Can the mind be your partner in spirituality? Does the path to transcendence only run through denial, or is it possible that everything around you is helping point the way? It’s such a relief to step out of the paradigm of conflict—with your mind, your senses, your environment—and discover that the world has actually been […]
Do you perceive yourself as just one limited thing, a body and mind, floating around in a sea of other limited things? This attitude may be the normal condition of your daily life—until every so often there comes a flash of something different. You may be in meditation or watching a breathtaking sunset when suddenly […]
“All of the world is just a narrow bridge. What’s important is not to be afraid.” –Rabbi Nachman of Breslov Even while the wave of coronavirus washes over the world, fear is like a second pandemic. It spreads even faster and touches more people than the contagion itself.
Stop now. Close your eyes. Feel your heart. You are here, you are aware, right now. At this very moment, humanity is meeting itself in a new way. With the global outbreak of coronavirus, fear and uncertainty have become the daily norm for so much of our global family. And yet, with this disruption of […]
By Natasha Friedman
Give Them Everything
It’s not about you.
Sun. Sand. Waves. Vast, open sky.
A simple place.
Do it for them. When you’re tired, when you’re vulnerable, when you’re ecstatic, and when you can barely pick yourself off the ground. Give them everything.
A simple life, waking in the magic hour before dawn to sit in silent awe. Chopping fruits and vegetables, stirring rice, washing dishes. Putting mantras and blessings and so much love into every bowl.
Last winter, I served as the Karma Yogi responsible for supporting the 14 students journeying inward in Hridaya’s 49-Day Pratyabhijna Retreat. It’s impossible to convey this experience using words, since there are no words that can take the truth of what happened, contain it, and deliver it to you in a form that we would both understand and recognize as reality.
Still, I will give you some words and I hope they inspire you on the path.
Karma Yoga: The Path and the Destination
Karma Yoga is often translated as the yoga of action: the path to direct recognition of reality through conscious activity in the world. Acting with love, detachment, and awareness. It is selfless service for the benefit of all sentient beings.
One of the fundamental branches of yoga (along with Jnana, Raja, Bhakti, and Tantra), Karma Yoga is both the foundation and the coronation of the practice—just another of those paradoxes in spirituality that can melt your mind a little bit if you try to hold such seemingly divergent ideas simultaneously.
From one perspective, Karma Yoga is the ground we’re standing on as yogis and spiritual aspirants. Serving others is how we learn humility, care, and devotion. It’s how we purify our intentions and deflate the overblown ego blocking our view. It grounds us, gives us stability, and lends authenticity to our efforts at transcendence.
Serving others is how we build a vessel to receive Light.
In another sense, a true practice of Karma Yoga is the end goal of the entire path. “Before enlightenment,” goes the Zen saying, “chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Being able to act fully in the world with complete detachment, holding the view of emptiness while busy accomplishing whatever mundane task the moment requires, is somehow the real practice for which all our eyes-closed-back-straight-awareness-turned-inward efforts is truly preparing us.
I would never say I am a perfectly accomplished Karma Yogi. Very far from it, actually! But, my experience in the 49-Day Retreat left me with so much reverence for this path that I have only just begun to explore.
Back to the retreat. So, there I was, living, along with the 14 angels in solitude, in a hotel on a remote beach halfway between Mazunte and Puerto Escondido. I served every day from days 11 to 49, on average five hours per day. My days started with fruit delivery at 5:30 am and ended with dinner at 6:00 pm, followed by evenings spent writing notes and planning meals.
When I wasn’t in the kitchen or taking my daily walk on the beach, I was practicing yoga and meditation.
I was in silence the whole time, although I had to write notes and send occasional texts to communicate with the retreat coordinator or make food orders.
I had help from Pedro and Isabel, the Mexican couple who manage the hotel. Isabel would join me almost every shift, helping to cut vegetables and clean up. This was a beautiful, wordless relationship. Before leaving on day 49, we both cried and hugged. Never speaking, never knowing each other as personalities, our souls knew the other.
And this was life for those 39 days. So simple, yet so incredibly rich and vivid, with so much more nuance and intensity than I have ever felt in the speaking world.
The Grace of Wanting Nothing
The idea of Karma Yoga in a retreat is that you are doing everything for the participants and the retreat is not yours. Even your own yoga and meditation practice is secondary. At least, this was how I conceived it. My intention was to want nothing from the experience, to achieve nothing, but to give the other yogis the best possible conditions for their immersion in Reality.
There is so much grace when you put aside your own interests and dedicate yourself to others. I’ve heard this many times before, but I felt this with absolute clarity in the retreat.
Working every day is tiring, especially when keeping to such a rigorous practice schedule. Cooking for 15 people means several hours of physical activity and the mental/emotional exertion of dealing with everything that can go wrong with kitchens and food deliveries in Mexico.
(Spoiler alert: everything can and will go wrong! The trick is that if you take a deep breath and trust—which can include knowing when to ask for help—problems somehow solve themselves.)
By the last weeks, my alarm would go off in the morning and I would have to just lie there for a minute silently groaning before finding the strength to get up and turn it off.
But, when I was busy serving, I didn’t experience even a trace of tiredness. I felt my daily consecrations holding a protective bubble around me and everyone in the hotel.
The more I put aside my personal wishes and desires—even the seemingly lofty desire to have more time to practice—the more this flow of cosmic energy moved through me and carried me through everything I was set to accomplish.
It’s a blessing to have the chance to serve others. It’s not a means to an end, but the highest grace we can come to in this life.
Of course, I went through my own processes during the retreat. Things surfaced and melted away, patterns flared and resolved, cycles completed themselves.
Sometimes, life seemed like a hall of mirrors. Sometimes, everything was so incredibly clear. And sometimes, there was nothing at all. Looking out the window at the sea and the waving coconut palms and seeing absolutely nothing. Cutting the peel off a ripe papaya and there is nothing there. Scooping hot vegetables onto plates and nothing. Catching, for just a moment, Isabel’s dark, luminous eyes and seeing that nothingness looking back at me.
In some ways, serving is a completely different experience than sitting a long retreat, and in another way it’s not different at all. I can’t say if I would have gone deeper or less deep had I been sitting, though several people have asked me this. It was exactly what it was.
There was less of that sense of absolute detachment, of being so far gone that not even your shadow flows into the world. There was more embracing of reality in all its mundane, incomprehensible detail. I am neither this nor that, but somehow I am all of it; I can recognize myself in every inch of this world; there is nothing that is not me.
At some level, this feeling has stayed with me since the retreat. At the moment of writing this, I am at a shabby-chic café in my New England hometown, where students huddle over their textbooks and loudly discuss their performance art pieces. It’s a world away from the deep silence of the retreat and the shifting patterns the waves left on the shore of that wide-open beach.
Still, there is something here that is the same. Patterns flow through my awareness—ah, here’s sadness again! Here’s self-doubt! Hello, fear of failure and financial insecurity! Welcome back, family conflict!—and I recognize them with love, with a huge sense of relief that finally these broken pieces of myself can come back into the whole.
I will leave you with a poem I wrote for my retreat angels, out of gratitude. They all thought I was serving them, but really they were supporting me in more ways than I could have imagined.
When you go down to the ocean,
I’m happy you know that sweet mystery.
I’m happy your hands are empty
and you, too, love to feel
that cool nectar pooling around your feet.
I’m happy you hear that purring
in the back of your ear,
an unknown music and words
that melt in the light of day.
Here there are colors for you
and they are deeper colors.
Here there is day and night and moon and sun
and thoughts and words and the morning
and it is, all of it is,
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.
