yoga wisdom from my teacher

Meditating on Meditation by Srivatsa Ramaswami

“I was watching a live television program in India some 30 years back
when TV had just been introduced in India. It was a program in which
an elderly yogi was pitted against a leading cardiologist. It was
virtually a war. The yogi was trying to impress with some unusual
poses which were dubbed as potentially dangerous by the doctor. Almost
everything the yogi claimed was contested by the non-yogi and soon the
dialogue degenerated. The yogi stressed that headstand will increase
longevity by retaining the amrita in the sahasrara in the head and the
medical expert countered it by saying that there was no scientific
basis for such claims and dubbed it as a pose which was unnatural and
dangerous and will lead to a stroke. The Yogi replied by saying that
Yoga had stood the test of time for centuries; it had been in vogue
much before modern medicine became popular. Thank God it was a black
and white program; else you would have seen blood splashed all over
the screen.

Things have become more civil in these three decades. Now neti pot,
asanas, yogic breathing exercises and yogic meditation have all become
part of the medical vocabulary. There is a grudging appreciation of
yoga within the medical profession. Many times doctors suggest a few
yogic procedures, especially Meditation, in several conditions like
hypertension, anxiety, depression and other psychosomatic ailments.

Ah! Meditation. The Yoga world is divided into two camps. On one side
we have enthusiastic hata yogis who specialize in asanas and the other
group which believes fervently in meditation as a panacea for all the
ills.

But how should one meditate? Many start meditation and give it up
after a few days or weeks as they fail to see any appreciable benefit
or perceivable progress. The drop out rate is quite high among
meditators. The mind continues to be agitated and does not get into
the meditating routine. Or quite often one tends to take petit naps
while meditating. Why does this happen? It is due to lack of adequate
preparation. Basically one has to prepare oneself properly for
meditation. The Yogis mention two sadhanas or two yogic procedures as
preparations. They are asanas and pranayama. Asanas, as we have seen
earlier, reduce rajas which manifests as restlessness of the mind, an
inability to remain focused for an appreciable amount of time. But
another guna, tamas also is not helpful during meditation, manifesting
as laziness, lethargy and sloth and this also should be brought under
control if one wants to meditate. Patanjali, Tirumular and several old
Yogis advocate the practice of Pranayama to reduce the effects of
Tamas. Patanjali says Pranayama helps to reduce avarana or Tamas. He
along with conventional ashtanga yogis also mentions that Pranayama
makes the mind capable of Dharana or the first stage of meditation.
Pranayama is an important prerequisite of meditation.

There is evidence that pranayama has a salutary effect on the whole
system. In an earlier article I had explained the beneficial effects
of deep pranayama on the heart and the circulatory system. Further,
when it is done correctly, it helps to draw in anywhere between 3 to 4
liters of atmospheric air compared to just about ½ liter of air
during normal breathing. This helps to stretch the air sacs of the
lungs affording an excellent exchange of oxygen and gaseous waste
products. These waste products are proactively thrown out of the
system by deep pranayama, which yogis refer to as reduction of tamas.
Thus soon after pranayama, the yogi feels refreshed and calm and
becomes fit for the first stage of meditation which is called Dharana.

What should one meditate on? Several works talk about meditating on
cakras, mantras, auspicious icons, various tatwas and on the spirit/
soul etc. But, the method of meditating, only a few works detail.
Perhaps the most precise is that of Patanjali in Yoga Sutras.
Patanjali details not only a step by step methodology of meditation
but also the various objects of prakriti and ultimately the spirit
within to meditate on. Hence his work may be considered as the most
detailed, complete and rigorous on meditation

For a start Patanjali would like the abhyasi to get the technique
right. So he does not initially specify the object but merely says
that the Yogi after the preliminary practices of asana, pranayama and
pratyahara, should sit down in a comfortable yogasana and start the
meditation. Tying the mind to a spot is dharana. Which spot? Vyasa in
his commentary suggests going by tradition, a few spots, firstly
inside the body, like the chakras as the Kundalini Yogi would do,, or
the heart lotus as the bhakti yogi would do, or the mid-brows as a
sidhha yogi would do or even an icon outside as a kriya yogi would do.
The icon should be an auspicious object like the image of one’s
favorite deity. Many find it easier to choose a mantra and focus
attention on that. Thousands everyday meditate on the Gayatri mantra
visualizing the sun in the middle of the eyebrows or the heart as part
of their daily Sandhyavandana** routine. It is also an ancient
practice followed even today to meditate on the breath with or without
using the Pranayama Mantra.

