After practicing yoga for over thirty years down in the big smoke we felt called to move back into nature into an environment ideal to go deeper into the higher limbs of yoga practice. The Vedas suggest that when one comes to the middle of ones life (around 50) to change ones mode of life and spend more time on spiritual practice in nature. This mode of life is called vanaprashtha (forest dweller). This same mode of life is suggested in many yogic texts. We took that quite literally and live now on a mountaintop surrounded by ancient rainforest. Living in nature inspires our practice greatly, which we can then share when we come back into the cities to teach workshops or retreats.

This blog will give you updates of what we are currently working on and it will give us the opportunity to stay in contact with the many people and students we have worked with throughout the last few decades. Of course if you want to post any questions, your mountaintop yogis will do their best to answer them. To sign up for our newsletter please go to http://www.8limbs.com/contact-us/

What is Kundalini?

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The Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda states that in the beginning there was the Brahman only. The Brahman is the deep reality or the infinite consciousness or the physicists call it the unified field or the state before the Big Bang. In order to create the world and bring about its own quality of reflectiveness/awareness the Brahman then became polar. The two poles in India are often called Shiva (pure consciousness) and Shakti (creative force). In modern Western lingo we would call them the God transcendent and the God immanent. While Shiva remains unchanged (in meditation on Mount Kailash), Shakti crystallizes from creative force through pure intelligence, space, air, fire, water into the earth element bringing forth the world. This final most dense element creates in the human body the base chakra (Muladhara) within which the divine creative force now lies coiled and dormant in every single one of us.   There is a general cosmic law that says in order for the general equilibrium of the universe to be maintained each manifestation must contain its own undoing, counterforce or annulling. For example the first law of thermodynamics says that energy is never lost but only ever transformed into other forms of energy. For example kinetic energy may be transformed into potential energy but the energy as such is never lost. This is another way of saying that the sum total of all energies in a system is always the same. The same is expressed in one of Newton’s laws. Additionally you can also see in the life of our greatest teachers such as Lord Krishna, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha or Socrates that towards the end of their lives they orchestrated their own undoing in order the restore the status quo of equilibrium of the world that was briefly imbalanced through the massive positive impetus that they provided.   In the act of creating the world the Mother Goddess Shakti set in motion a massive down-force that reached from pure intelligence down to the element earth and base chakra. In order to fulfil the above-mentioned cosmic law, a massive storm that produces a strong downdraft, has to create a balancing upward suction right in its middle. Shakti’s act of creating the universe produced an inner updraft, an enormous upward wave that we can ride up the spine to get back to the original pure consciousness, the God transcendent (Shiva).   This inner updraft in the body is called Kundalini. It is an invitation of the Divine feminine to return to our spiritual origin. Shakti and Kundalini are really one and the same thing or better two sides of the same coin and the reason why I write both in upper case and not italic is because they are names of the Great Goddess, the Divine creative force. Shakti is the Great Goddess during downward action, whereas Kundalini is the same Mother Goddess during upward movement.  

Why is yogic Kundalini Meditation so powerful?

