Tag Archives: perception

Nāda Yoga

21 Apr

Have you ever gone mushroom hunting in the woods? I always find the mushrooms you’re looking for are a little elusive, that is until someone who knows them better than you points them out. In an instant, you acquire the magical ability to see them too and, as it turns out, they’re absolutely everywhere. My introduction to nāda yoga, the yoga of sound and deep listening, was a little like that.

I first heard the word nāda yoga at my yoga teachers’ summer home in Woodstock. While waiting out the rain one day, I came upon a book in their rather extensive library called The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness, and I made a point of asking about it. “Oh, that’s a very important book on nāda yoga,” said Sharon with a gleam in her eye. “Sting was so impressed by the copy we gave him, he went ahead and bought a whole box of them to gift to his friends.” Enough said, I was intrigued.

In the weeks that followed, nāda yoga was everywhere: I overheard conversations about it at yoga studios; I was surprised to see it while rereading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient yoga manual that lives on my nightstand; and, most significantly, I was introduced to a bona fide nāda yoga master, Laraaji Venus Nadabrahmananda while out for dinner in New York’s East Village with a yoga teacher friend.

Every now and again, you meet people who are extra shiny. You know the ones: they seem cheerful and grounded and authentic to such an extent that it charges the very atmosphere around them. If I’ve learned anything in my spiritual life, it’s to seek out these special people and to stick to them like, well, something sticky. And so, having met one of the shiniest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter, I immediately invited Laraaji to come meet my yoga tribe in Toronto.

That was five years ago and Laraaji has been visiting Toronto ever since. When he’s here next week he will hold a concert, give laughter workshops, play music for yoga classes, and offer therapeutic gong baths (ask me if you don’t know what this is yet).

So, what do yoga, music, laughter and healing have to do with one another other? Well that’s where the subject of nāda yoga comes in for those of us who are interested in learning more about what my teachers call the “fast track” to all you seek. And this is where I point knowingly to Shri Brahmananda Saraswati’s important booklet, Nāda Yoga, before falling silent.

Pay attention, listen deeply (both outside and in) and you’ll hear exactly what has always been there.


A Deep 10 minute Savasana

28 Feb

Feeling Blue

When e.e. cummings wrote: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea,” do you think he contemplated the possibility that we might lose the very sea itself one of these days? In the fifty some-odd years since he penned these words, much has changed on our watery planet, and fragile marine ecosystems everywhere are under serious threat from overfishing, pollution, and climate change. The facts are alarming:

■ Humans have taken—eaten, actually—more than 90% of the big fish in the ocean, including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, and flounder. Some of the world’s most productive fishing grounds have been depleted and entire coastal economies have collapsed. If current trends in industrial fishing continue, scientists predict the world’s fish and seafood populations will be totally extinct by 2048.

■ Much of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches the oceans through both deliberate dumping and run-off. In coastal areas, untreated sewage and fertilizer are responsible for algal blooms that suffocate other marine life and create enormous dead zones. According to a recent study, there are 405 dead zones and counting.

■ Nearly half the coral reefs have disappeared. They are among the first casualties of climate change. Higher surface water temperatures have resulted in coral bleaching, while ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels is making it harder for coral to build their calcium carbonate shells. The rising sea levels, decreases in sea ice cover, changes in salinity, shifts in ocean circulation and increased storms that come with climate change will undoubtedly change marine life forever.

If we care at all about the fate of our seas, we humans need to be more mindful about what we take out of and what we put into the water.

Why should we care? Well, for starters, over three quarters of our planet is covered by water and up to 60% of our bodies are composed of water. All life came from the ocean and 90% of life on earth still resides there. Healthy oceans are absolutely necessary for a healthy planet. We land dwelling creatures mustn’t make the fatal error of thinking we’re immune to cataclysmic, or even subtle, changes at sea.

On the bright side, it’s now easier than ever to stay abreast of the issues: as of earlier this month, Google Earth includes the oceans in its maps. This means users can now dive underwater, see ocean topography, and watch regions change over time. You can get it all free at Google Earth.

Compelling and eye-opening information from leading ocean researchers is also just a mouse-click away. Legendary oceanographer, Sylvia Earle’s extraordinary TEDTalk, “Here’s How to Protect the Blue Heart of the Planet,” has been spreading virally online since it was delivered in mid-February. Educational and inspirational, it’s a must-see for anyone who dares to care about the planet and its inhabitants.

I’m also greatly buoyed by the fact that people like my friend Jeff Warren, an author and explorer of consciousness, are still out there during these turbulent times looking to the sea for insights into the true self. His most excellent radio documentary, Ocean Mind, explores the world of dolphins and whales as a way of moving beyond the confines of the human experience. Episode 2 is a favourite of mine. As Jeff explains: “This episode is about the limits of human knowledge. It’s about imagination and empathy – and science – and how we may be able use all of these things to get insights into the fantastic alien world of the great whales.”

