Friday, May 26, 2017

Tantric yoga: misunderstood

(Most of the Siddha yogi books are badly translated. but this edition I have depicted above is one of the best translated texts, with elegant English that conveys the difficult topic it translates) 

Tantric yoga is misunderstood. It is a hugely spiritual sadhana which uses the unusual path of sublimating the spirit and soul through the body. It starts off with the basic premise that you use this practice for intense self-control, then direct that controlled energy upwards, towards a higher goal.

Some of the most wonderful books on this subject are Tirumandiram, a Tamil text by Siddha yogis which lists practices and discusses the spiritual upliftment that comes from controlling or redirecting the sexual energy.

One of the benefits/offshoots  of this sort of yogic control is vitality, vigor, and superior control, including at the uro-genital system. This is why perhaps there is the belief that it is used only for sexual purposes, that would be to undermine the relevance of a spiritual practice.

Any of the yogic practices may be used, as a sequence, to improve fertility, depending on the body type and capacity of the practitioner.

Bandhas play a major role in this, and must be introduced by and by. The vajroli mudra and ashwini mudra are used to prevent decay of the body from the pelvic region upwards, and used to strengthen the entire system. Moolabandha called the master lock combines these, plus adds its own tightening of the pelvic region. The west has reinvented these as Kegel's exercises, as these have now popularly known.
Having a regular practice is more important than focusing on just a few asanas towards libido. It is understood that blood circulation in the uro-genital system needs to be facilitated to improve libido, or fertility.

Some contemporary books that help with this topic are Yoga for sex, by Vimla Lalvani. And Pink Yoga, by CP Sharma. The former lists poses that may be done to improve the whole system, as well as gives partnering poses,while the latter book discusses simpler poses/practices you may do on your own.

Interestingly the same practices which help fertility are also used to control sexual desires and develop dispassion and control lust. 

(The above is from a column I wrote a few years ago, on this topic)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Gorakhnath:his legendary footprints are all over the country

Matsyendranath: guru to Gorakhnath (below)
Amongst the greatest Siddhars is Korrakar , who in the rest of India is venerated as the nath yogi Gorakhnath. His footprints are all over this vast country. Almost all regions and states claim him as their own. From the northwest, to the east, to the southern tip of India, nay even beyond, at Sri Lanka, his influence has been felt. Even today the school of yogis referred as Nath yogis are unusual warrior like yogis, who do not bow to known sets of political compliance. Since they do not identify with religious sects or castes, they reflect an India which is spiritual outside these confines.

Here is a powerful quote attributed to him and that explains the core of yoga philosophy even today.
The four varna (castes) are perceived to be located in the nature of the individual, i.e. Brahmana in sadacara (righteous conduct), Ksatriya in saurya (valor and courage), Vaisya in vyavasaya (business), and Sudra in seva (service). A yogin experiences all men and women of all races and castes within himself. Therefore he has no hatred for anybody. He has love for every being.
— Gorakhnath, Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati III.6-8

Many legends are attributed to him, as evidence of his yogic prowess, usually feats to show how he aided is disciples or devotees in difficult circumstances.  Many of these stories also reflect the fact that he was regarded as a great healer. 
His origins were very humble. Though there are different stories of his origin, all have a common detail: he was discovered as a baby left on a dung hill. And he was the direct disciple of the powerful yogi Matsyendranath, after whom the famous spinal twist pose in yoga is named. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The list of 18 Siddhas seems to be a matter of continuing debate, while some names, common in northern and western India also evoke debate. These are  Valmiki (Tamil name Vaanmegar) and Patanjali: there seems to be a school of thought which believes these were different from their namesakes in the north, while anther school believes to the contrary. But Gorakhnath, prominent   in this list,  (referred to in Southern treatises as Korrakar) is accepted to be the famous yogi whose imprint is felt even today in Nepal, Bengal and Gujarat. So also Agastiyar's contribution to the yogic philosophy and  its healing therapies is recorded as a shared legacy that binds the southern and northern halves of the Indian sub-continent. Dhanwantari, regarded as father of Ayurveda and medicine man for the gods, is also in this list.
Tamil historians also believe Siddhas were part of the Lemuria (in Tamil believed to be Kumari Kandam)  – the legendary landmass that linked Australia and Asia, inhabited by highly evolved spiritual people,  before it sunk and split gradually. But the history of Siddhas is extremely difficult to track. For one, the  language they used was also often obtuse, in yogic parlance called sandhya bhasa or sunya sambhashana(esoteric language), that deliberately hid the meaning of what was meant so the special powers conferred on a Siddha (called Siddhis) did not fall into the hands of unscrupulous people.  Again, the reason for the difficulty  in spooring Siddhas historically is part of the Siddha  legacy itself: the   sub-text running through any references to them is the still-common saying "Rishi mulam, nadhi mulam", writes Kandaswamy. Meaning, the source of a saint is as mysterious and untraceable as that of a river.

Though each yoga school may insist that their method is superior to the rest, the common purpose – of god-realisation – is the binding factor in all of them. In that the Siddhas have much in common with other yogic traditions in India. But the emphasis was on using the body, perfecting it as the ideal vessel that carried them to this destination. This vessel had to be perfect, non-decaying, youthful and absolutely strong  for that difficult task.  That explains the vast therapeutic branches that this type ofyoga spawned, including the anti-aging Kaya Kalpa. This also explains the mythical life-span attributed to the Siddhas, most of them, according to the legends that surround them, lived for thousands of years. And some of them are also revered as Chiranjeevis, those who never died and are still around to help their devotees transcend the turbulent ocean of samskaras (cycle of births and deaths). This includes the legendary Babaji, the guru of many recent masters.  The legend that surrounds his `sightings'  even today draws yoga devotees from around the world to brave the cold, snow-strapped slopes of Himalayas.  