Yogic meditation is a highly scientific method. It derives its power from the fact that it systematically and step-by-step suspends the entire processing capacity of the subconscious mind and diverts it towards meditation. The processing power of the subconscious mind is a multiple of that of the conscious mind. We don’t know exactly how much but it may be 100 or more times as powerful as the conscious mind. Simply watching breath or watching awareness only encompasses your conscious mind. For quick and effective concentration the entire power of the subconscious mind has to be harnessed. This is the secret of yogic meditation. I have watched with some concern that modern yogis, dissatisfied with teachers that only offer asana (posture) go on to incorporate into their yoga practices unrelated meditation techniques. Today often the word yoga is used to mean posture and meditation is taken as an entirely separate discipline. That was not how it used to be in traditional yoga. According to yoga meditation has a physical, mental and spiritual component and each of those have several sub-components. The most important passage in yogic scripture on yogic meditation is the panchakosha (5 sheaths) model describe in the Taittiriya Upanishad (II.2–II.5). The Upanishad talks about the five layers or sheaths of which the human being is made up. The fifth and innermost layer, the core (Anandamaya kosha), constitutes the peak experience of ecstasy after one has mastered the outer four layers. The fourth layer (Vijnanamaya kosha) entails the understanding of divine law, sacred knowledge of the order of the universe and the cognising of the master plan according to which all universes unfold and divine creativity expresses itself as the world. This layer leads to mastery of life and it enables one to make a significant and lasting contribution to human society and life on Earth. While these two innermost sheaths deal with a high level of mastery, it is the three outermost layers that yogis have to initially concern themselves with. These three layers are Annamaya kosha (the body), Pranamaya kosha (breath and pranic sheath) and Manomaya kosha (the mind). These three layers are intricately linked and it is here where the obstacles to yogic practice and spiritual freedom are located. Did you ever ask yourself why you sometimes are full of enthusiasm to start a new way of life and making the resulting life style changes only to find after some time that all vigour has gone out the window? This is due to the fact that most systems other than yoga address only one of the three layers in which obstacles are located. Some systems work mainly with the body by using asana or types of physical disciplines. Other methods focus exclusively on the mind by using meditation etc. Others again use breathing methods. For this reason it is understandable that modern yogis look for more than just posture. But there is no need to look elsewhere for meditation but yoga itself contains the most powerful meditation system ever conceived. For it is yoga that uses not only all three, that is the physical, pranic and mental level, but it uses them in a way that they are interlinked by replicating the same founding principles in every single one of these layers. As Patanjali the ancient author of the Yoga Sutra has explained, for success in yoga it is important to purify the conditioning (Yoga Sutra I.50-52). Imagine for a moment that you want to install on the computer of your mind the latest operating system. Let’s think for a moment that the new operating system is your yoga operating system whereas the one you want to get rid of is the one that contains your past including hurts, humiliation, rejections, guilt, fear, pain, doubt, etc. Patanjali says, ‘When memory is purified, the mind appears to be emptied of its own nature and only the object (of meditation) shines forth’ (Yoga Sutra I.43). He wishes to express that if you want to experience the world as it truly is you need to first delete your past conditioning as its sits like a filter on top of your senses and makes everything new look like the past.   