With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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My naivete is vast. I will share my personal approach publicly, and run all the risks that accompany such a gesture. But let me say, before you read further, herein is contained a distillation of ideas and practices which seem to work for me. I could not be so blind as to suggest that this approach is the only one, or should be used by everyone. It is merely one, a synthesis essentially of hatha yoga experience and Buddhist sitting practice, although other influences too numerous to catalogue here figure in my gestalt.
Hatha Yoga is so widely known it seems hardly necessary to be reminded that it is a system of physical exercises originated in India several centuries before Christ was born in the Middle East. There are many types of Yoga, or approaches to unity. They are basically techniques for joining the separative and particular with the infinity of possibilities. Yoga techniques can be physical, mental, or a combination of both.
The concept upon which my article hinges is establishing the non-difference between seemingly diverse elements. I see dualistic thinking as the greatest threat to well-being. Ironically, it is language itself which supports and perpetuates a divided or dualistic notion of reality. Buddhist meditation is a yoga in which such a statement becomes practically meaningful.
In writing this article I have clearly seen the pain of trying to describe non-duality (as well-being) with words (basically dualistic tools). So if you will indulge the inadequacy of my languages perhaps you can find a few thoughts useful for you.
Being well, what can we call it? Freedom from physical disturbance, from illness, or from psychological tensions? Is it freedom from illusion and self-imposed limitation? Well-being probably encompasses all of these interrelated conditions as well as others whose reality is unmet as of yet. At any rate, the concept of health or well-being remains an open-ended subject. So lets take that as a tentative answer in itself, and explore well-being as openness.
For most people, the state of real openness is something yet to be achieved. With that assumption, the process of yoga as applied to the individual begins. The starting point is the ordinary human capsule, with its sense of self and other, preferences and repulsion, pulls and pushes and resultant stresses and strains both physical and psychological. The ordinary human consciousness constantly perpetuates a battle of inner forces, and yoga works to develop a middle path between all pairs of opposites, neutralizing extremes through the penetrative insight which is consummate blending.
In both the physical and mental aspects of yoga, it is a matter of slowly working out and through knots of tangled up energies. Eventually tensions, or caged-up experiences, begin to release their pent-up potential. Flowingness, relaxation, and relating to the all encompassing, compassionate (almost mother-like) nature of space, are the medications prescribed by yoga for the maintenance of well-being.
During the past nine months, I’ve had my first chance at leading hatha yoga classes. After having grown weary of the initial sensation of being on the spot, or maybe in the spot (light), I began to actually see my “students.” I began to see the faces of eyes — tired, listless, gullible, disinterested, or questioning. And posture. I began to read anew the open book of posture. One can read a person’s state of mind from the state of spine, shoulders, and torso, plus eyebrow and characteristic facial expression. I must say, in truthfulness, that I was moved by what I saw to devise a way for helping my “students” relax and open up to the equanimity and vitality I feel is the human potential. So the challenge of dealing with a roomful of residual social and economic tensions forced me to learn the art of verbalizing the process of self-exploration, leading to relaxation. Although I originally placed more emphasis upon the act of physical relaxation, I quickly realized it was the mental condition I would have to confront to be a really helpful instructor. I was reluctant to invade what I felt was the private domain of attitude and orientation. But my reluctance had to be released when I began to perceive not only in myself, but also in others, the potent connection between mind and body.
The spontaneous realization of that relationship can be at least telling and at most stunning for the beginning practitioner of yoga. The results of hatha yoga (and any other form of yoga for that matter) can be and often are slow in manifesting. But manifest they will. For example, the beginning hatha yoga student will sooner or later come to question her/his whole way of standing, walking, performing daily actions, and her/his whole concept of self in relation to space and surroundings. And posture, which has such a direct bearing on physical health, and which is a clear externalisation of attitude, undergoes a subtle restructuring. These developments have deep psychological consequences. One is suddenly on shaky ground, questioning concepts that were before taken for granted. Bear in mind that these are primarily results of the physical aspect of yoga practice. The yoga of mind has even more encompassing (and perhaps intense) consequences. But the intensity of yoga is subtle and the subtlety itself a surprising dynamic.
