So I hope you find it interesting – it’s a little bit long so I suggest you make yourself a cup of tea & get comfy! 🙂


YOGA & THE ENDOCRINE SYSTEM

In the Yogic belief system (as in modern science and almost every other philosophical system), everything consists of energy. Energy within a certain range of vibration results in what we know as matter and can be perceived by our physical senses. Just like on an optical scale, higher or lower vibrations cannot be perceived with our senses but are nevertheless there.

The more subtle forms of our physical bodies have been explored by many yogis (or other spiritual masters) throughout time, with interesting results that not only compare to each other but also, as it becomes more and more clear, with modern science.

As we know from the system of the koshas, the energy vibration of our physical bodies extends into higher subtler vibrations of a vital energy body, an emotional energy body, a mental energy body, a spiritual energy body, etc. This concept also relates to each of the body organs, cells and glands of the body – everything in nature is expressed on many levels.

Chakras (chakra = wheel in sanskrit), as described in the yogic texts, are a concentration of energy, each at a point where the nadis (energy channels) cross each other, resulting in a charged reaction which produces a strong vortex of energy. There are thousands of chakras and their energies are all intertwined and communicate with each other, causing a reaction in other chakras and in the physical body as well as in the subtler energy bodies. However we are mainly focusing on seven main chakras, resulting from the crossing or interaction of three main Nadis (Ida, Pingala and Shushumna Nadi).

The physiological system that seems to correspond most directly with the chakras is the endocrine system.

The endocrine system is a system of internal glands that are releasing messenger molecules into the blood stream (as opposed to an exocrine gland which releases a substance to the outside, eg. sweat glands). Those molecules communicate with other glands and the nervous system and are known as hormones.  There are many glands, as there are many chakras, but in biology, just like in yoga, the focus is on seven main glands, or groups of glands.

Just like the nervous system, the endocrine system is a messenger system of communication, but while the nervous system sends out messages fast and directly towards the receiver, resulting in a quick, but short lived response (eg telling my muscles to contract), the endocrine system sends messages all over the body through the blood stream, until receptors on cells pick them up, making communication slower, but longer lasting. (“e-mail vs facebook”).

THE GLANDS

1. The home central of this messaging service is the Hypothalamus.

The HYPOTHALAMUS is an almond sized portion of the brain, situated above the brain stem. It’s function is to connect the nervous system to the endocrine system.

It does so with the help of the PITUITARY GLAND, a downward extension of the hypothalamus.

For example:

When a lactating mother hears her baby cry, the auditory nerve impulses send messages to the hypothalamus, which in turn tells the pituitary gland to release some hormones to tell the mammary glands to start milk production.

The same is true for most hormonal responses and for this reason, the PITUITARY GLAND is referred to as the master gland – it takes orders from the hypothalamus and makes hormones that tell other glands what to do.

It really consists of two separate glands fused together, like two sacks hanging from the hypothalamus: The posterior (= behind) and the anterior (= in front) pituitary.

The POSTERIOR PITUITARY excretes 2 hormones that were made in the hypothalamus:

Oxytocin stimulates the contraction of the uterus, lactation, bonding between humans, feelings of trust, love and orgasm, and that’s why it is basically referred to as the love molecule. It is released every time you hug or touch someone, look into someones eyes or even think fondly about someone.

It also helps to heal wounds and to relieve pain. It is an antidepressant, makes us more trusting and generous. It even protects us from obesity by regulating hunger. When large amounts of oxytocin are released, our appetite decreases – like when we are newly in love  or breastfeeding our baby. 🙂

The other hormone released by the posterior pituitary is Antidiuretic hormone, telling the kidney to retain water, so we stay hydrated.

