Category Archives: Alternative Health & Yoga

Letter on yoga

Dear Woman of the Woods,

I’ve been wondering about what I could say about yoga to someone who tells me they know nothing about yoga.

Yoga is commonly translated as ‘union;’ the yoking of two things. The yoga sutra says that yoga is the cessation of modifications of the mind. The Tantraloka says that, “that which manifests itself in two forms is ignorance.” Ignorance is defined not as the absence of knowledge, but “knowledge which is not manifested fully in knowable principles. “

In plain language, yoga is the absence of thought. When the mind rests in oneness there is nowhere else for it to go. There is no this-or-that because the truth is that this-is-that. Of course it’s not so easy to stop thinking. Thinking is something most westerners take for granted: Descartes’ famous philosophy of, “I think, therefore, I am” highlights the importance of thinking in the western world. If Descrates is to be believed, we will cease to exist if we stop thinking. But who will cease to exist? If the body is still here and still alive and fully functional but there is no thought, who then is this body? And to whom does this thoughtless body belong?

Union and oneness are the goals of yoga but of course the beginning of yoga is duality: there is you and me, this and that, peace and agitation, god and humanity. All of these things must be brought together not just in an intellectual manner, but in our hearts; in an internalized way so that it is understood beyond thought. But of course the big question is: How do we do that?

Many would say we need to come to understand god better. Others would say that god is within so we need to understand ourselves better. Yet others would say it’s the world around us we need to understand since all is a manifestation of god. All are correct in their own way. Duality implies relationships and it’s these relationships we must understand. By understanding how everything relates with everything else we can begin to see the indivisibility of everything.

This is also the point at which Tantrics begin to talk about desire. Only those things that we desire will we do the work to attain. A person must cultivate a strong desire for union or at least the side effects of union (such as peace).

Speaking as the supreme God head, Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita says that four kinds of people desire oneness: 1. Those in distress, 2. Those who seek power, 3. Those who seek knowledge, and 4. The wise.

I came to yoga out of distress as I think many westerns do. It was distress of chronic dissatisfaction. The kind of suffering that creeps into our days thru petty fears and thinking that separates things rather than bringing them together. Mine was the distress of living rather than being alive. I am fortunate in that I have always had a desire for knowledge as well. In my younger days I had no prejudices against any kind of knowledge; now, I seek only that knowledge which illuminates.

I suppose the important question concerning the aspiration of a yoga student is: What do you want? How strong is your desire for what you want?

People come to yoga for many reasons. Health and fitness is a prime motivator for many westerners. The suffering that led me to yoga was also related chronic back pain and sciatica. But as we all know, there kinds of pains are never so bad until they begin to interfere with the things we want in life. Because of my back pain I was unable to sit to read or write or even to meditate. Some yogis have even told me that the only purpose behind the physical practice of yoga is to get into (or stay in) shape so that you can sit in meditation for long periods. This is perhaps a good yogic standard for fitness, but the postures can be much more than mere exercise.

One of the main points of yoga concerns breath and breath awareness. Breath is the main source of Prana (or chi, or energy, or whatever you want to call it). But you don’t have to be a yogi to recognize breath as a source of life, but any yoga practice will encourage breath awareness.

For a new student of yoga it can be a struggle to just sit for five minutes and maintain awareness of their breathing. The sitting is hard on their knees, hips, ankles and backs and the mind will wander so much that before five minutes is over they might find that their body has begun to wander as well. It takes incredible concentration to focus on something as mundane as breathing. But hopefully you will soon begin to become aware of your breathing. Are your breaths short and shallow or long and deep? Is your abdomen relaxed when you inhale to allow greater movement of your diaphragm, or is it tense allowing only your chest to expand during inhalation?

In many ways, the postures allow us to explore our breath as well as our bodies. Self-awareness and breath-awareness go hand in hand. The greater our awareness, the greater our understanding, the greater our understanding, the greater our knowledge, this knowledge will lead to peace.

I remember when I was studying Kung Fu years ago and the master telling me that the first series of movements they taught us were the most advanced even though they felt more like going thru a dance than doing Kung Fu. If you begin now, he told me, perhaps when you become a black belt you will have some understanding of the depth of these movements. Breathing awareness is the same, begin now and perhaps after years of learning different techniques and postures, you will come to understand the true essence of your breath.

This is my cursory understanding of the basics of yoga. Nothing that comes from India is clear-cut. The head wobble (half way between a yes and a no) that they are famous for is a good illustration of this. Everything is like this and like that; absolutely contradictory but perfectly acceptable.

