Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi
  AHYMSIN NEWSLETTER, ISSUE - November 2014 
 
   
 
   

Sage Yoga: Chair Yoga for One and All!

by Rob Diggins

The following article presents the ongoing research and findings of Level 2 TTP student, Rob Diggins, as he attempts, with the Guru’s Grace, to follow the guidance of the Parampara, cultivating the practice of Seva.

“The First Practice is also the Last Practice”

How I do love these words and though I lovingly attend to this “First and Last Practice”, all too often for the tastes of my burning desire, do I find Gurudev’s tantalizing and simple instructions teasingly elusive!

Although this be true for many of us, we soldier on in the name of love. We heroically continue to practice, we invoke and seek the guidance of the Parampara, we lovingly “sit tall and bring our awareness to the Breath”, again and again, forever travelling inward, forever inspired to know the Meaning of Life!

And so it is with the deepest of humility that I express sincere gratitude for this loving Sage and all of the Sages and Saints of the Himalayas who perpetually and patiently walk before us, ceaselessly and patiently guiding us on this starry path. A path which at times, shines so brightly, is so easily revealed, while at other times, remains so mysterious, covered, and shrouded in lovely, misty veils.

Oh!, only see how seductive are the movements of his feet! How beneficial, the dusty traces of our beloved Gurudev’s dance with Mother Maya!

Seva and the Tradition of the Ancients: Hidden Secrets

In the Level 2, TTP curriculum, we are guided by the Parampara to examine Seva, or Selfless Service, discovering still further, the ways and means by which we can practice Seva. We are guided and encouraged to practice Seva, observing how it is that our awareness is illuminated by the practice of Seva and how Seva emerges within us as our consistent and primary, fundamental function. That is, as long as we perpetuate the dance of Maya, we observe how the Sattvic nature of Seva might become our singular, fundamental function. We observe how we might become Seva, or perhaps, better still, how Seva, might become us. We observe how the purely Sattvic quality of the Seva practices might prepare us as a vessels in which to behold the Divine within, the Vasu-deva

Responding to this guidance of the Parampara in the Fall of 2012 to establish a practice of Seva, or selfless service via the Level 2 curriculum of the Teacher Training program, I felt guided and inspired to initiate a Chair Yoga program at a local senior assisted living facility near my home in McKinleyville, California. Ironically, what began as a decidedly conscious action by me to fulfill a requirement of the TTP program, albeit, with a noble and invested idea of selfless service, has become, over time, closer to an act of selfless service!

Interestingly, my repeated attempts since the Fall of 2012 to initiate a variety of other Seva projects at local institutions such as the County Jail, Juvenile Hall, and with various recovery groups, has continuously run up against obstacles and these attempts  still remain unresolved at the time of this writing. By way of contrast, the Chair Yoga program began without a hitch and is the only Seva project that continues to sail with fair winds.

Three of the most obvious factors in the hitch-free deployment of the Chair Yoga program were: the scheduling of the class times, the fact that the Chair Yoga class times did not conflict with my Family life, and finally, there is no charge for the classes. All three factors are interrelated because the Chair Yoga schedule creates neither conflict with my Family activities, nor with the income generating activities of my life, nor do they impose any new financial obligations for the Residential Institution.

Setting the Scene

In order to help the reader picture this living facility better, it can be said that there are many ways in which this residential facility resembles a Sadhakagrama, or Spiritual village. For example, on the physical level, the residents all have individual rooms but share common areas such as a dining room, an activity room, patios, etc. On a more subtle level, all of the residents have entered into the last ashram of the human life and whether or not they are conscious of the fact, they are preparing to leave their bodies.

The regularly scheduled classes are 30 minutes long and are held in a Commons room two times a week, Monday’s and Wednesday’s, 9:00-9:30 am. On the other mornings of the week, the residents participate in other types of exercise programs such as Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and Balloon Toss. Initially, I taught the Chair Yoga class only once per week, but within a very short time, the Chair Yogi’s enthusiastically requested that we practice more often!

