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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Maintaining Sanity in Stressful Times

"When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves."

- Victor Frankl Man's Search for Meaning

"The self is the isolated ego clinging to its small reality
& the Self is the unbounded spirit that can afford to not cling at all."

- Deepak Chopra

The world around us seems to be getting more and more unstable. Violence, natural disasters, economic crisis, high unemployment confront us on a daily basis. It’s bad enough to hear about it in the news but when it impacts our personal lives our stress level goes way up. This stress impacts marriages and families, physical and mental health. In order to stay sane and healthy we need to be able to maintain an inner balance; a connection to our inner being. This is the true purpose of yoga. As Krishna states “Yoga means perfect evenness of mind.” Or as Swami Satyananda put it, “Yoga helps you to face the ups and downs of life.”

We need to understand that yoga is more than a form of physical exercise. It is a mind-body-spirit discipline. We are multi-dimensional beings and if we limit ourselves to the physical, material level, we miss out on the deeper aspects. If we are completely focused on the external world we lose our connection with inner resources for healing and creating peace, love, harmony and well-being. Yoga helps us to turn inward to engage these resources. I know some people might ask something like, “Isn’t ‘turning inward’ selfish when there are so many problems, so much to do, etc.?” First of all this doesn’t mean retreating into a cave somewhere. It means nurturing yourself daily, which has beneficial effects for everybody around you as well. The daily practice of asana, pranayama and meditation will definitely help you to keep your mental and emotional equilibrium under stress. In addition, your ability to remain calm will help others.

We often fail to realize how much of what we perceive of the external reality is a reflection of our own minds, both on an individual and a collective level. Because we are all interconnected anger, fear, apathy, selfishness and hatred can spread from an individual to infect countless people around him or her. In the same way genuine feelings of peace, kindness, compassion, joy and optimism can spread like a soothing balm. Notice how you react inwardly to an angry expression or a friendly smile. Sometimes you can walk into a room and feel an atmosphere of peace or of hostility. According to yoga our mental and emotional fields extend beyond the limits of our skin.

Yoga is a practical spiritual philosophy. It is applied philosophy rather than scholastic verbal acrobatics. It fosters a genuine spiritual awareness which goes beyond any specific religious orientation. We really are interconnected beings whose essence is divine (although sometimes buried so deeply it’s hard to see.) There are two basic disciplines that underlie the practical application and realization of this philosophy. These are vairagya, or non-attachment and abhyasa, or persistent practice.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean emotional detachment or apathy. Instead it means detaching from our ego-centric position, desires, fears, dislikes, etc. It means being able to detach from our own perspective and appreciate another’s. It might mean stepping back from our overwhelming emotions to gain some peace and clarity. It means accepting “what is” and developing a higher, deeper, broader view moving us into the soul’s perspective.

Persistent practice might mean a regular daily yoga routine. However, it needs to go a lot deeper than perfecting your backward bend to have any real significance. There is no real yoga without meditation. The sitting practices of meditation, furthermore, are ways of training the mind to develop an awareness that we can carry over into daily life. I have had to laugh sometimes at how I could finish a peaceful morning practice and then experience “road rage” within fifteen minutes of leaving home. Persistent practice really means practicing every moment to become more aware, more present and less lost in our personal illusions and delusions.

A Three-step Discipline

The truly wise person understands that all worldly experience
involves suffering because of impermanence, mental conditioning
and inevitable conflicts.

- Patanjali  Yoga Sutras

A big part of maintaining our sanity in this world is to understand that suffering is inevitable. Things don’t always work out perfectly the way we want them to. We face circumstances in life over which we have little or no control. If we are dependent on the outer circumstances of our lives for happiness we are in for trouble. The spiritual path takes us inward to find a core of unshakable inner peace, subtle joy, love and compassion. To truly awaken to our inner being is known as “moksha” or liberation. It is liberation from our dependence on material circumstances for our inner peace and happiness. The liberated person doesn’t withdraw from life into some cocoon however. He or she draws upon this inner strength to face life and to be of service to others.

The Yoga Sutras recommend a three-step discipline for helping us reach this inner core of ourselves. It is referred to as kriya yoga, or active yoga. It is a way of actively engaging in the process of awakening. These three steps are known as “tapas,” or self-discipline, “swadhyaya,” or self-awareness and “Ishwarapranidhana,” or surrender to our Creative Source, or Deeper Self. These three steps are important keys for developing inner peace. I have experienced their benefits in my own life and consciousness (although I am far from perfecting them.)