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Yogis who broke traditions: unusual yogis

The revival of interest in Siddha medicine, believed to be the oldest system of medicine in the world, is also unraveling the tradition of yoga of the Siddhas,   also referred to in Tamils as Cittars or Arivans, meaning the `ones who knew'.

Though there is currently a branch of yoga trademarked Siddha Yoga (devised by Swami Muktananda, disciple of the saint-yogi Swami Nityananda), the yoga of Siddhas I am referring to in this column is the generic term famous in the South, encompassing a vast lineage that includes intriguing yogi characters who link India with various continents(from Arabia, Sri Lanka to China) and whose science covered herbalism, metallurgy, toxicology, bhasma (use of metals as medicine), alchemy, anti-aging Kaya Kalpa treatments, Varmam (or Marmakalai which in turn had spawned the various therapies of acupressure, reflexology, zone therapy) and whose artistic influence spanned architecture, idol-making, exquisite  poetry.

As rebels who flouted the class confines of the day, the Siddhas emerged from various castes and professions: Pambatti-Siddhar's name, as per the meaning, indicates that he was a snake-charmer. Karuvaroor, the spiritual guru of one of India's most powerful kings, Raja Raja Chola, was  from the Thevar sect. There are references to gypsy Siddhas.  The famous Thanjavur temple's brilliant architecture is credited to him.  Tirumoolar was a cow-herd Machamuni, acknowledged to be the powerful Matysendranath yogi after whom the famous spinal twist is named, is referred to in the southern tradition as a fisherman.

They even gave themselves shocking names to indicate their rebelliousness against prevailing social prejudices: one called himself Punnakkicar (The cow-dung saint) and another called himself (Kaga-pucundar, or crow's excrement), records S. N. Kandaswamy in his book The Yoga of Siddha Avvai. They encouraged an agnostic philosophy that rebelled against casteism or any systemized prejudice  that sought to keep others from their birthright to mukti or liberation. They deliberately sought to shock people out of set notions, thus propelling them closer to god-realisation. The names of women Siddhas (Kudambai Cittar, Avvaiyar)   indicates that this egalitarianism embraced both genders. The list that Kandaswamy presents also includes Siddhas from various religious denominations: Sufi saints (Gunangudi Mastan), Viramamunivar (actually Constantine Joseph Beshchi of Italy), Yakkobu-cittar (originally Ramdadevar) who is said to have traveled to Arabia to influence and be influenced by mystic Muslims, Teraiyar (credited with a sort of neuro-surgery) is believed to be a Buddhist, while Bhoganathar is either a Chinese or a Tamil Siddha who traveled to China to assume the name of Bo-Yang. He is also said to have traveled to Rome, Jerusalem and Rome on his mystical mission.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Yoga has no rules: Siddhar yogis who followed their devotion

The problem today is that everybody is looking to fit things or people or ideas into slots. If it does not fit into a slot of their liking or which includes themselves, people immediately become mean and suspicious. Slot for eating my type of food, my type of clothes, my type of fitness, my type of guru, my type of yoga..

The fear of being alone is what makes all of us like the idea of being slotted. Instead of being one person, suddenly like an hair extension or penile extension or boob job with artificial props, you enlarge the idea of yourself. This explains the violence now currently around the world .. under whatever guise you see it.  But in yoga, you are communing directly with the idea of the divine. Therefore you may reject the idea of slots.

(This image is from the temple which records the story of this saint, as he sat in penance)
The siddhar yogis  were the most vociferous amongst those who refused to be slotted. I wrote an exciting column on these amazing yogis who were keen to use the idea of yoga to break the slots of caste, religion.

This week I plan to run the series on these yogis. Here is one story from these yoga greats(Agastyar was one of them, as well as Bodhidharma, founder of the Shaolin Kung Fu school in China)  from the south of Vindhyas.

This story on  Kaduveli Siddhar  is said to have been narrated by Indian saint Sri Ramana Maharishi to show how a true Jnani could never be judged by what he did publicly. Kaduveli Siddha had an affair with a temple dancer. People gossiped about this to the King who offered a reward for any proof of this. The couple had a baby and the opportunistic dancer wanted to collect the reward so she went to the king   herself and confessed to the affair. The king wanted proof. She did a public performance attended by Kaduveli. As an anklet came off, the Siddha indicated his proximity to her by fixing it back on her ankle.   As the crowd jeered, the Siddha said, "If I it is true that every moment of my life is spent in only god-consciousness then let this boulder split into two." The stone split into two, indicating that even though the Siddha was seen has having a passionate affair with a temple dancer, in truth his god-consciousness had never wavered for a single moment.  

Sage Saying:
"There are only two castes. The highborn are the good who help those in distress.  The lowborn are those who  never help," This quote from Avvaiyar, the Siddha who asked to be relieved of her youthful beauty so she could focus on God and was transformed to an old crone overnight.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Yoga for shyness: balancing poses

At least I can vouch for this: I was so shy as a kid, when people asked me my name, I will run away. I  have refused prestigious school activities, which I wished to participate, because of debilitating shyness. I would be become red, start sweating violently, and feel my tongue hit the roof of the mouth. I can say with confidence that I have dealt with that part of myself with a lot of awareness, thanks to yoga. And even as I started teaching yoga -- which requires u to stand in front of a bunch of people and continually go on talking:)  I started holding workshops. My first workshop had over 50 people in it, including former Miss India Mehr Castellino (at the HELP library) and suffice to say, it was a roaring success.

