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Archive for October, 2011

The results of the study in the previous post are in line with expectations. Studies often raise more questions and the blog has received several questions on how to practice surya namaskar. I hope this answers the questions.

1. How does one define slow versus fast surya namaskar?

I don’t think that the study in the previous blog post refers to the extremely dynamic styles where you jump from one asana to another. These are not yet that popular in India as they are in the West. So “fast” to me means keeping a constant flow, without pause, taking 2-3 seconds from asana to asana. “Slow” could mean 5-6 seconds and more.

It would be helpful for the terms (including slow and fast) to be clarified in any study. As there are so many different styles, some explanation about what constitutes “aerobic” and what is “yogic” is also essential. How many rounds did the participants do? When were the various measurements made–immediately after the practice, or after a defined interval, or at the end of the six-month study? What time of the day did the children practice? Perhaps yoga research journal editors might see this post and think about these points when publishing articles!

2. Can one alternate between slow and fast surya namaskar?

Yes. Some days your body will tell you what it feels like doing.

As mentioned in the summer yoga blog post, I do not recommend surya namaskar in very hot summers. But if people still feel the need to do it, the practice must be done early morning and slowly. The body’s metabolism must not be overheated in the summer.

Conversely, in cold winters, fast surya namaskars are helpful in speeding the metabolism and balancing out the tamasic inertia with the rajasic activity. Fast surya namaskars can be very helpful for the winter blues, for depression, warming up the body, improving circulation, and sometimes increasing appetite.

 3. Can slow and fast surya namaskars be combined?

Yes. I often taught a combination practice. Begin with a couple of slow rounds, then do two-three fast rounds, and then cool off with a slow round.

4. How does one incorporate mantras?

Surya namaskar is wonderful when practiced with surya mantras. This would be a slower practice. When done with bija mantras (seed sounds) it becomes a fast practice. The body flows effortlessly to the rhythm of the mantras and people find themselves being able to do more rounds with the mantras than they could without them. The only caution is to be careful not to overstretch. In my years of teaching, even if people have no idea of what the mantras mean, they still love the vibrations of the mantras and how their body/mind responds to them.

5. How should the surya namaskar practice end after several rounds?

It is essential to then practice shavasana and body awareness till the heart beat and breath have settled down completely–spend 5 minutes in shavasana.

This can be followed by a pranayama practice. There are some audio tracks on www.mahasriyoga.com/pranayama.  A Yoga Nidra is also good and several audio tracks are on www.mahasriyoga.com/meditation. Particularly around the holidays, Candle Flame Trataka can be an effective practice–the audio track is on the website as a meditation track. All content and audio tracks are free.

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Surya Namaskar, or sun salutation, is the most popular dynamic sequence of asanas that are coordinated with the breath. There are many variations of surya namaskar. The traditional sequence of 12 movements can be performed slowly or rapidly.

In the International Journal of Yoga, India, web publication date September 27, 2011, researchers have published a study of the physiological effects of slow and fast surya namaskar that included 42 school children in India, ages 12-16 years. The children were split into two groups of 21–one group was trained in slow surya namaskars (SSN) and the other in fast surya namaskars (FSN) for six months.

The study found the following results:

“Training in SSN produced a significant decrease in diastolic pressure. In contrast, training in FSN produced a significant increase in systolic pressure. Although there was a highly significant increase in isometric hand grip (IHG) strength and hand grip endurance (HGE) in both the groups, the increase in HGE in FSN group was significantly more than in SSN group. Pulmonary function tests showed improvements in both the groups though intergroup comparison showed no significance difference. Maximum inspiratory pressure (MIP) and maximum expiratory pressure increased significantly in both the groups with increase of MIP in FSN group being more significant than in SSN.”

In addition to the positive physiological effects, the study found that the effect of FSN was that of a physical aerobic workout and that of SSN was that of yogic training.

Source:  Bhavanani AB, Udupa K, Madanmohan, Ravindra PN. A comparative study of slow and fast surya namaskar on physiological function. Int J Yoga [serial online] 2011 [cited 2011 Oct 15];4:71-6. Available from: http://www.ijoy.org.in/text.asp?2011/4/2/71/85489

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Some days have deep meanings that are now lost in the frenzy of festivities. Diwali is revealed as the allegory of our lives in this article, Navaratri, October 2004, Yoga Magazine. 

Navaratri is commonly the worship of the three goddesses–Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. There is also the connecting story of Durga’s nine-day battle and victory over the asura demon Mahishasura. On the tenth day, Vijayadashmi, victory is celebrated. Navaratri is also the story of Rama’s battle with Ravana. He vanquishes Ravana and on the tenth day, Dusshera, victory is celebrated. Then Rama travels from Lanka (Ravana’s kingdom) to his own home kingdom of Ayodhya. The day he arrives home is celebrated as Diwali.