By Natasha Friedman
What is beauty? What makes something beautiful? Is it nice colors, elegant shapes or symmetry? Or is there something more? What does it mean when you look up at a night sky full of stars and something twists inside your chest, like a memory of something so important but you can’t put your finger on it? The experience of beauty for many is a spiritual experience in the deepest sense of the word: an opening to the mysterious reality beyond the limitations of our normal patterns.
Beauty as a spiritual path
Many religions and spiritual traditions throughout history, especially those of the more austere, ascetic and transcendentalist flavor, have rejected beauty as a distraction and a trap. Other traditions, however, have noticed that there is a deep mystery and spirituality in the experience of beauty. In Hindu tantra (and, to a lesser degree, tantric Buddhism), beauty and aesthetics have an important role. Along this path, beauty is both a means to awaken the soul to its own nature and an attribute of that Absolute Reality itself.
Abhinavagupta, the great master who united the schools of Kashmir Shaivism, was also an accomplished poet, musician and philosopher of aesthetics. In fact, his aesthetic theory is a cornerstone of classical Indian philosophy, widely appreciated by many scholars who have no interest whatsoever in spirituality. He teaches that aesthetic appreciation, the experience of being left speechless by a work of art or a beautiful sight, is one of the closest things in normal life to a mystical experience. It is a touch of the Divine that every human is familiar with, even if they haven’t meditated a day in their life.
The Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra, one of the earliest and most celebrated texts of Kashmir Shaivism, lists not one but three yuktis (techniques) to use everyday perceptions of beauty or pleasure as a gateway to profound mystical opening. (I’ll list these at the end of this post, if you want to try them.) These practices are based on the Kashmir Shaivist concept of camatkāra. It’s a delicious word, isn’t it? Camatkāra. Just say it out loud and get a taste of its meaning. It refers to that flash of spontaneous delight, of awe and wonderment that arises when we encounter something beautiful. The moment when you are caught off guard by an enchanting melody, or when you look up just in time to see a bright rainbow glittering across the sky. Time stops and just for that moment, you dissolve into wonder. Usually it only lasts for the blink of an eye. Then the gears of the mind start turning again. From pure experience, your mind says, “rainbow,” then “I am seeing a rainbow,” then “this rainbow is nice but I saw a better one last week.”
The trick, according to the Shaivists, is to learn to rest in that first moment of unconditioned delight. It is actually a moment of recognition, pratyabhijna, in which awareness catches a glimpse of itself. Abhinavagupta’s texts drip with wonder at the beauty of Reality, both as pure Awareness and in its expansion into infinite forms. Mystics from many other backgrounds have experienced the Absolute as beauty, as in St. Augustine’s famous cry: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.” Or the words of Rumi: “O God, you are the graceful and the beautiful. You are the highest love, the giver of life.”
Is it beautiful or just pretty?
When talking about beauty in this way, it should be clear that we are talking about something more than just what is pretty or conventionally beautiful. Beauty and prettiness are not the same. Actually, in the spiritual sense they are opposites. Prettiness is something that only conforms to conventional aesthetics and usually takes the viewer deeper into samsara (or the limited reality we tend to identify with on a daily basis). It generates more attachment to the senses, more grasping after sensory fulfillment, more identification with limited form and conventions, and reinforces the ingrained belief that beauty comes from form. This is assuming, of course, that you view it in a normal way. Any object, no matter how pretty or ugly, can reveal deep, transformative beauty when seen with the right eyes. With awareness, you can find beauty in any sense perception. And without awareness, there is no beauty. Just compare two experiences.
In the first, imagine you are looking out on a beautiful landscape at sunset, but you are distracted, worried about how you will pay your credit card bill this month or a difficult conversation you will have to have later. How much of a sense of beauty is there?
For the second, pick up a random object that you have near you right now. A pen, a shoe, an old hat. Hold it close to your eyes and look at it, really look at it, turning off your thoughts for a minute. Forget what the thing is and look at it like a piece of art. See the colors, the shapes, the subtle shadings and how it catches the light.
How much beauty is there? Beauty is universal. Wherever you put enough awareness, you will find it. This is a clue to the deeper significance of aesthetic experience: the transcendent is beautiful and the nature of beauty is transcendence. True beauty takes the viewer beyond form. It isn’t created or confined by appearance. For example, think of an artist who can make amazing art out of junk or create something ugly that still causes a tremor of aesthetic wonder. Just listen to Stravinsky’s dissonant chords or take a look at the frantic scribbles of Cy Twombly.
Seeing the beauty in what is normally considered ugly or just unremarkable is, I believe, a marker of spiritual maturity. The more you can approach every moment with wonder and awe, the more you can appreciate how uniquely beautiful and unspeakably precious is every aspect of this existence, the more you are open to the universe of the Heart. Essentially, what we perceive as beautiful is anything that calls us back to our true nature, that triggers that moment of pratyabhijna. At its core, beauty, is a mystery. If you try to grasp what makes something beautiful, you will always come up empty.
A note on the beauty of painful experiences
I spoke earlier about the joy and spiritual value in discovering beauty in the ugly or mundane. Does this mean then that to progress spiritually, we have to “look on the bright side” of every painful experience? Is it a spiritual failure to feel hurt, sad, disappointed, disgusted or angry? Absolutely not. This is classic spiritual bypassing, a dead-end at best and dangerous at worst. “Negative” emotions have a purpose and a valuable role in our evolution. And you can find beauty in them also, as soon as you let go of the impulse to avoid them or fix them. The next time you feel sad, angry or reactive, try to take a closer look at this emotional energy. With neutrality and curiosity, you might find a special beauty in the intensity of fear, the clarity of anger or the poignancy of sadness. Maybe you have an intuition of this already, a memory of an intense moment of grief, fear or anger where you felt an inexplicable thrill of bliss. It’s a living proof of how – as much we try to put everything in life into boxes of pleasure or pain, good or bad – beauty transcends all limitations.
So where to from here?
Opening to beauty can be one of the most joyful and transformative dimensions of the spiritual journey. It is one of the simplest and most direct ways to catch a glimpse of the ineffable within the space of everyday life, a reminder that something mysterious and transcendent is alive within the ordinary. To connect with it, I recommend spending some quality time with art or music, looking or listening with a quiet mind and open attention to go fully into your own experience.
The time right after meditation is a perfect opportunity to discover beauty. When you open your eyes, try to see the whole scene before you as a work of art, a unique expression of Consciousness.
You can also explore these three yuktis* from the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (sl. 72-4) as translated by Christopher Wallis:
“One should meditate on the state of fullness that expands due to the delight of savoring good food and drink, and that joy will become sublime.
The yogin who relishes music and song to the extent that he merges with it becomes filled with unparalleled happiness, attains heightened awareness and experiences oneness with the Divine.
Wherever the mind delights, let your attention linger there. In any such experience, the true nature of supreme bliss may shine forth.”
* The original text expects the practitioner to have mastered the yogic practices that come before the sensual practices or else the sensual practices will not work as part of a liberation sādhanā.
A note to our readers: We want to hear from you! What does beauty mean to you? How do you discover beauty or cultivate a sense of beauty along the spiritual path? Share in the comments below.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.
By Natasha Friedman
It’s the most simple asana in yoga. It doesn’t look like much, you don’t have to do much to get into it, but it does a lot.
I’m talking about shavasana, the “corpse pose,” the position for deep relaxation.
It’s easy to perform. Lie down on your back, palms facing up and feet apart. But is that all there is to it?
The apparent simplicity of shavasana hides the immense benefits and subtleties of the pose. It has powerful effects on every level, from physical health to spiritual understanding.
