Raja Yoga Insights #9

Session 9 of the Raja Yoga training at the Ananda center. Focus on Yamas and Niyamas.

Note:
Ananda’s Raja Yoga course covers much more than I have described here. These are my personal highlights — the things that were, for me, either new, especially interesting, or especially illuminating. As they mention in the very first session, what they teach in this course is not unique to Ananda. Raja Yoga is an ancient science that belongs to the world. It is the “kingly” (raja) Yoga in that sense that it spans many different branches of Yoga practice — organizing them and devoting resources (your time and energy) to each in turn, for the good of the whole (you).

Sat, 28 Oct: Session #9 – Yamas and Niyamas

Master of My Body?

One of the affirmations that come with the Ananda energization practices is “I am the master of my body”. The intent is positive — the idea is that you are not dominated by everything the body thinks it needs. For example, my experience in the martial arts taught me that I can do much more than I thought I could. (I also learned that I could also do much less than I thought I could. So in many ways that practice was a “course correction” that substituted the real truth for an imaginary reality.)

But while the overall intent is positive, in living the truth that “I am the master of my body”, one can wind up being very unkind to it! Eventually, one falls victim to an equal truth: “In this world, I have the last word — and without me, you can do nothing!”

So I began trying to think of a better affirmation. One that encompasses the thought:

Be grateful to your body! It allows you to have an impact in this world.

The first thought that came to mind is, “I am co-creator with my body”. (Can’t say I’m wild about it, but it’s a start.)

Yamas and Niyamas (better than expected)

These are the “Do’s and Don’ts” of Yoga philosophy. If you ever did any reading of Yoga texts, you probably came across them at one time or another: Things like “Don’t steal”. Right. Sure. You no doubt wondered, “How does that apply to me?” Then you moved along to something more interesting. (I know I did.)

It came as a welcome surprise, then, to find out that there was a lot worth knowing on the subject. For one thing, there are multiple levels at which they apply — levels I’ll call the physical, mental, and subtle levels. Then there is the idea that principles like “not stealing” apply to yourself, as well as to others. So it turns out there is a lot of food for thought in those simple-sounding injunctions.

But the real lesson was that all of the injunctions, and every level of their applicability, is directed at enhancing the goal of Yoga — union with the divine, ultimately (or, in what appears to me to me at the moment to be a more attainable goal) connection with divine wisdom and power.

The talk on the Yamas (restraints) was particularly enlightening, for the simple reason that in addition to identifying the multiple levels and multiple targets of the injunctions, it kept relating them to that goal. (It started by asking what the goal of Yoga is, and then kept referencing responses given by the audience. Brilliant.)

But before getting to the meatier insights, here’s a simple list of the injunctions, along with some alternative translations from the original Sanskrit terminology:

Yamas (restraints, don’t do these) Niyamas (observances, do these)
  1.  Non-violence (not doing harm)
  2. Non-lying
  3. Non-stealing
  4. Non-sensuality
  5. Non-greed (non-attachment)
  1.  Cleanliness
  2. Contentment
  3. Austerity
  4. Self-study
  5. Devotion

It came to me that these principles are very much like nutrition, in America. There are things you should do for your health and energy (foods to eat and supplements to take), but there are also things you must avoid, if you want to be healthy (junk food and a variety of unhealthy ingredients).

The Yamas and Niyamas are like that. In the book I have in progress on the subject of nutritional health in America, I also start with what to avoid (the Yamas) — because the “observances” do little good if you’re poisoning yourself with every meal!

Going Deeper into the Yamas

The restraints, in particular, had physical, mental, and subtle applications. Here, I’m listing the insights reflected in the talk.

Right at the start, though, let me admit that as a partial Tantra practitioner, I am a little concerned about the prohibition regarding sensuality! That sensuality of course, includes things like the taste of food and the feel of soft cloth, in addition to sexuality. Of course, the goal of the practice is to cease identifying so strongly with the body and the material world, and to start identifying more strongly with cosmic consciousness and the spiritual world. So in case you’re wondering: Yeah, I’m conflicted.

