Virtual Satsang

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Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category


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  • Yoga Tourism in India: I came across this unpublished manuscript by Kenneth Liberman, in an illuminating short paper on Ashtanga Yoga1. In a recent post, I used ideas from a separate paper of Liberman, to come up with a short checklist for finding yoga teachers & classes.

    American yoga aspirants remain very much inside their own cultural universe and have minimal contact with Indian society, except for the commodified yoga they desire and receive. They cannot read any signs in the regional language, leam little about the politics or culture (“We’re only here for a few months”), and keep their focus upon their own practice of asana. The most appalling part of it is that many of them suffer from a smugness that is derived from having completed such a fine, advanced practice of asana early in the morming, entitling them to spend the rest of the day in idleness while bearing a feeling of superiority toward most any other person they meet during the day.

    … Young people seeking fitness, older people wanting to regain youth, most of them self-absorbed with a focused effort to become or remain attractive, focus their energies intently upon what each of them term “my practice.” For one or two hours they direct their energies (and in many cases this energy is abundant and highly directed) upon themselves. Only themselves. Each breath is a celebration of one’s body electric. It may be beautiful, but the danger is that it easily reinforces egotism and self-centeredness at the very time that one’s practice of yoga should be eradicating the self, egoistically conceived. In all fairness, it may be said that a yoga practitioner will inevitably meet other practitioners who are more adept at asana or run up against the limits of his or her body. But a sense of inadequacy is not actually the opposite of egoism, since it is just another form of self-absorption. If Patanjali is to be believed, spiritual lessons are indeed to be gained from a correct practice of asana, but when the practice is distorted by what is already most abundant in the culture – vanity, pleasure-seeking, and self-absorption – is there a fair chance for its cultivation? The metaphor of the camel that is able to pass through the eye of the needle seems appropriate here.

  • The former warden of San Quentin as an anti death penalty advocate: In her new position heading Death Penalty Focus, Jeanne Woodford’s criminal justice gravitas and calm demeanor makes her an effective advocate for eliminating the death penalty.

  • Half of New Testament forged: CNN highlights the key findings from the new book by biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman:

    * At least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries.

    * The New Testament books attributed to Jesus’ disciples could not have been written by them because they were illiterate.

    * Many of the New Testament’s forgeries were manufactured by early Christian leaders trying to settle theological feuds.

    NOTE: Evangelical scholar Ben Witherington refutes the key arguments in his short review of Ehrman’s book.

  • Overwhelmed caregivers should try meditation: Further confirmation of what Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has been suggesting.

    … UCLA researchers Helen Lavretsky and Michael Irwin conducted an eight-week, randomized trial on the effects of meditation exercise on 49 people who were home-based caregivers of a loved one with dementia. About half of the caregivers listened to relaxation tapes for 20 minutes a day for eight weeks, while the other caregivers practiced Kirtan Kirya yoga, a meditation exercise. The study’s authors then conducted tests on mental and cognitive health, did brain scans and measured telomere length. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that are protective of cellular health. Measuring telomere length can be used to determine how fast a person is aging.

    The study found strong evidence that a meditative yoga routine improves both mental and physical health. While caregivers in both groups experienced benefits, the caregivers practicing Kirtan Kirya yoga had more improvements in quality of life, cognition and memory. Those study participants reported better sleep and less anxiety and said they felt care-giving was less of a burden than before they participated in the study.

    Surprisingly, the telomere analysis showed meditative yoga also had an anti-aging effect.

  • (1) I highly recommend that paper: “With Heat Even Iron will Bend”: Discipline and Authority in Ashtanga Yoga by Benjamin Richard Smith, pages 140-160, in Yoga in the Modern World


    Written by virtualsatsang

    May 19, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Meditation in Motion

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    Another classic ad from the Sep/Oct 1979 issue of the Yoga Journal:

    YOGA YO-ING: Meditation in Motion with Mandala Yo-yos!