So yes, yoga works to get this sort of socially debilitating aspects of you also cleared. Most of this happens with balancing poses, standing, inversions or arm balances.

Here, more on the science of how this works, from a column I wrote a while ago:

There is a scientific basis for all this. The brain part called cerebellum (also referred to as the `little brain') is involved in maintaining our physical balance. Recently, it has been established the cerebellum is also involved with maintaining our social balance. It plays an active role in the expression of our social selves.

It was found that the cerebellum is in charge of several functions that we take for granted
  • It co-ordinates the flood of sensory data and interprets it.
  • After interpreting this continuous flow of information from what we see, hear and feel, it gives a holistic picture. When our cerebellum is out of sync, our interpretations may also be askew, leading to social problems.
  • It plays an important role in our ability to pay attention and focus on a particular task at hand.
  • It has a prominent say in our cognitive ability (or problem-solving).
  • Recent research shows that chemical imbalances in the cerebellum could well be linked to social problems we face. This could range from inability to maintain a meaningful conversation. Or inability to sustain a relationship.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Yoga of focus, for success

Yogic tale
This tale is from Yoga Vasishtha, where Rama's  mentor advises him to gain true strength unlike asuras Dama, Vyala, and Kata. In the inevitable battle between devas and asuras, the latter were winning, not just once but in every battle. Brahma offers devas this solution: he advises them to   keep attacking and withdrawing. This constant on-off ruse will make the asuras believe themselves to be invincible. This will create their downfall by strengthening the I-factor. Once this I-factor becomes strong, the asuras will start suffering a steady down-fall because this sort of success also generates deep fear (of failure), a compulsive and self-destructive obsession with superficial worldly pleasures which will dissipate their energies, which will drag their mental powers further down. They will become depressed, agitated, they will destroy themselves. To have true strength, advises Vasishtha, you have to constantly nip the obsessive I-factor, focusing on the work at hand instead of the false ego. Such pure focus will ensure success, while the sort of success bred by the ego is sure to collapse. The mythical devas and asuras, of course, stand for our own positive and negative selves, while the battle success being discussed is   related to any work we undertake.

Yoni mudra
(Womb lock)
This `energy lock' has other names, including shanmukhi mudra. It is simple to instruct but difficult to practice, requiring mental stamina and discipline.

Sit cross-legged. Eyes shut. Lift hands, elbows straight out. Plug ears with each thumb. Use other fingers to shut the other `gateways': place index finger gently on shut eyes, middle finger tips on nostrils – do not shut the nostrils, just place the fingers gently. Place ring finger and little finger on top of upper and lower nostrils respectively. Breathe naturally, hearing the subtle physical sounds that this complete lock provides.

Science speak: This is a powerfully involuting and introverting practice. Avoid if shy or depressed. It helps direct mental focus more keenly inwards, making your watch your inner talk more objectively and critically. It is also a spiritual practice, that prepares you for advanced nada yoga of sound. It is said to relax the facial nerves and muscles. It is therapeutic in anger management.

Wisdom from the ages: `The effects of action (for a yogi) are immediate or delayed (as he desires). By samayama (complete attention through focus, mediation and samadhi or merger), the yogi will gain foreknowledge of their final fruits.' From Patanjali's  Yoga Sutras.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Yoga for success: first destress!

Yoga is tailor-made for the harried, ambitious individuals since it shapes and prunes focus, improving implementation of ideas. It is a mind-training tool. And it cultivates the body to keep pace with the fast-paced needs of ambition. Yet, as you guessed it, these people, type-cast as Type A, are the most likely to shirk it, reserving yoga for their retirement.

I remember buying this book `Yoga secrets for business success' by Darshan Singh Khalsa . I remember my foolish disappointment, too,   on seeing that it had a host of yogic techniques to de-stress, meditate, controlling fear and anger instead of uncovering  the magical secrets for material success through yoga. Then, it sunk in as I read the book that success without the emotional strengths advocated in the book was rather empty. What was the point of material success if you spent your well-earned money trying to tackle the plethora of physical problems you had accumulated along the way to the bank – BP, heart ailments, obesity, joint and back pains. And imagine being nagged by your rivals' success, fears of failure, secret fears of being unable to cope and feeling like the proverbial Alice in wonderland who had to keep running just to remain in one place.

Yoga is (and was) not just a spiritual science but a tool for mind-control. In fact, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras focuses on just one asana called siddhasana(adept's pose), directing the entire treatise to tackle the mind so it can move ahead without distractions. Darshan Singh Khalsa,   in the book mentioned above, puts this perspective in a nutshell: "Yogis have long recognized that the best decision making takes place when the left and right hemispheres of the brain are balanced and synchronized. Since the left brain questions and the right brain accepts, an individual's analytical and creative thought processes are most effective when a state of balance in neutrality is achieved. Yoga and meditation are effective technology for clearing the clutter of the mind's incessant chatter to reach a state of inner quietude where intuition flows and the solutions to even the toughest problems can be discovered."