Thus, with the experiential self-questioning that comes along with hatha, the door is opened.
What has this to do with well-being? Recall my earlier suggestion that well-being is equivalent to openness? If openness reflects well-being, then how does yoga apply itself to clearing a path in which this realization can flow?
Openness implies continuity or connection. The link between things must become a reality. The first step in achieving body-mind openness through yoga is to slow down, wake up, and begin to feel yourself as you are right now. What is my face saying? How am I holding my shoulders? Do I actually feel comfortable in the position I’ve placed myself in? If I’m speaking, is the tone of my voice true to my feeling? Why am I shaking my foot, or twisting my hair . . . Until at last there is conscious awareness of what was before the unconscious or semi-conscious link between feeling and expression.
Then the same approach is taken within the discipline of yogic postures, or asanas. The postures work to expose the deep and total condition of one’s physicality to oneself, and to even out and establish a continuous flow of balanced energy within (and without) the individual body-mind continuum. Because the asanas are geared towards flexibility and flow, they point up tightnesses (which are energy blockages), and other subtle problems, which could go unnoticed without the contrast furnished by yoga practice.
I believe that there is a mysterious connection between the way we think and feel and the way our physical machines act, or act up (in the sense of an illness), or act out (in the sense of dramatizing the inner condition). Likewise does the yogic tradition, which describes the link as psycho-physical counterparts, a type of “substance” mediating between mind and matter. (Although it does not exist at certain levels, the distinction between mind and matter can be utilised here for purposes of preliminary understanding.) These psycho-physical counterparts, or airs (Skt. Rayu), are seen as differentiations of prana, or basic life energy. Prana is active in humans, animals, plants, and minerals, elements, molecules, and sub-atomic particles, as well as in evolutions of “higher” orders, such as planets, solar systems, galaxies, and so on. Prana, an active life flow that animates all forms, is invisible to most people, although some say that the scintillating radiance seen in the daylight sky is a type of solar prana.
In the human form, the pranic airs, which are the motive force behind functions both voluntary and involuntary, circulate in a subtle body sometimes referred to as the etheric body. It is the control of and proper blending of these pranic airs which determines health from the yogic point of view. Hatha yoga approaches the development of this control through body postures and breath control, while the yoga of mind undertakes the maintenance of well-being through mentally directing the practitioner’s psycho-physical energies. Granted, there is only a fine distinction ultimately between the two. And personally, I find the two approaches to vitality complementary.
Yet theoretic knowledge, while possibly helpful, isn’t absolutely necessary for one to experience the very real relationship existing between psychological feeling and physical feeling. Yoga has merely systematised certain experience in order to deal with further self-exploration in a coherent way. One can use the technology of this system if it helps, or drop it if need be, and still experience the same awakening to the flow of energy within and without. Truly workable realization is more a matter of personal ingenuity than any amount of structure or information anyone can give us.
Thoroughness and sensitivity are necessities for one who wants to learn the art of self-maintenance through yoga. It is not a haphazard approach. It yields its best results under persistence and patience. The practice of yoga differs from much of what many people spend the majority of their time doing, in that it takes individual (and therefore unique in each case) effort.
The yogic asanas function on many levels at once. The bending, stretching, applying of pressure and stimulation evenly activate the circulatory system and the peristaltic motion of the intestines. Deep breathing furnishes adequate oxygen to body tissues. Wastes are moved off efficiently. Posture is realized and muscle tone improved gently. And the various glands of the body receive stimulation through alternate pressure, extension, and added flow of blood.
There’s much flexibility in the sequence in which the asanas can be performed. Since the different poses concentrate energy in different parts of the body, hatha is adaptable to the unique needs of each person. So on the most basic level, an adequate sequence of asanas furnishes a good general workout, somewhat like a thorough self-massage.
On another level, the varied postures bring one into contact with the totality of body structure. If there is a subtle tension it is exposed. The limits of relaxation are reached and slowly passed, broadening one’s scope into more extensive self-control. And as one becomes aware of submerged tensions or postural maladjustments, and seeks to loosen and straighten, one begins to work with the psycho-physical components (airs) which mediate between thought-feeling and the physical body. At this level, hatha practice makes available experiential awareness of the connections between states of body and states of mind.