Please share your comments and questions.

Blessings from Shiva city.

Om Namah Shivaya

Acupuncture: Spiritual or Scientific?

What is acupuncture?

Most people know that acupuncture is a practice where very thin needles are inserted into the body to balance or open the channels of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Qi is basically life force or energy that brings all things into being; the equivalent of Prana in the East Indian tradition. Many people in western countries associate acupuncture with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Acupuncture is indeed a branch of TCM, but TCM these days relies more heavily on herbalism than it does on acupuncture. Also, the style of acupuncture practiced in TCM is but one of many styles of acupuncture, though it’s the only style that is currently accepted in most western countries.

So what are some of the other styles of acupuncture and how do they differ?

Each style of acupuncture has many similarities. The basis of each style can be found in the history of acupuncture in Asia. Where they differ is mostly in perception and emphasis, although there are some slight differences is diagnosis and needling technique as well.

What we know of as Tradition Chinese Medicine today differs from most other styles in the fact that there is very little tradition left in the theory and in the practice. Where most other styles emphasis the ‘five elements’ approach, TCM emphasizes the ‘eight principles.’ Also it should be noted that much of what is traditional in acupuncture was left behind (and even banned) during the communist revolution in China. So Traditional Chinese Medicine is not, in fact, as traditional as some of the other styles. The most traditional acupuncture practice is probably in Japan where some Shinto monks still practice a style of acupuncture that emphasizes the spiritual connection to the cosmos.

Acupuncture, after all, was likely started by the early shamans of the nomadic tribes that at that time dominated the pre-agriculture world. All through the history of acupuncture there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the spiritual connection and purity of the practitioner: ethics, morals, self-discipline, wisdom and knowledge. Most courses of acupuncture today emphasis knowledge alone, although most people who take the route of acupuncture

The reason Traditional Chinese Medicine is accepted by the west is that it’s been made to fit with western medical empiricism in theory and practice. No one still really knows how it works, only that it does work. Even the online “Skeptic’s Dictionary” has admitted that acupuncture works, which is saying a lot coming from a skeptic. The contention of the skeptics is that acupuncture works by way of placebo, but studies have also shown that most drugs prescribed in the west and even surgeries for that matter are no more effective than placebo. But placebo healing is another topic of it’s own that I will get to shortly.

The term traditional here is a misnomer at best, a term of Communist propaganda and mass marketing at worst.

TCM is the style of acupuncture, which has found acceptance with the modern medical community. This form of medicine relies most heavily on herbal treatments with acupuncture playing a rather minor role in the treatment of disease. Much of what is actually traditional in Chinese Medicine was banned with the arrival of the communist revolution in China.

Chinese medicine was traditionally practiced by shaman and later by spiritual philosophers. Spirituality and shamanism have both been banned in modern China. In Japan there is still a form of acupuncture backed up by the Shinto tradition and I have heard that Taiwan and Korea still have spiritual masters practicing acupuncture.

You may be wondering what the difference is between the pseudo-scientific acupuncture that is coming out of modern China and that which is has found acceptance in the West (TCM), and the spiritual forms of acupuncture practiced elsewhere and more traditionally in China.

Like everything, it’s largely a difference of perspective that has far reaching consequences. TCM see you as a physical body, your disease a physical manifestation of mostly external stimulus. It treats physical symptoms.

Spiritual acupuncture, on the other hand, sees you as a spiritual being with your disease arising mostly because of mental spiritual imbalance. When we loose our connection with the spirit imbalance arises. The function of acupuncture than is to help us reconnect with the heavens. Each point has some relation with the heavens and has a subtle or profound effect on the way we see the universe and our place within it. By bringing more or less power to a point, acupuncture causes a shift in our perspective. By shifting our perspective our lives take subtle or profound shifts in direction. Since the disease manifested because of erroneous direction in our lives, these shifts serve to cure our problems at their root.

Spiritual master all over the world have been decrying the erroneous direction the world is taking in destroying the earth. This great loss and pollution of natural ecosystems is widely viewed as a disease that must be cured. The nature of the disease is greed, selfishness, short-sightedness. The root of the disease is the loss of spiritual consciousness. And although modern democracies claim to support religious and spiritual freedom, this is only the case for those following accepted orthodoxy. Shamanism and any practices that view the world through an esoteric lens are still widely banned, or at least suspect. Basically anything that goes against science, consumerism, and power politics must be kept in the closet. Those practices that are not outright prohibited by law are prohibited by custom and popular opinion.

