Monthly Archives: September 2012

Defining a Few Strange Terms: the Homunculus and the Hypnogogic State

By Linda Oshins

I don’t interrupt my students’ personal experience of the physical body scan in Yoga Nidra by explaining the structure of the practice conceptually. Too much thinking and too little first-hand experience obscures its meaning. Trying to figure out Yoga Nidra as you experience it is impossible since you would have to interrupt the flow of sensations in the moment to pin one down. Then you are outside the flow, and likely lost in thought. But I have an intellectually curious student in class who wanted a peek behind the curtain so a few of us met for an impromptu class during break week to talk.

Yoga Nidra as taught by Richard Miller pays particular attention to the sense organs and other parts of the body that contain a high concentration of sensory nerves. In understanding the sensory map of the body an image, the sensory homunculus, is worth a thousand words, but most people have never seen it. When I refer to it in teacher trainings I’m met by blank faces all around. Here are a couple versions of that image. The larger body parts contain more sensory nerves than the smaller body parts.

This one shows which area of the brain is related to each body part and roughly how much brain area is devoted to each. Obviously the tongue, mouth, lips and the sensory organs in the head (eyes, ears, and nose) are prominently represented, followed by the dexterous and sensitive hand and fingers.

The common body scan that beginning yoga teachers are taught to lead and that most, if not all, students at YOHI have experienced isn’t mapped to the sensory homunculus. It starts at the foot and slowly moves toward the head bringing attention to each body part as an invitation to relax it. Sometimes it’s accompanied by instructions to tense and release the body. For example, the instruction might be, “Lift the leg a couple inches off the floor. Tense all the muscles of the leg, foot, and toes. Hug the muscles to the bone as tightly as you can. On an exhalation, gently release the leg to the floor. Relax all the muscles of the leg, foot and toes.” It handles each body part in turn, referencing each once, relaxing the big muscles of the body like the leg and arm muscles and the muscles of the pelvic belly as well as smaller muscles that are chronically tense like the neck and facial muscles. This in turn relaxes the mind, and leaves you properly prepared for Savasana at the end of an asana practice or relaxed enough to fall asleep.

The iRest Yoga Nidra body scan is a different experience entirely. It is mapped to the sensory homunculus and follows the order of body sensitivity across the brain beginning at the corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres. Therefore, it begins in the mouth, maps the sensations of the other sense organs in the head, and moves down the body lingering and detailing sensation in the hands and feet. It also moves from one side of the body to the other, revisiting body sensations. A set of instructions might be, “Notice sensations in the right side of the body, the whole right side of the body. Feeling the right side of the body…. Now notice sensations in the left side of the body, the whole left side of the body. Feeling sensation in the left side of the body only…. At your own pace and rhythm move back and forth, noticing sensations in the right side of the body, then the left side of the body, back and forth….” And then the glorious, integrative experience, “Notice sensation in the whole body. The whole body, one globe of radiant sensation vibrating is all directions simultaneously.”

The Yoga Nidra scan does not just relax the body, although it may have that effect. It stimulates the entire sensory network, awakening the sense organs and awakening the mind. Some people seem to fall asleep during Yoga Nidra, but they are actually in a hypnogogic state, a state of “threshold consciousness,” between waking and sleeping. The body is asleep, the mind may or may not be conscious of the teacher’s voice, but the student is alert on some level. The hypnogogic state is characterized by openness, sensitivity, receptivity, associative fluidity and insight. It is related to semantic memory, the memory of meanings and understandings, rather than episodic or autobiographical memory. In other words it is fertile ground for seeing beyond the many daily concerns and value judgments of the personality.

When I do the tense and release body scan, I can feel the difference between the greater sensitivity in my fingertips and the lesser sensitivity in my calves. But I have a different experience during Yoga Nidra. Those distinctions erode because Yoga Nidra speaks to every cell in my body. Everything vibrates and is so alive and conscious that the parts become the whole, indistinguishable from one another. Boundaries disintegrate.

Both body scans have their place and their purposes and they are by no means the only possibilities. The practice of yoga offers many ways to hold a discussion between the mind and body and open doors into consciousness.

I hope you are entertained and informed by a couple images and concepts useful to me in my practice.

Anne Douglas, a teacher from the iRest Institute will give a public lecture on Friday, November 16, on the philosophical underpinnings of Yoga Nidra. Linda Oshins teaches iRest in her Thursday morning classes.


