Coming Soon: Maj Gen GD Bakshi Interview & #RALLYFORRIVERS

Newsletter No.5

Dear LWP Readers,

There’s 2 exciting announcements to make this weekend so let’s get right to it! As usual, the weekly digest is included further down.

(FYI, you can sign up to receive these newsletters via email every Sunday)

Important Updates

Exclusive Interview with Major General GD Bakshi

I recently caught up with Major General GD Bakshi who, as those of you from India would know, is a very prominent and popular figure in current affairs relating to defence. LWP will be releasing my video interview with him which showcases General Bakshi as you’ve never seen him before! It will be a surprise for people to learn about his spiritual side and see him in the role of a seeker.

The video will be aired in 2 parts. In the first part, General Bakshi talks about his personal spiritual journey and his own guru whom he met when he was a young army officer trying to figure out questions about career and marriage but most importantly, life. This Part-1 will be released next weekend which happens to be marked by Guru Purnima (on 9 July), the day dedicated to gurus – being the day that the yogic sciences were first transmitted by the first guru, Adi Guru, Shiva, to humanity. The occasion therefore appears to be amply fitting to hear General Bakshi recount how he found his way onto the spiritual path and his learnings from and experiences with his guru.

Here is the first exclusive look at the interview promo which contains a sneak preview of Part-1!

In the second part, General Bakshi talks about soldiers and saints and the spiritual dimension of a soldier’s life. Relating the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata to modern times, General Bakshi discusses the topics of courage on the battlefield (of war and life), global terrorism and what is needed in the world today.

Do look out for these videos on the LWP website and YouTube channel. To make sure you don’t miss any updates from LWP, I recommend you sign-up for our email notifications and newsletters and subscribe on YouTube!

This Exclusive Interview is now on LWP

LWP joins the Rally for Rivers

The second important announcement is that LWP has pledged its support for the Rally for Rivers initiative being led by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation. Do watch and share the video below where Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev brings to light the desperate situation of our rivers in India (LWP gets no monetary benefit from the video views or any other part of this project).

You can support the initiative by spreading awareness about the cause (share the above and related videos, articles, etc.). Do also register a missed call at the following number; your call will count as a signature on a petition to save the rivers, to be laid before the government of India in October 2017.

Give a missed call to: 80009 80009

LWP will be sharing much more information and enthusiasm about the initiative in the coming weeks on our website and on Facebook. Also, we have previously published special articles featuring some of our rivers like Ganga and Narmada and will be doing more of this too. If you would like to contribute articles on this topic, do write in.

Weekly Digest

This past week, LWP featured some interesting articles:

– The Amarnath Yatra commenced  a few days ago, and will go on until 7 August. Given how little most people even in India know about this significant pilgrimage, we published a post summarising what it’s all about.

– LWP featured an exclusive interview with Swami Chidanand Saraswati of the Parmarth Niketan ashram in Rishikesh which many of you would know is an institution doing stellar social work in addition to holding one of the most beautiful evening Ganga aartis in the country. Swami Chidanand Saraswati talked about yoga being beyond religion and about PM Modi being a man of vision, mission and wisdom.

– Yogibanker Scott Robinson shared his experiences of being both a yogi and a banker which to some would seem a contradiction in terms. But as Scott says, it’s all about balance!

– An interesting insight into the tech and start-up world’s fascination for spirituality was also featured. From Steve Jobs’ deep appreciation for the book Autobiography of a Yogi and the popularity of the Kainchi Dham temple (Nainital) among tech titans, to some new-age start-ups encouraging team members to fast, Burning Man and ayahuasca, the tech world seems to love hacking spirituality!

– LWP shared a wonderful short and simple video by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev that explains the 4 paths of yoga. While the 4 paths of karma, bhakti, jnana and kriya appear to be opposed on the surface, a true yogi is only produced when these 4 dimensions of body, emotion, mind and energy find alignment. It’s amazing how Sadhguru JV manages to convey such timeless wisdom in a ~3 min animated video!

– Last Sunday’s newsletter, in case you missed it, discussed whether all the hullabaloo about shrinking attention spans is really valid. My take is that the attention span concerns are somewhat exaggerated and that the real reason why people can’t commit to content is not because their attention spans are impaired, but because of the democratisation of content which means that there is just too much out there and not all of decent quality! I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this topic.

 

As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback, suggestions and article contributions. Do share this with those you think may be interested so that they can also and join the wiser-living movement!

Wishing you a lovely Sunday wherever in the world you may be and don’t forget to support our rivers!

Warm regards,
Shruti Bakshi
Editor, the LivingWise Project

What is the Amarnath Yatra?

Main photo “Breathtaking scenery on way to Amarnath Cave’, Credit: Hardik Buddhabhatti

Each year, the Amarnath Yatra commences around late June and is open for 40 days. Despite the high altitude, extremely treacherous terrain and the increased incidences and threats of terrorist attacks in recent years, the yatra (meaning journey) remains one of the most significant and popular for Shiva devotees.