In order to experience the world afresh you need to do so without conditioning and therefore delete it. This is also confirmed by the Hatha Tatva Kaumudi of Sundaradeva (III.26). Let’s imagine for a moment that in order to get rid of your old conditioning you are deleting the hard drive of your mind-computer but just as you want to install your brand new yogic/meditative operating system free of fear of rejection, etc you find that the old operating system has quickly and unexpectedly reinstalled itself. You then find out that the old operating system has two back-up drives that it uses to reinstall itself whenever it gets deleted. For purpose of robustness the human our conditioning is stored in three entirely separate locations, not just in the mind. This is why we encounter so much inertia when we want to change. The three locations are the ones that have been mentioned in the Taittiriya Upanishad and they are body (Annamaya kosha), breath (Pranamaya kosha) and mind (Manomaya kosha). If you do want to let go of your past and give birth to the new you, you need to purge conditioning from all three individually. It is exactly this what interlinked yogic asana, pranayama and meditation do. They purify body, breath and mind. After having described the methods to purify body and breath in my earlier books, in this text I cover meditation, method of choice of the yogi to purify the mind, third and last of the three outer sheaths (koshas). © Gregor Maehle 2012 An excerpt from my book Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom.

A Mandelbrot metaphor of yogic technique

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The Mandelbrot-set is a formula named after the late mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. Its geometrical representation is called a fractal, a complex pattern that looks the same or nearly the same from however far or close you watch it. Through the advent of powerful computers we now can watch on the web so-called Mandelbrot-set zooms. If you have never seen one I recommend watching some of them to understand this metaphor (and its great fun to watch them, too). As you zoom deeper and deeper into the fractal, the same or similar patterns are repeated over and over again. The same all over structure and architecture of the fractal is repeated in every minute detail. Similarly to fractal geometry as you zoom deeper and deeper into it so are the same patterns repeated on all levels of yogic technique. Asana for example is only effective if exercised in combination with bandha (energetic lock), yogic breathing, focal point (drishti), concentration (dharana), etc. We find the same pattern repeated once we zoom deeper into pranayama. Pranayama is to be executed within asana, while applying bandha, drishti, mantra (soundwave), mudra (energetic seal), etc. Once our zoom has reached the next deeper layer, called pratyahara (independence from external stimuli), the same pattern holds true. Pratyahara is achieved by applying all yogic ancillaries together. It is performed in asana, during pranayama, by applying bandha, mudra, mantra, visualization, etc. When zooming deeply into pratyahara, the sixth limb of yoga, dharana (concentration) is revealed. Dharana, too, is a set of techniques that takes place with asana, pranayama and pratyahara and includes mantra, concentrating on chakras, bandha, mudra, drishti, etc. The final two limbs of yoga, dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption) are again not separate practices but are nothing but deeper zooms into the existing lattice of yogic technique that reveal the same patterns and details over and over again. While meditation methods such as Buddhist, Vedantic or Vipassana meditation are noble pursuits in their own right, if you want to harvest the fruit of your asana and pranayama practice you need to combine them with yogic meditation, that is meditation that repeats the same structural elements and architecture as your posture and breathing techniques already contain. In that case you will use the skills you acquired in your asana practice to swiftly progress in meditation. Similarly to the Mandelbrot fractal, all yogic techniques were designed according to the same structural formulae. In this book I am describing the meditation layer and mental aspect of the physical and respiratory disciplines of yoga that I presented in my earlier books. Yogic meditation has fallen into disuse, hence the many attempts to import unlinked meditation techniques into yoga. With this book I am intending to usher in a renaissance of yogic meditation as described in yogic scripture.” An excerpt from my book “Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom”. © Gregor Maehle 2012