    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 23, 2011 at 8:02 am

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    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 21, 2011 at 7:48 am

    The 8 Best Ways to Exercise Your Brain

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    From Chapter 8 of “How God Changes Your Brain” (sorted from least to most beneficial):

  • 8. Smile: Even if you don’t feel like it, the mere act of smiling repetitively helps interrupt mood disorders and strengthen the brain’s natural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life. … To my knowledge, the only religion to incorporate smiling into a spiritual practice is Buddhism. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we do “smiling meditation” whenever we have a spare moment during the day. …
  • 7. Stay intellectually active: … When it comes to the dendrites and axons that connect one neuron to thousands of others, if you don’t use it, you will lose it. … Memory and mnemonic exercises, strategy-based games like chess or mahjong, and other forms of visual/spatial exercises or games can significantly improve cognitive functioning , especially in older adults. … Try to spend as many hours a day engaged in the most intellectually challenging activities you can dream up … Read books … Take a class, attend a lecture, go to a museum, … write in your diary. … However, doing math exercises and crosswords apparently doesn’t help, and performance pressure can even interfere with memory functioning. So be sure to make your intellectual pursuits enjoyable.
  • 6. Consciously relax: … I’m talking about deliberately scanning each part of your body to reduce muscle tension and physical fatigue. … Simple repetitive activities that are pleasurable and meaningful can also take you into a deep state of relaxation. In one of my most recent studies, we found that the ritual practice of counting rosaries lowers tension, stress, and anxiety. Many other religious and spiritual practices calm the mind and allow the brain to rejuvenate, and even activities like knitting will have a similar relaxing effect.
  • 5. Yawn: … Several recent brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the areas of the brain that are directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy. One of those areas is the precuneus … The precuneus is also stimulated by yogic breathing, which helps explain why different forms of meditation contribute to an increased sense of self-awareness. … Our advice is simple. Yawn as many times a day as possible. … Conscious yawning take a little practice and discipline to get over the unconscious social inhibitions … All you have to do to trigger a deep yawn is to fake it six or seven times. …

    12 essential reasons to yawn:
    1. Stimulates alertness and concentration.
    2. Optimizes brain activity and metabolism.
    3. Improves cognitive function.
    4. Increases memory recall.
    5. Enhances consciousness and introspection.
    6. Lowers stress.
    7. Relaxes every part of your body.
    8. Improves voluntary muscle control.
    9. Enhances athletic skills.
    10. Fine-tunes your sense of time.
    11. Increases empathy and social awareness.
    12. Enhances pleasure and sensuality.

  • 4. Meditate: … Even ten to fifteen minutes of meditation appears to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation, and psychological health, and it has been shown to reduce smoking and binge-drinking behavior. …
  • 3. Aerobic exercise: … In general, the more intense the better. For example, running is better than walking, and walking is better than stretching, but it is important to find the “right” amount of exercise that feels best for you. … Vigorous stretching, such as yoga, also does wonders for both your body and your brain. Yoga has similar cognitive benefits to other forms of contemplative meditation, and in a recent meta-analysis of 813 meditation studies, the researchers stated that yoga was as beneficial as exercise. It can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, help control the symptoms of diabetes, lessen the severity of menopausal symptoms, reduce chronic back pain, and prevent the onslaught of migraine headaches. …
  • 2. Dialogue with others: … if we don’t exercise our language skills, large portions of the brain will not effectively interconnect with other neural structures. Dialogue requires social interaction, and the more social ties we have, the less our cognitive abilities will decline. In fact, any form of social isolation will damage improtant mechanisms in the brain leading to aggression, depression, and various neuropsychiatric disorders. …
  • 1. Faith: … Faith is equivalent with hope, optimism, and the belief that a positive future awaits us. … Recently, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers concluded that “a moderate optimistic illusion” appears neurologically essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health. They also found that highly optimistic people had greater activation in the same parts of the anterior cingulate that are stimulated by meditation. …
  • Written by virtualsatsang

    March 11, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Posted in Health, Meditation, Yoga

    Sesshins at Eiheiji

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    Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. Current California Governor Jerry Brown did 4 sesshins when he was in Japan in the 1980’s. While I doubt if they were as intense as the sesshin described below, I sincerely hope Governor Brown remembers some of the lessons he learned from his intense meditation retreats.