But what is the yatra all about and why is it considered so important? Here’s a brief explanation.

The Route from Jammu to Amarnath

  • JAMMU: City in Jammu and Kashmir state of India, accessibly by air, rail and road
  • PAHALGAM: 315km from Jammu in a valley through which the Lidder and Aru rivers flow
  • CHANDANWARI: 16km from Pahalgam, along the Lidder river
  • PISSU TOP: the mountain believed in legend to be formed by the dead bodies of the asuras killed by the devas in the battle to reach Shiva first
  • SHESHNAG: Surrounded by 7 peaks (believed to represent the heads of the mythical snake, Shesha), the Sheshnag mountain and lake are breathtakingly beautiful (image above)
  • PANCHTARNI: Reached after a steep ~5km climb. 5 rivers flow at the foot of Bhairav Mount which are believed to have flowed from Shiva’s locks
  • AMARNATH CAVE: The rivers Amravati and Panchtarni meet on the way to the cave believed to be the above of Shiva. In addition to the main ice Shivalinga, the cave contains two smaller ice lingas believed to represent Parvati and Ganesha.
See also: 7 Amazing Shiva Chants/Songs
See also: Shiva, the Grand Master of Yoga

For more information visit shriamarnathjishrine.com

Tech & Start-up World Hack Spirituality to Boost Performance

Steve Jobs’ obsession with the Autobiography of a Yogi, Mark Zukerberg’s visit to a temple in Nainital and the latest attempts by start-ups to ‘hack’ spirituality – what’s with Silicon Valley’s fascination with spirituality?

 

Perhaps the foremost example of the tech world’s fascination with spirituality is Steve Jobs’ deep appreciation of the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Parmahansa Yogananda. It was the only book Jobs downloaded on his iPad and read every year since he first came across it as a teenager. Jobs even asked for copies of the book to be distributed at this memorial service.

Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com said at a TechCrunch conference in 2013 (2 years after Jobs passed away): “Yogananda…had this book on self-realization…. [Steve’s] last message to us was that here is Yogananda’s book…. Actualize yourself….I look at Steve as a very spiritual person…[Steve] had this incredible realization–that his intuition was his greatest gift and he needed to look at the world from the inside out.”

Seemingly continuing in the company founder’s tradition of an affinity with Indian spirituality, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited a famous 200-year-old  Ganesha temple (Siddhivinayak) in Mumbai on his visit to India in May 2016.

It appears that Steve Jobs also inspired Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg to visit the Kainchi Dham temple in Nainital, India. “He [Jobs] told me that in order to reconnect with what I believed as the mission of the company I should visit this temple that he had gone to in India, early on in his evolution of thinking about what he wanted Apple and his vision of the future to be,” Zuckerberg told India’s PM Modi at a town hall meeting in 2015. Google’s Larry Page and Jeffrey Skoll, co-founder of eBay, have also made the pilgrimage.

There are several other instances of the tech world drawing inspiration from the spiritual domain. Google, for example, is well-known for its mindfulness meditation training (having its roots in Buddhism) offered in-house. The tech giant has also given a platform to the views of spiritual leaders – Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev for instance recently spoke about ‘Developing Inclusive Consciousness’ at an event hosted by Jonathan Berent, Director of Customer Experience at Google.

The Temple of Transition at Burning Man (2011)

A ‘ritual’ of sorts for tech titans like Zukerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is the annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in the deserts of Nevada, USA. According to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Greg Horowitt, “You come into Burning Man knowing that your values align with the values of the people here, and it’s all about creation and experimentation.” The festival has taken on a ritualistic reputation, almost like a religion or spiritual process for the faithful.

Coming to the new crop of Silicon Valley start-ups, there is a growing fascination with “bio-hacking” techniques. For instance, Nootrobox, a San Francisco company that makes brain supplements, has adopted a practice (what they see as a “ritual”) where the entire company collectively fasts for 36 hours every week. According to the start-up, the fast days are one of the most productive days of the week! Fasting, as we know is an ancient spiritual practice followed by almost all religions in some form or the other.

Then there’s the growing fascination with the mind and consciousness altering herb ‘ayahuasca‘ found in the Peruvian Amazon, that has been dubbed as Silicon Valley’s new craze. Apparently the psychedelic substance is becoming as ubiquitous as coffee. Its popularity with young entrepreneurs is based on its supposed ability to abate the insecurities and pressures they face in the start-up world and the fact that the Peruvian trips serve as much as a networking opportunities as spiritual retreats!

But should spiritual practices be hacked for productivity? Or should increased productivity and creativity be viewed as the beneficial side-effects of a deeper inner transformation which should be the aim? Surely some entrepreneurs’ trysts with spirituality will be more genuine than others’. One can only hope the genuine prevails.

