• Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

    Two Events Intertwine

    by Joanne Sullivan (Divya)

    Two events recently converged here at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama like friends who have known each other forever:

    Navaratri, the 9 nights of the Goddess with akhanda japa of Shree Lalita Sahasranama in the Tara Devi Temple, 21st - 31st March 2015, and

    The Silence, Shavasana Practices and Yoga Nidra Retreat, 22nd March - 5th April 2015

    Navaratri and the Shavasana Retreat are like the long braid of Mother Divine, all the strands intertwined. They stretch back, forward and encircle galaxies.


    Inside the Tara Devi Temple

    In this sudden fugue, this gust of wind that is a gathering of forces - undoubtedly the legions of Ma Durga or the Goddess-by-any-name - Pandit Gairola conducts the puja on one side of the temple while the Shree Lalita Sahasranama pulses in the voice of the pandit on the other side. There is extensive information on Navaratri traditions, the 9 goddesses, the Tara Devi Temple, the Shree Lalita Sahasranama, the Tara-Saumya mantra and akhanda japa in the October 2014 Ahymsin article on Navaratri at Navaratri, Autumn 2014

    28th March, 2015

    Swami Veda has asked everyone to use no electricity from 8:30-9:30PM as part of a worldwide observance through Earth Hour in honor of Mother Earth.

    Kanya Puja, the Crowning Glory of Navaratri

    Every Navaratri culminates on the 9th day with the Kanya Puja. There are 9 little girls in whom the Devi, divine Mother, is invoked. Offerings of mantras, food and other gifts are given to them. In the past, Swamiji has said that these little girls are not to be regarded as cute. Rather, with the invocation of mantras, they are not mere representatives of the Goddess. Each one has become the Goddess. It is a wonderful mystery to experience. Swamiji stops at each devi. Then, with the deepest humility, he washes their feet, one by one and touches his head to their feet. A transformation occurs.

    Tejaswini, Swamiji’s secretary wrote me:

    Dear Joanne,

    If you are writing a story on Kanya Puja please mention:

    As Swami Veda Bharati was moving along the table placing his head on the feet of the Kanya Devis he was suddenly moved so that he asked the last three Kanya Devis, each, one by one, "Devi Bhagavati, give me your blessings."  The three, each, 3 to 4 years old, placed their palms on his head.

    How did they know that is how a blessing is given?  

    He gratefully understood it to be a direct blessing from Ma the Divine Mother.

    Serving Swamiji

    Silence, Shavasana Practices and Yoga Nidra Retreat

    This was an intensive retreat where we went through relaxation practices that Swami Rama and Swami Veda have taught. The intent was for participants to really get a sense of all of the different layers of relaxation and how these different exercises affect different layers.

    This applies to the many layers of breath awareness as well as relaxation. Stoma (Dr. Stephen Parker) saidEvery layer of embodiment, not just of the physical body but of all five layers: the physical body, the energy body, the lower mental body, the higher mental body and the body of ananda [bliss].”

    “In my own experience,” Stoma said, “the progressive muscle relaxation is primarily for the physical body; 31 and 61 point is primarily for pranamaya kosha [energy body]; shitali karana primarily for manomaya and vijnanamaya kosha [the bodies of the lower and higher mind]. Once those layers are relaxed and calm, then you can go into a state in yoga nidra where the activity of the mind ceases and all you have left is awareness….[yoga-nidra] is a wonderful practice just to be able to have that very pure experience of witnessing awareness—which is without the mind.”

    Building from the first shavasana practices, going from different approaches and to more and more subtle layers, we proceeded all the way to the final 2-hour practice. Several people commented that this led to an abiding inner silence that, for some, lasted several hours after the practice.

    Stoma said that in this course “we are trying to get you to an experience of pure awareness…. We often think of awareness as only being with the mind. But awareness has nothing to do with the mind,” he said. “Awareness is an entirely different phenomenon….the mind subsides and awareness is left over.”

