Friday, October 7, 2016

Aham Brahm Asmi

I am Divine Essence, I am Brahman... what a beautiful Mantra. I use at the beginning of a meditation, where I focus on my heart chakra and visualize that the Cosmic Void fills it with its light. This is a light that cannot be seen like the light of the sun, but rather a form of "black light" unimaginable, really, but just used in a suggestive way of a very subtle presence of the Divine.

This is a wonderful way to chant it 108 times, the sacred number! Click on the link below to hear it!

Aham Brahm Asmi

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Role of Breath in the Practice of Asanas

Breath – inhalation, retention, exhalation, retention, repeat... the ongoing process of maintaining life in our body.

We may go for weeks without food, for days without water, but we cannot survive more than about a minute without breath. It is the catalyst for all our cellular activities.

In yoga, we employ a specific method of breathing, called Ujjayi breath, aka breath of the warrior. Inhaling and exhaling are controlled by a light restriction in the throat, similar to when we want to fog a window pane or clean our reading glasses. It sounds a little bit like what we hear when we put our ear to a large sea shell, like a conch.

Breathing has many functions in yoga. Foremost, when we breathe in Ujjayi, we can hear our breath going in and coming out of our body. It helps with the practice of asanas to focus on this rhythm. At the same time, the breathing rhythm should – ideally – be the guide for movement itself. Each breath accompanies one phase of a posture. For example, lying on our back, we raise a leg on an inhale, and we lower it for the time of the exhale. In a sun salutation, we raise our arms up on an inhale, and we dive forward with the exhale. Upon arrival in the forward bend, we do the halfway rise on another inhale, and the release on the next exhale, and so on. It is easy to make and sustain a physical effort on an inhale, and to release that effort with an exhale. These two pairs are natural companions.

We can also use our breath efficiently for the sustaining of a physical effort, such as the extended side angle in Warrior II. The deep breathing during the side angle pose helps with the muscle work to keep us in the extended posture, where we demand quite an effort of our abdominal, dorsal and lumbar musculature to hold the upper body over our bent thigh, as well as of the forward thigh, if we want to hold it in a horizontal position, with the knee aligned over the ankle. It is important to keep our awareness on a deep breathing practice, pulling the air all the way into the diaphragm, in a slow and regular fashion.

Ujjayi breathing will ultimately contribute to keeping the yogi in a state of meditation, as the natural in and out of our own breath will feel soothing and mantra-like.

On a cultural side note, in some Indian literature, the breath is associated with the notion of “prana”. I personally tend to disagree with this. Prana in yogic, meditative terms is the “original life energy”. It is pure spiritual energy, in its most subtle form. An experienced yogic teacher knows how to transmit this prana to the yogis during a meditation session. In traditional Indian festivities, such as Diwali, the festival of lights, there will also be sweets called “prassad”. Those sweets were equally prepared by a yogic master, who infused them with this same spiritual life energy (prana). Any person who eats these sweets derives a benefit for the physical body when this energy is absorbed during the digestion and diffused into the body with the nutrients.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ahimsa.... what does it mean?

If you are a somewhat seasoned yoga practitioner, you have probably heard about 'ahimsa'. It is a word from the ancient language of Sanskrit, which was used to write down all ancient sacred Indian texts.
Ahimsa means "non-violence".
Easy enough to understand as a concept, you might think. In a way, it is.
However, maybe it means more than we perceive at first glance. In India the sages who practice ahimsa walk barefoot and try to not even crush a bug under their soles accidentally.
I am thinking that no matter how hard one tries to avoid crushing a tiny bug under one's foot, it is bound to happen. We cannot see what is hiding in the grass, or even in the dust of a road. So, whether the sage likes it or not, he will inevitably hurt some little creatures unintentionally. He can't help it.
So, maybe we can say that non-violence means to not inflict harm by intent.
What comes first to my mind then is - obviously - the meat eating habit of a big part of the world population. Is that violence? Is killing an animal for food violence? Since this is a subject of great importance to many, it will be hard to determine who is right and who is wrong. People just love to eat meat way too much. Do they need it truly for sustenance? The answer is no, not at all. Entire nations used to be or still are vegetarian and thrive healthily. Top Olympic sportsmen and women are vegetarians and outperform anybody else. I myself have never eaten meat in my life and am the healthiest person on the planet, well, one of them!

