The top ten myths about meditation

meditation incense

Buddhist meditation teacher Bodhipaksa debunks the ten most common meditation myths.

Even though meditation is now widely used in sports, medicine, psychiatry, and of course as part of the spiritual practice of millions of people around the world, there are still many misconceptions in circulation about what meditation actually is.

Myth #10. Meditation is relaxation

To say that some people’s conception of meditation is “Think of warm puppies, and let your mind go limp” is an exaggeration, but not much of one. Perhaps because meditation has found a home in stress management classes around the world, many people think that “letting your tensions dissolve away” is the be-all and end-all of a meditation practice. But while it’s important to let go of unnecessary effort while meditating, meditation is still a practice — that is, it involves effort. Sure, we start by letting go of tensions in the body, but that’s only the start.

Myth #9. Meditation is just self-hypnosis

Hypnosis, when used in therapy, involves a patient being guided into having experiences that he or she would have difficulty in attaining unaided — experiences as varied as being content without a cigarette in hand and remembering forgotten events from childhood. Self-hypnosis does the same thing, but the practitioner uses a remembered script or visualization to, say, increase relaxation or to experience greater confidence. There’s actually some overlap between hypnosis and meditation (although some meditation teachers, being suspicious of hypnosis, would deny this). In both disciplines we start with inducing a state of relaxation and then proceed to doing some kind of inner work. In hypnosis and in some forms of meditation that inner work involves visualization or the use of repeated phrases. But many forms of meditation (for example, Zen “just sitting” or Theravadin mindfulness meditation) make no use of such tools. The overlap between hypnosis and meditation is only partial.

Myth #8. There are technological shortcuts

“I want to relax, and I want to do it now!” is the approach taken by many goal-oriented Westerners. And that makes them suckers for promises of quick-fix technological approaches to meditating. The web is full of products that promise you that you’ll meditate like a Zen monk at the touch of a button. Just stick your headphones on and hit play, and let the magical audio technology do the rest! But like myth #10, this overlooks the fact that meditation involves effort. Sure, if you stop running around being stressed for half an hour and listen to some blandly pleasant music you’ll find you’re more relaxed. Why wouldn’t you be? But it’s a mistake to confuse this with real meditation. The “Zen monk” in these ads would surely be puzzled to think that someone listening to a CD for a few minutes had attained the depths of mindfulness and compassion that come from thousands of hours of sitting on a cushion watching your breath.

Myth #7. Transcendental Meditation is the most common kind of meditation

“Oh, so is it Transcendental meditation you do?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked that question when people have found out I’m a meditation teacher. Just about everyone has heard of Transcendental Meditation because of famous practitioners like the Beatles and because of controversies about TM being taught in U.S. schools, but TM is very much a minority pursuit — probably because it’s so darned expensive to learn (and the question of where those millions of dollars go is still open). The most common form of meditation in the West is Mindfulness or Insight meditation, which comes from Theradavin Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia. Zen meditation and Tibetan meditation (which often involves visualization) isn’t far behind.

Myth #6. You have to sit in lotus position

In the Asian countries where Buddhist meditation developed people generally sit on the floor and have flexible hips. It’s natural for them to sit cross-legged, and so they sit in a variety of cross-legged postures in order to meditate, the lotus position being one of the most common and stable postures. In the West we sit in chairs from an early age and have stiffer hips. It’s therefore a rare Westerner who can sit in the lotus position to meditate — at least with any degree of comfort. In actual fact it’s possible to sit comfortably to meditate on a chair, a meditation stool, kneeling, or even lying down (although you’ll have trouble staying awake). The most important thing is that you find a posture that’s comfortable for you — and that you don’t beat yourself up about not being able to twist your legs like a pretzel.

Myth #5. In meditation you sit there saying “OM”

Mantra meditation is only one kind of meditation, and “OM” is only one mantra (or part of a mantra). ‘Nuff said.

Myth #4. Meditation is a religious activity

Although meditation comes from various spiritual or religious traditions, it’s not in itself necessarily a religious practice. The most common forms of meditation practice, for example, involve observing the sensations of the breath. What’s religious about that? Sure, there are some forms of meditation that involve using religious words of phrases as objects of concentration (e.g. Transcendental Meditation, Buddhist Mantra meditation, etc.) but many of the most common meditation practices have no religious overtones — which is probably one of the reasons they’re so common.

Myth #3. Meditation is somehow “Eastern”

A lot of people (usually Christians) have told me that they think Buddhist practice is “foreign” because it comes from an Eastern context. Hmm, where does Christianity come from again? Oh yes, the Middle East. But as with Myth #4 (“Meditation is a religious activity”) there’s nothing inherently Eastern, Southern, or Northern about counting your breath or wishing people well. Some Tibetan practices do involve visualizing rather bizarre (to Western eyes) figures, and mantra meditation usually involves repeating Sanskrit words or phrases — but those constitute a minority of meditation practices. Oh, all right, it’s a large minority — but what’s wrong with a little exoticism?