    “To begin to really think about the practice of sankalpa” was another important goal of this workshop, Stoma said. Swami Veda gave the Shiva Sankalpa Stotra to that same end. This was a course in refining the fundamentals of yoga, which is where the depth of yoga resides, not in so-called advanced techniques.

    Swami Ma Radha Bharati, Mokshadeva (Randall Krause), and Dr. Manju Talekar

    Swami Ma Radha was the guiding force in selection and sequencing of practices. She has been at the helm of the Meditation Sequencing Project of hundreds of meditation practices, a task given to her several years ago by Swami Veda. Both Swami Ma Radha and Mokshadeva worked closely together on advanced planning of the event.

    Mokshadeva also skillfully led several sessions as a seasoned, long time practitioner and established early on that yoga nidra is not a technique. Rather it is a state of consciousness.

    Dr. Manju Talekar organized and strategized behind the scenes. In addition, she worked closely with Swami Ma Radha and Mokshadeva in program content and made sure that everything unfolded smoothly from the smallest details to the large picture.

    During the retreat, Swami Ma Radha also worked closely with faculty, fine tuning the wheels of the operation. The skillful sequencing of exercises contributed to the learning process of those present. Certainly students teaching each practice to one another after each the guided practice also facilitated this through active learning. Discussions of the practices as people got to know one another by working together also played its part.

    Maryon Maass

    Just before her return to California, Maryon Maass, in her usual clear manner, led two sessions, one in Movement - Stillness, and the other in Tension - Relaxation, Level 2. Maryon has coordinated the Teacher Training Retreats at SRSG for several years and has left that position. We will greatly miss her here at SRSG.

    Dr. Gopalkrishna Prabhu and Pravin Soni

    Dr. Prabhu, head of the Meditation Research Institute Lab at SRSG, spoke on the dynamics of breath, biofeedback, and together with Pravin Soni, spoke on Brain Waves and Yoga Nidra. Dr. Prabhu began by reiterating some of Swami Rama’s teachings. “Everything is within you….Even the guru is within you.”

    Dr. Prabhu said “The first practice on the path of self transformation is the art of the observation of silence” He spoke about the scientific aspects of stress and relaxation and the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. He stressed the importance of proper breathing and its physiological effects on the cellular level. He spoke about how brain plasticity and emotions were also affected by diaphragmatic breathing.

    The Format

    Indeed, it was a very rich offering and each day, following a guided practice, there was a question and answer session. Then all participants were given a printout of that same exercise that they would next do in their small groups directly after a break. The schedule also included morning hatha, morning and evening prayers, sitting with Swami Veda for an hour of silent meditation. Swami Veda Bharati surprised us by talking with us after meditation almost every day. It would be impossible to share all that Swami Veda and the other teachers said, but the recordings of these talks are well worth hearing. [To inquire about purchasing these recordings: http://ahymsin.org/main/book-and-dvd-orders.html ]

    Swami Veda Bharati: Immeasurable Gifts

    The days flowed vibrantly to a fine rhythm. Swami Veda’s subtle and very specific, unspoken guidance was still apparent.  But Swami Veda emerged from silence to ensure that students received his personal guidance and had clear direction.

    Following the one-hour silent meditation with him, night after night, Swami Veda spoke intimately with us nearly every evening following the silent meditation. These gatherings, both the silent meditations and the talks, carried immeasurable gifts.

    There was a blanket of stillness and light over us all which bound us together as he studied every person. His awareness of the subtle nuances in each and every person is daunting. In some cases he told an individual on which chakra to focus. He told one young woman, “While you are here, keep your forehead relaxed. All of you teachers, keep an eye on her. What’s there to worry about?” he asked her. “The more you worry, the less you find your solutions.”

    This became a very close knit group. Many of us felt that what we witnessed in the one-on-one instructions applied to all of us.

    One evening, after silent meditation, he gave a long guided meditation which some experienced as an initiation into Jyotih (Light) and which merged with the Shakti of the Om asato mā sad gamaya mantra. (Lead me from darkness to light).

    During these satsangs, his topics ranged from Wittgenstein and his Tractatus to zero to anecdotes of his master. He reiterated Swami Rama’s words on The 3 Secrets of Success: Practice! Practice! Practice!