But, I rather wanted to talk about ahimsa much more closely in relation with the practice of yoga.
Two weeks ago, I pulled or strained a rib on my left side. I was practicing a bow posture, and in order to enhance it, I used a strap to achieve a stronger back bend. As I pulled the strap over my head, I felt that sharp pain in my left floating ribs, and I knew the damage was done right there and then. Ouch. That really hurt! Two weeks later, I can still feel where I pulled the rib out of its cartilage. It is amazing that just one little spot of injury can affect the performance of the entire body. I can feel that injury two weeks later, when I do a variety of postures, as all the muscles perform together, and they find this one week spot.

But, on the bright side, I did learn this lesson: Ahimsa in the practice of yoga means also to use props in the right way.
What does that mean? When using a prop, it must be done only to support the posture at the level where we can perform it, without any help from a prop. It is there only to ease us into what we can do by ourselves.
I used it - and so do many yogis every day - to push myself beyond what I could have done without it. The result was an injury, a violence committed towards my own body.

I did already understand the concept that yoga should not be competitive and also not understood as a form of gymnastics or body building. However, it was obviously good to realize that such an anodyne thing as a prop can also be the source violence towards oneself, through inappropriate usage and practice. I shall remember that lesson from now on.

Thanks for allowing me to share this insight with you!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Yoga to do? Or Yoga to be???

Yoga is Not to do....
Yoga is to BE

What is your status? Are you practicing yoga these days? And if so, how do you share this fact with your friends and neighbors when the subject comes up?  "Oh yeah, I am doing yoga" ?
And what do you or your friends and neighbors gather from that statement? What is "doing" yoga?

Nothing is further from reality than to think that this question is unjustified or even strange.

What do most people think when they hear the term 'Yoga' ?
Some kind of physical exercise, which makes people bendy.... some fitness work-out for good-looking, young and hip millennial folks....after all, each and every picture one can see in yoga sports magazines is about nicely tanned, air-brushed and model figured twenty-somethings! Or they'll surmise it is something you can do to get great abs and a firm tush, get back in shape.... those are the stereotyped answers I have gotten frequently when I ask this question.

Would you believe me if I told you that all of the above could not be further from the truth? Believe it!

The most important and also one of the oldest writings about yoga goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. At one point, a sage named Patanjali  (pronounced Pa'tan'jally)decided to collect all the information that was available in different sources and write a very condensed book about the purpose and method of yoga. Those are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They comprise 195 very compact, precise statements about the nature of mankind, their divine origin, and how to regain this original state of divinity or divine immersion in our life time. While I am writing this, my mind brings up the biblical story of the fall of humans from divine grace, as they are being expelled from the Garden of Eden by their Creator. Humans have created many religions to attempt in more or less similar ways to regain that divine status we lost so long ago. Even if they differ in many aspects, they all state clearly that man must be reunited with God.

In yogic terms, instead of saying "God", "Allah", "Brahma", etc....,  I would prefer to call this state the 'divine state' and the creator behind it, the 'Divine Energy Source'. That way, whatever religion we may prefer to practice won't get in the way of the practice of yoga. Yoga is not a religion by any means and should not be regarded as such, ever.

Let's get back to Patanjali, the great sage. He structured these sutras in four chapters. It appears that he intended each of these to be addressed to four of his closest disciples. Their names were Kritanjali, Baddhanjali, Mastakanjali and Purnanjali. These four disciples were all at different stages in their yogic practice and each chapter addresses the particular challenges they deal with at those levels.
Do we have to study the Sutras if we are to properly practice yoga? Yes and No. But if you just asked me, the answer would be No, and here is why: The very essence of yoga is to fine tune one's inner perceptions in such a way that we can feel a constant connection with our inner divine Self. It is that simple. To do this requires a strong longing, or desire to achieve it. If a person is driven by this desire, and if they have faith in their path, they are onto practicing yoga already. It is then just a matter of "time" for them to grow until they merge into the Divine Source. There is no need to feed information through our intellectual channel in order to walk this path. All we need is to listen to our innermost guidance. It is always there, but often it is just cluttered up with the seemingly inextricable challenges of daily life. How many of us would say they had this inner voice when they were children, but lost it somewhere as life became more complicated?
At any time can we make this decision to return to a purer, child-like and innocent state of heart, mind and soul. It is up to each one of us to make that call.

