The 40-day Sadhana Challenge

“The highest sadhana is that your presence should remind people of God. What bigger and more powerful miracle than that can there be, that by your very presence you can invoke Godhood in people?” – Yogi Bhajan

Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the United States in the 1960s, recommended that all practitioners do sadhana, or daily spiritual practice, as a way of connecting with the infinite on a regular basis. Since Kundalini Yoga meditations have impact in as little as 3 minutes, sadhana need not be long in order to be effective.

The key is consistency. Yogi Bhajan said it takes 40 days to change or break a habit. So then 40 consecutive days is the minimum time period for any sadhana. Sadhana requires a basic level of discipline, while building a higher level of commitment in the practitioner.

A lot of people think that they need to study with a famous teacher or attend a retreat in a far-off exotic location to grow their spiritual practice. This is simply not the case. Real growth comes from an individual’s daily commitment to engaging in the practice. The most popular teacher, the most amazing retreat, will not be useful without that firm and grounded commitment to the practice day after day, whether sick or well, busy or bored.

Doing sadhana means maintaining that spark of the divine within you. It will change how you feel, how you see yourself, and how others see you. But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. And if you need to see the evidence, check out How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, MD.

Photo of Yogi Bhajan © 2004 Gurumustuk Khalsa –

Innerspace: Yoga and Emotional Life

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012One of the topics discussed by William Broad in his recent interview on NPR was the impact that yoga has on emotional health, particularly for those who are suffering from depression (see Broad’s new book for the science). In this post, I’d like to share some observations from the perspective of a teacher and long-term practitioner about some of the practical benefits of yoga, in terms of one’s emotional life.

When I began practicing yoga on the recommendation of a counselor in 2003, I had been struggling with long-term depression and anxiety. I didn’t really think that yoga would help. But then again, I felt that I had nothing to lose, as the other things I had tried on my own hadn’t exactly helped either. (I don’t mind admitting I had quite a number of self-help books collecting dust on my bookshelf.) I was skeptical but willing to check it out.

I started going to yoga classes once or twice a week. I didn’t really notice too much at first. I had moments of feeling calm and relaxed. But otherwise, my life proceeded pretty much as usual, despite these blips on my emotional landscape. It was only over time, as I continued with the practice (and started spending a few minutes each day at home doing yoga as well) that I began to notice that these blips became more frequent. They also lasted longer. I grew my awareness of what I was experiencing, in the blips and outside of it. I became interested, curious about how I moved in and out of that mental space. I began to notice certain thoughts and the way they could trigger a certain mood or prevailing mindset. I began to unravel my own stories, about myself, about other people, about things that had happened in my life. All of this, over time, brought huge changes to my emotional landscape.

I think one reason why yoga is so effective for people dealing with anxiety or depression (or a variety of other emotions, for that matter) is that a regular practice which includes meditation creates a “gap” that has the potential to bring one out of his/her experience. A lot of people tend to get flooded (overwhelmed) by their emotional experiences – their emotions are running them. Yoga can, over time, build emotional awareness and emotional intelligence. When you’re “down in it”, so to speak, it’s very hard to gain any sense of perspective. The meditation aspect of the yoga practice can give a little reprieve; a different vantage point, however briefly maintained, can be the beginning of long-term and far-reaching changes.

I didn’t expect any of this from the practice. No one told me it would happen, or that it could. I just wanted to relax. I wanted a bit of peace from myself, a rest from my own stories. And it turned out that what I found was so much more than that.

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012

Understanding the Risks of Inversions

In yoga, inversions (which can be considered any posture in which the hips are higher than the head) are some of the most risky and most popular postures. Inversions, in theory, can be very good for the body. They improve core strength, stimulate the lymph system, and provide an energy reversal. Inversions, like spinal twists, are generally not part of very many other exercise programs outside of yoga, and that’s one of the reasons they are so popular among practitioners. But the problem with inversions is that they are so often practiced incorrectly.

One popular (and complete) inversion practiced in yoga is exactly what it sounds like: the headstand. Now, the problem with the headstand is that the head and neck were not meant to take the weight of the body. Headstand, when done properly, places very little weight on the crown of the head, and most of the weight in the forearms. It also includes the use of appropriate padding. When done improperly, headstand, shoulder stand, plow, bridge, and other inversions place too much pressure on the head or neck (and the cervical vertebrae). Over time, these postures can do serious damage if practiced incorrectly.