In this article, let’s explore these benefits and the deeper meaning evoked by shavasana. I hope it will inspire you to give more attention to this pose and feel for yourself all it has to offer.
Physical benefits of shavasana
When I was a teenager, my singing teacher once told me that dogs are smarter than humans. Why? Because when dogs have nothing to do, they lie down. When humans have nothing to do, they run around looking for something to do.
There’s some truth in this. Our modern, Western societies are built on a “get stuff done” mentality. It’s a deep implicit belief that if you’re not doing something at every moment, you’re wasting your time.
Stress is the single biggest disease factor in the modern developed world.
The list of stress-related ailments could go on a long time: heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, cancer, not to mention uniquely 21st-century diseases like adrenal fatigue syndrome.
Constant activity unbalances the nervous system, affecting everything else in the body. The human nervous system actually has two complementary “settings:” the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system puts us in “fight or flight” mode. We’re in high alert, ready to move, react and make changes.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we’re ready to run away from a saber-tooth tiger. Breath and heart rate accelerates, blood pressure increases and the digestive system shuts down.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is “rest and digest.” It’s a relaxed mode in which vital signs slow down and digestion powers up. The body collects its energy and focuses on healing, cleaning itself and making itself stronger.
These correspond roughly to yin and yang in the Chinese tradition, or predominance of ida or pingala nadi in yoga.
The body has an incredible ability to heal itself, but if it’s out of balance, if we never give it the chance to go into its healing mode, it can only put Band-Aid’s on the problem.
Over time, the results of stress will accumulate until the body will have to show a big problem – a major disease or healing crisis – just to get the attention it needs.
The practice of yoga in general is intended to balance the body’s energetic polarity. However, if I am a driven, goal-oriented, achievement-obsessed Western person, of course I will bring this same attitude in yoga. I’ll always be pushing my limits, trying to do better in the asanas and get better at yoga.
Not only is this missing the deeper purpose of yoga, it’s just reinforcing the same stress mentality, still overloading the sympathetic nervous system.
Shavasana is the best antidote. It’s impossible to “win” at shavasana. There’s no effort to be made, no progress to be achieved.
It brings a full dive into the parasympathetic nervous system. It allows us to experience, maybe for the first time in our adult lives, what it feels like to really relax. Just by dipping into this mode, the body can start to reset and remember how to heal itself.
Because it is a systematic, conscious relaxation, it is much more effective than just lying on the couch and spacing out.
Just 15 minutes of shavasana every day can do wonders for many physical problems. Especially those that relate directly to stress, like high blood pressure or insomnia, but allowing the body to go into healing mode will help with any disease.
Prana flows freely when there is relaxation. This is part of why we try to relax as much as possible in every asana and release any muscles that aren’t needed to hold the pose.
In shavasana, where no muscles are needed to hold the pose, energy can move and expand throughout the entire body. All the energies that we were actively working with through the asana practice can deepen and harmonize into a unified field. The effects of the practice become imprinted into the subtle body.
This free flowing of prana, combined with relaxation and a holistic awareness of the entire body, creates a unique opportunity to go beyond the physical body. We can feel the limits of the body dissolving into a field of awareness.
In this expansion, shavasana also offers a precious chance to feel Spanda, the Sacred Tremor of the Heart.
Mental and emotional benefits
As I mentioned earlier, shavasana is a time to integrate the results of the yoga practice, the time for any insights and changes to sink into the subconscious.
This process is necessary if we want lasting transformation. No matter how much we understand intellectually, no matter how much we try to fix things at the conscious level, the only way to change our reality is by changing our mind at a much deeper level.
Besides this, all the benefits for the physical body also carry over to the mental and emotional levels. A few minutes of total relaxation every day can help relieve anxiety and depression, and create breathing space in a busy life.
Remember that the body stores memories and emotions in its physical structure, especially the fascia system. When we practice asanas, many tensions and locked energies are shaken loose. Shavasana allows them to be released completely. Just witness them and let them go!
Shavasana can also improve your meditation, especially if you tend towards drowsiness. Usually we associate relaxation with sleeping. Then we try to relax in meditation, and of course, the habit kicks in and we start snoring on the cushion.
In shavasana, we learn to relax while staying fully alert, even while lying down. This helps go into deeper states while maintaining high clarity.
Shavasana has several profound meanings and associations within the yogic tradition.
- Shiva and Shakti
There is a Sanskrit saying that Shiva without Shakti is shava (a corpse).
In Hindu iconography, it’s common to see forms of the Goddess standing or dancing on the prone body of Shiva.
Shiva, the masculine principle, represents pure consciousness. It is the Void that, paradoxically, is the basis for all reality. The space in which the dance of life takes place.
Shakti, the feminine principle, is universal energy, the sacred energy that points back to its source (Shiva).
Many spiritual traditions throughout history have only been interested in the transcendent, not the immanent aspect of divinity. The world of manifestation is dismissed as maya, illusion, impure, sinful or irredeemably broken.
It’s a view that certainly encourages hardcore spiritual practice, but it’s inherently dualistic. There can only be non-duality when we recognize all of manifestation – even the ugly parts – as an expression of the Divine Consciousness.
In Kashmir Shaivism, an uncompromisingly non-dualistic tantric tradition, the Ultimate is often referred to as Spanda (dynamic stillness, the primordial vibration of Consciousness), Paramashiva or Para Devi, the Supreme that is immanent and transcendent simultaneously.
Pure consciousness – without the principle of energy – is beyond any action or conditioning from the world of forms.
This long tangent brings us to the point that shavasana is meant to put the practitioner in touch with that transcendent principle.
It is an asana that encourages us to go beyond everything changing and relative. It reveals the most profound stillness, the dissolution of all forms into the Void.
As the “corpse pose,” shavasana naturally brings the practitioner to a contemplation of death.
Although it might seem grim at first, meditating on death is actually one of the most uplifting and motivating spiritual practices, because it reminds us of what’s important in life – and of just how precious this human life is.
In a way, the whole spiritual practice can also be seen as a process of dying: the death of the ego.
Ironically, it’s only once this has “died” that we can awaken to life as it really is. Beyond the parts of us that can change and die, what we really are is always alive and is the source of all life.
The process can feel like dying because it demands that we let go of everything that we are identified with, everything that we considered to be ourselves.
This feeling doesn’t come only before some grand realization. It can happen in a small way in any meditation, during a retreat or at any point when we’re about to move on to a new stage of our spiritual growth.
If you look closely enough, death is actually an aspect of every moment of experience. Nothing lasts forever, but actually, nothing lasts more than a moment. Everything is in constant flux. The cells in your body are decaying and reforming, particles are moving, time is passing.
The universe is constantly in a state of dissolving and reforming. The old forms are gone as soon as they appear.
This fact of subtle impermanence, as it’s known in Buddhism, shows that death is simply a part of life. It is a blessing. It allows for change, for evolution, and for all of life to take place.
Finally, shavasana is an invitation to experience one of the most important elements of spiritual practice, if not the most important: surrender.
In shavasana, there’s nothing more to do. No effort can or should be made. (Besides the effort to stay awake!) There’s no way we can push to do it any better.
We can only be still and open to receive grace.
However, it’s significant that this asana comes only at the end of a yoga practice, after we have made a lot of effort!
It’s like shooting an arrow from a bow. You draw back the arrow, concentrate on the target, build up powerful tension in the string, and then release. The arrow flies.
If you don’t build up the tension, or if you don’t let go at the end, the arrow will never make it to the target.
