Fall is vata season and a season of transition from the hot, bright and extroverted summer months to the cooler and more internalizing autumn months. The qualities of fall are similar to the qualities of vata dosha, which makes this an important time to care for and balance vata dosha which may easily go out of balance during this season, or during the transition to fall (rtu-sandhi). It is also a time when pitta dosha may be accumulated in the body due to the hot summer months prior. Therefore, the general recommendation according to Ayurveda is to continue with a pitta pacifying diet and lifestyle (mainly cooling and calming, avoiding very spicy foods) until the weather cools down and gradually incorporate vata pacifying diet and lifestyle which will be discussed further.
Those of vata constitution and in the vata stage of life (60+) need to take extra care to counter the qualities of vata in the seasonal routine, diet and lifestyle. Those of pitta and kaphaprakriti can take care to balance the gunas which may intensify in their constitution due to seasonal changes.
The main qualities of vata are dry, light, cool, rough, subtle, and mobile. We see these qualities mirrored in the fall with cool dry winds, clear blue skies (if we are fortunate to live away from sources of pollution) and dry crunchy leaves.
The main qualities to counter vata during this time are warming (ushna), unctuous (sgnidha) and slightly heavy (guru), stable (sthira) gunas.
Diet and Tastes During Fall Season:
Sweet, sour and salty balance vata. Sweet, bitter and astringent tastes balance pitta. During the fall it is best to focus on a diet that is warm, moist and nourishing. Warming spices such as ginger, cumin, fenugreek and turmeric can be added to cooking. There are many seasonal fruits and vegetables available in the fall season such as squashes, gourds, carrots, leafy green vegetables, figs, sweet apples, pears, and avocados. Milk or nut milks, whole wheat, almonds, walnuts are good additions to the diet. Ghee may be used for cooking or added in small quantities to food to increase the unctuous quality of the food. Kitchadi is a great staple for this season.
Warming teas such as ginger, licorice, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and clove are good.
Seasonal Daily Routine – Dinararchya and Rtucharya
As the days get shorter it is good to go to bed a bit earlier than summer season, and wake up a bit earlier as well, before sunrise if possible. Following a regular routine is the best way to stabilize the mobile nature of vata. Avoiding caffeine, late nights, loud music, fast driving, and long distance travel also help to stabilize vata.
If the fall is dry in your location, it is good to practice daily or weekly abhyanga (self oil massage in the direction of the hair follicles) with sesame oil, before taking a shower. This prevents dryness of the skin and hair and reduces vata. For those prone to constipation, taking adequate hydration, fruits and vegetables, natural oils, and soaked raisins can help. Taking triphala in the morning and evening can help with digestion and elimination.
Yoga and exercise should be practiced daily, but mildly and not in excess as physical exertion and exhaustion are a main causes of vata aggravation. Yoga asanas should be done in a way that does not cause the air and ether elements to be in excess (such as excessive jumping or asanas done in quick succession), or causes body to become exhausted. Savasana should be always done after asana. Calming and soothing pranayama such as ujjai and nadi shodhana may be helpful.
The daily practice of meditation is central for maintaining health and balance and also cultivating the mind. Since fall is a time when nature begins to slow down and prepare for winter hibernation, humans also can make changes to align with this internalizing process. Finding time to be quiet and reflective, to gaze up at the sky, or to be alone in nature are ways to connect with the spacious, still and peaceful quality that fall brings. Reflecting on impermanence, cultivating creativity, writing poetry, playing and listening music can help to connect us with the larger rhythms of the cosmos of which were are a part.
The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa & Michael Tierra. 2008. Lotus Press, Twin Lakes WI.
“Meditation is not something that can be expressed in words. It must be directly experienced in one’s life.”