    His insistence on “Relax your forehead” and his elucidation of its far-reaching emotional, spiritual, and neurophysiologic implications became a core practice. Developing sankalpa shakti, the power of resolve, and how to do it was another important point of attention.

    He also spoke with us, one by one, calling each student up to him. Then he completely focused on the individual, their practices, their strengths and the hurdles that each must overcome as stepping stones to freedom.

    He studied each individual and occasionally asked about someone from that person’s town.

    He said “if you do not have a mantra, think about it, study and prepare your mind….Our relationship begins with mantra initiation.”

    Building a Resolve: Tan me manaḥ shiva-saṅkalpam astu

    To one student who said that he was lazy, Swamiji gave the refrain of the Shiva Sankalpa Stotra. Then in caller-response fashion, Swamiji repeated the refrain several times, asking the whole group to repeat after him “Tan me manaḥ shiva-saṅkalpam astu

    Swami Veda expanded on this:

    Tan me manaḥ shiva-saṅkalpam astu—May my mind be filled with benevolent, firm, blessed resolve….When you end your meditation, each time, resolve at that time the next time that you will sit….[Mentally reciting this phrase] just before you go to sleep will purify your dreams… and the first thing when you open your eyes from sleep, remember tan me manaḥ shiva-saṅkalpam astu.

    Swamiji said that doing the shiva sankalpam at many transitions throughout the day would build sankalpa shakti, the power of resolve. He brought up the Shiva Sankalpam Stotra at other sessions as well. It is noteworthy that it is part of the 5-year-and-for-the-rest-of-your-life-practice which he gave to the entire sangha in 2013.

    Swamiji extended himself to everyone. To one woman he said “Learn to observe your emotions before they take hold…whether anger or sorrow, learn to observe….These people [who work with him night and day] will tell you that no one can get me angry.”

    “How are your foreheads...Are all of your foreheads relaxed? That is the primary qualification for being here. The state of your forehead shows what is happening in your frontal cortex, your amygdala and all those fine, fancy parts of the brain. There is a direct connection of the forehead musculature and parts of the brain. Tense one and it tenses the other and releases all kinds of poisonous hormones. Relax one and you produce serotonin and all the other endorphins. If you keep that and forget all the processes of yoga nidra you have achieved a lot.”

    Soon after, he asked “when is the next full moon meditation?” and then reminded us of the Guru Purnima practices beginning on 23rd July 2015 and culminating on Guru Purnima, 31st July. Suddenly, he interrupted himself mid-sentence with: Forehead!

    One day he spoke on the concept of zero. “India’s greatest contribution to world culture is zero….The one…that shapes the concept of all numbers….This empty space –zero—represents the value of all values….That concept comes from the highest states of meditation….You cannot understand the very basic values of mathematics without meditation.”

    On occasion, Swami Veda called someone up to him and asked them to write their mantra for him. Adjustments were sometimes made and on occasion he asked one of the initiators to correct it or to give an additional practice to that person.

    During one of these satsangs, someone asked Swamiji a question about sleep. He replied and then added to his words in a wonderful article on dreams. He wrote:

    So it is the best to practice stillness. Samadhi is the state above what? Above jagrat, svapna and sushupti - wakefulness, dream and sleep. A yogi aspires to rise above these three and have all three under his control. God bless you that you may wake up from the dream of this worldly existence (samsara).

    Shree Anoop Mishra Concert

    On the festival day that honored the birth of Rama, Shree Anoop Mishra, together with his son and Ashish Kukreti, moved us with classical Indian vocal music that described the 5 mountains of Shiva and the perpetual sound of the damaru (Shiva's drum).This included songs composed by himself and by the late master Shree Ravi Shankar. Shivananda Sharma accompanied beautifully on tabla.