Usually the class is attended by at least 4 residents but frequently there is a core group of 7. Although class attendance fluctuates there is consistency in that attendance. Sometimes the class size expands to include at least 10 or more, Chair Yogins. However, one special morning, when there were exactly seven Chair Yogins, with tears of joy on my face and gratitude in my heart I heard my mouth reminding them that they are the Seven Rishis. They laughed heartily!

Incidentally, I recently learned that 3 of the Chair Yogins are over 95 years of age, and one of these is very proud to tell me that she is 98! Can you imagine the stories and reminisces from this group?

The majority of the group arrives at the class location with the aid of walking canes and/or ‘walkers’, and the core group also includes two wheelchair bound and supplementally oxygen dependent Chair Yogins which prompts me to gently tease these Chair Yogins that they are addicted to Oxygen!

In addition to the range of normal physical/energetic/mental conditions that often accompany this age group there is one Chair Yogi with Torticullis and most recently, the group has been joined by a yogi suffering from the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Again and again, as I work with this group, I feel especially blessed and am reminded about the story, told by Swami Jaidev, in Walking with a Himalayan Master, of how a small group of Swami Rama’sChicago area students, learned of the Saint who had chosen to appear and live among them, for their benefit, ‘disguised’ as a mentally retarded Aunt.

Swami Rama’s Joints & Glands Exercises from a Chair

“The First Practice is also the Last Practice”

“Sit tall, with the head, neck and trunk as straight as possible without exceeding your capacity, become aware of the Breath, Breathe naturally letting the breath flow smoothly, without stops, starts, or pauses, invite the Mind to withdraw from all other spaces and remember you are not this Body, nor this Mind, nor these Senses, but a child of Eternity.”

At the start and end of each Chair Yoga session, the Chair Yogins are gently guided by these gloriously sage words of our very own Sage, dearest Swami Rama. By these words they are reminded to practice Smrta, to remember, and then to sip, to drink, perhaps even to swim, in the Rasarupa, or essence-form, the juice-form of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition.

Once Smrti has brought the Chair Yogins to the remembrance of the strong current and free flow of their breath, flowing within the infinite pool of sweet sustenance, we pause there briefly, savoring the heady aroma, and then, for the health of the physical body, flow into our regular practice of Swami Rama’s Joints & Glands Exercises, exercises that the Chair Yogins have found to be nothing short of amazing!

The Joints & Glands Series, seem tailor made for a Chair Yogi and remind us that these exercises come from the experience and experiments of those Ancients, the Himalayan Yoga Tradition’s Spiritual Forefathers and Mothers, who practiced and sustained long periods of meditation in almost complete isolation with limited physical space in which to move.

For a Chair Yogi, the hidden or secret benefits derived from what others might feel is a limitation, is but a sweet and subtle joke. In fact, a Chair Yogi feels compassion for those who live their life in such a way as to perceive all sorts of limitations and obstacles, and sends such a person blessings towards the moment that this veil of inertia gets wiped away.

With each new day of practice and immediately flowing out of the “First and Last Practice”, the Chair Yogins usually begin with Abhyanga, ceaselessly marveling at the benefits of this self-massage. The Chair Yogins not only notice how beneficial the massage is for the movement of Lymph but more generally, the re-cognition of awareness via the feeling of the Prana, subtly flowing and constantly present on the breath, throughout the entire physical, energetic and mental bodies.

The Chair Yogins show a particular interest in Swami Rama’s Facial Exercises from the Joints & Glands Series, all of which are practiced with Breath awareness and coordination, including the Eye Movements, Lips, Jaws, Tongue and Teeth movements and most important of all, Simhasana, or the Lion Pose, followed by Swami Rama’s Head & Neck Movements sequence.

Chair Yoga is about the Spine, from the Top to the Tail

Often and frequently I am reminded of my personal dullness and mental slowness with regards to connecting the dots and letting Sattvic awareness freely displace the Tamasic elements of the Mindfield. Ah well, better late than never, right?!  Something to look forward to, right?

