Author Archives: samatvamyoga

What is the relationship between cosmic energy and pranayama (breathing practices)?

Standard

Satsang with Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In yoga cosmic energy is known as prana. There is life energy in the whole atmosphere, but in addition to this there is an infinite quantity of cosmic energy. This energy is predominantly present in the five elements. Just as we say the source of protein is meat, eggs, nuts and soya beans, in the same way the five sources of prana are earth, water, fire, air and ether. But the best source of prana is the air, and that is why pranayama is such a powerful practice.

The breath which you take inside is not pure prana; it is air with prana. Ultimately it is purified and separated into positive and negative ions, into ordinary air and prana. This separation occurs during kumbhaka, and at the time of meditation these pranas are assimilated. Therefore, a hatha yogi who practises pranayama must also practise meditation in order to assimilate the separated prana. So this cosmic prana becomes a part of individual prana through pranayama and meditation.

Is concentration on the breath considered an essential part of the tantric practices?

Concentration on the breath is one of the most powerful methods of introverting the restless mind. The practice of meditation is divided into 4 stages: pratyahara or introversion; dharana or concentration; dhyana or meditation; and samadhi or transcendence.

Concentration on breath comes in the first category. As you concentrate on the breath, the mind automatically becomes withdrawn. When this stage has been accomplished you must then try to fix your mind on one chosen point. If you continue to withdraw and introvert the mind without bringing it to one point it will be absolutely hypnotised. Therefore when you are able to introvert the mind to a certain point and when psychic experiences suddenly begin, immediately start the practice of dharana.

Regardless of which system you follow, practices of introversion alone cannot lead you to awakening. They are only intended to create passivity and tranquillity. The restless tendencies of the mind must be pacified. This is the first stage. The next stage, dharana, means fixing the mind on one point and reducing the area of space. When the mind is fixed on one point and is concentrating itself it will lead to dhyana and samadhi.

What is a correct and systematic method of preparing for meditation?

Concentration and meditation come under raja yoga, and before you practise raja yoga, you must purify the physical body by the techniques of hatha yoga. In yoga, we believe that as far as possible, the causes of thought processes should be cleared up first through the physical medium. For example, sometimes a thought can be the outcome of a bad stomach or the effect of a thyroid malfunction. Therefore we recommend the purifying techniques of hatha yoga. There are six hatha yoga cleansing techniques: neti, dhauti, basti, nauli, trataka and kapalbhati. They are called the shatkarmas. With the guidance of an experienced teacher, you do these practices according to your requirements and capacity.

After you have practised the shatkarmas for one to two years, harmony is attained within the nervous system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic, in ida and pingala nadis. They are responsible for manas shakti (mental energy) and prana shakti (pranic or vital energy) respectively. If either of these nadis are disturbed, then you have diseases born of manas or prana shakti.

By hatha yoga, therefore, we are actually purifying all the flows so that they are homogeneous and uninterrupted. When this has been accomplished you should then start concentration for which a strong nervous system is imperative. When the flows in ida and pingala are correctly energised and balanced with respect to each other, the third flow, sushumna, is automatically activated. When this happens, meditation becomes spontaneous. However, this doesn’t mean that you should not practise japa or that you should not do anything else now. You must continue with these things also, but if you are going to enter into meditation practice seriously, then you must do it systematically.

Apart from the relaxation and health benefits is there a deeper purpose for practising meditation?

The purpose of meditation is to develop super-awareness which should take charge of all the affairs of life, replacing the mind just as in presidential rule the governor takes charge of all the affairs of the state when the cabinet does not function. In the same way, when we know that this mind is not able to conduct the affairs of life properly, when it is creating torture, agony and suffering we say, “No, the mind is not a good director”. The limited mind must be replaced by a superpower, super awareness, but the problem is that there is no super awareness. Therefore we practise meditation to develop it.

During meditation, is the position of the hands important? If so, what is the best position?

