Ganga: The River of Heaven

by Subhash Kak

The Ganga, rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, flows through one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Draining nearly one-fourth of the Indian subcontinent, it cuts through the heartland of India where its earliest kingdoms were situated. On its banks, thousands of years ago, sages established ashrams and composed hymns and texts that form the core of the Vedic tradition.  The wisdom of the Vedic rishis, in its various forms such as Yoga and Vedanta, continues to inspire people in India and the rest of the world and Vedic hymns are chanted today as they were millennia ago.

The river begins as the Bhagirathi at the edge of the Gangotri Glacier at the height of 13,200 feet. It becomes the Ganga after joining up with the Alakananda at Devaprayag. Other tributaries merge into it before it flows from the mountains at the ashram town of Rishikesh and then moves into the plains just a few miles south at the pilgrimage city of Haridwar.

In its course of 1500 miles, the Ganga passes through ancient cities such as Kannauj, Prayag, Varanasi, and Patna and via its distributaries in the modern cities of Kolkata and Dhaka; the modern capital of Delhi and the Mughal capital of Agra are on its tributary, the Yamuna.  Its first major distributary is the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, which travels through West Bengal.  Upon entering Bangladesh, it is known as the Padma and joins the Jamuna River, the name by which the Brahmaputra is known here. Farther downstream, the Padma joins the Meghna River, and takes on that name as it enters the Meghna Estuary, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga delta is the world’s largest by breadth, which extends to 220 miles, and third largest by volume.

The famous River Hymn of the Rigveda lists ten rivers of which the Ganga appears to be the easternmost with Sarasvati to its west. Archaeological remains of the Sindhu-Sarasvati tradition (also called Indus civilization) that go back to about 8000 BCE have the Sarasvati River as the main focus with most sites scattered in its valleys. The Sarasvati arose in the Himalayas just to the west of the Ganga and it is lauded in another Vedic hymn as the greatest river of its time, going from the mountains to the sea.

Map showing the now-dry Sarasvati river

Scholars believe that changes in climate and earthquakes caused the Sarasvati to dry up in the Western Desert about 2000 BCE. Some have speculated that the main cause of the diminution of the Sarasvati was that the course of its tributary, Yamuna, changed towards the Ganga after a major earthquake.  By the time of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the encyclopaedic Puranas, the Ganga was the preeminent river of Indian culture. But, Sarasvati was not forgotten. Since it didn’t reach all the way down to the sea, it was imagined to join up with the Ganga — and the tributary Yamuna — through a subterranean passage at Prayag (Allahabad). If the Ganga was the river carrying Indian culture in its broadest sense, Sarasvati remained the goddess of wisdom and learning.

The Descent of the Ganga

The Milky Way, called the Akaash Ganga in India

The Ganga embodies all sacred waters in Hindu mythos and it is invoked in ritual just as Sarasvati was in an earlier age. There are three Gangas: in the heavens as the Milky Way; the familiar terrestrial river of north India; and a subterranean river. The mythology of the river can be understood within the context of Vedic cosmology according to which reality is recursive and the skies are mirrored on the earth and within one’s being and everything is interconnected.

The samudra manthana (churning of the ocean) is one of the central themes of the Vedas, and it not only takes place only at the cosmic level but also in the heart of each individual by the dictum yat brahmaande tad pinde (as in the cosmos, so in the body). The recursion carries into the very neural pathways of the body and I have seen an Ayurveda text showing channels in the brain that mirror the Sarasvati and the Ganga.

The Vedic sages, meditating on the banks of the Ganga and the Sarasvati, arrived at a subtle understanding of reality. They claimed that although consciousness is the one single basis of reality, limitations of the mind and of form engender duality of experience that becomes the source of ignorance and suffering. They came up with many means to overcome bondage and to find divinity within. These means can be viewed as the joining of the celestial and material currents in mind and body.

Ritual is one way to liberation. It is sacred theatre that helps one dissociate from reflexive behaviour to find the centre of one’s being. But it can also become reflexive, the sages warn and, therefore, creativity is essential even in ritual. Other methods to salvation include direct pursuit of knowledge, devotion, service and even a life of action that includes contemplation.