“Dhyana means absorption. It is the art of self-study, reflection, keen observation and search for the infinite within. It is the observation of the physical processes of the body, study of the mental states and profound contemplation. It means looking inwards to one’s innermost being. Dhyana is the discovery of the Self.” – B.K.S Iyengar, p. 223, Light on Pranayama
The Seeker (Sadhaka)
Spiritual seeking or entering into a meditative practice is often predicated by a search for wholeness, integration, truth, and communion or oneness with the Self, Soul or God. Feelings of separation, fragmentation, disease, alienation from the Self, Soul or God can prompt the seeking. Without acknowledging and acting on these inner yearnings one may live with a quiet but persistent sense of discontent, stress, worry, separation or alienation. It may feel as if one’s deeper purpose or meaning is not understood or embodied. If the yearnings are not present to seek beyond one’s current condition, the time may not yet be ripe for the beginning or continuation of in the quest, or there may be obstacles in the way. Other motivations such as the thought of wanting to remove stress from ones life, mend a relationship, find meaningful work, or to become more healthy physically, may end up leading to path of spiritually and contemplative practices. A near death experience or death of a loved one may also be a reason to enter spiritual inquiry. Just as the methods and traditions of contemplative practices are wide and varied, entry points into the practice are innumerable and individual to each person. In this piece, I will share about my own spiritual journey and map out the path of meditation as a practice as presented by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and specifically Sutra II.1 -2 which the describe the practice of kriya yoga and how to work through the afflictions and obstacles.
First, I’ll share about my own path to mediation and the spiritual journey. In my late teens and early twenties, I entered a period of truth seeking. What brought me to seek truth initially was discovering how disconnected my own relationship and much of the U.S. was to food, farming, nature, and deeper purpose. I came to understand that the roots to many personal and societal problems are greed, selfishness, desire, and ignorance of our interconnection with each other and all of life. This brought me to meditation to face myself. Up until that point I was undisciplined in my lifestyle and without a clear direction in my life. I had not suffered intense trauma or hardship in my childhood, however, I did come to realize that everything we’ve experienced, done or thought leaves it’s imprint in our consciousness.
When I begin to meditate, I had misconceptions about what meditation is. I thought meditation involved entering into some state of ecstasy or trance. During my first 10 day retreat, I was flooded with memories, impressions, what felt like things that had been stored in a dark attic were somehow coming into light, or being unearthed from the depths of the ocean of consciousness. I practiced Buddhist Shamatha and Vipassana meditation, which teach how to stabilize the mind by keeping the attention steady on an object, and then to open up the field of awareness. After doing a series of Vipassana retreats over a period of a few years, I began to have a better experiential understanding of the practice. What I realized was that this meditative practice, in order to be transformative needs to be lived out in all aspects of ones life. In mediation, you cannot hide some parts of yourself away in dark corners. Everything must come out into the light of awareness to be seen for what it is. That is how healing and transformation happens. My practice lead me to explore the paths of Vipasana mediation, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Patanjali Yoga taught by B.K.S. Iyengar. The last eight years, I have gradually gone deeper into the practice of yoga. What follows are some reflections on the path of meditation within the Patanjali yoga tradition as taught by B.K.S. Iyengar.
DhyanaContextualized within Asthanga Yoga
“Meditation is the technique of inter-penetrating the five sheaths (kosas) of the Sadhaka to blend them into one harmonious whole. p.226 Light on Pranayama
“Meditation is to bring the complex consciousness to simplicity and innocence without pride and arrogance. No spiritual practice is possible without ethical discipline.” B.K.S. Iyengar, the Tree of Yoga (p.138).
As a path to wholeness and integration, the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali work both sequentially and holographically, meaning that the whole is present in each limb, or each of the eight limbs is contained in every single limb. For the most stable practice, the limbs are practiced in a sequential or spiral way, leading with the first two limbs: yama and niyama. Spirituality and living an ethical life cannot be separated.
Currently, we see an inclination in secular mindfulness practices to separate meditative concentration from the ethical practices involved in spiritual discipline, and in yoga communities to separate yoga asana from the rest of the seven limbs. These practices may lead to the lessening of stress and traumatic responses, greater health and increased productivity and focus, which is a powerful healing tool and can provide benefit to many people. However, if productivity and heightened focus gained by mindfulness is harnessed towards activities which perpetuate harm, or reinforce the ego, then ultimately the result is not healing or integrating for the individual or society. Just as if asanas are practiced without the other seven limbs they become an exercise/stress reduction program at best, and a feeder of narcism and cult of the body at worst.
Along with a strong ethical foundation, to embark on the inner journey of meditation (antaranga sadhana), mastery or strong familiarity with the limbs of asana, pranayama and pratyahara provides a stable foundation for the physical body, nervine strength and discipline of the senses. Below I have structured this exploration of meditation though the lense of Yoga Sutra II.1 and II.2 which give up the practices of kriya yoga, the yoga of action, (which is actually the eight limbs of yoga in “capsule” form) as a means to overcome to obscurations and afflictions and lead one toward dhyana and samadhi.