If both nostrils are not flowing freely the position of the hands should be as follows. Place the right hand under the left armpit and the left hand under the right armpit and press. The arms should be relaxed. This is called swara yoga mudra. At the time of meditation both nostrils must flow freely, if they do not, then one part of the brain remains inactive and you cannot meditate properly. When both the nostrils flow freely, both hemispheres of the brain are equally active and meditation can be accomplished without any difficulty.

If, however, both nostrils are flowing freely when you sit for meditation, you can place your hands in the lap. This is called yoni mudra. Or you may adopt chin mudra, with the thumb and the index finger joined and the remaining three fingers separated, symbolising the separation of yourself (index finger) from the three gunas of rajas, tamas and sattva, and the joining of yourself to the supreme consciousness (thumb).

In meditation it is very important that both nostrils are free. If for example only the right nostril is flowing and the left is blocked, the mind will run terribly hither and thither like a monkey. If only the left is flowing you will start dreaming after some time or depression may set in. When both nostrils are flowing, the right and left hemispheres of the brain are harmonised and begin to function in a greater dimension. In this way meditation can be accomplished.

During meditation something starts jumping in my body, then the body starts shaking. What is this?

It is perfectly all right but don’t dwell on these happenings. Try to remain aware of the point of your concentration. With concentration many things can happen. If the mind is swayed by these psychic experiences and physical symptoms, it is a distraction from the main centre. However, sometimes, in a state of meditation these disturbances become so powerful that it is useless to fight with them. It is better to find out the reason for their presence. Maybe you have not fulfilled some of the preliminary conditions of yoga or have not stabilised your nervous system or emotional structure.

Sometimes in meditation there is an experience when the breath stops automatically.

There is a certain moment when prana and the mind interact and move together. When the mind is controlled the pranic forces also stop and when the pranas are controlled the mind automatically stops. In yoga this is known as kevala kumbhaka, automatic, spontaneous retention. The moment your mind ceases to function or is consumed in the point of concentration, automatically the breath must stop because in the brain these two activities are interconnected. The raja yogis first control the mind then stop the breath. Hatha yogis control the breath and thereby control the fluctuations of the mind. When kevala kumbhaka takes place allow it to happen without resisting because it culminates in the awakening.

science of breathprana

What is Yoga?

Standard

What is yoga?

The appropriate answer is that we are still discovering what yoga is. We know the practices of hatha yoga, raja yoga, kriya yoga, kundalini yoga and so on, but we have not yet discovered what yoga is. The literature says that the aim, the culmination, of yoga is in samadhi. What is samadhi? Can that state be defined by intellect, by logic, by rationality? Or is it a state of being? Right now we are on the path of becoming, but only when we reach the state of being and we have become will we be able to understand what yoga means.

With our present understanding, yoga is a process of developing as well as awakening and activating the different qualities of life. That is the first focus of yoga before we even attempt to reach the state of samadhi. Samadhi is a very distant reality, a very distant dream, in our lives. In order to come to that level there are many conditions we need to fulfil and many preparations that have to be made. So we are talking not of the aim of yoga, but of the preparations we need to make in order to experience yoga.

These preparations are tuning the lifestyle and the life process. In order to hear a radio station you need to tune into the right frequency. In the same way, to understand something transcendental with a non-transcendental mind you have to make the effort to transform the quality of the mind so that eventually you can become a transcendental being.

Developing awareness and positivity

The first tuning we need to perform in yoga is known as development of awareness; slowly, gradually and practically expanding the horizons of personal awareness from being self-contained to being more expansive.

The second condition of yoga is to become aware of the inner strengths, and not to identify with the normal weaknesses. The tendency or nature of the mind or personality when acting in the world is tamasic and rajasic. Tamas is the conditioned mind, the conditioned self, having a closed mind, not accepting new values or concepts, not being free to explore new horizons or frontiers, just being content with one’s own ideas, beliefs, systems, thoughts, lifestyles, etc. Rajas means dominance, overpowering conviction, the assertive-ness of “I am right” to boost one’s ego, one’s self-image and prestige.