    Vashistha Cave

    On Sunday, March 29th, there was a bus outing to Vashistha Cave, a place of unbreachable silence even when sightseers come in like squawking crows, followed by a short walk to a beach resort with tents. Good chai and coffee were offered immediately. A delicious lunch was served. People got wet from rain and Ganga dips and played soccer and volleyball on the beach. It was a delightful day of play and bonding. Dr. Prabhu had met in advance with the resort people who catered lunch, tents and equipment for games. His cheerful presence made sure that everything went as planned.

    What did Ma Ganga teach me?

    After meditating in Vashistha Cave, I went with a few friends up to the Glass House for a breakfast during which we shared experiences and memories. I walked down to Ma Ganga and there I experienced an exhilarating encounter with the river and a feeling of letting go. I think this affected how I took in the next relaxation exercise. Instead of just relaxation, it occurred to me as an offering of everything you are or think you are, everything you own or think you own - and freeing yourself from anything that you feel owns you. Swami Rama once said if you must have desire, best if you can cultivate the desire to have no desires. The magnificent possibility of freedom - to give oneself completely - keeping nothing aside, is what I learned that day from Ma Ganga.

    Pratyahara and Pranayama

    Stoma talked about the relationship between pranayama and pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and how it is pivotal in the shift from one’s mind being outward-facing to inward-facing and going deeply into the experience and the core.

    Stoma said “You expand your awareness of prana, and through increased attention, you expand the prana.” Then he explained why Indriya gupti, protecting the senses, was paramount and why in many traditions, the aspirant is trained to keep the gaze about a meter ahead. He said:

    1. This is a part of expanding prana by not spending it.
    2. It’s also about taking in more prana.

    In Path of Fire and Light, Vol. 1, Swami Rama writes about kevala kumbhaka, “In this practice the full length of the breath is confined in the body and nothing is exhaled. It is absolute suspension, performed without any physical or muscular effort.”

    Stoma also talked about kumbhaka. It is a frequently misunderstood pranayama practice. He said that in sahita kumbhaka (consciously performed kumbhaka) all of the samskaras, the subtle impressions in your mind field, get intensified. It makes it more difficult to focus the mind and intensifies the pains. In the Himalayan Tradition, emphasis is placed on sealing the gaps, making the breath one continuous, smooth, quiet flow. We wait for suspension of breath to become effortless. In order for kevala-kumbhaka to occur a certain measure of emotional purification has to already have occurred.

    “Wait for kevala-kumbhaka to occur naturally when the mind, woven with the very subtle breath, comes to a standstill and thereby brings the breath itself to a suspended state.”

    Swami Veda wrote in The Himalayan Tradition of Yoga Meditation.

    Prayatna shaitilya, relaxation of effort - both physically and emotionally - is a key concept. It’s not that you hold the mind still. Just wait until the mind settles.

    Stoma also said that there was a sutra about using the breath to enter Samadhi. “It’s not about troubling your nose. It’s not a gradual shift. It’s a flip,” Stoma said.

    Carol and Charles Crenshaw

    This was the first time Charles and Carol Crenshaw, who studied under Swami Rama, taught at SRSG. Both Carol and Charles, author of Pathless Path: God, Grace, Guru,  gave practices and explored scientific and practical aspects of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and their connections to exhalation (parasympathetic), inhalation (sympathetic), ujjaya breathing, 2:1 breathing (longer exhalation) and simple breath awareness

    Yoga Nidra

    We heard from several presenters that yoga nidra was not simply relaxation or visualization or a set of exercises as it is so often popularly portrayed. Yoga nidra, rather, is a state of consciousness.

    In 2010, Swami Veda had written about various stages of yoga nidra.

    True yoga nidra, however, is a state of conscious sleep. He wrote:

    Yoga-nidra (Yoga Sleep) is to be defined as the experience of a state of Conscious Sleep in which the subject is showing all the symptoms of deep non-REM sleep, producing delta (1-4 hertz) brain waves, and is at the same time fully conscious of the events in his surroundings. [See Yoga Nidra: Methods of Conscious Sleep]

    He continued:

    Here the mind simultaneously remains at two levels: (I) One layer of the mind in sleep in the ordinary sense of the word, and (II) a deeper layer of the mind remaining in conscious a-japa japa and meditation which, here, is awareness of the person-wide awareness of kundalini. Some yogis take half of their sleep in the common sense of the word and the other half in this level of yoga-nidra. Here one may alternate between theta and delta. [brain waves]

    Various stages in yoga-nidra are discussed in Defining Yoga-Nidra: Traditional Accounts, Physiological Research, and Future Directions by Stephen Parker, PsyD, Swami Veda Bharati, D.Litt, and Manuel Fernandez, PhD. [source: The International Journal of Yoga Therapy (No. 23(1) 2013.]