The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samadhi.
Tapas – The heat which purifies, burning zeal in practice
Related: The outer body (sthoola sarira), karma yoga, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama
“Fixed in yoga, perform actions, Having abandoned attachment, Arjuna, And having become indifferent to success and failure. It is said that evenness of mind is yoga.” -Bhagavad Gita II.48
The first aspect of the yogic path is through the outer body, through action, including developing strength of character through the yamas and niyamas and through tapas, which is literally the heat which purifies. Slowly our character builds up by practicing non violence, non stealing, truthfulness, bhramacharya, and non acquisitiveness. The body mind system become more stable by cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and devotion.
The asanas and pranayama bring holistic heath, firmness in body, regulation and even flow of prana (life force), mental stability and concentration, and equanimity amidst duality.
B.K.S. Iyengar explains how for him asana is mediation:
The type of dhyana I learnt through my practice of asana and pranayama is like the midday sun. As the sun’s rays at midday are in its zenith, in my practice of asana and pranayama I extend the rays from the disk of my consciousness to penetrate and pierce each and every cell of the body. This made me to bring the consciousness to touch and reach all the areas of its frontier, evenly everywhere without division. I learned to remove any inattention in the darks spots of the body that were obstructing and interrupting the rays of the consciousness. This way I learnt dhyana by bringing equivalence between the soul and its dwelling place — the body. This is how I bring dhyana in asana.” ADYM vol 7. page 202
Svadyaya – Study of the Self and sacred scriptures
Related: The inner body (suksma sharira), the mind, svadyaya, jnana yoga, pratyahara, dharana
It is said in many of the classic texts that the mind and senses are difficult to control or rein it. In the Upanishads, the senses are compared to horses, running after their desires, the mind the reins, the intellect the charioteer. Usually the senses run after their desires and the mind does not do much to rein them in, thus the chariot is pulled around without discrimination. In meditation and spiritual practice, we begin to observe how we get pulled by the sense desires, and develop the discrimination to rein in the senses and mind toward the source.
Svadyaya or self-study is to see where we get caught, what triggers us, where we are pulled into afflictive emotions, and to get to the source of the disturbance. It also means to reflect on the spiritual scriptures and how to apply them in our lives. The related limbs of pratyahara and dharana draw the mind and senses inward and stabilize the faculty of attention. Svadyaya is also learning who we are beyond our conventional identities. In short, we get to know ourself and what causes us pain.
B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “Patanjali as a great analyst of consciousness, shows the reasons for turmoil and the disturbances in the improper and perverse actions and thoughts which result in endless pain. These endless pains are caused by direct indulgence, inducement and abatement, motivated by greed (lobha), anger (krodha), and delusion (moha) which may be mild, moderate or intense in degrees. (p. 20 ADYM vol. 3) It is through deep introspection that the roots of the afflictions can be witnessed and not related or reacted to in the usually conditioned ways which make them manifest. By observing and witnessing our own thoughts and internal states without reactivity, we begin to become our own teachers by shining the light inward and developing discernment (viveka). States of ignorance shift to states of wisdom when we observe ourselves with awareness and discern the true from the false, reality from projection. The following is from Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in which B.K.S Iyengar comments on Sutra II.27 regarding the seven aspects of wisdom attained through contemplation. First he describes the attributes of avidya, ignorance.