The variety of prescriptions may appear to be an excessively eclectic approach to living life. But it makes perfect sense and as the art historian Heinrich Zimmer stated: “The whole edifice of Indian civilization is imbued with spiritual meaning. The close interdependence and perfect harmonization of the two serve to counteract the natural tendency of Indian philosophy to become recondite and esoteric, removed from life and the task of the education of society. In the Hindu world, the folklore and popular mythology carry the truths and teachings of the philosophers to the masses.”

Ganga descending to earth through Shiva’s locks as a boon to King Bhagiratha

The point of the story of the descent (avatarana in Sanskrit) of the heavenly Ganga to Earth is to stress the connections between the spiritual and the material.  The descent was a boon to King Bhagiratha who undertook austerities to restore ancestors who had met untimely deaths, and the river is, therefore, also called Bhagirathi. However, since her turbulent force would shatter the earth, Bhagiratha entreats the Great God Shiva to receive Ganga in the coils of his hair to break her fall. From Shiva’s dreadlocks the waters are released to many waterways in the Himalayas and to a subterranean channel. For this act, Shiva is depicted in Hindu iconography as Gangaadhara (Bearer of the Ganga), with the river shown as a spout of water, rising from his hair.

Ganga’s descent from heaven

The Ganga is seen replicated beyond the plains of north India. The Godavari in Central India and the Kaveri in South India are each the Ganga of its region. Hindus in far lands choose a local river for the rituals.

Because Ganga descended to Earth, she is also the vehicle of ascent to the heavens. This ascent is accomplished by an actual or symbolic crossing of the river. For laypersons the crossing is done at the fords (teertha in Sanskrit) but for the learned it is through a training of the mind by one of the many forms of yoga.  A person is deemed blessed if given a sip of Ganga-water on their deathbed.

The waters of the Ganga are considered purifying. People are aware that large portions of the river are now badly polluted but its effects are ultimately spiritual. The Ganga is all accepting and forgiving and it connects the worshiper to the larger currents of life.

Hindu temples all over India had statues and reliefs of the goddess carved at their entrances. The Ganga’s mount is the makara which has the lower jaw of a crocodile, the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and the flexible body of a fish, and the hind feathers of a peacock. She is shown carrying a full vase (kumbha or kalasha) which represents auspiciousness, fertility and generative power. She is also shown with a parasol.

Varanasi, the City of Light

Varanasi, known for its fine silk and cotton fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture, is one of the most famous pilgrimage centres on the Ganga and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities anywhere. Known also as Banaras, it is situated on the western bank at a place where it takes a broad crescent sweep toward the north. Seen from the river at dawn, the high-banked face of the city looks luminous, explaining its old name, Kashi (Kashi, City of Light).

Panoramic view of Kashi from the Ganga
Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Most of all, Varanasi is the city of Shiva and the home of the great Kashi Vishvanath temple. This temple which is called the Vishveshvara has Shiva’s jyotirlinga, the icon of sheer light, from which Kashi gets its name. The three hills in the city are seen as the tips of Shiva’s trident. During the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, Muslim invaders destroyed the Kashi Vishvanath at least four times and it was last rebuilt by the Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar in 1780.

In the sixth century BCE, the Buddha visited Varanasi and in nearby Sarnath he delivered his first sermon.  Varanasi is also home to two of India’s great devotional poets, Kabir and Tulsidas. The Chinese traveller Xuanzang (earlier spelling Hiuen Tsang) who visited Varanasi in the seventh century, attested that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for over three miles.  He further described a mass bathing ritual held during the reign of Emperor Harsha at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna in Prayag.

Evening Ganga puja at the Dashaswamedh Ghat

The eighty-four ghats – a series of steps leading to the river — along the arc-shaped Ganga symbolize the integration of the twelve signs of the zodiac with the seven divisions of space and time. Every morning approximately twenty thousand people arrive at the ghats for puja, the ritual bath, or just to gather.  The number of bathers approaches a million on special occasions such as the full moon in October–November (Karttika Purnima) and on solar and lunar eclipses.

