The Approximate Yogi

Conquering life one breath at a time


A Guide to Enlightenment

Sorry again for my inconsistency in writing lately, and again I’m going to blame it on the knee. I’ve started back to work full time, and between work and recovering, that’s about all I’ve got energy for these days. I continue to be amazed how healing one small piece of my body affects my whole being.

As far as yoga, I’m getting back into some standing poses, focusing on the basic sun salutation and some core strengthening poses. This time around, I am noticing the leg strength needed for each one, and my right leg’s lack of stamina. Being ok with going slow and a less-is -more approach is still my biggest lesson right now.

The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft

The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft

As I wait for my body, I am continuing to exploring yoga through my reading. This week I finished The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary, by Chip Hartranft. (I wrote about other yoga reading I’ve done in this and this post)

The Yoga Sutra is a classic yoga text, probably the classic yoga text. It’s author, Patanjali could be considered the grandfather of yoga, but not much is known about him (her? them?). Nearly 2,000 years old, the Yoga Sutra was written in a time when not many students were able to read, so it was done in a terse, quite poetic style in order to be easily memorized and recited by students. This type of text often needed the aid of a teacher to interpret, as it was written as a very sparse guide.

A guide to what?

Put simply, a guide to enlightenment. Patanjali outlines the yogic path to Samadhi, enlightenment, or as Hartranft translates it “oneness, integration.” This is definitely some heady stuff to wrap our minds around, but that’s just the thing –one can’t really wrap a mind around enlightenment. It is beyond the mind, beyond the self. Reading about it is very interesting, because it is, of course, all theoretical. I am not reading this as something I myself have experienced. And in the end, it really all comes down to the experience –the experience of reality, not through the lens of self, or even consciousness, but an “integration” with reality that us humans can’t really tap into through our daily lives as most of us live them.

So, is this discouraging? Yes, and no. Reading the sutras, I found myself frustrated with my own meditation practice at times –why am I so far from even glimpsing what Patanjali writes of? But then I remind myself, wherever I am on this yogic path is perfectly ok, because I am on it. This text is a beautiful affirmation of the heart of yoga, why we practice, what we can achieve, no matter where we are on this path.

Now, I don’t want to summarize the sutras, nor could I after only a first read. But it was a great introduction to a very dense text that anyone serious about their yoga practice should not only read, but read often (and by often, I mean I want to try to read it once a year). I will say that the yoga Patanjali describes is far from the asana-heavy yoga most of America currently practices today. In fact asana, as we know it, doesn’t really factor into Patanjali’s yoga.

Patanjali's yoga more closely resembles Gautama Buddha's meditating than your modern Vinyasa Flow class

Patanjali’s yoga more closely resembles Gautama Buddha’s meditating than your modern Vinyasa Flow class

So my big question now is how did we get from there to here anyway? I’m currently in search of a good book on the history and evolution of yoga.

Any recommendations?

I’ve been eyeing The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice, by Georg Feuerstein as fitting the bill.

Has anyone read it?

A few last thoughts on the Yoga Sutras

I enjoyed Hartranft’s knowledgeable and scholarly translation of it. He also includes an interesting essay on its relevance and relationship to today’s yoga. I liked that he included a commentary-free English translation of the entire Sutra in an appendix, which I read first, then read the sutras with his commentary interspersed, which is the main portion of the book.

Other versions of the sutras I would like to read include B. K. S. Iyengar’s (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), and Swami Satchidananda’s (The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali).

Patanjali? This is, apparently, what he looked like

Patanjali?

And I wanted to leave you with what I found to be the most poetic passage of Hartranft’s translation, as a little taste of the sutras. In Chapter 1, Patanjali makes a list of distractions (like apathy and doubt) that act as “barriers to stillness” of consciousness, then lists ways that one can subdue these distractions:

1.33 Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant or painful, good or bad.

34 Or by pausing after breath flows in or out.

35 Or by steadily observing as new sensations materialize.

36 Or when experiencing thoughts that are luminous and free of sorrow.

37 Or by focusing on things that do not inspire attachment.

38 Or by reflection on insights culled from sleep and dreaming.

39 Or through meditative absorption in any desired object.

40 One can become fully absorbed in any object, whether vast or infinitesimal.

I just think that’s such a lovely list.

 

One last thing, since we are in the month of May, I thought I would share again this post with the recipe for May Clove Water. I’m continuing this practice for my allergies this year, since it seemed to help last year.

