Hridaya akasha in yoga

Hridaya akasha: gift of compassion- Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hridaya akasha is the Sanskrit term for the psychic space of the heart centre. The word hridaya means heart and akasha signifies space. The hridaya akasha refers not to the physical heart space but to the heart of the subtle body. In Yoga the heart space is the home of the Self where we hold the secret treasures of our inner life. The Chandogya Upanishad describes the heart space as follows:

As great as the infinite space beyond is the space within the lotus of the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained in that inner space, both fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and stars. Whether we know it in this world or know it not, everything is contained in that inner space.

Chandogya Upanishad VIII 1.3 [The Upanishads translated by Eknath Easwaran (1987, 2007)]

All yoga practice ultimately aims to bring the practitioner into contact with the vastness of his/her inner Self. This Self is our inner knowing or divine intuition. In other words the Self is our inner guru (guru simply means teacher, or one who reveals the light). The inner Self is vaster than we will ever know and within it exists the whole of humanity and more.

Gift of Covid-19 crisis

It is to the heart space that we turn our attention in order to connect with the oneness of our humanity. During the Covid-19 crisis we have had time to pause and reflect during lockdown. For many this turning inwards can be very uncomfortable especially when much of the time people tend towards extroversion. The opportunity to go within, to be introverted, is rare in our fast-paced modern world. Perhaps the gift of the Covid-19 crisis is the enforced slowing down of our everyday life and the resulting awareness of what is happening around us and within us. There is no doubt that this experience will have brought change into many a heart.

Hridaya akasha and compassion

Personally I found the lockdown time quite fruitful once I had recovered from the shock of finding routines turned upside down. The time of reflection and introversion has been very welcome. As I watched the drama unfold on the news I became more aware of my own heart space as it resonated with the human stories unfolding on screen and in print. During my daily asana practice it helped to listen to the chanting of mantras (mainly Tibetan Buddhist chanting) to maintain concentration in the heart space. Asana practice has never been quite so fulfilling and the ensuing meditation time quite so compassion-based.

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

Return of the Blogger

Blogger’s block is now broken by circumstance and through the cracks a new creativity cautiously creeps. 2020, I resolved in January would be the year my blog leapt into life. The first quarter yielded diddly-squat (no that isn’t a modern yoga posture). Then Covid-19 crept into our consciousness and life as we had known it was transformed within a few weeks. Without much warning I suddenly find myself with more time on my hands as my yoga business drys up and I twiddle my thumbs wondering what to do.

Initially there was a numbness – a common symptom of shock – and a sense of unreality as though I was just in a nightmare that I could wake up from. As each day passed the reality of the situation leaked into my bones. This situation was real and though it will pass eventually (ever hopeful), it was going to take some time.  The first emotion that gripped me was a fear for the safety of family, friends and acquaintances and this extended to everyone everywhere whoever they were. And of course this fear was the inevitable fear we all have of the likelihood of death.

To feel alive my yoga practice has become ever more important.  Spending two hours a day on my yoga practice with emphasis on sun salutations and strong energetic postures got through the first week of lockdown. I felt strong, vital, energised and ready to tackle anything.  The second week (has it really been that long) my practice still has the vinyasa element but added to it is the need to refine and tune back into the classic yoga postures such as the headstand and the shoulder stand with more diligence.  And of course there is the relaxation,  meditation and the chanting.  There is something soothing about chanting mantras.

Along with renewed enthusiasm about my own yoga practice I am also ready to blog again. The character of this blog will change from its original incarnation which ground to a finite halt.  From now on the posts will be more about my personal interest in living life gracefully in order to enhance longevity. Out of every crisis and challenge, creativity comes.  New life is breathed into fusty ways of living, fusty habits, fusty institutions.  Welcoming the New …cropped-DSC01602-1.jpg

 

 

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.