Myth #2. Meditation is escapist

To some people, meditation is “running away from problems,” “navel gazing,” “lotus eating,” or “disregarding the world.” Actually, running around being busy and never having time to experience yourself deeply is escapism. When you meditate you’re brought face-to-face in a very direct way with your own anger, delusion, craving, pain, and selfishness. There’s nothing to do in meditation but to experience and work with these things. Also, some forms of meditation — such as lovingkindness and compassion meditation — involve us working at transforming our relationship with the world by cultivating love and empathy for others. Perhaps that’s why so many meditators are involved in social work, psychotherapy, nursing, bereavement counseling, prison work, etc.

Myth #1 Meditation is about letting your mind go blank

Here it is, the all-time number one meditation myth — that meditation is about “making your mind go blank.” Sure, in meditation we aim to reduce the amount of thinking that goes on. Sure, just sit there for a few minutes watching all those pointless and even downright unhelpful thoughts bubbling up nonstop in the mind and you’d start to think that a blank mind would be preferable! But what would it be like to have a blank mind? Would you even be awake? Would you have any consciousness at all? Would you be able to know that your mind was blank? The confusion arises because we identify so much with our verbal thoughts (our inner self-talk) that we think that that’s all our experience is. And if we reduce or even stop our thinking (and that can happen) we assume that the mind must be blank. But a blank mind simply isn’t possible.

No, in meditation we aim to develop mindfulness — that’s mind-full-ness. When we’re mindful the mind is very much not blank. Rather, we’re aware of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts — and of how all those things interact with each other. The mind is so full of our present-moment experience that there’s less room for it to be full of useless thoughts, and instead we’re aware of the incredible richness of our experience — a richness that we overlook entirely when we spend our whole lives lost in thinking.

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Stressed Out? (ABC News)

Catherine Valenti, ABC News: Battling stress has become a top priority for many Americans who become frazzled as they try to balance a million responsibilities at once.

Plagued by rising health-care costs and increasing absenteeism due to stress, companies, health clubs and health-care providers all over the country are offering different methods to help people relax and take it easy.

While there are a number of different ways to alleviate stress, most boil down to two approaches, says Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the Healthy Lifestyles Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

One approach is to increase an individual’s ability to cope with stress by raising his or her physical tolerance to it. That can be done through exercise or physical activity that activates the same physiological responses that stress does (such as a higher heart rate and breathing rate), making the person better able to tolerate stress, says Rabin…

The other option, which has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years, is to decrease a person’s perception of stress by training the mind to think about the stressful event in a different way. This can be done through techniques such as guided visualization or meditation, and is recommended by organizations such as the Mind/Body Medical Institute, a Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of mind/body interactions.

“What we’re looking at is getting people to understand some of the negative thoughts and behaviors that are impacting their lives and getting them to make changes,” says Marilyn Wilcher, senior vice president at the institute.

Here are some brief descriptions of some widely used methods that have become popular for combating stress in recent years:

Guided Imagery: This technique involves sitting and listening to a tape or an instructor walk you through a guided relaxation exercise. The instruction often includes imagining yourself in a calm environment or a relaxing, faraway place.

Qigong: Qigong comes from two Chinese words: Qi (chi) means energy and gong (kung) means a skill or a practice. Qigong is a technique the combines movement, meditation and visualization. Proponents of Qigong say it can improve your physical and mental health and provide the same physical benefits of meditation, such as reduced stress and lower blood pressure.

Relaxation Response: The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension). This technique is used by the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

The technique involves sitting in a comfortable position and repeating a word, sound, phrase, prayer or muscular activity while passively disregarding the everyday thoughts that come into the mind so the practitioner can focus on the object of repetition. The institute suggests doing the response for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.

Transcendental Meditation: Popularized in the West by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, transcendental meditation involves sitting comfortably with the eyes closed for about 15 to 20 minutes, allowing the practitioner’s mind to enter a deeply relaxed state referred to as “Transcendental Consciousness.” The Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corp., which promotes the study of transcendental meditation, says the practice can increase a person’s creativity and productivity, improve health and reduce violence, among other benefits.

Yoga: A series of physical postures that connect the movement of the body with the breath. The poses are designed to purify the body, increase flexibility, calm the mind and provide physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation. There are many different kinds of yoga that range from more relaxing to more physically demanding, so people interested in practicing should find out beforehand what style of yoga is best for them.

Writing it Down: One technique recommended by Rabin involves taking 15 minutes to write down everything that’s bothering you. Don’t read what you’re writing or take time to proofread it, just write everything down, says Rabin. At the end of the 15 minutes, simply rip up the paper and throw it away. “It’s amazing the calming effect” this technique has, he says.

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Low income patients beat stress with yoga (Newsday)

He’s a Vietnam vet who wears clunky metal rings on nearly every finger and builds computers for fun, but lately the only place David Wilson wants to be is on his yoga mat.

The 50-year-old is homeless, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and has chronic pain in his neck and back. And until recently, a good night’s sleep meant just two hours of solid snooze time.

But since enrolling in a stress-reduction class at the Middletown [Connecticut] Community Health Center, Wilson says he’s finally sleeping through the night. Through yoga and meditation sessions, he is controlling his pain and has learned to focus his breathing.

