Brahmacharya: Conservation of Life Force Energy

List of the Yamas

Working with our life force energy is a primary, physical yogic practice. We “stretch the muscles” of that life force with the body and our breath. The philosophical and spiritual aspects of yogic practice are also primary to working with life force energy. Brahmacharya falls into this latter category of working with “mind stuff.” Brahamacharya is one of the Yamas, the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Brahmacharya is the mindful practice of conserving life force energy, making it more available for our spiritual journey.

To focus our life force energy we can start with Asana, the physical body postures of yoga. Asana is probably the most recognizable form of yoga. Most people understand that yoga involves body postures such as downward facing dog, sitting in Lotus posture, or holding some variation of the Warrior postures. And from Asana, we move into the breath practices of Pranayama. Asana and Pranayama are practiced together. Our gateway to generating and directing life force energy is through the body. We move, we breathe. We focus, we transform.

Brahmacharya is the fourth Yama. The Yamas are a listing of ethical guidelines, although not necessarily worked through in a particular order! The 5 Yamas are as follows:

Ahimsa – non-harming
Satya – truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – non-excess
Aparigraha – non-grasping

Taken together, the Yamas give us a way to recognize how we are directing our life force energy with our words, actions, thoughts, and intentions. By examining ourselves in meditation and contemplation, we begin to recognize where we are sending our energy. Another term for life force energy is Prana. And as the saying goes, “Where the mind goes, the prana flows.”

Brahmacharya asks us not to waste our life force energy in excessive behavior. If we become too heavily invested in something (you name it: fame, fortune, sex, money, rock and roll, and so on . . . ) we pour all our life force energy in a single focused direction. Sometimes single focus is needed to achieve goals and to accomplish things. A sign of single focus overload, and imbalance is when we describe ourselves as burned out, wrung out, or stressed out. The ability to bring our energy back in balance allows the life force energy to flow with comfort and ease.

A yoga practice gives a full range of tools to achieve balance. We prime the body for balance by moving the limbs, stretching, holding, centering, and breathing. Breathing deeply and thoroughly. Breathing into the posture, visualizing the breath as it rises up through the body and moves gently downward in a easeful and grounding direction. We engage the muscles and experience the sensations of that muscle activation. The body moves and is stimulated. The nervous system is queued by the breath for either action or to reach a calm state. The mind becomes focused on every experience of the body, and the monkey mind is tamed by being given the task of total awareness. And then we step off the mat!

Yoga has both “on mat” and “off mat” components. Both require yoga practices to develop a keen awareness to our own personal experience of body, mind and emotion. Brahamacharya and the other Yamas of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, and Aparigrapha are off the mat yoga practices. By watching our thinking and questioning our intentions, we may become aware of a mind/spirit imbalance. Here are a few subtle examples of how Yamas may give us opportunities for more balance:

Ahimsa (non-harming, or doing no harm) – we realize we are making judgement calls about a complete stranger. Rather than looking away or avoiding them, we decide to smile and offer a few words of friendly conversation. We do this because we realize others may sense they are being judged and rather than continuing to perpetuate that harm, we choose differently.

Satya (truthfulness) – we notice one day that something we have believed in is a “truism.” It turns out to be fully formed by our personality, upbringing and culture. We may have been believing something simply because “it’s always been done that way.” We realize it isn’t really true, after all. We experience the difference between our distorted thoughts and our own true nature.

Asteya (non-stealing) – after realizing our constant tardiness is an irritation to our family and friends, we decide to stop wasting their precious time. Rather than “stealing” their time by making them wait, we decide to return that valuable item! We show more patience, we offer to do a favor or a task that will lighten their load. We begin to understand we should not take that which is not offered (someone’s time, their energy, their self-respect, etc.).

Brahmacharya (conservation of life force energy, non-excess) – after reading some old journal entries we notice a pattern of negativity. Granted, the journaling project has helped us clarify our feelings. But in this hindsight we realize how much energy we have expended on worry, doubt, and agitation. We decide to start a gratitude journal!

Aparigraha (non-grasping, attachment) – We begin to question why we are hanging on to this idea of the perfect relationship. It’s caused us to “unfriend” people and disengage from others who seem to care for us. We wonder why we are so attached to having some need met, why we keep grasping for some great prize. It’s making us tired and depressed. We decide to give it a name. We call out its name when we see it working its way into our thoughts. Here’s a great story about that very thing: “I see you Mara!”