For real success we have often to break self-defeating habit patterns. Yoga helps this by creating self-awareness (as opposed to self-consciousness that other methods promote). That is why it is tough to do, especially by those who are over-worked because it calls for being aware of the path along which we are skidding, smelling the fragrance of success instead of just brewing it up. Dr Phil Nurenberger in his book `Freedom from stress' (published by the Himalayan Institute Press) writes: `Developing physical awareness is not only necessary in order to eliminate stress, it is often quite a lot of fun." Doing yoga helps workaholics have fun at work instead of just suffering work.. Stress is a physical response to mental response to external stimuli. For most of us this happens at our workplace. Dr Nurenberger also notes that most of us react with arousal or inhibition, becoming either aggressive or inhibited, both negative responses that long-term affect tissue repair and inadequate tissue repair. This also causes decreased capacity for overall functioning. All not what a workaholic intends, of course.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A great example of one who used yoga to heal: Guruji B.K.S.Iyengar

It is part of yogic lore now, but the living legend B.K.S. Iyengar was, in his childhood, very sick. He was born weak, due his mother's illness while she was pregnant with him. Even in infancy and early childhood, he was attacked by the virulent tropical infections which left him pain-racked and weak. In fact, when he was sent to his relative, the equally legendary Krishnamacharya, to learn yoga he was often ridiculed for his puny size. Krishnamacharya was not keen on having Iyengar do the public demonstrations of yogic asanas because of Iyengar's frailty. Yet, through sheer determination and steadiness of practice, Iyengar attained superb skill in yoga.   Iyengar never fails to emphasizes just how he used yoga to reclaim his health.
He was written off as a young kid because he was very sickly -- his body was racked by malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. But he lived to the ripe old age of 96.  And transformed the idea of health and your own ability to take charge of it. 

He says this, n this best-selling Yoga: the path to holistic health : "There are two types of immunity, natural and acquired. Yoga strengthens both, and regular practice of the recommended asanas can help counter the disorders that affect them."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Acupressure points that tweak immunity in yoga

(Fish pose/matsyasana)

In yoga the chest-opening poses are the most effective immunity boosters. Intriguingly, these poses most people will "cheat"-- in the sense they will have flawed execution. It is important for the teacher to constantly check how these poses are executed because of the potential to slump at the chest.
Some people, not used to yogic stretches or who have weak breathing habits, may even feel dizzy when trying them in the first few weeks. So, in these cases they have to be phased and eased into the body, with props, if essential.

Interestingly, these poses not only work on the spot between the shoulder-blades, but also work on the chest region, impacting the thymus gland powerfully. Thymus gland produces the T-cells, our immune cells. By early adulthood, its functions begin to wobble if not activated, as is done, through yoga. As we have seen, even exercise (other than yoga) can put a heavy load on the immune cells. The liver steps in to take some of load off such toxic pile-up that occurs daily and routinely. Yogic twists, as wells as forward bends, work on the liver, massaging it and toning it back to youthful vigor so it complements the work of the thymus gland effectively.

Practices like the surya namaskar, or dynamic practices (called the flow or vinyasa or druta or dynamic variations) clean up our lymphatic system(lymph vessels, lymph nodes), which is also involved with immunity, through the production of lymphocytes, a type of immune cells and filtering of antigens. Poses which apply pressure   and resistance (such as the locust, all prone poses) also boost bone health. Bones becomes healthily dense  when muscles around them work-out powerfully, as happens with yogic poses. Then the bones, especially the long ones which are actually cell-producing factories, become more efficient at manufacturing immune cells such as B-cells, phagocytes.

The nascent science of psycho neuro-immunology tells us that negative mind-sets, such as depression, anxiety, fear, anger, are implicated in a weakened immunity. While modern medicine has just woken up to the inevitable connection between mind and body, our ancient yogis knew it all along. So, not surprisingly, all immune-boosting yogic poses and practices are also mood uplifting. Nothing is left to chance, but all care is taken to ensure that the health acquired through yoga is not superficial but a thorough one which seeps the entire personality.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Heart, love and immunity: yoga talk

Interestingly, though Indians appear to be superstitious most of the time, they resist the idea of  of the psychosomatic connection between mind and body as improbably. I mean, u would think it would be easy to make this leap of faith!?  As a yoga teacher this is a strange resistance I find in most students.  If you tell them  that if you are love center is affected you may fall sick, they will nod their heads but refuse to do anything about it. 

This has been a big puzzle to me. In fact, in yoga many ailments are directly related to how you feel. It is not so far-fetched, u know. The nascent science of immunoneurology has made this fantastic discovery that is still being resisted by doctors, that your cell responds to environment triggers and alarms and changes its inner structure constantly. It is getting messages through the cell walls, is constantly engaged in receiving information --how you feel is actually a chemical reaction in your blood and the cells are constantly accessing your feeling. (Psst: Read that fabulous book Biology of Belief, to understand this breakthrough in conventional thinking. 

This aspect of the healing is fabulous and gives a lot of control over you must think when sick. It may also revolutionize how doctors talk to you when you go to them! 

But coming back to the topic at hand: The heart and the immune gland is closely linked. And here is a short lesson on it, for you all, so you can use it in your personal life. 

"As the thymus gland is closely linked to the energy of the heart, its full functioning indicates the importance of love. When we are feeling bitter, angry, hateful or despising whether towards ourselves or another, then our ability to fight infection and disease is lowered. When we are feeling loving, compassionate, generous and at peace, then our resilience will be far greater" : From the body-mind expert and author Debbie Shapiro's book `The body-mind workbook' (published by Vega books).

Yoga mudra, vajrasana variation:
For this pose, sit on your heels, as in the prayer pose for Muslims and Buddhists. Let your big toes touch, while the heels flare out. Knees should be together, though beginners may find it easier to hold the pose while the knees are little apart. Clasp hands behind. Inhale, looking up. Exhale, push the arms up, trying to keep the elbows straight. Hold for a few seconds, breathing normally. Release. Repeat five times.