Keeping this in mind, it was not until about a year after I had initiated the Chair Yoga program that the dots started getting connected a little. Quite suddenly, I remembered something that teacher Brian Hoffman had told us during his class at a 2012 TTP retreat in Minnesota. If I remember correctly, Brian reminded us that when we talk about yoga as an activity we must remember that Swami Rama had emphasized that it is primarily about the spine and its location between the crown of the head and the base of the pelvis. Apparently, this important awareness needs special emphasis because we can become confused at times, tending to get distracted by the peripheral aspects of the Body, literally the appendages such as the arms and legs, etc. This of course is not to say that the appendages aren’t important, but simply that we should not loose sight of the primary importance of spinal alignment and health.

I should mention, just to be clear, from this point on, whenever I mention spinal health, I am referring to a complete or holistic spectrum of meaning, from the spine’s grosser aspects of physical health to its more subtle, energetic, non-physical aspects. Although these subtle aspects, still remain, for all intensive purposes, according to even the most state-of-the-art, clinical equipment of our modern times, undetectable, the Chair Yogins steadfastly bring our attention to the simple fact that we can and often do, miss the obvious, in fact, glaringly obvious, physical effects of these subtle energetic aspects . We are constantly reminded of this fact by the frequency with which we learn from the well-meaning Doctors, that despite their advanced research using state-of-the-art equipment and having more and easier access to all previously attained knowledge, this or that, medical condition or complication, is still, elusively not understood. Just to quell any potentially ruffled feathers, any and all knowledge which can be used to compassionately alleviate suffering is definitely a good thing!

How strange it is that we are so infallibly prone to keep looking for our ‘keys’ where the light is shining instead of where we lost them!

So there I was, a year into my teaching of Chair Yoga, when suddenly, the gist of Brian’s recollection and instruction came percolating out of my own mouth during one of the regularly scheduled, morning Chair Yoga classes! Thankfully!

Of course, it almost goes without saying that the importance of spinal health is core to all of our tradition’s practices; however, because of the chance to study with the Chair Yogins in McKinleyville, I can now see, just how easily I have become distracted from this fundamental awareness at times, especially when I am attending to peripheral alignment issues. Looking where the light is shining rather than where the keys were lost.

At the time that this remembrance emerged from my unconscious awareness, I thought, “At last”……actually…..I better say it correctly, “Yet again!”, am I gaining some important and valuable insight into why the Chair Yoga practices are so perfect! Rather nicely, perhaps even purposefully, what started out in my field of Awareness as a sort of restriction or handicap, morphed into a highlighted awareness of the importance of spinal health and condition. Without much of a stretch (pun intended!), I suddenly felt a flood of insight about how Swami Rama’s guidance was being perfectly highlighted by the practices of Chair Yoga.

The Origin of Sweet Snoring Songs:
Vertical or Horizontal Axis, States of Consciousness

“There is an important difference between the Vertical and Horizontal positions of the Spine and their consequent states of Consciousness”, or, “Depending on the state of Consciousness, the Spine may be vertical or horizontal”.

Interestingly enough, after about a year or so of Chair Yoga sessions, the moment arrived when this guidance came out of my mouth, clarifying the difference between the vertical and horizontal positions of the spine and the consequent states of consciousness, and vice versa. This guidance apparently had to do with the tendency for the Chair Yogins to “slump” when attending to “sitting tall” and the resulting effect this slump has on breath flow, Prana flow and the nervous system. This prompted a discussion with the Chair Yogins about the differences between the two basic orientations of the spine within the gravitational field.

In coming to a grasp of this interrelationship between the position of the Spine and the position of Awareness (consciousness), on the gross physical level, not only can we draw parallels and be reminded of the correlation between the sympathetic nervous system - SNS and the parasympathetic nervous system - PNS, but we can dive more deeply into our awareness to examine the finely tuned and subtly systemic nature of this interrelationship.

With the Chair Yogins, our discussion is guided by basically two factors. First of all, it is important to determine what it means to “sit tall” and also “relax”, and secondly, to investigate the prevalent tendency for a person to go into a dream state as a condition of relaxation and then, for them to regard the dream state and relaxation as one and the same. The first has to do with an earlier point in time, when one of the Chair Yogins had asked for clarification about explaining to someone outside of the class, how it is possible to simultaneously “sit tall” and, also “relax”! The second is due to the observance that with this group of elderly Chair Yogins, several of them quickly and frequently allow themselves to go into a dream state during the class.

