This Newsletter is way overdue, and I am sorry about that.
The Newsletter was conceived as a forum for Centered Yoga teachers to share their experiences both as practitioners as well as teachers.
So far I have received only one article.
As I have a ranch with many animals, am teaching many courses, and otherwise have a private life like everyone else, I cannot produce a six-page Newsletter on a monthly basis. Therefore this letter will from now on Bi-monthly.
Hatha yoga: a spiritual path?
Many times I have been asked if I only taught Hatha yoga, or also meditation.
In other words, if I did only ‘physical’ yoga or also ‘spiritual’.
The word ‘spiritual’ is an interesting word. Let us look at Wikipedia:
The English word spirit (from Latin spiritus “breath”) has many differing meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body. The word spirit is often used metaphysically to refer to the consciousness or personality.
It has been my understanding that this ‘breath’ or ‘consciousness’, being non-corporeal (contrasting with the physical body), cannot be defined in the words of the frontal brain (the physical body). Words, being of the past, of the known, of things learned and memorized, of ‘descriptions of objects’, belong to the frontal brain, and cannot describe something as ephemeral as ‘breath’ or ‘consciousness’.
So the multi-million dollar question is: ‘Can the brain be conscious?
Personally I think not.
To be ‘conscious’ of a flower in the sunshine, of a bird on the wing, of a cool breeze on the face, the brain has to be silent.
Silence is the garden in which consciousness flowers.
The brain is too slow, thoughts cannot keep up with ‘reality’ that, according to modern physics, changes every millisecond.
Plato’s allegory of the cave has maybe some clue:
«Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato’s Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners».
To come back to Hatha yoga and meditation.
Let us look again at Wikipedia:
The word meditate stems from the Latin root meditatum, i.e. to ponder.
We are back to words, thoughts, ideas, thinking about ideas.
Can we compare the brain to the ‘cave’, and the shadows and the interpretations that the people give to them the descriptions given of the ‘real’ things outside the cave?
When we talk about ‘spirituality’, this does not mean the description of reality, but a direct ‘perceiving’ the spirit, that ‘something’ that is in all life, in the plants, the
animals, the clouds and in human beings.
All religions have tried to give it a name, but the Nameless cannot be caught in words.
Hatha yoga and meditation are only words without any meaning beyond what human beings assign to them.
To perceive the ‘spirit’ of all things, we do not need to do yoga or meditation.
All we need to do is to perceive.
An analytical approach to Back Bends
The human body is the only body that walks habitually on two legs on the ground.
Birds also walk, or can walk, on two legs on the ground, but their habitat is mainly in the air and in trees.
Some mammals (bears, chimpanzees etc.) can walk short distances on two legs, but have to then revert back to a four legged position.
In the four-legged position the spinal column is suspended horizontally between the two shoulder blades and the two hip joints, and therefore has limited movement.
In the two-legged position this is not the case. The spine is vertical, and is wedged at the bottom in between the sacroiliac joints, but at the top end swings freely, thus giving the spinal column the impression of being a bamboo rod that is held at the bottom, but for the rest is free to bend in any direction.
We can thus see in all cultures that human beings, right from the beginning, have exploited this capacity in spiritual and other rituals. We can think of the Egyptians, the Minoans and their bull acrobatics, and other cultures that included acrobatics.
Hatha yoga, which has its roots in India, has two components:
Ha = the sun
Tha = the moon.
Hatha yoga could be described as finding an equilibrium between the ‘sun’ or heating function of the human body, and the ‘moon’ or cooling function. Something like the Japanese Yin-Yang symbol.
It is always confusing to look at a foreign culture of several thousand years with modern Western eyes.
For the sake of simplifying, lets us say that the ‘sun’ is an exciting or heating hormone like adrenaline, while the ‘moon’ is a hormone like endorphins, a kind or morphine created in the bodyand, and has a calming or cooling effect on the brain.
These hormones are produced within the body itself, and, if in balance, keep the body healthy and the mind clear.
Whereas adrenaline, which is produced in moments of stress or anxiety, is healthy in small amounts (it is also called the hormone of survival, as it prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response), in bigger amounts and for a long time, it is unhealthy.
In Hatha Yoga we find both those postures that stimulate adrenaline (heating postures), and those that stimulate the endorphins (cooling postures).
We can say in general that, when the spinal column is bent backwards, the adrenals are stimulated to produce adrenaline, and when it is bent forwards, the body is stimulated to produce a calming hormones. This is why Back Bends create heat in the body, while Forward Bends make the body cool.
Adrenaline is produced in the adrenals at the back of the body. These glands are massaged and stimulated in all the Back Bends. Therefore it is always recommended to perform first these postures, which heat the body and excite it, and then finishing the practice with a calming or cooling posture like Paschimottanasana to neutralize the excess adrenaline.
Thus we find in Hatha Yoga these antagonists:
Back Bends (adrenaline) – Forward Bends (calming/cooling hormones)
Head balance (adrenaline) – Shoulder balance (calming/cooling hormones).
I can also imagine that the posture, in which the belly is exposed like in Back Bends, is, for the amygdala (the primitive survival brain), an extremely scary and adrenaline producing posture, as this is the vulnerable part of the body where a would-be predator would attack , while the calming posture would be the fetus posture assumed in the protective womb which you find in all postures where the body is curled into itself, like in Forward Bends.
Bending the spinal column backwards is rarely done in daily life. One may overstretch to reach the upper shelf of a cupboard, or arch the back in a yawning and stretching moment, but that is more or less it.
In Hatha Yoga we find different types of Back Bends, depending on whether they are done from the ground upwards, or from standing or kneeling downwards, whether they are done lying on the stomach, or lying on the back, whether they are produced by the back muscles themselves, or by the force of the legs and arms, where the spinal column is more or less parallel to the ground, or where it is more or less vertical.
For simplicity sake I differentiate these between ‘active back bends’ and ‘passive back bends’.
‘Active back bends’ are those postures where the spinal muscles are above the spinal column and pull the spinal column up into the back arch. In these postures the back faces upwards towards the ceiling and the frontal part of the body faces downwards.
In this category we find all the Shalabhasana postures, Bhujangasana I, Urdhvamukha Svanasan, Dhanurasana, Padangustha Dhanurasana I, Rajakapotasana I and II and Bhujangasana II.
‘Passive back bends’ are those postures where the spinal muscles are underneath the spinal column and push the spinal column up into the back arch. In other words, those postures where the back faces the floor. In this category we find Purvottanasana, Ustrasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana, Ekapada Urdhva Dhanurasana, Dvipada viparita dandasana, Ekapada viparita dandasana I and II, Chakra bandhasana, Kapotasana, Laghu vajrasana, etc. In these postures it is the force of the legs (feet) and the arms (hands) that push the body up into the arch.
The third category, where the spinal column is more or less vertical, engages mostly the kidneys: Vrischikasana I and II, Ganda bherundasana, Ekapada rajakappotasana I, II, II and IV, and Natarajasana I and II. In these postures the spinal muscles need to work upwards against gravity along the spinal column, with the center of action the kidneys. In order to support the kidneys and the lumbar spine one needs to have well developed abdominal muscles, without which the lumbar spine would sag onto the thighs. Both the abdominal muscles and the kidneys need to have a strong upward thrust to save the body from collapsing.
As the passive Back Bends are more extreme than the active Back Bends, and potentially can weaken the spinal column, specially the lumbar spine, it is advisable to start beginners off with the active ones for at least six months, and even for a more seasoned practitioner to at least once a week practice these postures to maintain the tone of the spinal muscles.