Yama Physical Mental Subtle
No harm Hurting someone Wishing harm Killing a person’s self image or enthusiasm.
Applies to yourself, as well as others!
Not using the Yamas and Niyamas to beat
yourself up!
No lying Telling a lie. Deceiving yourself
with respect to reality.
 Recognizing and affirming a higher truth in yourself
and others.  (Maybe they’re pale, but you tell them
they look good. Maybe they’re not doing a lot, but
you tell them how strong they are. Like that.)
No stealing Taking something. Wishing you had
what others have.
 Wishing for skills and abilities you don’t think you
have. Not continuously affirming your connection with
 spirit — the knowledge that you are totally complete
and whole, so you are utterly content (a Niyama).
Non-sensual Gorge on food.
Candy.
Sex for the sake
of sex.
Wanting that last bite.
(My addiction to
the sugar!)
 Sensuality is seen as a connection to the body.
The goal is to detach from that and connect with
with spirit, instead. Gandhi: “You can never let go
of a lower pleasure until you replace it with a
higher one.”
Non-attachment A need to keep
your “stuff”.
Feeling that you
“own”  things instead
of seeing them as
“on loan”.
 Taking only what you are guided to take by your
inner connection. Realizing that “Everything belongs
to God, and I am one with God”.

Energy Vectors?

Returning to the subject of sensuality, it occurs to me that we’re talking about an “energy focus” (spiritual or physical), that is in essence a vector quantity — something that has both force and direction. So while one bite of chocolate cake may taste wonderful, after too many bites, it doesn’t taste very good at all!

Too many bites, of course, is counter-productive. It hurts your body. So in a very real sense, it is “harm”. But by the same token, those of us who grew up in a society where sugar was constantly on the menu became unavoidably addicted to the stuff. (I can quit! It’s easy! I’ve done it dozens of times!) That statement is literally true, too. As long as I avoid sugar totally, I’m fine. Have one little bit, and a-sliding off the wagon I go! The trouble is, as Yogananda used to say, “Environment trumps willpower.” And our food environment has sugar everywhere! If you don’t grow the food and process it yourself, it’s hard to avoid!

Still, the principle is worth toying with. An action (physical, mental, or subtle) is harmful if it works in a negative direction. But clearly, not everything having to do with the body is negative! Without one, there is precious little good you could do in the world. So from that standpoint, you are certainly guided to eat something!

At the same time, shouldn’t you enjoy your food? And there begins the slippery slope. A more “refined” palate isn’t satisfied with anything less than caviar and paté. But when you’re used to simpler fare, then wholesome, healthy food tastes great!

It would be nice to have an answer. At the moment, I have only the question. :__) But interestingly, the meditation section in the very next chapter (“affirmations”), seems to be going at it in a pretty big way.

A Bit More on the Niyamas

The talk on the Niyamas started with this fascinating tidbit:

The spiritual path is about living constantly in the presence of God.

In other words, the goal of the Niyamas is to help you stay in that presence! And as Yogananda used to say:

I haven’t completely succeeded yet, but that’s where I’m going — because a sage is a seeker who didn’t give up!

And again, there appear to be physical, mental, and subtle dimensions. But here the focus is even more squarely on what you do to yourself, rather than what you do to others.

 

Niyama Physical Mental Subtle
Cleanliness Minimal distractions.
Uplifting images.
Avoiding continuous profanity
& “ear wig” songs with
negative imagery.
 Purity of consciousness and vibration.
Contentment You have what you
need.
 Joyful acceptance. Knowing that you are totally complete
and whole, so you are utterly content.
Austerity Living simply. Avoiding negative directions
and wasted energy.
“Not exaggerated self-discipline, but
rather a calm realization that this world
is a dream…”
Self-study Introspection,
reflection, meditation.
Being clear with yourself
with respect to reality.
Recognizing and affirming a higher truth
in yourself and others.
Devotion  Prayer and
“religious observances”
Continual reflection on
the higher state you aspire
to, and seeing its beauty
Non-separation. Maintaining your
connection.

Ananda = “No Guru Zone”

It is perhaps Ananda’s greatest strength is that there are no gurus on the premises. (And as my martial arts master used to say, your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness!)

One of the ways in which it is a strength is that you are surrounded by other “spiritual seekers” — none of which have achieved sainthood, or knighthood, or guru-ship. So you have a congenial set of companions on your journey.

