Upayas for Sacred Somatic Journeying

Upaya is a lovely Sanskrit word referring to a sacred skill or practice, sacred in the sense of helping to move toward a deeper realization of the non-dual nature of Self, infinite stillness and effortless flow. When hatha yoga is an upaya, that is, not just physical exercise, or something that lays the groundwork for more ‘spiritual practices’,  what eventually emerges is the realization that asana practice is profound vehicle for somatic sacred journeying. Here, the soul travels to realms of existence radically different from the every day world, expanding our sense of what is real, meeting teachers and guides on other planes, gathering clues about our own personal life adventure, and returning with gifts and lessons from these other realms to help foster the deep healing and awakening desperately needed on this planet, right now.
Patanjali offers a hint of some of the possibilities in sutra
I-40:  paramaanu-parama-mahattvaanto’sya vashikaarah
Mastery (of one who has refined the mind) extends from the smallest particle to the totality of creation.

My introduction to somatic sacred journeying came in 1979 when I discovered Itzhak Bentov’s book ‘Stalking the Wild Pendulum’, an amazing exploration of science and consciousness. Bentov was a bio-medical engineer, a meditator, and, although I did Stalking_Wild_Pendulum_July_2012not realize it at the time, a serious shaman. Bentov, who died in a plane crash in 1979, had been journeying through non-local reality for years. He discovered that he could enter the hynogogic state between waking and sleep by lying in a bath tub filled with very hot water, and first used this to help solve engineering challenges. Then other surprises came to him.

He left extensive notes which were edited and published by his wife Mirtala as  “A Cosmic Book” in 1988. SWP was written ‘sort of seriously’, as Ben was trying to speak to the scientific community about meditative experiences. In  “A Cosmic Book’,nirvana-copy originally imagined as a comic book, he went ‘all in’, describing the adventures of a soul traveling through higher and higher octaves of creation, meeting devas and angels, all with an amazing lightness and sense of humor. As as we are in a kidney phase,  I have to include this quote:

“Suppose we could project our consciousness into our kidney and strike up a conversation with  single kidney cell. We would ask the kidney cell, “Would you tell me please, what do you do here?” The kidney cell, a very simple little fellow, will probably mumble something to the effect, “Look mister, I just work here. Why don’t you ask the Human-kidney-adjusted-27543047boss?” We go to the boss who is the kidney itself. It is the consciousness of all the kidney cells put together. The kidney right away rattles off all the good things the kidney does for the body. It tells you how it cleans the blood of harmful substances and how it regulates the components of the blood to achieve a balance among them. It is not ashamed to throw in a bit of propaganda, just in case, saying that without the kidney we wouldn’t last very long. We are very impressed with the performance, offer our thanks for the explanation and turn to the liver. The same thing happens: the single cell turns out to be relatively ignorant, while the composite consciousness of all the cells in the liver is an intelligent being and an expert in its field.”

Many years later, today, my own inner vision is finally opening to Bentov’s insights, as my explorations in asana, Continuum and BMC, the Tao’st micro-cosmic orbit meditation, active dreaming and sacred geometry and more are converging in my practice and teachings. In order to help as many people as possible join me on these cosmic adventures, I am offering some simple upayas that can be very helpful to any and all interested in the art of somatic sacred journeying.

First: Cultivate ‘Mindfulness’ so you can fully inhabit the present moment. The past is always available, as are the many possible futures, but do not ‘get lost’ in them. There is a sense of spaciousness that arises when consciously mindful, and this spaciousness is our playground.

unknown-1Second: Become very familiar with what Bonnie calls ‘cellular breathing’. Simply put, it is feeling the radial expanding and condensing of our energy, like the action of the Hoberman sphere. Feel this as your whole body breathing, and then practice bringing this image/feeling anywhere in the body you wish to explore. This is the beginning of tracking energy flow in the body. Have this available, in the background, every moment, every day. Bring it to the front when needed.

Third: Discover and embody tubularity. From a single cell, we embryologically emerge into tubes, with a head and tail, top and bottom. This gives us a very specific orientation in the human upright posture, head to the heavens, tail to the earth. To the  radial cellular breathing, we now can track energy flows up and down the main axis. This can structurally include the gut body, the spinal column and the spinal canal, and Unknown-1energetically, the thrusting vessel/chakra line. Also, our limbs are tubes, as are blood vessels and the interiors of the long bones. Tubes everywhere. ‘Climbing the Wall’ is a great way to explore the vertical axis.