And what is popular opinion? How is popular opinion formed? In this day and age, popular opinion is shaped by the media, by those with power and money. Shamanistic practices and spirituality and any kind of deeper connection with the heavens, the earth and/or ourselves would undermine their power and wealth.

Slowly the message coming out of the mass media, Hollywood mostly is beginning to change, but if the medium is the message, then any change in the programing coming out of Hollywood isn’t really much change at all.

Which brings me back to the fundamental difference between spiritual acupuncture and ‘scientific acupuncture. If the medium is the message, this places a great deal of responsibility on the acupuncturist him or herself. The practitioner is as much the medium of healing as are the needles. If the practitioner is not pure and connected to the three planes (the heavens, the earth, and him or herself) then what good can come from the needles. From the spiritual perspective, the practitioner is merely an instrument of the gods channeling the energy of the universe thru his needles.

Bibliography

In the footsteps of the Yellow Emperor: Tracing the History of Traditional Acupuncture, by Peter Eckman MD

Yoga as self study

I don’t normally post the words of others in my blog, but these words seem somehow important to me these days. The following is an excerpt from Shyam Ranganathan’s commentary on Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

“To study the self is to be introspective. It is an effort to discriminate between the true self and the contingencies of one’s mind and body. To study the self, thus,is to take a critical stance towards one’s mental life. This is the only way to understand the study of the self, for Patanjali regards the mind as a potentially confounding aspect of our embodiment that can cause confusion in our self-conception. The criticism of one’s mental life is an intrinsic feature of self-study, for in Patanjali’s view, the mind is the mirror by which the self can know itself and also the means by which the self can confuse itself. When the mind has been stilled and made morally perfect, it acts as a mirror, reflecting the essential nature of the self back on the self, whereby the self, or the person, can abide in it’s own true nature. When the mind is disturbed and not constrained, the self continues to understand itself through the mind, but thereby identifies itself with extraneous, disturbing factors.

“Some who practice yoga, particularly in the west, come at yoga from a seemingly new age perspective, according to which everything under the sun is ok, fine, good and without need of criticism. ‘I’m ok, you are ok’ has been revived by many practitioners of yoga. For such practitioners, yoga is an escape from self-criticism, stress and difficulty. This is not Patanjali’s view of yoga…. To be a yogi is to hold oneself up to a very high standard. It’s not to disassociate the self from the mind and bod, and to take no responsibility for one’s thoughts, desires and actions. To practice yoga, according to Patanjali, is to practice rigors of the body and mind. There is no room for rest or relaxation for the yogi.

“How then are we to make sense of the peculiar phenomenon of fashion yoga: yogic practice that people take on for the clothes that one can buy from expensive yoga clothing boutiques, or yoga undertaken so that one can secure the body of one’s dreams or as a substitute to some other type of physical exercise that leads to a positive body image?

“Patanjali is committed to the notion that tapas helps in the practice of yoga, because it purifies the body and thereby purifies the mind. He must thus be committed to the notion that it better for people to practice fashion yoga than not to practice any type of tapas at all However success in yoga cannot be had by the mere practice of austerities or a weak subscription to watered-down ‘spirituality’ that attempts to infuse divinity in all things (including one’s own decisions and thoughts) in order to avoid the difficult project of self-criticism….” (p. 132 – 133)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Translated and commented upon by Shyam Ranganathan. Penguin Books India. 2008

How is yoga a complete system?

Yoga is life. Dharma is the path of our life. Indifferent Atman is being carried along this path thru maya by the body. Know what maya is! Know what Atman is! Know your dharma. Know yourself! Know God!

The Eight limbs. Practically speaking. 1. How we treat ourselves. 2. How we treat others. 3. our posture throughout the day. 4. Breahing. 5. Control of our senses. 6. Concentration. 7. Awareness of true reality. 8. and it doesn’t feel right for me to even speak of this eighth limb.

Be aware of yourself and what your relationship with the other truly is. Master your body and your breath by becoming more and more aware. Control your senses knowing the source of all your desires. Be aware, be totally totally aware of all states of being. Know the root of all perception and act as witness rather than as actor or re-actor. Complete acceptance of all of life (truth consciousness contentment).