And if you have any recommendations for books on the history of yoga, leave them in the comments.

Namaste.


Celebrating the Earth Element in All of Us: Rooting Down on Earth Day

The earth is slowly waking up this month. Snow is receding, grass is greening, buds are sprouting, flowers are pushing up from the soil. I should not be surprised by this, but every year I am. I am astounded by these spring happenings, as if it is a new occurrence. How marvelous.

2014-04-17 14.52.41

spring ground!

It’s a lot like the little revelations in my life, which are the same revelations in slightly new forms, probably occurring around the same time of year, or month, or day, each time. Our little self-revelations are like little crocuses sprouting up anew. Each one does look astonishingly new and unfamiliar every year. Take this revelation –today it came in the form of a silly little fortune cookie, “Value your present moments.” The message is always worded in a slightly different shade, but its meaning is always new and astonishing, stopping me in my tracks. Yes, how many different times a day and how many ways do I need to be reminded of this before it sinks in?

I don’t know. And I will probably never stop being amazed.

Today I wanted to write a little something about Earth Day. I deviated a bit, but how appropriate that Earth Day is in the spring, when we begin to start noticing the world around us a little more closely. When it begins to wake up, when we might begin to wake up.

I like to try to really feel a connection with the Earth on this day. Here’s some ideas for yoga that might help us connect:

Earth Element

One way is to connect with the earth element within us.

A little bachground: According to Ayurveda and yogic philosophy everything around us, ourselves included is made up of five elements (or tattvas) –earth (prithvi), water (jala), fire (agni), air (vayu), and ether (aakash). Each tattva has different characteristics, physical properties, and energetic qualities. But we’re just going to talk about prithvi today in (symbolic) honor of the Earth.

earth, rock

earth, rock

Earthy Yoga

Prithvi represents solid mass. It is dense, heavy. In your body, think about the mass, the very concrete and physical –your bones, muscles, fat. Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) and root down into your toes, preferably outside, on a piece of real live earth! What do you feel? Start with your feet. What do the bottoms of your feet feel? Sense the bones and muscles of your legs and feet, and how they ground you onto your place in this earth. Slowly draw attention to the other muscles and bones in your body, feeling how they connect and work together to hold you in place.

Feel the air entering and exiting your nostrils for a few lovely deep breaths. The earth element is related to our sense of smell. Now close your eyes. What do you smell as you breathe in and out?

The chakra associated with prithvi/earth is the root chakra (muladhara). Located at the perineum, the root chakra is what grounds us, gives us stability. It is the first chakra. Strength in this chakra feels like home.

A great Kundalini kriya for the first chakra is Kriya for a Healthy Bowel System. This slow moving kriya is great for grounding and one of my favorite.

Uttanasana (standing forward bend) is another nice grounding pose for the root chakra. This is one of the few poses I am able to do right now for my knee (in fact, my physical therapist even recommended it), so I’ve been studying it a little more closely lately. It is actually done in two steps. 1.) On the exhale, bend at the hips and bring your hands towards the floor, (touching down beside your feet, if possible, if not, touching the ground in front of your feet, or putting some blocks or stack of books there for your hands to rest on), breathe here, lengthening the shoulder blades. 2.) on another exhale, fold further towards your legs, lift the knee caps by engaging (tightening) the front of your upper legs (quads), this creates a deeper stretch, especially for the back of the legs (hamstrings).

Message to Meditate On

May I feel grounded in the place that I am in. May I feel at home. May I root down into this moment.

May we all feel grounded in the place we are. May we all protect our home. May the Earth feel this love. May it heal. May you heal. May I heal.

barefoot.hiker

Happy Earth Day! What are you doing to celebrate?

Resources and References:

Light on Yoga, by B. K. S. Iyengar

The Aquarian Teacher Level One Training Manual, by Yogi Bhajan

http://flowingfree.org/the-5-elements/

http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/898?page=2

 

A few of my favorite Earth-helping organizations:

The Sierra Club, often has local chapters to participate in

Portland Trails

The Land Trust Alliance


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Meditation in Action

sTreeOfYogaIn my last post I discussed asana as I understood it through B. K. S. Iyengar’s The Tree of Yoga. But it is too big and beautiful a book to just stop at asana. Since I’ve finished reading it, I’d like to process a little more of it with you and get to the heart of it, the heart of yoga itself.