Metaphorically, the cosmic tubular being is Adhishesa, the coiled and resting cobra880 (yin) that can rise upward (yang).  Also known as Ananta, the serpent of infinity is invoked by Patanjali in his second sutra on asana, II-47: pra-yatna shaithilyaananta sam-aa-pattibhyaam.  With the release of effort and absorption in the limitless (posture is mastered).

Fourth: Learn to track the quality energy flow in your body. Begin with clearly recognizing when you are over-working, felt as a contracting/tightening, and learn to back off. In a overly yang culture, overworking is often encouraged as a ‘good’ thing, and its all about the muscles, so this is not an easy habit to overcome. You will probably find that the same muscles overwork over and over, even in different poses.

Then feel when there is collapse or dullness. As you become more sensitive, you will find much of the dullness comes from the more yin organs. (Organs have both yin and baby seanyang qualities, in varying degrees, but in general, muscles are yang and organs yin.) Both Infants and young children are very alive in their organs, and this gives their movements a lightness and effortlessness. Unfortunately, the effects of socialization gradually override their inner vibrancy and the organ energy gets lost.

Fifth: Learn to work with ‘Container and Contents’: When there is neither overworking or dullness, you have Canadian-scientist-approached-to-harvest-seaweed-for-anti-aging-productsvibrancy and you will begin to feel that you have an inside and an outside, a container, and contents. Both are dynamic and alive, flexible, and yet stable. Begin to ‘snorkel’ through your ‘contents’, the inner ocean. Swim in, around and through your organs, blood vessels and whatever other surprises you may encounter. This is ‘somatic meditation’. Like the fish and kelp, also be moved by the IMG_8006inner currents and tides. Be as receptive as possible. Take this feeling into your explorations on a block, floating, rather than doing. This is the ‘yin’ to the more dynamic, actively swimming ‘yang’.

Sixth: recognize and play with the ‘fractal nature’ of life. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself at all levels of existence. The sphere is the first and easiest to recognize. But container and contents is another. Within the contents of the outer container (skin maybe) there are more containers (organs), with more contents (cells, fluids), and themandelbrot cells are containers that hold nucleii, mitochondria, etc.. And your home is a container that holds you, as is your community of friends, Mother Earth, The Solar System, and so on. Bentov was a real master of navigating this spectrum of being. (You have to read “A Cosmic Book”, again)

Seventh: Awaken to you dream life: Keep a journal and take notes, even if they are just fragments. Invite your dream world to come more into view. Journeying involves becoming more and more familiar with the nature of dream.

Qi gong ImageEighth: Strengthen your imagination. This is the beginning of the micro-cosmic orbit meditation, where you imagine energy traveling in a circle and you imagine the energy traveling between various key points along the circuit. In time, there will be sensation in the energy field and tissues and you will be able to ‘feel’ the field, just as you can feel the energy between two magnets.

Also, create a sacred garden or any sort of sacred space, in the imaginal realm, and work with it. Active practice engaging this important ‘vrtti’, invoking all your senses. What can you hear? What do you want to smell and see? Add to it, modify it. Notice when it begins to take on a life of its own. Visit it often.

Another aspect of imaginal practice is shape shifting. The asana tradition includes imitating the postures of living beings, from birds and dogs, to locusts, turtles and frogs, to trees IS-7hb911j5fyhpand lotuses (lotii ?). In the imaginal realm, rather than changing the shape of the structural body, allow the spirit of the being to infuse your subtle energy bodies. You can do this in any pose. I am particularly fond of bird and dolphin energy, as they are becoming my guides. It is always good to travel with guides and a support team. And you have to learn to do trees, because they are very powerful doorways to both the lower and upper realms.

This is a discipline that requires practice. Visualization is used in the Tibetan tantric tradition to ultimately discover the non-dual reality that there is no other, no outside, and all forms are of the imaginal realm, impermanent, transient, but also teeming with divine presence. We all inhabit a cosmic playground. The trick is to realize this and then do what you can to make are tiny corner of the cosmos a safe, loving and creative space for all to awaken and enjoy.


Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga

images-3Patanjali gets right to the point in the Samadhi Pada, chapter 1 of his Yoga Sutras addressed to the more experienced students. Wake up, and then stay awake, whatever life and the world tosses at you ! Easy to say, but very difficult to do with grace and equanimity

So, what are some of the practices you can do to help wake yourself up, to continue to let go of habits that are draining you of vital energy, and to keep you growing on as many levels as possible?  Patanjali’s greatest gift to yoga students is the extraordinary number of different practices he presents, and for the student new to spiritual inquiry, he begins chapter 2, the Saadhana Paada, or “On Practice”, with the trinity he calls ‘Kriya Yoga”.

Saadhana comes from the root saadh, which refers to following a required process from beginning to completion. Saadhana is the intense effort of the whole process, not just a portion, so it is not a simple or trivial concept. The three practices introduced in II-1offer a complete saadhana for any and all students.

II-1 Tapah-svaadhyaayeshvara-pranidhaanaani kriyaa-yogah
Kriya yoga (path of action) consists of self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Divine.

If we look closely, we can see Patanjali beginning an expansion of the core practices first introduced in Chapter 1, sutras I-12 – I-16, abhyasa and vairagyam. Self discipline, tapas, is the first stage of abhyasa, choosing to cultivate steadiness of mind and firmness of will power in the study of yoga, day after day, year after year, with patience and persistence. The word discipline comes from the Latin root disciplina referring to instruction given, teaching, learning or knowledge, or discere meaning to learn.

A disciple is one who makes a dedicated effort to study and learn a subject. In the more masculine lineages, discipline takes on a sense of self abnegation, or implies a means of punishing bad behavior, like in a modern high school with a ‘head of discipline’. But discipline does require self control, self restraint and behavior modification. Old habits and patterns of behavior can drain your energy from the focus required to deepen your inquiry. In the time of the Buddha, tapas referred to serious austerities, and he is said to have explored this path and rejected it. Tapas does require a sense of balance in one’s actions.

The discipline of yoga is even more challenging as it requires attention to all aspects of ones life. Unlike the academic studies of algebra or Spanish which are limited in scope, yoga examines the physical, physiological, psychological, emotional, perceptual, cognitive and spiritual dimensions of aliveness. Discipline is not just on the mat, but throughout all aspects of ones entire life, at every level.

Self study, svadhyaya, follows tapas. The Sanskrit root ‘sva‘ refers to the deepest essence of our humanity, stripped away of the ideas, beliefs and conditioning that the mind generates. We can call it the ‘soul’, or the “True Self”. The root’ dhya‘ means to contemplate or meditate, as in ‘dhyana’, the 7th limb of astanga yoga. So svadhyayaa means contemplating on the True Self.

The first expression of svadhyaya is noticing all of the I – me – mine thoughts that claim to be the True Self, and how strongly they shape our behavior and emotional states. These mental constructs are not the ‘Self. They are just thoughts; transient mental activity usurping the throne. This usurping is mentioned in sutra I – 4 as ‘identifying with mind activity’ and is discovered in the meditation practice of just witnessing. Discipline leads to meditation practice which leads to the discovery of these ‘I’ thoughts which are not you. This takes time, as the ‘I thoughts’ and subsequent stories that follow seem be be ever present and never ending, even after years of  meditation practice.

There may be a good reason for this. We all love to tell our own stories, over and over again, and neuroscience claims that narrative is an aspect of emotional growth and development. “The narrative process is thus a fundamental building block of an integrative mode, but insufficient by itself to create coherence across self states through time.” (The Developing Mind, Dan Siegel, pg 324). Insufficient because our stories can get stuck in immature states and stop evolving. In meditation, discipline and self study combine to create a much larger context that can listen to our stories objectively. As Byron Katie asks us to consider, when listening to our own self talk, ‘Is this true? Is this really true? If we are ruthlessly honest with our selves, the answer is usually ‘no’. This story is just the venting/whining of a wounded child who needs love and clarity. You have the rest of your life, and then some to work on this. No short cuts, no instant karma.