Love As A Mountain

Love As A Mountain

Nature has an astounding way of showing us who we really are. It mirrors our perfection in infinite ways and forms and perpetually points us to our home ground of Being that is ever present, still, open, and unperturbed.

I have the great privilege to live in a National Park in the Canadian Rockies, where nature’s magnanimous beauty is waiting to be revealed in every moment and glance. It is rare for a day to go by in which my heart has not been slayed open by some subtle or spectacular scene.

On one of my favorite local walks there is a lakeside bench that rests at the foot of Cascade Mountain whose peak reaches almost 3000 meters or over 9800 feet high. I will often perch myself here, on the bench, and open. Not out of intention. Openness simply happens.

At first it is an opening of the senses that quickly and spontaneously opens in all directions and I feel myself AS the mountain, as the sky, and as openness itself.

I am struck by the flavors of each object. The lake, the trees, the mountain seem to have unique feeling qualities. Yet each of these occurring within the One flavor of True Nature.

Cascade Mountain stands like an ominous pyramid, towering over the valley. As I open to it’s Presence, I feel a deep resonance like the continuous Om that the monks of the east chant, and a profound love that cascades in and through me and my heart opens into infinity.

I notice thoughts proclaiming, “I love this” as ego’s way to affirm itself and yet there is a sensing through to the truth and simplicity of pure open love without a “me”. Love As a lake. Love AS the sky. Love AS a mountain.

Anne Douglas


Your Dharma May Not Be Practical

By Marcia Miller

Several times this month I have heard myself say that living your dharma is not always “practical,” at least in the sense of what we normally think of as safe and reasonable. This thought came up as several people talked with me about deeply held dreams or longings that were arising in their lives. “Dharma” is a Sanskrit word rich in meaning. As Doug Keller reminded us earlier this year when he taught at Yoga on High, it comes from the root “dhar,” which means to fasten, to support or to hold. As is true with most Sanskrit words, it has many meanings, and some of them have changed over the years as the Indian or American culture has changed. Originally the word meant duty—an individual’s duty that, when performed, ensured the smooth running of the entire community. Now the word has come to mean living life to its highest purpose, honoring one’s natural gifts and learning the specific personal lessons that are to be learned in life. So when someone says to me that their life’s dream is to be an artist we both know it may not be practical—it is vitally important to feed and house ourselves and our family after all. I think they are really seeking my permission or encouragement to nourish a part of themselves that doesn’t always make sense in a world view often measured only in dollars and cents. The question is really, “How can I nourish this part of me that is longing to make art when it won’t feed my family?” “How can you not,” I answer. Your longing is giving you an important message that gives you clues to your real job here on earth—the job of fulfilling your dharma. This well known quote from the dancer Martha Graham gives a poetic voice to this concept. I have kept this posted by my desk for years and I still get goose bumps every time I read it.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

This quote also beautifully expresses the meaning of “pranava”—Om—the sound of prana. Prana is the life energy that moves us all—infused in everything. So the idea of dharma is that while we all have this same life energy, it moves differently through each of us through our talents, longings and challenges.

I have been musing about this lately as I prepare for the arrival of my friend, Jill Benioff, the Vedic Astrologer who is coming in October for a Vedic Astrology workshop and private sessions. I met her at Esalen Institute on Big Sur last spring when I assisted my meditation teachers in a workshop. I was immediately drawn to her gentle nature and the depth of attention she brought to all the practices we were doing. We made a date for lunch to get to know each other; I was especially eager since I had never met a Vedic Astrologer before and was curious about her work.

After talking together through lunch she offered to give me a reading to show me more directly what her sessions were like. I declined saying that I didn’t like someone else telling me predictive information about my life. I have always wanted to greet each moment afresh, without anticipation of how it might go (or how someone else thinks it might go.) And I have known people who come to rely on someone else’s advice and inner knowing rather than cultivating their own inner wisdom. Then she said something that changed my mind. She said that she didn’t generally do predictive astrology. Her gift was in offering people a deeper and clearer view of their dharma. She said people almost always feel a sense of familiarity with what she is saying because she is confirming what they already know, at least on some level. The benefit of her work is to highlight wise inner voices that may be soft and her work (in her words) “illuminates what is needed to promote greater authenticity in our lives.” This kind of clarity allow us to function at a high level of efficiency and joy—much like the difference between a soaker hose where the flow of water is slow and dribbles out in all directions and a regular hose where the flow of water is strong and directional.