Related: The Need for India’s Spiritual Light

Can a Banker be a Yogi?

Every morning, as I put on my suit after my daily session of yoga and meditation, I know that I am putting on my armour, ready to be the ‘warrior’ (like the yoga pose) and roam the floors of the bank as a yogi in disguise.

I also know that I’m just doing my job, a job I ended up falling into after leaving university. I’m feeding my inner drive to be successful and ambitious; after all, I’m doing what I’m good at, and I’ve worked hard to get this far, too. Five years at law school wasn’t a walk in the park.

A living oxymoron

Some people may say that being a yogi in an investment bank seems incomprehensible. I beg to differ. For me, it’s about finding a way to optimise your performance at work while maintaining a philosophical view of the role you play in the institution, and the contribution you make to society, no matter how obscure that view may seem…

The inner Agni (or fire) of the modern-day City yogi burns brightly as an example that one can show to others.

However, some may challenge this in the light of the 2008 financial crisis and the scandals that have emerged since. The values of a yogi seem in stark contrast with the actions of a few people who have tarnished the industry’s reputation.
But, the conditioning of humans means that such events are almost inevitable, and not just limited to the banking sector. Greed and deception has found its way into many forms of corporate organisation.

Spiritual banking

In fact, science itself is not immune to the worst aspects of the human mind. Nuclear weapons, human cloning, genetically modified food; the ego knows no boundaries.

Fortunately, ethics and spirituality ultimately decide whether the discoveries of science are, in fact, right. I have realised that spirituality also has a role to play in the world of high finance. Acting like a ‘third eye’, finding the right balance between financial institutions’ need to be profitable and an appropriate level of prudential supervision, the ‘spiritual regulator’ is essential to ensure a successful but safe financial sector.

Stability is key

We saw after the most recent financial crisis that regulation, controls and infrastructure were inadequate; and now we are consumed by them, perhaps a little too much. But a stable financial system is what ultimately permits a society to flourish, while at the same time allowing for the most efficient allocation of risk. This is when capitalism can be at its best.

Buddha said: ‘contentment is the greatest wealth’. I would argue that ‘contentment’ can mean a harmonious society where banks facilitate the extension of credit, while allowing for the risk-taking by sophisticated investors in a safe, well-capitalised banking system; then we can truly say that we have found a state of capitalist ‘nirvana’.

Finance is also an environment that caters for the aspirations of bright, ambitious young people in a complex yet fascinating world – and, more often than you realise, underneath that pin-striped suit lies a simple yogi – striving to find that balancing point, each and every day.

 

This post was first published in Balance magazine and has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.

 

Attention! You’re Better than a Goldfish (Busting the Attention Span Myth)

Newsletter No.4

Dear LWP Readers,

The past week was a big week for yoga with the International Day of Yoga on 21 June. It was wonderful to see so many yogis and yoginis turn out to celebrate the unity of humanity in yoga – from Times Square to the Great Wall of China to yoga with PM Modi in Lucknow. I hope you enjoyed our special yoga features – you can always find them here in case you missed them.

(FYI, you can sign up to receive these newsletters via email every Sunday)

Weekend Thoughts: Attention! You’re Better than a Goldfish (Busting the Attention Span Myth)

In my fairly new role as a writer and the Editor of LWP, one topic that I spend quite a bit of time thinking about is the attention span of readers. Are human attention spans really shrinking drastically? It’s what the ‘authorities’ would have us believe.

Time magazine has declared that “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish” and so have other media majors like the New York Times, Telegraph and many more. Countless blogs jumped on the bandwagon thereafter (especially those concerned with giving marketing advice) to spread the word all over the internet that humans are indeed lagging behind the goldfish with our average ~8 second attention span compared to the goldfish’s much more impressive 9 seconds. It’s sent marketing professionals all over the world in a frenzy to help media companies figure out ‘how to market to goldfish’. The result? Digital media content is becoming more and more ridiculous and diluted in an effort to pander to the slightest possible periods of attention.

Origins of the myth

The articles touting the claim that human attention spans underperform those of goldfish, refer to a non-peer-reviewed study by Microsoft’s Consumer Insights (Advertising related) division in Canada in 2015. However, there are several problems with treating this study as evidence.

Notably, the study itself states “Think digital is killing attention spans? Think again”. And in fact, the 8 second figure doesn’t come from this study at all, but is sourced to Statistic Brain which in turn refers to a 2008 paper by Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: “Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use”. This paper is not based on a study of human attention spans, but a study rather of web-surfing behaviour. PolicyViz and others have done a good job of deconstructing the attention span myth based on a review of the credibility of the data and statistics being quoted to justify the damning verdict on our ability to pay attention.

Further, the Microsoft study itself says that “connected consumers are becoming better at doing more with less via shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory”. This is an important factor. Maybe we are just becoming better at processing information and deciding whether or not we want to continue paying attention to something. This means that we’re not just ‘drifting’ when we move our attention away from something. On the contrary I would venture to say that we may be strengthening our powers of discrimination regarding what we give our attention to.