Tamasic and rajasic behaviour is restricted and limiting. It does not allow the expansive-ness of the self to manifest. That is visible in our life. If there is a problem facing our mind and we go somewhere new, despite being in a different, happy atmosphere, the same thought is like a magnet at the back of the head. The problem persists and we are conscious of it. There is never full participation in the other event that is taking place. We are separate from the event in which we want to participate, but can’t.

Pitfalls of sensory identification

These conditionings of the rajasic and tamasic natures give birth to a sensorial identity, and that sensorial identity is the problem. The body is the medium through which we interact with the world through the senses, with the conscious, with the subconscious, with memories. These interactions trigger off different expressions of the senses and mind. Each one is identified by a specific mood, in which we are either elated or depressed, content and happy or frustrated and anxious. According to the mood, our relationship with the outside world changes. When we are happy we see the world as a happy place. When we are sad we see the world as a horrible place. This mood is total identification with the senses, leading to the experience of raga and dwesha, attraction and repulsion. Due to attraction and non-attainment of the desired object, again anger is created.

This is defined in the Bhagavad Gita (2:62-63):

Dhyaayato vishayaan pumsah sangasteshoopajaayate
Sangaat sanjaayate kaamah kaamaatkrodhobhijaayate.
Krodhaad bhavati sammohah sammohaat smritivibhramah
Smritibhramashaad buddhinaasho buddhinaashaat pranashyati.

Desire for an object creates attachment. Unfulfilled attachment leads to aggression, frustration and anger. When one is experiencing anger, frustration and aggression, at that time the wisdom is clouded. When the wisdom is clouded, the ability to make the right decision, to know right from wrong, goes away. When one does not know what is right and wrong, the intellect dies. The death of the intellect is the death of the person, of the being. This is the statement of the Bhagavad Gita.

Balanced wisdom

So what to become? By developing the positive, uplifting qualities of life, by having to find our strengths and not our weaknesses, we can come to the point of being a sthita prajna, one of steady wisdom. Prajna is wisdom, applied knowledge. Sthita means still, balanced, harmonious. In the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna, “What are the symptoms of a person who has attained balanced wisdom? How does a person endowed with such qualities live on Earth, how does he walk, think, behave and act?”

Krishna answers in a very simple manner: “That person walks on Earth just like you and me. That person eats just like you and me. That person sleeps just like you and me. The only difference is that you are identified with the world and one with stable, steady wisdom is identified with the self.” The world represents the tamasic and rajasic nature, the self represents the sattwic, luminous nature. So, identifying with the positive qualities, with one’s strengths, is the second mandate of yoga.

Yamas and niyamas – tuning to sattwa

How can we cultivate and adopt positive qualities and attitudes? Through the practices of the yamas and niyamas. The yamas are: satya, truthfulness; ahimsa, absence of violence from the human personality, from the mind; asteya, not desiring to obtain; aparigraha, being non-possessive and non-accumulative; brahmacharya, being aware of the higher consciousness guiding your life.

The niyamas are: shaucha, purity of body, mind, speech, thought and action; santosha, contentment, restraint of the desires and the senses; tapasya, the desire for change, being ready to go through any process in order to change and become better in life; swadhyaya, awareness of how the body, mind, senses and the highest consciousness interact with each other; ishwara pranidhana, living according to the divine will, having faith in the self. Whether you define ‘self’ as God or as your self is up to you. But you exist, so have faith in that existence, which is eternal. If you don’t want to use the word ‘God’ or the word ‘self’, use the word ‘existence’.

These are the keys with which a human personality is tuned to sattwa. These are the keys by which a human personality can be tuned to ahimsa, to satya, to asteya, to aparigraha, etc. Attainment of each of these qualities will nurture the spirit. Just as the body is nurtured by food and the mind by happiness, the spirit is nurtured by the appropriate, positive, uplifting expression of these qualities. When you do something good you feel happy for a long time. You feel elated, spontaneously, naturally, without any external aid at all. That is an example of how a positive, uplifting quality can change and enhance your perceptions, motivations, expressions, creativity and efficiency. Therefore, the second mandate of yoga is learning to manage the tamasic and the rajasic, and tuning to sattwa.