Brahmacharya helps us consider how we are spending our energy. A practice of Brahmacharya may be one where we take time to watch thought forms in the mind. This can be done on the mat, such as during seated meditation or during Asana. Or off the mat, by developing a “radar system” to detect patterns of excess. Patterns of thought, particularly reoccurring themes may clue you into places where you may want to consider conservation of energy. Developing awareness to sensation in the physical body, emotional activation in the nervous system, and awareness to thought forms are all tools to be sharpened through yoga practice. Through a regular (non-excessive!) yoga practice, a greater sense of balance will be achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

Chair Yoga is still YOGA

Chair yoga at Take Me To The River Yoga
Getting ready for Chair Yoga at Take Me To The River Yoga

Chair Yoga is still YOGA. Still, meaning in the future, as in the past (an adverb). I’m not talking about “still” as an adjective (not moving)! It’s the real deal. When you do yoga in a chair you are STILL doing yoga. You do yoga with all the benefits of movement, breath, and mindfulness. Even if you swear by your uber-active Ashtanga or your hot flow Vinyasa, Chair Yoga may STILL have something to offer you.

We’re still doing Chair Yoga at Take Me To The River Yoga studio in the Wednesday morning 10 am class. It started out with one of my students needing a few more options to the poses in our regular Hatha Yoga practice. She was uncomfortable in our reclined poses. So I combined our favorite yoga poses with Chair Yoga for seated poses, and several options for standing variations using the chair.

As an aside here… people often ask what its like in a typical studio class. My usual response is that it depends on who shows up! My classes do have brief descriptions and titles like Kripalu Yoga, Kripalu Vinyasa Flow, Mindful Yoga, HRV Yoga, Energy Body Yoga, etc. But “It is all Hatha to Me” (I need a t-shirt with this slogan). Hatha Tantric Yoga. Traditional Yoga. Classic Yoga. I teach YOGA to the class. I check in with the students who show up, and adjust the class accordingly. That often means offering several options to the poses, depending on the ease and preference to the anatomy and the energy in the room!

Chair Yoga combines all the elements of a typical Yoga class using the chair as a “prop.” Props like blankets, blocks and straps will be familiar to those students who have practiced yoga. The chair is just another prop. The special prop-erties of the chair are support and comfort for weight, balance and mobility.

Students wary of sitting on the floor, or getting up off the floor come to appreciate the support of a chair in their yoga practice. People with conditions such as ankle, knee or hip pain, low back pain, lack of flexibility, fatigue, shortness of breath may find greater ease by practicing yoga in a chair.

One of the first Chair Yoga practices I experienced was in a 2012 youtube video posted by the Moffitt Cancer Center here in Tampa, Florida. It’s called Gentle Yoga in the Chair. The practice is wonderful and the comments below the video post tell the true story of what this kind of practice can mean for many, many people. I have gone to Chair Yoga school on this video and with many online Chair Yoga videos. Even with a long running personal practice, I find Chair Yoga is still YOGA!

If you relate to the popular yoga meme, “I just came for the Savasana,” you simply must experience Savasana in Chair Yoga. It’s still Savasana!

Running energy and the inner sound current in meditation

I was listening to the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast and heard DT interview Laraaji (starts at about the 16:20 spot on the podcast). The musician formerly known, and sometimes still known as Edward Larry Gordon is Laraaji. He plays an interesting style of ambient, inner sound current music that incorporates zither, mbira, and piano.

The Laraaji interview with Duncan Trussell is over an hour long. It includes comedian DT’s hilarious opening monologue on Christmas, his ads for his podcast sponsors, and other Trussell-esque outtakes.

Ambient 3: Day of Radiance by Laraaji
Ambient 3: Day of Radiance

The interview covered so much philosophical ground, with Laraaji interjecting spiritual nuggets at a rate too fast to take notes! Part of their discussion centered on the start of Laraaji’s musical career, and how he was “discovered” by Brian Eno. With Eno he made the amazing album Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, the third installment of Brian Eno’s ambient music series (Ambient 1-4), of which you must take a listen!

Laraaji spoke about his music as being ambient, field music or having a vertical sound presence. He expressed that with his music he is “running energy.” He used the example of being physically in a place (like Washington Park) but being able to shift awareness into a cosmic place by running cosmic energy. The description was one of being in a unified field, a trance state where the nervous system functions differently.