Back to the business of the practice of physical yoga. Why do it? Can't we just sit down and learn how to meditate right away? Sure we can. Try it and see for yourself. You may find that your mind is quite uncooperative, as it will take you on a wild goose chase across all of your memory banks. It is so unbridled that it won't stay still for even a split second! You may find that you can remember even the most insignificant events from long ago, things you did not even know you remembered! And just when you try to clear your mind of all activity, it comes around and serves you the most incongruous dishes of way back when! Such is the nature of the beast, if I may say....

So, in order to learn how to put a bridle on that mind of ours, we use the best tool we have: our own body.
The most central item which keeps this body alive and kicking is..... drum roll.... our breath!
We can survive without any food for forty days. I did it and it works quite well, actually.
You can survive without water for about five to seven days, and barely so at the end of that period.
How long can our body survive without oxygen? Try to hold your breath for as long as you can and you got your answer! So, we need to keep breathing constantly and steadily in order to stay alive in our body.
In yoga, we use the rhythm of breathing to time the movements we make. Each move is one half breath: inhale and raise your arm, exhale and lower it back down. We learn to focus our mind on this simple activity: a combination of breathing and moving with that breath. This may sound simple enough, but it actually requires sustained focus! If you are lying on your back and you are raising your arms and legs to your inhale, then lower them back down to the timing of your exhale, you are already dealing with multiple parameters: first, you need to overcome the weight and inertia as you get the straight legs off the floor in a smooth and even movement. Next, you have to adopt different speeds for your arms and your legs, as they have different distances to travel: the legs go up to vertical, which would be 90 degrees, and the arms travel all the way to the floor overhead, which is an arc of 180 degrees. Not to mention that your arms are easier to raise than your legs! Try it out and see what happens! The rule is: you finish raising your arms and legs as you finish inhaling. You finish lowering your arms and legs as you finish exhaling. Then you have a brief pause, before you begin the next cycle. I can assure you it will take some coordinating and concentration to do this simple movement smoothly!

So we come to see that these exercises are not meant to be gymnastics, but rather a way to learn how to focus our mind inward and keep it focused as long as we want. All these postures, called Asanas in Sanskrit, even the complicated ones, are only there to push us to a more heightened state of concentration and inner focus. You can become a perfect yogi without ever doing a ballerina's split, or a wheel, or a hand stand. There is no competition in yoga, and there are no tests to be taken or grades to be obtained, ever. We are simply spiritual beings on our life-long quest for the answers to the questions of who we are, where we came from, why we are here and where we are going. This is what yoga will help us figure out, each in our own rhythm and time. And remember, time does not exist! If you don't believe it, let me know. I'll explain that to you next time! Namasté!

Monday, November 23, 2015

I Am That
I Am.......That......I Am

The Adventures of the Little Droplet

A Good-night story for our Children
and not-so-Grown-ups
(made up on the spot by Mona Van Vooren)

On a balmy Sunday morning, a pretty little cloud sailed blissfully across the azure skies above a little town, on the sea shores somewhere on Planet Earth. It was made up of the finest, most subtle particles of vapors, all suspended above the city and swirling blissfully around each other. They were so fine that one could not distinguish one from any other. And they were so light that they could easily sail along on a breeze, carefree and unattached. They all had a good, fun collective time traveling along.

Eventually, they reached a big mountain side, so they began to climb. Higher and higher they rose, and the more they climbed the colder it got around our little, blissful cloud nation. Finally, the air around them turned so cold that they all huddled closer together. And before long, they realized that some transformation was about to take place inside the cloud: they noticed that they were no longer so vaporous, they were actually forming bigger entities. These bigger entities turned from vapor to liquid, and as they gathered more substance, turned into droplets. Suddenly, they started to slide away from their cloud home.