Yoga – a process of becoming

Yoga is a process of becoming. We try to experience this process of becoming, which leads to that state of being where we exist as our true selves, where we have identified with the sattwic aspect of our life. In the process of becoming we adopt the different methods, techniques and practices of hatha yoga, raja yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, kriya yoga, kundalini yoga, nada yoga, mantra yoga, laya yoga and the many other paths of yoga described in the tradition.

The branches of yoga include practices that can lead us to perfection of that particular quality, ability, efficiency or creativeness which we acquire from within ourselves. It is not acquired from outside. Once a sculptor was asked, “How do you carve a beautiful statue out of a bare piece of rock?” He replied, “That beautiful image is already contained in the rock. I simply remove the unnecessary pieces.” That is the process of becoming a yogi. We begin to remove the unnecessary parts from our lives, from our nature, from our personality, which creates a conditioning which then overpowers every thought, every behaviour, every action that we perform. It is like a magnet attracting iron filings. The conditioning is that magnet which attracts the iron filings of thinking, behaving, expressing, communicating, desiring, liking, not liking, happiness and sadness, euphoria and depression, etc.

That is what Swami Satyananda used to call ‘removing the dross’. Remove the unnecessary and the undesirable; retain, cultivate and develop the desirable; learn to adjust and adapt. In this way, develop the ability to eliminate the tamasic and rajasic negative impressions which bind us to the gross plane of consciousness, and become more identified with that inner intuition which is based on nyaya, justice, and dharma, virtue.

That development of human personality, the establishment of sattwa, the attainment of the luminous quality in our life, a better perception, a better understanding and a better expression, is the beginning of the human journey.

What is faith? What faith should one have in life?

Which is more important – love or trust? You can love a person without trusting that person. It is not necessary for both to go together. That means that you are thinking of love but not giving your total. That total is trust. When you trust somebody that is beyond love, because in that trust you have given something of that total and there is no barrier between you and the other person. In love there is not total giving. Rather that love becomes the cause of total bondage and further conditioning. It acts like an agent to bring out the negative qualities – jealousy, possessiveness, aggression. Most people have experienced love in this manner.

Similarly, faith is not something you can conceptualize or intellectualize about. It is something you have. Just as you are endowed with life in this body, you are endowed with faith in this body. Life itself is faith. No one is born without faith. You live because of your faith. But faith has been misrepresented and misinterpreted as the placing of something, in some object, in some receptacle, in some being. That is where the concept of faith has not been true to its aspiration.

Faith is an expression of your innocence combined with wisdom and trust in something. That trust has to be in yourself, because trust in yourself is trust in the qualities you have inherited and are cultivating and developing. If you want to be loved, be pleasant to everyone. If you want to be disliked, be rude to everyone. It is as simple as that. If somebody is rude, then that person can’t be loved, no matter how hard one tries. If somebody is pleasant, then without effort there is a feeling of affection and love.

Having faith in yourself, believing in what you can be and what you are, is the first step in the cultivation of faith. Believing in what you are should be without the shadow or colouring of the ego – without the shadow of doubt and without the shadow of arrogance in one’s strength, ability and achievement. That is the condition.

The classic example is Hanuman in the Ramayana. Heroes are very proud of themselves. Hanuman was the greatest warrior who lived, but he was not proud of his prowess. On the seashore there was a discussion as to who could cross the ocean. One monkey said, “In my young days I could, but now I’m a bit old.” What is reflected there? Pride in the past. Another said, “I can cross, but I don’t know if I can come back again.” What is reflected there? Self-doubt. Somebody said, “I will go halfway and fall straight in the ocean.” What is reflected there? Inferiority complex. Only Hanuman sat quietly and passively. Janvant, the old bear, asked him, “Why are you so quiet? Out of all of us you are the only one who can cross the ocean and return. You don’t know what your powers are. Get up and make an attempt.” Meekly and obediently Hanuman then got up, made the attempt and was successful. That is innocence combined with wisdom and giving your total trust, which is faith.

Therefore, there is the old adage that faith can move mountains. Faith is cultivated by becoming aware of oneself in the right perspective, without anything that takes you on the minus side or on the plus side. You are able to maintain harmony. Maintenance of that harmony is described in the Bhagavad Gita as samatvam yoga ucchate – total wholeness, harmonious wholeness.