What is really happening?

This is what I think is really happening. With the democratisation of content creation, it’s easy as pie to create a website, make a video, create a social media profile etc. This naturally means that consumers are bombarded with ever more content and options to choose from. This naturally means that we sharpen our discrimination and will not give our precious attention to a video, say, when a minute into it we realise that the video is uninteresting, low quality or the speaker is, for lack of a better word, BS-ing. Digital marketers tracking our behaviour however, jump out of their seats at our appalling inability to commit our attention to bad content, shouting “goldfish!”

What’s the proof of my theory? Well there’s no study I could find to back this up (perhaps because it suits Microsoft, Google, Facebook and the like to have small and medium business owners believe that attention spans are shortening so that they will spend big dollars on marketing and advertising) but consider the following questions from your own experience.

– Do you have the ability to read through a long article or watch a long video on a topic that interests you?
–  Are you able to spend an entire weekend watching a series of a sitcom you love?
– Is it not a fact that gamers spend hours on end engrossed in games (take the recent Pokemon Go craze for example which reportedly caused 110,000 road accidents in the US in just 10 days because people were so fully engrossed in the game).
– Do you ever see people randomly walk out of a movie theatre because of an inability to pay attention to a movie they are interested in?
– How many more people do you know that practice yoga or meditation (which involves focused attention) today than say 10 years ago (according to US government statistics, the number of American adults who do yoga nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012)?
– What about the astounding success of the Harry Potter series that had millions glued to the books for days and weeks?

My take is that the ease of content creation today makes it necessary for people to sift through it with a finer sieve which behaviour marketers interpret as shrinking attention spans. What’s more, such thinking is even seeping into other fields like litigation advocacy with lawyers trying to keep the juror’s apparently afflicted attention engaged with all kinds of tactics!

Phew, you’re not a goldfish!

So, in my view, people are not wandering off from a webpage because they’re unable to pay attention or because ‘attention’ is being irreparably impaired, but because, on the contrary, they’re looking for something to engage their attention in a flood of often mediocre content. And that’s a good thing because our attention is the most powerful tool we have. The fact that we’re not just giving it to any damn thing is a good thing! Marketing companies use the short attention span myth to exhort businesses to spend more and more to money to grab users’ attention which often makes things worse with dumbed-down content and bombarding strategies.

From a deeper existential perspective, one might ask, who watches attention? How do we know that our attention is wandering? Obviously because something within us watches/witnesses attention and inattention. What is that? Are we not identifying with the wrong thing when we feel that we’re drifting when really it’s our attention that’s drifting? If we can observe our attention, then we’re not the attention but attention is just a tool we possess – a very intimate and powerful tool.

I’ll leave you to contemplate these questions this Sunday and hope that it’s a relief to know that you’re not a goldfish! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic so do leave your comments on this post. I’ll also take it as a confirmatory sign of your very healthy attention span that you made it through this article!

Weekly Digest

Finishing up with our picks from the past week on LWP, in case you missed them:

Professor Subhash Kak’s article, Ganga: The River of Heaven in which he traces the course of the Ganga from its descent from heaven to the rituals and traditions associated with the river.

– Shruti Bakshi’s Yoga Day article, Happy Yoga Day and Yoga for a Happy Day which discusses new scientific evidence that yoga can change our genes and reflects on the idea of yoga as a ‘Hindu’ practice.

– Beloo Mehra’s reflections on art and it’s aesthetic and educative purposes in the article, An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)

– An article by Nora von Ingersleben in which she finds a sanctuary of peace atop a hill in Bangkok, a city usually known more for its traffic and noise

– An introduction to Laughter Yoga

– A ginger-lemon detox drink recipe

– The final 4 asanas in our Yoga Day countdown: Ardha MatsyendrasanaGomukhasanaNaukasana and Shavasana . Hatha yoga teacher Ambika Gupta ran us through 10 asanas in our countdown, with scenic postcards from the banks of a Swiss lake.

– Last Sunday’s Newsletter: And Now, Yoga (Yoga Day Special)

As always, I look forward to your comments, feedback, suggestions and article contributions. Do share this email with those you think may be interested so that they can also and join the wiser-living movement!

Wishing you a lovely Sunday wherever in the world you may be.

Warm regards,
Shruti Bakshi
Editor, the LivingWise Project

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

A Sanctuary of Peace Atop a Bangkok Hill

Bangkok is truly a city that never sleeps. At all hours of the day and night, tuk tuks and bright pink taxis zip past street food stalls loaded with steaming pots of tom yum kung. Street sellers hawk their wares, ranging from illegal copies of blockbuster movies to counterfeit Nike sneakers. Wrinkly old women brew potions made of Chinese herbs in the city’s traditional pharmacies. Bangkok is modern and traditional, Asian and Western, all at the same time. There is a buzz and energy to the city that can be matched by few other metropolises. This has made the Thai capital into not only a favourite tourist destination, but also a hub for art and design that attracts creative minds from all over the world.