believing the union with the soul (yoga) is impossible, and acting as though it were so
The Seven States of Wisdom (prajna)
knowing that which has to be known
discarding that which has to be discarded
attaining that which has to be attained
doing that which has to be done
winning the goal that is to be won
freeing the intelligence from the pull of the three gunas of nature
achieving emancipation of the soul so that shines in its own light
Ishvarapranidhana, Surrender to God, the causal body (karana sharira), Bhakti yoga, dhyana and samadhi
“A final, but cardinal point to understand about dhyana is that it helps each of us shed completely the veil of ego as dhyana neutralizes the klesas, as well as the vrittis, and acts as an instrument of Ishvara. – p.171 Core of Yoga Sutras
“Thus the summum bonum of yoga (yoga phala) is atma prasadanam, the grace of the soul, whereby all actions are affliction-free and one lives in a pristine state of clarity and cleanliness from moment to moment without getting involved in the spokes of the movement of time.” ADYM p.22. vol 3
When asked whether or not yoga practitioners need to have faith in God, B.K.S Iyengar replied that it is enough to have faith in oneself (See chapter on faith in Tree of Yoga). The qualities of faith, energy, remembrance, contemplation and surrender keep us going. The contemplative traditions all imply that God, or the awakened nature, is within all of us. It is our true Self. The practices are a means to uncover that Self. In spiritual practice, no effort is wasted.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,
Meditation and Yoga, Essay in Tree of Yoga, p.138
The Nature of Meditation, Essay in Tree of Yoga, p.144
Chapter on Dhyana and Savasana in Light on Pranayama
“Happiness and unhappiness, nourishment and emaciation, strength and debility, sexual prowess and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, life and death—all are dependent on sleep.” – Ashtanga Hrydayam, verse 53, Sutra Staana
Sleep (nidra) is one of the three pillars of health in Ayurveda along with Brahmacharya (lifestyle), and Ahara (nutrition). Good quality sleep during the optimum time, and of optimum duration is essential to maintaining sound health.
What is healthy sleep? According to Ayurveda, healthy sleep is one that occurs during the proper time, for a proper duration, and most importantly, that one feels rested, refreshed, clear and with balanced energy upon waking. Sleep has primarily two stages: deep sleep and sleep with dreams. Deep sleep is needed for the body to feel refreshed and nourished. Dreams are also important for the processing of impressions and memory and for the subconscious mind to express itself. Dreams may also give us insight into what is going on, emotionally, and spiritually which is usually under the surface of our conscious mind, but it is in deep sleep that we truly let go. Deep sleep has been likened to the state of samadhi in which the subject and object are merged into one, except for in deep sleep there is a lack of consciousness of this state.
“Warm embrace of the beloved, bliss, contentment and those that are pleasing to the mind would provide sound sleep.” -Verse 67, Asthanga Hridayam
When should you sleep? Ayurveda says that when you sleep is of critical importance. The ideal hours of sleep are between 10pm and 6am, or if waking earlier 9pm-5am or 8pm-4am, in that range. Being asleep by 10pm is important because starting at 10pm, the pitta time begins (10pm-2am). During this pitta time, the body and mind are doing regeneration and processing the mental, sensory and emotional perceptions. Heat increases in the body. If one stays up past 10, one often feels a “2nd wind,” which can be attributed to the burning and transforming energy of pitta.
For night shift workers it is best to sleep as early as possible after the night shift. Day sleep may be taken to compensate for lost night sleep. The recommendation from the classic texts is to sleep for half the time that one has been awake in the morning before taking food. (Asthanga Hridayam, verse 65)
For others not working night shifts, day sleep is not advised except for the very young and very old, pregnant women, and those with high vata or debilitating conditions. In the summer season when the weather is very hot, a short afternoon nap may be taken, not longer than 20-30 min.
When to wake up? One should ideally wake up during the vata time (2am-6pm) which ends at 6am. The ideal time to wake up according to the Vedic texts is two muhūrtas before dawn (one muhūrta is 48 minutes), so that is 96 minutes before dawn. It is said that that time is the best time to engage in spiritual practice and meditation as this is a sattvic time of day and the mind and body are fresh to receive divine inspiration. Since that may be too early for many people, Ayurveda takes a practical approach and advises to at least get up with the sunrise.
How long should one sleep? This depends on the individual and their constitution. Usually vata predominant constitutions need slightly more sleep (at least 8 hours), pitta predominant individuals need a moderate amount of sleep (7-8 hours), and kapha predominant individuals can do well with a slightly shorter duration of sleep (6-7 hours). This depends on many circumstances, time of year and the person’s age and general state of health. Just as undersleeping can lead to many health conditions and weaken the body mind system, too much sleep can lead to health problems as well, especially the formation of ama (stagnation, or toxins in the body) and increased tamas (dullness) in the mind.
Diet to Promote Healthy Sleep
Ayurveda calls the digestive system the master system of the body. When the digestive system or agni (the internal transformative fire)is functioning well, the food eaten can be assimilated to the body and nourish all the tissues and the mind. A balanced diet and digestive system can have a profound influence on the quality of sleep. The quality of sleep also has a profound influence on the strength of digestion (agni) and general strength and immunity of the body.
