Kathmandu trip 1990s

Central Kathmandu 1990 Photo © Sanandi-jacq
Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal Photo © Sanandi-jacq
Kathmandu Photo © Sanandi-jacq

In the 1990s I travelled to Nepal for two weeks to explore Kathmandu. I stayed with family who were working there at the time. During this trip I met Robina Courtin – a Western Tibetan Buddhist nun who inspired me to enquire into Buddhism. Whilst on the trip I experienced for the first time the burning ghats. It is without doubt that this experience of witnessing bodies burning by the river acted as a memento mori of the inevitability of death. As a result of this trip the reality of the impermanence of life struck home. Following the experience I became a keen reader of eastern philosophy.

G is for Garudasana

Garudasana means Eagle pose. Garuda = eagle. Asana = posture.

It is one of many standing balance poses in yoga. The balance postures help to balance the nervous system and ease stress and anxiety. Concentrating on an unmoving spot/point in front of you whilst in the asana can aid in keeping balance for longer because the mind has to calm down in order to stay focused on the point.

Garudasana is described as an asymmetrical standing balance pose. This means that the practitioner focuses on one side of the body then the other experiencing the condition of their muscles on each side separately.

Garudasana has many benefits but the main ones are as follows:

  • strengthens the muscles of the legs and arms
  • tones the nerves of the legs and arms
  • loosens the joints of the legs and arms
  • enhances the ability to balance
  • trains the individual to focus on a fixed point or drishti thus enhancing balance and reinforces the concept of ekagrata or one-pointed concentration

This is one of my favourite balancing asanas. By imagining oneself as an eagle about to fly off from a perching point one feels the inner energy being conserved in the still posture. The arms and legs wrap around each other conserving the energy within. In the forward bending posture there is also a sense of containment of the energy between the bandhas moola bandha and jalandhara bandha. Then if you allow the imagination to let you become the eagle as you release the arms and legs it feels as though one is the actual eagle with powerful wings lifting off into flight. For me ‘quality’ in asana is all about sensing the potency of the pose not only its physical benefits but its mental and spiritual benefits.

Pastel painting of Garudasana / eagle pose by Sanand-Jacq

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

E is for Ekagrata

EKĀGRATĀ

Eka means ONE. Grata means pointedness. The full word – ekāgratā – means one-pointedness. This is essentially another term for concentration. The yogi is ever trying to cultivate single-mindedness in his/her practice whether that is within the asana (physical postures) or during dharana practices (concentration practices). One-pointedness can be likened to the idea of flow¹ both at the physical and mental levels.

In our daily life we are constantly distracted on the mental level. In Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1:30 he states the following disturbances keep us from the mental peace of ekāgratā.

Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.

Satchidananda (1987)⁴

We also tend to be distracted at the physical level and this is where the postures of yoga come to our aid in preparing the firm ground for gaining mental peace.

All yogic postures are an effort to unify or simplify our somatic existence. They are as it were one-pointedness (ekāgratā) at the level of the body. Ordinarily we are as distracted on the physical level as we are on the mental level.

Feuerstein³ (2003)

Concentration on a single point in asana can involve focusing on an aspect of the body such as the space between the eyebrows, the tip of the nose, the big toe, the thumb. These points are known as drishti.

In Dharana activities the single object can be a candle flame (tratak) or any object from nature, or an image of a spiritual master. The object can also be mental e.g. a thought, a word, mantra or prayer. It could be a visualisation of a spiritual person.

The immediate result of ekāgratā, concentration on a single point, is prompt and lucid censorship of all the distractions and automatisms that dominate – or, properly speaking, compose – profane consciousness. … A yogin can obtain discontinuity of consciousness at will … It goes without saying that ekāgratā can be obtained only through the practice of numerous exercises and techniques …

Mircea Eliade (1969)²

So why would we aspire to cultivating such one-pointedness in our lives? What benefit does it have?

One-pointedness certainly helps us experience ‘flow’ in our lives. Read ¹Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992) for a comprehensive explanation of how flow can be experienced. The main aim of ekāgratā is to calm down the flux of our everyday consciousness thus lessening the effect of fragmentation in the mental and physical spheres. By doing so, we begin to make ourselves whole, reintegrating all the diverse aspects of ourselves and unifying with something larger than ourselves. With ekāgratā we join with or tune into the rhythm of the cosmos. This is the first phase. In the long term yogis are aiming to gain liberation or samādhi. That is a subject for a future blog post.