One of most important pilgrimages in the approximately fifty-mile Panchakroshi circuit around Varanasi includes visits to many temples and pedestrians take a few days to complete it. For the faithful, Varanasi is the holiest of places as celebrated below in a poem in the Kashi section of the ancient Skanda Purana.

Are there not many holy places on this earth?
Yet which of them would equal in the balance one speck of Kashi’s dust?
Are there not many rivers running to the sea?
Yet which of them is like the River of Heaven in Kashi?
Are there not many fields of liberation on earth?
Yet not one equals the smallest part of the city never forsaken by Shiva.
The Ganga, Shiva, and Kashi: where this Trinity is watchful, no wonder
here is found the grace that leads one on to perfect bliss.

(Kashi Khanda 35. 7-10, from Banaras: City of Light by Diana L. Eck)

Count Herman Keyserling in his highly regarded Indian Travel Diary (1914) wrote thus of Varanasi: “Benares is holy. Europe, grown superficial, hardly understands such truths anymore…. I feel nearer here than I have ever done to the heart of the world; here I feel every day as if soon, perhaps even to-day, I would receive the grace of supreme revelation. . . The atmosphere of devotion which hangs above the river is improbable in its strength: stronger than in any church that I have ever visited. Every would-be Christian priest would do well to sacrifice a year of his theological studies in order to spend this time on the Ganga: here he would discover what piety means. For in Europe all that exists is its remote reflection.”

The Kumbha Mela

The origin of the Kumbha as a congregational ritual is in the churning of the ocean by the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons). The purpose of this churning is the amrita (nectar of immortality) that both the devas and the asuras covet. At last, as the churning proceeds, a kumbha appears and in the struggle between the two parties to get hold of it, amrita spills at four places: Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik, and Ujjain on the banks of Ganga, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, Godavari, and Kshipra, respectively.

The seeker wishes to connect to the cosmic by journeying to the Mela at the four places where the amrita fell.  In this he is guided by Brihaspati (Jupiter), the teacher of the devas and the pilgrimage is completed with a bath in the river. Since the orbit of Jupiter is twelve years, the Kumbha comes around at this frequency. The specific month is determined by the conjunction of Jupiter with a different nakshatra associated with the place. Every 144 years, the Mela is called a Mahakumbha.

Mark Twain visited the Kumbha Mela of Prayag in 1895. Told that two million pilgrims come to the Mela, he spoke of his experience thus: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”

The Kumbha Melas were traditionally managed by the akharas (organizations of sadhus), but now the government makes the general arrangements. The Melas are the greatest peaceful congregations of people and there are reports that the Prayag Kumbha of 2013 attracted nearly 120 million people

Pushkaram (or just Pushkar) is another festival dedicated to the worshiping of twelve sacred rivers that range from the Ganga to the Kaveri. This celebration takes place at specific temples along the banks in a manner quite like the Kumbha. Each river is associated with a zodiac sign, and the river for each year’s festival is based on the conjunction of the river sign with Jupiter.

The sequence of great ritual associated with the Ganga and other rivers in India is to help the seeker find connection with the cosmos. Indian social theorists, in the dharmashastras, foresaw the problem of emptiness arising from materialism, and to counter this resulting emptiness, they exalted the idea of renunciation and self-denial. To them the pursuit of happiness was a subtle dance between enjoyment and sacrifice.

To find the balance in one’s own life there is nothing as instructive as getting lost and rendered anonymous in the vast multitudes of the Kumbha. This is one of the reasons the Westerner is so fascinated by the congregations. These Melas, the Pushkarams and other pilgrimages are a wonderful system of spiritual journeying that is distributed across the entire land of India. They offer participation in a deeply personal yet universal act that has the potential to heal and let each person connect with the larger current of humanity.

Read also by Subhash Kak: Art, cosmology and the Divine – a study of indian culture

Happy Yoga Day & Yoga for a Happy Day!