As a spiritual aspirant, that is the aim one can adopt in life. That should be the sankalpa (resolution). To cultivate and develop, not only faith but trust, not only trust but strength, not only strength but wisdom, not only wisdom but understanding, not only understanding but also awareness – the ability to see. This is the complete circle of yoga.

By: Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati.

SAMYAMA

Standard

SAMYAMA is the term Patanjali uses in the Yoga Sutras for the last three of the eight stages of classical yoga: concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and enlightenment (samadhi). A necessary prerequisite to this is the fifth step – withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara). These constitute the “inner” part of yoga, dealing with the mind and consciousness itself. Samyama means integration. Practice alone is incomplete without integrating the work we do into our daily lives.

We build the foundation for samyama through practice of yoga postures and pranayama, as well as observing the ten guidelines for living (yamas and niyamas) such as nonviolence. Three of these are discussed under Kriya Yoga.

PRATYAHARA

Until we learn to turn our attention inward there is little chance to observe our own minds and consciousness. And there is an endless array of distractions in the outer world calling out for our attention. So much so, that few people realize there is also an “inner world”. The mind (“monkey mind”) dominates our usual awareness and is easily distracted by sense objects and especially by our attachments and aversions. That is, we want to pursue and hold onto pleasure and prevent or retreat from pain. Who wouldn’t? This is quite normal but it’s not how the world works. The Buddha said that life is suffering and we can put an end to suffering by releasing our attachments.

It is through contacting this inner world that the intelligence of the universe expresses itself through us. It is necessary to have a regular practice of inner stillness in order to live more in this awareness and channel it into our actions. Pratyahara is a precursor to meditation and ultimately to samadhi. Eventually we learn to maintain an inner and outer awareness at the same time.

DHARANA

Once the senses are directed inward, the next step is to sustain unbroken focus of the mind on one object. Asana is a good object. So is breath or mantra. We have all experienced unbroken concentration when watching a movie or reading a book that is engaging. When we see extraordinary athletes or performers, they’ve got it. But we need to be able to apply this to all our endeavors. One to one relationship is a good place to practice.   When we loose our concentration we simply take a breath and come back to the object of our attention. The technique is the same as the goal. Slowly improvement comes. And it takes practice. It also takes patience, clear intention, and a strong will to overcome the endless parade of sense objects competing for our attention. As we build energy through asana and other practices, the energy itself sustains our attention. This benefits every aspect of our lives from driving a car to relationships. We need to love the dharma (our path) more than we love the endless thoughts in our mind.

DHYANA

Meditation is observing the process (thinking) or the contents (thoughts) of the mind. It can not be understood by words alone – only through  practice. Quite simply, we practice quieting the mind through any number of methods. We quickly realize the impossibility of this task and thereby become aware of the process (or contents) of the mind. At all other times we are totally engaged with these thoughts and thereby unable to be objective as thinking takes place. In fact we are virtually under a state of hypnosis engaged in thought for our entire lives. Thoughts become a trance in which we identify completely with our fantasies, emotions, and illusions. Of course thinking is necessary as well for our very survival. It is interesting that when our survival is threatened, we shift into a state of heightened awareness, very different from our ordinary state of mind. Why do we practice meditation? Only by this process do we come more into the present moment – into reality. The past and future are just intellectual concepts, however powerful (and useful) they may be. Body and mind come more into harmony creating a receptive place for the spirit to evolve. The practice of meditation is humbling because it takes us out of our illusions about ourselves. We come face to face with our shadow.These illusions we maintain for most of our lives because of our fear of reality. Yet meditation is empowering because it connects us with the river of life.