Yogic Background

Most of The Tree of Yoga is based off the source text of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (next on my yoga reading list; let’s see if it takes me another 10 years to get to it!). In it, Patanjali breaks down yoga into its parts. Iyengar interprets these parts for us in practical modern terms.

According to Patanjali, yoga is an eight-fold path (eight limbs, which is where the name ashtanga comes from). These eight limbs can both be broken down into smaller branches, and put together into three larger parts.

Ok, stick with me for a bit!

Here are the eight, and their subcategories/principles that define them:

  • Yama –the five principles of which are: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (freedom from avarice), brahmacharya (control of sensual pleasure), and parigraha (freedom from covetousness and possession beyond one’s needs)
  • Niyama –the five principles of which are: saucha (cleanliness), santosa (contentment), tapas (ardour), svadhyaya (self-study) and Isvara-pranidhana (self-surrender)
  • Asana –“the various postures which bring the physical and the physiological functions of the body into harmony with the psychological pattern of yogic discipline (pg. 8).”
  • Pranayama –“the science of breath, which connects the macrocosm to the microcosm and vice versa (pg. 8).”
  • Pratyahara –“the inward journey of the senses (pg.8)”
  • Dharana –“concentration, focusing the attention on the core of the being (pg.8)”
  • Dhyana –meditation
  • Samadhi –“where the body, the mind, and the soul are merged with the Universal Spirit (pg.9)” or “diffusing the soul into each and every part of the body (pg. 73)”

These eight limbs can be divided into the three different levels of yoga:

1st: Yama and Niyama have to do with the social and ethical aspects of yoga, like the dos and don’ts of life in society.

2nd: Asana, pranayama, pratyahara have to do with your personal physical and mental practice, which lead to “the evolution of the individual, the understanding of the self (pg. 5).”

3rd: Dharana, dhyana, samadhi aren’t really part of the practice, but more like the product. They are the “effects of yoga which bring the experience of the sight of the soul (pg.5).”

Woah, I know that was more than a mouthful! But it had to all be said. The Tree of Yoga takes the rest of the book to go into more detail explaining these principles. The more you come into contact with these words, hear them repeated, and explained in different ways, they do all begin to slowly make sense and fit together.

I won’t go into Iyengar’s beautiful tree analogy here, you’ll have to read it for yourself. But these are the foundations of all yoga, no matter what the style or school. To me, it seems, the style or school (i.e. ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini) has to do with the interpretation of these eight limbs and where the emphasis is put.

The Nature of Meditation

Anyway, it was in a chapter near the end of the book,”The Nature of Meditation,” when this all seemed to click and I could see both the big and the small pictures. Iyengar’s main thesis of the book, it seems, is to place the physical practice of asana (hatha yoga) at the center of getting at all the other aspects of yoga, even meditation.

Before reading this I had always had the idea that the asanas are really just warm-ups for sitting down to meditate. Now, you can, and should, certainly be doing each asana with meditative mindfulness, but it didn’t seem like you could get at samadhi from asana alone.

Iyengar takes a different approach. He seems to see meditation, and everything in that third tier –concentration, meditation, enlightenment, as something that can be achieved during and through an asana practice. And this was finally making sense to me by this chapter.

The ultimate goal of meditation is not to reach enlightenment just while sitting on your nice meditation cushion in complete silence, but to maintain that state in everything you do in your life. Meditation is not wisdom, not the answers to all the questions in the universe we are seeking in a cave somewhere. Meditation is to help us live our lives the best we can, to live it through our highest possible Self.

So, I kinda had all that before (and when I say this, I mean “had” as in understood it on an intellectual level, not experiential, which is the tough part!). But Iyengar puts the body back into this equation –and why not, we can’t get rid of our bodies in this life. And by putting the body back into it, he activated it for me. He writes:

“When we become aware inside and outside, we can have the experience that meditation and physical action are not separate, that there is no division between body, mind and soul (pg.146).”

He goes on:

“You may practice meditation and develop awareness when you are sitting quietly in a park, and it comes quite easily. But when you are busy working, your life gets dominated by thought and it is hard to have total awareness. When you practice asana, pranayama and pratyahara, you learn to be totally aware –you develop awareness in your whole body while you are engaged in action. Then you can become totally aware in all circumstances. In a park, while you look at a tree, you forget yourself and you are one with the universe. Why can’t you learn to be one with the universe of your own world –that is to say, your self and your body? This way of looking at daily life is total awareness, total integration and meditation (pg. 146-7).”

maybe less of this?

maybe less of this?