Pema Chodron, one of the wisest elders of our times, feels that the key to emotional stability in the face of our inner mental turmoil and self criticism is cultivating friendliness and kindness, images-2(maitri in Sanskrit, metta in Pali), to ourselves. Our whole self/True Self: ‘sees’ the nature of the small selves, their confusion and dysfunction, and thus does not give in to them nor ignore them (the masculine); and simultaneously embraces them with love and acceptance, (the feminine). (Patanjali introduces ‘maitri’ in sutra I-33.)

Discovering and nurturing these masculine and feminine aspects of the True Self comprise the second aspect of svadhyaya. These are often articulately described and unfolded in the spiritual teachings such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita from Vedanta, the molanaHsin Hsin Ming and other writings in Buddhism, and the poetry of Rumi. Nurturing these qualities leads to the beginning of viveka, or discriminative awareness, differentiating Self from not-self, purusha from prakriti, wholeness from separation.

From this discrimination, we learn how to surrender to The Divine, the “Self”, in “Ishvara Pranidhana. In chapter 1, Patanjali devotes several sutras to Ishvara Pranidhana, and it will appear again as part of the 8 limbs (ashtanga) of yoga later in chapter 2. Many beginners raised in a patriarchal religion struggle with the idea of a personal ‘god’, and everyone struggles with the divine as ‘Absolute stillness/emptiness, so the easiest approach is to see Isvara as  ‘Unconditional Love’ manifest as the whole of creation. The heart knows, while the mind argues. Isvara Pranidhana is the practice of unconditional love. Again, easy to say, not so easy to put into practice.

But that is why this is a sadhana, a life long disciplined practice that becomes the unfolding of the deepest layers of our soul as we live fully in the moment, riding the karmic waves of our times.

More Detroit Notes: 7 Sacred Directions

Balance and Energy Flow through the Seven Sacred Directions

UnknownThe gyroscope offers a model to help get us started in our exploration of our embodied energy fields. We have a vertical axis, a radiant horizontal plane, and a center point where they meet. Feel this dynamic spiraling energy in your body so we can locate, inhabit and awaken the seven sacred directions of the cosmos. We will find a center and three pairs or polarities of energies that interact with each other to guide us home to the wholeness of the Sacred Universe, our true nature, or drashtuh svarupe.

In our bodies, our heart is the Center, the place ofimages-1 balance, of home. This is the first direction, the primary direction and organizing center, and is represented by the energies of expanding and condensing as shown in the Hoberman spheres. Energies fills the heart from the other six directions, and the heart radiates energy out to the world through the other directions. The other six directions all find expression of their qualities through the heart as variations of Love

The vertical axis gives us the first of the three pairs of sacred directions and is our connection to the ‘unseen’ or hidden realms of existence, (unseen to our ordinary senses and modes of attention!) Unknown

The second direction is Down, through our root chakra, the muladhara, into Mother Earth, into the deep feminine, the dark underworld of the unconscious, of life at its primal level, unconditioned by social rules and repressions; into the shamanic world of fairies, elves, djinns and nymphs; of plant and animal guides and an ageless wisdom waiting to be rediscovered. We might call this the realm of the “Soul”. Patriarchal cultures are terrified of this realm and have demonized it for millennia. Still happening today, sad to day. If you believe yoga is about gaining controol of the body/mind, than your soul is needing serious nourishment!  Fortunately there is a vast movement diving into ‘Soul”, ‘waking down’, rapidly making its way though many dimensions of modern culture into the world. To dive into the soul in a healthy way, we need the support of all seven directions.

The polar opposite direction, Up, connects us through our crown chakra to the heavenly realms of angels, Buddhas, and no longer embodied enlightened beings and teachers, to the intelligences of other stars and galaxies yet to be noticed on our planet. Traditional, ie patriarchal, forms of spirituality have place ascending, (getting to heaven, kaivalya) as primary or only way of spiritual growth. We are now moving toward an integral approach to spiritual practice that honors, and requires, all directions.

The horizontal plane has the final four directions, two more pairs, also known as the cardinal directions of North, South, East and West. These represent the ‘seen world’, (as opposed the the unseen of the vertical axis) taken in by our five senses. These directions can be seen as references for pairs of skills and talents, life situations and challenges available for us to be cultivated and healed during our time here on the planet. This is a cross cultural model with different attributes and imagery associated with each of the four. They may represent: the four seasons of summer, fall winter and spring; the four cardinal moments of the day: sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight; the four basic elements of earth, water, fire and air. Native Americans use the four directions of the ‘Medicine Wheel’ as map for the sacred journey of life.  For our purposes here we will draw upon observations from Bill Plotkin’s Wild Mind” mentioned in a previous blog, as well as a more traditional yoga perspective and poses, as we embody these possibilities.