SAMADHI

Samadhi refers to those moments when we experience a transcendence or a merging with all of creation. There are no words to describe this adequately, only the experience itself. We have all felt this in a beautiful nature setting for example, or with a small baby or puppy. Perhaps all of art is trying to give voice to this experience, in different ways. It is what yoga is for and what the word “yoga” means. It is when we merge with the Creator and are momentarily released from the seperation between Creator and creation (parusha and prakriti). However brief these moments are, they have a lasting effect and begin to change us at the deepest levels. Our understanding of spirit shifts from an intellectual concept to an experience that has (and needs) no words. The change in our world view and especially in our presence and actions is the fruit of the experience of samadhi, and of our practice in general. This doesn’t automatically make life easier but it does direct us into the flow of life, into the Tao. And we become more authentic. This is part of the appeal of many gurus and yoga masters whose presence is so transformed by their state of mind.

47911_360438510708585_1525306382_n

“Concentration is single pointed attention.

It modifies into meditation by being sustained in time, becoming all-pointed (or no-pointed)  – equally diffused but with no drop in attentiveness.

Enlightenment is total absorption.

Prolonging these three aspects of yoga is samyama. Concentration brings stability in the mind, meditation develops maturity in intelligence, and enlightenment diffuses the consciousness.”

                          ….B.K.S. Iyengar

Being Natural

Standard

By: Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

There is a story about a master who was wandering around the country with some of his followers. During his travels, he came to Athens, where there was a fair with an archery competition. People from all parts of Greece and Europe had come to this fair and they wanted the master to participate in the competition so that they could observe his skills. The winner of the competition would receive a stone block from the Acropolis to take home! The master was not really interested, saying, “What would I do with a big piece of rock in my ashram?” But his disciples said, “Well, it would look very nice and you could use it as a chair. It is our desire to take that piece of the Acropolis back to India.”

Somehow, the master was pulled into the idea of competing with the other archers. After giving his name, he waited in line for his turn. Each participant in the archery contest was given three arrows to shoot at the target, which was seventy metres away, the distance used in the Olympics. Many people tried, but some arrows fell short of the mark and others went beyond the mark. Deep down, I have the feeling that very few people wanted to lug home the stone from the Acropolis!

When the master’s turn came, a big crowd gathered to see this famous Indian who had come to participate in the contest. He picked up an arrow, positioned his body, checked the direction of the wind, the humidity of the air, made sure his arrow was straight, adjusted his cap and very proudly let fly an arrow. Despite all these precautions, the arrow was off target by about thirty or forty metres. The crowd started laughing and giggling .

However, the master had a bright disciple, who said, “Well, there must be a reason why the arrow was off target.” He posed a question to the master, “O great one, you are so focused and concentrated. How did your arrow go off target?” The master replied, “Well, the person who shot the arrow was overconfident and when you are overconfident and do not focus properly, it is very easy to lose aim.” When the crowd heard this description, they fell silent.

Then the master picked up the second arrow. This time the arrow went less than half way and fell to the ground. Again there was laughter from the crowd. The disciple came to the rescue, asking, “Master, tell us, who shot that arrow?” The master replied, “Well, when you are overconfident and miss your aim, you lose confidence. When you lose confidence, you are never true to your direction and fall short of the target.”

The master then picked up the last arrow, and without looking left or right, up or down, he simply let it fly. And surprise of surprises, the arrow went straight to the centre of the target. The master told the disciple to pick up the rock and carry it back to India. Then he started to walk away. Many people in the crowd were quite impressed by his wisdom and asked, “Please tell us before you go, who shot the third arrow?” The master looked at them and said, “That was the natural me!”

Now this story may have happened in the past, we don’t know, but it indicates the process of unmasking oneself, of removing the different masks that we put on in our lives. People find it very hard to become natural. They have to identify with something, either with their ego projections or with their emotional or intellectual projections, and they become that for the time being. The natural person never really manifests.

We are always projecting ourselves in different ways, in all situations, whether it is a social event or whether we are simply at home with our family. When we are constantly trying to project ourselves, we create certain identities with which we associate deeply. We always have this inner drive to be recognized as unique, as someone who is able to project the personality in a way which makes us superior to other people. So priority in performance, or in intelligence, or in expressions, or in creativity has been our drive.