At the same time, the teachers have been left a rather brilliant set of lecture notes! So they can give a talk that is absolutely terrific. And since they are all very polished, highly poised speakers who are delivering great thoughts, it’s easy to overestimate their ability to answer questions!

My martial arts master once used the parable of three blind touching an elephant to explain what it is to be a teacher. A “guru” (exalted teacher) is like a sighted person who sees the entire elephant. A “seeker” (us) is like one of the blind men touching the elephant. “An elephant is like a rope”, says one who has a hold on the tail. “An elephant is like a column”, says another, touching the trunk. “An elephant is like a huge, curved wall,” says a third, touching it’s side.

That’s the way “energy” is. When you have an “energy experience”, there are many different ways for it to manifest. There is no way to know that your experience is exactly the same as my experience, and therefore no way to posit a specific unambiguous vocabulary to describe it. As a result, we may use different words and images to describe the same experience, and we may use the same words and images to describe different experiences!

An “energy master” or “guru” is someone who connects to what you mean when you explain your experience, and who understands what you’re saying, in some ways regardless of what you’re saying. What makes that person a “guru” is the fact that they have penetrated to a level of insight that is beyond the norm, and can therefore relate to whatever is being described.

In that sense, Ananda is “Guru free”. The past masters who created the lectures are guiding the speakers. Together, they are passing along incredible insights (and inspiring the bejesus out of me, if word count is any measure). But when you ask a question, you may well find that the depth of insight doesn’t go nearly as far as it appeared, based on the talk.

At the moment, I would say that as a rough measure, we’re running 50-50 on answers to questions. About half of the answers are really wonderful, and really helpful. About half aren’t really responsive, or aren’t all that helpful.

It’s not the worst thing in the world. But it’s worth knowing going in. At the same time, it’s worth knowing that many a “guru” isn’t all that advanced, either! Many have great stage presence, and are able to pass on a lot of inherited wisdom. So what seems like a guru may not really be.

Similarly, I’m doing the best I can to pass on the insights that have been coming to me — but if and when enough people begin to use them to really expand their consciousness, it’s going to be hard to evade the ego-strokes that come from the adulation of fans! (How many lifetimes have already been wasted in that way?! How many of them were mine?!)

But the simple fact is this: When the speakers give talks, I am frequently reminded of how much I don’t know. But when they answer questions, I am frequently reminded of how much I do know. Hey! It turns out I know a lot! I’m qualified to teach!

The good news is that the awareness builds confidence, which was needed. The bad news is that it is easy to go past that point and tip over into arrogance and exalted ego. It feels like a knife-edge balancing act. (But maybe if I appreciate my true size, I’d realize that the edge of the knife is as wide as a road!)

I’m reminded of my martial arts practice, too. As we practiced physical techniques, we focused on internal things we wanted to improve or reduce. Then we blocked them away, smashed them to smithereens, or smashed through mental obstacles to be where we wanted to be. We didn’t generally practice “side-stepping” as a technique, but we probably should have. Because it will take a lot of strength and continual discipline to block away and side-step admiration from fans!

Continuing Insights

Two-cushion System

This one came to me several weeks ago, but I never wrote up. Just added it to the book, so it’s worth mentioning.

Everyone knows that sitting on a cushion helps you to tilt your pelvis forward, so it’s easier to sit. But it has always been a struggle to find a cushion that is just the right size. Too big, and there is too much weight on the knees and ankles. Too small, and it doesn’t do the job.

It turns out that a two-cushion system is pretty perfect. Naturally, you have a pad under you, for your feet. And you have a seat cushion you sit on. Between the two, it helps tremendously to have a leg cushion — one that is wide enough to extend out to your knees, and as deep as the width of your leg just above the ankle.

That cushion needs to be angled, so it matches the angle your lower leg. It runs just behind the calf up to the back of the knee. In addition to supporting your thigh, it gives your heel something to rest on after the lower leg is rotated.

Most importantly, it lets you tuck your foot under your other leg, without putting any pressure on it. And it makes it easier to keep the ankle straight. (With a straight ankle, you can rotate your lower leg so the top of the foot is on the floor, instead of the ankle bone. The result is a position in which your foot is more comfortable, and less likely to fall asleep.)

Spiritual Light at the Base of the Spine

Another insight from several weeks ago. Recording it now, as I am beginning to become more certain of it.