Agings influence on Practice

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I received requests from a few students to write about how body and practice changes as one gets older as people seem to struggle to keep up practice. Important here is to realize that asana practice was designed to support practice of meditation and pranayama. As you get older you need to shift emphasis from asana practice to the higher limbs. Try to limit your asana practice to 90 minutes and spend the rest on higher yogic practices. Physical problems often result from students not graduating on to the higher limbs. It’s the higher limbs that will give you the realization that you are not the body but the consciousness, the self. Once that has been attained the ambition to flog the body in asana practice, will disappear and with it many of the physical problems. (passage from Yoga Meditation): If asana is understood on a deep level then we will, once in the posture, produce the counteraction that propelled us into the posture. When done on all levels of live this method leads to mastery, that it going with the flow, being in the zone or being in the Tao. Rather than manifesting an enormous force that breaks through the barriers of the world and must in the end produce our own un-doing we move through life without force but using existing forces. This way no counterforce is ever necessary to manifest against us. This principle is beautifully expressed in Chuang Tzu’s “The Dexterous Butcher”. The story is a bit unsavoury for vegetarians but the message is deep nevertheless. Here, Lord Wen-hui watches and questions his cook who for 19 years uses the same blade to carve up thousands of oxen without sharpening it. The cook explains that rather than hacking through the oxen, he first pays respect in his heart, meets the oxen with his whole consciousness and he cares for the Way. He then moves with great subtlety, finds the right spot, almost effortlessly leans against the oxen and suddenly it is as if the whole oxen falls apart by itself. (end of quote) Your body is that oxen. Rather than hacking through it with much energy and effort, first pay respect for it in your heart. It is not an animal that you need to conquer and beat into submission. Meet your body with your whole consciousness and treat it as an expression of the Divine creative force (prana). Do not think that you only want to get that backbend, that leg-behind-head or which ever posture it is. Understand that your body is the crystallized history of your past thoughts, emotions and actions. Its not just meat, but more than you think it is. Move with great subtlety and find the right spots where you are holding on. Because it is you that is holding on, not somebody else. And now comes the secret: After with having identified with great subtlety the right spot, lean against it almost effortless and without ambition, just by shifting your body weight within your body. The result will be that your body will open almost effortless. Important though is that you do not practice for the results, for the outcome. Do not practice goal-oriented as that will lead to more and more injury. As Lord Krishna says in the Gita, surrender the outcomes of your actions. I found that it takes many years and decades to open to inner intelligence and intelligence of the body. Good news is that intelligence grows as one gets older. Years ago scientists thought that we get dumber as we get older but this has now been proven wrong. There is something called the neuroplasticity of the brain. It means that as long as you keep learning, your brain will become more and more powerful. As I am getting older, I found that I am using less and less energy and time to achieve in my practice more and more. Recently I read a sign in a café’ saying, ‘Drink coffee. Do more stupid things, faster and with more energy.’ A was amazed that the sign expressed reciprocally what happened in my practice (without coffee). Using much less energy, I do less things in a smarter way but the outcome is much more profound. But like Lord Wen-hui’s butcher I first had to learn to listen to my body. The good news is that yoga gets better as it goes on. I found the first 10 years tough. The second decade sort of happened by auto-pilot, meaning it required no additional effort. But only in the third decade the harvest began. Keep hanging in there. It will get better and better.  