Even a partial inversion like downward dog must be practiced with care and attention. One of the problems identified by William Broad is that, with many hot yoga practices (and indeed outside of hot yoga as well) a hyper-mobility of the joints means that there is a lack of stability. Lots of people have the sense that yoga is about flexibility. But it’s actually about balancing strength and flexibility in order to maintain the integrity of the posture. The shoulder joint is one of the “complex joints” Broad mentions in his NPR interview which is easily compromised through incorrect practice of common yoga postures such as downward dog.

Now, I’m not saying that inversions shouldn’t be practiced at all, or that they can’t be practiced safely. When done properly, they are safe for most people without injuries or contraindications (such as un-medicated high blood pressure). The problem is that most of the time they aren’t done properly. It takes a lot of time, a lot of warm-up, and a lot of set-up (in terms of blankets and other props) to do these postures correctly. Thus, they are postures best suited for workshops or advanced classes.

The White Tantric Yoga Experience

In the Kundalini Yoga tradition there is a special all-day meditation experience called “White Tantric Yoga.” (WTY)  It’s a partner meditation where hundreds of pairs sit facing each other in rows. The day consists of a series of meditations of varying lengths, generally 62 minutes or less, with breaks in between. WTY is designed to release blocks in the subconscious. The meditations typically include hand/body positions (mudra), eye focus, and sacred sound (mantra). In between the meditations, video clips of Yoga Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga, are shown in which he discusses the purpose and benefits of each meditation in that day’s program.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that WTY is not a sexual practice. The word tantra has become almost synonymous with sex, but it’s important to realize there are different types of tantra, not all of them sexual. While the meditation is done with a partner, it need not be someone you are romantically involved with, or even someone you know. Many people just show up at WTY and see who else shows up that they’d like to partner with for the day.

In my first WTY experience, the element that struck me most was the eye gazing. Many of the meditations were performed with the eyes open, looking directly into the partner’s eyes for 30-60 minutes at a stretch. It was a completely new experience for me. I’d never sustained that kind of eye contact before, even in my long-term romantic relationships – and my partner for the day was a complete stranger I’d met when I arrived at the workshop! At first, I found it uncomfortable, then I started to notice changes. I found I could see aspects of myself reflected in the other person, and I found that, in time, I was looking through that person, rather than at her.

So far in my Kundalini practice, I’ve completed 10 days of WTY. Every experience is different. Sometimes the day is intensely physical; sometimes it’s intensely emotional. Sometimes I wished it wouldn’t end, and other times I was ready to run out the door 2 minutes after we started (but I didn’t). That often depends on whatever I’m working through at the time, and whatever is triggered by the meditations in that day’s program.

WTY is a fantastic opportunity to move through blocks in your life. It’s offered in major cities in the United States and around the world. Chicago’s WTY is Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Yoga and Better Sex

This post is in response to a reader who asked for more information about how yoga can improve your sex life. Now, I’m not a scientist, and indeed if you want the scientific evidence you may wish to check out William Broad’s new book, but I do have a few things to say on the topic as a teacher and long-time practitioner.

One of the reasons that yoga leads to better sex is it builds inner sensitivity and awareness. So, much like meditation turns up the volume on mental chatter, a serious yoga practice turns up the volume on body sensations. Because yoga builds body awareness and sensitivity, bodily experiences are more powerful. I would say that sex is one of the most physically intense experiences that one can have – and yoga can make it even more so.

So, yoga practice develops and stresses attentiveness to sensation, and sensations that one focuses on tend to grow and expand. Beyond these kinds of considerations, a regular long-term yoga/meditation practice can build your ability to be really present in any experience, including the experience of physical touch and arousal.

While yoga itself doesn’t guarantee physical health, those who practice on a regular basis tend to be more physically healthy and do more to take care of their bodies as part of an overall lifestyle focus. Specifically, it’s worth mentioning that some yogic energy locks utilize and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which can enhance your sex life by intensifying the physical aspect of orgasm.

On a more esoteric level, yoga balances the body’s energy system: your chakras, and the energy highway along the spinal column (sushmuna). One of the ways it does so is by changing overall breathing patterns. A change in breathing can influence the nervous system and overall energy flow. Yoga increases overall energetic health and opens the energy meridians (pathways) in the body. This in turn enhances the energetic aspect of orgasm.

So, as we’ve seen so far, a yoga practice can potentially increase both the physical and energetic aspects of arousal and orgasm. Emotionally speaking, in terms of sex drive or interest in sex, yoga (in the most generic sense) makes people feel good. When people feel good they are generally a bit happier, a bit more content, and a bit more engaged. They tend to be less tense and more physically relaxed. Which may make them a bit more focused – less scattered physically, energetically, and emotionally.