The ANTERIOR PITUITARY produces and secretes many hormones. One of them is Growth Hormone (GH). The tallest man in history was over 8 foot at the time of his death. He was found out to have a tumor pressing on the pituitary gland, causing it to release excess amounts of GH. GH is also considered a very potent anti aging hormone. It’s production slows down after the age of 40.
In other words, the pituitary gland is the gland that receives messages from above, and sends them down into our other glands. It’s communications mainly have to do with love, growth, healing, birth and trust, which, on a more subtle level, are the functions and messages of Sahasrara Chakra – the crown chakra, or 1000 petaled lotus.
(the number of petals on the symbolic lotus images for each chakra, refers to the number of nadis extending out from that Chakra).
Sahasrara Chakra is all about our connection to the Cosmos – it teaches us that we are all one, coming from the same source that is reached through universal, unconditional love.

Because it is the master gland, an improper function of the pituitary gland can have an effect on all other systems of the body.

Great yoga asanas to stimulate the pituitary gland are vigorous flows like sun salutations, that stimulate circulation, and inversions like wide legged forward bend, shoulder stand, headstand, etc (except for people with pituitary tumors..) and fish pose.

Alternate nostril breathing and particularly the humming bee breath (in a higher tone) have a positive effect on the pituitary glands.

Sound vibration (chanting mantras) are “massaging” the gland and are balancing it. Meditation also stimulates the release of anti aging hormone GH.

The PINEAL GLAND, also situated in the brain (very near the centre, right in between the two hemispheres) is a pinecone shaped gland about the size of a grape when fully enlarged, but more commonly the size of a pea. It has the highest amount of blood flow among all the glands, although it calcifies and deteriorates with age, mostly due to environmental influences (for example added flouride..). It releases melatonin (a derivative of the happy hormone serotonin), triggered by sensory nerve messages from the eyes – the less light enters the eye, the more melatonin is released, which causes the brain to switch to a state of relaxation, sleep and dream. Recent discoveries show that it plays a crucial role in protecting the brain from oxidative stress and neurodegeneration. Relaxation techniques and especially meditation increase melatonin production. It is really interesting to note that the pineal gland really has a similar structure to the eye and even contains rods and cones which is why it is referred to as the third eye. It produces images from your mind – your dreams and imaginations. An interesting hormone involved in visually creating these dreams and imaginations is only recently being studied. It’s name is DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) and is released mostly during REM sleep (the phases of sleep where most dreams occur), at birth and death or near death experiences. Shamans of South America often work with plants containing potent amounts of DMT (the most well known brew is probably Ayahuasca) to create visions and communicate with otherworldly beings.
The pineal gland is fully formed and becomes visible on the 49th day after conception.
This is also the day where the sex is determined. Coincidentally it is on the 49th day (according to the Tibetan book of the Dead) that the soul enters the body and according to some forms of buddhism, the soul takes 49 days to be reincarnated.

To sum it all up, the pineal gland has to do with our visions, our conscious and subconscious mind, dreams, intuitions, spiritual (or otherworldly) communications and it protects our brain (our mind space).

The corresponding Chakra, Ajna Chakra (pronounced “Agya”, meaning “command”), is the chakra of our mind, our intuition, wisdom, our divine inspiration.
It is our third eye, seeing images from other dimensions, dreams, visions, etc.

To clear calcifications out of the pineal gland, avoid flouride, food additives (processed food) and too much sugar.

All inverted asanas (including forward bends) are great for stimulating and the pineal gland.

Any imaginative visualisation, Yoga Nidra and meditation also stimulates the pineal gland. Sound vibration that “massage’ the pineal gland work very well, especially if they are in a higher note.