How to deal with Anxiety during Pranayama

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I received some inquiries how to deal with anxiety during pranayama, a subject that is also covered in detail in the pranayama book. In a nutshell, reduce your breath count and let go of any ambition to lengthen it. The attitude of achievement that many modern yogis use to approach asana practice (that is you feel better when you have achieved a new posture or level of flexibility) cannot be transferred into pranayama practice. You need to listen to your body to tell you when you can extend your breath count and versus letting your mind decide. Helpful is also the use a 1 : 2 breath ratio, meaning make the exhalation double the length of the inhalation. Finally pranayama techniques that increase kapha and decrease pitta do help with anxiety as well but you need to consider the whole person before subscribing any of them as they are not helpful if you suffer from aggravated kapha already.

Healing knee injuries

I’m getting a lot of inquiries about knee problems and here are some basic guidelines on knee health. 15 years ago I seriously blew out both of my knees (shifting furniture and landscaping) and have subsequently healed them with yoga. I took 1.5 years of work to get 95% of quality back and another 5 years for the remaining 5%. I believe that my knees are now healthier than they would have been in the case of using surgery. However, surgery may be the way to go in some cases. I have given a lot of information pertaining the knee health in my first book Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy but here a few details: Daily before your asana practice sit in Virasana with a pile of blankets under your sit bones so that you feel a mild tension in your knees and quads but nothing painful. Slowly day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month reduce the height of your blanket and thus the stretch of your quadriceps until you can completely flex the knee joint. In order to perform lotus and half-lotus postures safely you need to be able to move the femur (thighbone) and tibia (shinbone) as close together as possible and then move them as a unity on the way in and out of the posture. Transiting in and out of lotus and half-lotus postures tibia and femur should not move relative towards each other at all. It took me nine months of daily practice to arrive with my sit bones on the floor in Virasana. Continue to use the posture daily until your knees are completely healed and even beyond that point you may use it as a safety precaution. Knee problems are sometimes caused or exacerbated by wrong articulation of tibia, femur or patella towards each other. Virasana goes a long way in correcting it but only then when your feet and toes point straight backwards and never out to the side. In standing asanas, never ever let the inner arch of your feet collapse. This will weaken the inner menisci. Again there is a correlation between collapsed arches and/or knocked knees and knee problems. Knocked knees are contributed to by fallen inner arches of the feet but also by tight adductors and weak abductors. In all standing postures such as Trikonasana, micro-bend (2 degrees) the front leg and make a swiping movement with your front foot towards the back foot. Never ever push out through the knee down to the floor in an attempt to hyperextend the leg. This would weaken and stretch your cruciate ligaments. The vast majority of knee injuries shows an involvement of ligamentous laxity of the cruciates prior to the actual meniscus tear. In standing postures be precise in placement of the feet, i.e. turn out of 85 degrees means 85 degrees and not 84. This will make a big difference. In postures such as Downward Dog, Padangushtasana, etc the centreline of the feet going through the second toe and the centre of the heel need to be parallel to each other. Do not turn the feet out. If you are in the habit of turning the feet out while you are walking you need to gradually and cautiously correct that. This otherwise will also weaken the inner meniscus. Bring femur and tibia closely together before you go into half-lotus and precisely follow the stages in and out of lotus and half-lotus postures as I have described it in Ashtanga Yoga Yoga Practice and Philosophy (see the photos of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana). Both transitions need to be pedantically and tediously broken down into their respective phases of movement. Completely master the rotation pattern of the femur in the Primary Series (Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana to Janushirshasana C) as described in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy. Again be precise and pedantic like a taxation officer, or the like. Be sensitive, listen to your body and correct your mistakes as fast as possible. That’s really important. Do not, I repeat, do not re-injure yourself. In order to be able to interprete your bodies signals change every day only one thing in your practice. If your knee gets sore again this one thing that you changed needs to get eliminated. Most people change to many things around how they work in the postures and for that reason can never clearly allocate the effects. Be gentle and never ever force the knee into position and never strain it. If necessary leave out postures, modify them as needed and ask your teacher to not adjust you in postures where you feel discomfort. Contrary to what’s believed in the contemporary Ashtanga-cult, you do not get browny points in heaven for sticking to a particular series despite obvious detriment. Consider placing a ferrite magnet on your knee using sports tape. Change the location slightly and study the impact of the change. It seems to be helpful to use magnets but its important to find the right spot. Consider using MSM Chondroiten, Glucosamine and Vitamin C with Bioflavonoids daily for at least 9 months. Helpful in many cases. Place both hands on your knees. Visualize the Divine in whatever form you worship It in your heart. Become aware of the healing potential of the Divine. Breathe that healing energy from your heart, through your arms and hands into your knee. If you are a seasoned pranayama practitioner then visualize extracting life force from air during internal kumbhaka and absorbing it into Manipura chakra. During the exhalation visualize distribution of prana into your knee or other area that needs healing.  