 

Read this article & more in the LivingWise Project Digest

 

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.

 

An Evening of Dance (Reflections on Art)

Sri Aurobindo once wrote:

“The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really fitted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development”

– Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo (CWSA), Vol. 1, p. 439

A dance-drama titled, Beyond Names triggered the following reflections. Produced by a Secundarabad-based organization, Our Sacred Space, the performance “celebrates the paths by which we seek the Essence. Whatever way we choose to acknowledge it. It is but One Energy – to which we assign the name of our choice.” (programme brochure).

The title Beyond Names sounded highly appealing – a movement through the various forms to the essential one, the formless; going via and beyond the varied names to the one eternal nameless. The performance featured Odissi dance by Nayantara Nanda Kumar, storytelling and poetry recitation.

The performance began with the traditional invocation to the gods, the universe and the audience, with the dancer performing Panchadevata Mangalacharan (salutations to five deities – Ganesha, Jagannatha/Vishnu, Rudra, Surya, and Shakti). This was followed by Sthai Nato, a pure nritta piece.(1)

For the abhinaya (2) component, a Hindi poem about a barbaric act of violence committed during inter-religious communal riots was evocatively recited by the dancer’s mother, a librarian and storyteller, while the dancer portrayed the emotions of the story. The combination of dance and storytelling was meant to evoke a certain kind of educative experience. But somehow it failed to do so, at least for me. Only on a couple of brief occasions I felt momentary emotional pull, perhaps because of the story’s emotional content. Overall, this particular performance failed to move me.

For the arts to be an education for the soul, two things are necessary: the artist’s ability to evoke a certain kind of experience through the chosen art form; and the learner or spectator’s readiness and receptivity. Maybe I wasn’t receptive enough that particular evening, maybe I couldn’t open myself enough to take ‘in’ the experience. Or just maybe I couldn’t ‘feel’ a movement beyond the outer phenomenon to the Essence, beyond the names and forms to the Nameless and Formless, beyond the seen to the Unseen, beyond the violence to the Peace.

All the pieces following the abhinaya (Prayer for Peace – Moving Meditation, Transforming Anger, Jung ya Aman) relied exclusively on words, gentle movement, poetry recitation, and a video clip of an interview with a spiritual teacher, and had no dance component. According to the brochure the performance hoped to address the following:

“We are witnessing a revival of fundamentalism of various hues. We are encouraged to believe that the religion we profess is the “best”, unlike the “other” that is rabid/discriminatory/primitive, little realizing that it is the notion of “best” that contains the seed of violence.

“War is but the orchestrated version of the violence that we allow in thought, word and deed. War brutalizes both victor and vanquished and makes violence acceptable, leaving a trail of broken homes, broken families, broken lives…

“Beyond Names asks: Can we not evolve ways that are non-judgemental, inclusive, loving? For, in truth, there is no “other”. To hate another is to hate ourselves….to embrace another is to embrace ourselves. Is that not the Essence that all of us seek…to be able to live in peace with ourselves?”

 I was hoping that the performance would somehow gradually and gently ease the audience into a quieter place of awareness – even if only for a few moments – of the Essence beyond all names and forms, into a place where such questions of violence, war and fundamentalism would be silenced, just for those moments.

Sadly, that never happened. The experience didn’t take me to that place. Even the concluding dance piece titled Moksha and Shanti Mantra failed to do so, perhaps because it ended rather quickly before I could really ‘immerse’ into it or ‘flow’ with the vibration of Peace that it was meant to evoke.

The experience just kept me mentally engaged with questions such as: a) why an exclusive focus on only one particular “name” of religious fundamentalism – Hindu; b) why use a sensationalist-headline type of story to illustrate the deep-rooted violence hidden in the imperfect human nature; c) why not use dance and movement to express the idea of mindfulness instead of a spiritual teacher’s words; d) why use a video featuring more words instead of dance; and a few more.

More questions came later, particularly about the educative role of art (the second purpose of art, as per Sri Aurobindo). What kind of educational experience should art evoke, and in what ways? Are there possible ways through which art can take the audience to a deeper place within or a higher place beyond mind, even if for a split second, where the questioning mind is silenced and a subtler learning begins?

Many artists and art forms take on an ‘educative’ role as their raison d’être these days. But are they really able to do so? Art definitely has an educational purpose, but not through dry intellect or through a sensationalist-vitalistic provocation or activism. Art educates by a subtle training of the intellectual faculty as it helps make the mind quick to grasp at a glance, subtle enough to distinguish shades and deep enough to reject shallow self sufficiency. Art raises images in the mind which it has to understand not by analysis, but by self-identification with other minds, thus helping the mind become mobile, subtle, delicate, swift, and intuitive (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 449).