The concept of mind over matter is nothing new to the medical world. Doctors have been pre-scribing meditation as a form of pain management for years, but now a few pioneers are working to spread the theory into poorer neighborhoods.

They are posting fliers in waiting rooms, getting doctors to pro mote the program and are recruiting people by phone and mail.

Their mission is to debunk the myth that yoga is only for the rich and very flexible.

There are a lot of stereotypes that people who are not rich wouldn’t be smart enough, wouldn’t be motivated enough, wouldn’t be interested enough. Meditation wouldn’t be some how as relevant to them,” said Beth Roth, a nurse practitioner who teaches the program in Middletown.

Then, Roth says, there are patients like Wilson, who has started holding regular meditation sessions with his roommate in a shelter. There’s also Cynthia Green, an unemployed 44-year old parent who takes a 10-mile bus ride from Meriden each week to make the class in Middletown.

Still, there are only five patients enrolled in Roth’s eight-week class in Middletown. She wants to get the word out that the program exists and that it is often covered by health insurance.

Medicaid and even private insurers may pick up the cost under new health behavior billing codes, Roth said. For those who don’t have health insurance, most clinics will offer big discounts based on family incomes.

During one of Roth’s recent classes, she started a group discussion by asking how the meditation tapes were helping the patients cope.

Wilson raised his hand and said he’d been listening to the tapes while also jamming to some Bob Dylan and Carly Simon. The pain that usually starts in his neck and then makes its way down to his fingers had started to subside, be said.

“If I put it out of my mind, you know it’s there, but it’s not some thing I focus on anymore,” he said, smiling.

Original article no longer available

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Daycare center features yoga, meditation for youngsters (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Rebekah Scott, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Eighteen tiny yogis sit on miniature mats, their eyes are closed, hands still, palms up and fingertips forming O’s.

Hunter and Cameron, Angelina and Jamal, Gabe, Emma, and Mitch are all 4, 5 or 6 years old, and this is Tuesday afternoon yoga time at Wisdom and Wonders day care center and preschool in Greensburg.

The lights are low. The silence is total, but very, very temporary.

Angelina has the giggles, and Brendan’s got the wiggles. Austin has sniffles. But Tracey Thomas — “Miss Tracey” to this crowd — has a plan, inspired by a Sunday comic strip.

“We’re going to make the alphabet with our bodies!” she tells the class. The tots jump up, grinning and stretching and ready to “do yogi-ing” again.

A is an alligator, a belly-down upward kick with feet together and gnashing jaws made of both arms. Some would call it a “modified locust pose,” or even a shalabha-asana.

These “alligators” roar and wriggle…

B is a butterfly, with flapping knees and elbows and twitching antennae. C is a cat, an on-all-fours, up-and-down stretch for back and belly. And D is the much-loved “downward dog,” where 15 hands-and-knees “cats” transform in a single breath to howling hounds, their bottoms in the air and bodies forming perfect inverted V’s.

Small children are yoga naturals, Thomas says, because they’re energetic and unafraid to try things their friends are doing. They’re not self-conscious, and often their elastic little bodies know no bounds.

Kids’ yoga isn’t new in Western Pennsylvania. Yoga centers from Coraopolis to Carnegie offer classes for youngsters, but Thomas says she doesn’t know of another daycare center with its own yoga studio, meditation room and yoga gym.

Wisdom and Wonders is 1 year old, but Thomas has been a grammar school and day care teacher for more than a decade. She opened a day care when she needed one for her daughter and could find nothing suitable.

“Think about it,” she says. “A child’s life is full of stress, with upheaval at home and constant stimulation from television and lessons and siblings. … And when they go to day care, that’s stressful too. All those bright colors and flashy entertainment. We take an opposite tack here. Neutral colors, low light, soft music, quiet voices. And yoga. The kids love it. We’ve opened the classes to their parents, too, but so far we haven’t had a single taker. Everyone’s so busy.”

Many children see yoga as just another part of their day. Little Austin, at times a “holy terror,” somehow finds solace in yoga. When it’s time to sit quietly in mediation pose, he’s there on his mat, perfectly still for five minutes at a time.

“It’s not time out, It’s just like quietness all around,” the little boy says.

“This isn’t religion. It’s really just quiet, no matter what you might have heard. No worship going on here,” said Mary Furlo, a preschool teacher and co-owner at Wisdom and Wonders.

An after-school yoga class for older kids meets late in the afternoon, but it’s not working out too well, Furlo said. It’s a victim of its own success.

“The parents come to pick up their kids while the class is going on, and the kids don’t want to leave,” she said. “We don’t want to cause family fights, so we’re re-thinking how to schedule this.”

Thomas teaches a round of adult yoga classes, too, starting at 5:30 a.m. and extending to 9 p.m. “It’s a long day, and I shouldn’t have the energy to do it all,” Thomas said. “But I’m doing yoga. That’s what keeps me going.”

‘It’s not time out; it’s just like quietness all around’ Read the rest of the article…

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Doing quiet time (Alameda Times-Star, California)

Kristin Bender, Alameda Times-Star, California: Inmates practice yoga and meditation.