    From Eat Sleep Sit, pages. 275-278:

    Every year, the first week of December is devoted exclusively to sitting. Beginning December 1, trainee monks rise at three in the morning, half an hour earlier than usual, and spend all day sitting facing the wall, until nine at night. This continues seven full days — no small feat.

    … For seven days from three in the morning onward, we alternated forty-minute periods of sitting with ten-minute periods of slow walking. Not only is it painful to sit for long periods of time with the legs folded, but sleepiness interferes with concentration as well. Between periods of sitting, therefore, we would step down our platforms and shuffle around at a fixed pace, moving so slowly that in the time it took for one complete breath, in and out, we took just half a step. Slow walking is not considered a break from sitting, but must be undertaken with the same meditative frame of mind.

    During the intensive sitting, participants remain seated in the Monks’ Hall not only for meals, but also for morning, midday, and evening services, which are held between sitting sessions. For seven days we practically never left our platforms.

    … I had read of intensive sitting before coming to Eiheiji, and ever since it had held a peculiar fascination for me, lingering in my mind as the one practice above all others that seemed to embody the deepest, most sublime aspects of life in a Zen monastery. At the same time, I was anxious to know if I had it in me to carry off such a feat.

    The seven days of sitting were beyond anything I could have imagined. Any feelings of fascination and curiosity I had at the start were quickly demolished. There is no way for me to convey the magnitude of the experience. With each passing day, the pain in my legs grew more agonizing: worse yet, fatigue built up in every cornet of my being until my consciousness began to flicker and dissolve. After a while I was no longer capable of the slightest thought or emotion, not even wondering why in the world I was sitting like that. Everything ceased to exist except for the simple fact of me sitting facing the wall.

    Time drifted like incense smoke, and in the incense burner, the wreckage of elapsed time stacked up quietly in the form of white ash.

    Intensive sitting certainly transcends the mere act of sitting. The final day, when everything comes to a climax, is called “all-night sitting”. On that day, we remained sitting until 1 a.m. the following day — in other words, the morning of December 8, the day of Buddha’s enlightenment.

    As the hour of liberation approached, we were gripped by an intense excitement that wrecked the stillness in the hall and made breathing difficult.

    … An then it happened. The cloud gong broke the silence, proclaiming the end of intensive sitting. With the first reverberation, I felt the sound transform to light and wash over me. The solemn tones inundated me in billows of radiance, flooding the darkest recesses of my mind with blinding light. … I let out the tension inside me with a sigh, and in that instant all the hardship of the past seven days disappeared without a trace.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 2, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Posted in Meditation

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    • Margaret Atwood on the Publishing Pie: The ideas in this talk applies to all creative types, not just writers. For that matter, yoga and meditation teachers who struggle to make a living have a lot in common with writers and artists:

    • Cartwheels In A Sari: Born into the organization of Guru Sri Chinmoy, author Jayanti Tamm provides an insider’s view into Chinmoy’s organization. As for Chinmoy himself, he “… comes off as a spiritual huckster both ridiculous and oppressive.”
    • Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Not that we’re returning to the days when spiritual gurus were fashionable, but as Carol Horton points out, it’s easy to see how Yoga students end up idolizing certain teachers.

      … A yoga instructor stands in a different cultural space than an aerobics teacher or sports coach. Even if students are only interested in “fitness yoga,” most recognize that for others, yoga can involve not only the body, but also the mind and perhaps even spirit as well. Even if it’s not necessarily taken seriously, the fact that yoga is a “body-mind-spirit” practice is a well-known part of its “branding” and appeal.

      Conversely, yoga instructors aren’t considered spiritual teachers along the lines of priests, rabbis, lamas, or monks. Yoga, of course, is not a religion, so that’s appropriate. But it’s also true that yoga teachers are trained in so many different ways, and have so many different outlooks and commitments, that it’s impossible to assume anything about their orientation to spirituality – or any of the “big questions” – at all.

      While this is great in that it allows for openness, innovation, and authenticity, it’s also confusing.