Ayurveda stresses that food should be fresh, well cooked, warm and include the six tastes in a balanced meal (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent). Cold, stale, leftover, and all processed and packaged foods should be avoided as this causes ama. Learning to eat according to one’s Ayurvedic constitution helps one to stay balanced. In the same way that physical ama may accumulate by weak agni, Ayurveda also has the concept that mental ama may develop from unprocessed thoughts, feelings and emotions.
A few suggestions for achieving healthy sleep through diet:
Finish the evening meal at least three hours before sleeping, ideally by 7pm at the latest so the body has time to digest before sleep. Solid foods should not be taken after dinner.
Have three meals each day. The mid-day meal should be the largest. Dinner should be lighter and easy to digest. Avoid very heavy foods, and spicy and very salty foods especially in the evening.
Avoid food that is too light, dry or cold and avoid going to bed hungry, which can increase vata. If vata dosha is increased and digestion is good, and no ama (stagnation, weak digestion) is present, eat more warm, heavy, sweet, oily, and grounding foods to increase kapha dosha. Good quality kapha is needed for healthy sleep.
Avoid alcohol and stimulants, especially in the afternoon and evening
Eat mindfully with appreciation and avoid emotional or upsetting conversion or eating while distracted or working.
Routines and Lifestyle to Promote Healthy Sleep
Dinacharya (daily routine), ratacharya (nightly routine) and ritucharya (seasonal routine), are the backbone daily practices of Ayurveda to promote health and longevity. Keeping daily, nightly and seasonal rhythms are essential to maintain good health and quality sleep. Routines help to connect us with the natural rhythms of day and night and with the seasons, so that the body may function optimally according to circadian rhythms which are hardwired into our brain and hormonal system. Below are routine suggestions for to healthy sleep:
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekend. Aim to be turning out the lights by 9:30 and asleep by 10pm, and wake by sunrise. Even when traveling try to quickly adjust to the local time.
Refrain from using screens in the evening. Turn off screens and devices at least an hour before bedtime. Keep your phone and wifi routers away from the bed and bedroom if possible.
Refrain from intense or emotional conversations in the evenings, or doing evening/night work, or doing tasks that are stimulating or involve planning or analysis
Before shower or bath, practice abhyanga, or self oil massage daily in the direction of the hair growth to relax the body, mind and nervous system, especially for VP doshas: warm sesame oil for vata prakriti, coconut for pitta. Do not do it if there is kapha aggravation, ama, congestion, fever.
Bath or shower may be taken each morning and/or in the evening before bed to calm and refresh the body, but do not shower right after eating as this harms digestion. Wait at least two hours after the meal to bathe.
After dinner, and before bed do some calming activities such as listening to gentle music, take an evening walk, if the weather is nice, sit outside and watch the moon, or do some simple pranayama and restorative yoga poses and shavasana.
Before bed golden milk with turmeric and nutmeg may be taken, or herbal teas such as camomile, valerian, passion flower
Rub the feet with sesame oil before sleep
Sleep in a dark, cool, clean place free from disturbances
Adjust your routine according to the seasons. Even though it is dark for long periods in winter, prolonged sleep in winter can cause kapha accumulation.
It is not recommended to sleep with the head in the North direction if possible due to the magnetism of the North pole (this is extremely subtle), any other direction is fine.
Overall, the approach is to reduce and balance vata and pitta doshas and rajo guna. We do need to increase sattva and tamo guna in order to induce sleep.
Herbs and Bodywork to Promote Healthy Sleep
The following single herbs and spices may be helpful to promote a calm mind and induce sleep:
Warm milk with a pinch of nutmeg
Most of these herbs have a nervine quality, which means they help calm the mind and nervous system. Valerian, camomile and passion flower can be taken in a tea form after dinner, before bed.
Brahmi and ashwagandha can be taken in a capsule form, taken with warm water or milk before bed.
The following bodywork practices are helpful in calming the mind and inducing sleep:
Padabhyanga – Warm sesame oil is massaged into the feet and soles before bedtime
Siro abhyanga – Warm sesame oil is applied to the head and scalp in gentle massaging strokes and then washed off with warm water (not hot water)
Siro Dhara – This bodywork technique requires a practitioner to help you to apply a continuous stream of oil to the forehead which streams over the head and is recollected.