Art is suggestive and can arouse a sense of sympathetic insight. The intellect habituated to the appreciation of art becomes quick to catch suggestions, mastering not only that which is positive and on the surface, but also that which leads to ever fresh widening and subtilising of knowledge. (ibid.)

But to truly fulfil even its educative role, Art must first discover its essential purpose.

“…the highest Art is that which by an inspired use of significant and interpretative form unseals the doors of the spirit. But in order that it may come to do this greatest thing largely and sincerely, it must first endeavour to see and depict man and Nature and life for their own sake, in their own characteristic truth and beauty; for behind these first characters lies always the beauty of the Divine in life and man and Nature and it is through their just transformation that what was at first veiled by them has to be revealed. The dogma that Art must be religious or not be at all, is a false dogma, just as is the claim that it must be subservient to ethics or utility or scientific truth or philosophic ideas. Art may make use of these things as elements, but it has its own svadharma, essential law, and it will rise to the widest spirituality by following out its own natural lines with no other yoke than the intimate law of its own being.”

– Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 229-230

Art may be inspired by or make use of any aspect from Life and Nature, from current events to timeless tales, from social issues to eternal truths, but in order for it to rise up to its aim in opening the door to the Spirit, it must express what it sees in their essential truth and beauty, beyond and beneath what is on the surface. The essential law, the svadharma of Art is to express through a specific form the formless essence, the very ‘is-ness’ of the thing it chooses to depict.

Even in its educative role Art must not steer away from its svadharma and reduce itself to being merely provocative, reactive, sensationalist or sentimental. When Art becomes Activism and stays only at that level, it may cease to be Art.

“The highest and most perfect Art, while satisfying the physical requirements of the aesthetic sense, the laws of formal beauty, the emotional demand of humanity, the portrayal of life and outward reality….reaches beyond them and expresses inner spiritual truth, the deeper not obvious reality of things, the joy of God in the world and its beauty and desirableness and the manifestation of divine force and energy in phenomenal creation.”

– Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 450

(1) Nritta: abstract dance, where the body makes patterns in space with no particular meaning attached to any gesture or movement. While various mudras are used in nritta, they are not meant to convey any story.
(2) Abhinaya:  a tradition of story-telling in Indian classical dances, Abhinaya is a word which literally means ‘leading towards’, that is, leading the audience towards an experience of a particular rasa. These stories may be puranic, mythological, legends or even contemporary.

Yoga Day Countdown: Day #2

Asana #9: Naukasana (Boat pose)

After the Tadasana (Mountain pose), Katichakrasana (Standing Spinal Twist), Trikonasana (Triangle pose), Ashvasthasana , Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), Shashankasana (Hare pose), Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist) and Gomukhasana (Cow’s face pose), this is the ninth asana in our selected progression.

Naukasana
Naukasana

How it’s done

Lie down on your back and keep your eyes open throughout this asana. Breath in deeply, hold the breath and then raise the legs, arms, shoulders, head and trunk off the ground. Stretch the arms out as if trying to reach the toes. Balance the body on the buttocks and keep the spine straight. Remain in the final position for a count of 5. Return to the starting position and breath out. You can practice 3 to 5 rounds of this asana.

The video below provides a demonstration.

Interesting asana facts

  • Stimulates the muscular, digestive, circulatory, nervous and hormonal systems
  • Tones all the organs and removes lethargy
  • Useful for eliminating nervous tension and inducing deep relaxation
  • May be performed before Shavasana for deeper relaxation
  • Can be practiced until and including the second trimester of pregnancy

Read also: Yoga Day Countdown Day #3: Gomukhasana

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Yoga Day Countdown: Day #3

Asana #8: Gomukhasana (Cow’s face asana)

After the Tadasana (Mountain pose), Katichakrasana (Standing Spinal Twist), Trikonasana (Triangle pose), Ashvasthasana , Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), Shashankasana (Hare pose) and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist), this is the eighth asana in our selected progression.

Gomukhasana
Gomukhasana

How it’s done

Sit with both legs stretched out in front of you. Bend the left leg from the knee and sit on the sole of the left foot. Now bend the right leg and place it over the left leg in such a manner that the right knee is directly above the left knee. Stretch the right arm over and behind the back and fold it in such a way that the inner arm touches the ear. Now take the left hand back and  grip the fingers of the right hand, locking both hands. Repeat it on the other side.

