BOOK REVIEW: Prana and Pranayama by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Prana And PranayamaPrana And Pranayama by Swami Niranjananda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the Bihar School of Yoga manual on pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises. The book is a one-stop reference for yoga students and teachers wishing to review the philosophy and physiology of breathing practices, as well as to put together lessons or a plan of action for practice that consists of both preparatory exercises and classical pranayama.

Students in the West may be more familiar with B.K.S. Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama,” which offers a similar set of material and is this book’s main competitor for most readers. In my view, Swami Saraswati’s book is a bit more pragmatic and gets caught in the weeds less, but offers fewer detailed photos and is a little bit less precisely organized. If one is considering between the two books, I’d say the advantage of Iyengar is a 200-week course plan that some individuals may find a handy way to systematically advance their practice pranayama. The disadvantage of Iyengar is that he goes into vastly greater detail than most people will be able to take advantage of via book. (For example, there’s 22 pages of precise explanation of closing off one’s nostrils for digital pranayama.) In short, both books give the reader everything they’ll need in a pranayama reference, Swami Saraswati’s book is a bit more laid-back, and Iyengar’s a bit more oriented as a step-by-step instruction manual.

The twenty-one chapters of this book are organized into three parts, but we’ll call it four because the last part is divided in two sub-parts. The first part of the book is entitled, “Philosophy of Pranayama” and it dives into the definitions of prana, kosha (sheaths), chakra, nadi (channels), pranic fields, and discusses the connection between prana and chanting.

The second part of the book (ch. 8 – 13) explores the physiology of breath. This section explains the anatomy of the musculature that drives respiration (e.g. the diaphragm, intercostals, etc.), the processes of respiration and circulation, and the importance of the nose in breathing (which is more extensive than the average person could imagine.) This section also discusses the classical distinction between pranayama and rudimentary breath practices (i.e. whether there is breath retention, or kumbhaka), and has a separate chapter explaining retention. It also has a couple chapters that present the research on the benefits and effects of pranayama practice. (Full-disclosure: this isn’t up-to-date in the edition I read, and that was the 2016 — first digital — edition. So, I wouldn’t go here looking for information on the state of research because there’s been a virtual explosion of research that’s more recent than what is covered in the book. However, it will give one a gist what has been known for a while.)

Part III consists of two sub-parts. The first is called “Pre-Pranayama” and it includes many exercises to help one become familiar with one’s breath as well as to develop the foundational breaths (e.g. abdominal / diaphragmatic verses chest breathing) that are built upon in the final section. Part III.B presents the classic pranayama. The four chapters of this section are conveniently organized into: guidelines for practice (e.g. contraindications and general concepts to keep in mind), nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), tranquilizing / calming breaths, and vitalizing / excitatory breaths.

There are five appendices as well as a glossary and two indexes (an index of practices and a general index.) The five appendices provide instruction on practices that are employed in pranayama, but are not pranayama themselves. These include supplementary practices, asana (seated postures for doing pranayama more than asana for opening the rib-cage, etc.,) mudra (“seals” postures of specific body parts), and bandha (locks). The presence of the first four appendices mean that one doesn’t have to buy other books (e.g. the APMB) to access this information. The fifth appendix gathers the sutra from “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” that deal with pranayama and provide an English translation. (HYP is a 15th century manual of Hatha Yoga that is much more detailed than Patanjali’s sutras.) There are graphics throughout the book as needed to convey information, mostly line drawings.

I found this book very useful and well presented. If there is one change that would improve the book it would be less crow-barring of science and traditional / philosophical beliefs about the body to be consistent with one another. I see the value of presenting both sets of information as both this book and the Iyengar book do, but a muddle is created by trying to force the explanations into consistency when they aren’t. (I think this book does it a bit more than Iyengar, but only because Iyengar puts much less emphasis on science than does this one.) The problem is that one ends up with low-quality pseudo-science amid the strong studies, and most readers won’t be able to tell scientific consensus and from the lunatic fringe. (e.g. The belief that kirlian photography is evidence of pranic fields or qi is far from scientifically supported.) That said, for most practitioners it doesn’t much matter as it doesn’t affect the nature of the practices, which are sound and well-described.