Surrender doesn’t mean not doing anything. It means doing as much as you can, as if your life depended on it, but while realizing that ultimately, you can’t do anything. Your efforts are just taking you to the point where you can see that you – the “you” that you think you are – is not the one calling the shots.
You can’t make water any wetter than it is. You can just build a better cup to hold it.
Shavasana is all too easily overlooked. I know many yogis – and I’ve definitely been guilty of this – skip it in their own practice. When you’re short on time, it can seem like a waste of precious minutes. It’s much more fun and flashy to go straight to meditation or pranayama.
However, I think that’s a mistake in the long run. Shavasana brings amazing benefits on all levels, and it’s the perfect way to tie together a yoga practice.
Of course, to really go deep into shavasana, it’s important to do it with awareness. Try to stay alert and awake the whole time, just as in a sitting meditation. Perform a systematic relaxation, moving your awareness gradually through your entire body.
Not convinced yet? Make a commitment to do a 10-minute shavasana with conscious relaxation (15 minutes is better, if you can) as part of your daily practice for a week. Just see for yourself what this simple but powerful practice can do.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.
By Natasha Friedman
No two people are the same. So, no two yoga practices should be the same either!
There are a thousand and one factors that influence what your yoga practice might look like. Your experience, aspiration, amount of time and energy, specific interests and preferences, physical strengths and limitations, on and on…
As a yogi, it is important to consider your natural constitution. In Ayurveda, this is known as prakruti and is based on the predominant dosha, or body type. Your constitution affects many aspects of your life—from what you look like to how you deal with challenges, and everything in between.
As your constitution is such a major influence, understanding it is a powerful way to develop an effective practice. In this article, we’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each dosha, and how you can use these to reach your highest potential through yoga and meditation.
Kapha, Pitta, Vata… What Are These?
In a nutshell, traditional Indian medicine identifies the three types that define every individual’s physical characteristics and mental tendencies:
- Kapha: Governed by the Earth and Water elements, the main words to describe a kapha-dominant person are solidity and stability. The body type is large and heavy, with a tendency to gain weight easily. The hair is shiny and abundant, nails are thick, eyes are large and lustrous, and the skin is smooth and moist.Kapha people have relaxed personalities. They are calm, loving, and enjoy stable relationships. They like sleeping and eating. They are creatures of habit and are prone to attachment.
- Pitta: Pitta, a combination of Water and Fire, creates a body that is balanced, athletic, and well-defined. Naturally athletic, pitta people are active and energetic. They have an average build and fine hair. Skin is prone to freckles and acne.Pitta people are highly competitive and ambitious. They can be perfectionists and critical of others. They are generally very good speakers and enjoy a good argument.
- Vata: Vata people, governed by Air and Ether, are light and mobile, both physically and mentally. Sometimes very tall, they have slender builds with prominent joints and are prone to be underweight. The hair is thin, skin tends to be dry, and their features generally are very refined. Vata-dominant people are usually the most flexible, even hypermobile.The vata personality is characterized by creativity and a love of new things. They are very fast thinkers and full of exciting ideas, but sometimes can get lost in a whirlwind of mental activity.
Everyone has some features from all three, but most people express two primary doshas, with the third less prominent. This means that there are actually ten basic types:
- Kapha-Pitta (both kapha and pitta, but kapha is stronger)
- Pitta-Kapha (both kapha and pitta, but pitta is stronger)
- Kapha-Pitta-Vata (an equal balance of all three; quite rare)
If you’re not sure which you are, you can go to an Ayurvedic doctor and get a full consultation. An experienced practitioner can pinpoint your exact constitution based on your pulse, tongue, eyes, fingernails, and other details.
Otherwise, you can take an online quiz to get a basic idea of what you’re dealing with.
According to Ayurveda, your dosha must be considered when you decide what you should eat, when and how much you should sleep, what exercise you should do, and what your yoga practice should be like.
In a previous article, I wrote about the principles of an Ayurvedic diet, so you can look there for more details.
The point of being aware of your constitution is not to try to create an equal balance of all three doshas in your being, since this is not natural for most people. Instead, you want to restore the balance of doshas according to your prakruti, the natural proportion you were born with.
The same is true for spiritual practice more generally. There’s no one right cookie cutter program for everyone, but different paths and practices are more harmonious for different individuals.
Now that you understand your constitution and tendencies, let’s take a look at how to develop a yoga practice suited to your dosha in order to counteract your imbalances and make the most out of your natural strengths.
Recommendations for Kapha-Dominant People
In kapha-dominant people, the inner fire (agni) tends to run low. This can result in sluggishness, drowsiness, poor digestion, low energy, and excess body weight. To counter this, choose a practice that is active and dynamic.
The good news for kapha people is that you probably have a lot of vitality—much more than people for whom pitta or vata is dominant. This means that although your energy might be heavy and more difficult to get moving, once it starts moving you’ll have a lot of power.
- Surya namaskara: Sun salutations are dynamic and increase heat in the body, making them very effective for kapha people. By cultivating resonance with the Sun, considered the source of all activity on Earth, sun salutations balance out the cold, inert nature of kapha.
- Manipura asanas: Any asana that activates manipura chakra will help burn off excess kapha. Many manipura asanas are also very physically demanding, which is healthy for stimulating a slow metabolism and doesn’t allow for over-relaxation in the practice.
Kapha people are generally calm and steady, which carries over into meditation.
However, they tend towards dullness and sleepiness, and they are more likely to get stuck in patterns. There’s a danger of the practice becoming just another habit.
Keep yourself fresh and alert in meditation by doing some yoga or exercise beforehand. It helps to meditate in a place with a lot of light.
Be very vigilant about dullness. Maintain a firm, upright posture, with a commitment to staying clear. If you get drowsy, focus on your inhalation for a few breaths, visualize a bright light, or even open your eyes for a minute.
Experimenting with new techniques and constantly reminding yourself of your motivation can help keep the spark in your practice. Devotional practices like prayer, Blowing on the Embers of the Heart, or singing bhajans are also very good.
Recommendations for Pitta-Dominant People
For pitta people, the main challenge in yoga is the restlessness of the body. These types will often love a more dynamic practice, with lots of sun salutations and moving quickly from pose to pose, but this is exactly what they don’t need!
Since it can be difficult for fiery people to go directly into stillness, they can start their practice by channeling their intense energy.
Go through a few rounds of surya namaskara, but with the emphasis on awareness, observing the inner stillness even while the body is in motion. Gradually decrease the speed of the performance and take longer pauses between rounds to center in the Heart. As the breathing pattern slows, this almost guarantees that the mind will also settle down.
Once some of the physical restlessness has been burned off, you can go into a practice that emphasizes grounding and stability.
Include a lot of forward bends and poses that don’t require much effort. These engage the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” aspect of the nervous system (as opposed to “fight or flight”).
Try to deeply relax in every asana. Hold them for a long time and feel Stillness in every cell of your body. Even if you feel the urge to move, witness this impulse and absorb the energy without reacting.
Pitta people have a fire inside. They can be very intense and focused, and dullness is usually not a problem.
There are two main challenges that pitta-dominant people might run into in meditation.
First, trouble relaxing. As I mentioned earlier, unharnessed fire energy brings a lot of physical restlessness. Until the body is settled, it will be difficult for the mind to become calm. That’s why it’s good to start with a more dynamic practice before settling into meditation.
Second, the pitta personality is competitive, perfectionist, driven, and highly active. This is a double-edged sword in spiritual practice.
It’s great to have a lot of passion and intensity. They say in Jewish Kabbalah that the Shekhinah (the feminine presence of God) gets bored with those who worship Her just correctly and within the rules: She wants people to be on fire with Divine Love!
