Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

A Stay at SRSG

by Jim Fraser

Looking back over a stay at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama

It was a busy time for me at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama as I attended the Breathing and Pranayama Intensive led by Marilou Hermens followed by the TTP3 retreat, the first to be presented for some years.  As I relaxed in Delhi afterwards, I could reflect on what I had learned.

Arriving in the afternoon in Delhi I took a walk along the Krishna market near the railway station. It is a bit like nearby Old Delhi, but in New Delhi.  I had wanted to look at some domestic Mughal architecture which I had noticed on a previous occasion, wondering if it had survived the relentless commercial pressure.  It’s probably not a good idea to walk aimlessly in a Delhi street because then one is prey to all sorts of demands.

A young man yelled at me and offered a handshake.  I tried to walk on but his challenge: ‘What’s wrong with talking to each other?’ stopped me.  We went along to his shop and there we chatted, thankfully his offer to sell to me was half-hearted and we parted good friends.  A woman with a child accosted me.  I offered her a few rupees but she insisted that is not what she wanted.  I didn’t understand her and moved on.  Then another young man joined me in conversation, enquiring as to my home, my vocation and my age.  He persuaded me to go with him to look in a craft shop, and in return he would receive an Indian/English dictionary he couldn’t otherwise afford.  I groaned inwardly, another craft shop.  I obliged, had a quick look around a shop and came out explaining that I only go shopping when I need to buy something.  He seemed happy; he guided me back to where we met and shook hands as we parted. Then the woman and child greeted me again.  She engaged me in faulting English as she guided me to a grocer’s shop where I bought her a sack of rice and a bag of formula milk.  The grocer blessed me in the name of God, poor family, he explained.  The woman bowed and balancing the bags on her head went off smiling, child set on her hip.

Later in the evening as I stood on the roof of a hotel sipping chai, having declined a clandestine offer of beer and whisky, I thought over the afternoon’s events.  The people I had met had one thing in common; they wondered how open was this foreigner’s heart?  As I looked over the city, the streaming lights on hotel fronts dulled by pollution and the continual noise, it seemed to me that the city was more than what I could see, what was really there was a vivid imaginative response to life.  The charm and the calculation of the people I met works on an open and accepting heart.  Their demands are more than just business and cupidity I thought, they need to believe that goodness exists in people.  They are big hearted themselves, so they keep trying and I’m sure not all visitors are so generous.  The big heart is to be found in a Delhi street, not in ashram discussions on bhakti, not even in the orthodoxy of temple chanting.  It was an expansive thought.

Earlier in the day I relaxed in the executive lounge at the Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun ruminating over the Hindustan Times of Monday 23 November 2015.  It was reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been in Malaysia on the Sunday to unveil a statue of Swami Vivekananda and to launch a book on yoga written in Malay and English.  Elsewhere in the newspaper we read that the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, had stated the importance of preserving relations with Tibet: ‘India has a long tradition of relations with Tibet and its Dharma Gurus.  India should not change its political path.  India is the land of Gautama Buddha and the land of Mahatma Gandhi.’  The politicians have clearly announced their support for the yoga tradition. 

A more eloquent remembrance of the tradition of yoga is to be found in the corridor by the bookstore at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama.  There sits the beautiful white Buddha and behind, against the wall adjoining the meditation hall, is a line of figures who are remembered for their role in spreading Buddhism and thus the wider and older Vedic meditation tradition.  There is Acharya Xuanzang who brought thousands of scrolls to China and had them translated, thus providing a firm foundation for Buddhism in China; Acharya Padmasambhava who took the tradition to Tibet; Acharya Bodhidharma who founded the Ch’an School of Meditation in China and the famous martial arts school, the Shaolin Monastry; Bodhisattva Kshitigarba who has vowed to remain in Hell until it had become redundant; Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha who is linked to the Himalayan Yoga Tradition through Swami Rama; the goddess Guan Yin who is worshipped in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and India.  I had walked past these many times without realising their significance.