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

Ashtanga, Ahimsa & Asana

ASHTANGA

The general yogic term ashtanga literally means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras¹. He named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace

There is a style of yoga called ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ which is a dynamic form of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

AHIMSA

Ahimsa is one of the ethical disciplines of yoga. It is the first principle of the Yamas and as such is the first principle of yoga. It translates as ‘non-harm’. This principle of non-harming is to be applied to the body as well as everything in life. In terms of the body it means that it is important to be aware of the body when practising the yoga postures and to modify the poses and practices based on the individual’s particular needs and any underlying health conditions. Everyone can practice yoga from the youngest to the oldest but because every body is different it is necessary to engage with ahimsa to ensure safe practice. When practising yoga it is worth remembering the ethical guideline of ahimsa:

  1. The whole ethos of yoga is about self-exploration which means that there should never be an emphasis on doing a posture perfectly or competing with yourself or others.
  2. As our bodies are all different shapes and sizes with genetics giving us varying lengths of bones, etc., not all yoga poses will be accessible and therefore modifications will be necessary.
  3. Don’t do anything that hurts or increases pain. STOP what you are doing at once.
  4. Be aware of how your body is responding to a posture.
  5. If you are injured or have had an operation, give yourself time to heal before re-starting your yoga practice.
  6. The secret to ahimsa in yoga practice is tuning in and listening to body, mind and spirit and not acting in any way that can cause harm.

ASANA

Asana, is the third limb of yoga and in Sanskrit it literally means ‘posture’. The quality of the posture is also established in the meaning of the word. A yoga posture is intended to bring steadiness to the body and calmness to the mind.

In the ancient yogic texts Patanjali describes ‘asana’ as follows:

Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.

Chapter 2 Sutra 46 The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali¹

Not all yoga postures are seated but still the aim of all yoga postures is to get oneself into a state of mind for stillness and meditation. Any yoga posture should allow for the free flow of energy and vitality throughout the body without restriction from tension and other obstacles of the mind and body. Ultimately the body and mind should be so stress-free that the yogi can meditate.

The postures or asanas we all know have many shapes and include standing, sitting and lying poses. There are forward bends, backbends, side bends, inversions, twists and balances.

In the explanation of Patanjali’s sutra 2:46 Prabhavananda & Isherwood¹ state: ‘Asana means two things: the place on which the yogi sits, and the manner in which he sits there.’¹

All of the postures or poses we all know are leading towards the ultimate sitting posture in stillness with an erect spine – steady and calm with our focus on the infinite.

Posture becomes firm and relaxed through control of the natural tendencies of the body, and through meditation on the infinite.

Chapter 2 Sutra 47 The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali¹

Bibliography

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.

What is synchronicity?

Synchronicity means ‘the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection’. The origin of this word was coined in the 1950s by Carl Jung (1875-1961) Swiss psychologist who collaborated with Sigmund Freud in developing the psychoanalytic theory of personality. He later disassociated from Freud as he found Freud’s focus on sexuality masked the true nature of a human being.

Here is a simple true-life story that illustrates synchronicity well.

I hadn’t seen my yoga teacher, now in her 70s, for some time. I wondered if she was still teaching. Over the last weekend she was very much on my mind and I thought about contacting her. I had made no move to do so for months. My attitude being let it happen when the time is right.

Earlier this week I had just finished teaching the morning classes. Time for lunch and maybe a visit to a garden centre on the way home. In my pocket I had a note with the name of a plant I wanted to buy: ERIGERON.

Pushing a trolley with a squeaky wheel I trawled round the alphabet and eventually I came to the letter E. No sign of ERIGERON. Odd. I thought it would be popular. I had seen it in Cornwall sprawling across walls like a small voluptuous daisy in several hues of pink and white.

Erigeron in Cornwall © Sanandi-jacq

Giving up on the plant-whose-name-I-couldn’t-pronounce I looked for other plant orphans that might like a home. Whilst moving up and down the aisles adoring plants and wanting to give them all a home, I noticed a familiar couple in front of me. Believe it or not – it was my yoga teacher and her husband also seeking plants! What a happy coincidence!

Delighted at the thought of a reunion I jumped out in front of her (later thinking that was not a wise move). Though a little stunned she was equally pleased to see me again after a year. ‘Well. Well. Fancy seeing you. I thought you had moved on again’.

We exchanged pleasantries and updates on status. I asked her what plants she was seeking.

‘A daisy-like plant with an unpronounceable name,’ She said and took a slip of paper from her handbag.

And there it was in black and white – ERIGERON.

I pulled out my note. ‘SNAP! The very same plant I’m after. What are the chances of that!’

Well, if that doesn’t illustrate the idea of synchronicity … .

Can you recall any tales of synchronicity in your life? What explanation would you give for such events?

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Postscript: The nursery didn’t have the plant. We said we’d phone the other if we found a nursery that did. Let’s hope that is some time soon.