The THYROID GLAND releases thyroid hormone which regulates metabolism, muscle function, blood pressure. It regulates protein production, calcification processes (also calcification of other glands, like the pituitary) and sensitivity of the body towards the effects of other hormones. It is one of the largest glands and is shaped like a butterfly, with it’s wings spread across our throat, just below your larynx. The larynx (voice box) makes up it’s cartilage and the levels of thyroid hormones also have an effect on the voice. An underproduction of thyroid hormone can lead to a deepening of the voice. The opposite is also the case – and the vibration of the voice can influence the thyroid hormone production. For example, the production of thyroxine (the hormone that regulates metabolism) can be increased by mechanically stimulating the thyroid gland. This stimulation can be achieved through the vibration of the larynx while using your voice (speaking, singing or chanting). Even Hyperthyroidism (a hyperactive thyroid, speeding up cell metabolism to an unhealthy rate) or hypothyroidism (an under active thyroid, lowering cell metabolism to an unhealthy rate), could be balanced by chanting or singing (for lasting effects however, the cause of the imbalance has to be rooted out). Or maybe simply using your voice more, finding your voice. Studies that looked at emotional abnormalities and thyroid disorders found correlations between hyperthyroidism and stress, anxiety, anger, overactivity and tension and between hypothyroidism and loss of memory, depression, loss of motivation, slowing of mental processes, intellectual deterioration and psychosis.  Vocally expressing those emotions showed to have a balancing influence on the thyroid.
All of the Thyroids functions have to do with the processes of digestion, metabolism (detoxification and processing), voice, vocal expression and communication.

Speaking, Singing and chanting massages the thyroid with vibration and have a strengthening effect.

Shoulder stand (Sarvangasana) is a particularly good asana as well as plough pose (Halasana) and fish pose (Matsyasana).

The Chakra of communication and expression (of truth and the true self) is Vishuddi Chakra (Purification Chakra). It is seated at the throat centre and influences our ability to express our own self, especially through our voice. Vibrations from voice influence the whole being, filtered through this chakra.

The THYMUS GLAND is closely related to the immune system. It is all about protecting the body. It’s hormone thymosin plays an important role in the production and development of white blood cells. It basically matures and trains t-cells to attack and kill intruding pathogens. Extracts are also derived from the thymus gland with the aim to increase immunity. In humans however, after puberty, the thymus gland (as the pineal gland) begins to deteriorate and is believed to be slowly replaced by fat cells. However newer findings show that the gland has the ability to shrink or enlarge itself within a few hours, mostly due to stress and emotional causes so there is reason to believe that the shrinking of the gland in a human adult after death (the shrinkage had been discovered during dissections of a human body) is a result of the stress of death rather than proof for a deactivation in all adults.  During those studies it has become clear that emotions have a big impact on the function and size of the thymus gland. Negative emotions and feelings like fear, envy, hate, anger, depression and jealousy seem to influence the shrinking of the thymus gland, while happy feelings of love, trust, faith, etc seem to enlarge it. The thymus gland also is in part responsible for growth in embryos. Studies have shown that administering thymus extracts to rats has increased their growth rate significantly. Studies are also being carried out to find ways to reactivate the thymus gland in order to treat HIV patients.
So the Thymus gland is all about growth and protection and is most active in children. An active thymus gland in adults can prevent us from diseases, intruders and degenerations, keeping our systems healthy, uncorrupted and in balance. Direct physical stimulation can have a positive effect, which techniques like EFT (emotional freedom technique) and singing or chanting, causing a vibrational “massage” to the thyroid gland, try to utilize. And of course it is already known how deeply emotions can effect our immune system. We all have had the experience of being run down and coming down with a flu just after a time of emotional stress.
Chest opening asanas like camel pose (Ustrasana), wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), wild thing (Camatkarasana) and pranayama techniques like kapalabhati and Bhramari have a stimulating effect on the thymus gland.

Situated in the centre of the chest is Anahata (= “Unstruck”) Chakra.
It all about unconditional love, protection, non violence and harmony with our surroundings.