MARCEL McRae is not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley. He weighs 270 pounds and can nearly bench press his own weight.
He has arms the size of some people’s legs and a linebacker’s torso. He grew up on some of the Bay Area’s meanest streets and is still roiled with pain from a gunshot wound sustained in a drive-by shooting as a teen.

Through the years, the 32-year-old has been arrested for weapons possession, burglary, robbery. He’s currently doing time in San Francisco County Jail. It’s certainly not his first stay. A third striker, he says he’s been in and out of jails and prisons nine times in the past 13 years.

But on Tuesday nights, McRae forgets his past.

He forgets the pain he’s caused his family, himself and his community, he says. He tries to concentrate on the positive. He attempts to look forward, not back. He sets his sights on internal peace.

Once a week, McRae and about a dozen other inmates practice meditation and yoga on the jail’s cold, hard cement floors. The physical and mental results, inmates and teachers say, have been truly amazing.

“I’ve lifted a lot of weights in my life,” says McRae, shaking out his arms after a recent class. “My first time doing yoga, I was more sore than a rigorous workout. I was mad at myself. I thought, ‘I’m not supposed to get sore doing yoga.’”

The classes are part of the “Resolve to Stop the Violence Program,” an effort to reintegrate violent offenders into society and decrease the likelihood that they’ll wind up back behind bars. Inmates say they are calmer and fight less. They take time out before reacting.

“It helps me a lot with clarity and being aware of myself and my mind. Awareness is a big part of it. Sometimes I even forget I’m in jail for two hours,” says Derek Holcomb, a 32-year-old inmate arrested several times on drug charges.

Holcomb says yoga class is the one peaceful place in the joint.

“It’s quiet in here. … It’s exactly the opposite of the regular population where there are 60 guys in one room, and it’s loud and chaotic.”

A similar program in Alameda County Juvenile Hall called the Mind Body Awareness Project teaches the ancient practices of yoga and meditation to give young people ways to handle anger, think clearly and avoid violence.

The San Francisco program, known as RSVP, requires inmates, people serving a sentence, to participate in violence “reeducation,” job training, life skills training, theater and parenting skills classes. But they also have electives such as meditation and yoga.

While there is no hard evidence that doing yoga and meditation is reducing the recidivism rate or making the jail a calmer, nicer place, there are statistics on the RSVP program. In the first year of operation, 1997, there was one in-custody fight among participants, compared to 297 violent incidents among the general jail population.

But participants are the ones who really sing the praises of deep thinking and the downward dog pose.

“The meditation has definitely helped because I am depressed. I am incarcerated, and I haven’t found nothing happy about being incarcerated,” says McRae.

McRae said the meditation allows him to escape, if only temporarily.

“After the first time I tried it, I immediately felt the results mentally and physically,” he says.

San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessey was a prison rights attorney who became a sheriff. “So his perspective is on rehabilitation,” says Eileen Hirst, his chief of staff.

“All of these people are coming out to the community. How do you want them to come out to the community? Having learned something to deal with their anger or not having learned something?” she says. ”(The sheriff) sees this as a golden opportunity.”

Inmates say one reason the meditation and yoga have been successful is the quality of the teachers. Donnelle Malnik, a 34- year-old San Francisco hairdresser and part-time yoga instructor, has been coming to the jail for about a year. She is also a survivor of physical and sexual abuse and finds working with the men cathartic.

“It’s pretty intense when you start hearing the (jail) doors close behind you, and you realize you are the only woman in there. It can be a little overwhelming,” she says

“But I’ve really enjoyed working with the men. A lot of them are victims themselves and have never figured out how to deal with victimization and the cycle of violence.”

Malnik and meditation instructor Bill Scheinman arrive in the room where they will hold class a few minutes before the inmates. The room is a unused dormitory, and there are signs of jail life—stainless steel tables, a row of silver sinks and multiple shower heads jutting out of one wall.

The inmates quickly arrange themselves in a circle, which becomes a sea of jail-issue orange. The dark blue, purple and green yoga mats stand out among the orange jumpsuits and socks. The men introduce themselves, and there are no newcomers. Everyone is returning for a third or fourth or even 12th time.

Malnik, covered in tattoos and with red streaked hair, sits at the head of the circle and cautions the class to avoid thinking about what happened before they arrived or what will happen later.

“Just the present moment,” she says. They roll their necks and shoulders and check for injuries. As they stretch, the faint sound of cracking backs and necks breaks the silence.

Malnik demonstrates a balancing pose. “I like to do these when I have something on my mind,” she says. The men stretch just a little deeper, a bit longer.

Once everyone has warmed up, Scheinman, 47, takes them through a meditation practice called “The Loving Kindness Practice.”
It asks each participant to bring to mind first themselves, then a good friend, then a person who is seen in daily life but remains a stranger, then a difficult person. The fifth stage is to bring all four people together and wish them good will and happiness.
Scheinman, who has been teaching meditation inside the jail for more than three years, has noticed immense changes in his students.

“You notice changes in their insight, the way their minds work, the way their emotions work,” he says. The men who come in angry and ready to pick a fight leave a lot calmer. “They are in a volatile environment, and in our class they have two hours of peace.”

After the meditation, they debrief.