Hoping for a taste of this “fantastic alien world,” I spent an hour in a flotation tank earlier this month. I went in expecting something completely outside the realm of my experience, but was, instead, pleasantly reminded of the time I spend on my yoga mat lying in savasana, or corpse pose.

The way I figure it, yogis are experts at stepping outside the human unwelt, a German word usually translated as “self-centered world.” We try on the various forms of nature—in dog, tree, and even fish pose—partly as a way to get over ourselves and partly as a way to gain insight into the essence that underlies all form so that we may better know ourselves.

A 60 minute Balancing Practice

26 Nov

Blindness, Yoga and the Magic Eye

It was within the first year of my yoga practice that I lost the vision in my left eye. Awakening one morning to the sound of the dreaded alarm clock, I was truly alarmed to discover a dark curtain obscuring my view. “It’s a rare disease;” said the retinal specialist, “we don’t know what causes it, but it could be stress-related.” How ironic, I thought I was impervious to stress, always turning a blind eye to the pressures that came along with the life of a newly minted lawyer. Now I really had a blind eye, and that changed everything.

Feeling dejected, I left my job, apartment and life in the city, and moved-in with my parents to convalesce. There, I mostly slept my days away until my concerned mother came home with an armload of books-on-tape from the local library, including some on yoga and meditation. Not long after that, I attended my first yoga retreat with her encouragement. I went seeking stress relief, but found something much greater, in the form of a teacher who would open my eyes to the depth and beauty of this life. Lying on my mat after toppling out of headstand one day, I had a Road to Damascus moment when he said: “Sometimes it takes a good catastrophe to wake you up.” My ego was bruised but I was grateful for the wake-up call.

One model for the step-by-step awakening of human consciousness tells us the sense of sight is linked to the ego identity and the strong impulse to establish one’s name, fame and fortune. Certainly, the ego-self is very interested in appearances—constantly striving to keep up with the Jones’—and it’s all too easily seduced by the glittering surfaces of things. Just try a yoga class in a mirrored room to feel where the attention goes.

“I shut my eyes in order to see,” proclaimed visionary French painter, Paul Gauguin. Like Gauguin, us yogis understand that a conventional outlook can obscure more profound ways of seeing. Like aspirants in many spiritual traditions, we train ourselves to look beyond superficial appearances so we can access deeper insights. In other words, we actively try to cultivate an enlightened point of view. This enlightened perception is symbolized by the third eye (also called the inner eye, the eye of wisdom, ajna chakra, and the seat of the inner guru) and this perception is said to be extra-sensory because it transcends the five senses.

One of the training tools we use to refine the way we see is the technique of drishti, or yogic gazing. Students of Ashtanga Yoga are taught to direct their gaze to one of nine points in each asana: (1) third-eye; (2) tip of nose; (3) navel; (4) hand; (5) big toes; (6) thumbs; (7) far right; (8) far left; and (9) infinity. The gaze is soft—you never stare—because you’re actually looking into, or beyond, the prescribed physical points. Drishti is not only an effective way to keep the mind from wandering, but it’s also a metaphor for continually fixing your attention on the subtle inner essence that underlies all form.

Yogic gazing is a little like looking at one of those Magic Eye images. If you know how to look, you can see the three-dimensional image in the two-dimensional jumble. Sure, single-pointed concentration is required, but it’s not enough on its own; you need to relax into it and be patient while maintaining your faith that there’s more than meets the eye. In a moment, something shifts and the meaningless becomes meaningful. The funny thing is, once you’ve seen the magic it’s hard to fathom how you missed it.

In the course of every life there is a deep magic at work—call it God, call it the ancestors, call it karma or the universe, whatever you please, really. The important thing is that you care enough to look for it. After all, they say enlightenment is just a shift in perception away.

Here’s a beautiful Sanskrit chant, along with my teacher’s translation, that sheds some light on the subject:

Om, guru Brahma, guru Vishnu, guru devo Maheshvara
Guru sak shat, param brahma, tas mayi shri guruvay namaha
(Guru Stotram)

Our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; the trials, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby, and a guru that is beyond the beyond. May I have the good sense to see and recognize the guru, the remover of darkness.

Image courtesy of MagicEye3Ds. Can you see the hidden image? Contact me if you need a hint.

A 60 minute Backbending Practice

12 Nov

Insects, Yoga and Ayahuasca

Fold your wings, like this dear, and tuck them underneath you,” said an unfamiliar, though kindly, voice that seemed to emanate from inside my head.

“My wings?” I asked aloud, confused by the instructions. “Do you mean my legs?”

“Yes, yes, bend your legs… and your other legs too.”

And so began what can only be described as a yoga asana lesson taught to me by a startlingly large praying mantis-like creature during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon.