If you’re looking for a pranayama reference, this is a great option.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VII [Lucid Dreaming]

Lucid dreaming is the act of becoming aware that one is in a dream while dreaming. It’s called “Dream Yoga” in some Eastern traditions (most notably, Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism.) Many people pursue lucid dreaming because they find it just too cool to experience the world of dreams consciously, but — for those who don’t — the natural question is “why bother?”  Well, it gives one an unprecedentedly vivid insight into one’s subconscious mind. [For those who are still wondering “why?” This post is probably not for you.]

Since I was young, I’ve occasionally experienced lucid dreams. But it wasn’t until recent years that I began a dream yoga practice — which I had discontinued until resuming it for this month’s study. Those unfamiliar lucid dreaming might wonder how one “practices” becoming aware that one is in a dream in the midst of dreaming. If one didn’t come to the table with a talent for lucidity in dreams, one can’t exactly do anything about it in the middle of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, when the bulk of dreaming occurs.)  A dream yoga practice consists of actions one takes during the day to help facilitate becoming lucid during one’s dreams. These actions include:

  • Journaling one’s dreams (i.e. writing down whatever one remembers of one’s dreams as soon as possible so that one builds the capacity to remember dreams, which can be ephemeral.)
  • Doing reality checks in waking life whenever one notices anything that has an unreal quality about it. This is done in an attempt to train your brain’s BS detector — that’s obviously not how neuroscientists refer to it, but in waking consciousness we have a potent ability to notice and focus our attention on apparent incongruities. The parts of the brain that manage that responsiveness tend to be down for the count during sleep. Hence, in a dream one can walk out of one’s bedroom onto the Serengeti Plains without a second thought. So you are attempting to train your brain to become aware when the anomalous takes place. If it works right, you will begin to do the reality checks in your dreams as well. Of course, real life offers much more subtle seeming incongruities, hence the need to be on the look out for them. There are two approaches to reality check with which I’m familiar. The one I use is to count my fingers, and then flip my hand over and count them again. In a waking state, I always have five digits during counts. In dreams, my hand does some funky stuff. An alternate method is to look at a clock or watch, look away, and then look back at it. In real life, only a second or two will have passed, but in a dream the times will likely be entirely different.
  • Bedtime resolutions to remember one’s dreams and to become lucid during them. For yogis and yoginis, this is like a sankalpa, a resolution that one repeats during yoga nidra (“yogic sleep,” a yogic relaxation and mind development technique that — ironically — doesn’t involve sleep but rather a prolonged hypnogogic state [between waking and sleep.]) The resolution should be a short statement without negation that is repeated exactly the same way several times.
  • Meditative practices that recall dream settings. One practice that I stumbled onto is done in a meditative state. When my conscious mind quieted and I was experiencing subconscious imagery, I found that I could remember many more of the settings in which dreams take place. I have a lot of recurring settings for dreams. [Typical of dreams, these places don’t always look exactly the same, but they feel like they are meant to be the same place.]

Long story short, one is doing two basic things in the practice of dream yoga. First, you’re trying to remember your dreams better. As I suggested, you could be becoming lucid in dreams every night, but if you don’t remember them you’re not gaining any conscious insights from them. Second, you’re trying to recognize the dream state by way of the bizarre incongruities that take place in dreams.

I should point out that mine is a bare bones practice, there are other activities one can do as well. Really hardcore practitioners set alarms in an attempt to wake themselves up in the midst of a dream. This allows them to remember dreams better and to help them become aware they are in a dream when they return to the dream after going back to sleep. This isn’t so far fetched as it might sound. We tend to dream in cycles of around 90 minutes and proceed through the same sequence of mind states from waking consciousness through hypnogogic state through various stages of sleep into a hypnopompic state and the back to waking consciousness. So, there is a degree of predictability on which to base one’s alarm estimate. I’m not so keen on disrupting my sleep. [Part of the reason that I discontinued practice is that I found I really only remembered lucid dreams when my sleep was troubled. (Usually it is not so much “troubled” as I when I’m sleeping lightly because I’ve slept longer than usual — e.g. occasionally oversleeping on the weekend.)  If I sleep like a baby, I typically don’t remember lucid dreams — that doesn’t mean I’m not having them, but I wouldn’t know if I did.]