On page 310, the Raja Yoga book made an interesting recommendation:

See the spiritual light at the sex center and base of the spine, and raise it to your spiritual eye.
(emphasis added)

That’s particularly interesting, because at no time have talked about anything even remotely resembling a light at the base of the spine — much less the sex center! Of course, an upcoming session deal with kundalini. So I will undoubtedly learn more when we get there. But in the meantime, as I was meditating, it occurred to me that:

  1. The large dark circle with a small star in it that is said to be what you see (eventually) when you meditate on the spiritual eye might well have an explanation in the spinal cord.
  2. Looking down that cord from above, the spinal cord itself (if straight) would like the end of a tube.
  3. The “light at the end of the tunnel”, as it were, would appear as a star in the field.
  4. Up close, the star might appear to be large, but seen from the top of spine, it would be small.
  5. Looking at the images of that third-eye vision captured by a variety of artists, it’s clear that the star isn’t in the exact center of the field. Rather it is slightly below center.
  6. A “straight” spine has a “J” shape, with the middle and upper spine straight, and a slight curve of the lower spine to the rear.
  7. That curve would move the light from the center of the field to slightly below center, if one were looking down on it, and if the explanation I’ve portrayed is accurate.

I’m still looking for a good time and place to ask about that. It’s in my list of questions. It will be interesting to see what kind of response I get.

Yama / Niyama Continuum

As noted in the observations about Patanjali’s 8-Fold Path, the idea of calling it an “8-Stage Path” makes a good deal more sense. In the upper stages of the path, particularly, it can be see that one “step” flows fluidly into the next, creating what really is a continuum.

That same idea seems applicable to many of the Yamas (things to control) and Niyamas (things to let flow). And recognizing them as a continuum may have the advantage that it makes it easier to find Buddha’s “middle way”, in the form of a balance between two extremes that is right for you.

In particular, I note the following continua:

Yama <--------> Niyama
Violence <--> Cleanliness
Stealing <--> Contentment
Sensuality <--> Austerity
Lying <--> Self Study
Attachment <--> Devotion

Where:

  1. The Yama takes away from the negative end of the continuum, towards the middle.
  2. The Niyama takes us further, toward the positive end.

After inspection, most of the continua seem pretty obvious:

  • Stealing (taking things) is the opposite of contentment (satisfaction with what is).
  • Sensuality (worldly involvement) is the opposite of austerity (non-involvement with the world).
  • Attachment (need to keep what you have) is the opposite of devotion (all “belongs” to God, because all is God).
  • Lying (particularly in the sense of self-deception) is the opposite of “self”-study (awareness of the higher self, knowledge of truth).

With respect to lying, it also interesting to note that anyone who steals from others, hurts them, or takes advantage of them for their own gratification must first lie to themselves, thinking that their victim somehow deserved it. In fact, every act of harm to another would seem to start with that lie! (Except that when you or I believe it, and “know” it to be so, we don’t think it’s a lie!)

That leaves the really interesting continuum at the top of the list: Violence <–> Cleanliness.

Mostly, I admit, they got combined because there was nothing else left in either list! But no sooner had the speaker started talking about the Niyamas when she came up with this:

Having an environment that isn’t clean is essentially doing violence to yourself.

Interesting thought, that. Considering that in my home, I walk between aisles of exercise equipment, musical equipment, and stacks of books and papers, it’s something I need to think more deeply about. (If nothing else, right out of the box she connected violence to cleanliness.)

So at this point:

  • We know that the last 6 steps in the “8-fold path” (concentration –> enlightenment) is pretty much a smoothly transitioning path that can be divided into various discrete “stages”, with a fair amount of overlap from one stage to the next.
  • And we know that most if not all of the Yama/Niyama paths represent a continuum between extremes.

That just leaves the connection between the Yama/Niyama  paths and the meditation paths. My first observation is that the Yamas and Niyamas help to “set the stage” for the unfolding that occurs in meditation. But there just may be an even deeper connection.

The next chapter on affirmations brings up the “5 elements” — commonly thought of as either, air, fire, water, and earth. But those are just material representations of the actual qualities, said to be stages through which things progress as they go from lightest and most subtle to the solid and heavy: either, gas, plasma (sun, stars), molten fluid, and solid matter.