After completing the courses I spent a few days in the ashram where I enjoyed the quiet.  As I sat before my cottage enjoying the morning sunshine, I could hear what I recognised to be a telephone conversation coming from the nearby Meditation Research building.  I was a bit discomfited over-hearing this and despite my attempts to get on with my task of making notes some phrases did come across: the levels of consciousness and the methods of meditation … not all breathing is in the diaphragm… yes I’ll check the equipment for a fault… there are different levels of brainwaves…I will have to discuss that…  Only in an ashram would you hear such a conversation where the yoga tradition is measured against science.

I was glad of the rest after the rigours of the TTP Level 3 Retreat.  Ten students attended together with Gurukulam students, and for two weeks we took over the Knowledge Center.  Each student was expected to take a morning class, take an examined class consisting of two postures, present a presentation on one of the ten subject areas, lead a discussion on another of the subject areas, and satisfactorily complete levels 1 and 2 including the 200 hour written examination.  A lot of preparatory work was required to be ready for the retreat.  All the students were well prepared and there was great camaraderie.  The entire programme had been well thought out and ran smoothly.  This was especially important because Level 3 had been change; it’s now available online in the same way as levels 1 and 2 and furthermore satisfactory completion of the Level 3 Retreat meant the award of a 500 hour certificate with Yoga Alliance compliance.  Getting our hands on the Level 3 manual meant that we could see what work we had to do to go on to complete the 600 hour course. Actually the entire course gets deeper and deeper rather than covering more and more, each level consolidating what had been presented in the first level.  Stoma Ji emphasised this stating ‘Advance in yoga doesn’t depend on technique but in refining.’  In the same talk on Meditation and Japa, he pointed out that ‘everything that happens in meditation comes from the mind-field until there is enlightenment.’ That saves us having to think overmuch about whatever comes into experience during meditation and to let it by in silence.

Stoma Ji gave talks as well on Vedanta contemplation, Yoga Nidra, Chakras and Tantra, and Internal Pranayama.  This last talk threw light on the Prana Vidya aspect of Hatha Yoga which the students had been asking about.  The emphasis is on pranic awareness – ‘No prana flows where there is muscular tension, the prana should hold the posture,’ and ‘Expanding prana is in a relationship between mind and body.’  Ultimately the aim is to control prana so to withdraw from the body on death. 

We were introduced to Level 3 asanas by Ashutosh where the difference between common postural yoga and prana vidya style asanas was emphasised.  There is so much subtlety in Ashu’s approach, whether it be the placing of the feet or the stress on the need for the carefulness of the teacher’s mind to look after his students.  Peter Fabian emphasised body awareness and the importance of developing the maps in the brain through interrogating one’s practice.  It’s a case of growing the homunculus which is easier said than done as Peter proved our lack of awareness to ourselves.  Dr Manju Talekar’s talk on the nervous and endocrine systems also emphasised the need to make new connections in the brain and body to create greater integration in one’s being, and here science and yoga come together in a complementary understanding.  Marilou Hermans gave a talk on yoga postures and pregnancy emphasising ahimsa.

Diwali fell during the course and in respect of the memory of the passing of Swami Veda the celebrations were muted.  In the evening there was a sangha in the Meditation Hall.  In the silent space we listened to the voice of Swami Veda meditating on light.  Outside it was all excitement and the booming of fireworks.  Inside we heard ‘I am a beam of light; Jyotir Aham, Joytir Aham.’  Through the night an akhanda japa was held in the initiation room in the main building.  A lamp burns there in memory of Swami Veda.       

When I arrived at the ashram, I had a free week and intended to accompany two other students to Tarkeshwar.  I was packed and ready to go, but the prospect of attending a Breathing and Pranayama Intensive led by Marilou Hermens changed my mind, and to the consternation of my friends I dropped out.  Then during the course Marilou told the story of how every time she set out to visit Tarkeshwar she was forbidden to leave the ashram and obliged to teach, so here was a sort of correspondence. 

The course is designed to develop breath awareness and is useful for students new to the HYT methods of breath awareness and to those who seek to refine their practice.  It is a very intensive course, for seven days there were three sessions of lectures and practices.  The students were divided into groups, ida, pingala, sushumna and prana, for some practices and discussions.  The males gravitated to sushumna.