Woah. This means my asana practice (as meditation in action) may more easily translate to meditation in the actions of the everyday than my previous idea of what meditation was.

I like this. I like it a lot. And of course you can see why you would need to practice yoga daily for the rest of your life! This isn’t something you just get one day on the mat and then “get” one day off the mat, and you’re done with yoga.

He ends the chapter with this lovely thought:

“You and I are runners in meditation, but we have not reached the goal (pg. 148).”

and more of this?

and more of this?

At least it’s a beautiful course! See you on the road.

But wait, am I totally giving up seated meditation? Probably not. But I like this new perspective on yoga that the book gave me. And there’s still more! He ends with two beautiful chapters on the art of yoga, and teaching yoga.

Do you have any yoga texts you love by other yogis? I’m looking for more good reading. 

(Note: This scheduled post was written on 3/16/14 as I take a break from writing to heal post knee-surgery.)

Resource: The Tree of Yoga, by B. K. S. Iyengar


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My Yoga Family Tree

my new modified tree pose, coincidentally the shirt I'm wearing says "We'll get there eventually"

my new modified tree pose, coincidentally the shirt I’m wearing says “We’ll get there eventually”

I neglected to mention in my last post, since I didn’t want to sound whiny, that just about as soon as I returned home from my trip to Portland I got sick, and have been sick all week (the whole gamet –stomach bug to head cold to sinus infection, which is of course horrible timing. There, I’ve sufficiently held the pity party!).

So in this time of being laid-up, lacking any energy to do any yoga, I’ve been reading a lot about yoga instead. And since I process better when I write, I thought I’d share some of the things I’m reading.

Interestingly, I’ve been drawn to Iyengar-style hatha yoga as my knee is recovering and getting stronger, finding it hard to access the Kundalini kriyas. Later, as my knee got stronger, I probably could have physically accessed them, but there was something in my mind that was not interested in going there. I felt the need for static instead of dynamic poses, for moving slowly instead of the rapid movements characteristic of Kundalini. I was still very much enjoying exploring these hatha poses, remembering back to when I had first discovered them, and first discovered yoga. With this bum knee, it was like I was discovering the poses for the first time all over again.

So, as I waited for the library to get my new batch of books I requested, I opened up some old ones on my shelf I have to admit I had only read pieces of, rather than cover to cover. Both by B.K.S. Iyengar.

Light on Yoga

loyThe first I dug out as a guide to the poses –Light on Yoga. Now, I don’t think this book is really meant to be read cover-to-cover. Since most of it is a detailed list of poses with descriptions of how to do them, it is more of a reference book. But it does have a hefty introduction and a few other sections that I’d never read before. The introduction is really a great overview of ALL of yogic philosophy. For me, it was a nice review of concepts that I learned slowly over the course of my teacher training. If I hadn’t already learned them I think I would find it really confusing, but instead it was nice to refresh my memory, and come at it from a slightly different perspective (Iyengar versus Yogi Bhajan). It was somehow nice to affirm that all yoga (or at least these two styles) is the same and has the same fundamental goals and philosophy behind it, just different ways of getting there.

Tree of Yoga

Then, I moved onto The Tree of Yoga. A book, I have to confess, I’ve had on my shelf for probably about 10 years and still haven’t finished. I’m committed to it now and will finish this time! The book is based on lectures given by B.K.S. Iyengar on yogic philosophy, specifically how yogic philosophy and the spiritual aspects of yoga relate to and manifest in the physical practice of poses, or asanas.

Iyengar emphasizes again and again that the main purpose of yoga is union of body, mind, and soul, in order to create union with the Universal Spirit. I’ve always been drawn to Iyengar-style for its deliberate and slow experiences of each posture. That each posture in and of itself is a place of meditation, that a whole universe is going on in your body during each pose, and each pose is an entirely different universe. By this I mean, there is so much going on in the body and mind that we are often unaware of, slowing down in the poses helps us begin to be aware.

sTreeOfYogaThis awareness just deepens over time. When I first start practicing a pose, I am only aware of the muscles of action –the very pose itself. But slowly more awareness opens up. I then notice the muscles of inaction, and often discover they too are active in their own way, or sometimes reactive. There is balancing, stabilizing, stretching, releasing. Then I can start to focus on the breath in the pose. Then it can start to become meditative…and deeper and deeper.