More on that next week. For the moment, it is interesting that there are 5 Yama<->Niyama continua, and 5 stages of matter. “Devotion” would certainly seem to ha a lot in common with “ether”, I think. It may be that the continua map to the stages of personal spiritual growth. (Or not. We’ll see.)

Subtle Yogic Breath

This insight came to me last week, and will be going into the book. I might not have included it here at all, except that it helps a lot to understand the Subtle Perineal Lift, coming next.

Many systems teach a “Complete Yogic Breath” in three stages: The first is to expand your abdomen. The second is to expand your chest. Those two are fine, to a degree. They work, at least. The third is always something silly like “raise your shoulders” or “raise your clavicle” — physical movements that have precisely zero impact on the expansion of the lungs.

In addition to the fact that the third step is ineffective, they all suffer from the fact that they are large anatomical movements that are performed using muscular energy. So expend a lot of energy to take in a bit more air, and after learning the technique, almost no one ever does it.

The Subtle Yogic Breath is a bit different. It doesn’t involve any gross physical movements. Mostly, it is an awareness of the action of small muscle movements. To the degree you focus on them, they become just a bit more pronounced, a tiny bit larger — but at no time are they visible to onlooker, unless they are observing very closely!

Credit for the origin of the insight goes to the Raja Yoga program at Ananda. Early on, we asked to feel the ribs expand as part of the breath, and to register an internal “breath wave”, if we could, as the movement went from abdomen to ribs to chest. (That was Heidi, iirc.)

That was easy for me to do. In my martial arts practice, we were instructed not to move the chest, but to “breathe from the abdomen”. But after doing a bunch of exercises before sitting for meditation, I needed air! To keep my chest still and still get the oxygen I needed, I learned to expand my ribs to the side.

A few weeks later, Kshama asked us to focus on the diaphragm muscle, and feel it moving it by itself. That put me to work, wondering what the two ideas had in common. Putting the diaphragm isolation together with rib expansion played a big role in becoming aware of the subtle breath.

That ‘breath wave” is nothing more or less than the Subtle Yogic Breath — a complete breath — but one that operates so subtly that an onlooker might never be aware that you’re doing it.

The Subtle Breath consists of:

  1. Slight abdominal expansion
    You’re not physically expanding it outward. Rather you’re feeling it move slightly outward as the inner stomach muscles relax.
  2. Diaphragm isolation
    1. Stage 1: Diaphragm alone
      In the same way you hold the chest still, you hold the lower abdomen still. Become aware of the diaphragm muscle between the stomach and the ribs. Feel it moving out as you breathe in, in as you breathe out.
    2. Stage 2: Diaphragm plus ribs
      With a slightly large breath, feel the ribs expand as well, making the center of the torso larger.
  3. Chest expansion
    Once again, you’re feeling the interior muscles moving slightly. You’re not using external muscles to make physical movements. So the chest doesn’t move it all, outwardly. But you feel it rising, internally.

Subtle Perineal Lift

Like the Subtle Yogic Breath, the Subtle Perineal Lift involves awareness of an internal muscular movement that does not involve any outward physical movement. The insight came to me as I was waking, in a half-asleep state that lasted quite a while, thanks to a morning class and a late-night practice that lasted an hour!

The goal was to raise energy from the root up to the spiritual eye. As so often happens when waking, a lot of sensual energy was being generated by visions in my mind’s eye. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Perfectly natural, and quite enjoyable. But at the same time, I wanted to improve my ability to transmute that energy upward!

What came to me as a first step was to Pressurize the Pelvis. In other words, to build pressure in the sacral center, to help raise the energy. Now, one way to increase sensual/sexual drive is with aswini mudra and vajroli/sahajoli mudra, if you’re familiar with those (anal and urinal contractions). Gyrating the pelvis also helps to increase that drive.

But the increase in sensuality generated by those movements seems to occur when the pelvis is internally expanded — loose and relaxed. So the idea of pressurizing the pelvis sprang to mind — after which the Orbital Lift worked like magic.

After examining what I was actually doing to “pressurize” the pelvis, I noticed that I was lifting the perineal muscle — but only slightly. With that movement, the perineum (bottom of your seat, between anus and genitals) didn’t actually move — at all. But there was a slight contraction of the perineal muscle.