Science speak:
The hands clasped behind open the chest up, impacting the thymus, the immune gland. The effect on the respiratory mechanism also impact the blood circulation, needed to carry the repair and rejuvenating products around more efficiently, especially when the immune system is under attack. The pressure on the spine, exerted by the shoulder blades, also activates the powerful meridian points associated with strong immunity.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Yoga practice to reduce hunger and thirst

Sit in any simple cross-legged position. Shut your eyes. Keep your hands in chin mudra (tips of index and thumb touching lightly). Roll your tongue back, to touch the palate. Keep the upper and lower set of teeth lightly touching, inhale from the mouth. Then hold your breath as you relax everything back to normal at the mouth. Then exhale from the nostril. This is one round. Do up to nine rounds.
Benefits: Keeps you calm. Is said to control hunger and thirst. Controls anxiety and anger. Lowers blood pressure. Used to heal from  overheated conditions, including sunstroke or heat exhaustion.
Avoid: Doing this in polluted places, since mouth-breathing is involved.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Yoga on hunger

This efficiency is a by-product of improved metabolism, so what is eaten is utilized efficiently. This happens because the various functions of digestion, along our 32-feet of gut, are running smoothly. The respiratory system has been restored back to its peak condition, so it can help the blood deliver the energy packets to the muscles on command and without stress. The master gland pituitary is getting a seamless flow of information from the hectic highways of messages from outside and inside our body, gauges rightly the levels of stress or demand, and controls the rest of our body so as to not over-exert any of the systems. The repairing parasympathetic nervous system's ability to restore balance is also on smooth automaton. 
 Does all this mean a yogi has no emotional upheaval? Not quite since that is a given only for advanced practitioners. But even a casual but regular practitioner of yoga will experience a marked ability to jettison stress instead of hugging it to oneself like a strapped-on luggage.   Often, the cause of over-eating comes from our need to be rid of stress and food help us here by releasing the feel-good, reward hormones like serotonin, dopamine, etc.   If your yoga practice is good, the body's natural inbuilt feel-good systems provide these without needing any external input, in the form of food or other addictions. 
Sage Saying: Over-weight from over-eating, according to Louise L. Hay, the celebrated holistic healing therapist and best-seller of Heal your body, says is due to `Fear, need for protection. Running away from feelings. Insecurity, self-rejection and seeking fulfillment.' (In her book You can heal yourself).   
Halt-hunger pose: 
Pranamasana (prayer pose): Sit on your heels. Inhale. Exhaling, lean forward to place palms on ground in front, to go on all fours. Inhale. Exhaling, place head on floor. Ideally the crown should touch the floor. This may be difficult for beginners. Those with a stiff body may also use a cushion initially. Continue breathing normally. You may place your palms on either side of the head. Or reach back to hold your ankles. The second version is more advanced, and may be attempted after mastering the first stage. Initially hold for a few seconds. Release and raise head back, to return to starting position. Learn to increase your stay in the pose longer and longer, without experiencing any discomfort or breathlessness. 
Sciencespeak: Avoid in high BP and neck problem. In the latter case, it is taught in a phased fashion when the problem is under control. It is used as a pre-meditative pose, because of its immense impact on the brain and our mind. It is calming, due to gush of blood to the brain. It works on what is called the Primary fear center at the upper body and shoulder region where muscles normally tense when we anticipate or experience a stressful event. In acupressure this area is also regarded as a gateway for the body, from where energy leaks happen under intense emotion. When the pose is held well, with a deep curve of the neck, pressure is applied at the thyroid center, crucial for metabolism and nutrient absorption. The para thyroid is also massaged. The latter is crucial for magnesium (needed for musculo-skeletal health and helps with mood management also) and calcium (needed for nerve cell communication). The pressure on the immune gland at the chest also boosts immunity. By boosting respiration (by decongesting the lungs and improving its volume) it not only boosts breath but also tangentially and powerfully uplifts our sense of well-being. It is used in anger management, obesity control. My own guess is that it may have to do with the positive pressure (due to improved blood flow) on the crucial glands like the pineal gland, hypothalamus and the pituitary (especially the last two) which control the rest of our body functions by their powerful web of hormonal out-reach.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Yoga to curb hunger Part 1

The ancient yoga text Hatha Yoga Pradipika, by Swami Swatmarama, says yoga sadhana is destroyed by six causes. Amongst these he lists over-eating.   Having listed the problems he also cites ways to overcome them. This shows yoga as an extremely practical tool.  
However, yoga is not a judgmental science. It accepts that hunger is not just a biological urge but is also intrinsically linked to our emotional shortfalls. Even before modern day dieticians saw a link between emotions and binge eating, yoga had inferred that. This is why the navel center or  manipura chakra, is associated with fear and anger which need to be overcome on our spiritual ladder. These two emotions can be held guilty for being a major sub-conscious triggers behind over-eating. 
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says yogic success is indicated by a `thin, glowing body' and increased digestive power (Verse 19 and 20, Chapter 2).   In the  Srimad Bhagwatam Lord Krishna explains how the body which is no longer `plagued by hunger and thirst' gains various siddhis, including the power to die at one's will and tolerate anything (pain, cold or heat) due to yogic concentration. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras observes how the yogic dhyana on the vishuddi chakra (throat center) can destroy hunger. 
All this does not mean we must fast on our path to yogic tapas. Loss of hunger is a natural by-product of sustained yogic practice. This happens for easily understandable, biological reasons. First, the body becomes super-efficient, like an engine which does not guzzle excess fuel. I would like to stress this point as also the one which differentiates a yoga practitioner from a gym freak. The latter is usually ravenous after a hectic session. An advanced yoga practitioner does not feel hunger after the sadhana. 
Gym instructors are famous for saying how they can eat like a horse. A yoga instructor would not be caught dead saying this, for the simple reason a good sadhana deflates hunger. Would you rather buy a machine which over-uses fuel or one which is fuel-efficient? Ultimately, the usage of fuel is not just about the money spent on gas. It also comments indirectly but loudly about the health of the entire machine. If you apply this logic to human fitness, it becomes clear yoga is a far superior form of fitness because it restores your natural metabolic ability to eat only what and when you need instead of over-eating or eating for the heck of it! 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Yoga on taste