“The discussions are usually so interesting. They talk about things you wouldn’t believe because they’ve been silent for two hours,” Malnik says.

But the real payoff comes when the guys mix back in the day-to- day interactions in the jail.

Inmate Peter Flores, 40, says the yoga and meditation helps him deal with the everyday situations that crop up in jail.

Recently, he returned from playing cards with some guys to find an inmate sitting on his bed. “Initially I felt angry. This person didn’t ask me if he could sit on my bed,” he says. “Instead of reacting, I went over and drank some water and then he said, ‘Hey man, can I sit here?’ I took the time to do something else. I have a lot of anxiety … and I don’t want to take it out on anyone else.”

Original article no longer available…

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Meditation and yoga help bust stress (Minnesota Daily)

Ching Lo, Minnesota Daily, University of Minnesota: A new stress-relief class is helping some students at the University ease their worries through meditation and yoga.

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program teaches participants how to manage stress better. The University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing organized the program, and it is open to the public.

The second group of participants began the eight-week program this week, learning how to relax more, understand stress and find peace of mind.

“It’s about learning to trust your inner resources — healing from within,” instructor Terry Pearson said.

Each course meets weekly for two hours, and participants are urged to practice meditation and yoga techniques at home.

Two sessions are offered this fall, and approximately 25 people are participating. Enrollment costs $325.

Jane Wobken, a University scientist, finished the course this summer and said it’s a good way to release stress.

“I established a routine, and I have the daily reminders to be mindful,” Wobken said.

Practicing yoga or meditation outside the class helped, she said.

“Yoga tries to get people to come into their bodies,” Pearson said. “Meditation tries to quiet the mind. You are practicing to be in this moment.”

Pearson said some participants have told her the course changed their lives.

Some take the course by request of physicians. Pearson said some patients were able to stop taking medications after taking the course.

University student Michelle Trotter said she felt satisfied after taking the first course this summer. It set a strong foundation for mindful thinking, she said.

“As a student, it offered me to be more mindful through the stress of school,” Trotter said. “I learned to turn inwards, to take time for myself and to slow down.”

She said anyone could use his or her time to be aware of occurrences around them.

“The goal is to be aware of the things happening or done, and not just doing it,” Wobken said.

The program began at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. Organizers said the class can help people with challenges varying from mental disorders to fatal diseases.

Original article no longer available…

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Pursuits Of Spirit Contrast With Search For Pleasure (CT Now, Connecticut)

LISA KINGSTONE, CT Now: In 1967, Swami Vishnu was walking along the beach here when an Englishwoman named Natalie Bosworth beckoned to him from her house and invited him in for tea. She then told him of her drug-addicted daughter and asked if he could help.

Swami Vishnu moved in with the Bosworth family, and through meditation helped their daughter overcome her addiction.

When asked by her parents what they could do for him, the practical man asked for beachfront land to build an ashram. The rest is history. More than 30 years later, the ashram still stands on Paradise Island; although the retreat stretches for 5 acres, it is dwarfed by the huge pink luxury hotel and casino, the Atlantis, just a short walk down the beach.

The contrast of the ashram to the Atlantis and the other high-rise hotels here, a three-minute boat ride across the bay from Nassau, is almost comical, but gives it a kind of resonance as a spiritual retreat.

When the huge yachts from the Atlantis drive by the small pink-and-blue dock to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat, you can all but hear the megaphone yell. “That place is for foolish people: no gambling, no alcohol, no women, no fun!”

The luxury Atlantis hotel has a 34-acre waterscape (“with a waterslide off a 6-story Mayan temple!” its website boasts), 11 swimming pools, a 7-acre lagoon, enormous casino, golf course, 23 restaurants and two huge towers with high-speed elevators. The Atlantis wants to expand and purchase the land on which the ashram is built, but the Sivananda organization bought the property last year, after signing a 99-year lease, and has no intention to sell.

The luxury of the Atlantis is similar to that of other hotels that have in common the beautiful Bahamian beaches and the constant sound of speedboats and booze cruises with endless rum punch that sail by, with people doing the macarena or singing along to another version of “who let the dogs out.”

The all–you-can-eat buffets and plush, carpeted elevators are in high contrast to the ashram, with its small fountains, simple wood yoga platforms, and bathroom shacks with a sign reading, “Don’t wash your feet in the sink.” There are two lacto-vegetarian meals a day, and you wash your own dishes. One woman remarked that it reminded her of summer camp when she was a child.

“Ashram” is a Hindu term for a spiritual retreat, often in a secluded place, where seekers engage in spiritual practice and study the philosophy of yoga.

The taxi driver who takes me to the dock at Nassau refers to the ashram as “Yoga camp.” People come with duffel bags and backpacks and, in contrast to the $240 rooms at the Atlantis, the same beaches are available for a $50 tent fee (there are also small cabins and semi-private rooms) or $30-a-day pass. Guests need very little and don’t bring valuables because there are no safe deposit boxes. In fact, there are little in the way of material pleasures because the focus is to go inward.

The ashram often attracts people who have become burnt out by urban life and think they can find themselves or simply de-stress. The difference in going to a resort is that someone else de-stresses you — in the form of massage or cocktails. But on a spiritual retreat, the responsibility is on you to seek your own transformation. Many yogis from other places come to deepen their practice.