As Jill explained to me what the chart said about my own birth, I felt like she had known me forever. It was all so conversational and friendly. She mentioned a number of my talents and I was amazed that so much of what felt intimate and personal about me seemed to be laid out on her computer screen in my chart. She encouraged me to step into these gifts even more fully. I have sensed what she was saying for years but some part of me had resisted allowing the best parts of me to grow fully—perhaps because of some fear of pride. If I allowed the fullness of who I could be to emerge might I become a person who lost all sense of humility and might that prevent the kind of connection with others that I yearn for? But as we talked there was something about hearing and seeing her information that seemed almost impersonal. I felt a shift in me that was a willingness to rest more fully in myself. This sense of deep intimacy along with a feeling of impersonality allowed me to understand that whatever I have been given is not really mine to be proud of, but mine to cultivate. There is more curiosity and less worry. Since then I have had several very powerful dreams related to my work with Jill—the first one during the night after our talk and the other one a few weeks ago. They continue to reaffirm the information she gave me, that I will have all the inner resources I need to live my life fully, even in times of great difficulty. The fear of pride is lessened because it seems natural and appropriate to live in alignment with the best of who I am.

This actually brings me back full circle to paraphrasing some words from Doug Keller. As we live our dharma more fully the unique gift of our presence (which includes all the light and the dark) is offered with all that we do. The clarity, the efficiency, the fullness and the originality of each one of us living our dharma may in fact, be more practical and sensible than we ever imagined.


Practice Makes Perfect?

By Martha Marcom

For me, asana practice is never perfect. Here is the gold standard of perfection as elucidated by Richard Freeman: a perfect practice would be one in which you were conscious of every breath. I happily embrace this ideal of perfection--that the practice is elevated by breath, not some idealized, even intellectual version of asana. I’d hold that perfection of asana is not even possible, given that every day our physical bodies are different, our emotional and energetic patterns shift, the stars in heaven are aligned differently, and a different planet rules. This is not to undermine the importance of learning wise ways of being physically in postures! I would plead that it is essential for any serious student to have guidance and information regarding his or her personal asana practice. Having a teacher is the time-honored method. For all of us, there is always more to learn about alignment, and awakening the body more and more deeply.

Richard Freeman shares another practice guide line: the breath is the vehicle of the intelligence. So if we can be in asana with a continual awareness of the breath, the breath could take us into a meditative state. The breath could also teach us to embody the asana in the most therapeutic way for each day, each asana, each inhalation and exhalation. Building this subtle awareness on top of an aligned body may indeed approach perfection. Perhaps the breath would take us to unexpected places if we were to surrender to its wisdom.

If we could just effortlessly ride that vehicle of intelligence to the mat each day…some days it is such a long way to the mat for me. Practice does approach perfection though in the sense that, if we practice regularly, we are truly on the yogic path and stand to receive its huge benefits. I’m thinking peace and freedom and delight here! can feel like perfection when one finishes one’s practice early in the day. Or in the case of evening classes, how sweet is sleep, knowing the effort has been made to practice, the vow has been kept, the commitment honored.

Here is something to try if you’d like to explore how the breath can guide you: Move easily toward Marichasana C,a hard pose to breath in! Can you be in Revolved Sage Pose it in a way that allows a full relaxed breath? So often we desire more of an asana than is optimal for the breath or the body. Try Mari C in the most dialed back way, left leg extended and grounded on your mat, right leg folded in with the heel moving toward the right sit-bone and that right foot planted, second toe facing forward. Take the right arm behind you and use that arm to support length in the spine. Bring the left arm across to hold the right knee. Cast your gaze softly to the right. Find your breath here. Then observe what arises. Does your body invite you to go a bit deeper? Or wait, was that your mind putting forth its agenda? See what the breath has to say. Follow the breath as the vertebral column lengthens and begins to spiral exquisitely along that length. Let the breath inform you when to look forward and release the pose. Then try the other side, which could be different!

Yoga has to be experienced! Practice is required! Here are some strategies that may help you come to your mat to practice.

Richard Freeman’s technique is to tell himself he only has to do one Surya Namaskara, one Sun Salutation, as the practice. If you try this you may find yourself not wanting to stop with just one!

Lilias has said that she takes herself firmly by the ear and leads herself to the mat.

Pattabhi Jois was a big advocate of coffee and has been quoted as saying “No coffee, no prana”. Coffee might not be for everyone, but drinking a warm beverage such as tea or lemon water can definitely get you started in the right direction, elimination-wise.