(*Namarupa published my article “Sandhyavandanam-Ritualistic
Gayatri Meditation” with all the routines, mantras, meanings, about 40
pictures, and also an audio with the chanting of the mantras in the
Sep/Oct 2008 issue.)

What of the technique?

The Yogabhyasi starts the antaranga sadhana or the internal practice
by bringing the mind to the same object again and again even as the
mind tends to move away from the chosen object of meditation. The
active, repeated attempts to bring the mind back to the simple, single
object again and again is the first stage of meditation (samyama)
called dharana. Even though one has done everything possible to make
the body/mind system more satwic, because of the accumulated samskaras
or habits, the mind continues to drift away from the object chosen for
meditation. The mind starts with the focus on the object but within a
short time it swiftly drifts to another related thought then a third
one and within a short time this train of thoughts leads to a stage
which has no connection whatsoever with the object one started with.
Then suddenly the meditator remembers that one is drifting and soon
brings the mind back to the object and resumes remaining with the
“object”. This process repeats over and over again. This repeated
attempts to coax and bring the mind to the same object is dharana. At
the end of the session lasting for about 15 minutes, the meditator may
(may means must) take a short time to review the quality of
meditation. How often was the mind drifting away from the object and
how long on an average the mind wandered? And further what were the
kinds of interfering thoughts? The meditator takes note of these. If
they are recurrent and strong then one may take efforts to sort out
the problem that interferes with the meditation repeatedly or at least
decide to accept and endure the situation but may decide to take
efforts to keep those thoughts away at least during the time one
meditates.

If during the dharana period, the mind gets distracted too often and
this does not change over days of practice, perhaps it may indicate
that the rajas is still dominant and one may want to reduce the
systemic rajas by doing more asanas in the practice. On the other hand
if the rajas is due to influences from outside, one may take special
efforts to adhere to the yamaniyamas more scrupulously. Perhaps every
night before going to sleep one may review the day’s activities and
see if one had willfully violated the tenets of yamaniyamas like “did
I hurt someone by deed, word or derive satisfaction at the expense of
others’ pain”. Or did I say untruths and so on. On the other hand if
one tends to go to sleep during the meditation minutes, one may
consider increasing the pranayama practice and also consider reducing
tamasic interactions, foods etc.

Then one may continue the practice daily and also review the progress
on a daily basis and also make the necessary adjustments in practice
and interactions with the outside world. Theoretically and practically
when this practice is continued diligently and regularly, slowly the
practitioner of dharana will find that the frequency and duration of
these extraneous interferences start reducing and one day, the abhyasi
may find that for the entire duration one stayed with the object. When
this takes place, when the mind is completely with the object moment
after moment in a continuous flow of attention, then one may say that
the abhyasi has graduated into the next stage of meditation known as
dhyana. Many meditators are happy to have reached this stage. Then one
has to continue with the practice so that the dhyana habits or
samskaras get strengthened. The following day may not be as
interruption free, but Patanjali says conscious practice will make it
more successful. “dhyana heyat tad vrittayah”. If one continues with
this practice for sufficiently long time meditating on the same object
diligently, one would hopefully reach the next stage of meditation
called Samadhi. In this state only the object remains occupying the
mind and the abhyasi even forgets herself/himself. Naturally if one
continues the meditation practice one would master the technique of
meditation. Almost every time the yagabhasi gets into meditation
practice, one would get into Samadhi. Once one gets this capability
one is a yogi—a technically competent yogi– and one may be able to
use the skill on any other yoga worthy object and make further
progress in Yoga. (tatra bhumishu viniyogah)

The consummate yogi could make a further refinement. An object has a
name and one has a memory of the object, apart from the object itself
(sabda, artha gnyana). If a Yogi is able to further refine the
meditation by focusing attention on one aspect like the name of the
object such a meditation is considered superior. For instance when the
sound ‘gow” is heard (gow is cow ), if the meditiator intently
maintains the word ‘gow’ alone in his mind without bringing the
impression(form) of a cow in his mind then that is considered a
refined meditation. Or when he sees the cow, he does not bring the
name ‘gow’ in the meditation process, it is a refined meditation.