It seems that we swing between the two poles of overconfidence and lack of confidence. Both states create destruction of inner harmony and peace, leading to stress and tensions which are psychological, emotional and spiritual in nature. Overconfidence can lead to arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Underconfidence can lead to depression and loss of self-esteem. But there is a process of unmasking oneself of all these different identities and becoming natural.

When your are natural, you flow with the situations and circumstances of life and there is greater adaptability, adjustment and acceptance. These are the qualities that we lack as human beings. Yoga helps us to find that naturalness within and to become aware of the different identities that we adopt in the course of our lives, knowing what is appropriate and inappropriate for us.

When adults try to change their identities and become natural, it is difficult because of their conditioning. When we confront these conditionings, they create more stress and anxiety. Nevertheless we seem to manage. It is a slow and gradual process in which we try and fail, try and fail, try and fail. Those who continue eventually succeed. Like the story of the hare and the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

Attention!

Standard

By: Swami Suryamani Saraswati

The teenage daughter waited until her father was immersed in his newspaper. Then she said,
‘Daddy, it’s a lovely day”.
“Yes”, her father replied without looking up from his newspaper.
“Daddy, it’s raining”, she continued.
“Yes”, her father replied, still engrossed in his papers. Now convinced that her father was too absorbed in his papers to pay attention to her, she asked.
“Daddy, can I go to the movies?”
“No”, replied her father, without looking up from his newspaper.

Training the mind

Our wondrous brain is like a multiple-access computer, only much more powerful. It is capable of performing several tasks apparently at the same time However, we lose half the interest and joy of life because we have not trained our minds to concentrate and be attentive.

Attention is automatic when we are interested. When a child is not interested in studies its mind keeps wandering to more interesting things through the window – the birds swooping in the blue sky or the red butterfly dancing on the sunflower. However, we have to train this wayward mind to be attentive even in situations where we find no interest. For this, yoga is essential Yoga nidra, trataka, visualization, breath awareness, deep breathing, ajapa japa, japa and meditation are conducive to developing a keen sense of attention.

You can also add interest to your visualization practice: Imagine an expansive landscape, the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan range. Behind is the clear blue sky and the sun is making the snow glisten. Like a movie camera going for a close-up, start to zoom in on a particular scene, until you have on your mind screen a cave in which is sitting a yogi in meditation before a fire. Draw up closer and see the bhasma covering his body, his white hair and beard and the dancing, hot flames of his fire, etc.

Or try this visualization; Close your eyes and visualize a red candle. Its flame is rock still, as if it is also made out of wax. Once this visualization is steady, see another candle next to it. It is green but it’s flame is blowing about in the wind.

If you can visualize the red candle, good. If you can also visualize the green candle simultaneously, very good indeed. Now continue the practice but interchange the role of the candles. The flame of the red candle is blowing in the wind while the green candle is rock still. It you can do this then your power of visualization is superb, which means your power of concentration is excellent. You can be attentive if you wish to be.

Yoga teaches us how to control the five senses so that the mind does not get any stimulation from outside. When there is a lack of stimulation from outside, the mind starts to pickup impressions from the vast repository of memories stored within it. Through meditation and other yogic techniques, the mind gradually exhausts the storehouse of memories until the mind becomes empty of accumulated impressions: the mind has nothing else to hold on to. This is the first step to the practice of dharana or concentration. It is achieved by visualizing any object and training the mind to become concentrated like a laser beam on, for example, one’s ishta devata or guru.

No interest, no retention

You must have read many jokes about the absent-minded professor. However, what appears to us as absent-mindedness can in fact be the gift of total, one-pointed concentration found only in very rare individuals. These genius-type individuals have absolute interest in their particular field or idea to the exclusion of almost everything else, even food and sleep.

Psychologists say that we are not attentive when we are not interested in something taking place in front of us (sight); or something being said to us (sound); or some flavour to which we are exposed (smell); or something which is offered to us to feel (touch). In other words, when the mind is not interested in the kind of stimulation that is received by any one of the sense organs, the brain does not act on the stimulation, at least not at that very moment. Some time later the brain is capable of bringing the incident from its memory bank at an appropriate moment, or even at unexpected moments as in the dream state.