On the day I arrive, I come through teeming downtown Nassau to Mermaid Dock. Enormous pleasure boats are tied up there, but I step into the small commuter boat to taxi me across the bay. The day is windy and seawater splashes in. The meandering path from the landing passes a mural of the many-armed goddess Kali and bougainvillea plants. Little paths wander off, with hand-painted signs pointing to the boutique or bathrooms or reception.

“Reception” is the size of a beach hot-dog stand. A woman greets me with a lilting Irish accent. “Don’t mind the bird on my neck,” she says. (Apparently, the dove had been injured earlier that day and she is caring for it.) Everyone helping run the ashram is from somewhere else — Canada, Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, New York City. Shankara, who has lived at the ashram for 10 years, leads us around, talking about how simplicity of atmosphere is common in spiritual places.

“When I went to north India to the most holy place, there was pig and monkey [droppings] everywhere.” He looks around at the huts where the paint is peeling a little. “The sea air makes it hard to maintain. Some people from New York come here and say ‘aargh’ when the see the simple accommodations. But when you do yoga, you enter another world. They complain at first, but after three days they say, ‘I never felt so good in my life.’

“If they are really upset at first, I just show them the beach and everything’s fine,” he says, smiling.

Some people come for the day, but most come for at least three. Most of the people running the ashram are spiritual seekers who live there in exchange for work.

Although on the tour I find myself sharing the same judgmental thoughts as the New Yorkers he referred to, by the end of my day the place seems transformed. I attend the asana class on the Bay platform, on the leeward side of the island. Asana is the physical aspect of yoga, made up of poses sometimes linked to prepare the body for meditation. (Yoga in the West has become synonymous with asana practice.)

Sometimes an asana class includes meditation and pranayama, or yogic breathing. As I lie in savasana (corpse pose), the waves slap soothingly against the wood beneath me.

I have the first 10 o’clock meal on the simple benches that sit on the island’s windy, ocean side. The food is colorful and tasty, and could be breakfast or lunch: porridge with a selection of toppings, beans, rice, fresh spinach greens, zucchini salad and an assortment of homemade bread with homemade peanut butter and jams. I chew my food slowly and notice the different flavors. Some people socialize while they eat, but others sit meditatively, looking at the palm trees or rough waves, or write in journals.

After my meal, I walk to the exquisite beach. The sand is white and powdery underfoot. There are palm trees, and the water is that particular blue that allows you to see the shells and rocks. The sun is warm, and the wind keeps away the bugs.

As the sun gets hotter, I leave the beach to go the boutique, where I buy lemon sorbet and sit in an old wooden chair in the shade of a sea grape tree, tasting each melting spoonful. I read for an hour and then book a reflexology appointment with a practitioner who goes simply by Ed. He is over 80, and his hands have had more than 30 years’ experience. I couldn’t believe that my feet hold the key to my entire body, but I believe it when I walk out.

I start to notice other details about the ashram, such as trees growing out of the platform of the meditation temple and through the roof of one of the shacks. Shankara tells me later that one of the conditions of the lease was that no trees could be cut down. There are no bugs, and blooming everywhere are tiny fluorescent-colored flowers that remind me of the fish one sees when snorkeling nearby. Nearby, coconut and tamarind grow.

The dirt is soft, and the smell of the ocean is tantalizing. Sand, rocks and shallow roots make the ground uneven and wild. When I pass people on the twisty paths, they are walking slowly, like me, and smile, but we find no need for chitchat. A man walks by with a companion, and I hear him say, “I haven’t slept that well in months.”

I bond immediately with all of the people I meet. A mother and daughter on their yearly trip together, an architect who lost her husband to cancer and is here recovering, a young New Yorker who works in management and whose friend told her to come here. “When I heard there were no newspapers, I panicked,” she admits.

The ashram requires that you attend the morning meditation at 6 and an asana class. “If you go to all activities, you feel very blessed,” says Shankara, although he knows many will resist it. He refers to one 75-year-old Texas millionaire who came and never took off his cowboy hat. When they urged him to start coming to morning mediation, he said, “I’ll send my secretary.”

At the ashram, your day can include asana, meditation, chanting, lectures by spiritual leaders, helping clean and maintain the ashram, reflection, reading and swimming in the ocean.

It’s that simple, which is exactly the point.

Gopal, a slim young man from Israel who is the current director, says, “We complicate our lives with stress and material things.” He looks around at the picnic benches and dirt paths. ” I think even this is too complicated,” he says with a smile.

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Going to the mat for Kerry (LA Times)

Michael Ordona, Los Angeles times: As if President Bush didn’t have enough trouble, the yoga community of Los Angeles launched its campaign of chakra and awe against him on Sunday.

“Voting is one of the ways society gives us to express our values,” said keynote speaker Robert Rabbin, a writer who has practiced meditation for 35 years. “If we don’t vote, it’s a betrayal of the very yoga and meditation we pursue. There’s no such thing as being apolitical. I hope to get out the vote for the mystic crowd. Twenty million U.S. adults practice yoga and meditate regularly — that’s one hell of a swing bloc.”