Paying little heed to a nagging injury that would normally prevent such movement, I did as I was told and suddenly I found myself in a surprisingly deep series of backbends, fit for the pages of a yoga magazine. Before the mind could protest, I moved spontaneously from pose-to-pose with a sense of ease and playful power. Upon rising the following morning, I was amazed to find my body retained all of its newfound strength and suppleness. And with no sign of the old injury, I demonstrated what I’d learned for my duly impressed partner: what I’d learned from the praying mantis was a group of back-bending poses known in yoga circles as the “insect series.”

As a longtime proponent of the whole yogic lifestyle-thing—no meat, alcohol, caffeine or late nights for me, thank you—I was initially reluctant to participate in the ayahuasca ceremony, despite the Amazonian tea’s reputation as a sacred plant medicine of the highest order. Like many, I had heard horror stories about violent ayahuasca-induced purges and, on a practical level, I wondered how I would do my morning yoga practice if the all-night affair left me nauseous, weak and sore. I also had lingering concerns that the psychoactive brew could somehow undo years of disciplined practice and virtuous living and destabilize my physical and energetic bodies, not to mention what it might do to my calm mind.

Though curious, I waited almost five years before I agreed to experience ayahuasca for the first time. The change of heart came after a meeting with an internationally-renowned yoga teacher who drew a strong parallel between ayahuasca and the mythical ritual drink Soma, which is described in the Rigveda as nothing less than the nectar of immortality: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered” (8.48.3, as translated by RTH Griffith). “Well,” I thought, “if it’s good enough for the Gods, enlightened beings and celebrity yoga teachers….”

The praying mantis yoga lesson was the first of many yogic teachings that have come to me in ceremony. Sometimes the ayahuasca makes me move around—mostly wild inversions and heart-blossoming backbends—and sometimes it puts me into deep states of meditation—where my breath all but disappears into the stillness of my being. Even the dreaded purges feel good and cleansing in a way—not so different from the seemingly strange purification practices prescribed in the ancient yoga manual, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when it comes right down to it.

Perhaps most significantly, I was initiated into the practice of Nada Yoga (the yoga of sound) during a ceremony. It happened when I began to perceive what yogis call the inner music—the primal sound signified by OM—which came, at first, in a dazzling symphony of clanging bells, snare drums and cosmic sitars. During that same night, the hinge joint of my jaw popped wide open and music and poetry flowed unstoppably from my mouth for several hours. The telepathic message I received—this time from a cheering chorus of insects and amphibians—was that, as a yogi, I have an obligation to literally open my mouth wider and speak-out on behalf of those who can’t.

Ayahuasca took my yoga off the mat and made my practice practical. At one time, I did poses such as locust, scorpion, cobra, dog, and tree without thinking too much about their correlates in the natural world; they were little more than exercises with fanciful names. Now it seems obvious that before there were yoga studios, designer yoga-wear lines and sticky mats, the yogis took their teachings from nature. The first yoga teachers were the plants, the animals and, yes, the insects too. They say the practice of yoga is directly informed by nature and I finally get on a cellular level why yogis have such a close friendship with the earth—because we’re not separate from her.

Much like the yoga practice itself, ayahuasca and other plant medicines are said to have the ability to reunite human consciousness with natural and supernatural rhythms. Taken with the correct intention, they can help catalyze a profound shift in our all-too-limited take on things. With the radical deepening and broadening of perspective comes a new brand of happiness—the real stuff that lasts and lasts. Experience teaches that when I stop thinking about myself and connect to the other—even when the other is something as alien as a giant praying mantis—I put some space between myself and my mental afflictions. What flows from that space is the taste of freedom.

In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali explained that spiritual attainments leading to liberation can arise from drugs or chemical means, as well as from yogic practices such as mantra recitation, performance of austerities and samadhi, which is union of individual consciousness with divine consciousness (book IV, sutra 1). Interestingly, practices such as pranayama (breath control) and asana (physical exercise)—the two most important components of modern yoga practice in the West—are considered chemical means, according to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, because they work by causing biochemical changes in the body and mind.

Scientists have found DMT—a powerful hallucinogen and one of the primary psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca—occurring naturally in the human body. It is reportedly released by the pineal gland (what yogis refer to as the third eye) and stored at the base of the spine, where kundalini shakti is said to lie dormant until activated. Yogis have long known that transcendent experiences are accessible through certain yogic practices. Certainly the “yoga high” is what keeps me and, I’m sure, millions of other yogis coming back to the mat day-after-day.

While some may scoff at the notion of seeking enlightenment through stretching and psychedelics, the reality is this stuff works. It’s not just talk: it’s experiential and tangible and it taps you into something big and juicy. As one of my teachers likes to say: plant teachers aren’t exclusive to South America and India doesn’t own the rights to yoga. As a modern-day seeker, it feels like I’m just now coming into my spiritual birthright—it just took a giant insect to show me the way.

This article by Padmani originally appeared on Reality Sandwich and is included in Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age