Taste buds do not just signal a good menu. They act as red alerts to mood disorders, nutrient deficiencies, gum disease and toxicity. Loss of taste can herald problems like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, severe malnutrition, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease. It can trigger mismanagement of diet restrictions for those with blood pressure and diabetes or mess with brain’s satiety signal, even depress immunity.  In yoga, where every part of the body supports your spiritual, psycho-social and emotional self, a refined sense of taste comes from eating wisely, sensibly and mindfully. It also comes from practices that strengthen nutrient absorption, since certain key nutrients are needed to retain your sense of taste: like good fats, zinc, Vitamins A, B and C.
It’s been found when the brain’s reward center is pampered with tasty food it pays us back by upping production of immune cells. Again, eating tasty food increases saliva, flushing mouths with anti-bodies, aiding digestion. The most insidious fall-out of taste loss is depression, with a lackadaisical attitude towards eating, making us reach for calorie-dense but nutrient-scarce food.

Fortunately, taste loss is not age-related. Taste buds regenerate every ten days. Even the slight loss of taste human beings suffer starts only after 50 years. This loss actually benefits by increasing threshold to bitterness, so we are not as averse to nutrient-dense,  bitter foods like dark green or leafy vegetables which we labeled `yuck’ in youth.
Also, when taste loss is caused due to cold, other upper respiratory tract infections like sinusitis, flu, dry mouth, smoking, nutrient-deficiency, gum disease, injury, certain medications, exposure to insecticides, etc, taste is revived once the provocation is removed. Often what we believe to be a taste loss is connected to a loss of smell, since olfaction is crucial for determining gustatory finesse.
The tongue or taste indicator can also act as a nutrient barometer. A swollen, burning or dry tongue warns of vitamin A deficiency.  Consulting a professional nutritionist for supplements will help. But nutrients are best accessed through natural foods since overdosing causes toxicity. Vitamin A is found in alfalfa, cabbage, milk, eggs, broccoli, basil, carrot. Similarly, sores and taste loss indicate lack of  some or many of the vitamin Bs (found in wheat, oats, peanuts, beans, fruits, meats, milk, etc). A dry mouth could mean vitamin C deficiency, rectified with citrus fruits.
Poses that make the gut youthful by massaging and toning it also help the taste buds indirectly but definitely. Such practices include agnisara kriya (metabolic fire cleansing practice), kapalabhati (skull-cleansing breathing practice), ardhamatsyendrasana (half spinal twist), mayurasana (peacock pose), dhanurasana (bow), salabhasana (locust) are some powerful gut-toning practices.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Cleansing the mind: the ritual of yoga

I would not know if everybody relates to yoga this way, but that is how it was conceptualised. That the diseases of the mind were primary diseases (according to Yoga Vashishtha) and the body's diseases were secondary. Which may explain why the body is susceptible to cure faster today with modern day medicine than the mind! 
That all aspects of yoga -- meditation, pranayama practices, asanas even were to  clear the debris left by the mind's hyperactivity. Perhaps most rituals in any movement has the same value. Even in the armies around the world rituals may have this purpose. For those who connect with yoga as a cleansing ritual, it is difficult to miss a day's practice. To miss practice would be to feel unclean.

A clean mind is where the divine lives. More than in the external places of worship. Yoga internalises the idea of the divine and constantly requires you to be pure of purpose. 

Here is a story I had once tracked, for a column I wrote, on the connection between practice and cleanliness of the mind space. 

This story is credited to Sri Ramkrishna Paramahamsa. He told the story of a young man called Padmalochan who found a decrepit temple. Bats had started living in it, there was not even an idol in it. Padmalochan blew his conch, trying to get people interested in the temple. One wise man stepped up to him and said, "You blow the conch. But in this temple how can the deity reside where eleven bats have constantly defecated." Sri Ramkrishna's stories were often simple accounts with a parallel meaning. Here the eleven bats alludes to the eleven indriyas which are divided into two -- jnana and karma indriyas --   five sense organs, five organs of action, and the mind itself. Here he is implying that these indriyas, by their constant outward movements, defile the mind space. This mind space must be pure and involuted or inward-directed before it can be consecrated as a temple or seat for the ultimate divine. Yoga says that these outward bound indriyas must first be reined in by the purificatory yogic kriyas, which in turn purify the nadis, the inner energy channels. The body has to be purified, so the mind can be lead into purity.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Women in yoga

 Take any yoga class and you will find that more women are into yoga practice than men. Of course, at the ashrams or institutes where yoga is treated as a profession or a career choice it is different (sorry guys, I cannot help taking a dig here). Or if there are more male gurus than women (ostensibly). But as far as personal practice is concerned the proportion of women doing yoga for their own self-growth is world over greater than men. So, here was an article I wrote a decade ago about women yoginis. 