The video below provides a demonstration:

Interesting asana facts

  • If practiced for 10 minutes or more, it alleviates tiredness, tension and anxiety
  • Relieves backache, sciatica, rheumatism and general stiffness of the shoulders and neck
  • Improves posture by increasing energy, awareness, and generally opening the chest area
  • Alleviates cramps in the legs and makes the leg muscles supple
  • Alleviates knee pain

Read also: Yoga Day Countdown Day #4: Ardha Matsyendrasana

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And Now, Yoga Day (Why 21 June ?)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (read more on this book), considered by yogis as the ultimate yoga handbook (even if only of 195 sutras), opens with the words:

अथ योगानुशासनम् (atha yoganushasanam)

This may be translated as “and now, the discipline of yoga”. Many commentators consider these words to be quite an abrupt start to a discussion on yoga. Some commentators don’t make much of these opening words while some note the word ‘anushasanam’ meaning ‘self-discipline’ which they stress is the foundation of yoga.

As Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev explains, the significance of these words is essentially that yoga can only be approached in earnest when one is ready for it. And one is usually ready for it when one has had their fill of life’s wine of materialism and realised that it hasn’t gotten them the everlasting high they hoped it would. “Now what?” Now, yoga.

It seems increasingly like humanity as a collective whole is reaching this point quite rapidly. That’s not to say that they collectively also realise it or know what to do about it. However the many enlightened beings who foresaw the state of our world in this century (like Sri Aurobindo, Vivekananda and Yogananda Parmahansa to name a few) as well as those who walk in our midst today, all stress the importance to humanity to take up the tools of yoga. Patanjali’s words, being timeless, seem to also directly address the world today.  In an age speeded along at a frenetic pace by technology, it is imperative that we know the stability and peace that yoga can bring to our lives. In times of rapid change, the need to find the eternal becomes more intense. The time has come, now yoga.

 

Significance of Yoga Day on 21 June

In 2015, thanks to the efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 21 June was declared as the International Day of Yoga by the United Nations. The resolution set a record for being supported by the highest number of countries at the UN (175 out of 193).

21 June is the summer solstice, when the sun turns southwards in the sky in the northern hemisphere. In Indian culture, the phase of the sun in its ~6 month southward run is called Dakshinayana. This phase is referred to as sadhana pada or the phase when one should focus on sadhana i.e. spiritual practices (the phase of the sun’s northern run is called Uttarayana which is the kaivalaya pada, gnana pada or period associated with Samadhi). Dakshinayana is for purification and receptivity and Uttarayana is for fulfilment and enlightenment.

According to yogic sciences, the summer solstice has a significant impact on the human system. If one were to understand the human body in relation to these two phases of the sun, then the lower 3 chakras (energy centres) of the body (Muladhara, Swadhisthana and Manipura) can be more easily purified during Dakshinayana and the higher 3 chakras (Vishuddha, Ajna and Sahasrara) can be more easily purified during Uttarayana. Hence the significance of sadhana involving the body such as yoga-asanas, during Dakshinayana beginning at the summer solstice.

 

From gross to subtle

Yoga, in essence, is about aligning with the cosmic. At the gross level, this involves yoga-asanas to align our inner geometries with the cosmic geometries. All spiritual practices aim at leading the individual from the gross to the subtle. The practices themselves too can be seen as evolving from gross to subtle as the sadhak advances on the path. What starts out as yoga-asanas or pranayama, focusing on the body and breath, ultimately leads one to the subtler practice of the real yoga, uniting with the Divine within.

So, I’m not going to shake my head too strongly at the sporty yoga practitioners who seem focused on the bodily and health benefits of yoga. There’s many ways to start and all are welcome because truly, it’s time for yoga.

For sources and more information about Dakshinayana, see articles by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev here and here.

Read also: 5 Reasons Why Yoga is Better than Gymming

 

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Yoga Day Countdown: Day #5

Asana #6: Shashankasana (Hare pose)

After the Tadasana (Mountain pose), Katichakrasana (Standing Spinal Twist), Trikonasana (Triangle pose), Ashvasthasana and Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), this is the sixth asana in our selected progression.

How it’s done

Kneel on the floor/ground with knees close together. Bring the toes together, separate the heels and slowly sit on your heels. Inhale and raise your arms above your head, keeping them straight and shoulder-width apart.  Now, exhale and bend the trunk of your body forward from the hips, keeping the arms and head straight and in line with the trunk. In the final position, the hands and forehead should rest on the floor/ground in front of the knees.

Caution: The asana should not be performed by people suffering from very high blood pressure, slipped disc or vertigo.

The video below provides a demonstration:


 

Interesting asana facts

  • Stretches and strengthens the back muscles
  • Separates the individual vertebrae from each other, releasing pressure on the discs and helps them in resuming their correct position
  • Regulates the functioning of the adrenal glands
  • Regular practice relieves constipation
  • Beneficial for both the male and female reproductive organs
  • Induces a deep sense of relaxation

Read also: Yoga Day Countdown Day #6: bhujangasana

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The Alchemy of Suffering and Freedom

The capacity to think and remember brings with it an acute feeling of separation and impending loss. We suffer both because we want more and are fearful that we will be deprived of what we have. A quiet scream rises inside when we remember that we have seen beauty but don’t know how to hold on to it.