His expression of what it feels like to play music, while being in a meditative state was well-defined. Often times artists and musicians either cannot or will not verbalize their creative process. For Laraaji, making music is like having electrodes on your body, tapping into a cosmic field, a cosmic time, a cosmic space.

One of the many take-homes from this discussion is when Laraaji starts talking about being tightly identified with labels, categories and titles (about 24:11). He starts describing a meditative practice that starts with a series of suggestions, “I am not the body, I am not a husband, I am not a son, I am not a father . . .” After naming all the titles he’s been given, and taking off all the titles, he sits with what is left.

With this practice he began to realize that each title is associated with a certain samskara of identity of someone he is not. Things like anger, jealousy, and worry don’t belong to him, they belong to the titles! Through this method he explains that he began to make real progress with his meditation practice.

Laraaji mentions many spiritual paths he has taken that have impacted his life and music. One influence was with “New Thought Religion.” The  idea is to try another way. To constantly break out of patterns. “If you can think new thoughts, you can change your life. Choosing new things, choosing new ways. Or hearing new sounds that can unlock memory.”

Duncan Trussell asks Laraaji several BIG questions like, “Are we in heaven? What is cosmic time? Can you talk a little about the Sun? What method do you use to tune into cosmic time? Is there another universe overlaying this universe? Do you currently have a guru? Why is sculpting the field like clay? Are you a teacher? Do you think music is alive?”

I recommend listening to the interview, then finding some of Laraaji’s music. You may want to stay with some of the longer youtube videos that feature him, to hear him speak. He’s been doing music yoga and sound meditation for a long time and has tapped into a higher frequency.

See more about Laraaji on this video “Eternity or Bust – A Short film about Laraaji.”

Trauma and being present in the body

The energy body is more than a metaphor used to describe the activity we associate with the concepts of the chakras and prana. Western science and Eastern philosophy merge with the phrase “energy body,” to refer to the actual, physical reactions to external stimulus. The brains of people who suffer from various levels of trauma exhibit a wide range of physical reactions that can be described as a disconnect with their bodies and are often marked by the inability to be “present” in a way that allows clear focus and concentration.

Trauma, like many complicated ailments that appear as a wide spectrum, is easier to spot in their extreme expression. Recent studies into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are a good illustration of trauma in the extreme because the experiences of people who suffer from PTSD are cut in such stark relief against those who experience mild depression or the stress of everyday life. PTSD can be looked at as  over-the-top trauma that is so extreme as to be  paralyzing in every way: socially, psychologically, physically, emotionally, etc.

It is with great interest to bring together a discussion of two ends of the spectrum – the extremes of either being present in the body or being unable to be present. What are the physical, chemical, energy body reactions that pull us between these opposite poles of being in the world?

Every moment of our lives is characterized by our physical reaction to the world around us. As it turns out (surprise!) we are primarily operating from the emotions and the physical response to our environment. It is a secondary response when we act from our brains logical response to emotional stimulus.

The following article by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist from Boston University who speaks and writes on the topic of PTSD demonstrates surprising details of what goes on in the brain of the traumatized person.

Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD, Bessel A. Van der Kolk, 2006

Around numbered page 10-11 Kolk describes the parts of the brain affected by trauma and explains an actual shutting down of parts of the brain that would normally help us process/understand/integrate our emotions:

Specifically, neuroimaging studies of people with PTSD have found decreased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The medial prefrontal comprises anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and medial parts of the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortices.  The anterior cingulate (ACC) specifically has consistently been implicated in PTSD. The ACC plays a role in the experiential aspects of emotion, as well as in the integration of emotion and cognition. It has extensive connections with multiple brain structures, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, and brain stem autonomic nuclei. Thus, the ACC is part of a system that orchestrates the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and behavioral expression of emotion and may play a key role in the visceral aspects of emotion. – B.A. Van der Kolk

Kolk goes on to discuss the effects of yoga, siting studies involving people practicing yoga. On page 12 he mentions the fascinating studies by Sarah Lazar involving yoga at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a related note, here is Sarah Lazar on TED Talk giving one of the best eight minute “elevator speeches” on the benefits of yoga and meditation and the physical change of thickening our grey matter:

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Bessel A. Van der Kolk is featured on the syndicated radio show, To The Best of Our Knowledge in their show titled “Super Senses,” a broadcast from September 28, 2014. The show is vignette based on the theme of the senses. Skip over to the time on the sound recording 26:35 to hear Van der Kolk describe his research and how we can heal from trauma, starting with the truest statement, “We ARE our bodies!”