So yoga teaches you to know yourself thru all states of your being, all states of consciousness, and all states of mind. It gives lessons on how to act, how to work, how to teach to give to receive to live… it does this while still leaving the doors open to anything. Yoga accepts ever action, every behaviour, every bit of thing or happening that comes and goes from existence. Yoga accepts that everything comes and goes. Everything that arises, passes away. It also teaches that whatever changes cannot be real because truth does not change. We’ll maybe get into this another time.

In the mean time we have to take care of these ever changing (and thus very “unreal) bodies. We have to act with some degree of care, use our body (our muscles, our lungs, our organs, our heart and our brains) correctly. Yoga teaches all of this. Yoga teaches us to learn from ourselves the finer features of our bodies, our minds, and our emotions and our deeper motivations.

The practice of yoga includes a much wider variety of activities than is normally thought. asanas, meditation, chanting, singing, mantra, concentration, dancing, breathing, living with awareness…. it’s scientific, energetic, spiritual, practical, humanitarian, devotional, and, surprisingly after all I’ve said, very simple. It encompasses all aspects of life. No matter what your personality type or natural inclination, there’s a place in yoga for everyone.

Why yoga?

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Yoga is a complete system. I’m sure it’s not the only complete system, but in it’s ability to integrate other systems it really is a complete system. What more do I need? Every aspect of myself can be made healthier thru yoga: physical emotional, mental, respiratory, pranic body, spiritual…..

Yoga is also very inexpensive. I’m certainly not talking about the $15/class variety of yoga at your local studio. I’m talking about the living and breathing yoga we do in our own bedrooms and living rooms and everyday life. Become a witness. Take a few minutes every day to practice being a witness so that you make it a habit to do always. A few classes to get yourself started is good, some good book can be helpful. The classics like Patanjali’s sutra or the Bhagavad Gita are good. They will both be likely to change your idea of what yoga really is. I was certainly confused at first, but now it all makes perfect sense; these books describe what yoga really is and how to get there. You’ll notice that neither of them suggest going to your local yoga studio three times a week. What they do say is to meditate, meditate, meditate.

Yes, meditation is yoga. What the Buddha teaches is is yoga! What Christ teaches is yoga! What pain and suffering and sympathy teach you is yoga! Tantra, chanting, prostration, pranayama, prayer, and awareness will all bring you to yoga.

Yoga has become another outlet for fitness junkies. Most yoga classes are rajas at best. It’s unsettling to see so many tamasic teachers, but they’re there promising short cuts and leading the masses. The peace and relaxation and utter tranquility of yoga just isn’t there in the cities anymore.

But yoga, my yoga is still sublime. This is why yoga! I’ve made it my own. I love following my own rhythm, sometimes disciplining myself while at other times letting it all slid. I do what I want, I get what I need. Sometimes focusing on pasture, other times focusing on breath. And it costs me nothing. I need nothing. Just the will to do yoga; the will to learn about myself; witness the good with the bad.

Yoga for my back/Yoga for a man

When I was 16, I slipped a disk in my back for the first time. The pain was horrible and it caused me to miss much of my last year of high school. I was fortunate that my teachers were sympathetic and gave  me adequate grades to get into university when i eventually chose that route. This was in the mid-1990’s when bed rest and pain killers were still the prevailing therapies being recommended for sever lower back pain and sciatica. Over the years, I have done physiotherapy, chiropractor, acupuncture, muscle relaxants, and for a while, doctors even talked about surgery. I eventually filled a shoe box with recommended exercises. Many of these things worked, but once my back was feeling better they were put aside until the next “flare up” of pain. It was pretty much and annual thing that affected my work, my education, my relationships, and most certainly my happiness.

I eventually thought to try kung fu, which seemed to work miracles, but after a few years, a dislocated shoulder, a couple sprained ankles, and some broken ribs, I began to reconsider the overall health benefits of this art. The “flare ups” were also still occurring quite regularly, though not for as long nor not as sever as in the past, but it was not uncommon for me to twist, or be twisted in the wrong way only to find myself hobbling home hunched over and in pain while once again comforting myself with a T3s (pain killers) and a couple Robaxacet (muscle relaxants). Eventually I decided that even though I was “taking it easy” and avoiding any full contact classes, there was still enough of an aggressive aspect to Kung fu that it was not quite what I was looking for; this was when I first began to consider yoga.