What is prana?

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As is the case with many other terms, prana can have several meanings depending on context. For example some yogic scriptures instruct you to draw the prana in through the left nostril and expel it through the right and vice versa. Here, prana simply means breath. More often we come across passages that advise us not to let the prana enter the head, or consciously push it into the arms to gain strength or direct it into areas of the body that harbour disease. Very common is also the scriptural advice to move prana into the central energy channel (sushumna), which, once achieved, produces the mystical state. In all of these instances prana obviously does not mean breath but ‘life force’. Breath is the gross expression of the subtle life force. In its cosmic form prana is also the manifestation of the Great Goddess and is then frequently described in a personalised form – it may be called Shakti when thought of as descending, or Kundalini when thought of as ascending. Again these two terms are often interchangeable depending on context. The Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad identifies prana with the Brahman (infinite consciousness / deep reality) (Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad III.9.9). The same is said in the Brahma Sutra (Brahma Sutra I.5). How can the Brahman, which is pure, infinite consciousness, be the same as the subtle life force, which, although permeating and moving this entire universe, is still a far cry from pure conscious- ness? The answer we find in the shanti mantra ‘Sham no mitra’ of the Taittiriya Upanishad. In this invocation we find the important passage ‘Namo brah- mane namaste vayo tvameva pratyaksham bhrahmasi tvameva pratyaksham brahma vadishyami’, which means ‘I salute you oh Brahman, I salute you, oh Prana. For you, Prana, are indeed the directly perceptible Brahman. You alone I shall call the directly perceptible Brahman.’ The understanding of this passage is very important. The Brahman is the transcendent aspect of God. Transcendent aspect means it is not directly perceptible (other than through an act of grace). But it can be recognised by its immanent aspect, in our case the prana. In this shanti mantra the prana is called the immanent aspect of Brahman. The philosophy according to which God is at the same time both immanent and transcendent is called panentheism. Panentheistic thought is present in all major religions. In Christianity, for example, the Father is God transcendent and both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God immanent. Interestingly enough, spirit is the translation of the original pneuma in the Greek New Testament. The term pneuma derives from the Sanskrit prana and, even in the English inspiration, the connotation of inhalation and thus breath is still present.
  1. Krishnamacharya also linked prana to consciousness. He ex-
plained that in the waking state prana is projected out to both body and mind (T. Krishnamacharya, Yoga Makaranda, p. 44). In the dream state it is withdrawn from the body and extends only out to the mind. In the deep-sleep state, however, prana is withdrawn from both body and mind and abides in conscious- ness. That is why dreaming is not truly restful and not really conducive to health. It also explains the existence of proverbs in some languages that say in sleep one goes home to God or in sleep one does not sin. It is reflective of the fact that prana is absorbed into our spiritual nature and absolutely no activity is present. Some scriptural passages identify prana as the prakrti (nature, material cause) of the Samkhya philosophy, and in this case we simply look at the cosmic impersonal manifestation of what expresses itself in the individual as breath and life force. The Shatapatha Brahmana describes prana as the elixir of immortality (amrita) (Shatapatha Brahmana X.2.6.18) Amrita more often than not denotes a drug derived from a creeper, but in yoga the amrita is the reservoir of prana in the centre of the brain, the area of the third ventricle. When the prana is arrested there, immortality is gained. This immortality, however, does not necessarily refer to physical immortality, some schools interpreting it as the realization of divine consciousness. Other textual passages say that prana and apana need to be united in the navel chakra (Manipura). In such contexts, prana refers to only one of the ten vital airs (vayus) that in themselves are subdivisions of the broader life force, prana. Prana has two storehouses in the body, a lunar, mental storehouse in the centre of the brain (Ajna Chakra) and a solar/physical storehouse in the area of the navel (Manipura Chakra). Manipura Chakra is also the seat of fire (agni), and this is why some texts suggest raising Kundalini with fire and air (prana), but more about that later. Some older texts also use the term vayu instead of prana (as the Taittiriya Upanishad above). In this book, if prana is used with the meaning of life force it will stand by itself. If it is used to denote the vital up-breath prana vayu, a subdivision of the life-force prana, then the compound prana vayu is used instead of the simple prana. The term prana Shakti is also frequently used to denote the efferent (outgoing) function of the nadi system, i.e. the ability of individuals to actively express themselves through the body, such as moving it in space and making it perform actions. Prana Shakti is thought of as working through the right nostril, and breathing methods that primarily utilise the right nostril therefore make one extraverted and active. Opposed to that is manas Shakti, the collective term for afferent (incoming) nadi signals, which are activated through the left nostril. Breathing through the left nostril makes one more inactive, intro- verted and reflective, this being a function of manas Shakti rather than prana Shakti. This is covered in more detail in the chapter on nadi balance. To those who reduce the term prana to merely mean ‘breath’ Swami Ramdev declares that it is not only breath but also invisible divine energy ( Swami Ramdev, Pranayama Rahasya, Divya Yog Mandir Trust, Hardwar, 2009, p. 15). Summarizing, prana is thus the body and actions of the Great Goddess, with which she causes, produces, maintains and destroys not only the entire world of manifestation but also each and every individual by means of breath. The downward-moving process of manifestation of individuals (Shakti) and the upward-surging process of their spiritual emancipation (Kundalini) are the two directional manifestations of prana. Prana is the God immanent that permeates and sustains this entire universe and all beings. Addition- ally the term prana is used to denote the vital upward current on the one hand and the efferent (outgoing) currents of the nadi system on the other. When trying to understand the significance of the term prana one therefore needs to cast one’s net as widely as possible to include all of these possible meanings; otherwise certain textual passages will remain opaque. This is an excerpt from my book “Pranayama the Breath of Yoga” © Gregor Maehle 2011