While a yoga practice may awaken amazing physical and energetic sensations and experiences in the body, it’s important to be thoughtful and grounded in what the Buddhists would call “right action,” as discussed in my last post. If we do whatever we feel like doing, without regard for the consequences, we’re ignoring the philosophical basis of the practice of yoga. Sexual energy is really powerful. But harnessing that power includes an obligation to consciously utilize that energy in an ethical way in daily life.

Yoga and Sex

On Feburary 27, 2012, William Broad’s article “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here”appeared in the New York Times. If you’re not part of the yoga community (or even if you are), you might not have heard about the recent scandal surrounding John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. Broad blames yoga’s origin as a “sex cult” and argues that, in many ways, such scandals are hardly a surprise.

While it’s true that there’s definitely a much stronger relationship between yoga and sex than most people within the practice will acknowledge or admit, it’s also worth mentioning that the core issue is not the link between yoga and sex, but rather personal responsibility, ethics, and leadership. It’s hardly surprising that people who lack discipline, maturity, and self-control will mis-use sexuality.

Sex scandals (and sexual violence in general) outside of yoga are just as common as within the yoga community. The mis-use of sexuality is rampant in our culture. Opportunities to learn how to responsibly use sexual energy are rare. And as a culture, we shy away from frank and open discussions of sexuality. Anything that isn’t openly acknowledged and talked about has the potential to “go underground,” to become something hidden and shameful.

It’s unfortunate this is the case, because it denies many people the opportunity to learn about themselves and their sexuality in an environment of open-ness and non-judgment. And it contributes to the kind of scandals we hear about all too often. Far too many leaders in the yoga community have been the subject of sex scandals. Broad’s article mentions a number of them, and Friend is by no means the first. Unfortunately these type of scandals cause people to distance themselves from the practice and give it a bad reputation.

Spiritual growth includes a period of spiritual adolescence. Sometimes people spend a long time in a place where they are “talking the talk” before actually “walking the walk.” There’s a lot of lip service paid to concepts of peace and love and oneness in yoga, and in spiritual community in general. But underneath that, there are a lot of people who are still angry, still hurting, and still have a lot to be healed.

Sometimes we are guilty of looking up to the wrong people, of looking to flash and charisma over substance. Who’s making the loudest noise or attracting the biggest crowd – in other words, that person who’s talking the talk. Sometimes we don’t exercise enough discernment. An impressive facade can make us gloss over inconsistencies. Sometimes those who appear to be the most impressive don’t have the qualities we would want real leaders to possess.

And sometimes those who do have those qualities, who are walking the walk, who truly possess leadership potential, want to live quiet lives removed from the world. I would have said, not long ago, that there’s nothing wrong with that. But the more I realize what a scarcity there is of true leaders, the more I realize that those people with substance, with integrity, with maturity, have an obligation to step forward, to build real leadership skills on that foundation, and provide an example that other people can truly look up to.

The Yoga Industrial Complex

On February 10, 2012, William Broad was interviewed on NPR  regarding his new book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. Broad is a somewhat controversial figure in the yoga community, as discussed in my earlier entry “Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?” in response to his January 2012 article in The New York Times Magazine. He has upset a lot of people by saying that yoga can, in fact, be dangerous – like any tool when used improperly.

Broad uses the term “yoga industrial complex” to describe a mindset within the yoga community that includes a reluctance to acknowledge the risks of practicing yoga. He has received a great deal of negative feedback from teachers and practitioners. Now, there’s something ironic about hate mail coming from yogis, but spiritual growth is a process. Some of us are still in our adolescence, and most of us aren’t yet enlightened (or we wouldn’t still be here).

Yoga is a practice which has slowly found more social acceptance over the past few decades, but isn’t necessarily mainstream. One of the reasons it’s finding acceptance is because people are learning it can do great things for the body. If the culture at large starts to perceive yoga as potentially dangerous, what does that do to yoga’s popularity? The popularity of yoga of course means that there is more money to be made in this field. To that end, there are more and more yoga classes, and more and more teachers. While this can be a good thing, it’s also problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, yoga teaching is an unregulated profession. While training program are available (basic certifications start at 200 hours), completion of such a program is not required to teach yoga. This means that it’s important to ask questions when you sign up to take a yoga class, to find out what type of training and experience the instructor has, and what style of yoga will be practiced in the class (as well as what level of physical activity to expect). The Yoga Alliance works to maintain standards within the profession by requiring that Registered Yoga Teachers complete a minimum of 200 hours of training from a certified program. But it’s unwise to assume that every yoga class is taught by a yoga teacher who has completed this training – it’s simply not the case.