At a further level, one discovers (as I did) that the asanas set up peculiar flows of energy, which by altering the relationship of body energy centers, prana in space, and the gravitational field of the earth, tend to neutralize or balance one’s polarity. This idea of blending polarities is central to the yogic approach, in both hatha and the yoga of mind, and seems to form the basis of well-being.
The blending which takes place in hatha is a complex process involving more than the organism of one person. It works because it not only establishes polar equilibrium within the energy configuration that is an individual person, but also utilizes the flow of energy connecting all forms. In this sense, the type of intensely focussed relaxation produced through hatha practice, is really the entering into of a relationship with space, the domain of freely flowing pranic energies.
A common saying — “Nature is the great healer” is helpful here in understanding the blending and hence restorative process of yoga. Suppose you are uptight, and take refuge in the greenery somewhere. How do you finally achieve a more calmed state of being? Probably after much internal kicking around, you sigh, leave off your burden, and let go. You can almost feel rivulets of energy travelling off your being into the earth and surrounding space. Mother Nature is a willing purification plant. You can simply give your problem to her, and she returns it to its elemental state, where it no longer possesses qualities of good or bad.
Yoga works with this capability to recycle through nature. In intense relaxation, certain misused pranic airs (results of inharmonious thought or action) can be released. Worry, distraction, and irritation, concretised into invisible cloudlike fragments which envelope the body, can be relinquished to the natural recycling process run by Mother Nature through planetary gravity and pranic flow.
As the practitioner begins to go through the sequence of asanas, her/his energy field gradually returns to a state of balance, and an even pranic flow takes place. Mind-body openness is strengthened through the accompanying relaxation, and a possibility of sloughing off encumbrances presents itself. This is done through a grounding, a natural result of re-establishing electromagnetic equilibrium within the energy body.
I cannot be linearly logical in this explanation, because the process as I have experienced it is multilevel as to cause and effect, and largely what seems like simultaneous. It seems that as one sets up and modifies energy currents through the sequence of yogic body postures, one redistributes one’s electromagnetic configuration, aiding the sloughing off of tension, the process of which utilizes a grounding (set up through achieving balance). Grounding, or recycling through Nature (which seems to me like connecting with the center of the earth) further helps to redistribute, and so on in a circular process until one achieves that over-all body energy catharsis which is the mark of a hatha session well done.
What I’ve here described is a distillation of my personal yoga practice, which is minus the well-known alternate nostril breathing technique. I believe that a slow, deep (down to the belly first) breath method excells in safety and non-sensationalism, especially for westerners in our present culture.
In simple deep breathing, there can be a delicate control of life flow, which is what the Sanskrit word hatha implies. The inhaled air is conducted to the bottom lobes of the lungs first, an action which forces the diaphragm downwards, causing the abdomen to expand into what is yogically referred to as the “pot-shaped.” Air then fills the rib cage region, and finally expands the upper chest. Straining isn’t necessary in this simple but efficient use of breath space.
In exhaling, the air travels out from the chest first, then from the rib cage area. Exhalation ends with a slight pressure exerted by contracting the abdominal muscles, so that the last bit of air is evenly and completely expelled. A thorough and sustained outbreath is just as important as a full inbreath.
Both inhalation and exhalation are performed slowly and mindfully, with no emphasis on ballooning up or retaining the breath, although in the development of one’s personal practice, a slight pause between breath phrases may eventually assert itself as one’s natural rhythm. It is a simple practice devised to gently attune one to the potential breath that waits to be breathed.
This technique I’ve worked out for myself and shared with my students is an adaptation of the yogic threefold breath. It could be preliminary to traditional pranayama, the more complex form of timed and alternate nostril breathing. The virtue of the method I use is its simplicity. The cycle of inbreath/outbreath is basically and unadornedly symbolic of much that we call life.