Can yoga unite the world? Well, if the International Yoga Day is any indication, then yes, it very well could. Since 21 June was declared Yoga Day by the United Nations in 2015, several countries have celebrated it with great enthusiasm that only seems to be growing by the year (read this LWP newsletter for why 21 June, the summer solstice, was chosen as Yoga Day).  I struggle to think of any other occasion that is so widely celebrated across the globe.  And it is only fitting, because yoga is the one thing that is truly universal, beyond identities of nationality, race, religion, etc . The only criteria to experience its benefits is to be human.

Read also: What yoga is really about

Yoga can change your genes, says science

In our modern times, there is often no better validator of the efficacy of something than science. A new study (1) has found that taking yoga classes helps ease depression, a worryingly growing problem. Researchers recommend taking 2 classes per week to combat depression. Even more surprisingly, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, yoga and other meditation and breathing exercises can actually reverse stress-related changes in genes linked to poor health and depression.(1)

British researchers analysed 18 previously published studies on the biological effects of meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, Qi gong and Tai Chi, involving 846 people. According to the researchers, the studies show that these mind-body exercises appear to suppress the expression of genes and genetic pathways that promote inflammation. Temporary inflammation is generally useful in protecting the body from infection, but in today’s time, when stress is mainly psychological, inflammation can become chronic and impair both physical and mental health.

While yoga’s positive benefits for the body and mind have been acknowledged by science for a long time, its ability to change our genetic material is a new finding that should motivate the sceptics to take a closer look at what they may be missing out on!

Yoga and religion

I’ve often heard people say that yoga is ‘Hindu’ and therefore as a Christian, they feel they cannot practice it. Such thinking has led to the proliferation of distorted forms of yoga such as “Christian Yoga”. I have several problems with this view starting with the term ‘Hindu’ which though I would classify myself as one if presented with a check-the-box form, I have never known to have any definition.

Being a Hindu has never been associated with a particular book or God or teaching. People who may fall under the umbrella of the term ‘Hindu’ range from Krishna devotees, to Shiva devotees, to Goddess devotees, to ascetics who are focused on penance, to yogis who seek and see the impersonal Brahman in all and many, many, many more types . On the surface, these different paths may all appear to be very different and indeed, they can be, if approached through the prism of belief. If someone ‘believes’ that Krishna only exists and someone else ‘believes’ that only Shiva the deity does, then they both miss what Hinduism in its truest form of Sanatana Dharma is all about.

Sanatana Dharma is not about a belief of which there can be many. It is about understanding the universal law or Dharma of life. It is about transcending individual identities to recognise the universal. The experience of that, of oneself as the universal , is the real yoga. It is beyond belief. Literally.

Yoga does not promote inclusiveness, it is inclusiveness. Inclusiveness, not as an ideology or value, but as a living experience.

Some people of non-Indian faiths also have trouble chanting ‘Om’ and other Sanskrit chants because they feel they will ‘betray’ their own religion. What they don’t realise is that Sanskrit is a highly scientific language – in fact NASA has declared it to be the perfect language for computer AI. I won’t go into details but a quick internet search will reveal ample evidence by several great (Indian and Western) scholars. Sanskrit is concerned with vibration of sound more than meanings of words because all matter or energy in its most basic form, is essentially sound, a reverberation. Thus the Sanskrit language is actually a powerful tool for elevating consciousness.

Read also: Sanskrit, science and ecology

So here’s hoping that yoga can unite humanity, spread light, good health and happiness in the world. As modern science catches up with its findings, maybe the world will warm up to the yogic sciences more. Happy Yoga Day!

Read also: how to begin yoga

(1) For more information see this Time magazine article.


Yoga and the Environment

by David Frawley

“True Yoga works with nature and is able to awaken the higher powers of nature within us. This is not something that can be measured or reflected in a commercial way or by marketing. Yet it is something that we can bring into Yoga classes and Yoga teachings. Bringing out the ecological and planetary importance of Yoga and Ayurveda is the real mission to be taken up…”

Yoga and Nature

Both Yoga and Ayurveda are all about working with the forces of nature, which are not just as material energies but powers of consciousness. This work with nature occurs at both internal and external levels. Internally, we need to balance the forces of our own nature as body, mind, breath and spirit. Externally, we need to harmonize ourselves with the world of nature and with the Cosmic Spirit behind it. Each one of us is a manifestation of the entire universe and only when we discover the universe within ourselves can we really understand our purpose in life.