Pitta people aren’t ones to slack off in their practice or let it turn into a routine.
However, when this drive comes from the ego, from a need to be the best or to make something happen, it becomes yet another barrier to realization. It can get you stuck more firmly in the idea of being the doer, developing an inflated spiritual ego, and make you prone to burn out.
So, become friends with the idea that letting go doesn’t mean giving up. Cultivate surrender, a deeper octave of relaxation where activity is maintained while the sense of acting is dissolved.
Consecrate before every practice and, afterwards, dedicate its fruits to the benefit of the entire Universe, as a reminder that your practice isn’t for yourself.
Practice blindfolded or alone if you’re always comparing yourself to others.
Finally, be compassionate towards yourself and humble in acknowledging your limits. Rest when you need to.
Recommendations for Vata-Dominant People
Vata people are extremely active thinkers. The mind is always moving, and moving fast. This can make it hard to stay focused and relaxed during yoga.
To settle down into the practice, it helps to work with the breath. Stay constantly aware of the breath, especially how it moves in your abdomen, and feel how it slows as you relax into each asana.
Give plenty of time for the kaya sthairyam (the immobility of the body) phase of the asana, connecting deeply to your body and feeling the stillness in every cell.
If you’re stuck in the mind, going into the body will pull you out of mental loops and into the present moment, since the body is only ever in the present.
Predominance of the Air and Ether elements mean that vata people often lack vitality. This manifests as physical weakness and low energy. Vata people also often feel ungrounded, like they are lost in a colorful swirl of thoughts and plans and ideas, but somehow the connection to the concrete reality they inhabit is lost.
Practicing a lot of grounding asanas helps with both of these problems. Asanas for muladhara chakra will both increase physical energy and bring mental peace, stability, and security.
Best of all is to meditate and practice muladhara asanas while on the bare ground, to directly absorb Earth energy.
Mental agitation is the main vata challenge in meditation.
If you spend most of your meditation time chasing around your thoughts, try starting your practice with Capturing the Uncaught Mind, trataka, walking meditation, or any other technique to calm the mind.
Come back as much as you can to a sense of stillness and relaxation in the body.
The awareness of the pauses in the breathing cycle is a potent tool for calming the mind throughout the practice of meditation (and yoga). Sink fully into every pause, enjoying the feeling of timelessness.
Vata loves change, excitement, and new things. Vata people, therefore, are always eager to try new techniques and explore other practices.
This is great for getting a wider perspective and keeping high energy in the practice. However, it makes it hard to go deep into anything.
It is said that if you want water, don’t dig fifty shallow wells. Dig one deep well.
It’s good to keep learning, living with a sense of curiosity and wonderment. But you should have a solid foundation.
I recommend choosing a practice or technique that resonates with you and sticking with it every day, at least for six months or so until you can really see where it’s taking you. Along with that, you can feel free to experiment and try new things, but your practice will have a backbone to hold it up.
I hope this article gives you some new directions to try out in your practice! Remember that these are just guidelines based on general principles. What resonates with you, keep and enjoy. What doesn’t, just let go.
A basic knowledge of Ayurveda is extremely helpful for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and getting the most out of your yoga practice. I highly recommend studying it as much as you can.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.
How to Come Out of Retreat
By Natasha Friedman
Everything is a kaleidoscope of color and sound as we drive down the highway to Mazunte. I am squished into the front seat of a taxi with a girl I have lived in the same building with for the past six weeks but have not yet spoken to. Two more retreaters and most of our material possessions are in the back seat.
No one says anything for most of the 45-minute trip. I remember all the shapes and sounds appearing in my awareness in hallucinatory brightness. I feel simultaneously overwhelmed and strangely calm.
We pull up in front of the Hridaya Yoga Center, unload our bags, and then that’s it, we’re there, it’s over. I greet a few people, feeling like I just saw them yesterday. It’s only their surprised reactions that remind me I haven’t spoken to them—or to anyone—for 49 days.
After so much time in solitude, basic human actions somehow become almost impossible. Talking makes me weak and dizzy. Looking at a computer screen makes me nauseous. When I call my parents, it is like talking to them for the first time. And, when I start to lose the intensity of presence that had become my normal state, I feel like my heart is breaking.
Questions wouldn’t stop throughout the first sleepless night after the retreat: Who am I? What is this personality? How do I pick up my life after all this? Where am I supposed to go and what am I supposed to do now?
The retreat is over, but the work is just beginning.
For some of us, going into retreat is a challenge. The silence, long hours of meditation, and lack of external stimuli can be a sharp break from our normal experience. Detaching from daily patterns can leave us feeling anxious or lost in space.
For other people—or just at other times—the hard part is actually coming out of retreat.
We spend ten days (or however long) going into high concentration and expansion. We become sensitive to subtle realities, feeling energies and sensations too refined for our normal perception. We come into contact with the deepest dimension of our being.
Even if it’s a difficult retreat, with a lot of struggle and purifications, these challenges come because the retreat gives us the space to contain them. We might not realize how far we’ve come until the final bell rings and everyone gathers for the sharing.
I always feel like a spell is breaking as soon as people start talking again. The world of silence is so intense, so profound, so full of magic and mysteries. There is such clarity and brightness. When the mind is deep in silence, every detail of the world around has a ring of truth.
Then, words come again, and with them stories, divisions, projections, patterns, limitations… All the conditions we are usually enslaved by. The Garden of Eden starts to fade away.
Of course, the ultimate goal is not to be a hermit in perpetual mauna. (It’s not my goal, at least.) But, so long as we’re not stabilized enough in the Self to maintain the stillness of retreat while engaged with the world, it can be a harsh transition back to everyday reality.
Go Slowly and Accept Whatever Comes
How long does it take to integrate after a retreat?
There’s no right answer. Even after a short retreat, we might feel echoes for weeks or months. Speaking generally, the deeper the experience, the longer it will take to harmonize it with everyday life.
And in the meantime, be prepared for anything.
After a retreat, we might feel totally blissed out. We might feel calm, relaxed, or refreshed. We might feel inspired and burning to share what we’ve learned with everyone we know. We might feel depressed. We might feel confused, like nothing makes sense, like our entire lives are being lived in someone else’s shoes and don’t fit right anymore.
I want to emphasize: all of these feelings are okay.
What’s important is to honor the process and give space to whatever arises.
When I came out of the 49-Day Prathyabhijna Retreat earlier this year, I felt extremely lost. I didn’t know who I was within this manifestation. I had gone through a major transformation that hadn’t yet stabilized, to the point where I didn’t want any contact with my life from before the retreat.
I asked Sahajananda what to do, and whether this was normal. His first response: “What is normal after an experience like this?”
Which brings me to my second point: integration might look very different from what we think.
I think a lot of us go into retreats or spiritual practices with the idea that we will get something out of it—knowledge or healing or whatever—and then when we go back to normal life, this will just be added onto what we already have.
In reality, we are putting our whole being into a blender. What comes out will be something entirely new. That’s the real meaning of transformation, and it’s what we’re all looking for, even if we don’t realize it or if the idea scares us.
So, again, my best advice is to give space to these changes. It is better not to be afraid to let go of our notions of what we are and what our place in the world is. We can allow ourselves to explore new possibilities. Maybe it is scary, but this uncertainty is actually a form of openness, a sign that we’ve made real progress and are at a point of great opportunity.