Rama is the eldest son of King Dashratha. He is sent into exile by his father. Dashratha has no choice as one of his wives exercises a boon he had given her previously when she saved his life. For more of the story, read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana.

Dashratha means a chariot pulled by ten horses–our body pulled by ten senses (of yoga). His three wives are the three gunas (principles, tendencies) that exist in each one of us–sattwa (pure, truth, preservation), rajas (activity, creation),  tamas (inertia, negativity, destruction). Rama is born from the wife representing sattwa. Now it may be fun to try and figure out the mystery of the rest of the allegory and check it out with the hidden meaning in the article! It can be a fun puzzle for the family to solve together.

There is the assumption that the reader knows the story of Rama and Sita! If not, the article may still be interesting and may remind the readers of stories within their own traditions–and the possible lost allegories.

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We never outgrow stories in some form or another! Perhaps the earliest open-ended learning tools, and form of entertainment, they help us understand the allegories of holidays. Good stories engage every generation in the family gathering to find its own level of meaning in the story. The stories grow with us.

Holiday stories bring as much emotional warmth and comfort as food. So after a good meal, when every one is feeling mellow, it is wonderful for the whole family to gather around a fire, a rangoli (geometric mandala-like floral decoration), diyas (clay lamps), candles, a tree, a menorah, and tell stories. 

Stories have been a big part of our family. Every Diwali and Christmas we share stories, often the same stories. We all look forward to this ritual and connect to a reassuring timeless past.

For those who are looking for Diwali holiday stories, we suggest the stories included in www.mahasriyoga.com as starting points: The Blind Men and the Elephant, Prana: The Breath of Life, Samudra Manthan, and more. To read the multiple levels of meanings of these stories, see the link to www.mahasriyoga.com/articles. Some are ultimately allegories of the philosophy of yoga.  These are not just Diwali stories, they can be part of any family and tradition. The Blind Men and the Elephant is popular with children’s librarians.

We hope you and your families will enjoy the stories as much as we do.

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As major holidays approach, the spirit of karma yoga affects more people. Every tradition encourages giving selflessly to those in need during certain occasions–especially on birthdays, deaths, anniversaries, and major holidays. Feeding the poor is a tradition in every country and religion. 

To those looking to feed the hungry and starving this holiday season (Diwali is October 26), an organization that recently came to my attention may be worth consideration. It is Akshaya Patra Foundation.

For all of India’s technological and economic progress, a vast swath of the population has been left behind. India suffers from sub-Saharan levels of poverty. An astonishing 33%, perhaps 40%, of the malnourished, hungry children in the world are in India. They do not get even one meal a day.

Akshaya Patra, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization was started in 2000 feeding 1,500 children a day. With subsidies from the Indian government, in a public-private partnership, it now serves 1.3 million children in poor public schools across India. Its aim is to reach many more as the need is so overwhelming. Children come to school because of the free, hot, hygienic, and nutritious cooked meal. They stay in school. For many, it is their only meal of the day.

Feeding a child for the entire year costs just $31 and with government subsidies that comes down to $11.50. A dollar goes a very long way! Of all the money they raise, 20% goes toward operational costs, according to Madhu Sridhar, the president and CEO of Akshaya Patra Foundation USA. This includes administrative, fund-raising, and salary expenses.

PBS featured Akshaya Patra in a segment seen on http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/july-dec11/indialunch_10-03.html

Anyone  interested in more information can visit www.akshayapatra.org, donate online at www.foodforeducation.org,  get in touch with Madhu at 781-438-3090 ext. 1, or e-mail her at madhu@akshayapatrausa.org.

Akshaya Patra’s application for independent evaluation of charities is under consideration by Give Well and Guide Star. Madhu told me they have not been in the country long enough to establish a rating.

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People often ask the meaning of karma and karma yoga. What is the difference? Karma is what you do for your family and friends. Karma yoga is what you do for others who have nothing to do with you. That is how Swami Satyananda (Bihar School of Yoga) succinctly summed it up once.

Karma is action in thoughts, words, and deeds. It is also the consequences of those thoughts, words, and deeds. This includes the reactions. All these are recorded and stored in the vast stores of memory of the mental cloud.

Thoughts arise from the mental database accumulated over this birth and, according to yoga philosophy, previous births. In that mental database of information and experiences we have also accumulated reactions. For instance, fire burns, keep away from it. Thoughts arise from this pool of past experiences and they are positive, negative, or neutral. They precede words and action. The whole sequence can happen in a split second. These new thoughts, words, deeds will get recorded and stored. They in turn will produce more reactions. This constant chain reaction can be called karma. Throughout history, we see cycles repeating themselves. The cast, setting, and language may change but the plot remains essentially the same. Karma generating more of the same type of karma.