My fear of yoga (yes, looking back it was a fear) was that it was very much an activity for women and I didn’t want to be perceived as some pervert taking yoga classes just to check out the hot yoga girls doing their sexy poses. Yes, I think many men avoid yoga for this very reason. It’s not uncommon for people to have irrational fears about the way the opposite sex will perceive their actions; think about how many women will order something light on a first date even though they may be dying to order the pork tenderloin with baked potato and sour cream. So for the next five years I maintained this fear and did nothing but see, and certainly feel, my back pain and my sciatica getting worse. Weeks went by when I was barely able to get out of bed. I was living alone and I can remember the fear, rational or not, that I might not ever walk again. Days would go by when I wouldn’t eat and my home eventually became filthy from neglect; it was all I could do to get myself to the toilet when I had to go. Taking a shit caused excruciating pain. I had no money to spare at this time and if it wasn’t for the help of a benevolent chiropractor/acupuncturist I’m not sure what would have became of me. He got me thru the worst of it but once again when I began to feel better I stopped seeing him and stopped doing the necessary exercises at home.

It’s wasn’t until 3 years after this last major “flare up,” five years after quitting Kung fu, that I bought a ticket to India to learn yoga and see something of this strange and poverty stricken country that had fascinated me for many years. It was only a few days before my 30th birthday when I got on the plane, and though I wasn’t in crisis, I was certainly in a lot of pain. I was most certainly afraid of the possibility of having another major “flare up” while being so far from home.

It didn’t take long for me to stumble into my first yoga class. Someone said come’on, lets go, and as I was following I asked where we were going. Before I knew it I was breathing through alternate nostrils and contorting myself into shoulder stands and even sitting cross-legged on the floor in comfort. After a few months of yoga and meditation and meeting hugely inspiring people my back pain was gone. It took me about a year of intermittent classes before I started my own routine practice at home. And other than some minor back aches I haven’t had any problems in almost five years.

Some of the advantages of yoga over all the other treatments is that it asks the practitioner to know their body better; too feel and focus on the activity and inactivity of every part of the body. Body awareness is central to yoga. For years I allowed “professionals” tell me what was causing the back pain. The doctor would say stretch this way but not that, the chiropractor would say don’t stretch that way, stretch this way. Through yoga I have learned when to stretch one way and when to stretch the other. The diagnosis arises from within. But it’s not just body awareness that I have learned, mind awareness has taught me to deal with physical pain without the use of drugs. “Witnessing” the pain, “witnessing”  my thoughts has allowed me to focus and concentrate on what is important: like doing the stretches that will keep my body healthy, like doing the the work that will keep my life on track, and on the very simple fact that my happiness is not dependent on anything apart from myself.

I cannot overstate the benefits of yoga. Whether your pain is physical or mental, yoga can help; it really is a complete system with such host of techniques that there is something there for everyone. Don’t be frightened of yoga if you’re injured or lazy or out of shape. Even if you’re a macho man or shy or scared you can do yoga. It’s a lifestyle choice that anyone can make.

I wish you all peace and harmony and love.

Yoga for the Cheap and Lazy

In my last article, I mentioned that yoga was even good for lazy people, and of course it didn’t take long for someone to write to me challenging this assertion. But have you ever began a day off work just wanting to spend the day doing nothing but sitting around the house, only to find yourself overcome by a feeling of boredom. Or maybe it’s some muscle cramp that forces you to get up off your ass and move around a bit. In any case, it can be very difficult to sit still sometimes. This is where yoga can help you.

One of the main reasons for all those yoga stretches is to allow you to sit comfortably and do nothing for long periods of time. Just imagine being able to sit for two or three hours, or even a whole day and do nothing. Oh the peace, oh such laziness. Yoga can help you to do this.

With practice, your conscience won’t be burdened my those dirty dishes by the sink and any thoughts of that report due Monday morning will just pass through your mind like a plane high in the sky without burdening you in the least. You will find that even your grumbling belly can wait until your good and ready to get up off your lazy ass before you have to feed it. The levels of laziness you can attain with yoga are unparalleled.

And talk about cheap. Not only is that rubber mat not a necessity, but once you can sit comfortably anywhere, you don’t even need any furniture for your home. Sure guests might be a little confused when they don’t see any tables and chairs, but if they know you to be a cheap and lazy person that you are, they won’t complain, they’ll just stretch out on the floor beside you and forget about it. And with all the inward looking yoga will teach you to do, you won’t need a TV or a stereo or books or pictures or anything. You won’t believe how much money you can save with yoga. But then again you’ll have to since you didn’t get that report finished for the Monday morning meeting.