The PANCREAS is a gland located behind the stomach and connected to the Duodenum (small intestine). It regulates the balance of glucose (sugar) in the blood. When blood glucose levels rise, beta cells in the pancreas secret a hormone called insulin which then stimulates all sorts of body cells to absorb more glucose for storage. Liver & muscle cells store glucose (after it’s been converted into a storable form) as glycogen, and fat cells store it as fat. When needed, glucose is converted into the bodies source of energy (ATP) to power our cells. When glucose levels fall or more energy is needed than usually (like during a strenuous yoga session), alpha cells in the pancreas release glucagon, which causes the liver to convert stored glycogen back into glucose to release it back into the blood stream. It’s a bit like preserving apples for storage, only that our body has the ability to convert the Jam back into fresh apples when needed. 🙂
In case of constant high glucose levels, insulin is secreted so much that the receiving body cells become insensitive to it and don’t react sufficiently any more, causing diabetes. Insulin also has another function – it binds itself to transcription factor proteins, which in  turn bind themselves to  DNA sequences to help this particular sequence to express itself successfully (for example in the expression of a genetic code to determine hair color). The pancreas also releases enzymes that are needed for digestion through exocrine glands, making this gland both endocrine and exocrine.
So altogether this gland deals with our supplies of energy (power), it’s storage and use, digestion & metabolism  (processing) and the expression of our genes (personality/self expression). Asanas that work the abdominal area strengthen and stimulate the pancreas, like  boat pose (Navasana), High and low plank pose (Chaturanga Dandasana), Camel (Ustrasana), plough pose (Halasana) and spinal twist or abdominal stretch. Kapalabhati pranayama or bhastrika breath are great ways to stimulate the pancreas.

Chants in a slightly lower tone can affect the pancreas through vibration.
The subtle counterpart of this gland is Manipura (= City of Jewels) Chakra, which, when fully functioning, enables us to process emotions, express our personality with self confidence and access our own sources of power and energy.

The GONADS or sex glands (ovaries & testes), containing gametes (ovum and sperm), which are haploid cells, meaning that they have just one set of chromosomes instead of two, like any other nuclear cell. This is why they seek each other out, in order to combine to make a new and complete diploid cell, which can grow into a new body, containing a complete set of DNA. The male gametes are mobile and active, while the female ones (ovaries) are passive. This is the case in most species, even in plants, where the male pollen travel to get to the female parts of the plants. Because sperm cells are also more plentiful than egg cells, and out of millions of sperm cells, usually only one gets inside the egg. Latest studies have shown that it is by no means at random which sperm enters the egg, but that there is a mechanism inside the egg cell that allows it to choose the sperm it wants to let in, which it then “swallows”.
This is also the reason why, in nature, males usually have to make the bigger effort to impress a female, as she is the one who chooses the right kind of male… Whether the offspring will be male or female is only determined about 50 days after fertilization.
French embryologist Alfred Jost had done some experimenting in the 1940s. He performed surgery on bunny embryos and removed all developing gonads. The bunnies who had this surgery all turned out female. This means that the “default setting” for gender in mammals seems to be female. Just a thought… 😉
Apart from Gametes, the Gonads also produce hormones. The Testes and ovaries release estrogen, progesterone and testosterone in different proportions (Testes release mainly testosterone and ovaries mainly estrogen and progesterone, however they are all released in both men and women) Estrogen promotes the development of female characteristic and regulates the menstrual cycle, and progesterone is involved in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and the development of the embryo.

Testosterone is a male sex hormone and is involved in the development of some secondary male characteristics (like muscles & body hair, etc.). Estrogen is also needed for the production of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that causes us feelings of happiness, and well being, making us carefree and playful – all attributes necessary to get us to want to mate with a partner. During menstruation estrogen levels drop quickly, therefor also serotonin drops.  In short, the gonads have to do with sex and with feelings of happiness and playfulness, male and female attributes, their attraction to each other, and how life is created (ultimate creativity).
Balancing Asanas as well as gentle flows (moon salutation), khandarasana (bridge pose), shoulder stand (sarvangasana) and cat pose are great postures for the gonads.
Practicing Bhastrika and Nadi shodhana and chanting in a lower vibration help too.