The central importance of the diaphragmatic breath was emphasised throughout.   It was necessary to understand its centrality to pranayama too.  Learning the diaphragmatic breath uncovers subtlety upon subtlety so it is a long process and increased understanding of its effects enhances pranayama practices.  The diaphragmatic breath is the first and last pranayama in effect.  We learned to recognise how ujjayi deepens the diaphragmatic movement and is useful both in quieting practices and energetic practices whether it be holding the plank pose or cycling up a hill.  In kapalbhati and bhastrika the upper area of the abdomen is made to work rather than the entire abdomen.  Interestingly there was a long discussion about this in TTP Level 3, and the conclusion was that there are various ways but it is useful to be aware of the HYT preference for the upper abdomen to control the breath movement in these pranayama practices. 

In the hour before the evening meditation, the class met in their groups to practice what had been learned during the day and as the week progressed we learned to complete a sequence of pranayamas: kapalbhati, bhastrika, ujjayi, bramari, nadi shodhanam.  I had never practised pranayamas in this sequence before and found it developed a very relaxed but poised awareness most conducive to the meditation which followed.  During the course the gurukulam students taught the same sequence at the end of the morning hatha yoga practice.

What was most valuable about the course was that it was not closed to pranayama practices alone but to their relevance in daily life in developing a meditative awareness in all activities.  Talking about ujjayi, Marilou pointed out how the diaphragm works harder and a quiet mind can watch this action and see the difference between mind and body, for the movement belongs to prana and prakriti, the mind sees it but does not identify with it.

We had a talk from Dr. Bhole on how to become sensitive to prana.  He used a dialectical method of lecturing rather like Socrates where he pushed us to see our misapprehensions, and out of our initial confusion we began to see how subtle prana actually is.  How do we get knowledge of breath? Dr. Bhole asked.  Who is breathing?  What is breathed?  What is the connection (yoga) between breathing and the person?  The senses belong to nature, the body takes in food and liquid and breath, but breath is different. 

How is it different?

He stressed the importance of seeing the difference between the Indian view and the Western view.  The Indian view monitors the internal world and the Western the external, and when this external view is used to monitor the internal it is with confusing results.  It was this inclination to see things externally, even when they are internal, that needs amendment.  Dr. Bhole patiently demonstrated the movements of the prana vayus: the breath movements are opposite to each other on each side of the body so as well as the physical movements of the breath there are the subtle opening and closing movements of prana. We can become aware of these through the whole body by learning to differentiate between areas of the body moving with the breath and other areas not moving according to the breath but yet a movement is palpable.  It’s not a body movement but a movement within the body.  So in practising nadi shodhanam we can become aware not just of the breath but of the prana guiding the process of the breath in the nostrils.  In this way we come to realise the nadis as we become sensitive to the prana guiding the breath.  Dr. Bhole’s talk was challenging and ultimately edifying.

Swami Ritavan gave a talk and led a meditation on the Friday morning of the course.  It was a very profound and moving talk where he explained that the sushumna breath is Kundalini, is Shakti. The talk was dedicated to realising awareness of our Self.  He led a 61 point practice in shavasana and then again in sitting meditation.  He led the focus to ajna; the body was pulsing with awareness, yet very still and silent. 

Then there was the sudden, the most incredible clatter.  A troupe of monkeys which had settled in the ashram and just then decided to join in the meditation.  The clatter went on and so did the meditation, the mind-field was so deep that it’s unlikely anybody was bothered by the disturbance which is a tribute to the guidance we received.  Swami Ritavan finished with a homily to humility for it is in humility that the Self can be found. So the Breath and Pranayama Intensive Course was thus set in the wider perspective of the meditative tradition.

So what did I get from my visit apart from sore knees?  Probably a deepening of yogic awareness.  It’s interesting to watch the interplay between yoga knowledge and the world we live in.  There’s fun and seriousness, laughter and horror; the trick is to keep breathing and to preserve and confirm the freedom of consciousness that yoga can provide.     

Editor’s Note:

HYT-TTP is the Himalayan Yoga Tradition – Teacher Training Program.  HYT-TTP offers retreats twice yearly at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama (SRSG) in Rishikesh, India.  The next HYT-TTP retreat at SRSG will be March 13 – 26, 2016; please see http://hyt-ttp.com/india.html

30th October - 5th November 2016, there will be another Breath and Pranayama Intensive at Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama with Marilou Hermens.  Contact: http://ahymsin.org/main/accommodations-inquiry.html



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