I have to admit, most often I don’t get to this level of deepening. Practicing with my “new body” (post knee-injury) made me realize this again, and kind of relish in the slowing down, seeing just how slow I could go. My practice went from many poses to only a few in the same amount of time.

New things I gleaned about asana from The Tree of Yoga

Iyengar describes asana as pose and then repose, which really gets at what I described above. When I’m practicing an asana, too often I move on without the repose part. I pose, then pose, then pose, without taking the time to get at where the good stuff can be found –in the repose. He describes repose as:

“reflection on the pose. The pose is re-thought and readjusted so that the various limbs and parts of the body are positioned in their places in a proper order and feel rested and soothed, and the mind experiences the tranquility and calmness of bones, joints, muscles, fibres and cells.”

I love that repose has a double meaning, because this second step in the asana is a repose too –repose the noun: resting, in a state of calm and quiet. This is the time to connect body to mind, mind to soul. He writes:

“As the body is contracted or extended, so the intelligence is contracted or extended to reach every part of the body. This is what is known as reposing; this is sensitivity. When this sensitivity is in touch equally with the body, the mind and the soul, we are in a state of contemplation or meditation which is known as asana. The dualities between body and mind, mind and soul, are vanquished or destroyed.”

Good stuff, right?

Later, he adds to this idea of the asana that you must also taste it, taste its energy which I love.

“The essence, or taste, of energy has to be felt in the fountain of your body when you are performing asanas or pranayama.”

So we really do have a whole world going on in each and every pose. This is something I too easily and often forget.

Thanks for letting me process with you and I hope that maybe you were able to find it helpful too. I definitely recommend both of these books. The Tree of Yoga has many more beautiful nuggets in it, and covers all aspects of yoga. Asana was just the one on my mind tonight.

And, if it seems I have been focusing a lot on other yoga, besides Kundalini, it is because I have been. I haven’t abandoned Kundalini though. I am just taking some time to explore yogic philosophy in a broader sense, and through a different angle. I began my yoga journey in a more Iyengar-style class, so this has always been there, and there have always been aspects of this yoga that I miss in Kundalini. And aspects of Kundalini that I miss in hatha. I think I am now taking the time to reconcile the two in my life and strike some sort of balance.

Do you practice more than one style of yoga? How do you reconcile the differences? Or do you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave a comment if you feel so inclined.

(Note: This is a scheduled post written on 3/15/14 as I take a break from writing to heal post-knee surgery. By the way, the surgery went very well and I am recovering nicely.)

Resources:

Light on Yoga, by B. K. S. Iyengar

The Tree of Yoga, by B. K. S. Iyengar

Related:

10 Things That Make Kundalini Yoga Different from Hatha Yoga

Styles of Yoga

Iyengar Yoga’s official web page

Light on Yoga (aka “The Book”)


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Sing Your Yoga!

On the first and third Saturday of every month, something pretty magical happens at Portland Yoga Studio. This is the night they hold kirtan.

Kirtan is a form of devotional yoga, in which a group participates in call and response chants. These chants are in Sanskrit, and call on the names and graces of various Hindu Gods or the Devine at large. The meditative practice of kirtan brings the chanter closer to union with the One, with everyone. More important than the words of these mantras is the sound. Sound is a powerful healing tool when used in this way.

For me, kirtan is yoga in another form. Like a yoga class, or my home practice, chanting at a kirtan recharges my spirit, helps me let go of the crap and worries I hold on to, lets me just be. When I lived in Portland, I attended this kirtan group when I could. Last weekend, while visiting the city, I had the chance to go again –actually, I picked that weekend to visit so that I could go.

The space itself holds a lovely energy. Upon entering and settling into the room before the music even begins –this positive energy seeps from the golden and orange walls, perfumes the room. How can this energy not emanate from a space that has held so much beautiful yoga, so much beautiful music –that “good stuff” lingers, it sticks.

Ganesha, photo credit: Google Images

Ganesha, photo credit: Google Images

Kirtonium lead the group this night. This was my first time hearing them, since they took over for the group I used to attend. Although the scene and vibe were a little different, it was still a heavenly night. We began with chanting to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I had my impending knee surgery on my mind, as I settled into my singing voice and massaged my hamstring tendon. My knee is an obstacle even Ganesha can’t remove, I thought to myself. But then, as we were chanting, I had this other thought: Sometimes you can’t remove the obstacle, but you can at least remove the weight behind it. And that’s what happened.