The manner in which our brain responds to something of interest is:

Attention – Concentration – Retention.

When it is of no interest then only an effort of concentration brings about the necessary attention and retention. In actual practice however, we do not realise the happenings in such clear-cut, water-tight compartments but as one act of ‘retention’ or ‘no retention’ in a flash.

Unconscious attention

Even when you are not paying attention, your brain is. Some years ago, a brain washing technique was used to catch the attention of the audience without it being at all aware of it. In a normal feature film, messages were incorporated between frames urging the audience to eat chips and popcorn. These messages were not visibly perceptive but were nevertheless being passed on to the brain. During the break there was such a rush on the popcorn and chip stall that it seemed the whole theatre had suddenly been overcome by mass hunger. This is referred to as ‘subliminal persuasion’.

The havoc being caused by advertising and other onslaughts on the brain in a multi-media society brings home the point of how essential it is for an individual to be able to shut his mind to other stimulus and pay attention to his task. Professionals, especially surgeons, anaesthetists, pilots, judges etc., need to develop the ability to concentrate right from the beginning of their professional training and the practices of yoga will aid them a great deal. One such practice is yoga nidra, which will also keep their minds calm and relaxed between long hours of work.

Yoga nidra

Yoga nidra is a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation. The term ‘yoga nidra’ is derived from two Sanskrit words ‘yoga’ meaning ‘union’ or ‘one-pointed awareness’ and ‘nidra’ which means ‘sleep’. During the practice of yoga nidra one appears to be asleep but the consciousness functions at a deeper level of awareness. For this reason yoga nidra is often referred to as psychic sleep or deep relaxation with inner awareness. In this threshold state between sleep and wakefulness, contact with the subconscious and unconscious dimensions occurs spontaneously.

In yoga nidra, the state of relaxation is reached by turning inwards, away from outer experiences. If the consciousness can be separated from external awareness and from sleep, it becomes very powerful and can be applied in many ways, for example, to develop memory, increase knowledge and creativity, or transform one’s nature. Through yoga nidra and the use of the sankalpa one can become a great surgeon, pilot or judge with superb concentration and a strong will, but it is better to use this gift of sankalpa for some spiritual means.

One-pointed pilgrimage

Many experts in communications agree that any message received by more than one sense organ has a better chance of retention in the brain. The rishis and munis who understood the human mind in its entirety developed techniques that catch the attention of all the senses without seeming to do so.

In certain holy places the temples are built on the top of steep hills. The very act of climbing the hills, some of which do not have steps even today, is a laborious exercise which helps to focus the concentration, and involuntarily the pilgrim begins to chant the deity’s name. The more difficult the climb, the more one-pointed the pilgrim becomes, negating all other thoughts of home and family, pleasures, comforts and responsibilities.

In the old days these pilgrimages took several months to complete and often there was no guarantee of a sate return. The pilgrim put up with all kinds of hardships – lack of proper transport and shelter, severe climatic conditions – so he developed a mind powerfully concentrated on his goal which was God in some form or other, and thus his consciousness was elevated through this one-pointed attention.

The pilgrim remained in that elevated state for several months or even years, which started to build up right from the days of planning in his home. By degree he also developed a sense of pratyahara, non-possessiveness and other attitudes which freed his mind, helping it to become one-pointed. Now of course with modern methods of travel, accommodation and reservation, this process has been lost and along with it the total commitment and involvement of consciousness. Having arrived on top of the hill, the pilgrim was enveloped by the spiritual atmosphere, generated by the fervour and shraddha of thousands of pilgrims past. He would hear the temple bells and the singing of bhajans and kirtans, along with the chanting of mantras, his ears fully attentive to these sounds. The scent of flowers and agarbatti captivated his sense of smell. Through the aarti and gazing at the murti the eyes too became attentive, and when he was offered prasad the fourth sense organ became attentive. Finally the fifth sense organ, the skin, became attentive during the holy bath, as the actual worship in the temple came as a climax to months of hardship and toil and fervent expectation. And what better way could there be to develop, concentrate and direct our attention than in the pursuit of a higher goal or God?