The ability for the Chair Yogins  to “sit tall” and “relax “, versus  choosing to go into the dream state is/was dependant on the position of their spine, and more subtly, is/was a reflection of the “position” of their Awareness.

The Chair Yogins are able to guide us to understand the following four conditions:

“Slumping” of both the spine and/or Awareness, is/was a precursor to going into the dream state,

“Slumping” is either caused by conflicted breathing, or, causes conflicted breathing,

and, “Slumping” is the result of a mixture of the first three.

Incidentally, although the Chair Yogins are noticing that “slumping” can be observed in both of the primary spinal orientations, specifically, the vertical or horizontal positions, it goes without saying that “slumping” can also occur with the spine in any position. Sounds simple but in reality it is a cyclical phenomena as thorny as the briar patch simply because this phenomena is mostly an unconscious “reflex”. Just like breathing!

 It is likely that “slumping” while “sitting tall” is probably a condition we can all easily relate to, but, “slumping” while we practice Shavasana, or corpse pose?!

Well, there you have it, folks!

As if you didn’t already have enough to worry about, did you ever consider that you could be “slumping” while practicing Shavasana? And, that this “slumping” might be why you go into the dream state so quickly and start serenading us with your sweet, snoring lullaby’s?

Apparently it all comes down to the connection between our Breath and Prana, and depending on the quality of breathing, Prana will either cause the spine to become perfectly aligned and relaxation will ensue, or instead, cause the spine to slump and the dream state ensues. More than likely, due to the cyclical nature of this and all other phenomena, which are entirely due to the Kleshas, or afflictions, and the Samskaras, or the accumulation of results and their consequences from previous actions which were/are in their turn, the consequences, etc. etc., during any given moment, until the Chair Yogin perfects the fine tuning of Awareness, eliminating extraneous interference through the primary practice of Vairagya, or dispassion, self-employing some Tapas, or self-discipline/perseverance, and learning to amplify the fundamental frequency, this channel surfing and/or intermittency of Aishvarya, or sovereignty, will continue to be an active ingredient.

To slump or not to slump? (To Channel Surf or not to Channel Surf?)

Although we can and should enjoy the mirth of this parody, the question is a valid one as unless we consciously attend to our Breath as the carrier of vital Prana, the expression of this Prana will be passively reflexive. The rain that falls from heaven will find a path whether we are prepared or not. You can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket.

Preparing the Path, Drawing up the Blueprint, Digging the Foundation

The Chair Yogins instruct us that the solution to this aforementioned dilemma lies in beginning at the beginning, naturally! They are referring of course, to the base of the spine, or in other words, the free flow of Prana in the region of the first three Chakras.

It can readily and often be observed that around the time of a persons entry into Sannyasa, or, the fourth ashram of life, age 75 and upwards, the movement of Prana in the body has changed and specifically, the free flow of the Prana’s of the Muladhara, Svadisthana and Manipura Chakras, the  first, second and third Chakra regions, have likely become restricted or debilitated a little, a lot, or almost completely and are entirely governed by our “bag of tricks”, or, self-cultivated collection of daily habits.

Incidentally, the Chair Yogins console us that we can logically let the discussions about nature vs. nurture simply rest because, from the moment immediately following conception it becomes all about whether we choose to buy a lottery ticket or not! All kidding aside, they simply wish to bring our attention to the fact that as we become “enlightened”, “self-aware”, etc., we see how our choices do have consequences. They gently guide us to understand that, ultimately, the choices we make reflect the movement of Prana, and in this case, depending on the movement of Prana, whether or not we cultivate a habit of chronic ischemia which expresses itself as “slumping”.