Ah, I was settling into the Naad. Naad, “the essence of all sound,… is the vibrational harmony through which the Infinite can be experienced.” (The Aquarian Teacher Level One Instructor Textbook, by Yogi Bhajan). What is sound? Sound is just vibrations. We are just vibrations. In chanting, we attempt to join our vibrations with that universal current. Yogi Bhajan writes:

“By vibrating in rhythm with the breath to a particular sound that is proportional to the creative sound, or sound current, one can expand one’s sensitivity to the entire spectrum vibration. It is similar to striking a note on a stringed instrument.   In other words, as you vibrate, the universe vibrates with you.”

It took about an hour and a half before I was finally able to let go and take a real deep breath. There is always that one.deep.breath for me in a practice where finally everything is released. And when it came that night, it was wonderful –the entire week exhaled from my body. Ahhhh.

I experience Kirtan in many little moments, as any life experience really, but these little moments are more perceptible while chanting. There was one moment when the Sanskrit chant seamlessly morphed into Allejulah –this word all of a sudden dropped all its modern connotations; it took on its original meaning, it was a prayer, like any other, sung so earnestly, as if I was hearing it for the first time, melding all religions, all faiths –all of us.

Moments of Silence

After each chant, there is always a time of silence. It’s funny that we need to make all this noise –beautiful noise, but noise, no less, in order to truly hear the silence. The juxtaposition of silence after each chant is where the light comes in for me. There was one such moment of silence near the end –everyone’s souls just burst open for a moment. Then slowly, coughs and rustlings quietly took it back, we all closed back up again, but there was that moment. And that’s why chanting as a group can be so powerful. The sound can create such a deep connection with complete strangers.

That was my Friday night. That was my little mini-vacation to an old familiar place before I’m laid up for a while post-surgery. I took a well-worn tour of all my favorite places and people in the city and had a wonderful time.

This post was written last weekend, but I didn’t get a chance to finish it until now. On Tuesday I go in for knee surgery. I am scared, but I will breathe through it! Maybe I’ll even have one of these lovely mantras floating in my mind.

If you live in or near Maine, you can learn more about our kirtan scene at: http://www.mainekirtan.com/

And more about Kirtonium at: http://www.kirtonium.com/

If you don’t live in Maine, I bet you’ll find a growing kirtan community near you if you looked. It is a practice that has really gained in popularity over the last few years. Also, you don’t need to feel like a beautiful singer to join in. Everyone’s voice becomes angelic when it’s joined in chanting in this way -I promise!

Thanks for reading about another form of yoga I practice.

Do you attend kirtans? How will you practice your yoga today? Share with us in the comments.


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The Bandhas, Part 2: Neck Lock (Jalandhar Bandh)

This post is about Jalandhar Bandh, or neck lock. If you’d like to read more about the bandhas or body locks, read Part 1 here.

Unlike the root lock, neck lock is quite simple, so simple that I had been doing it without even realizing it. You probably have too. It is done during most meditations. When, in the meditation pose description, you hear lift your chest and tuck your chin, this is neck lock, simple as that.

How to do Neck Lock

Here’s a more detailed description (from The Aquarian Teacher Training Manual):

  • sit comfortably with a straight spine
  • lift the chest and sternum upward
  • gently stretch the back of the neck straight by pulling the chin toward the back of the neck (in other words, “tuck your chin” as it is commonly described)
  • the head is level and centered, the muscles of the neck, throat and face are loose and relaxed
  • don’t force the head forward or down; your neck shouldn’t feel sore

What Neck Lock Does

  • Just as the root lock helps contain and circulate the energy of the lower chakras so that energy can flow up, neck lock helps contain the energy of the upper chakras. Without neck lock, this energy could just kind of disperse willy-nilly through the upper body, but we want to direct it up through the central channel where it is most useful in awakening the kundalini energy.
  • Neck lock calms the heart and creates a natural flow of energy
  • It helps concentrate secretions from the pituitary, pineal and hypothalamus glands, and systematic practice of it can lead to creating an interconnectedness between these glands
  • It makes it easier to focus on internal sensations and perceptions without distractions from the peripheral senses
  • It prevents undue changes in blood pressure that can sometimes be induced by exercise and breathing. It acts as a safety valve that regulates that pressure by reducing dizziness that can result from a practice.