Yoga and Ayurveda define this working with the forces of nature according to various factors like the five elements, the three doshas, the seven chakras and different Gods and Goddesses that themselves reflect the powers of nature from sexuality to the power of consciousness itself. Our own higher nature, the Atman or Purusha, the true Self that is one with the Cosmic Being or Brahman, is the goal and focus of this process.

Yoga traditionally was practiced in retreat in nature, in the mountains and forests or by the river banks and sea shores. Yoga students cultivated gardens, took care of cattle, and learned how to live in the wild. This was an integral part of their training and allowed the natural power of Yoga to grow within them as part of their daily lives.

However, Yoga’s connection with nature and its concern for the environment is easily obscured, if not lost, in the modern Yoga movement and its urban and commercial orientation. Such a Yoga of nature is hard to fit into our modern hectic life-styles that have little time or space for something sacred to unfold of its own accord, though this is the real movement of Yoga.

But in the context of the current global crisis, Yoga’s concern for nature is more relevant than ever. It is a crucial factor in the future of the planet and of our species. This Yoga of nature is not just a matter of getting everyone to practice asanas but bringing a yogic way of integration into how we live, balancing the outer and the inner, nature and spirit, on a planetary level.

Yoga is a way of harnessing the secret powers of nature within us to manifest our own higher natural potentials for a greater awareness. This requires a very deep connection with the world of nature in body, mind and heart. It cannot be done mechanically or en masse, nor made into a franchise. It requires an individual orientation to the living world, which is not just human society but all that is.

Yoga in a World Out of Balance

Our current civilization is easily the most environmentally unfriendly ever to have arisen on the planet. It promotes various forms of exploitation both socially and environmentally that are undermining the very foundation of life for all creatures. Under its spread, the natural balance continues to fall off in a dramatic way in the world around us. Most of our current culture thinks that it is immune from needing to be concerned about nature, which we can shape according to our desires. For it, short-term profits are much more important than any long-term damage to the planet that might be occurring. Yet nature is already makings its voice heard.

Whether it is global warming, tidal waves, droughts and floods, Mother Nature does seem to be protesting these days and this trend is likely to increase in the years and decades to come. Some of these problems may occur because we now have extensive human populations in areas that are not normally safe for habitation like deserts, flood planes, beach areas or earthquake prone regions. But it more and more appears that our own human actions are disturbing the forces of weather and geology, setting in motion energies that we may not be able to control. Global warming is just an indication of a whole range of imbalances going on in our world today that should cause us to awaken, take action and change the world while it is still possible.

On top of this environmental crisis, our current culture has a growing psychological malaise or problem in our internal psychological environment. This is easy to observe by such factors as the epidemic of depression striking young and old and the hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders rampant among children. We may have escaped the crippling physical disorders of previous generations but only to become psychologically crippled or emotionally disturbed instead. With all the affluence that we have today, few people are really happy and many people are suffering in spite or because of their wealth and longer lives.

Our culture overall is getting more and more dependent upon drugs, whether prescription drugs for physical and psychological problems or recreational drugs taken for fun. It is now estimated that around 25% of children are taking regular medications, extending to nearly 90% for the elderly. Even our blood chemistry is not natural these days. Our food similarly is largely processed and contains little natural prana in it to maintain a natural balance in our own digestive systems.

In our entertainment culture, we spend much more time with the media than with nature, so there is also little that is natural left in our field of impressions as well. Our minds are full of disturbed media images of car wrecks, sex or violence, not with the mountains, sky, water or plants around us. We have little of what Yoga calls Pratyahara or the ability to gather our energies and look within. We are overstimulated and externally driven, which in turn makes us feel empty and unstable, particularly when our entertainment is not available.

Our urban environments are largely denaturalized as well, with few of us living on the ground or in touch with it, leaving us in a situation very different than a natural life on Earth. Many people have never planted a garden and don’t know the names even of the most common plants around them. Our society has isolated itself from nature and left very little sacred space anywhere. Each generation seems to be more progressively infected with these anti-natural tendencies. It seems that nature is irrelevant to most people today, except if it can be used for some personal recreation or speed racing.