The union of Hatha and Raja Yoga

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The Hatha Ratnavali states that the lower yogic techniques like asana, pranayama and mudra are useless without having the goal of Raja Yoga in mind.[1] Raja Yoga means royal yoga. It is a term that denotes the ‘high road’ of yoga, generally used to indicate the antarangas (inner limbs) of dharana, dhyana and samadhi (the sixth through to the eighth limb). Through asana, pranayama and mudra you may obtain a perfect body, perfect health and maybe even some occult powers to manipulate people, but all this will still let you die ignorant of the Divine hidden within your heart, your own true nature.[2] Raja Yoga and devotion to the Divine are those aspects of yoga that actually do make a difference on your deathbed. People nowadays are attracted to yoga to harvest its health benefits. You may hope that, if you obtain perfect health and a perfect body, you can experience pleasure and comfort for longer and subconsciously push away the hard fact of your own death and the day of reckoning. In some regards this is right, but even 20 to 30 years’ life extension through yoga is really just a blip compared to the eternity of your existence. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says – and he addresses not just Arjuna but every single one of us – ‘You and I are ancient beings. The difference between us is that you do not know your past but I do.’[3] The few decades of life extension gained through yoga will rush past like a second, after which the great moment arrives when you must forsake your body. Then the pleasure and comfort you managed to gain through yoga will provide no solace in an old dying body when you ask yourself what your life was about and whether you came from an attitude of giving, whether you contributed any good to this world and fulfilled your destiny. Think about it for a moment: To make your body perfectly proportioned and healthy may just give you the opportunity to ignore the reality of your death for longer. But even then you will die, and, if you ignore that fact longer, you may actually die a bigger fool than if you hadn’t been involved in life-extending yoga practices at all. By ‘bigger fool’ I mean even more attached and identified with body and mind and even less appreciative of your eternal, spiritual nature. Not long ago I talked to a yoga student about yoga being about a school of preparation for death. She got really upset with me and told me she had just figured out her body through yoga, had attained health and was enjoying her body, and didn’t want to hear anything about death. This is very concerning. In this case the student had actually successfully used yoga to push further away from her the most burning and important issue of life, the moment of truth, and yoga enabled her to live longer as if she would live forever – to live a lie. Here yoga has actually been used to lead somebody further into the darkness. It is not the case that from mere practice of postures you will automatically grow spiritually. You may actually spiritually shrink as in the case of this student, who used postures to become even more obsessed with her body – her material aspect – than she already had been. Traditionally yoga postures are not to be engaged in to gain health (although they will have that effect) but they are to be done with an attitude of prayer to the Divine. Postures are prayer in movement. That is why K.P. Jois called his book Yoga Mala: you use the postures like the beads of a mala to remember the Divine. The Bhagavad Gita says that, unless they are performed as an offering to the Divine, all actions lead to bondage.[4] This is also the case for asana and pranayama. Such are the dangers of modern postural yoga. The intention of yoga is to fix your health only so that your mind becomes clearer and you have more energy to focus it on the big questions of life. The true purpose of yoga is to give you the visceral experience of something that actually holds up even at the moment of death. In the throes of death, most/all of what we were/are is stamped out by the intensity of dying, but there is one experience that holds up even right through the process of dying, and that is intense love for God, sometimes also called knowledge of the Divine. To get this knowledge is not only our birthright but also our divine duty. Only if we fulfill this divine duty can we die in complete and perfect peace. With this experience we can die in peace, since we know that we can leave because we have found completion. In this regard it is much more important to die a perfect death than to live before death in perfect health. The new obsession of postmodern, materialistic society with health is born out of the need to be able to compete for non-renewable resources for longer. We just don’t want to die any more – to vacate that spot on the cappuccino strip, on the beach and in the casino for somebody else. ‘Let me live and enjoy pleasure for longer! That’s why I do yoga!’ That’s why the Hatha Ratnavali says that asana, pranayama and mudra are useless without Raja Yoga. By themselves, without Raja Yoga, they are a form of bodybuilding in the regard that, if done without Raja Yoga, they are only aimed at perpetuating the body. A true yogi is one who would rather be dead, having died with divine knowledge, than be alive in a perfectly healthy body only to just go on consuming resources. In that regard the new fad of using yoga solely for body beautifying and health may be more dangerous to the sacred essence of yoga than many other adversities it has encountered in its long history. © copyright Gregor Maehle 2011 [1] Hatha Ratnavali of Shrinivasayogi I.19 [2] Bhagavad Gita X.20: ‘I am the self resting in the heart of every being.’ [3] Bhagavad Gita IV.5 [4] Bhagavad Gita III.9

Is pranayama just Ujjayi or is it more?

Pranayama is defined in Yoga Sutra II.49 as extension of inhalation and exhalation (for example Ujjayi during Ashtanga Vinyasa). Sutra II.50, however, gives a deeper meaning of pranayama as various breath retentions which are called internal, external and midway suspension. An even more advanced meaning is given in sutra II.51 that talks about spontaneous suspension (called chaturtah by Patanjali and Kevala Kumbhaka in Hatha Yoga Pradipika). These three meanings can only be experienced consecutively. This means: 1. Start pranayama by slowing down the breath. 2. Continue pranayama through formal practice of breath retentions sitting in Padmasana, Siddhasana, etc. 3. Once you have thus mastered prana through years of formal breath retentions, prana suspends and thus the mind, which is fan powered. Samadhi will thus be attained. This is of course very, very simplified. In my forthcoming pranayama book I have dedicated several hundred pages to this process. There is even a section called ‘why Ashtanga Vinyasa yogis need to go beyond Ujjayi’. This means that while it is correct to say that Ujjayi is pranayama, the reverse is incorrect. Meaning, yes you are practicing pranayama when you practice Ujjayi during vinyasa but pranayama is larger than Ujjayi. Shitali, Surya Bhedana, Bhastrika, kumbhakas etc also need to be practiced.  

How does asana work and why is it important?