How to Experience Neck Lock

Neck lock can and should be done during all pranayam and meditations (unless otherwise specified). To experience neck lock you may want to do a few minutes of silent meditation, with the usual points of focus –breath, third eye, but also add the neck lock. Come back to this focus, checking in with your body to see if your head has moved out of the position. You can also engage the root lock as well, to experience the sensation both of these body locks has on your meditating mind and body.

The chin tuck is pretty slight. It may help to visualize bringing the chin down and in just until your neck is straight. There is this spot that just kinda feels right, so you may have to play around with it a bit. I had a teacher once use the analogy of a garden hose. We can think of our spine or that central channel as a garden hose. We want it nice and straight without any kinks in the hose, to let that energy flow up and out. That’s why we sit with a straight spin and tucking the chin creates that straight line at the top of the spine as well.

My head tends to slowly drift back up from the chin tuck. That’s why being conscious of this lock is important. In fact, when I first started meditating I preferred this little lift of my head. I had this lovely vision of lifting my head to the light. I had a teacher that would remind the class throughout meditation to tuck our chin, bow our heads (probably looking at me specifically, as I often chose not to listen to this). I used to get a little annoyed, not understanding why this was important. Now I like the visualization that I am humbly bowing to the light above.

Update (2/22/14): Sally Kempton, meditation teacher and author, describes neck lock (without calling it that) in her meditation in March’s Yoga Journal, like this: “let your chin move back so you feel as if your head is being suspended by a cord from the ceiling.” I really liked that image, and thought it may be helpful in visualizing the head position.

Resource: The Aquarian Teacher Level one Instructor Text Book, by Yogi Bhajan, PhD

I love this tree I found in the yard. I like to think that's what my third eye looks like.

I love this tree I found in the yard. I like to think that maybe that’s what my third eye looks like.


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The Bandhas, Part 1: Mulbandh (Root Lock)

Body locks, or bandhas are an integral part of yoga poses, though not a lot of time is devoted to working with them or talking about them (perhaps more so in Kundalini yoga than other forms though). So today I thought I would start a conversation on the topic.

There are three body locks, so this will be the start of a series of posts. I would consider bandhas more of an intermediate to advanced level focus, so if you are just beginning a yoga practice, it’s good to be aware of their existence, but I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about them. Focus, instead, on the poses themselves.

There are three different body locks: neck lock, or jalandhar bandh; diaphragm lock, or uddiyana bandh; and root lock, or mulbandh, which I’ll talk more about today. When all three locks are applied together the great lock, or mahabandh, is created.

So, what are body locks? And why would you want to do them?

Physically, body locks are simply tightening certain muscles and/or positioning your body in a specific way, each lock is different and works in a different area of the body to direct the flow of energy. They are not really considered poses or postures, but rather an action done during or after a pose.

Metaphysically, they get at the real purpose of yoga:

The central aim of the physical efforts of yoga is to generate a special capacity and flow of life energy within the body and aura…In this state of inner health and clarity, the sense of being and spirit awakens. (The Aquarian Teacher Level One Instructor Text Book, by Yogi Bhajan, PhD)

Let’s back up a step and talk about what this flow of energy is. Let’s talk about prana and apana. Prana is the energy that flows into the body. We can think of it as the breath, as inhale, but it is more than just the air we breathe. It is that life-giving energy all around us.

Apana, then, is it’s opposite force. Apana is the energy that flows out of the body for cleansing. Prana is generative, where apana is eliminative. “They are the positive and negative sides of the life force.” But we aren’t really talking Star Wars’ The Force –apana is not evil. Negative does not mean bad, it is just opposite.

It would make sense that we want to balance these forces. That’s what many poses and counter-poses in Kundalini Yoga do. For example, cobra pose is a great pose to balance prana and apana (even better when we end it with a body lock, but we’ll get to that later).

The aim of Kundalini yoga is to blend these two different aspects of energy, which creates “a neutrality and calmness that allows the life force to flow in a different manner.” Establishing this energy flow is the first step in awakening the Kundalini energy.

This potential for awareness and spirit first manifests as increased concentration and clarity. This is taken to all the different areas of your functioning, as the energy travels through the chakras…This produces a blissful and super-conscious state in which it is easy to distinguish the real from the unreal and to direct the play of the senses. (AT)

That’s a mouthful –I want you to read that quote again.