There is a tale of an Alwar bhakti poetess from South India on a pilgrimage to her beloved Lord Shiva's abode. She decides that walking on feet up the holy mountain would be sacrilegious. So she decides to walk on her hands instead, going all the way up to mount Kailash in the difficult inverted pose, called adho mukha vrikshasana or the downward facing tree. In this pose the entire body is balanced on the hands and in the advanced version, which our Alwar poetess had adopted, the hands are used to walk upon, instead of the legs. It calls for tremendous skill and strength and is among the most difficult poses even for yoga adepts.

Skeptics may dismiss this yogic aspect of the story as a mythical exaggeration. But it may not be so far-fetched to believe that in ancient India women were just as skilled, if not more, than their male counterparts in yoga of the mind and body. Somewhere along the history of mankind women were   relegated to background. But if you analyze women's position through the yogic myths of India, it is clear women were given indisputable importance. In fact, the equality  was best emphasized by Lord Shiva's choice of his first disciple into yoga – it was his wife Parvati. In yoga, symbolic transcendence is accorded to women be it in the rising of the Kundalini, the serpent power represented by goddess Kundalini or attaining Spanda_Shakti or the Bliss-consciousness that is every practitioner's goal. And the secret of attaining this, explained in the compact Tripura Rahasya, gives in detail how women often attained the highest goal, of God-consciousness, often ahead of the men, as with the self-realized Hemalekha who initiates her husband Hemachuda. She leads him out of the maze of human delusions with her clarity of thinking and sparkling intellect. In Yoga Vashistha too, it is the wife, the self-realised Cudala, who leads her confused husband King Sikhidvaja into god-consciousness. To counter his inhibition from learning such supreme knowledge from a woman, she assumes the form of Narada's son Kumbha Muni.

The Bihar School of Yoga's must-have book on yoga for women titled  Nawa Yogini Tantra, authored by Swami Muktananda, underscores also how a progressive and liberal attempt to provide women with rest   during menstruation had, over centuries, mutated into an archaic and chauvinist custom that isolated them during this period as impure. Swami Muktananda narrates how Sri Ramakrishna flouted such archaic customs by refusing to eat food cooked by anyone else but his wife during this time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

NO yoga without pranayama

So many yoga practitioners who claim that they do asanas but  not pranayama. Some are proud to be meditating but no asana, no pranayama. Some teachers, which is worse, do not practice pranayama, so obviously cannot teach pranayama. Most of the classes think of pranayama as dispensable or a boring practice. 
There are some reasons why a teacher does not make pranayama a regular event in her/his class: 
* They themselves do not practice. 
* Giving instructions of pranayma requires a strong energy base from the teacher -- it requires a lot of mental energy from the teacher to be able to manage pranayama as an event in the class. 
* Most beginners find pranayama difficult or boring, so the teachers who want to make a commercial success of the class, succumb to this market "demand".
* Most people resist pranayama because it involves a pre-meditative behavior and most people are still not connected to yoga as a mind-body practice. So, it could be that the class is not meditative and therefore it becomes difficult to include a meditative attitude. 

But there is no yoga without pranayma. More on this later, but here is a short story that is popular amongst yogis: 

In yoga, the experienced world is a marriage between two entities. Consciousness, which is the male element or purusha.  The female element of prakriti, experienced  as breath. They co-exist and move together like a man and his shadow. The harmony between the two means good health. It is said once there was a quarrel amongst the senses and mind on one side (the senses and mind co-exist, each feeding the other) and prana on the other side. The mind and senses, since they were such a large group, felt they were indispensable for life. Prana or breath refuted their stand. To prove their point, mind stopped functioning. Nothing happened, the body continued to be alive. The senses stopped their work too. The body continued functioning. When prana decided to leave, the body started to die. This convinced the mind and its attendant senses that prana indeed was the superior force.  

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Inversions are anti-aging

It is interesting to see that many yoga classes do not include inversions in their class structure. There is only one obvious reason for this lacuna – that is many teachers themselves fear inversions as difficult to teach. However, yoga withoutinversion is like an oxygen mask without, well, oxygen!
An inversion is not contraindicated in many ailments. Even in heart problems, after the body is used to inversions, viparita karani mudra, with props like bolsters you can introduce the practitioner to viparita karani mudra which, when held low, is even called a cardiac pose because it helps to tone and support the heart, by flushing it with blood. In slipped disc and hernia, yes, inversions are contraindicated. But otherwise, in most other ailments, after the acclimatizing phase is over, inversionsmay be slowly introduced. Therefore, it is a matter of concern why many yoga classes skip this important limb of hatha yoga.
Inversions are beautiful practices, and are often referred with fanfare as “death-defying” practices. It means they confer longevity, anti-aging, healing benefits as no other.
The reason inversions are celebrated in this fashion is because the poses invite all muscle groups, including subtle muscle fibers (called faschia) to fight gravity. Gravity ages us simply by dragging us towards the ground. In your youth, the blood flow is thorough and complete flushing the entire organs. But as we enter our twenties, due to gravity and possibly due to the way we work-out and/or sedentary life-styles, the blood starts to favor the bottom of our organs and glands. At the top of these systems, the blood flow and its beneficial effect becomes progressively reduced thanks also due to the heart’s pumping that gets no support from the way we live and is often burdened. In inversions, this pooling of blood towards the bottom of our major systems is reversed. Top aspects of our body/organs/glands which had become sluggish or dead is now forced into waking up and become efficient once more.
The work out does not remain only at the top of our body or extremities. In inversions even our insides are challenged by gravity. This explains why those who have a regular and well-rounded practice of yoga remain mentally active and physically energetic throughout their lives. In hairfall triggered by external factors, inversions is said to reverse it, as well as keep the hair naturally darker. Face is said to become wrinklefree and taut due to increased flow of blood to these parts. Also, because of the continuous increased flow of blood to the major axis of hypothalamus, pineal and pituitary glands in the brain, our other systems (which are managed by these) become healthier too.