Since the yogic concept of health centers around control and blending of pranic airs, the question of where this control can originate or be developed needs examining. And where else but to the nature of mind and consciousness can we go to pose these questions? We can pursue well-being, around, and through many landscapes, but I suspect it will always lead us to its favorite hiding place — the stamp we set on all “realities,” or the mind. And likewise to inquiry into the nature of mind’s realities, or meditation.
Yogic theory holds that mind, expressing itself as thought, utilizes certain pranic airs in formulating discursive (verbal) or imaginative awareness. Yoga further teaches that it is the fluctuating and grasping play of mental prana, or mindstuff, which renders one’s consciousness polarized against itself, unable to harmonize the diverse elements of existence, and thus leads to unbalanced body conditions (ill health). This again points to the role of the mind-body messenger — the psycho-physical airs discussed earlier.
Without insight into the quirks and habits of mind’s functioning, one is hard-pressed to dispell the hold that dualistic thinking exerts on all. Dualistic thinking sets up either/or choices onto which all possibilities must be pegged. A thing is either bad or good, comfortable or uncomfortable, for me or against me. A pattern of thinking eventuates which reproduces itself throughout one’s attitudes and responses. What was once a possibility is compressed and discontinuous. Such a state obviously militates against openness.
Haridas Chaudhuri beats around no bushes in Integral Yoga (p. 77) when he states, “Extremist and one-sided tendencies are the root cause of conflict and suffering.” Clearly, it is the mental habit of pushing a perception into a corner and leaving it caged there, forever marked “This” or “That” with subtle emotional preferences attached, which must first be faced in getting to know the basis of one’s well-being. What is needed is thorough, systematic observation of thought, an approach which can yield insight into the ingrained reaction upon reaction one takes to be oneself.
There is nothing particularly glamorous about investigating the circumscribed notions one may harbor as one’s personality or frame of reference. It’s a matter of fact, in coming to grips with certain mental knots one may have, and in the process of untying such knots, certain airs or energies may be released which can produce a manifested body ailment. But such an “illness” would furnish valuable first-hand insight into the nature of causes and effects, and would further the mind-body cleansing necessary for the demanding journey to the insides of life. Perhaps this understanding of illness is a reassessment of the meaning of health or well-being. True health might be defined in terms of an ongoing process, rather than as the absence of physical or psychological disturbances.
The whole cure for all imbalances might take an entire lifetime to effect. And until the whole bit is taken, every half-bite. There is a Buddhist notion which I think of as a self-cure. It is the concept of prajna, which is a Sanskrit term meaning wisdom. An experience of prajna, which can be brought on by simple and sustained indifferent examination of the contents of the mind, gives you the vantage point from which you can see the arbitrary formulations (or assumptions) laid over every perception, cognition, and conceptualization. Eventually you might even find these processes in themselves to be distortive, and drop conventional consciousness aside.
If for a moment you glimpse clearly what it is through habit you unconsciously do with yourself, you just might spontaneously stumble on the cure for your personal ills. It’s like jumping out of your skin and spinning around quickly just in time to catch yourself in the act of eating a spoonful of nice, white refined sugar. You know by experience what it does, and since you glimpsed the cause, you needn’t subject yourself to the effects any longer. It’s like that in a moment of meditationally induced insight, when you catch yourself at your favorite mental tricks.
The main problem is that self-curing is such a slow and arduous process that few can stick it out. That’s probably a joint failing of culture and individual. If our cultural and personal heroes and heroines were something like the wild tantric saints of Buddhist tradition, who dared themselves to tread the edges of self-knowledge and experience, perhaps we’d see a very different situation.
How far must we travel in pursuit of well-being? My own travellogue points at least as far as the core of being itself. For the only real cure is a whole cure, and we won’t know what whole is until we’ve touched the very foundation of existence. Chaudhuri claims in Integral Yoga (p. 22), “Yoga is not a matter of belief; it is that inner growth of consciousness which results in direct insight into the heart of reality,” and “endeavors to turn doubt into critical self-inquiry and faith into living experience.”
The same writer throws a phrase that sharply sums it all up — the “existential plunge.” It stands proposed, and one may choose to take the dive into healing waters.