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The importance that yoga places on deleting bodily, tissue and cell memory and what attitude the yogi needs to do so. To inquire into this we first need to understand yoga’s panchakosha model. The model was already alluded to in Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad but found its fullest expression in Taittiriya Upanishad (II.2-5). The Upanishad describes the human being consisting of five, consecutively deeper layers, which are Annamaya kosha (the body), Pranamaya kosha (breath and prana), Manomaya kosha (the mind), Vijnanamaya kosha (deep knowledge and pure intelligence) and Anandamaya kosha (Divine ecstasy). Important to understand is that the layers are interconnected and each manifests and results out of the others. For example if you have a mental trauma this will have a physical equivalent and a pranic (energetic) equivalent in the respective sheaths. You cannot go straight to divine ecstasy as long as your mind is conditioned. Conditioned mind will have of course its correlatives in the other sheaths. Another theme that I only want to touch briefly upon is yoga’s teaching of the three layers of the body: sthula sharira (gross anatomical body), sukshma sharira (pranic or astral body) and karana sharira (causal body). Long-term conditioning is stored in the karana sharira but you need to purify the gross body first through kriya and asana. Richard Freeman called asana practice to comb through the body with an increasingly fine-toothed comb to release tension (Yoga Matrix). Patanjali yoga purifies/develops the five sheaths through asana (the body), pranayama (the pranic sheath), meditation (the mind), objective samadhi (the intelligence sheath) and objectless samadhi (experience of Divine ecstasy). The first five of the obstacles that Patanjali describes in sutra I.30, which are sickness, rigidity, doubt, negligence and laziness, have a very strong physical component. I have described the obstacles and their components in detail in my forthcoming pranayama book. In sutra I.50-51 Patanjali has briefly described the necessity to purify the mind from conditioning (vasana), which is only an accumulation of subconscious imprints (samskara). He is going into more detail in the third chapter of the Sutra. This de- and reconditioning can only be successful if all sheaths (but particularly the lower three, body, breath and mind) are targeted simultaneously. Otherwise your conditioning will reboot from the sheath that you did not clean, similarly as you would reinstall your operating system from your backup drive after it got infected. I have roughly described the process of de-conditioning of the body through yogic asana in the introduction of Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy. In a nutshell: Practice all asanas with absolute anatomical precision and without being ambitious and aggressive at all. When sensations, ideas or concepts come up release them by means of the exhalation. Be compassionate with yourself and do not practice to succeed, to improve or to get somewhere, because this would impose another layer of the ambitious mind on the body. BKS Iyengar for example has called the result of such practice ‘cellular silence’. I like that one because he understood that a noisy body impedes your meditation. Now this next point is really important to understand: The Armenian mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who was inspired and taught by yogis and Sufis, said that true knowledge is of physical nature. In today’s language we could say it is a biochemical and bioelectrical process. What he meant was that its not just something that you think but that transforms every fiber and cell of your being. Yoga considers asana and pranayama to be the part to alchemically transform the body so that it becomes a representation of living deep knowledge, vijnana as the Upanishads call it or rta as Patanjali has it. The reason for that lies in the fact that opposed to Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, the school of yoga considers THE UNIVERSE AND THUS THE BODY TO BE REAL. Yoga does not look at the world and the body as illusion. Yoga looks at the body as a very real replication of the real macrocosm and therefore aims at transforming the body into a laboratory for knowledge. Due to the maxim of Hermes Trismegistos (Emerald Tablet stanza 2) “that which is beneath is as that which is above and that which is above is as that which is beneath”, the body is a reflection of the state of the mind. Not only that but as I already mentioned in Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy, ‘It is the crystallized history of our past thoughts, emotions and actions’. Yoga teaches that if you want to change your mind, you need to change your body as well because your body is nothing but the gross (sthula) projection of your mental state (of course not just the conscious mind). That’s why the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says (HYP IV.113), “Before the prana does not enter the sushumna all this talk of knowledge (jnana) is futile and boastful.” Svatmarama, its author considered this statement so important that he finishes off the treatise on this note. Back to Patanjali who says in the Yoga Sutra (YS I.43), ‘nirvitarka samapatthi (the 2nd-lowest form of samadhi) is the emptying of memory from its content’. As the body is the physical back-up drive of the mind, the memory must also be let go of on a physical plane. That’s what a course in yogic asana attempts to do and what the mere sitting with your back, neck and head in a straight line cannot achieve. I want to finish of this essay on a devotional note as a lot of us modern yogis have thoroughly accepted yoga’s tenet that the body is real. But have we yoga’s other tenet that the divine self, the pure consciousness is also real? Especially if you succeed in your asana practice (such as getting to advanced levels) then do not take the credit but surrender all results of your asana practice to the Divine in your preferred form. For otherwise you will superimpose a new layer of conditioning instead of removing the old one. Rumi said in this regard “I tried to enter the city of God through the gate of empowerment but I found such a large crowd in front of it that I could not enter. Then I came to the gate of humiliation. I could easily slip in as there was nobody there.”