1. Self-discipline:

The first part of self-discipline or tapas is accepting uncomfortable or painful experiences. It also means developing an attitude or sense of allowing these experiences to purify us, reduce our attachment and limited understanding. Suffering can help take us beyond ego-clinging if we are willing to not fight it. The second part of self-discipline is establishing a steady yoga practice. Yoga practice has little value if we just do it once in awhile, attending a class here or there, meditating now and then and then losing ourselves to unconscious activity. Try making a firm commitment to use yoga practice to develop yourself. It will reduce the suffering of the first part of tapas presented above. Attend classes regularly and learn the best practices for you to do on your own. Consult your teacher on how to develop your own practice.

2. Self-awareness:

Swadhyaya means self-study. It means looking into and at ourselves beyond a superficial level. In learning meditation we talk about developing the “inner witness.” This is a deeper part of ourselves which observes our usual thoughts and activities from a non-attached perspective. Through this perspective we can start to become aware of our unconscious habits of thought and behavior. We can also probe more deeply into our true nature; our true being beneath the surface of things. Meditation is key here, but also learning to observe ourselves “in action,” in our habits of work and play, ways of relating to others and to ourselves. Through practice we develop a relaxed inner vigilance; on-guard for anything which threatens our connection to deeper Self.

3. Surrender:

Ishwarapranidhana means letting go of our ego-centered attempts to be in control of things and accepting the will, intelligence and grace of a higher consciousness. It means letting go of our need to judge, criticize, condemn or manipulate. When we are willing to open ourselves to this infinite creative intelligence, wisdom and love it begins to transform our lives. Faith is needed here and we can develop it little by little if necessary. Through self-awareness we become aware of the fear and doubt within us and through practice we can release them. The ego likes to believe that it is control but how can it be? “The universe,” wrote Douglas Adams, “is a big place, perhaps the biggest.” There is a Universal Consciousness, however, working in and through everything, including us. We can attune to that consciousness through our spiritual yoga practice.


One of the simplest yet powerful and profound practices is mantra repetition, or japa. With regular practice the mantra becomes your instant connection to that place of inner peace. It is a way of redirecting the mind, remembering our connection to the infinite. There are many mantras to choose from but you should choose carefully because you will need to adopt a mantra and work with it for an extended period of time to really feel its power. Mantras are often given in an initiation rite which deepens the connection between a spiritual teacher and a student. The guru empowers the mantra through his or her connection with spiritual energy. Mantras are not autosuggestions, nor are they affirmations. Instead mantras are verbal sound combinations which resonate within our psychic body to bring about awakening. As Swami Satyananda said, “A mantra is a grouping of sound vibrations which have an effect on the mental and psychic consciousness of man.” Meditations from the Tantras The “meaning” that we attach to the mantra is entirely secondary.

“Om” is a mantra which comes to us through the Upanishads, an ancient mystical yoga tradition. Om chanting, or Omkara, is a wonderful practice with many benefits – it helps memory and concentration, can reduce blood pressure, help one to clear away unwanted thoughts and leads to ego-transcendence and Self-realization. Many other mantras include Om as well. “Om Mani Padme Hum” is a popular Tibetan Buddh ist mantra. “Om Namah Shivayah” is a mantra of the Shiva tradition which helps to awaken kundalini. “Om Namo Narayanaya” is a mantra of the Vishnu tradition. Remember that the important thing is that the sound of the mantra resonates with you – not some intellectual meaning. Because of this, proper pronunciation is important, although many would argue that faith is even more important. Faith comes through practice, though, your connection with your guide and with your own inner being.

There are mantras that are not of Sanskrit origin as well. There are Latin and Greek mantras within the Christian tradition, Hebrew mantras, of course, which are connected with both Christian and Jewish faiths. There are Arabic mantras in the Sufi tradition as well. You want to make sure that you are comfortable using the mantra – remember you need to stick with it to know its value. You can even use an English mantra, however, we are moving more in the direction of “meaning,” or closure, rather than opening. Faith does not depend on intellect, which employs symbols to reflect “realities.” Faith is grounded in a part of ourselves which knows that we are intimately connected with the source of being. Deeper and truer than our thoughts, it is our connection with what is beyond name, form, thought or confusion.

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