So far the United States in its role as the world’s only superpower has not served to create any real global vision or action. It has no real universal or collective concerns beyond its own short-term economic or security interests. We talk about spreading democracy when our own culture has little freedom and a greater corporate control looms everywhere in our lives. The question is whether American Yoga can aid in bringing about such a change in this destructive culture. And if it cannot, what is the alternative?

A Yogic Alternative

Those of us who work in the greater yogic field would be wise to ask: how does Yoga view the current state of affairs in the world and is there a yogic way of action for dealing with it? Clearly our current society is not yogic, nor are most of the political, economic or even religious forces that dominate the world today. Their concern is not with protecting the natural balance or developing any higher awareness. They are mainly concerned with promoting their own vested interests that depend upon the exploitation of both human populations and the world of nature to maintain their own power and hegemony.

A yogic way of action to restore the natural balance is something that is seldom looked into, though yoga is all about balance. As the Bhagavad Gita states, Yoga samatva uchyate, Yoga is the state of balance. We cannot truly think or live yogically without doing so in an ecological way as well.

Unfortunately, Yoga in the West has developed more as a personal practice aimed at health and fitness at a physical level. Sometimes it borders on narcissism with its emphasis on personal health, beauty and happiness almost to the exclusive of anything else. The conscience of Yoga that we find in the great Yogis of old doesn’t seem to be much of a factor in Yoga today. The idea of a yogic world view or a yogic critique of society is rarely addressed these days, even by Yoga teachers. Many great Yogis like Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Yogananda, Tagore or Mahatma Gandhi did address broader cultural and social issues. They saw that as the essence of Yoga, which is about removing the ignorance both in and around us with the sword of knowledge.

When Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought about western civilization, he responded in his humorous way with “It would be a good idea.” Clearly he was aware of the material and technological power and sophistication of the West. His response meant that the West needed a deeper spiritual view to make its material powers truly beneficial in their application. Aurobindo felt that the West could not lead the world to any greater age of peace without a fundamental change of values. This required adding a yogic vision and freedom of awareness to the outer freedom that the West had already developed. The present ecological crisis is also, therefore, an opportunity for the real soul and message of Yoga to come out.

Ayurveda and the Planet

Ayurveda similarly rests upon a foundation of respect for the conscious universe and the wise use of its powers in a way to benefit all beings. Ayurveda teaches that epidemic diseases can arise through damage to the world of nature, specifically to the water, air and soil, with damage to the soil being the worst of these factors. Clearly the quality of our water, air and soil has greatly deteriorated over the last few centuries, however much our superficial standard of living has gone up. Even our medications are turning up in our water, so pervasive is their usage. Our soils have been even more polluted than our bodies with chemicals and toxins of various sorts.

This environmental crisis brings many questions relative to health. Can we as individuals be naturally healthy in a world in which nature itself is severely compromised? Can we have an adequate immune system when the planetary immune system (the biosphere) is severely stressed? There is hardly an ecosystem on the planet that is really healthy today. Can our own ecosystem, our personal and home environment, be healthy if that is the case?

A major cause of disease in Ayurvedic diagnosis is the blocking of the channels, whether of circulation, respiration, digestion or the nervous system. When the natural flow of energy through the channels is disrupted, unnatural flows occur that cause pain and disease. Extending this principle into the world of nature, we can see that there is hardly a river in the world that is not blocked or inhibited in its flow. Some rivers like the once mighty Colorado no longer even reach the sea. We have also suppressed the natural forest fires, which are now returning with vengeance. A suppressed natural environment, like a suppressed body must erupt in some manner of disease.

If we look at the planet with the same considerations as we would look at a patient according to the principles of natural medicine, such as Ayurveda provides, we see all the signs of a severe disease developing. Yet for all the money we spend on health and medicine, what do we spend to heal the planet which is the vessel for all that we do?

What to Do?