Even though a dream yoga practice has often seemed to have little influence on my having [or, perhaps more accurately, remembering] lucid dreams, this month I’ve had five that I remembered — a couple of which I only remembered the in-dream reality check (counting fingers.) [A warning to would-be lucid dreamers, its possible to wake yourself up with the excitement of becoming aware that you are in a dream.] I’ve been consistently journaling and have picked up doing more reality checks. [Bangalore is a great place for this because it’s in constant flux, so I’m forever having “was that there yesterday” moments and “has that looked like that for the past five years” moments as I move about the town.]

It’s been fun coming back to this practice. I’m one of those who doesn’t really need another reason for trying to dream lucidly other than the fact that I’m so in awe of being in a dream and knowing that anything my mind can conjure might come next. Still, the lucid dreams I’ve had this month have offered some interesting features to contemplate the meaning of, including: faceless people, being on some kind of backward moving speed-walk while I tried to go investigate a scene in front of me, and something akin to being in a video game.

I’m leaning toward doing a short stint of sleep deprivation for next month, if I can find two days or so to safely give it a try (i.e. no need to drive or do anything else requiring fresh faculties.) I’ve gone about 54 hours without sleep before (not for its own sake, but because of the situation at hand,) and know it can have some interesting effects.

BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurlien Broussel-Derval & Stephane Ganneau

The Modern Art and Science of MobilityThe Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurelien Broussal-Derval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.

The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.

With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.

I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.

That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VI [Breathwork]

This month’s post will explore breath as an influence on one’s state of consciousness. My apologies for getting into the weeds at the start with a long discussion of the minutiae of this breathwork practice, but this is a topic that can create confusion for a couple different reasons.

First, there are a number of ways breath could be used to influence one’s state of consciousness, and the practices I’m talking about are of one specific type. For example, I often use a balanced pranayama practice (breathing exercises that mix calming, exciting, and balanced breaths) as a lead-in to meditative practices because it helps to put me in a state of mind that is neither groggy nor mentally agitated, allowing my mental chatter to quiet rapidly without making me drift off. However, that’s not the kind of practice I’m referring too in this post. I’m talking about breathing in a way that is excessively deep and / or fast for an extended period such that the blood becomes more alkaline (i.e. blood is slightly alkaline in homeostasis, but the pH goes up in this type of practice) as carbon dioxide is purged.

Second, there’s no terminology that’s commonly agreed upon. For one thing, the breathing that I’m discussing could be called “hyperventilative” or “over-breathing.” However, those terms are usually used to describe medical conditions that may have similar physiological effects, but aren’t controlled activities done on purpose. While there are some similarities physiologically, equating this practice with involuntarily rapid breathing caused by a physical injury, mental condition, or consumption of a toxic substance can create confusion. After all, whatever is causing involuntary hyperventilation is likely to have other effects (at a minimum, increased anxiety) over and beyond those seen in a voluntary practice. This means the list of adverse effects will also be different. I wouldn’t want a reader to look at a Wikipedia or WebMD page for “hyperventilation” and think I’m insane for undertaking the practice.

For another thing, this type of breathing is employed in a number of different systems — each of which has its own particular approach and particular context in which the breath practice occurs (and variations in terminology.) Tibetan Buddhist Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, and Holotropic Breathwork all use kinds of breathing that create a similar effects. However, it should noted that the breathwork is just a part of each of these practices that occurs within a more extensive context. In Tummo, visualization in conjunction with the breath is an essential element of the practice. The Wim Hof Method has a defined sequence including breath retention, not to mention other practices — most famously, cold exposure. Holotropic Breathwork employs an observer and encourages practitioners to make sounds and movement as they feel fit as part of the practice, basically responding freely to the impulses one feels. It should be noted that Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislav Grof after psychoactive substances like LSD became illegal, and he was looking for a way to generate similar results endogenously, having seen positive therapeutic effects using LSD. 