It’s like when we get hit by a wave at the beach. For a few seconds, we’re spinning in every direction at once and can’t tell up from down. If we simply hold our breath, stay calm, and relax, soon enough the water will settle and we’ll find our feet on dry land. We can take our time going through this. There’s no rush to dive back into our responsibilities or busy social lives. We can benefit from staying close to the retreat center, where support and inspiration from other practitioners is available.
Share with Others, but Keep Your Sacred Space
It’s very beautiful to stay in touch with other retreat participants.
Often, when going back into the world it can be hard to find people to open up to about deep spiritual experiences. Our friends and family might want to support us, but unless they are on a spiritual path themselves, they probably won’t be able to understand what we’re going through. Sharing our innermost feelings with them might just create more confusion and feelings of disconnectedness.
People going through the same process, however, are an invaluable support network. They can help us put our transformation in perspective and make sense of whatever is arising. If others are on the same wavelength and receptive, just talking can be an integration process, bringing deeper realizations up to the level of the conscious mind.
That said, there is no pressure to share everything. A retreat is a step into the realm of the sacred, into the ineffable. There may be experiences that are best kept in intimacy with the Spiritual Heart.
So, we can give ourselves as much space as we need.
Following a retreat, art is a useful means of expression. It’s a great time for journaling, painting, writing poetry, playing devotional music, or following whatever creative path calls. I’ve often found that the days after a retreat are a time of peak creativity. New songs and poems come naturally, flowing from Stillness.
These songs are like the flowering of seeds that germinated in my heart during the retreat. Later on, they become a precious window into the world of the retreat, and they can bring others to the same depth of experience.
Keep up the Practice
This is probably the most important thing we can do!
Sahajananda recommends meditating for at least one hour every day to maintain a high level of consciousness after a retreat. We need to touch that depth again and again, especially if we’re living somewhere surrounded by mainstream Western values that run contrary to the spiritual attitudes we try to cultivate.
In the days following a retreat, I find it helpful to stay in “half retreat,” practicing for four or five hours a day and keeping mauna until noon. After a period of such intensive focus, sitting down to meditate might be the last thing you want to do, but it’s essential for stabilizing the experience.
Sahaja always emphasizes continuity. It’s not enough just to have peak experiences, we have to raise our base level of awareness.
During a retreat, this continuity means trying to keep a meditative state even outside of formal practice. We walk with awareness, eat with awareness, contemplate nature, and stay in the Heart, no matter where we are.
In daily life, it’s about living the teachings. It’s what Padmasambhava, the master who brought Buddhism to Tibet, meant when he said, “Descend with the view while ascending with the conduct.”
We bring our insights, the wisdom that comes from contact with reality, back into our daily lives. And in our daily lives, through constant remembrance of the Heart and our efforts to live in integrity with this vision, we rise to the level of our highest practice.
Which is more “real,” daily life or time in retreat? Do we come home when we close our eyes in meditation or when we go back to our personalities?
I could say both or neither. Our true home is the Spiritual Heart. When we live from there, we are at home no matter what happens outside.
By Natasha Friedman
Are you and your spiritual practice going through a rough time? Do you feel like you’ve stopped progressing, or you’re even backsliding? The goal seems impossibly far away and your current reality is too messed up to live with?
It happens to every practitioner sooner or later. The bad news is that there’s really no way to shake yourself out of it.
The good news: it’s not such a bad thing.
Although you might feel like your meditation practice has crashed and burned, facing a lot of inner obstacles can actually be a sign of deep transformation. If you’re encountering any of these four challenges, it just might mean you’re making real progress.
1. You feel frustrated
Sahajananda once said that what appears to the ego-bound person as frustration is longing to the mystic.
Often, we take frustration as a sign of failure. We decide that we’re bad at meditation, we’re not cut out for spiritual practice, something’s gone wrong, or we’ve hit a wall that we can’t go past.
The next time you feel frustrated with your meditation, go deeper into this feeling and see what it’s actually pointing towards.
A sense of helplessness, incompleteness. A burning desire for something just beyond your reach. A conviction that none of your personal efforts are adequate.
This is nothing other than a longing for the Divine.
Sooner or later, the spiritual path will take you beyond where “you” can go by your own effort, past what an individual can accomplish within the domain of relativity. This is the point of real surrender.
As Sahaja went on to say, on this path there’s no wall that doesn’t have a door.
So when you’re frustrated, stay with it! Drop the stories about what you can and can’t do, and let the intensity of emotion open into desire for union with the Beloved.
2. You notice everything, especially what isn’t so flattering
After a recent retreat, I suddenly noticed I had a lot of negativities.
I was snappy and impatient. I was resentful, jealous of others, and convinced of my own inadequacy. I got angry at my partner over trivial things, and easily fell into depression when something didn’t go right.
I felt like a total fraud. What was I doing, living at a spiritual center and practicing so intensely, and yet acting like a selfish idiot most of the time? Where did all my progress go?
What I actually was (and am) is human.
None of these flaws are anything new. When I look closer, all these behaviors are all too familiar. I just didn’t have the awareness to perceive them, or the maturity to work with them.
Eventually, nothing can be swept under the rug. At certain times, when you don’t have enough perspective to work with them, difficult emotions and negativities might be suppressed. You can make progress upwards—developing your best qualities and reaching higher states of consciousness—without really confronting the lower levels of the personality.
Once you’ve expanded to a certain level, you have enough awareness to give space to your negative tendencies, to witness them without following or identifying with them. It’s at this point that you can look at yourself with radical honesty and say, “Wow, there’s a lot of anger here.”
This is a huge step up from either flying into a rage or thinking, “Oh no, I’m an angry person and I shouldn’t feel like this.”
Now, you can really start working with the parts of yourself you aren’t comfortable with. The fact that you can see them more clearly is a sign that you’re ready.
3. Nothing makes sense
Do you feel the same but everything else in the world is just a bit off?
Or like it’s all completely wrong?
Don’t worry, it’s a good sign.
The world most of us live in is wrong. It’s a world of duality, separation, and concealment, where we are out of touch with the true nature of our existence. To put it less gently, it’s a world of suffering.
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism, the foundation of Buddhist practice, is simply dukkha, the truth of suffering.
The difference between a spiritual aspirant and an “ordinary” person is realizing this truth, seeing samsara for what it is. With this vision comes the impulse to escape from the cycle of suffering and connect with Reality.
Before we realize it, we look for satisfaction within the illusion, not understanding that the only lasting happiness comes from going beyond it. We can call this liberation, Self-realization, realizing the Spiritual Heart, enlightenment, salvation, or any number of other terms.
But, going back to why you feel weird after practicing yoga for a while.
Until your spiritual practice reaches a certain depth, you are still basically synchronized with the material world. You want more or less what the people around you want, and the structures of daily life seem more or less normal.
Once you start approaching Truth, you might notice that most of these structures are built on illusion. Whether in a subtle or obvious way, they maintain the paradigms of struggle, separation, and individuality.
So, don’t be surprised or worried if you find yourself questioning what you always believed in.
At this point, it’s also important to remember that everyone is at a different place in their spiritual evolution. What seems obvious to you now is simply not visible to people who aren’t at the same stage. And that’s okay: whatever they’re doing is exactly what they’re supposed to be doing right now.
Maybe you want to grab your friends and coworkers, shake them, and shout in their faces, “Don’t you realize our essential nature is Love?” It’s very tempting, but it’s unlikely to do much good.
Instead, just be compassionate to them as they are. Love them without expecting them to change. Love the whole world and work to make it better without expecting anything from it. (Easier said than done, I know.)