Several of the inversions are also involved with the raja yoga /mind control aspect of yoga. Many are also said to power your spiritual growth. To not practice them, unless you have issues we mentioned above, is to deny yourself the complete magic of yoga.
(From an article I wrote for a magazine years ago)

Monday, May 01, 2017

The dangers of spiritual materialism: wanting to keep accumulating spiritual "experiences"

The problem of today -- an excessive agrandisement of the idea of My-Idea-Is-the-the-Right-Idea. 
The greed to accumulate spiritual experiences, gurus,ashram visits, types of yoga, experiences. Seems to be a special problem of the day. The dangers of this? It encourages what is called the sukshma ahamkara -- the subtle ego -- that is so fine that you do not know that what you thought you destroyed as come back. This is the idea of the demons springing back -- millions of them -- from every demon whose head is cut. It is intriguing how this is such a common refrain in all mythologies. 

                                                       (Appears to be meditating, but wants experiences while meditating!) 
From a column I wrote a few years back: 
Intellectualisation of spiritual quests is also scoffed at as an acquisition. Here is what the Gita says on the real renounciation: "None who has not renounced the mental world, has any title to the name of yogin'. Why so? In Yogavashishtha, the treatise which records Sage Vashishtha's advice to a young Lord Ram, gives the answer. "That which to false vision, sets up the Anatman in place of Atman, shadows forth a thing in no-thing. This, oh Raghava, is that which we describe as `thinking.'" Another Vedantic saying in the Smriti compares pride in learning to love of life and fear of the world. Adi Shankaracharya who is rather dismissive of arrogance that comes from excessive intellectualization of the spiritual as well as overemphasis on rituals, says in his Vivekachudamani that the divine may never   be seen by one who indulges in `constant washing, by giving gifts, nay not even by a hundred pranayamas.'

The controversial guru Chogyam Tungpa has written an entire book on this difficult ground of spiritual materialism. In this book Cutting through spiritual materialism he writes of how the daughters of Mara, as symbolized by Tantric Buddhism, can invade even our spiritual equanimity with irresistible seduction. The soft inner voice in our minds can be said to represent their viles. Tungpa says these voices can make us believe that this equanimity is the result of our higher spiritual sadhana, making us feel that this is a `big deal'. He adds: "Then we begin to give birth to further samsaric patterns of mind. It is similar to the Christian idea of biting the apple. It is temptation. When we regard abhisheka or initiation as sacred, then the precision and sharpness immediately begins to fall away because we have begun to evaluate."  

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Choosing the time of your death: a yogic idea

I was watching a sweet video on Yazemeenah Rossi, the over-60s super model who is casting a spell over everybody with her attitude, her glowing skin and super attitude. In that video she says that she projects her life far into the coming years, possibly up to 2045 or more. I loved that. This idea is a yogic concept called Mrityunjaya -- the victory over death.

 It is not necessarily a physical conquest. But a fearless attitude that says that while it is not afraid of death, it will choose the time of death. Advanced yogis are supposed to have this power. It is said of many mystics and prophets. Milarepa, the Tibetan mystic, who knew he was being poisoned and is indifferent as he decides his role in current life is now over and decides to consume the poison. The same is said of Lord Buddha who is said to have had more than two dozen attempts on his life. Yet, in his eighties, when he decides to go, he takes the meal that he knew was poisoned, assumes the pose (in yoga called Drdasana/the stoic's pose) and waits for his death as he allows his devotees a last look at him, as the queue up to seek his blessings. Swami Sivananda too is said to have chosen his death a year ahead of his death, choosing the exact date and time of his death. 

There are many marvellous mysteries about yoga. And this about it, that you can choose the time of your death without fear, is one of those. To be able to look death in the eye, having lived a life well, uncluttered, with no ill-will, joyously, and no regret. Then say, when choosing death, that it is just another  another adventure of the spirit. The experience is quantum. Look at this from the perspective of the Indian philosophy where Lord Krishna says, “Natwewaham jatu nasam” (Never I was not.), he was also urging us to feel this eternity in our very being. 

This bit is from a column I wrote some time back, on the idea victory over death, as understood by yoga:

The maha mrityunjaya mantra (used in most yoga ashrams) evocatively describes the nature of this faith, fearlessness and even disregard towards death. The mantra, inadequately translated here, means just as a cucumber drops from the vine when it is ripe and ready, so too we must jettison this sense of this our little selves on our journey into immortality. The Mahabharata puts forth this yogic idea of life and death with the same clarity: “Having obtained this priceless birth with all the senses in their full activity, he who does not understand the good of self, destroys himself.”  What this means is that many of us lead a lives of living death even while nursing an unnecessary fear of death.

So the investment in a daily physical aspect of yoga takes a new meaning when u understand, that a regular sadhana was designed to ensure that if  all things went well then you want to be spiritually vital till the last breath you take. Your practice will help you retain a mind that is young and fresh . That  you create a sense of joy that, hopefully, will trigger the natural order of biological synchronicity and make the rest of the world also happy, content to make do with less, and not quarrel and fight. That you rewrite the rules of the world, for the better. 

Happy sadhana!