The last elections (2011) in the US have seen an increase in political consciousness extending into spiritual and yogic groups. Though it may have failed to change the outcome in a more yogic direction, it is still a good sign that people are ready to bring their yogic teachings into their outer lives. But the greater problem is more ecological than simply political, though it has important political ramifications. It is an issue of our life-styles, our social values and our way of looking for solutions in life. Its answers may not lie on the political left or right in the old sense but in a new vision.

Both the political right and the political left, for example, seem to be endorsing drugs as the best way to deal with our increasing health crisis. Neither has a plan to get seniors to reduce their need for drugs and increase the availability of non-drug related therapies in this regard, such as Yoga and Ayurveda can offer. So political changes, however necessary, may not in themselves be enough without a deeper change of how we look at the world.

A truly yogic life-style does of course minimize our negative impact upon the environment. The yogic emphasis on a vegetarian diet greatly reduces cruelty to animals and exploitation of natural environments. Yogic values of simplicity and self-restraint have their outer ramifications as well, removing us from the consumer world and its excesses.

But yoga is primarily about bringing a higher consciousness into the world. This has a powerful effect even when it is not recognized by others outwardly and, given the current general spiritual blindness, we cannot expect that it will be, even by our friends and families. The prana that we bring in through Yoga has a healing effect upon our environment as well as ourselves. By bringing in these higher energies, Yoga has its benefits, without recourse to external actions, which however do have their place. If we simply meditate but don’t change how we live, our meditation may only be a form of escapism or self-indulgence.

Yoga can contribute a higher consciousness and an integral way of working with the forces of life to aid in this process. It can provide a practical philosophy and spiritual methodology for the ecological movement. Ayurveda can contribute of view of both physical and psychological health based upon honouring the natural balance and showing us how to restore it.

Yoga teachers need to get out of the gym and back in touch with the greater world of nature. A good yoga teacher is not determined by how many people attend their classes or how good a workout the students receive. A good Yoga teacher helps spread the consciousness of Yoga into the lives of people and into what we do on a daily basis from our eating and sleeping to our thoughts, emotions and social activities. Ayurveda provides important guidelines in these areas as well.

True Yoga works with nature and is able to awaken the higher powers of nature within us. This is not something that can be measured or reflected in a commercial way or by marketing. Yet it is something that we can bring into Yoga classes and Yoga teachings. Bringing out the ecological and planetary importance of Yoga and Ayurveda is the real mission to be taken up – and one that has benefits far beyond any boundaries or measurements, not only for ourselves but for future generations.

Read also:
What Yoga is Really About
A Yogi Lifestyle
Commercialisation of Spirituality

This article was first published on and has been republished here with permission.

Yoga and Pranayama to Keep You Cool Through Summer

The summer season is characterised by Pitta, the Ayurvedic body/mind type associated with the element of fire. As outside temperatures rise, we crank up the air-conditioning but as we all know, that can be very dehydrating – in fact doctors are now saying that air-conditioning causes more harm than good! But fear not because here are 4 eco-friendly and natural ways to keep you cool and calm through the season. If you already practice yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises), then adjusting your practice with these tips will ensure that there isn’t excessive production of heat in the body.

See also: Baba Ramdev’s tips for beating the heat

Chandrabhedi pranayama

Our body temperature is essentially maintained via the movement of air through the right (pingala) and left (ida) channels (nadis) of the body. The right is associated with the sun and masculine energy, heat and vigour, while the left is associated with the moon, feminine energy, coolness and calmness.

In the summer, our left nostril is naturally more active than the right to help normalise the body temperature. Deliberately activating the left channel helps to effectively cool down the body. Blocking the right ear (by inserting a cotton plug) automatically activates the left nostril. More effective however is the Chandrabhedi pranayama. (1)

Unlike the Anulom-Vilom pranayama technique where breath is taken in through alternate nostrils each time, in the Chandrabhedi pranayama, inhalation is only through the left nostril and exhalation always through the right. The pranayama should be carried out gently, slowly and soundlessly.