Through samadhi, the yogin transcends opposites and, in a unique experience, unites emptiness and superabundance, life and death, being and nonbeing. Nor is this all. Like all paradoxical states, samadhi is equivalent to a reintegration of the different modalities of the real in a single modality – the undifferentiated completeness of procreation, the primordial Unity.

Mircea Eliade (1969)²
Mandala detail 2017 – eye of one-pointedness/ekāgratā © Sanandi-jacq

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

¹Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992) Flow, The Psychology of Happiness, Random Century Group

²Eliade, Mircea (1969) YOGA – Immortality and Freedom, Princeton Bollingen, Chapter 2

³Feuerstein, Georg (2003) The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, Theory and Practice, Shambhala

⁴Satchidanananda, Sri Swami (1987, second edition 1990) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications

Photo-of-the-day: Mandala

The making of the Mandala – symbol of impermanence © Sanandi-jacq

The mandala is created from a base of sand on which a group add powder paint, seeds, flowers, stones and other objects. The mandala is created in a day and at the end of the day the whole structure is dispersed to the four corners of the earth. The Tibetan Buddhists do this practice with great concentration making the most beautiful mandala which after a set period of time is ritually swept away showing the impermanence of life.

The empty mandala made of sand surrounded by rope with an orange rose set in the middle as the starting point for the creation of the full mandala.

D is for dharana and dhyana

DHARANA

Dharana is the sixth limb of yoga. It means concentration. The Sanskrit word dharana has the root dhr which means ‘to fix’ or ‘hold firmly’.

Concentration is holding the mind on one form of object steadily for a long time.

Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, III-I

The classic concentration practice in yoga is tratak. This practice involves sitting and gazing at a candle flame without blinking. Once the eyes become tired the practitioner closes the eyes and continues to view the after image of the candle flame in their mind. When the after image disappears the practitioner opens their eyes and continues focussing on the candle flame in front of them. Ideally the practice should take about 10-20 minutes to be effective. This practice aids concentration.

Your mind can be trained to concentrate on any object for example an apple, a leaf, a flower or any object in nature. The mind can concentrate on sounds or sensations in the body. Or focus on a mandala or yantra. The point of focus is endless and up to the practitioner to decide what suits best. Such concentration can then be brought to bear on daily tasks and life in general.

DHYANA

Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga and means meditation.

Through regular meditation, the mind becomes clear and pure. The subconscious mind releases hidden knowledge that allows a better understanding of oneself and our relationship to the world.

Swami Vishnu-Devananda¹

There are many forms of meditation available and it is for the practitioner to explore which meditation best suits his/her own being. The simplest one is to sit and focus on the breath though many might find this quite difficult at first.

The benefits of regular meditation are enormous ranging from creating a better link between mind, body and spirit to promoting calmness of mind and inner clarity to transformation of the personality to a closer connection with the divine. The secret is to practise meditation on a regular basis.

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Centre of the Mandala – a point of concentration – Mandala Yoga Ashram © Sanandi-jacq

Bibliography

¹The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre, (2003) The Sivananda Book of Meditation, GAIA BOOKS P.7

C is for citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

Citta means consciousness/mind. Vritti literally means whirl or can be translated as thought waves. Nirodha means restriction or control. In Patanjali’s eightfold path the second sutra in Chapter 1 is Yogaḥ cittavṛtti-nirodha. which can be translated as:

Yoga is the control of the thought waves of the mind.

Prabhavananda & Isherwood (1969)¹

This is the essence of yoga philosophy though I would argue with the idea of control. Perhaps an ‘increased awareness’ would be a better way to describe what we need to do to approach life with serenity.

It is normal for our minds to be busy and distracted with a multitude of thoughts streaming through our consciousness. This is our profane everyday consciousness and it can get very wearisome. Swept along by our monkey mind flitting here and there we move through our days in a whirl not always being as efficient as we would like to be. Anyone who has done any ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing will know how busy and indeed creative the mind is. But it often isn’t very focussed.

All the practices of yoga aim for one goal: that of calming the mind so that we can view the world with more clarity and focus. Yoga is about developing the inner witness who can perceive the reality of the ego’s constant flitting from one thought to the other.