And be compassionate to yourself, to the seed of wisdom that is cracking open inside your heart. Don’t try to force yourself back into a life that no longer fits. Keep asking questions, and whenever you feel like you just don’t understand anything, look within. There is a quiet place inside you where all the answers are waiting.
4. Your practice is “just not like it used to be”
A meditation practice is always changing and evolving. Sometimes it’s easy to slip effortlessly into a deep state. It’s all bliss, and you can’t imagine it will ever be any other way.
Sometimes, it’s not like that at all. There is struggle and frustration, the mind goes crazy, thoughts come too fast and loud. Or, your motivation is gone—there’s no inspiration, no energy, no spanda.
A result-oriented mind, caught in a sense of doership, naturally thinks that a “good” meditation is a success and a “bad” meditation is a failure.
The trick is to move above this attachment to success. Part of spiritual maturity is detaching from the fruits of your own practice. It means both accepting that, ultimately, you are not responsible for your experience in meditation—you simply create the best possible conditions for the Truth to reveal itself—and letting go of the need to feel good during your practice.
Without this maturity, meditation becomes just a way to “get high.”
There’s a psalm in the Jewish tradition that includes the line: “To declare Thy loving-kindness (chasdecha) in the morning and Thy faithfulness (emuna) in the evening.”
You can interpret this as referring to these two poles of spiritual practice. In the “morning,” when you are open and everything comes easily, your work is to open to this Grace, to rejoice and be grateful for what you are receiving. In the “evening,” when the light has disappeared and you can’t even feel what you’re moving towards, it’s the time for faith.
This is the real test of your spiritual practice: not how high you can get when everything is easy, but how much your realizations can sustain you even when you’re cut off from the direct experience. Your simple persistence shows your authenticity, and how deep your practice has gone.
So just keep going. Consecrate your meditations, do your best effort to create the right conditions, and then let go. When your meditation is over, give thanks for your practice and dedicate it to the benefit of all beings—no matter how you felt during it.
Finally, remember that the night is darkest right before dawn. If you feel stalled out, confused, or like everything is falling apart, remember it won’t be like this forever. A new level of realization might be just around the corner.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga student. You can read her post about maintaining your spiritual practice while traveling here.
How to Maintain Your Spiritual Practice While Traveling, and Turn Traveling into a Spiritual Practice
By Natasha Friedman
Travel and spirituality have long gone hand in hand. Pilgrimage is a part of almost every tradition, from medieval Europeans walking to Jerusalem to millions of Hindus gathering at the Ganges for the Kumbh Mela.
Often, spirituality is spoken about in the language of travel: your “spiritual journey” or “path.” The Sanskrit word samsara, meaning cyclic existence within an illusory world of duality, can be literally translated as “wandering.”
For many people in my generation, this wandering is very literal. We’re backpackers, nomads, global citizens. Sometimes this life can feel like an unending pilgrimage to an unknown destination.
But constant motion doesn’t have to be a detour from the spiritual path. On the contrary, the outer journey can be an amazing support for the inner voyage, if you can maintain your practice and awareness throughout.
Developing a Spiritual Practice That You Can Take Anywhere
Consistency is essential for any spiritual practice. Though it might be much harder while traveling, in periods of instability it’s especially important to maintain a regular practice. Best of all is to choose something to do every day, a practice you can commit to no matter what.
When I am traveling, this practice becomes my home base. It might be my only point of stability and familiarity.
So how do you pick a practice to take on the road with you?
First, you will want something you can do anywhere, in case you get stuck at an airport or on a 12-hour bus ride. This rules out most Hatha Yoga practices, for obvious reasons (though you can probably get away with uddiyana bandha, nauli kriya, or pranayama).
That said, long hours of travel take their toll on the body. For this reason alone, I try to squeeze in as much asana practice as I can while on the road.
Meditation, on the other hand, can happen anywhere and at any time.
If you’re used to meditating in a quiet, peaceful corner of your bedroom, it can be a challenge to go into high concentration and relaxation while bumping around on a bus or squeezed into an airplane seat with crying babies on both sides. I’m not going to tell you that these are optimum
conditions for reaching deep states, but I do have a few pointers for making the most out of it.
- Use earplugs.
- Let go of your expectations. Maybe you won’t feel like you go as deep as in a “normal” meditation, but it’s a different type of work: learning to surrender and be present under any conditions. Learning to let noise and sensations, frustration and chaos, pass through your awareness without reacting.When you can remain calm and witness intense external stimuli, it’s much easier to deal with the turbulence of your own mind.Anyway, if you think about it, how often do you really have “perfect” conditions for meditation? Even if everything is supportive externally, your mind can still go wild. It’s not about having the perfect setting, but what you do with it.
- Allow sounds and feelings to arise without resistance. In a more peaceful setting, you might be able to go into laser focus and completely zone out any distractions. But, when meditating somewhere loud and chaotic, that forceful attitude is likely to result in frustration.Instead, simply stay neutral. Draw all these perceptions into the Heart and remain a witness to all of them.
- Make use of any opportunity to practice. If you’re waiting for a train, do some walking meditation to make up for long hours of sitting. If you’re stuck in a passport line with a hundred other tired, frustrated people, do tonglen and absorb all their suffering.
Making Travel Itself a Spiritual Practice
By now, maybe you’ve guessed where I’m going with this.
Taking your on-the-road spiritual practice to the next level means that beyond trying to squeeze your practice into your traveling, traveling itself becomes a practice.
Travel can teach you so much about yourself. Taking you outside of your normal patterns of behavior, away from so many of the external factors that you usually use to define yourself, it’s an opening for something new to blossom. Exploring the world outside of your normal conditions allows you a glimpse beyond the level of conditions.
It teaches humbleness. Maybe at home you’re smart and successful, but here you are struggling to order in a restaurant, getting ripped off by taxi drivers, and washing your underwear in hostel sinks for weeks on end. At a certain point, the default is just to smile and move on.
Travel is often a crash course in non-attachment. First, non-attachment to belongings, as stuff inevitably gets lost, stolen, or simply left behind to make room in a loaded backpack. No matter how much you think you can’t live without something, it usually turns out that you do just fine without it.
You also develop non-attachment to plans, either when things go wrong or very right, like when you make some great new friends the night before leaving for Mexico City and decide to go with them to Guatemala instead.
There’s nothing like getting hopelessly lost in a foreign city where you don’t speak the language to teach you how to stay calm and positive in a difficult situation. Facing challenges like this brings a special kind of trust, a surrender to whatever comes, and the courage to step into the unknown.
Odd as it sounds, I learned how to come home by being homeless.
I love traveling. It’s been several years since I’ve had a good answer when people ask me “Where do you live?,” and I like it that way.
Yet sometimes, especially during silent retreats or towards the end of a long journey—like when I see the sun rising through the windows of an overnight bus—I am hit in the gut with an intense homesickness. Sometimes it’s nostalgia for my childhood home or places I used to know in Brooklyn, my last permanent address. Sometimes I don’t even know what the longing is for.
It was only in my last Hridaya Retreat that I began to understand what these waves of homesickness were about.
One of the strongest attachments human beings have is to “home.” “I’m American.” “I’m from So-and-so.” “I live here, it’s where I belong.”
From the perspective of Advaita, none of these identifications with places is real. On the ultimate level, I am not American. I was not born anywhere and I don’t come from anywhere. Wherever I think that I live is simply the form that is arising in my awareness at that moment.
Where is home, when you are pure Consciousness on a voyage through this world of appearances? Where is home, when your soul is yearning to break free of all attachments and fly into the source? Why do you feel such a need to have a place to call your own, when your nature is freedom beyond time and space?