The ADRENAL GLANDS sit on top of the kidneys. An adrenal gland is a roughly triangular shape (adrenal cortex) with a core (medulla) in the centre. Cued by messaging hormones from the hypothalamus & pituitary gland as a response to stress and strong emotions, it releases different hormones: Aldosterone (for water retention in the kidneys, to prevent dehydration), Cortisol (to release more glucose into the blood for a quick energy fix), an extra supply of sex hormones (to increase sex drive & therefore chances of reproduction) and epinephrine (formerly known as adrenaline, enabling us for a fight or flight response – increasing blood flow, raising heart rate, decreasing digestion, sense of pain, etc..). Stress comes in all forms – emotional, mental and physical and physiological stress (ie too much sugar or alcohol, etc.), all have the same effect on the adrenal glands. The adrenal gland reacts to all of it as if our life is potentially endangered
 A constant amount of stress can cause the adrenal glands to become fatigued. Adrenal fatigue is a very common illness of our days, with symptoms of tiredness, low energy, low immunity, mental illness, etc.. According to some studies, one of the biggest stress factor having an effect on adrenal health is loneliness. The security of a community/family is vital for our survival so the body responds by activating survival mechanisms of fear and releasing cortisol into the blood stream. It has been found that cortisol levels are very high in infants with a particularly traumatic birth.
Those levels often tend to stay high until the early teens or longer, setting the child up to “expect” difficulties. Also babies who are reared with low levels of touch and interaction have significantly higher levels of cortisol than babies that are carried around much, are talked to, are breastfed and receive a lot of interaction and assurance. Babies that are not comforted when crying or not fed when hungry also develop high levels of cortisol. As an adult, these levels often remain high, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
But newer studies even point to a connection between ancestral stress stored and passed on in our DNA, for example in children and grandchildren of Concentration Camp survivors.
A connection to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis) creates a reaction to high levels of cortisol by reducing amounts of oxitocin released. This leads to less trust and bonding ability, often a long lasting result. Depression also is a direct result of low levels of oxytocin.

The function of the adrenals can be summed up to be that of pure survival including reproduction and community, especially the community we need for survival – our family at the time of birth and infancy. While the pituitary gland supports birth, love, trust and bonding, the adrenal glands are there to prevent death by raising strong emotions like  fear to motivate us to move away from threat and danger.
To balance the adrenal glands, avoid strenuous postures and instead, practice postures like sukkhasana, (easy pose) shavasana (corpse pose) and other relaxing postures,
Yoga Nidra, meditation and chanting in low, calming tones. Steady rhythms, drumming, walking barefoot, routine and comforting familiarity creates a safe feeling, which calms the adrenal glands. Avoid sugar and heavy foods.
Muladhara (= root support) chakra is the chakra associated most strongly with the adrenals. It connects us to the physical plane, our physical body and our ancestral blood line. A fully functioning muladhara chakra makes us feel safe in our family/community, rooted on this earth and gives us a stable base.

That’s all for today… there is so much more to say about Chakras .. maybe another post for another day.
But if you are interested to find out more, these are 2 of the books I personally enjoyed most about Chakras:
Caroline Myss “Anatomy of the Spirit”
Stephen Sturgess “The Book of Chakras & Subtle Bodies”
Also please keep in mind that the connection between chakras and glands is a more modern one, it does not appear in any of the ancient texts and can vary a little bit, especially the adrenal connection, as there is not actually a gland at the same location of Muladhara.
The vibration level of Chakras is usually depicted through their colors.
This also comes in variations.
The old version of Chakra colors are different from the newer, more commonly used rainbow colors (I believe it was taken from a similar south american system and popularised as it seemed to make more sense to most western people). However, keeping in mind that these are all abstract concepts trying to explain a very subtle anatomy, I believe the best way is to actually sit and meditate and develop a feeling for your own subtle energies.

So feel free to ask questions, comment or correct me if you think I got something wrong…
Thanks for taking the time to read this rather long post! 🙂

 

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