At a Hollywood yoga studio called Focus Fish, about 250 people took part in “Yoga for Kerry,” an all-day fund- and consciousness-raiser aimed at regime change in the United States. For donations starting at $50, attendees could take classes with respected teachers, listen to kirtan music and political speakers, and take part in group meditations.

Organizers had hoped the event would draw about 300 people, which it nearly did, and raise as much as $20,000, which it didn’t (early estimates were about $3,600). Nevertheless, event co-producer Michael Mollura thought the day served its purpose….

“We didn’t think we’d change the balance of the financial competition,” Mollura said. “We felt like we wanted to imbue the election process with love. It’s really an attempt to create something that is positive and loving in something that is otherwise thought of as cynical. I think everybody who came here today felt loved, felt cared for. Usually these things are Bush-bashing and people-bashing, but this was a positive event.”

The crowd seemed generally in agreement that Bush had not obeyed the yamas, or moral tenets, but there was little negative rhetoric. The most pointed barbs came from speaker Rabbin and in private conversations. Most participants who took issue with the Bush administration’s mantra of preemptive war countered with their own Weapons of Meditation and Dharma.

“There isn’t a lot of policy difference between Bush and Kerry on some issues,” Rabbin said. “But there’s a world of difference between their levels of consciousness. I’m voting for Kerry and Edwards because in my mind they and the people they will bring in are at least human beings. In my mind, George Bush et al are a group of psychopaths — it’s a clinical term, the primary element of which is an absolute lack of empathy.”

At Sunday’s event, yogis and yoginis were free to follow their bliss. In one room, some indulged in “healing sessions.” Outside, some bought beads, tea and Indian food. On the roof, musicians played to appreciative audiences.

The multiethnic crowd wore gym clothes, traditional Indian garb and a few political T-shirts — in other words, a pretty typical Los Angeles bunch. While a few admitted they were there for specific teachers, most said they were drawn by the mix of yoga and politics — and a chance to say neti-neti to President Bush.

“The planet needs more kindness,” said Harijiwan, who has taught yoga for 29 years. “I would ask him to look through all of his policies to see if they make people’s lives better or if they’re based on fear.”

Adam Sigel, a representative of California Grass Roots for Kerry, said, “My concern is that our country has been taken away from us by extremists. So we’re here to show that the left have beliefs and spirit too — and we’ve got a lot more soul.”

Among the booths in the parking lot was one for the Democratic Club of West Los Angeles, where volunteers registered voters and spread the gospel according to John (Kerry).

“I was looking at the mix of religion and politics, the way that George Bush uses evangelical language,” said volunteer Matt Gunn. “Yoga is not a religion, but it is something that has a spiritual focus. I think it’s just about finding that balance. If you’re a spiritual person, then you want to bring that to the way you feel about civic life.”

While Gunn had at best “flirted” with yoga, volunteer Michelle Martin said she had been practicing for three years and was anxious to check out some of the events. “When the war was going on, meditation was helpful to me,” she said. “It’s a way to stay calm and centered amidst a lot of chaos.”

In the middle of the day, teacher Steve Ross led a yoga class of about 35 through a series of positions that the Geneva Convention might prohibit but the students seemed to enjoy. The air-conditioned studio with its soft, iPod-generated music seemed like a completely different world from the vendors and political booths in the blazing heat outside.

After Ross’ class, which was mostly young and female, Rabbin delivered his keynote speech about “spiritual activism,” to a somewhat older and mostly male crowd.

“Spiritual activism refers to the various ways that we actualize our spiritual understanding, and ‘actualize’ means ‘to make real through action,’ ” Rabbin said. “There’s a propensity in the yoga and meditation communities to think that the summit of realization is to have an internal, subjective experience of bliss or union. It isn’t. That focus on the discovery of the Self, capital S, has an unspoken downside, which is forgetfulness or neglect of civic responsibility.”

Mostly, organizers hoped to unleash the kundalini of the spiritual voting bloc, which sounds naughty but isn’t. Kundalini is “the cosmic energy in the body that is often compared to a snake lying coiled, waiting to be awakened,” according to It’s also the style of yoga taught by Jenn Joos, a local teacher who helped produce the event.

“I would give [Bush] an exercise that would open his heart,” Joos said. She suggested the “camel pose,” which involves kneeling and arching one’s back. “It opens up your heart chakra, which embodies your compassion. You can see the other person as yourself.”

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Yoga Reduces Fatigue In Multiple Sclerosis Patients, OHSU Study Finds (Science News)

Oregon Health & Science University: Just six months of yoga significantly reduces fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis, but it has no effect on alertness and cognitive function, says a new Oregon Health & Science University study.

The study, published June 8 in the journal Neurology, found that yoga is as good as a traditional aerobic exercise program in improving measures of fatigue, a common and potentially disabling symptom of MS. It was the first randomized, controlled trial of yoga in people with MS.

A parallel study by the same OHSU authors, presented in April at the 56th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, found that cognitive function does not improve among healthy seniors in a six-month yoga program or exercise class, but physical health and quality of life appear to be enhanced.