Second, the popularity of yoga means increased class sizes. Even a highly qualified instructor has difficulty maintaining a safe practice environment when there are more than 20-30 students in the room. The other thing that happens, as yoga becomes more popular and classes get larger, is that yoga becomes competitive. Now competition is the antithesis of everything the practice truly stands for, but believe me when I tell you I have observed this phenomenon in a number of venues. People are looking around, seeing what everyone else is doing, who can more “fully” go into certain postures, or stay in them longer, etc. Any competitive aspect in the practice carries with it an increased risk because an outward focus, rather than an inward focus, in yoga, means that you are less likely to pay attention to signals within the body that may indicate a threshold. In other words, if you’re focused on trying to keep up with everyone else, you are more likely to injure yourself.

One of the areas of focus in the interview was the claims that practitioners and teachers make about yoga, and that included discussion of research conducted on the matter of the science of yoga. It’s funny to me the focus on science. Maybe it shouldn’t be. We are a culture of reason. People don’t want to just hear that something works, they want the evidence trotted out, compiled, and annotated. They want to know that science can demonstrate – can quantify – what practitioners of yoga already know: Yoga makes you feel good. It also improves your sex life.

Yes, you read that right. One of the lesser known benefits of yoga (and one that will probably have people signing up for classes in droves) is that it improves your sex life. In our hyper-sexual culture, there’s a lot of talk about the mechanics of sex, about the physical aspects of sexual function, but not a lot of discussion of sexual satisfaction. Yoga practice can not only boost your sex drive, but can give you “increased arousal, better orgasm, [and] more overall satisfaction.” In other words, not only more sex, but better sex. How’s that for incentive?

More on this topic in my next post.

Meditation and the Monkey Mind, Part II: What the *@!# is wrong with me?!

In the beginning stages of meditation, it often seems like the mind is completely out of control. This is commonly referred to as “monkey mind.” In fact, it may seem like mental chatter gets worse during meditation. While there may be some truth in that, due to the nature of mind, mainly what’s happening is that we are turning up the volume, so to speak, on all the garbage that our minds are churning out at us on a regular basis. We are focusing in on it, noticing stories and recurring themes.

Sometimes those who are new to meditation feel very discouraged because they have difficulty maintaining focus for for than a few minutes. In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit for short, manageable periods of time. In the Kundalini Yoga tradition in which I teach and practice, meditations are done for as little as three minutes. Even three minutes is long enough to begin to experience the benefits! You can build to longer times as you develop an increased ability to focus. The important thing is consistency and building a daily practice: meditation is a process.

It’s important to realize that you don’t need to stop your mind in order to meditate. The process of surrendering to whatever arises, moment by moment, in meditation, is what creates a set of circumstances in which the mind can be at rest. Yogi Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga, said, “It is not meditation that stops the mind. It is the surrender of the mind to the soul, and the soul to Truth. It is when you prefer the word of Truth to the word of your own intellect.”

It’s common to notice a lot of so-called negative thoughts and emotions: anger, selfishness, jealousy, fear, self-righteousness, and the like. Meditation prompts us to ask the question, “Who am I?” Am I my thoughts? Am I my beliefs? My experiences? Am I my emotions? Swami Bodhananda, of the Vedic tradition, says, we are “sat chit ananda,” pure bliss, and that meditation can help us connect with an awareness of that which we truly are. In other words, the rest is just a distraction.

One of the most important benefits of meditation is that it clears garbage from the subconscious mind. By garbage I mean the chatter or “commotion” that goes on at a level we are not consciously aware of, the stories and false beliefs that have an impact on the way we behave in the world. Meditation is like a shower for the subconscious.

Meditation also gives the practitioner an opportunity to develop mental clarity and inner peace which facilitates the dissolution of habitual ways of being which may no longer serve the highest good. As we develop a greater ability to observe ourselves in our practice and our daily lives, we may notice these small changes. For example, one way in which the change may enter our awareness is by creating a gap between a situation that we find challenging and our urge to react to it out of our habitual programming. Meditation can, over time, give us the tools to respond differently to the challenges we face.

Meditation and the Monkey Mind

I can’t tell you how often people say to me, “I’ve tried to meditate but I just can’t.” When I ask why not, the answer is usually something like, “Well, I just can’t stop thinking.” It seems like the real issue here is not that all these people can’t meditate, but that there is some inaccuracy in the popular definition of meditation, some fundamental misconception about what people actually “do” in meditation. In this post, I’d like to dispel some myths about meditation as well as provide a more accurate explanation not only of what meditation is, but of what the practical benefits are.