The next aspect-after mastering meditation— one may consider is, what
should be the object one should meditate upon. For Bhakti Yogis it is
the Lord one should meditate upon. According to my teacher, a great
Bhakti Yogi, there is only one dhyana or meditation and that is
bhagavat dhyana or meditating upon the Lord. There is a difference
between a religious person and a devotee. A devotee loves the Lord and
meditates on the Lord, all through life. The Vedas refer to the
Pararmatman or the Supreme Lord and bhakti yogis meditate on the Lord.
The Vedas also refer to several gods and some may meditate on these as
well. By meditating on the Lord one may transcend the cycle of
transmigration. At the end of the bhakti yogi’s life one reaches the
same world of the Lord (saloka), the heaven. Some attain the same form
as the Lord. Some stay in the proximity of the Lord and some merge
with the Lord. The Puranas which are the later creation of poet seers
personify the Lord and the vedic gods. Thus we have several puranas as
Agni purana, Vayu purana and then those of the Lord Himself like the
Bhagavata Purana , Siva Purana , Vishnu Purana. Running to thousands
of slokas and pages the puranic age helped to worship the Lord more
easily as these stories helped to visualize the Lord as a person,
which was rather difficult to do from the Vedas. Later on Agamas made
the Lord more accessible by allowing idols to be made of the Lord and
divine beings and consecrating them in temples. Thus these various
methods helped the general populace remain rooted to religion and
religious worship. So meditating upon the charming idol/icon of the
Lord made it possible for many to worship and meditate . Of course
many traditional Brahmins belonging to the vedic practices stuck to
the vedic fire rituals, frowned upon and refrained from any ‘form
worship’, but millions of others found form worship a great boon.

Meditating on the form of the chosen deity either in a temple or at
one’s own home has made it possible to sidestep the intermediate
priestly class to a great extent. One can become responsible for one’s
own religious practice, including meditation. The ultimate reality is
meditated on in different forms, in any form as Siva Vishnu etc or as
Father, Mother, Preceptor or even a Friend. Some idol meditators
define meditating on the whole form as dharana, then meditating on
each aspect of the form as the toe or head or the arms or the
bewitching eyes as dhyana and thus giving a different interpretation
to meditation. Some, after meditating on the icon, close the eyes and
meditate on the form in their mind’s eye (manasika).

Darshanas like Samkhya and Yoga which do not subscribe to the theory
of a Creator commended ‘the understanding of one’s own Self’ as a
means of liberation. The Self which is non-changing is pure
consciousness and by deep unwavering meditation after getting the
technique right, one can realize the nature of oneself and be
liberated. Following this approach, the Samkhyas commend meditating on
each and every of the 24 aspects of prakriti in the body-mind complex
of oneself and transcend them to directly know the true nature of
oneself, and that will be Freedom or Kaivalya. Similarly the Yogis
would say that the true nature of the self is known when the mind
transcends(nirodha) the five types of its activities called vrittis to
reach kaivalya, by a process of subtler and subtler meditation.

The Upanishads on the other hand while agreeing with the other
Nivritti sastras like Yoga and Samkhya in so far as the nature of the
self is concerned, indicate that the individual and the Supreme Being
are one and the same and meditating on this identity leads to
liberation. They would like the spiritual aspirant to first follow a
disciplined life to get an unwavering satwic state of the mind. Then
one would study the upanishadic texts (sravana), by analysis (manana)
understand them and realize the nature of the self through several
step by step meditation approaches (nidhidhyasana). The Vedas, for the
sake of the spiritual aspirant, have several Upanishad vidyas to study
and understand It from several viewpoints. For instance, the panchkosa
vidya indicates that the real self is beyond (or within) the five
koshas (sheaths). It could also be considered as the pure
consciousness which is beyond the three states of awareness (avasta)
of waking, dream and deep sleep, as the Pranava(Om) vidya would
indicate. The understanding and conviction that Self and the Supreme
Self are one and the same is what one needs to get, before doing
Upanishadic meditation following the advaitic interpretation.

Summarizing one may say that traditional meditation warrants proper
preparation so that the mind becomes irrevocably satwic and thus fit
for and capable of meditation. Secondly it requires practice on a
simple object until the meditation technique is mastered and such
meditatin samskaras developed. Then the Yogi should set the goal of
meditation based on the conviction of a solid philosophy—bhakti,
samkhya, yoga, vedanta, kundalini (or if comfortable, nirvana) or
whatever.”

Thank you Ramaswamiji!

I can’t credit this as my own question, but it’s a good one: “why is it that all these people practice yoga (also known as “stretching”) but never seem to meditate?”

This morning I asked my class (a class that has 15-20 minutes of meditation at the end — and no one leaves) if they are using meditation to gain something or to get rid of something.

My personal yoga practice is almost all meditation nowadays. Yes, I still move, but asanas are merely shapes and forms to lead me into formless quietude.