It is said in Ayurveda that oil, especially sesame oil is the best substance to relieve vata dosha, ghee is the best substance to relieve pitta and honey is the best substance to relieve kapha.
Sesame oil mixed with jatamansi oil may be applied to the forehead, temples, crown of head, hands and feet to soothe vata.
Releasing Stress: Yoga Asana and Pranayama to Help with Insomnia
“If I say, ‘relax your brain,’ you cannot do it. If I put you in a certain asana, your brain relaxes, and you become quiet. This is the beauty of yoga. If you do halasana (plough pose) your brain becomes completely quiet. If you are dejected mentally, you can do Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (a pose in which the body is arched like a bridge) for ten minutes and the depression disappears, though you do not know how this transformation has occurred. This is how the body is used to cultivate the mind. When the suffering, depressed mind is cured, the light of the soul can itself radiate to the surface of our being.” -B.K.S. Iyengar, p. 80-81 Light on Life
Yoga asanas and pranayama are like a tonic for the body/mind system. The asanas have a biochemical, hormonal effect on the body, which is further enhanced by the sequence of asanas and the manner in which they are performed. Used correctly, asanas or sequences of asana and pranayama can go a long way to eliminating the main root cause of insomnia which is stress and an anxious mind.
I have compiled the following sequences of yoga asanas and pranayama to address insomnia and to aid healthy sleep. All asanas should be done with normal breathing, and a calm and relaxed brain and attention, do not strain the body or mind.
This sequence can be used as afternoon/evening practice to calm the and quiet the mind and “wind down” after a day’s work, or in the morning:
Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog, head supported
Uttanasana, Standing forward extension, head on block or chair
Prasarita Padottanasana/ Wide leg forward extension, head on block or chair
Sirsasana/Headstand, or rope sirsasana
Janusirsasana/ Head to knee pose, head supported, use more height as needed
Triang Mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, Thee angle forward bend, head supported
Paschimottanasana, head supported, use as much height as needed
Supta Baddha Konasana, cover eyes, use support under knees
Halasana/Plow pose and Sarvangasana/ shoulder stand, with blankets and chair
And/OR Sarvangasana/ Shoulderstand with chair
Ardha Halasana/Half plough pose supported
Paschimottanasana, head supported
Savasana, also cover eyes for relaxation of the brain
The following sequence will help one to recover after a poor night’s sleep:
Pranayama: It is advised to learn under the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher. See Light on Pranayama by B.K.S Iyengar for detailed descriptions. This is a general list only.
Ujjai II, Conquers breath. Reclining over a spinal support, take normal inhalations and slightly extended exhalations. Support the spine over the folded blanket shown above.
Bhamari, reclining with shanmukhi mudra, or eye wrap – The bumblebee breath with eyes covered, focusing on the sound and vibration. This pranayama calms the mind, the humming sound induces sleep.
Chandra Bhedana, Using the thumb and ring and little finger, block the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right. This pranayama activates the lunar energy, or the ida nadi and is cooling and quieting.
Nadi Shodhana -Alternate nostril breathing. This pranayama is balancing and cleansing. The nerves are calmed and purified and the mind becomes still and lucid.
Shanmukhi Mudra, or headwrap – This turns the senses inward and blocks incoming sensory stimuli to quiet the mind.
Savasana – Refreshes the whole system, “It banishes fear (bhaya) of death and creates fearlessness (abhaya). The Sadhaka experiences a state of serenity and inner oneness.” (Light on Pranayama)
Meditation or dhyana is the “art of self study, reflection, keen observation and the search for the infinite within… It is the discovery of the self.” (Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, p. 223) Practicing meditation, even for a short duration each day can have profound effects. However, to go deep in this practice, a teacher and consistency is required. It can be approached with care by beginners and those looking for relief from states of stress by sitting quietly, observing the body, breath and thoughts. The key is observation without getting involved, by witnessing. Relaxation is a prerequisite of the practice, so if one is feeling anxious, asana and gentle pranayama may be practiced before attempting meditation.
Psychologically, the opposite of anxiety is acceptance, and the opposite of stress is letting go, surrendering, and developing trust. By doing our best work, and then letting go of attachment to the results or the fruits, as taught by the Bhagavad Gita, this practice helps to keep the mind in a calm and balanced state, free from attachment, anxiety and worry.