Yoga 101 – Exercising the Energy Body

This article was originally posted on March 1, 2011 by Danielle Prohom Olson but it mysteriously disappeared some time in the first two months of 2014 from her blog bodydivineyoga.wordpress.com. I’ve recreated it here because it is an informative piece on the energy body.

heartfield1Yoga, as practiced in the west, is commonly regarded as an exercise system for the physical body. But the ancient yogis of India, China and Tibet had a very different idea, they saw yoga as a kind of exercise for the body’s energetic system.

meridianWhile different schools had different yogic techniques of breathing, postures and meditation, they were all rooted in a similar concept. Yoga was practiced to cleanse and strengthen the body’s energy pathways (Meridians or Nadis) and enhance the flow of life force energy (Prana or Qi). This was considered key to health, vitality and longevity.

While the idea of the energy body may still seem flakey to some, science today confirms its existence. We may be solid flesh and bone, but we are at source; an energy field embedded in greater energy fields.

Our bodies are electromagnetic in nature. Electromagnetic signals travel our spinal cord and nervous system, they animate our cells and fire our neurons. In fact, medical scanning technology like the EKG and MRI have been measuring these frequencies for decades. The electromagnetic field that surrounds our body has been documented as extending outwards approximately 3 -5 feet in all directions.

earthfieldNot only do rhythms of electrical and magnetic force affect our health and well-being (regulating our circadian rhythms and hormonal cycles) they ultimately compose us. Our bodies, along with animals, plants, the earth sun and stars, are constantly creating, receiving storing and sending electromagnetic signals in and out of an interconnected cosmic energy field.

In his book Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance, James Oschman PH.D. writes electromagnetic fields “form a structural, functional and energetic continuum extending into every nook and cranny of the body, even into the cell nucleus and genetic material”.

Oschman refers to this greater energy field as the “living matrix” and in an idea that echoes the teachings of ancient yogis, he suggests that a healthy fully ‘integrated’ body may be a body that is entirely free of restrictions to the flow of energy signals. Oshman’s book documents the work of many leading energy medicine researchers whose research is coming full circle with the wisdom of the yogis. Countless studies in bio-electricity and acupuncture have begun to confirm there exists, hidden in our flesh, a vast network of energetic meridians that can be stimulated for regeneration and healing.

shiatsupointsBernard O. Williams Ph.D. has demonstrated that skin at meridian lines has a lower electrical charge than the surrounding areas. In fact, “specific structural-protein complexes within the mass of the skin provide channels of heightened electron conductivity, measured at acupuncture points on the surface.” In other words, acupuncture needles create an electric charge at the point of contact and stimulate a transfer of electrons at acupuncture points on the surface of the skin.

Numerous studies demonstrate these energy pathways and points conduct electricity even when needles aren’t used. The massage technique of Shiatsu have been found to stimulate the same energetic effects. Similarly, Qigong,Tai Chi and the postures of yoga have been found to increase electrical conductance at acupoints.

yinyogaYin Yoga (Taoist Yoga) claims to directly work with connective tissue and fascia to stimulate energetic meridians. Dr. Robert Becker M.D. was the first to establish when pressure is applied to certain body structures (joints, connective issue, cells) they polarize into positive and negative electrical poles and generate piezo-electricity. The knee for example, has the same piezo-electric capacity as a quartz crystal. This means that when we get a massage or perform yoga postures, currents of energy are being sent along the most conductive channels available in the body.

Information and energy flowing through electromagnetic frequencies are vastly more efficient than chemical signals such as hormones and neurotransmitters. Research conducted by Joie P. Jones PH.D. utilizing fMRI imaging has shown that when meridian or energy points in the body are stimulated, neural circuits in the brain are activated almost immediately – far faster than what neural conduction can explain.chakraenergy1

While the yogi’s never explicitly used the term electromagnetism to describe the energy body or its meridians, it looks like they may have well understood how it functioned. They knew that we are an energy body sheathed in greater energy fields, and that by influencing the field, one could influence the body.

So this is Yoga Fundament Number One. By working with the energy body, we learn how to sense and clear blockages and revitalize our energy systems. The energy body is “real” and caring for its health and maintenance is critical to optimum health and physical well-being.