First, it’s important to understand that saying “I practice meditation” is about as specific as saying “I practice yoga.” There are about as many different types of meditation as there are styles of yoga; thus, there are a number of vastly different practices which people commonly refer to as “meditation.” One of my first pop culture images of meditation (still my favorite) was Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.

Chanting “Om” , as in the video clip, is one type of meditation using a mantra. Mantras are sacred sounds or prayers which help focus the mind; there are a wide variety of mantras, some short and some long, in different languages and traditions. A similar practice, which uses vowel sounds as opposed to words, is often called toning. The practice of chanting mantras or toning does several things: first, it creates a sound wave, a powerful vibration which can affect the physical being; second, it creates a focal point, which is useful for letting go of stray thoughts; third, chanting activates energy channels (or nadis) through the placement of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. Many practitioners use a mala (string of beads) as a way of counting repetitions of the mantra. In that sense, meditating with a mantra has some similarity to the Catholic practice of praying the rosary. (By the way, incense is not required.)

Some meditation practices are silent. Either they do not include a mantra, or the mantra may be repeated internally as a way of focusing the mind. Meditation practices which do not use a mantra often have some other focal point, such as a candle flame. Other practices use the breath, or a particular breathing pattern, as the focal point. Still other practices use a concept or intention as a focal point. There are also some traditions that use movement as meditation (such as walking meditation, for example).

The point of meditation, so to speak, is to develop observational awareness, to cultivate the inner observer. Sometimes this is called “mindfulness.” You might be happy to learn it is not necessary to stop thinking in order to meditate. It is only necessary to be patient with yourself, to cultivate your ability to focus, and to engage in the process of training your mind. To that end, a couple of techniques may prove useful to the novice:

  • Regard thoughts during meditation as clouds in the sky, passing with the breeze. Or as cars on the highway, passing by your field of vision. Notice them, but do not become attached to them. Do not try to follow them, or be angry with them for being there.
  • Develop an attitude of loving-kindness toward yourself. It is almost like training a puppy. Certainly, you will lose focus and you may wander off after stray thoughts. It is only important to bring your focus back each and every time you are aware that you have wandered off, without judging or berating yourself. Consistent correction and patience are key.

The practice of meditation also seeks to develop a present moment orientation, discussed in popular books such as Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now which was featured on Oprah. This can be tremendously empowering, as so many of us sacrifice our energy and sometimes our very well-being to ruminating on the past or giving free rein to our anxieties about the many uncertainties of the future.

More about this topic in part II of this post.

Telling the Truth

Last weekend I attended “Michiana Monologues 2012: A World of Difference” at IU South Bend. Inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, these are true stories by local women submitted anonymously and read on stage by members of the community. Michiana Monologues is a benefit for local organizations such as SOS, the YWCA, and Planned Parenthood.

If you’ve never been to an event like this before, hearing women tell their stories – sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking – is an  incredible experience. Many of the topics addressed in this year’s performance (violence, rape, homosexuality, poverty, choice, work, discrimination, marriage, divorce, motherhood) evoked a strong response from audience members. It’s empowering to speak the truth.

When we discover that we share some common experiences with others (especially when it comes to topics most people are reluctant to talk about), it’s remarkably liberating. It frees us from the weight of that silence. Things we don’t talk about fester. We often feel ashamed of the things we feel we can’t talk about; sharing – being heard and acknowledged – decreases that shame, frees up energy, and allows healing to occur.

In his series Conversations with God (Book 2),Neale Donald Walsch identifies five levels of truth-telling: “First, you tell the truth to yourself about yourself. Then you tell the truth to yourself about another. At the third level, you tell the truth about yourself to another. Then you tell your truth about another to that other. And finally, you tell the truth to everyone about everything.” By that definition, a show like the Monologues encompasses truth-telling on several levels.

The Monologues generally attract a primarily female audience, because they address topics that truly hit home for women. But this show is more than a catalog of the kind of violence we all know exists. It’s truly a celebration of all aspects of the female experience; it’s an opportunity to be a witness, and in doing so, to participate in community and in the healing process.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “Things like that don’t happen here.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you missed Michiana Monologues at IU South Bend, you still have one more chance to see the show on February 25, 2012, at 7pm in Elkhart at the Historic Roosevelt Center (215 East Indiana Avenue).

Tell your story: Submit a monologue for next year’s show.

Recommended reading

Getting Real, by Susan Campbell PhD