      This is particularly true because yoga, by its very nature, offers people a path into deep psychological and emotional territory. Even if you start yoga simply because you want to exercise and/or de-stress, it’s very common that sooner or later, you’ll start to have much more intense emotional, psychological, and perhaps what you might call “spiritual” experiences anyway.

    • Yoga, meditation program helps city youths cope with stress:

      They found a 12-week yoga program targeting 97 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Baltimore elementary schools made a difference in students’ overall behavior and their ability to concentrate. They found students who did yoga were less likely to ruminate, the kind of brooding thoughts associated with depression and anxiety that can be a reaction to stress. The findings, which focused on a pilot program that took place in 2008, were published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. One program is still active, and researchers are now applying for federal funding to expand the effort into schools across the city.

      … While many studies on yoga are limited, there is “intriguing evidence” that it can have a host of health benefits, she said.

      To test their theories, Hopkins researchers used a curriculum designed by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit founded in 2002 by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their college buddy, Andy Gonzalez. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, “the traveling yogis” as they called themselves, returned to their poor West Baltimore neighborhood looking for a way to give back.

      … The traveling yogis combined various yoga disciplines, poses and breathing exercises to create their own blend of practice that emphasizes mindfulness, or awareness that emerges when one is present or “in the moment.”

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 28, 2011 at 7:44 am


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    • LA Times profile of Sharon Salzberg:

      Sharon Salzberg, 58, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, has spent more than three decades helping Westerners access a daily spiritual practice that originated in Buddhism but is not confined to that faith.

      … The Buddhist principles of vipassana, or mindfulness, and metta, lovingkindness, afforded Salzberg what she calls a “spacious” form of awareness in which people know they have a choice. Instead of being dominated by her fears, Salzberg said, she began to communicate what she learned, ultimately publishing seven books.

    • Yoga isn’t as old as you think: Responding to the the “Take Back Yoga” marketing campaign, the author cites a couple of authors (Sjoman and Singleton) that I’ve previously highlighted. One additional academic source worth mentioning is David Gordon White’s upcoming book on the Yoga Sutras.

      … Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its heyday in the 1930s, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovative style of Sritattvanidhi. Krishnamacharya, who was familiar with this text and cited it in his own books, carried on the innovation by adding a variety of Western gymnastics and drills to the routines he learnt from Sritattvanidhi, which had already cross-bred hatha yoga with traditional Indian wrestling and acrobatic routines.

      In addition, it is well established that Krishnamacharya had full access to a Western-style gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace, with all the usual wall ropes and other props that he began to include in his yoga routines.

      Sjoman has excerpted the gymnastics manual that was available to Krishnamacharya. He claims that many of the gymnastic techniques from that manual—for example, the cross-legged jumpback and walking the hands down a wall into a back arch—found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, which he passed on to Iyengar and Jois. In addition, in the early years of the 20th century, an apparatus-free Swedish drill and gymnastic routine, developed by a Dane by the name of Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was introduced to India by the British and popularised by the YMCA. Singleton argues that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” The link again is Krishnamacharya, who Singleton calls a “major player in the modern merging of gymnastic-style asana practice and the Patanjali tradition.”

    • Europe’s New Politics: I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but I thought this recent BBC podcast on the rise of populist, anti-immigrant parties in Denmark & Sweden was worth highlighting. The Danish cartoon controversy aside, it is disturbing to witness the rise of intolerance in Western Europe. Immigrants are stereotyped as being ill-suited because of culture (Islam) and economics (over dependence on the welfare state). To be fair, in both Denmark and Sweden, we are talking about minority parties. But in both cases they have real influence on parliamentary proceedings.

    • How effective is yoga?:

      The aim of this overview was to evaluate critically all systematic reviews of yoga for the symptomatic treatment of any condition. Twelve electronic databases were searched and 21 systematic reviews relating to a wide range of conditions were located. Nine systematic reviews arrived at positive conclusions, but many systematic reviews were associated with a high risk of bias. Unanimously positive evidence emerged for depression and cardiovascular risk reduction. Despite an impressive number of systematic reviews, evidence of effectiveness is positive only for two indications.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 21, 2011 at 8:06 am