Mind and Heart in Yoga
This is part one of a two-part article. In part one, I will write about the Yogic understanding of Mind. In the next part, I will write about the Yogic understanding of Heart.
Part 1, The Mind
Yoga is a very powerful and mysterious practice. It not only can transform a person's life completely, but it has the potential to change the world as well.
However, there are many misunderstandings about the practice of Yoga. Many people have been taught that Yoga is simply a complicated form of physical exercise. And, while Yoga practice is a very effective form of exercise for the body, it is much, much more than that.
In order to begin to bring out the great power that lays hidden in this ancient practice, it is important to understand and to begin to examine some basic truths about ourselves.
One of the first questions to ask our self is, "What is Mind?"
If we examine our selves closely and carefully, we will discover that what we call our mind is very difficult to solidly define. The seat of the mind appears to be located in the brain, but it is not limited to the brain. The mind is much more subtle than that. The mind does not seem to occupy any one particular place. The mind will, in one moment, seem very large, and, in another moment, seem very small. The mind is like electricity. We can sense and feel it there, but we cannot see it with our eyes.
When you look more closely at yourself, you will notice that what you call your mind is nothing more than a collection of thoughts and emotions. In a way, emotions can be called thoughts too. What most people call emotions are nothing more than thoughts combined with desires. Mostly, these patterns of thoughts that people have go largely unnoticed. The patterns of thought operate in the background of a person's life. Yet, these patterns of thought have great power and energy. They determine who we are and who we will become. They determine if we are happy or unhappy.
The truth is, is that many of these thoughts that we carry with us are not only unnecessary, they actually keep us from discovering who we truly are. These thoughts prevent us from knowing and having access to the potential power and light that lives within each and every one of us.
What the collection of practices known as Yoga seeks to accomplish in the end is to cleanse these extra and unnecessary thoughts from our minds. The mind, in many ways, is like a mirror. When the mirror is dirty, or filled with unnecessary thoughts, one cannot get a clear reflection of one's true self.
This process of mental purification is not easy. Our minds are very strong in how they maintain their habitual patterns. Because of how we have identified with our own particular patterns of thought and emotion, they have great power and are tremendously resistant to change.
This is the reason why a serious Yoga practice requires so much commitment and dedication and regularity. Deep and real changes simply cannot be affected with a practice that is shallow and irregular.
If you do practice Yoga deeply and regularly, the rewards are fantastic and amazing. As the mind is cleansed more and more completely of the patterns of thoughts and emotions that are not really necessary to your essential well-being, the more you will discover aspects of yourself that you never knew existed. These newfound parts of yourself will astound and deeply touch you.
You will find moments of indescribable joy bubbling up from deep inside you more and more frequently. You will find moments of very insightful clarity and perception, not only about your own life, but about the lives of others as well. A deep sense of peace will begin to permeate large parts of yourself and your life. It is the kind of peace that is self-sustaining. It is the kind of peace that needs no external gratification. In short, you will begin to experience yourself as a radiantly happy and powerful person.
A mind that is filled with thoughts of fear, doubt and anxiety will surely create untold suffering for you and for others. A mind that is mostly free from habitual patterns of negative and unnecessary thoughts will be filled with joy and creativity and great beauty. You can and will be a literal "light" unto this world.
This is the choice that Yoga places in front of you.
To be continued...
November 14, 2006
Yoga is the path of purification and transformation. This means, that we can expect to go through many different changes physically, mentally and emotionally throughout the course of our practice.
Generally, any kind of transitional movement in our practice goes from the grosser aspects of our selves to the subtler. What this means is that we are apt to go through more physical changes initially and, over time, we will experience more subtle changes to our mental and emotional states.
Yoga is a process in which we are attempting to awaken and bring forth the more essential parts of our selves. By using the word, "essential", I mean those parts of our selves that are transcendent and do not change over time.
The further we move away from what is natural or essential in our selves, the more "extra" elements we carry around with in our lives. We eat more than we need to, own more possessions than is needed, talk more than are necessary and so on. It is not so much the fact that we live with these extra elements, it is the attachment and identification we form with these things that is so harmful and causes such suffering. The stronger the attachment and identification with these extra elements, the more we are apt to forget our essential selves. Having an awareness of the essential aspects of selves is, in many ways, the essence of what Yoga practice is all about.
So, when we embark upon the path of Yoga, we begin to practice and live our lives in such a way as to begin to let go of these "extras".
What you can expect initially is that your body will begin to go through some very strong and often dramatic changes, especially in the first 6 months of intense and dedicated daily practice. You will begin to develop what is known as "tapas" or heat in your practice, in your body. This will result in profuse sweating (of course in some more than others). For some, very strong odors will emit from the body. Many people experience changes to their skin. Their skin will break out in acne, rashes and such. In more extreme cases, some people develop very large boils.
Other mild to stronger symptoms of purification will begin to appear for most practitioners. It is very common to see the increased occurrence of colds and flu and fevers, as well as, headaches, drowsiness and light-headedness. It is important to honor and respect these kinds of changes, as they can be quite deep in one's system. I recommend that you take extra time to rest and be quiet. You can also be mindful of your tendency towards "busyness" and begin to reduce the general number of activities in your day.
Naturally, because the asana practice is so rigorous, you can expect strong changes to your physique and overall health of your body. You will get significantly stronger in a very integrated and well-balanced fashion. In particular the "core" strength of your body will improve. The "core" refers to the area of the lower trunk and pelvic regions. Strength in these areas has been shown to dramatically increase the function of balance, smoothness of motion and speed of reflexes. It is common knowledge that athletic performance can be improved significantly through the development of one’s core strength. Flexibility of all areas of your body should increase dramatically.