To do this pranayama:

  • Sit with a straight back preferably in a yogic sitting posture like Sukhasana (common cross-legged position) or Padmasana (lotus posture). If you cannot sit in a yogic posture, you may sit on a chair but make sure your back is straight, feet are firmly on the ground and head is not leaning on a head-rest. Keep your eyes gently closed.
  • Make a fist with your right hand and then pull out the ring and little fingers and the thumb – this is Vishnu mudra. Keep your left hand, palm facing upward, loosely on your lap.
  • Block your right nostril with the thumb of your right hand (which is holding the Vishnu mudra). Take a deep and slow inhalation through the left nostril. After inhalation is complete, block the left nostril with the right hand ring finger. Exhale slowly through the right nostril. Block the right nostril after exhalation is complete and repeat the breathing pattern – inhalation through left and exhalation through right.
  • Focus on your breath through the pranayama. You may practice this pranayama for 5 – 10 minutes.

This video provides a demonstration.

Sheetali and Sheetkari pranayama

Sheetali and Sheetkari pranayamas are two types of pranayama that are extremely effective in cooling down the body and their effect is immediate. In Sheetkali pranayama, air is taken in via the mouth through an extended and rolled tongue, held for a short while and then exhaled slowly through the nose. If you are not able to roll your tongue, you can try the Sheetkari pranayama where air is inhaled through the teeth instead. The pranayamas can be done for 5, 7, 11 or 21 breath cycles (1).

This video provides a demonstration.

Chandra Namaskar or Moon salutations

Yoga students are usually more familiar with the Surya Namaskar (or sun salutations) practice. However, Surya Namaskar may tend to be too heating for some people during the summer. Chandra Namaskar or moon salutations on the other hand are cooling and calming as they incorporate sideways movements as opposed to the more invigorating forward-backward movements of the Surya Namaskar. This video provides a demonstration.

Be mindful of heating practices

Every person is different and so every body reacts differently to yogic practices. Having said that, certain practices are by nature heating (while all practices create energetic heat or ushna, some do more than others) and one may wish to keep this in mind while practicing during hot weather. These include:

  • Surya Namaskar – which as noted above, involves vigorous forward-backward movements
  • Kapalbhati pranayama – which involves forceful exhalations
  • Bhastrika pranayama (‘bellows breath’) – which involves invigorating breathing
  • Suryabhedi pranayama – which as opposed to the Chandrabhedi pranayama mentioned above, involves activation of breath particularly through the pingala nadi (right nostril).

Such practices are generally recommended to overcome kapha and vata doshas which have a cold property.

If one wishes to carry on these practices during summer, it may be best to practice them in the cooler hours of the day to avoid discomfort – see more below about adjusting time of practice.

Adjust the time of practice/exercise


It is advisable to do yoga or other exercise in the cooler hours of the day, avoiding the heat between around 9 am and 5 pm. In general, the twenty minutes before and after sunrise and sunset are considered best for yoga practice. With the longer summer days, tweaking your yoga sadhana times to align with the earlier sunrises and later sunsets is beneficial.


Note: The information presented in this article is for educational purposes only. Please consult your yoga teacher for instructions about any yoga practice and your doctor for medical advice.

Read also: Sadhguru’s Tips: Leave These Off Your Yoga Mat

(1) YouTube video of Baba Ramdev’s explanation

Effective ways to improve your yoga and meditation practice

You’ve proudly managed to find your ‘quiet time’ in the middle of a hectic schedule. You’ve changed into clothes with more zen-inspiring potential and maybe even lit a candle or two to set the mood. But as you settle in for your yoga or meditation, you can’t get your mind off that work problem, or how rude that cashier was or how you’ll manage to squeeze all your ‘to-do’s into the rest of the week. You know what a meaningful yoga/meditation practice is supposed to look like but your mind is not in a mood to cooperate. Here’s a few methods I use that can hopefully help to guide you back to attentiveness or if you’re having a good session already, to make it more effective.

And now, yoga

~ Excerpt from From Dior to Dharma by Shruti Bakshi. Available on Amazon. ***************Book excerpt start****************** Say what? I was already having trouble understanding the teacher’s German accented French, now I was supposed to understand her German accented Sanskrit! “Sit cross legged,” Michaela leaned over and whispered to me, translating …