Monthly Archives: November 2013

your brain on meditation

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Yoga citta vritti nirodhah.
Yoga is the ending of disturbances of the mind.
—Yoga Sutra I.2

Nothing is quite as satisfying as a yoga practice that’s filled with movement. Whether you prefer an intense and sweaty vinyasa practice, a gentle but deliberate Viniyoga practice, or something in between, all systems of hatha yoga provide a contented afterglow for the same reason: You sync your movement with your breath. When you do, your mind stops its obsessive churning and begins to slow down. Your attention turns from your endless to-do list toward the rhythm of your breath, and you feel more peaceful than you did before you began your practice.

For many of us, accessing that same settled, contented state is more difficult to do in meditation. It’s not easy to watch the mind reveal its worries, its self-criticism, or its old memories. Meditation requires patience and—even more challenging for most Westerners—time. So, why would you put yourself through the struggle?

Quite simply, meditation can profoundly alter your experience of life. Thousands of years ago the sage Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutra, and the Buddha both promised that meditation could eliminate the suffering caused by an untamed mind. They taught their students to cultivate focused attention, compassion, and joy. And they believed that it was possible to change one’s mental powers and emotional patterns by regularly experiencing meditative states. Those are hefty promises.

But these days, you don’t have to take their word for it. Western scientists are testing the wisdom of the masters, using new technology that allows researchers to study how meditation influences the brain.

Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, Eileen Luders, a re-searcher in the Department of Neurology at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, looks for evidence that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. Until recently, this idea would have seemed absurd. “Scientists used to believe that the brain reaches its peak in adulthood and doesn’t change—until it starts to decrease in late adulthood,” Luders says. “Today we know that everything we do, and every experience we have, actually changes the brain.”

More and more neuroscientists, like Luders, have started to think that learning to meditate is no different from learning mental skills such as music or math. Like anything else that requires practice, meditation is a training program for the brain. “Regular use may strengthen the connections between neurons and can also make new connections,” Luders explains. “These tiny changes, in thousands of connections, can lead to visible changes in the structure of the brain.”

Those structural changes, in turn, create a brain that is better at doing whatever you’ve asked it to do. Musicians’ brains could get better at analyzing and creating music. Mathematicians’ brains may get better at solving problems. What do meditators’ brains get better at doing? This is where it gets interesting: It depends on what kind of meditation they do.

Over the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath or a mantra, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. If you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others.

As the evidence for the benefits of meditation grows, one of the most important outstanding questions is, How much is enough? Or, from the perspective of most beginning meditators, How little is enough to see positive change?

Researchers agree that many of the benefits happen early on. “Changes in the brain take place at the very beginning of learning,” Luders says. And many studies show change in a matter of weeks, or even minutes, among inexperienced meditators. But other studies suggest that experience matters. More practice leads to greater changes, both in the brain and in a meditator’s mental states. So while a minimal investment in meditation can pay off for your well-being and mental clarity, committing to the practice is the best way to experience the full benefits.

If you do, you may discover that meditation has benefits beyond what science has revealed. Indeed, it will take time for science to catch up to the wisdom of the great meditation teachers. And even with the advances in brain technology, there are changes both subtle and profound transmitted only through direct experience. Fortunately, all you need to get started is the willingness to sit and be with your own body, breath, and mind.

Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Meditation and the Brain by Kelly McGonigal


eka tattva abhyasah

Eka tattva abhyasah means to cultivate one-pointedness of mind.

The circles appear to move, but are actually stationary. Focus on any of the small black circles (in the center) and the motion stops!

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Meditation is similar to this picture. Meditation in action is also similar.
Train the mind to be one-pointed and the inner obstacles come to rest!

Excerpt From swamij.com Article Yoga Sutras 1.30-1.32: Obstacles and Solutions


yoga yajnavalkya

The Yoga Yajnavalkya (Sanskrit: योगयाज्ञवल्क्य, yoga-yājñavalkya) is a classical treatise on yoga traditionally attributed to sage Yajnavalkya. It takes the form of a dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his wife Gargi, a renowned female philosopher. The extant Sanskrit text consists of 12 chapters and contains 504 verses. Most later yoga texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Kundalini and Yoga Tattva Upanishads have borrowed verses almost verbatim from or make frequent references to the Yoga Yajnavalkya. In the Yoga Yajnavalkya, yoga is defined as the union between the individual self (jivatma) and the Divine (paramatma). The yogi, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, considered Yoga Yajnavalkya to be one of the most important yoga texts and refers to this text in the introduction to his book, Yoga Makaranda (1934).

The method of yoga described in the Yoga Yajnavalkya is both comprehensive and universally applicable—open to both women and men. Yajnavalkya explains the principles and practice of yoga, the path to freedom, to Gargi, his wife. The Yoga Yajnavalkya demonstrates that Vedic culture provided women with equal opportunities and encouragement for their spiritual pursuits to attain freedom.