Ayurveda offers a wide variety of ways for promoting healthy sleep and addressing the underlying causes of insomnia, namely by correcting agni, balancing the doshas and reducing the impact of stress on the mind body system. This paper offers a springboard for those who wish to explore and go deeper. Each one of these facets of treatment could have been a book in and of itself.
May all beings be happy and find peace. Om shanti, shanti, shanti.
This blog post is a part of a larger paper: Relieving Insomnia and Supporting Healthy Sleep Through Ayurveda and Yoga. Click below to read full paper:
“If the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow it is not correct practice.” BKS Iyengar, Page 50, Light on Life
Early in my practice I injured my hamstring at the attachment by over-stretching. Although I was able to do the asana (from the outside) to some extent, my sensitivity and awareness had not yet been developed. My ego wanted to attain the pose and overpowered sensitivity, awareness and discernment and thus created injury. There was an element of grasping, or wanting to possess, parigraha, andhimsa, violence which went against the fundamentals of yoga. After that, I had to live with a torn hamstring attachment for two years.
“The challenge of yoga is to go beyond our limits – within reason.” Page 50 Light on Life
Now I am aware that there are many ways to practice. Some days I approach practice and work to go beyond certain limitations, whether physical or psychological. Sensing the integration between mind, body and breath is essential. If I am to break through limitations, it must be done with compassion and persistence rather than violence.
I aim to practice with both the long view of the path, that practice is progressive and “progress” happens in steps (not always in a linear way) and with the view that transformation can happen here and now, instantaneously, as our true nature is nothing but awake and aware. While practicing asana, I work to feel the actions within asana which give life, as one of my teachers puts it, and avoid actions which cause pain, avoiding himsa or violence such as insensitively, hardness or doing by rote.
“We do not do yoga for just enjoyment; we must do it for ultimate emancipation.” p. 52 Light on Life
The above quotation is key. Yoga done with awareness leads to transformation. When I look outward for enjoyment and gratification through the senses, such as doing the “perfect” pose on the outside, or curating the perfect conditions for myself, the enjoyment is short lasting and often leads more distraction and suffering. Yoga done for ultimate emancipation is yoga done with awareness, and life lived with awareness.
“Even the deepest rooted afflictions (klesa) can be mastered through observation in asana.” p.256, Light on Life
Learning to teach, especially beginners, I have felt it important to understand the the klesas (the obstacles in practices). We all have some dominate affliction that causes us pain. Getting to the root cause of our pain individually and collectively is, to me, what this practice is about. The klesas are ignorance, ego, desire, aversion, and fear (of death).
Observation in asana is a gate inward leading to self study. Ignorance, being the root of all the klesas means perceiving reality in a distorted way that leads to suffering. Basically it means holding on to things that are limiting and thinking in a self-centered way. When I start observing myself in asana those limitations start to break down, especially when new possibilities of “who I am” and “what is possible” and “what is really happening” present themselves.
Often fear will hold people back from fully taking action or expressing themselves. Therefore, from the beginning it is important that students feel safe, seen, protected and guided: in a realm of ahimsa, non-violence. When there is a foundation of non-violence, students can begin to be guided to move beyond their limitations and to know themselves in a fuller sense. Over time, with the development of discernment, they can learn to be their own teacher and guide themselves in a positive direction, and ultimately work out and transform deep seated afflictions.
“The Buddha taught that there is no ‘sin’ as it is taught in some religions, the root of all evil is ignorance (avidya) and false views.” -What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, p.3
All around us is vast suffering. The Buddha based his teachings on this. The Yoga Sutras did not leave out this fact (see Yoga Sutra II.15). Sarvam dukham. Climate crisis, gun violence, racism, sexism, nuclear weapons, deep corruption in the leaders of our world, selfishness, shortsightedness, greed, ignorance. How can a yogi or any person respond? One way is by waking up and by developing common sense and viveka — to see clearly.
I am using “common sense” here to mean listening to our “gut feeling” and doing the right thing at that right time. Common sense is taught to us by our grandmothers and elders, by life experience and by simply listening to our bodies. Examples are: eating when we are hungry, not using excessively what we don’t need, listening to our feelings and emotions, and respecting our place amongst the web of life. Common sense can perceive that the universe is interconnected and that our actions have impact. Children can assess this sense of connection.