Perhaps we might go so far as to say that we are addicted to chronic ischemia? That the “American Dream”, which is the anthem of Globalization, is the result of chronic ischemia? That the good side of this chronic ischemia is equally balanced by the dark side? That “slumping” of both the physical body, the energetic body, and Awareness, as expressions of chronic ischemia, are an immature coping mechanism? The self-awareness of the feelings of the Heart which emerge at an early age and that not only feel all feelings, but especially, the inherent suffering which is due to impermanence and the simple passage of time, discover the refuge of dreams, there to weave a tapestry of remodeled joys and sorrows? That the schism between the Heart and the Mind that we all experience and that seems to occur as we transition from a child to an adult causes such waves of discord within our constitution as to cause “slumping” of our body tissues and of our subtle awareness? That the terrain of this “brave” terra nova is non-other than the result of our very own personal process of plate tectonics?

Those Darling Twins: Ignorance and Short-sightedness

By now, the reader will be appreciating and reflecting on the good fortune that the Chair Yogins offered this yogi (moi-meme!) for experimenting with and practicing mindfulness!  Embarrassingly, it took me awhile to come to this level of appreciation because as luck would have it and as often enough as is the case, I had come to regard my very own Mind children, so to speak, my very own darling twins, whose names are Ignorance and Short-sightedness, as handicaps! This glaring fallacy or error in my thinking, of not realizing how these darling Mind children of mine, these perceived obstacles in awareness, could be “stepping stones instead of stumbling blocks”, became brilliantly and comically emphasized  in true Swami Rama fashion when I realized the self-limiting nature of my own preconceptions about Chair Yoga. That is to say, the idea that practicing Yoga in a chair would be somehow restrictive, or something a person would only do if they couldn’t practice without a chair!

Adaptation and Adjustment: Working with Advanced Practitioners of Pratyahara

About the time that our dear Swami Veda took his recent, 5 year vow of Silence, many of his students were aware of and began participating in his Meditative Voice Projects from this same period.  With this in mind, coupled with the fact that most of the Chair Yogins were practicing advanced Pratyahara techniques such as that which would normally be interpreted as a hearing impairment for example (wink wink!), I responded by researching and purchasing a portable, battery operated, headset microphone and amplification system.

This system proved to be effective from the first moment and easily facilitated all spoken guidance and instruction using the Meditative Voice. It was obvious that the PA system was just the thing that had previously been missing because as soon as I began using it, absolutely every single Chair Yogi showed by the relaxed look in their eyes and on their faces and by their breath flow and movements that they were receiving all guidance and instructions, clearly and calmly.

The Divine Dance: Surya and Chandra Namaskara

Once we had started our practices together and established a pleasant relationship, the day came when, evidently, the Parampara issued an instruction to begin exploring how the Chair Yogins practice the Surya and Chandra Namaskaram, or Solar and Luna Salutation’s sequences of movements.

Everything I have shared with you so far about what the Chair Yogins have taught us in regards to Spinal health, the Breath, and the flow of Prana is to set the stage for the Chair Yogins practice of the Namaskarams, Mantra Science, and the Prana of the Bijas, or seed syllables.

The Chair Yogins instruct us that once we have adequately cultivated our self-awareness and raised our consciousness adequately enough to be able to consider our own condition of “slumping”, physically, energetically, and mentally, and all of the various possible combinations of these three, though we can and do, benefit from the practice of the Namaskarams, we are ready to begin reaping the greatest benefits of the Namaskarams. On this point, even if we are still at a level of awareness where our enjoyment of singing our snoring song seems to outweigh our interest and desire to “get over it!”, of which, “it!”, in this case, is the attachment we feel and which we regard as natural to the pleasure of dreaming, the Parampara patiently, repeatedly, and gently, guides us, encourages us, to “let it go” in other words, and to begin our practice of the Namaskarams.

The Challenges and Solutions Yet to Be Found

At this point in the article, I simply list some of the other ‘challenges’, or issues that this group of Chair Yogins placed before me to study and resolve included the following:

  • Oxygen Dependency
  • Eyeglass wear
  • Acute and/or Chronic Injuries, Bone remodeling & Accumulated Scar Tissue
  • Limited, Restricted or Reduced Mobility
  • Deafness
  • Widely varying levels of Memory, Coordination and Cognition
  • Getting to the Class
  • Keeping Track of a Schedule
  • Personnel Changes at the Assisted Living Facility

In short, this is a list which could almost apply to any group of Yogins anywhere at anytime and at any age group but in the case of this group, reflects more than anything else, the rather advanced physical age of these Chair Yogins.