One area of improvement that is often overlooked is the increased functionality of the gastro-intestinal system. The frequency of forward bends in asana practice very powerfully cleans out and reconditions our digestive organs. Most people in our modern culture and society, due to unhealthy diets and stress, have some degree of bowel or digestive dysfunction. Constipation and excess gas are the norm for most people. One report stated that many people carry up to 20-30 kilos of undigested feces in their bodies at any one time! A well functioning gastro-intestinal system is vital to the optimal functioning of our immune system and hormonal balances. Overall mental and physical healths are dramatically affected by the state of our digestive systems.
Thus, one of the areas of focus as we dive deeper into our practices, is the greater and greater level of mindfulness and care of what, when and how we put food into our bodies. I will speak more elaborately on this topic at some other time.
Now, as you begin to become healthier and more in tune physically, you will begin to become sensitive and aware of subtler aspects of your self. For example, you will begin to notice that your senses will generally begin to increase in acute sensitivity. Your sense of smell and sight and hearing will be sharper and clearer. You will feel temperature and pressure changes in different parts of your body in a way that you never have before. Many people report an increased sensitivity and depth to their sense of taste. What was once flavorful before will become to taste overly salty, bitter, savory or sweet. You will find yourself beginning to crave foods that have subtler or even plain flavors.
The process of purification will begin to affect you mentally, emotionally and psychically as well. Usually chronic imbalances in one's system generally become more acute before any deep healing takes place. You will find that your thoughts and your emotions will become more intense and frenetic at times causing periods of great discomfort. Bad moods and bouts of edginess and impatience are common during this time. Although it may seem like you are going crazy at times, this part of the process is important and necessary, so don’t worry about it too much. It is also common to experience intense dreams and very colorful fantasies.
The result of this kind of mental, emotionally and psychic purification is that you will find your becoming far more sensitive and alert to your own state of mind, as well as, the state and energy of the people and environments around you. Many people report an increased occurrence of psychic types of experiences (reading other people's minds, anticipating unrelated events, as well as, an increased occurrence of synchronicity). In short, you will become more sensitive to the "energy" of people and places and things. You will become more sensitive to those aspects of our reality that remains hidden or unseen to most normal people. In the long run, this will not seem so unusual to you. What is strange is how most of us can be so blind and unaware of basic aspects of our existence for so long.
Again, as you go through this process, be sure to give as much respect and honor to the subtle and not so subtle changes that are taking place. This path of Yoga, this path of purification is very, very powerful. You are awakening great stores of energy, vitality and power within yourself that you perhaps never knew you had. Anytime, you awaken or come into contact with these kinds of energies, it is important to realize that with greater power, comes greater responsibility. By its nature, the purpose of this power is not intended simply for the gratification of your own selfish desires. In fact, to do so is foolish and dangerous in many different respects. Reflect deeply and mindfully about this process and take great care.
November 5, 2006
Mae and I arrived in Mysore on the 21st of October, a Saturday. We have just had a wonderful few months in Japan. We taught an incredible workshop in Fukuoka and a shorter one in Nagasaki, mixing led and lecture classes with a few weeks of Mysore style practice. What made our time in Fukuoka sand Nagasaki such an amazing experience for us was the extra special level of devotion and dedication displayed by the students there. There is an unusually high level of community there and the students came with their hearts open and with a willingness to trust and to work in a way that is not common.
The results that come from this level of participation are magical and miraculous. Lives are changed and hearts are touched in profound ways. The practice of Yoga is powerful. And, when we are ready to receive it’s gifts fully and openly, we can expect to be moved and changed in some very deep ways, emotionally and mentally, as well as, physically. Naturally, we formed a deep bond with some students there and expect to return to work with them time and time again.
After Kyushu, we both taught at the Tokyo Yoga Fest, which is in its 3rd or 4th year of existence. It is a very big event and grows bigger each year. Some of the classes number in excess of 250 students. It is inspiring and heartwarming to see so many Japanese students either exploring the practice anew or finding ways to take their existing practices deeper. When I see so many eager and devoted students, I have a great feeling for the future of Yoga in Japan. Again, as I experienced in other workshops in Japan, there is a level of heartfelt devotion and innocence that I have never experienced anywhere else in the world. Makes me realize how much powerful positive change is possible, not only for individual practitioners, but for the country as a whole. Very exciting.
Now, we are back in our beloved Mysore. This is my 10th visit in 11 years. For Mae, this is her 6th visit in the past few years. We love it here. We have had the same house since 2004. We gave up our apartment in Tokyo after our wedding in May, so our home in Mysore is really our only permanent residence.
What makes our time in Mysore so special?
First, the level of practice here is deeper and more powerful than anywhere else I have ever practiced. The power of the place, the lineage and the Guru here all combine to create an atmosphere and an energy that is highly charged with the essence of Yoga. Not only do Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and R. Sharath teach here, but also Guruji’s teacher, Krishnamacharya taught here before him for many years.
There is also a quality of time here that does not exist elsewhere. One can practice here without the normal distractions of one’s normal life, which makes a significant difference that is hard to describe. Your level of focus increases dramatically. The whole purpose of Yoga is to shift your awareness from flowing in an outward flowing direction to an inward flowing one. Here in Mysore, one can do that much more easily and fluently than one can do in one’s normal environment.
Also, the fact that there is an entire community of practitioners here from all over the world that come devoted solely to this end makes a very strong difference. All these elements combine synergistically to create an environment that promotes a maximum level of power in one’s practice. For this reason, all students of Ashtanga Yoga should consider extended visits to Mysore to practice. Naturally, those who are planning to teach Ashtanga Yoga should make it their highest priority to visit Mysore on a regular basis.
So, please come and join us as soon as possible!