I like to light a candle if it’s dark while I practice, to evoke the sacred nature of the practice, to give light and to indicate to myself, now is the time!

Get an eye pillow or a blanket or anything you use for Savasana ready and within sight--to remind yourself of where you are going.

It can be helpful to organize your yoga clothes and equipment well in advance of your practice or the time to depart for class.

If you are going to add an hour or two to your day by including a practice, that time has to come from somewhere. It might be that you’ll need to get to bed earlier, for the whole day to work properly.

Commit along with a practice buddy, or if you are really ready to step into the fire, join the morning Mysore club for an early ashtanga practice.

Sign up for a pass or a course. The change of the seasons towards fall can be an optimal time to begin. Or begin again.

Here’s what I’m trying lately to get myself promptly to the mat: fire up that vehicle of intelligence, my breath, and let it transport me to the mat.

One last Pattabhi Jois quote, “Practice and all is coming!”


What is your Traveling Soundtrack?

by Jasmine Astra-elle Grace

One of my favorite things to do is to travel with a soundtrack. Not a particular artist’s album but a collection of random songs that is created by reflecting on the purpose of the trip or some universal force that has a message for me. I often use iTunes genesis mixes, put on my headphones and float through the airport with the spontaneity of the song. The memories, the thoughts, the feelings, and the spirit—I notice that the pep of my step, the pace, and the attitude a song can evoke. I walk through the airport being completely present, reading the signs, making eye-contact, smiling, being at peace and ultimately treating the airport like a yoga practice without the mat. Being open to what comes up.

On this particular morning I am heading to Estes Park, Colorado, to meet my life-long friend Abby Hewitt for the Sounds True Wakeup Festival. This Rocky Mountain adventure was one of those trips that happened to fall into place effortlessly, like it was meant to be. I am very aware on my behalf, spiritually, and on behalf of Yoga on High that there is something special here to discover. And just seeing my friend will be the biggest gift.

Currently I am listening to Crowded House’s Better Be Home Soon. Perhaps a relevant song on the soundtrack for my trip! Seeing Abby is like going home, but a question I often ponder is where is home? Isn’t it really just a feeling or a place in our heart? I think I gave up thinking home was a place in the world or a building a long time ago. Mostly my home is Savasana on the mat every morning, or being with my husband and daughter in our own little magical world inside a bubble of happiness that no one can pop. Home is my safe place. We are lucky if we find this in our lifetime. There are plenty people, children especially, who don’t have this safe place. That is one reason why I love what the Yoga on High Foundation is doing in schools for children.

On arriving in Estes Park and sitting down to finish this blog I look out over the grounded safety of the mountains. Wow, the energy here is amazing. Abby and I spent the whole day horseback riding and hiking. Our soundtrack was nature and conversation. While in the airport a song that came up on my mix was the Book of My Life by my all-time favorite artist Sting – a very appropriate song considering Abby and I had six years of in-person catch up. One of the lakes we hiked to was called Dream Lake. Here the cool glacier wind blew and we threw our dreams into the wind and onto the lake. I actually said out loud, “let the wind carry our dreams” and it felt like magic. I took off my shoes and in the moment did Urdhva Dhanurasana (wheel) on the uneven rock, making a mountain shape and honoring and opening the heart with a prayer, “May I keep this magic in my cells, in my life, and in my relationships, and may my heart be open to possibilities, growth, and healing.”

That night we danced to the soundtrack of the eclectic music of DJ Shaman’s Dream, letting the music guide us, free and alive. Although I do this often with my little girl in my living room there was something about being on a deck surrounded by sunflowers, candlelight and of course the mountains. The next night, after a day spent with amazing spiritual and intellectual presenters, we chanted live with Snatam Kaur and her band. We sat on the floor right at the very front and sang our hearts out. Talk about collective consciousness. We were connected. Abby and I floated back to our cabin singing, May the Long Time Sun Shine Upon You. I am so glad we are bringing Kundalini to Yoga on High this fall. Sat Nam.

One of the presenters at the Sounds True Wake up Festival was the poet David Whyte . He spoke his poems out loud. One poem in particular, a soundtrack in itself, pierced through my soul –

Finisterre by David Whyte
The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.

And I took off my shoes, opened my mind and heart, and felt a little lighter. I returned to Columbus Ohio for an evening of Kirtan at Yoga on High with local artist Mike Cohen. I couldn’t help but hear the message, keep the music, dance and prayer coming.

I will leave you with the question, what is the soundtrack of your adventures and travels?

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