by Rod Stryker – Yoga Journal, February 2006 issue.
If stilling your mind seems impossible, let it move. But steer it in the direction of deep awareness.
Joyful and whole: That’s how you want to feel, and you know meditation can get you there, but for one reason or another you resist it. You may think you don’t have the right temperament, or you just can’t manage to find the time. But what may be helpful to sooth your struggles is knowing that the last thing your mind wants to do is get still.
According to the yoga tradition, the mind is by definition activity. Its job, which it doggedly carries on even when you’re sleeping, is: to constantly assess your circumstances, make sure you’re safe, and search for pleasure. Meditation, on the other hand, is what you experience when your mind is no longer searching—the hidden joy that rests within every moment. The purpose of the mind and the goal of meditation are antithetical. So it’s no wonder that trying to quiet your mind creates distraction and restlessness. How, then, can you get to that place of feeling joyful and whole if your mind is naturally resistant? As it happens, there are several ways, each of which yield different levels of joy and awareness.
First, there’s the meditative state that occurs involuntarily and spontaneously whenever you’re engaged in something you love—whether it’s practicing yoga, surfing, bird-watching, or making love. The activity, because of your love for it, settles your mind effortlessly, thereby absorbing you into the moment and opening you to a heightened sense of being. While such experiences are deeply satisfying, there are less profound than deep meditative states because one, they are not voluntary (your mind is settling with no effort on your part) and two, a part of your attention is being diverted to the activity and away from the actual source of the bliss and, there is one more reason the involuntary kind generally lasts only as long as the activity does.
The intentional meditative state usually involves sitting (sometimes walking) in silence for the purpose of stilling the mind or disassociating yourself from its normal state of activity. To do so, you focus on an object like a mantra or your breath, or you “witness” your thoughts without getting involved in them. If you have ever tried intentional meditation, you may have noticed that the mind—at least in the beginning—resists. This has less to do with your temperament than the nature of your mind, which simply prefers to avoid stillness.
Tantra, the all-encompassing yoga tradition offers some interesting and powerful alternatives to the more common approaches to meditation. Instead of trying to still your mind or detach from it, you ask your mind to do what it loves best—to move! Tantra offers an array of techniques, some of which require you to move attention in a particular pattern until your mind becomes still effortlessly. In these types of practices, you put your mind in motion––on the breath, for instance or perhaps by associating a dynamic image with it: moving your breath along subtle energy channels or “seeing” a sublime symbol opening and closing within your body. Since the moving image is “re-created” each time you breathe, your mind becomes so engaged it doesn’t have time to think or resist.
Another image you can use is mental alternate nostril breathing, or prana shuddhi. Originally described in an ancient Tantric text, it’s a meditative, effortless version of this classic pranayama technique. Instead of physically blocking one nostril at a time and breathing deeply, you simply visualize your breath as a stream flowing alternately through one nostril at a time, with its end point in the brain, or third-eye center. The rishis, or ancient seers who uncovered many yogic practices, discovered that when the flow between the left and right nostrils is balanced, the two sides of the brain harmonize and still the normal activity of the mind. And according to Tantric and yogic teachings, an active third-eye center—the part of the brain associated with intuitive wisdom and spiritual vision— can help quiet your stream of thoughts and open you to a direct vision of the Infinite.
While the physical pranayama practice affects your body and nervous system, prana shuddhi can be a more immediate path to a balanced and still mind. This remarkably simple and accessible method can be used at any time, either as a complete practice or as a preparation for your regular meditation practice.
PRANA SHUDDHI – THE PRACTICE
The ancient Tantric technique called prana shuddhi is a mental version of alternate nostril breathing that balances and stills your mind.
Begin by sitting tall with your spine straight. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath flowing through both nostrils. After a moment or two, you’ll notice your breath rising and falling as two separate lines, through each nostril.
Begin to sense or visualize the breath alternately ascending through one nostril on inhale until it reaches the midbrain or third eye. On your next exhale see and feel it descend through the opposite nostril. Now see it rise through the nostril it just descended through on inhale and fall through the opposite one as you exhale. Continue to see and watch the breath move with each of the two lines effortlessly finding their apex in the midbrain.
Continue to watch these two streams rising and falling alternately through your nostrils.
Eventually you’ll sense a subtler layer to the breath flow that rides on the air current passing through your nostrils. Within a few minutes, you will become more sensitive and notice a feeling of energy or light that rides on the trail of your breath. The more relaxed you are, the more vivid this awareness will become.
Gradually, you’ll experience that the movement activates or “feeds” the third eye and an on-going and intrinsic relationship between this energy or light and the third eye. These subtle currents nurture, awaken, and activate your midbrain center.
In the last stage of the practice, you’ll become aware of a presence or soft glow of light at the third eye while your breath continues to ascend and descend effortlessly. Allow yourself to melt mind, body, and all limitations into that presence at the third eye while you remain aware of the movement of your breath. In that space you’ll discover a sublime sense of your whole being merging into universal presence and peace. Rest in this space for as long as you like.
To bring yourself out of the practice, rub your hands together and place your warm palms over your eyes. Gently lower your chin. Feel your awareness descend through your body to your heart and navel. Give thanks, slowly open your eyes, and move gracefully back into the world.
WHAT IS TANTRA?
While the word “tantra” has several meanings—textbook; system; loom;—its literal meaning comes from the root tan, which means to extend or expand, and tra, which means beyond all limitations are some of its meanings. “Tantra,” therefore, could be understood as the body of knowledge that moves you beyond all limitations. The Tantric approach is to use everything—all aspects of your self and life—to help you overcome all (physical, psychological, and spiritual) boundaries; Tantric practices include asana, pranayama, mudras, Ayurveda, visualization, contemplation, mantras, mental and physical techniques that cultivate spiritual energy (or Kundalini), astrology, herbology, various forms of devotional or ritual practices, and seemingly infinite other specific techniques.
Classical and Tantra yoga differ in both their approach and their goals. In classical yoga, the primary concern is quieting the mind. As Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutra, Yoga chitta vritti Nirodha, or, “The goal of yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” We do this in order to isolate our highest nature (Purusha) from everything else (Prakriti).” In Tantra, the emphasis is less on the mind and more on energy transformation. This is because your experience of and actions in the world are rooted in your energy (pranic) landscape. “Just as a door is opened with a key, similarly a yogi opens the door to liberation with Kundalini/Shakti (boundless spiritual power),” states the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Tantric seers did not view the world as a distraction from spiritual experience; rather, they believed the two—spiritual experience and living in the world—could be exalted simultaneously. Tantric practices were designed to illuminate a vision of the sublime place where worldly and spiritual prosperity converge in their fullest glory. Tantra’s ultimate aim is to empower us to be a vital, joyful, and fearless expression of our source—an infinite continuum of truth, beauty, and auspiciousness.
Rod Stryker, the founder of ParaYoga, is currently writing The Four Desires (Bantum). His latest meditation CD is Meditations for Inner & Outer Peace. Rod can be found at www.parayoga.com