A Sufi mystic once said that every desire is a restless movement in search of God. When you go deep enough into any desire, you find a longing for union with the Ultimate, a calling to dissolve into the essence of Life.
To illustrate, Sigmund Freud claimed that all human behavior was rooted in two desires: the sex drive and the death drive. However, with an understanding of the spiritual dimension, both of these impulses are clearly filters for the fundamental longing that all sentient beings have to return to our True Nature.
Sex is union, the illusion of separateness disappearing, which is the ultimate bliss. According to Abhinavagupta, the great master of non-dual Kashmir Shaivism, it is one of two experiences in life that is most similar to the mystical experience. The desire for sex is so intense because it gives a taste of Reality.
The death wish is actually a desire for the death of the ego. This limited form really is self-destructive in the sense that its final goal is to merge into limitlessness.
This bittersweet homesickness I feel—and that I suspect most nomads run into—is also a hidden longing for the Divine.
When I feel this strange nostalgia on the road, this ache for something I don’t really miss or can’t even put my finger on, it’s really a longing to be settled in the Heart. It’s a longing for the magic and beauty of a world without filters, stories, and illusions, for the infinity that my limited consciousness emerged from. It’s an intuition of Truth.
Long-term travel is not always easy. It challenges you on every level of your being, pushing you to go beyond your limits and always open more to the beauty and wildness of the vast world you live in.
Sometimes I wonder if my wanderlust is just a distraction. There’s a part of me that says if I were really serious about my spiritual aspiration, I would settle down in one place and just meditate as much as I can, without all the trouble of constantly moving. After all, what is there to see in the world that can’t be found inside? What’s the point of more sightseeing in samsara?
I don’t believe so much in this voice—at least not now. There is, of course, a risk in following the urge to wander. It’s easy to get lost in the adventure, thinking that happiness lies in the next stop on the itinerary.
However, the calling is there, and I believe it’s there for a reason. The open road has lessons for you. There is something the soul needs to experience in each place you visit, karmic connections that draw you to a place or a person you need to meet, for whatever purpose above your limited human capacity to understand.
The more you wander with awareness, the more you bring practice along on your travels and turn your traveling into a practice, one thing becomes more clear. Wherever you go, you are there. The Self is there. Consciousness is there, it is everywhere, and you can never go outside of it.
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.
By Natasha Friedman
The Yearning of Spiritual Aspiration
A student goes to his teacher in ancient India. He asks, “When will I reach enlightenment?”
The teacher leads him to a river, takes him out in a rowboat, and asks him to jump overboard. When he does, the teacher thrusts the student’s head under the water and holds him down. When he is choking, about to pass out, the teacher lets him up.
The teacher asks, “What did you feel when you were underwater?”
“Desperation. An agonizing desire for air. Every particle of my being crying out to breathe.”
The teacher says, “When you want the truth as much as you wanted to breathe, that’s when you will get it.”
Do We Really Want to Know the Truth?
For many of us with spiritual aspiration, we actually don’t want the “truth”—at least, not yet. We want to want it. Maybe we want to want it so badly we feel like we could die from wanting. But we don’t die, we can’t die into it… yet. There is still a part of us that thinks happiness lies just around the next turn of the wheel. Maybe it will come from the next retreat, from finding the right guru, living in just the right ashram, from this or that meditation technique, from learning all the secret mantras and mudras.
And so the wheel turns.
I don’t know why I’m on the spiritual path. If you ask me directly, I would probably give you a superficial answer. But, when I look a little deeper into myself I find only bewilderment, a million ideas and impulses and in the center, this not-knowing. Void. Awe.
Beginning the Journey
It started out simple enough. I was 24, lost and alone in my “starving artist” identity bubble, digging myself into a hole searching for something. Finally, that hole went so deep that I popped out the other side. I found myself at a Buddhist center and suddenly I was there every day, meditating.
The thing is, the more answers you look for, the more questions you get. This rabbit hole goes all the way down. Following one clue after another into this ever-expanding labyrinth of chakras and nadis, hidden worlds, laws of karma, and flavors of emptiness, bodhicitta, Shiva and Shakti and Christ-consciousness, and experiences further and further from what your rational mind can understand. Then, at a certain point, you look at all the pieces in your hand and start to wonder what puzzle this is exactly. You realize this turn your life took is part of something so much more vast and unfathomable than you could have imagined.
And then you realize others feel the same. You’re looking for the same thing that people have been looking for since early human existence. It’s the same thing that deep down, everyone, every being on this planet, is seeking. The only difference is you have this itch of aspiration, this crazy drive to know. You won’t be content with anything less than the direct experience, nothing less than union with this something that is beyond everything.
The Courage to Seek
Many people think that spiritual life is some sort of escape, like you can’t deal with the “real world.” I feel that couldn’t be farther from reality. It takes courage to let go of everything you trusted in the world you came from, to stop believing what you’ve always been told and what your mind tries to tell you.
It takes courage to go head-on with your demons. It takes courage to see how high you can fly. It takes courage to come face to face with yourself.
It takes courage to offer it all into the divine fire.
I’ve been on the road for almost a year now. California, Hawaii, Mexico, Israel… The scenery changes but that something in the corner of my eye is always there. I don’t miss having a home or “normal life” or anything, but I feel a fire in my heart, stronger every day. A longing that is so painful and so blissful at the same time.
Finally, I arrive at Hridaya. Again, something cracks open and the light comes in. I do one 10-day Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreat and go back the next month for the 17-day. It is so sweet, all those mornings when I wake up in the dark and sit alone until the sun peeks over the horizon. Eagles floating up from the beach in the afternoon. Staring at patterns in the bark of a neem tree. Catching my breath at the beauty of every moment, too precious even to hold onto.
In the meditations, I feel myself falling asleep to the outside world. Inside, something is waking up. I am curled up in the womb of the universe and I know nothing, I am nothing, there is nothing to know.
Sahajananda reads poems by Rumi and Hafiz before meditation sessions. There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled. There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled. You feel it, don’t you? Every night he answers questions that students leave on slips of paper in a glass cup by the altar. One night, someone writes that she is depressed and suicidal. She is alienated from her family and all her friends are drifting away. She says she has lost all her reference points.
“This is a powerful time for you,” he answers. “You can learn from it. If a reference point can be lost, that means it isn’t the ultimate reference point.”
A Magnet in the Heart
There are times when it all snaps into focus, like for the blink of an eye I can almost see the whole picture but it’s just out of reach. I want to cry and I can’t tell if it’s from joy or heartbreak. Where are my reference points? Who put this magnet in my heart that draws me deeper and deeper into the unknown? What set my life to curve around the divine, like the spirals of a plant or a galaxy reaching for the Beloved?
I pray to God to take everything from me so I can be naked and alone with the truth. Take my mind, take my life. Make me a leaf in Your wind. Make me a finger in Your hand to spread Your blessings. Oh Beloved, take away what I want, take away what I do, take away what I need, take away everything that takes me from you…
At the same time my deep, self-preserving ego prays for the opposite. Lord, keep me safe. Lord, give me long life in this body. Lord, give me someone who loves me. Give me money and sex. Make things how I like them.
And the wheel turns.
Maybe it’s all very simple. Whatever you want, God wants to give you. If you only want God, if that’s really all you want with every last drop of your being, that’s what you will get.
I keep praying. I keep meditating, practicing yoga and doing retreats. I study. I do tapas. And I listen for that tiny, precious voice that says, “Listen, child, come closer, let me tell you a secret…”
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga student. Her spiritual aspiration is guiding her to participate in the 2017 49-Day Prathyabhijna Retreat.