Thursday, September 27, 2007

Japa meditation and asana

Hatha-yoga names several sitting postures for meditation purposes. There is a hierarchy in these posture, and there are definite advantages for the person chanting japa to make use of these techniques to improve concentration on Harinam and smarana.

There are probably more, but the main sitting postures are: sukhāsana, siddhāsana, svastikāsana, ardha-padmāsana, vīrāsana, gomukhāsana and padmāsana.

The main point of the sitting posture is that it should be comfortable enough to sit in for a long stretch of time. Changing postures can be helpful when the legs or back get tired, and occasionally getting up to walk around or to stretch the legs and back may be necessary.

For most people, some kind of back support is beneficial in all the sitting postures. You should place a pillow or something else (a rock, a piece of wood, a book (!) ... anything) under the sacrum (the tailbone). This will help keep the back straight.

The straighter the back, the deeper one can breathe, since the stomach and chest are not encumbered by a curved back. One should definitely use deep breathing as a part of one's japa technique. This does not mean that Pranayam replaces chanting japa as a meditation, but that one uses simple deep breathing techniques as an aid to regulating the bodily and mental functions while chanting japa.

Sukhāsana is often called the tailor pose. It means the legs are crossed, placing the feet underneath the thighs.

Sukhāsana is the least desirable of the sitting postures, because the natural tendency in this asana is to lean forward. It is harder to keep the back erect and so the lower back gets tired faster. The result is more bobbing, shaking of the head, and agitated movement. Leaning forward means that if you are tired, you may fall asleep. Bobbing back and forth is a technique for aiding concentration that is used by Orthodox Jews and Muslims, usually when memorizing or reciting their scriptures. In meditation, however, it is inferior to the use of breathing as a technique for mind control; more generally it is both a sign and further cause of distraction and should be avoided. Bobbing means that the mind is out of control and the concentration on the Holy Names is probably long gone.

Most people who are not in good physical shape or who have not cultivated any kind of yoga practice are obliged by default to use the sukhāsana. People using this posture should be especially sure to use the cushion as back support.

Siddhāsana (which is almost the same as svastikāsana) is already much better than sukhāsana. It gives much better back support and is easier to sustain for long periods. In siddhāsana, the heel of the left foot is tucked into the crotch and the right foot rests wherever most comfortable, generally either over the left calf or (better) the left ankle, or a little higher, over the pubic crest.

The ardha-padmāsana is like the siddhāsana, but the right foot is placed higher, upon the left thigh.

Virāsana is for many people harder to do. In this posture, the right leg is stretched even further so that the right calf is resting on the left thigh. This means the left foot is either coming out on the right side, or somewhat preferably, heel tucked between the buttocks. By placing the right foot all the way to the ground on the left side, the knee will be upraised. This is then called gomukhāsana. (This position is completed by holding the hands behind the back; they should meet in the small of the back, with one elbow directly behind the head.)

These virāsana postures are not very useful for japa meditation, but are particularly good when forced to sit for a long time and wanting to stretch or change position without getting up.

Padmāsana is one of the most famous yoga postures, though it is hard for most people to do. By practicing the above, one may eventually be capable of doing it, though excessive fat and stiffness will make it impossible. In padmāsana, one crosses the legs in such a way that the soles of the feet are facing upwards, the right foot on the left thigh, and the left foot on the right thigh. For righthanded people, the right foot generally goes on the left thigh first. One should try to alternate (as with the other āsanAs above), but one of the two alternatives will generally be more natural and easier to sustain for long periods.

The padmāsana is the best of the sitting postures because it locks in the back better than any of the others, pushing one into an erect position, opening the chest and thorax and thus making deep breathing natural and sustained.

Yoga-mudrā and Bandha-traya are useful procedures when in sustained meditation for long periods, as they give renewed energy when one is tired or one's concentration flags. Both are best practiced in padmāsana, but can be done to greater or lesser extent in ardha-padmāsana or siddhāsana.

Yoga-mudrā consists of locking the arms behind the back while in padmasana, then while exhaling to lean slowly forward as far as one can go--hopefully reaching the forehead to the floor. If you haven't got the flexibility or the thin stomach needed to go all the way, you still get a lot of benefit from the breathing, slow full exhalation when down, slow full inhalation when up.

This exercise is better accompanied by the 18-syllable mantra rather than Mahamantra. In general, I would recommend that if one has difficulty sustaining padmasana for long periods, then one should at least chant his dīkṣā-mantras in the pose. The Mahamantra is less demanding in the sense that one should chant any way possible. Sitting in a yogic posture is simply the more desirable way to maximize concentration.