Viveka, a Sanskrit word, means “right intuitive discrimination or discernment.” Viveka is discerning between truth and untruth, skillful or unskillful action. Rather than existing in the status quo without question and feeling a sense of malaise, viveka impels us to seek a kinder, more connected, healthy, authentic way to live life that is in alignment with the way things are. Viveka sees our common connection as a human species connected with the forces of the universe. In order survive, we all need to awaken common sense and viveka, which is the innate knowledge of how to live within that web of connection.
What is amazing it that this intuitive wisdom isn’t difficult to access. In fact, it is quite assessable, even obvious. But sometimes what is obvious is most difficult to see. In yogic terms, the veils of our karma and kleshas (afflictions) stand in the way, and pull us back to the root affliction, ignorance (avidya). Additionally, society, culture and media condition us see and act in a certain way.
To shed our ignorance is difficult. However, it said that enlightenment itself is obvious, it just entails a shift. What kind shift? It is like turning the lights on. One minute the room is dark and nothing can be seen. Then the light is switched on and forms can immediately be seen. When we sit quietly in meditation or pranayama, or practice asana in a deeply connected way, that possibility of illumination opens for us. In moments of connection, clarity can arise. By seeing clearly without the “filters” or “veils” of our thoughts, desires, aversions and persona, it is possible to shift our way of being. This individual shift is needed for each one of us, and it is also needed collectively.
Audre Lorde, writer, feminist and civil rights activist, in her Keynote Address, “The Uses of Anger” (1981, NWSA Convention) she speaks about the kind of shift needed to transform culture, specifically in this case how white women treat black women:
“I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration
in all those assumptions underlining our lives.”
In many cases, our minds are conditioned not to see what is inconvenient for us to see. We ignore reality so we don’t have to change. If we really did see (and understand) reality, we would have no choice but to change and to live truthfully with the way things are. Sadly, humans have the capacity to see and ignore the truth.
In this process of waking up, we all have moments of viveka, for example, “Oh, actually, I shouldn’t do __X__ because it is not good for ___X__.” The message from viveka comes and then and sometimes we turn it off, or ignore the message. “Oh, I’ll just do it this one time…” This is like turning on the lights, seeing what is actually there, and then deciding the turn off the lights and live in a deluded state. Ignorance (avidya), by comparison is like being in the dark all the time without ever thinking that there is a light to turn on.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe that when memory is utilized properly (aklista smriti), this is a ground for discrimination to arise (see Sutra I.11). This memory is not only in our brain, it is stored in the cellular intelligence of the body. One key to awakening to our basic intelligence, is to connecting to the body and to nature, which in turn connects us to our needs, feelings, emotions and wisdom.
Most of the norms, systems and institutions in the U.S. are backwards and operate against common sense wisdom. For example, the U.S. spends 18% of its GDP on health care, and yet our health care system remains one of the most dysfunctional and ineffective systems because is is not based on healing or heath. The Standard American Diet is comprised of processed and factory farmed foods which cause many health and environmental problems. In mainstream U.S. culture, people are not taught to listen to or understand the message of their bodies, and process emotions and feelings. Much of society lives disconnected from nature and natural rhythms. Many children are not taught to cook or clean up after themselves. Thankfully, as adults we can still learn these things.
The first of the Buddha’s Eight Fold Path is sama dristi or “right view”. Our view is our fundamental orientation to life. If we operate with unexamined views including biases and assumptions, this perpetuates suffering. When these biases become widespread, then even larger societal and cultural problems result and biases spread. A contemporary example is how racist thinking is embedded into our unexamined collective bias:
In the work of waking up, compassion is crucial, as we are all in the dark a lot of the time. Viveka is wisdom, and in the spiritual journey both wisdom and compassion are indispensable. When every day we are faced with such heartbreaking realities, it is compassion that gives the heart nourishment and sustenance, otherwise the heart can feel hopeless and depressed. B.K.S Iyengar in the Introduction to Light on Yoga tells us that we should not hate the doers of evil, it is only the evil that they do we should despise (p. 32 Light on Yoga). Maitri (Friendliness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upeksha (equanimity) are the foundational practices of both self care, care for others and the planet. I pray that we can all wake up together.