But is suffering the human condition? Is it the basic nature of life, programmed, if you will, into the game of life? And must we, as many experts expound, simply change our attitude towards negative happenings and get on with it? “Think positive”, “Suffering is optional” are catchy phrases but is there a more existential explanation of what suffering is in the human context and is there a way of transforming this poison of life into nectar?

Samudra Manthan

The sea with its ebb and flow, high and low tides, the emptying of all rivers into the one ocean appears to describe our experience of life. The allegory of the Samudra Manthan (1) (churning of the ocean) holds many exquisite truths. It’s almost as if the more the waters of this legend are churned, the more they reveal the mystic secrets (just like the gifts emerging from the ocean in the legend itself). In an earlier article we looked at how the Samudra Manthan helps us understand the spiritual dimension of Ayurveda.

Samudra manthan, churning of the ocean with the devas on the right and asuras on the left. Vishnu’s Kurma (turtle) avatar supports Mount Mandhara at the base

The story illustrates how life is a dynamic interplay between the positive and negative, between light and dark, between good and bad. In the legend, the asuras (demons) and devas (lower gods) together churn the ocean of milk for the many gifts the ocean contains, the most coveted of which is the nectar of immortality. The churning of the ocean symbolises human life out of which emerge experiences that are either positive (gifts going to the devas) or negative (gifts going to the asuras).

The Samudra Manthan is symbolic of the truth that in the experience of life, duality is a given which means that illness, misery, failure and so on are as programmed into the game of life as are health, joy and success. Our suffering is due to these oppositions within us, which we are unable to bridge in any permanent way. At best, one can hope to dance between these oppositions and hope that one doesn’t trip in the process.

The poison of nothingness

The Samudra Manthan story describes not only the dualities of materiality and the spirit but also a deeper existential threat that arises in the form of an existential poison (halaahal). The poison threatens both the devas and the asuras and indeed all creation until Shiva (who is a witness to the churning and represents cosmic awareness) drinks it.

The poison is held by Shiva in his throat, turning it blue, hence his name ‘Nilakantha’ or blue-throated, and it generates tremendous heat in his body. The temple ritual of pouring water and milk over the shiva-linga is symbolic of cooling this heat. The ritual is sacred theatre to connect the worshiper to a deeper experience of the Self.

The poison is the existential dread of nothingness that afflicts existence. If it were to seep into one’s cells, that is the end of life. By holding it within his being, Shiva transforms the fear of nothingness into auspicious salvation. In this paradox lies the exchange of fear for Grace.

 

 

In the world but above it

The seven chakras in the human body
The seven chakras in the human body

A yogic interpretation of the symbolism may be that the poison is held in the throat at the vishuddha chakra, the chakra associated with filtering and discrimination, which lies at the intersection of the higher and lower centres of consciousness.

The poison emerging out of the play of life is thus willingly held by the experiencing Self (Shiva) in a way that both allows the lower energy centres to carry on the play of life and the higher consciousness centres to remain unaffected. In other words, the Self allows the play of duality, participating willingly for the sake of experience while at all times remaining untouched. Looked at another way, the only reason we can endure the churning of the ocean, the unceasing change that is life, is because we are the Self (Shiva), a dimension beyond, the unchanging one.

This is the central idea in Indian spiritual traditions that one can realise one’s higher Self while being a willing player in the game of life. The idea is often expressed through the metaphor of a lotus that blooms in a pond of mud while remaining spotlessly clean. It is the call to rise above maya or illusion by recognising the world as a divine play (leela) and being the witness (sakshi) of the play.

This is not the same as adopting a certain attitude or chanting positive affirmations, which though guiding us towards the light still keep us trapped in duality. This is about the realisation of the nature of our existence. It is neither about doing, nor undoing, but just simply being.

(1) For more and related information, see article here.

 

Read also: the Spiritual Foundations of ayurveda

Yoga Day Countdown: Day #7

Asana #4: Ashvasthasana

After the Tadasana (Mountain pose), Katichakrasana (Standing Spinal Twist) and Trikonasana (Triangle pose), this is the fourth asana in our selected progression.

Ashvasth means assurance in Sanskrit. This asana helps in leading our lives with confidence and assurance.

Ashvasthasana
Ashvasthasana

How it’s done

Stand straight with both feet together. Lift the left arm upward, then the right leg backward and stretch the right arm out to the right side in line with the shoulder. In this position, the palm of the right hand should be facing downward. Remain in this position as long as comfortable. Repeat on the left side.

(Note: this is only a short description – asanas should never be learned just by reading about them)

Interesting asana facts

  • Increases the capacity of lungs to inhale more oxygen and thereby helps to cure breathing problems
  • Very beneficial for asthma patients
  • Shoulders becomes strong and broad
  • Induces a sense of balance

Read also: Yoga Day Countdown Day #8: TriKONasana

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