    Actively Learning the Practices

    One might have thought that many of the practices were for beginners. But again and again, I heard comments from longtime practitioners that the sequence and structure of the workshop led to a deepening of awareness of how all of these practices fit into one another. Another part that people liked was the small group meetings after each new guided practice.

    Swami Veda was emphatic that he wanted people to remember and learn how to do these practices on their own, not just with guidance. He wrote:

    For decades we have guided the shavasana practices and yoga nidra in sessions where the teacher does the ‘recital’ and others listen and follow. But we have not TAUGHT the procedures.

    Reflections on Personal Experience

    Here are some participants’ comments:

    “I think it changed me; I am not going back to my life as I was. It made me feel peaceful and I met so many kind and beautiful souls…. There were many people who have been meditating for decades. It was good because there was a lot of practice that helped me understand through my own experience. The practice made it equal for everyone. You could go deep.”

    “I didn’t know anything about yoga and meditation. So I was surprised every day. But I was also surprised how meditation and yoga nidra preparation exercises were so powerful. Many emotions came out. I felt guided and helped. The group was so good. There was such a good energy. Everybody was so motivated and ready to help and listen.”

    “I had an amazing time in India and I am so glad I attended the program at the Ashram. I have not missed any meditations and am practicing in the early a.m. We will see how things go once I am back to the office later this week, but I do not anticipate losing my commitment to the practice, as I find it incredibly rewarding. The experience of feeling calm and collected is long overdue for me….it is as though this was the missing piece.”

    “When I got my mantra initiation, something came into me. I could feel warmth everywhere, there was a presence.”

    “We would do the previous exercise twice, taking turns leading it in our small group. We were given printouts of the previous exercises---and we discussed it afterwards. Some of us were in silence but it was not a problem.”

    One fellow who has been practicing for decades said that this was the first time he had ever attended a course in which he could find no flaw. He praised the sequence, the content, the quality of guided practices, the value of meeting with others to discuss at each and every step and then to practice giving the exercises to one another. He said “normally I am a picky customer, always looking for ways to improve a presentation. This one just floored me.”

    One young, gentle woman said that she was totally new to meditation and relaxation, that a lot of emotions came up for her and she was so grateful for the support and friendship of people in the course. She said that she would definitely come back and hoped to bring her mother here to learn. She said “I think it will be hard for her to meditate but here I feel like they make it clear even if you are a beginner.”

    Easter Sunday

    The last day of the retreat was also Easter Sunday.

    Stoma wrote, “Easter Morning. Very cool by normal standards, more like February, the air washed by yesterday's rain and the newly risen sun illumining the mist over the river. We gathered before the Mary shrine for an Easter puja with Pandit Harshanand. The Hindu mantras are intoned, embracing as they do the life of Jesus. Caroline speaks His prayer in French and Brenda recites the Hail Mary. As it comes to Arati, many come to honor her with light with tears in their eyes. And sweets are shared with many smiles. Later we are off to a Roman Catholic service in Rishikesh.”

    The ashram arranged transport for those of us who wanted to attend Easter services at the Roman Catholic church in Laxman Jhula. Our dear guru sister Ma Turiya, who is a Catholic nun who has also taken sannyasa vows in the Himalayan Tradition with Swami Veda, was there to welcome us. Though I could not understand the service which was mostly in Hindi, I enjoyed the devotional singing in Hindi and the sacred ambience there.

    Editor’s Note:

    Photos by Stoma (Dr. Stephen Parker), Patricija Kos, and Jay Prakash Bahuguna




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