The eightfold path (ashtanga) of Patanjali gives us a toolbox to allow us to approach the ‘still point’ of deep calm and surrender that lies within each of us. By practising yoga we begin to see through the layers of our own conditioning and begin to unravel the suffering we may have been through. The techniques of yoga aid us in moving forward with more clarity and focus in our lives and ultimately gaining a sense of peace. All is well.

Yoga Philosophy is complex. However if the yoga practitioner can simply understand the idea of concentration on a single point then s/he is well on the way to benefitting from his/her practice. This may mean simply bringing awareness to the sensations within the whole body as s/he moves into, holds and moves out of a posture. Being able to switch to witness mode at any moment is the fruit of yoga practice.

Seated sculpture in group LOS RAQUEROS on the waterfront in Santander, Spain © Sanandi-jacq

1 Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary). pp.159-161

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Los Raqueros

Los Raqueros, Santander, Spain © Sanandi-jacq 2015

Los Raqueros are a series of Bay Sculptures on the waterfront in Santander, Northern Spain. The sculptures represent young children who used to scavenge round the docks for a living. They were known as ‘wreckers’ from the word ‘shipwreckers’. The children used to dive into the waters of the bay to collect coins that passersby threw in for them. I am particularly fond of the sculpture sitting on what looks like a mushroom and is intently staring into the water. I was so enamoured by this statue that I used the photo on the cover of my Yoga dissertation in 2017 because it represents a sense of single-pointed focus.

Jose Cobo is the local sculptor and the sculptures were mounted in position on the waterfront in 1999.

This photo was taken on one of my trips towards finishing the Camino de Santiago from 2014-2017. My friend and I flew into Santander then took a bus down to the Camino trail. Gill and I were walking the Camino to remember my walking partner Alan who died suddenly of an aneurysm in 2013. We finished the 500 miles by taking two weeks off work each year over the four years from 2014-2017.

Los Raqueros plaque, Santander, Spain © Sanandi-jacq

the rakers
Typical Santander characters, described by Jose Maria de Pereda, who in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries frequented the machinas and used to take a school in Peurtochico, diving in the waters of the bay to collect the coins that the curious threw at them.

https://www.rosettastone.com/translate/

Nearest translation I could get through translation websites. Thank you Rosetta Stone. Not sure what ‘machinas’ means but from the context appears to be a place name.

B is for Bandha

BANDHA

Bandha is a psychomuscular energy lock in the body which redirects the flow of energy and locks it in a particular area. Muscles and organs are contracted and controlled. There are three main bandhas in the human body.

Moola Bandha means perineum contraction and is probably the most well known of the bandhas. This bandha is a contraction of muscles in the pelvic floor. In men the area between the anus and testes is contracted whereas in women the area contracted is behind the cervix where the uterus meets the vagina. There are numerous benefits from performing moola bandha including:

  • stimulates the nervous system in the pelvic area
  • tones the excretory system and urino-genital system
  • relieves constipation and piles and may have a positive effect on the prostate gland
  • lessens the impact of depression by realigning mind, body and spirit

Uddiyana Bandha is an abdominal contraction. To be effective it needs to be practised on an empty stomach and ideally the practitioner needs to have empty bowels. Contraction of this Bandha is an advanced technique and should be practised under guidance. The benefits are many including:

  • relieves abdominal and stomach disturbances such as constipation, indigestion and diabetes.
  • tones the abdominal organs
  • stimulates blood circulation in the abdominal area.
  • stimulates the solar plexus around the centre of the belly.
  • When engaged the Uddiyana Bandha can help the practitioner lift up in a controlled jump in Ashtanga Yoga practice thus giving a sense of lightness to the body as though flying up into a jump. Uddiyana literally means ‘flying up’.

Jalandhara Bandha is a contraction of the throat area. It is a lock that stimulates the blood vessels and nerves of the neck. The head is bent forward so that the chin presses on the neck or throat pit. The practice once again is best done under the guidance of a yogic practitioner. The benefits include:

  • gives a feeling of relaxation
  • relieves stress and anxiety.
  • stimulates and balances the thyroid glands
  • regulates metabolism.

For details on how to perform the bandhas see entry 3 in the Bibliography below. It is best to find a qualified teacher to explain and demonstrate exactly how the locks are to be made.

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Bibliography

1 Hewitt, James, (1977, 1983), The Complete Yoga Book, Cresset Press

2 Long, Ray, (2006), The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga, Scientific Keys Volume 1

3 Saraswati, Satyananda, (2005 reprint) Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India