One such droplet, called Lil' Droplet, realized that it could not hold on to the cloud anymore at all. It tumbled and began to rush through the air, towards the land beneath. The wind seized it and tossed it about, pressing it into a streak, then again hollowing it out like the shape of an open umbrella. Lil' Droplet had quite a ride with so many intense sensations, as it kept hurling ever downward to the green lands below, still quite far away! It heard thunder roar all about, above and way to the horizon, then it saw blinding lizards of intense light flash all over the skies, which filled it up with enormous energy. “Yeeehaaaa!!!” it screamed amidst the thunder and storm. It tumbled and twirled, and sometimes the gusts of storm carried it back upwards for a short moment, like on a roller-coaster. Lil' Droplet held itself together, as best it could, which at times was quite difficult. “Where am I going? What is happening to me? Who am I? Why am I no longer vapor? What will become of me?” All these questions danced through its consciousness, but it could not sort any of them out, as it was too busy just paying attention to the exhilarating ride, which seemed endless.

By now, it had come down quite a bit, and it could make out meadows and houses and trees, and all of them were getting bigger very rapidly. At the last moment, a strong, sweeping gush of air carried it way to the side, barely past a very high steeple, and out, over the big ocean off the coast. Our droplet had never seen anything like it: It was so wide, so blue, and so very majestic!

“What is this big thing?” it wondered, “looks like I am going to fall right into it!” Our little droplet felt very concerned about its fate. It had no idea what would become of it, or how it could survive if it ever hit that big, wondrous, blue expanse below.

At last, and, with a big splash, Lil Droplet landed on the surface of the ocean's swaying waves. And, as it began to sink into the water and mingle with it, suddenly, everything became very clear and simple for it. “Oh, how wonderful”, it marveled, “I just blend in!” It felt so good to join the ocean waters. “I am That!” It jubilated! “I am exactly that!” and it knew that it had found it's home place and true nature. “I am that. I can also be a droplet, or I can be vapors in a cloud. But regardless of what I do whenever I want to transform, I am always that.”

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Thoughts on my Practice: To Thine Own Self Be True....

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare, Hamlet

Good old William must have been quite the yogi at heart, and maybe he did not ever think that he was. Lately, and without intending to, I seem to be channeling him every day. I don't recall that this has ever happened to me before. But, I'll let it be. There must be some message in it to behold and to treasure, for sure!

Now then, what is it that yogis can take from the above quote? What am I taking from it?