While I have been able to study many of the issues on the above list and discover satisfactory solutions, make adaptations where suitable, there are a few other issues which I feel are more challenging and which are still to be successfully resolved. They are:                 

Adequate opening or extension of the hip joint and therefore, lengthening of the primary hip flexors: Illiapsoa’s, Quadriceps, Abdominus rectus, etc and the corresponding toning and strengthening of the extensors of the lower back and pelvis

And, the complete extension of the horizontal body in both the supine and prone positions.

In the case of the first issue, the adequate opening or extension of the hip joint and related movements, is something I feel guided to successfully resolve, but so far, can not seem to discover how to enable the Chair Yogins to physically accomplish the movement. 

In regards to the second issue, the complete extension of the horizontal body in either the supine and/or prone position, in finding some workable solution to just being able to facilitate the Chair Yogins easy, safe, transition from their chair, or wheelchair, to some sort of supported horizontal position and eventually back to their chair again, would be a most wonderful ‘next step’!

Conclusion

Through the examples enacted for our benefit by the Chair Yogins of McKinleyville, we are invited to examine the correct train or sequence of events, to bring some organizational unity to our awareness, to “turn the tree upside down”, so to speak and to finally see things as they really are! It is as if our habitual regard for the Chair Yogins supposed confinement to a chair as a debilitation, is but a ruse to get our attention! More than a ruse, a plea for us to wake up and drop all of our nonsense! Their clarion call, gently announces to us, if we would but listen, our ignorant tendency to let the tail wag the dog! In fact, our tenacious but entirely fallacious insistence, on lettingthe tail wag the dog!

Let us be clear, in no uncertain terms, at this point in our developing self-awareness, our level of consciousness, the tail is wagging the dog, and not only is this true, we insist on it! Amusingly, this is because when the tail wags, it makes us feel good! And heck! If it feels good, do it! Absolutely!

The Chair Yogins encourage us, that, if this feeling of good, or bliss, floats your boat (literally, Navasana, or boat pose, pun intended!), by all means, enjoy it to the maximum that you are able! Otherwise, you will lose out on your opportunity to have a direct experience, an experience which you can use for self-analysis if you wish, as you travel further along your Spiritual path. The Chair Yogins simply wish you to note, without bursting your bubble, that your direct experience of bliss, in this and possibly other cases, was a temporary phenomenon.

As our teachers, they caution us that we will often be confused by their message, that we will often be challenged by their guidance, and that we will often feel that they are contradicting themselves! The Sages of the Parampara have communicated through many voices and for eons of time, in this case, through the Chair Yogins of McKinleyville. Their hearts quicken when they see in us, a flicker or hint of expanded self-awareness, of the micro-minutest expansion in consciousness, and immediately they respond with a kind and gentle encouragement, willing us to literally breathe this spark of awareness, or consciousness into the flame that it is truly meant to be!

Post-Script

It may have occurred to ask the question, if the “first practice is also the last practice”, than why do we need so many other practices?! 

If I am ever fortunate enough to know the answer to this question, life will be great, but in the meantime, there is lots of work for me to do. I feel tremendously inspired by the Parampara to pay attention and get cracking through the aid and curriculum of the TTP. Fortunately, through the enfoldment of this process I have gained, however minimally, some level of personal experience with and appreciation for the infinite varieties of mindfulness practices offered by the Himalayan Yoga Tradition.


Editor's Note:

The Chair Yogi's created by Rob on Vimeo features videos of Chair Yoga Sessions. Please see:  http://vimeo.com/groups/271537

Photos courtesy of Rob’s wife, Jolianne "Joli" Einem, who “happily & graciously attended this Chair Yoga session in order to take these photos.”

 

   
       

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