It should be noted that yoga also has breaths that create this type of effect: Kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) and Bhastrika (bellows breath.) However, these breaths are more self-regulating in that they are generally done in and out through the nose (as opposed to exhaling through mouth which allows a greater tidal turnover of breath) and because the rapid contraction of the abdomen to force the exhalation tends to be self-limiting. In other words, the capacity of one’s nervous system to keep up with breath will — for most people — give out well before one’s blood chemistry is so out of whack that it is likely to create any bizarre or potentially dangerous effects. For this reason, kapalbhati and bhastrika can be safely practiced daily in a seated position (though if one is doing unusually large sets or numbers of sets, one might be wise to lay down.) It should be noted that the basic breathwork of the Wim Hof Method involves three sets of 30 breaths (though with breath retention in between), and most people would probably be fine doing that seated as well (though it seems to done laying down most frequently,) and it can be done daily.

I focused on the breath entirely — as well as observation of the after effects upon my mind and body. The practice I did involved a full and rapid in breath through the nose and a blowing exhalation through the mouth, repeated as quickly as sustainable for as long as 30 minutes at a time. I always did this practice lying down, and I always allowed the same amount of time I did the practice before attempting to get up. (i.e. if I did the breath practice for 30 minutes, I would reset the alarm for 30 minutes after I was done and lie still, watching the sensations, at least until the alarm went off.) I only did half-hour sessions once a week, though I would sometimes engage in shorter practices or specific practices (e.g. trying out the basic Wim Hof breath exercise.) While stimulating yoga pranayama (e.g. kapalbhati) and relatively small repetitions done in a few sets (e.g. the basic Wim Hof breath practice), can be practiced daily, I wanted to give my body lots of time to restore homeostasis because of the extensive and relatively long-lasting effects of these sessions.

The experience of doing the practice was interesting. I almost always face a challenge at the very beginning of the practice. Forcing such over-breathing feels burdensome at first, and its hard to image getting through a half hour of it. However, before long I would catch a rhythm and by the end of the practice I was usually stunned at how quickly the time went. I suspect having to focus on maintaining the breath keeps one from internally referencing time, and that’s why one seems to lose track of it altogether.

I wish I had more of a culinary sense and set of terminology, because I found there was definitely a subtle flavor associated with my changed body chemistry. I could taste the experience of respiratory alkalosis, but I have no way of describing what the taste of it was like. Of course, the most dramatic sensory experience associated with the practice was tingling all over the body. It wasn’t just in the usual parts (e.g. the extremities), but I also felt it — for example —  along both sides of my abdomen. While the intensity of the tingling began waning as soon as I was done, it often would more than last through my post-practice observation period.

As for the effect on my state of consciousness, in general I came out of it feeling loose and blissful. I haven’t had any trippy, psychedelic, or hallucinatory experiences, but there is definitely a sense of calm and clarity (not to mention a slightly inebriated feel.) I generally finished with a kind of rhythmic, music ready state of mind. I don’t know if that was a feature of the rhythm of the breathing or just a quirky sensory craving. It should be noted that I also had sensations that weren’t particularly pleasant (though they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either — like a faint trace of a headache.) I’d recommend being as slow and gentle as possible when coming out of such a practice.

As for recommendations, for this practice my recommendation would be the same as it was in my January post about an experience with psilocybin tea. That is, “know thyself.” In other words, I wouldn’t make a wholesale recommendation that someone try this type of practice. Certainly, people who have anxiety when everything isn’t in perfect homeostasis in the body should steer clear of it. If one doesn’t have an extensive background with breathwork and how one’s body responds to it, I’d, furthermore, recommend that one only try it under the guidance of (and in the presence of) someone who does. This practice has had a more drastic influence on mind and body than any of the other consciousness-altering practices thus far and may be the most potentially dangerous. All that said, I have found it beneficial, and believe others may too under the right circumstances.