Like the Yoga Sutras, the Yoga Yajavalkya describes eight limbs of yoga and describes the path of yoga practice as the development of these eight limbs. The text also dispels much of the aura of mystery surrounding the concept of kundalini by explaining it logically and relating to other terms and concepts in Vedic thought. An important feature of this text is the comprehensive discussion of pranayama, which sets it apart from other texts on yoga. Up to a hundred verses or slokas are devoted to elucidating the various techniques, applications and results of pranayama. The text also discusses the use of pranayama as a therapeutic tool, its role in ayurveda, and methods for incorporating pranayama with pratyahara, dharana and the other limbs of Patanjali yoga.

The Yoga Yajnavalkya provides insight into the various forms of meditation practiced during the Vedic period. It also addresses the issue of how to use form (Saguna Brahman, or God with form) to go beyond form (Nirguna Brahman, or the Godhead).

There are differing opinions as to the dating of Yoga Yajnavalkya. Prahlad Divanji, editor of Yoga-Yajnavalkya: A Treatise on Yoga as Taught by Yogi Yajnavalkya published by the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (BBRAS), traced its origin to the period between the second century BCE and fourth century CE. According to Divanji, the author of the Yoga Yajnavalkya is also the author of the Yājñavalkya Smṛti. Gerald James Larson, a professor at Indiana University, has dated this text to about the 13th or 14th century CE.

Excerpt From Wikipedia


balasana and ujjayi

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For many of us, this asana possesses a deep physical and psychological memory of our time as infants. The shape of the pose is useful for many reasons, but in particular, it forces you to confront your attitudes and patterns of breathing, the health of your organs, and your level of awareness in moving from the abdomen. It is a very simple pose to begin with physically, yet it requires patience and the ability to surrender to gravity and a state of nondoing.

In Balasana, the shape of the pose forces the front of the rib cage to compress and causes an internal resistance to full, frontal breathing, which is the adopted pattern for most of us. In this resistance you will confront—possibly for the first time—the notion of breathing somewhere other than the front of your lungs, or in such a way as to avoid distending your belly as you inhale. As the frontal ribs are compressed, the unyielding presence of the internal organs and the compression of the abdomen trapped against the thighs limit the diaphragm, sometimes resulting in feelings of claustrophobia, nausea, or even fear. This further precludes soft, even breathing.

In “Salutation to the Teacher and the Eternal One,” a paper written by T. Krishnamacharya and distributed to students at the Yoga Mandiram in Madras, he says: “One important thing to be constantly kept in mind when doing asanas is the regulation of the breath. It should be slow, thin, long, and steady: breathing through both nostrils with a rubbing sensation at the throat and through the esophagus, inhaling when coming to the straight posture, and exhaling when bending the body.”

The breath described here is commonly known as Ujjayi Pranayama (Conquerer Breath). The word “ujjayi” can be broken down into the prefix ud—which means upward or superior in rank and conveys a sense of preeminence or power—and jaya, which means conquest, victory, triumph, or success. Like many Sanskrit terms, the word “jaya” has a compound meaning—it also implies restraint or curbing. Slightly contracting the back of the throat (the glottis) in ujjayi breathing creates a delicate friction and produces a soft, audible sound. Try fogging up a window with your breath—the sound you hear will be similar to the sound of ujjayi.

Slowing the inhalation and exhalation forces the breath to lengthen, and by the very nature of elongation, the vital force of the breath “narrows.” As it narrows, it moves closer to the spine, toward the sushumna nadi. The word “nadi” comes from the Sanskrit root nad, meaning movement.

Simply defined, nadis operate as conduits for the movement of subtle energy, prana, through the body. Like water, prana manifests in a dynamic flow, and hatha yoga is the body’s elemental irrigator: A yoga posture both increases the amount of prana available and removes obstacles to smooth circulation.

Ujjayi breathing, done while in Child’s Pose or other poses, squeezes the body as if it were a sponge and increases its capacity to soak up energy.

Excerpt From Yoga Journal Article Balasana By Peter Sterios


distraction

During yoga practice a variety of distractions may come into your awareness. External distractions can be particularly, well, distracting. Most people try to find a quiet, calm space in which to practice, but there are few spaces completely devoid of distractions.

For example, if there is a mirror in the room, you may find that you check yourself out—or you check out others in the room—while you practice. If music is played during class, you might hear a song you don’t like that brings up distracting emotions. If you practice at a yoga studio located on a busy road, the sound of cars passing by may throw you off track. The tick-tock of a clock in the room during savasana may drive you crazy. The teacher’s voice may not be pleasing to you. The possibilities for finding distraction are endless.

Distractions such as the ones mentioned may cause you to not want to practice at that location. You may seek a different studio, or a different teacher, or a different time of day, etc. But these distractions can serve to be your greatest teachers. It has been said that one should be able to practice yoga in Times Square without distraction. Even as the world is moving around us, during practice we remain focused with our mind seated in the moment, distractions and all.

The next time you find an external distraction during your yoga practice, use it as a tool. When you find that its presence brings up feelings of aversion, simply notice that your mind has become distracted—even agitated, perhaps—and gently guide your attention to your breath. As you bring your awareness inward, you will find that the external distractions melt away. In this way, your relationship to distractions can completely change.


chakravakasana

Jim Bennitt demonstrates Chakravakasana, a short “cat-cow” vinyasa.

Chakravaka = Ruddy Shelduck


creativity

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”

― Albert Einstein