Bandha-traya is similarly recommended primarily for meditation on aṣṭadaśākṣara mantra. It is a very powerful procedure, done in three steps while exhaling. The first part consists of locking the chin into the cavity between the clavicles. This is called jalandhara-bandha. The second part, uḍḍīyana-bandha, requires raising and tightening the intestines as the lungs empty, pushing the entire thorax back against the spine. Finally, mūla-bandha requires that one contract the anus and pull the kundalini upward. Siddhāsana is usually recommended for this because the heel pushes on the pubic bone, which is helpful in this posture.

In bandha-traya, one sustains the position during recaka (sustained exhalation). This means that on the pūraka (inhalation), there is a powerful effect. It should be followed by kumbhaka or sustained holding of the breath. The meditative effects are evidently felt mostly on the kumbhaka, but since control of the breathing is important, one should try to coordinate the concentration on the mantra with the breathing. One uses the regular rhythm of the mantra as a timing mechanism on the breath, and this has the reverse effect of increasing concentration on the mantra itself.

Usually one counts mantras in a way that is most comfortable in coordination with the particular exercise, either yoga-mudra or bandha-traya. However, even in regular asana, when meditation or the activitiy of the mind, i.e., smaranam, is more important than pranayam or asana or anything else, coordination of mantra to breathing is helpful as a springboard to concentration.

The Gita says,


yato yato niścalati manaś cañcalam asthiram
tatas tato niyamyaitad ātmany eva vaśaṁ nayet

From wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, bring it back and under the control of the self.

The idea is to be calm and not furtive in these proceedings. Devotees often associate japa with a state of anxiety, which they somehow feel is conducive to a more deeply felt prayerfulness, or devotion. This may have a certain usefulness in the early stages of bhakti, but for sustained, continuous, long-term practice, it is not the most effective approach. Keep the body still and relaxed, use the breath as a springboard to bringing the mind back into concentration, progressively on Nama, Guna, Rupa and Lila.

When one is doing Nama meditation, one is engaged in a more deliberate attempt to control the mind by returning it to an easily identifiable point, namely the Maha Mantra. Guna, Rupa and Lila are progressively freer and tending towards svārasikī smaraṇa. The meditation of the dīkṣā-mantras, which should be a more formal "set piece" of meditation activity (and given priority for the time challenged over even the Maha Mantra) requires that one make a deliberate attempt, within the limited time period that it takes to chant (i.e., less time than chanting Maha Mantra) to meditate on the Yoga Pith and Yoga Pith sevā. This is a very important process for one's psychic organization and one should use as many of the techniques of prāṇāyāma and āsana to maximize the benefits.

On the whole, if one wishes to maximize the benefits of japa, one will also find the utility of doing other hatha yoga exercises, which were developed for the sole purpose of making meditation in the seated position more sustainable.

This does not, by the way, mean that walking japa is not a powerful or legitimate practice. Furthermore, there is something to be said for chanting while letting the mind wander freely. I would nevertheless recommend disciplining oneself to chant a certain percentage of one's japa in the seated position. One should also attempt to do a certain percentage of one's japa mentally (mānasa), rather than whispered (upāṁśu) or aloud (vācika).

Jai Sri Radhe!


3 comments:

Jagat said...

After posting this, I went and looked a bit on the internet for pictures of these different poses and see quite a bit of crossover and confusion. So, my names might be a little different from some descriptions available on the internet. The distinction I made between virasana and ardha-padmasana does not seem to be there always, nor the is the distinction between siddhasana and svastikasana always very clear. Not even sukhasana is agreed on by everyone, though there seems to be no confusion whatsoever about padmasana.

Anyway, the point here is not really the names, but the hierarchy of postures based on the firm and comfortable holding of the back, neck and head in position for sustainable lengths of time.

Anonymous said...

Jagat - I'm curious on your advice on taking Hatha yoga classes. This seems to have been neglected in most presentations of GV in the west, but as you put it here, it def. bears some importance, at least to the physical aspects of practice.

Jagat said...

AnukUlyasya saGkalpaH. If it helps you to achieve the goal of all vidhis and niSedhas--smartavyaH satataM viSNur vismartavyo na jAtucit--then you should accept it.

The body is the temple of the Lord. This is as true for devotees as it is for anyone else, if not more so. It is also the means to rendering service. It can easily be dovetailed into Krishna's service. So what's the problem?