Continuing this series, next month (July) I’m going to try to jump-start my practice of lucid-dreaming (a.k.a. dream yoga.) [It’s something I’ve never excelled at, though I do have a few lucid dreams a year.]

The Yoga-Poetic Nexus

Note: This post is not advocating a new distraction yoga mashup of the type that I’ve been known to rant about, but is merely a discussion of the synergy to be found in practicing both yoga and poetry.

In Patanjali’s conception, the problem for which yoga presents a solution is the mind’s tendency to run amok. One would like to be able to hold the awareness on a given object, effortlessly and for extended periods of time, but the mind is insistent in its desire to roam. This roaming can be to many different ends, but often it’s ultimately about eliminating uncertainty. The mind wants a plan against the unexpected. It seeks solutions to problems — existing, anticipated, or imagined. It wants to replay entertaining stories, which is really a way to learn and store general solutions for later surprise problems that might otherwise catch one off-guard. The more anxious or emotionally charged the mind, the more turbulent it will be.

Poetry is the use of metaphor, imagery, and sound to strike an emotional chord. I don’t mean “emotional” exclusively in the sense of displaying strong, behavior-driving emotions. I mean all sorts of internal, subjective feelings, including nostalgia and the residue of memories and dreams.

Sometimes, the feelings a poem seeks to generate are primal emotions. For example, consider Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” [1096] (about a snake, if you didn’t make that connection) that concludes:

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

 

Or, from Poe’s “The Raven:”

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

 

Just to show that poetry isn’t all fear and melancholy, let’s look at a stanza from Whitman, from his aptly named “Poems of Joy:”

 

O to go back to the place where I was born!
To hear the birds sing once more!
To ramble about the house and barn, and over the
fields, once more,
And through the orchard and along the old lanes
once more.

 
So, emotion is the connection. Poetry helps one form, shape, and refine emotional content, and yoga helps one to experience that emotion without applying value judgments or allowing the motive force of emotion to drive one into endless cycles of destructive feedback. That is, one feels the need to think about an emotionally charged situation, and the more one thinks about it, the more intense the emotion becomes, and the more intense the emotion, the more one thinks about it. I’ll just call this process “wallowing” — wallowing in emotion.
 
The word “emotion” carries with it a lot of baggage. Emotion is often juxtaposed with rationality / reason, which isn’t accurate. (Reason works great for making decisions when there is adequate information, emotion forces one to move one’s ass when there isn’t sufficient information. So they are not so much opposites as complimentary systems supporting decision and behavior.)
 
In the common conception, emotion also tends to be more linked to the expression of emotion rather than the experience of emotion — which are necessarily related. (Some people very readily express intense emotion despite an easy life and others are non-expressive despite constant uncertainty or even challenges to survival.) When one imagines someone unburdened of emotion — e.g. fearless — one might picture a hero — bold and courageous — but what one sees among people who suffer afflictions (e.g. brain damage) that prevents them from feeling emotion is often paralysis by analysis. Without emotion to make decisions under uncertainty, such individuals simply get bogged down. Individuals who don’t feel fear, in particular, are also prone to carelessness.
 
The key to making one’s yoga and poetry practices simpatico is avoiding that very popular form of poetry — the wallowing poem. If one’s poems constantly spiral into ever greater depths of angst (as many a famous — and, sadly, suicidal — poet’s work has been known to) you might want reevaluate. And, perhaps, start with haiku and that forms Zen distaste for hyperbole or analysis.

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. III [Meditation]

This is the third installment in a series of posts on my study of altered states of consciousness. The January and February posts described my experiences with psilocybin mushroom tea and a sensory deprivation float tank, respectively.

This month (March) I’ve stepped up my meditation practice to at least an hour per day, every day of the week. (As opposed to a couple of one hour sessions as well as a couple of shorter sessions per week.) Meditation might seem tame in comparison to the previous practices (and some to come.) However, if one can quiet the mind, one experiences some of the same phenomena as are had during more dramatic practices, as well as other events that are too subtle to notice in other states. It’s easy to get more excited about practices that dial an experience up to eleven than ones that require one to listen carefully and patiently, but that’s a mistake.