That slight contraction was like the Subtle Yogic Breath, in that you could feel an inner muscle movement without anything noticeable happening externally. In effect, it meant that the Perineal Lift (ala Mula Bandha) was a two-stage contraction, where first the small, subtle contraction occurs, after which the larger contraction occurs that lifts the perineum.

Psychic Lift?

Interestingly, some of the Yogic texts I’ve read do indicate that the second stage exists. They also indicate that there is an even more subtle third stage — a psychic lift, where the intent is to raise the perineum, but in which no muscular movement occurs.

So the stages they give are:

  1. Large, physical lift.
  2. Small, “subtle” lift.
  3. Psychic lift.

I first learned the Perineal Lift in my Ipsalu Tantra practice, after which I studied the superb book that covers the subject in depth:  Moola Bandha: The Master Key. I’ve been doing it for quite a while now, and never really knew what that “subtle” second stage was.

The texts say that the subtle lift is even more effective for transmuting energy upward — and from what I experienced this morning, I have to agree! (And since it is a smaller contraction, it should be easier to hold it for most of the day, as with the Orbital Lift.)

Given that I have just experienced it, know it to be real, and know it to be as effective as say, then perhaps that third stage is in my future, as well! :__)

Error in Raja Yoga Book

Now that the subject of Moola Bandha has come up, it is (unfortunately) necessary to point out the one and only error I’ve found in the book — but it is a huge, glaring error that needs to be pointed out.

Before doing so, though, I would like to state for the record that the one error I’ve found in no way makes the Raja Yoga book any less valuable! It remains a treasure trove of insights and notes on the author’s personal practice. Added to it’s copious explanations of standard techniques, the result is a collection of golden nuggets that is well worth the time spent on it!

However, there is an important error. On page 406, it equates Aswini Mudra (anal contraction) with Moola Bandha (Perineal Lift) saying (and I quote): “Aswini Mudra (aka Moola Bandha)”

That statement is, unfortunately, totally, completely, and utterly wrong. The techniques are physically quite close to one another, but very different in their effects. Aswini Mudra generates physical energy and pleasure. The Perineal Lift lifts energy upward.

If you pulse Aswini a few times, then “lift and lock” the perineum, you may feel an energy wave traveling up your spine. As it moves up, the frequency of the wave seems to change, feeling lighter and more expanded the further up it goes.

Because the Perineal Lift plays such an important role in moving energy up the spine, it is all the more regrettable that the two techniques have been conflated in the book. Because they are seen as “the same”, Moola Bandha is never explained — which has no doubt made it harder for spiritual seekers on the Ananda path to produce the very lifting of energy they are trying to obtain, on that path.

Notes:

  • Muladhara might well translate as “base region” — the area at the base of the spine.
  • Mula (pronounced moola) translates as “base”. That’s the perineum.
  • Bandha means “lock”, so Moola Bandha means literally, “locking the perineum in place”
  • What that label doesn’t say is what position you’re locking it in!
  • For that reason, I use the term Perineal Lift to describe the actual movement and the muscle-action that produces it.
  • Moola Bandha can then be accurately and usefully defined as “a Perineal Lift that is held in place”.

Moola Bandha — Epilog

As we got to the end of the course, a number of errors began to surface — or, shall I saw, things that, at the very least, were subject to alternative interpretations! As for how they came to be, the best explanation is this:

The book was published in 1968, when there was precious little information available in this country, long before the advent of the Internet, by a extremely proficient practitioner who went to India to pursue his studies, and who passed on an immense wealth of valuable information, with only a few mistakes along the way!

With any luck, the insights I’m publishing in this series will help others to identify and rectify those errors. (And may they be equally kind when the inevitably discover mine!)

Fun at the DMV

With the Orbital Lift, of course. Did the Perineal Mid-Lift a bit, too. But mostly it was the Orbital Lift.

This time, too, I had made an appointment. Had to schedule 4 weeks in advance, and when I got there I had to spend 20 minutes in the “appointment” line. (Fortunately, I got there half an hour early!) But I once I got my ticket, I didn’t wait more than 3 or 4 minutes! And everything after that happened rapidly, me smiling the whole time.

The biggest impact of the Orbital Lift was in the line to get started. Around 15 minutes, it began to sag! A little bit more energy into it, though, and up it shot again, taking my spirits with it. :__)

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