On the mat, this was one of the first things I came to understand: I can only be who I am at any given moment, while I practice. My body will do what it can, and if I apply all my attention and care to the exercise, it will do it the best it can. That is all. It is my contribution to my growth at that very moment. I honor it, accept it and savor it for whatever it is, right there, right then. Tomorrow will be another day. I live only in the Now of this posture, everything else falls away into Nirvana.... non-existence. I am talking to my body and it talks to me. I discover that the two sides of my body are not equally made: one is subtler and more bendable, the other stronger, but also more rigid. There is not such a big difference, but it is enough to be noticeable. I am alright with that. The human body is not symmetric naturally: We have one heart, and while it sits in the ribcage centered before the spinal column, it is somewhat inclined sideways, its tip pointing to the left ribcage. The liver sits on the right side, the spleen occupies the left, just to name a few organs. Of course, we also have organs in pairs, such as the kidneys, the eyes, ears.... but even so, they are not clones of each other, showing physical differences of size or orientation. All this to show that asymmetry is a natural phenomenon in our human body.
We can add to that the effects of living: sitting all day at our office desk, driving around in a car for hours, slumping forward while staring at the computer screen, standing without much movement in the same spot for hours, on hard and cold floors, and so on. We may also bear the scars of past and present traumas in our muscular and skeletal structures: old sports injuries, car and other accidents, disease – sometimes self-inflicted, as when we smoke or practice unhealthy eating habits for most of our lives.
Even seemingly “invisible” events leave their mark on us: the loss of a child, a parent or any other loved one, abusive life situations, where our trust has been betrayed, depression or other mental struggles.
We are the sum of all of these factors, and we need to honor that. To thy own self be true.
I had some terrible accidents before I was 20 years young. They all involved injuries to my spine. Luckily, my muscular condition was so strong that I survived all of them without breaking the spine. However, when I am on the mat, all these events beg to be remembered, as I feel a light terror each time I do a posture with a back bend. Physically, my back muscles hold on so tight that they don't want to hear anything about letting go. Mentally and emotionally, I struggle with terror at even the thought of bending myself over backwards. In the beginning of my practice, all this filled me with frustration on top of the terror that gripped me. Why can't I just do Camel pose? It looks so easy. I know it is easy, so why can't I just do it? There was no answer for these questions. But during Savasana, my mind simply rolled back the film to all these incisive events, when I found myself thrown into the air by a speeding car and landed head-first on the pavement, waking up from a coma in a hospital bed without knowing what got me there...., when a big guy jumped into my lower back while I was just in the middle of emerging from the deep end of the diving pool, ….when my car lost traction on a stormy autumn morning and went flying over the edge of the road, across a wide field, down a ravine and into a river, doing several somersaults before it got there, smashing my car flat into the shape of a pancake.... but each time, I survived. I am still here, with the deep-rooted memories of those days in my subconscious mind. I had forgotten about them before I started practicing yoga. They were tucked away in the lowest basement of my mind, where nobody, not even I, cared to venture.... ever. Now they are out in the open of my awareness again, and I want to acknowledge them for what they are, and for the scars they left. I can live with them and exist as I am. I can heal myself, given patience and time. As I have now acknowledged the existence of these things, I find that it was the first step to overcoming the trauma. I am beginning to befriend the back bends, a little more every time I do them. It now feels half good and half terrifying. I let both be, the half good and the half terrifying part of me. I tell both it's OK for them to reside in my heart and mind. But I do know what I want, and this is very important. I want to heal. So every time, I do a back bend, the balance shifts subtly further towards the 'feel whole' side, and leaves behind the 'feel terror' side.
The key is to say “I want”. I do not say “I should” or “I must” or “I have to”. There is a dimensional difference between these expressions. “I Want” will make it so, and it will be a process where time is needed, but there is time enough for all of our needs. We live for the purpose of healing ourselves from whatever it is we require to heal.
I want to be whole. And I want to experience the process which takes me there. Every day is good for its own subtle change. That is enough for me. To my own self, I am true.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Something from Nothing

“O teach me how I should forget to think”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

A typical yoga class session with a teacher begins similar to this:

The teacher invites the students to take a relaxed pose: lying down, sitting in easy seat, or standing in mountain pose, with their eyes closed, as they are about to prepare for the yoga practice to come.
The teacher instructs them to bring their awareness to their breath, observing it, without making alterations. Then, the teacher asks them to scan their body, again, simply to make statements of the existing situation, no alterations. “Just acknowledge what is, let it be.”
Next, the teacher asks the students to focus on their mental condition, and to make note of this, too: Feelings of anxiety? Nervousness? Tension? Distractions? Preoccupations, Frustrations? Peacefulness?
Again, the students acknowledge whatever frame of mind they are in and let it exist.
Then, students are asked to return to their breath, lengthen the inhales and exhales, deepen the breath, expanding it beyond the diaphragm into the abdomen, upwards and into the rib cage, the shoulder girdle.... to even out the exhales and inhales to a count of four or longer.

Finally, students are invited to “set an intention for their practice”. This is a private act, nobody knows what each individual decided upon for their intention. Everybody is asked to hold on to this intention and return to it whenever they lose it during yoga practice.

Every time I hear this invitation, I begin to wonder what this may do to my fellow yogis in the room.
What did they pick? Resolutions like “I don't want to be anxious any more”? Or “I don't want any more hate in my life”? “I want to feel peace”? “I want to have a great day”? Or maybe “I want to practice well”? These all seem like possible candidates for an intention, so why not!