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6 thoughts on “yoga wisdom from my teacher

  1. This is a great article, Linda. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I like the way it shows what is common in all Yoga and where the various types diverge, primarily in the object of meditation.

    I also like the emphasis he places on the Yoga Sutra, recognizing that everything since has been detailed method for one type of Yoga or another. How remarkable that this 2400 year old concise outline it what he still considers to be the best guide to meditation. It reminds me of the first tenant of Ratra Yoga–“everything after the Yoga Sutra is an unnecessary modern innovation”!

    I hope a lot of your readers will take the time to read this wonderful summary carefully. It's long but well worth the time.

    I guess it will come as no surprise to you that I totally identify with his Upanishadic path. I like the utter simplicity and profundity of constant meditation on our wondrous oneness with the wondrous universe. It's so great to read an essay who gives full voice and appreciation to all the different types of meditation and not just the one he or she is most drawn to.

    (One other note. For anyone using Yoga to help with high blood pressure, I highly recommend “The Effects of Yoga on Hypertension” by Dr. Swami Shankardevananda of the Bihar School in India. Not only is it an excellent scientific treatise on its subject, in the process it turns out to be one of the more practical books I've read on all Yoga techniques.)

    Thanks again for sharing this with us.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    Like

  2. Kali, goddess of Birth and Death; Playboy bunnies doing Yoga; Wisdom; Meditation. In reading your last two posts, Linda, I realized your writing has ranged over the continuum of life experience that Yoga, in its original, ancient conception, holds as one.

    I think “the Yoga world is divided into two camps” because it, like the rest of the world now, separates Sex and Spirit. American Puritanism finds its match in Hindu and Buddhist concepts of Purity.

    “Radical” Yoga is the understanding that spirit cannot be absent from our blood and bones, cannot be absent from ordinary life. The union that we strive for happened when we came into existence; spirit came into form. Yoga practice is simply the act of bringing our mind into contact with our wonderousness, letting Life's intelligence move us. When this happens, we are meditating; we are in sahaj samadhi, natural union.

    To be a woman practicing Yoga is to embody the union that conventional Yoga and society fears and denigrates. Of course we feel like warriors! I see Playboy Yoga as evidence of the repressed Feminine expressing herself in American culture. The knowledge that sex is Yoga is unconscious and so She manifests in a polarized form.

    On Hallowe'en night, I was called to a birth. The mother spiralled her hips and released what she was feeling on sound and a little girl was born in the early morning of All Soul's Day. The mother had followed the movement of Shakti, the Life force, and the boundaries between sexual and spiritual, life and death, dissolved. A few hundred years ago, she would have been called a witch.

    The Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman, has written a book, Dancing in the Flames, The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness, that recognizes the reemergence of the Feminine as vital to our individual and collective healing. Radical Yoga shares this recognition and gives us the tangible tools of Yoga technology to effect it. Wisdom is its gift.

    Like

  3. Crescence, thanks so much for your comment. I thought it the most profound and potent I've read in a long time — but that does not surprise me given that you resonate with Mark Whitwell as do I. and interesting you should mention Jung as I will be applying to the Jung Institute in Chicago for a certificate program. It all resonates and all things happen for a reason. Also interesting you mention the Dark Goddess as I am reading Yogic Secrets of the Dark Goddess by Shambhavi Chopra.

    “Radical” Yoga is the understanding that spirit cannot be absent from our blood and bones, cannot be absent from ordinary life.” — so very true. and it is the way I practice and the way I teach.

    metta and blessings to you.

    Like

  4. Hi,
    Yoga is beneficial for the health in ways that modern science is just beginning to understand. Even though it has beenapplied with therapeutic intention for thousand of years, Yoga Therapy is only just now emerging as a discipline initself.
    More health care practitioners are starting to include yogic techniques in their approach to healing — andmore yoga teachers give a therapeutic intention to their teaching. People who have never tried yoga before are startingto consider including Yoga in their treatment plan.
    As science begins to document the importance of understanding the interrelation of all existing things, it looks to Yogawith an intrigued eye, for Yoga speaks Unity in every word. As yoga techniques are researched and new data is gathered,it becomes easier for science and the medical establishment to understand and accept the benefits of Yoga Therapy.Yet there is still not one consensual definition of the discipline.
    In order to arrive to an adequate definition and tocome up with proper standards for Yoga Therapy, it is crucial at this early stage to properly address some delicateprofessional and ethical issues. At the same time it is important to educatethegeneralpublic about Yoga Therapy'sbenefits and careful use.
    so this article will really helpful to me..

    Like

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