There is a beautiful explanation below by Swami Sivananda in Yoga Magazine, August 2006 and there are several other articles on the subject in that issue:

“Karma is of three kinds: sanchita or accumulated works, prarabdha or fructifying works and kriyamana or current works. Sanchita is all the accumulated karmas of the past. Part of it is seen in a person’s character, in his tendencies and aptitudes, inclinations and desires. Prarabdha is that portion of the past karma which is responsible for the present body. It cannot be avoided or changed. It is only exhausted by being experienced. You pay your past debts. Kriyamana is karma now being done for the future.

In Vedantic literature, there is a beautiful analogy. The archer has already sent an arrow. He cannot bring it back. He is about to shoot another arrow. The bundle of arrows in the quiver on his back is the sanchita. The arrow he has shot is prarabdha. And the arrow which he is about to shoot from his bow is kriyamana. Of these, he has perfect control over the sanchita and kriyamana, but he must surely work out his prarabdha. The past which has begun to take effect he has to experience.”

We can see how it is essential to be fully aware, pay attention, be mindful of our thoughts, words, and deeds. The message of Zoroaster, according to my mentor Dady Billimoria, can be summed up as “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” The process of witnessing all aspects is the heart of yoga meditation and all types of vipassana or insight/mindfulness meditations. 

As everything in our lives arises from the mind, the mental cloud is incredibly important. Current Western yoga (unlike traditional yoga) places importance on the body and not on the mind. Vipassana places all its importance on the mind and none on the body. For most of us, the happy medium is probably somewhere in the middle. The body is the hardware and the mind is the software. (See What is Meditation?) Neither can function without the other. The body is just a lifeless object which cannot function without the mental database and software of the mind. The mind needs the body to run its software and cannot function without it. Everything reflects the principle of Shiva and Shakti–Shiva, the Supreme Consciousness, has no form of expression without Shakti, the Cosmic Energy. Energy arises from Consciousness.

What is karma yoga? Karma means action and yoga is the union of body and mind. Karma yoga is where all actions, free from reactions and expectations, are in union with the body and mind. None of us can exist without action. Positive action will create positive reaction and is without question better than negative action. Where there is positive there is also negative. They exist in relationship to one another and are not absolute. Karma yoga is the path of freedom from karma–karma binds and karma yoga liberates.

Therefore, in yoga the aim is to stop all chain reaction. (See the blog post What is Yoga? and Powerful Choice in Life:Without Limbs or Any Circumstance.) This is done by acting without reacting (also called selfless service)–make the best effort in everything; do it cheerfully with goodwill; do not do it with strings attached or with the attitude of quid pro quo; gracefully, do not expect, want,  or desire anything in return (name, fame, money, credit, recognition, acknowledgement, praise); if criticism comes your way, cheerfully let it go. Don’t let anything stick to you–the good, the bad, the neutral. Do the work for the love it. This eliminates a great deal of stress. When the stress is gone, all that enormous amount of energy that was sucked out by it is freed up. It can be channeled in a more constructive way.

Karma yoga gives us a path to free ourselves from the chain reactions of karma. We do not have to do a formal sitting meditation to lessen and dissolve our karmas. Meditation does not appeal to everyone. But we all have to work! If we work with our heart and soul, mind and body, it is possible to achieve the same result as sitting meditation. It does not have to be either/or; we can do a combination of hatha, raja, karma, bhakti, and jnana yoga.

To me, Bill and Melinda Gates are outstanding contemporary karma yogis–they work without expecting anything personally for themselves. If something does not work out, they learn from it and move on. No one is expected to be perfect or saintly and that is just fine.

This same attitude can be extended to everything that we do. We do the  job the best we can and then not fret about the title, pay raise, bonus, promotion–there is not much more we can do beyond our best anyway! No self-recriminations and let the end result take care of itself. We study well and do our personal best in school and then stop getting stressed out.  No what-ifs, buts, could have, should have. Keep the could have, should have for next time. We learn and move on. It is beyond our personal control after some point. In this ultra-competitive environment and constant treadmill of achievement, the attitude of karma yoga can help retain some degree of essential mental balance. Working as a volunteer can be enormously helpful in cultivating this attitude.

With the upcoming holiday season, all cultures have a strong tradition of karma yoga–call it volunteering, community service, or social work. The attitude with which we do anything makes all the difference–just more karma or karma yoga.

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Does the title sound intriguing? For people like me, according to MedMob, “A ‘flash mob’ is a large group of people meeting in a crowded public place for the purpose of engaging in a coordinated unexpected, random activity.”

What is MedMob? It is a community of people whose intention is to bring together people from all over the world and unite them through meditation. They had meditation flash mobs in many cities around the world for International Peace Day on September 21. We had our peace poetry game. There are some interesting photos that are fun to see on www.minusonemoose.wordpress.com. The next global meditation flash mob will be on October 28.

There are so many people trying to bring peace in their own ways.

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