Immediately after I completed the Vipassana ten-day course, I maintained a practice of this intensity for a brief period of time (as is the recommendation) before it became a bit cumbersome.  (My discussion of the Vipassana course can be found here.) For readers unfamiliar with the practice, Vipassana practice uses bodily sensations as an anchor for the mind. One repeatedly scans the body, observing any sensations that one feels along the way without judgement. It’s technically a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but is taught in a secular way. By “anchor” I mean some “object” that the awareness can be directed toward so as to make it more readily apparent when one’s mind wanders and easier to bring it back because there is something to direct the attention. Besides bodily sensation, some of the common anchors include: breath, mantra, visualizations, or external objects.

This doesn’t mean that every meditative practice requires an anchor, and the practice I’ve been using this month (by-and-large) did not.  I use an anchor (most often breath awareness) to achieve stillness of mind, but then switch to observation of what thoughts or imagery pop to mind. One might call this an anchorless meta-cognitive meditation. One just watches the mind, becoming witness to whatever arises, noting it, letting it move on, and resuming the watch. For yoga practitioners, this equates to the early stages of antar mouna, through and including chidakasha (watching subconscious imagery pop up.)

One notices many things about how the mind operates during meditation. The coarsest way of differentiating what I find arises in meditation is the distinction between conscious thoughts versus the subconscious imagery. Typically, I don’t observe the latter until the former have subsided. Conscious thoughts are often verbal as well as visual, but the subconscious matter is virtually all imagery.

One also realizes the crucial role played by memory. Often what I see is a memory residue of an image that arose. I’ve become very aware of essential memory is in our human style of consciousness. While in meditation one wants to reduce or eliminate the mental activities that come in tow with memory (i.e. analysis, making connections, elaboration, etc.,) one can’t help but notice how central such activities are to language and other learning that make us uniquely human.  Then there is recognition of the limits of memory. Just as one sometimes has an inkling of the substance of a dream, but can’t pull front and center in one’s mind, there is often the inkling of an image — gone before it registers.

If one is wondering why pick a one hour practice, it’s in part about the maximum my body is capable without needing a break to move lymph about and restore blood circulation to normal. During the Vipassana course, one has about ten hours a day of scheduled meditation, but I still needed a walk at least every hour or so. As for why not do smaller time chunks, I’ve found that I experience some phenomena past a half hour that I don’t recall experiencing in shorter practices. It takes some time to relax to a point at which one’s conscious mind stops trying to make plans or otherwise go off on tangents. Feelings of euphoria, oneness, and ease of mental quietness tend to come beyond a half of an hour for me — when they come.

I was disabused of any notions that a daily meditative practice over such a short period would lead to heightened mental clarity and emotional control. I’ve done 26 days out of 31 as of this writing, and have been as wild-minded as ever, and certainly more than the preceding months. I can’t say that this has anything to do with meditation one way or another. Perhaps, I’d have been even worse, given the nature of life’s ups and downs, if I hadn’t been practicing as such — but, of course, I can’t make such a claim — not meaningfully.

That said, I think I’ve made some interesting observations about how my mind works and what its limits are. I can’t say I experienced any wild mental phenomena, not of the nature I experienced during the long meditative days of the Vipassana course. However, I have been able to observe some fine detail about the sensation of shifting into a hypnogogic state, and other curious experiences that interest me. Subtle shifts of mind states have been a major point of curiosity for me. 

Next month, I’ll be attending a workshop on hypnosis, and the next post will be on hypnotic trance states.

BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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POEM: Gravity’s Conspirator

trunk bent at a right angle
and leaning to the south

yet, that tree shows no struggle

every second — day and night
gravity summons it to the ground

it’s survived more than a few monsoons
puddles and soggy soil
have conspired with gravity
the wind has conspired
climbing animals have conspired
alighting hawks and crows have conspired
the boy who crawled out the horizontal limb and swung conspired

for years they have conspired

but the tree rarely so much as trembles

it’s doomed, but that knowledge holds no sway

and when i sit,
centered to thwart gravity,
i still feel the dogged pull
though its only conspirator is
my mind

BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

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