East: Sunrise, the front of the body, purva, as in purvottanasana, beginnings and rebirth, springtime. From “Wild Mind” we find the combination of innocence and wisdom leading to simplicity and joyousness, curiosity and a sense of adventure in life. When East is lacking or repressed, we can get dark and heavy, weighted down by West’s connection to death and dying and the challenges of ‘soul’ work.

West: Sunset, autumn, the back of the body, paschimottanasana, endings, letting go, completions, introspection. ‘Wild Mind’: A connection to death and transformation, the underworld, the ‘soul’, to romance that is utterly and darkly mysterious, to our muse that flows from our deep imagination. When West is repressed or lacking, we can become very superficial or trivial as East’s lightness loses the grounding provided by West. This is common in spiritual communities with a charismatic leader with a dark shadow. If we are looking for the ‘light’ but refuse also to see and acknowledge the dark shadowy side that we all, including spiritual teachers, have, we repress our own unconscious pain and confusion. We pretend to be ‘light’ because we believe that is what spirituality is supposed to be about, but our souls suffer deeply when ignored.

North: Midnight, winter, the elders, keepers of the ancient wisdom, the left side of the body. “Wild Mind”: the nurturing adult, the healer, leader; the source of compassion and connection, of belonging. When North is repressed or ignored, we can become selfish and hedonistic as ‘wild youth’ of South loses its way in the world without the guidance of the adults and elders. Modern culture lives with North repressed as most of the ‘leaders’ in politics and business these are terminal self centered adolescents.

South: Noon, summer, the right side of the body, youth. “Wild Mind”:  wild and indigenous, totally home as an embodied being, erotic, instinctually alive and connected to all of the natural world, flowering, traveling, celebrating aliveness. When South is neglected or repressed, we can become overly serious and frozen in our beliefs and attitudes as the adult side loses its wild and youthful balance. The future becomes terrifying and we long for the ‘good old days’ when things were ‘done the right way’.

BKS padmasanaThe Embodied Practice:

Start with any centering pose, sitting or standing. From your heart, open root and crown chakras to open center channel, balance front body with back body, right side with left. Feel centered and alive. Rest in the stillness at the root of the heart. In all poses keep returning here again and again.

Balancing North and South, aka Right and Left. AK-Vira-II-19881-300x236Many standing poses are designed to balance right and left. By doing each side with awareness of center channel and front/back balance, the imbalances can be seen explored, and balanced, as best possible. Go beyond the structure and feel Right/South and Left/North qualities  awakening and growing. Find poses where you can stay long enough to take all this in. In all poses, balance right and left. (Notice that hatha yoga is a very ‘South nurturing’ practice.)images-3-1

images-4-1Balancing East and West, aka Front and Back. Forward bending and back bending poses are obvious. Go beyond the structure to add the qualities of East and West in your explorations. Mild back bends like salabhasana or sphynx  and simple standing forward bends are great ways to play with layers beyond the physical. Keep your back muscles relaxed to feel the West/mystery behind you. It is a scary place so we all tend to hold on, unconsciously. Of course, in all poses, balance front and back.

Balancing Heaven and Earth, head and tail. halasana 1982Inversions, supported when necessary offer an obvious way to balance above and below. But any and all poses allow the sense of up and down, into the earth and up the the sky, weight and lightness.

Integration: The Spiral: Feel how twisting poses allow you to play with all directions simultaneously. Be the gyroscope, and feel how you can spiral up, down or both. How you can turn right, left or both, in any twist. Spin out to the horizon line and back into to your center. Expand your horizons beyond the body, and what you think are your limitations. These poses are really fun.BettySitTwist

Returning to the Source: Unknown-1Savasana: Back into the center, into the stillness, into the mystery.



Moving Out into the World

OB-NU071_ilama0_D_20110505091918When ready, bring all of your qualities, all seven directions, your Whole Self, into the world and live the good life in all of its delightful and challenging aspects.