The first time I heard my yoga teacher ask me to set an intention for practice, I wondered what the purpose of this should be. I thought, well, I am here to do yoga, so let it be related to that: “I want to practice well.” There, I set my intention! That's what I kept up in the beginning days of my yoga practice, the first few weeks. But soon, I came to realize that this was easier said than done. What is a good practice? How do I practice well? Does this just come about by itself? Will it just happen because I said so? Could I actually also practice “unwell”, meaning doing it wrong without ever knowing that I did it wrong? Soon, it began to dawn on me that, yes, I could very easily do that.

Gaining the proper understanding of even the simplest postures is a long term process, not an instant accomplishment. Sitting with my legs crossed, erecting the spine straight, pulling the shoulders down, away from my ears, the shoulder blades hugging my thoracic cage, the sternum raised, the head poised in equilibrium above my shoulders, my pelvis tilted just right, my thighs relaxing and the knees resting on the floor, all that demands to happen during a longer process, it is not instantaneous. Adjustments offer themselves while I sit quietly for several minutes and observe my body sitting there.
My mind begins to zoom in on a part of my body, say, my hip flexors, or my pelvis, or the spine. And with the help of my breath, I can adjust that part of the body, upwards, downwards or in any other dimension, letting go, settling into a deeper expression of this posture. What a miraculous process this is. Time is a big factor.... time, patience and attention to what the body is doing, how it is doing it. There are many “aha” moments in this process!

As the first two or three months of my yoga practice passed, one day I got the idea that the best intention to set would probably be something in the way of a 'universal tool', an intention which would help me make the most of my practice. I got inspired to set my intention to “Let me be completely empty”. What I meant by that is, let me empty my mind, my body, any expectations, all my feelings, my impressions, my thoughts, preoccupations, worries.... let me make a “tabula rasa” ! So, I visualized myself as a beautiful, tall vessel, poised in infinite space, and with a subtle movement, I tilted it gently to let the contents of my inner self flow gently and completely out of the vessel into the void of the universe, return it to where it came from. Then, I visualized that I put my vessel back into the upright position, and I contemplated and savored the empty Me.
My inner space of awareness felt like a vast, sheer endless, silent and smooth existence, serene and promising. I set my intention to keep my inner condition just this way during the hour of yoga practice . I wanted to see what would happen during a practice with this “no intention-intention”.

And it was simply amazing! Now, instead of being torn apart by errant thoughts, my mind could focus its attention on the practice, keenly observe every move, to see what was happening in the muscles I stretched or contracted. I discovered that it could 'visit' every part of my body, observing it and learning from its needs and actions. It helped me to understand how yoga postures work, what their effects were on the body as a whole organism.
The hour of practice seemed like just the span of one breath, and it was already over! Time seemed to also have vanished in this process of “emptying”! I realized that energy came to me whenever I needed it, fatigue had mostly vanished along with the rest of the emptied-out articles. And as the practice drew to its closing in Savasana, I felt accomplished and filled with fresh energy, warmth and inner harmony and contentment. I knew that I had received from the universe just what I needed that day!

I began to understand that this is how it should be for all of us, in the ideal world. We learn to trust our life, our existence, knowing that it will provide us with what is best for us, at any given time, in any situation. Instead of picking and choosing all kinds of “something”, we have the option to choose the big “Nothing”. This “Nothing” will transform itself into any and all appropriate “somethings” we may need at any given time, in any given situation, and it will be just the right amount and quality of support and inspiration for that particular situation. This has to be the best intention we can ever offer ourselves!

So, I'm thinking, maybe this “void my inner self completely” intention really is the universal tool, which, if used correctly, would turn out to be the all-in-one solution to any and all life situations?
It may not be easy to gain control over this tool upon first try, but it will serve each of us well if we keep practicing it. As is true for any and all tools, every time we practice, we gain a better understanding of it, and we increase our skill level in its use! It has proven itself to me time and time again over the two years on my yogic path. I find that it helps me progress steadily, it taught me to always be in the Here and Now. And this is the best possible place to be in, always. I can take this tool and use it anywhere, all the time.... at home, with the kids, in the office, in the supermarket, on the road ... It brings the benefits of yoga directly into my life of every day, anytime, anywhere.
Now if that is not an awesome, real-life benefit of practicing yoga, then I don't know what is!

I want to invite my readers to try it out for themselves and see if this may serve them well!