Put simply, the body locks deepen and enhance the energy work you’ve created within your body through yoga poses or meditation. It’s almost like using body locks can speed up the process of deepening and awakening we are trying to get at through our yoga practice.

This is a lot of information already, but I want to go into describing one of the locks, so that you can try it out and make practical sense of this concept.

Root Lock (Mulbandh)

I’m going to start at the bottom with root lock, because for me it was the easiest to achieve, or at least conceptualize. It is more complicated than the other locks, because you have a little more going on, but I feel it’s the most concrete, or as concrete as you can get when you’re dealing with such concepts.

The root lock is dealing with the lower triangle of chakras, at the base of spine. I often describe it as tightening and lifting the muscles of the pelvic floor, but I’m going to get a little more specific today. Yes, this language will be a bit jarring, especially when you hear it for the first time in a class, but take it for what it is –precise language needed to describe an action of the body, no other connotations.

The root lock is three separate actions that kind of happen all at once, but when you are practicing or just learning, you can separate them out a bit.

  1. The first action is to tightening the anal sphincter.
  2. The second is to tighten or contract the area around the sex organs.  This is like stopping the flow of urine mid-stream.
  3. The third action is contracting the lower abdominal muscles, drawing them inward towards the spine.

 

All three of these actions are done smoothly as one. In fact, when you’re first starting to work with them, you may not be able to separate the different muscle groups you are contracting. It is a subtle movement, and no one will be able to see it to tell you if you are doing it right or wrong. It feels a little different at first, but as you work with it more, it feels more natural.

Root lock is often done at the end of a pose or meditation, and can be done with the breath held in or out. Even if not specified in the kriya’s directions, it is implied that at least a slight root lock will be done at the end of each pose to contain and help circulate the energy you just created in that pose, usually after the inhale, locking the air in.

As you practice root lock more, it can also be applied during many poses. For me, this becomes another point of concentration, another way to deepen into the pose, to focus into my practice. You may want to try it with some familiar poses and see how it feels.

adding root lock into my practice helped me experience this

adding root lock into my practice helped me experience this

Benefits of Root Lock

  • It stimulates the proper flow of spinal fluid
  • It blends the energies of prana and apana at the navel center in order to begin opening up the central channel for energy flow up the spine.
  • “It starts the process of transformation from gross to subtle” In other words, by working on balancing the energy of the lower three chakras, which are associated with our base “caveman” instincts, it moves us from mere animal survival to our greater potential as humans. One of these being self-awareness, observation of our actions, rather than always moving from action and impulse.

2 Exercises to Master Root Lock

Exercise 1

  • Sit in easy pose (cross-legged) with a straight spine, hands relaxed at the sides
  • Concentrate at the lower pelvis, and inhale and exhale deeply
  • Hold the breath out. Pull the root lock by contracting rectum, sex organs, and lower abdominals. Hold tightly for 5 seconds. Relax with the inhale
  • Repeat several times for lengths of 5, 10, 15, 20 seconds

Exercise 2

  • Sit in the same manner with chest lifted and shoulders and face muscles relaxed
  • Inhale and exhale completely. As you suspend the breath out, pump the navel point in and out 26 times. Isolate the motion to the lower organs. Each contraction will tighten the root lock. Each relaxation will loosen the root lock.
  • After the 26 pumps, inhale deeply. Exhale and continue this pattern for 3-5 minutes
  • Relax

These exercises are from The Aquarian Teacher Text Book, along with the above quotes and descriptions.

The comments the book gives for the exercises: Regular practice of these exercises gives you mastery over the root lock. It improves longevity, and improves the digestion. It provides a massage for the liver, kidneys, and the spleen. If you do not pull the navel point and root lock 26 times a day, it is very difficult to adjust digestion and the lower spine. When beginning to learn the root lock, there is a tendency toward morning constipation. This can be avoided by choosing a light diet full of vegetables and grains when you initiate the practice. Be sure to take at least 8 glasses of pure water per day.

My comments: I haven’t experienced the morning constipation, but if you are prone to this, drinking warm water with lemon in the morning before eating or drinking anything else will also help.

The locks are an interesting concept, and I myself am still working with them to gain a better understanding of them, but if you have any questions please let me know, and I’ll try my best to answer them.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2: Neck Lock, which should be a much shorter post. Thanks for sticking with me!

Resource: The Aquarian Teacher: Level One Instructor Text Book, Yogi Bhajan, 4th ed, 2007.