The MS study was not designed to determine the impact of yoga on the disease itself, said the study’s lead author, Barry Oken, M.D., professor of neurology and behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine. Rather, it was intended to determine the effect of yoga and aerobic exercise on cognitive function, fatigue, mood and quality of life among people with MS.

“There are some claims out there that yoga helps MS itself, that it can decrease the number of lesions” in the brain caused by MS, said Oken, director of the Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders (ORCCAMIND) at OHSU. “I’m not sure that that’s not the case, because stress may have an impact on MS. But that was not what we were trying to show.”

Study co-author Dennis Bourdette, M.D., professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center of Oregon, said yoga was studied because many people with MS already are using it and reporting benefits.

“We wanted to see whether or not it was beneficial when studied scientifically and how it compared with a type of exercise that physicians are more comfortable recommending — exercise on a stationary bicycle supervised by a physical therapist,” said Bourdette, chairman of the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology and associate director of ORCCAMIND.

An earlier survey of nearly 2,000 MS patients in Oregon and southwest Washington found about 30 percent of respondents tried yoga. Of those, 57 percent reported it to be “very beneficial,” Bourdette noted. Indeed, many chapters of the National MS Society sponsor yoga programs.

“So it is used fairly commonly, and I believe with publication of our results it will gain even more acceptance and use,” he said. The study “also clearly demonstrates that yoga postures can be modified for use among people with MS who have disabilities caused by their condition and that yoga can be done safely and effectively.”

The study examined 69 MS patients in three groups: one taking weekly Iyengar yoga classes along with home practice; another taking a weekly exercise class using a stationary bicycle along with home exercise; and a third group placed on a waiting list to serve as a control. Participants were monitored for attention, alertness, mood, anxiety, fatigue and overall quality of life.

The yoga classes were offered once a week for 90 minutes. Participants were taught up to 19 poses, each held for 10 seconds to 30 seconds with rest periods of 30 seconds to a minute. They also performed breathing exercises to promote concentration and relaxation, as well as progressive relaxation, visualization and meditation techniques. And daily home practice was strongly encouraged.

The MS study’s aerobic exercise component was similar to the yoga intervention, with one class per week plus home exercise. It consisted of bicycling on recumbent or dual-action stationary bicycles, and each class began and ended with about five minutes of stretching. Participants were given exercise bikes to use at home and were encouraged to use them outside of the weekly class.

While the yoga and aerobic exercise programs produced no significant changes in alertness, attention or other measures of cognitive function in MS patients compared with the waiting-list group, the study found there were improvements in two fatigue measurement tests.

“We think they’re equally beneficial for symptoms of fatigue from MS,” Oken said of yoga and aerobic exercise.

The study cautioned that the reasons behind the reduction in MS fatigue symptoms are unclear. The socialization aspect of the yoga and exercise classes, as well as a placebo effect — simply telling participants that the exercise program was specifically designed to improve psychological well-being — could be credited.

Yoga is a type of so-called mind-body medicine that includes tai-chi, meditation, and dance, music and art therapy. It is a commonly practiced method involving behavioral, psychological, social and spiritual approaches to health, and it is centered around meditation, breathing and postures.

Of the active or hatha yoga techniques, Iyengar yoga is the most common type practiced in the United States. Participants assume a series of stationary positions that employ isometric contraction and relaxation of different muscle groups to create specific body alignments. There also is a relaxation component.

“I see it mostly as a kind of physical activity with a stress-reduction component and body awareness features,” Oken said of yoga. “It has this aspect of bringing your attention to the present moment. But it’s hard to know if that’s due to relaxation or getting your mind not to worry for a little bit.”

Whatever the workout method, exercise seems to help MS patients reduce fatigue symptoms, Bourdette said.

“This is true whether the regular exercise is yoga, swimming, using a stationary bicycle or any other physical activity,” he said. “Sometimes the effects are quite dramatic and other times less so. But everyone with MS who exercises regularly reports benefit.”

The parallel study on the effects of yoga and exercise on healthy seniors focused on 136 participants aged 65 to 85. It showed there were some improvements in physical measures, such as cardiovascular fitness, and quality-of-life measures, such as energy and fatigue.

There was no improvement in measures of cognitive function, however, compared with a waiting-list control group.

“I was hoping to show some cognitive benefit, but the main benefit was a decrease in fatigue and higher energy levels,” Oken explained. “I think those relative benefits are only going to be seen over quite a long period of time. In healthy people, it’s probably going to be a fairly subtle effect.”

Both studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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The flexible approach (Sydney Morning Herald, Australia)

Jacqueline Maley, Sydney Morning Herald, Australia: Celebrities have embraced it. Bookstores are bursting with literature about it, and converts evangelise about its benefits. The practice of yoga has taken off in the West, 5000 or so years after the philosophy was codified by the Indian scholar Patanjali.

Although many students of yoga report myriad benefits to their physical and mental health, it has yet to be embraced by mainstream medicine as a valid form of treatment.

But Dr Craig Hassed, a senior lecturer in the department of general practice at Monash University, says yoga is “one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive approach to lifestyle management of all the traditional healing systems”.

Yoga is an effective tool in maintaining the mind/body balance, which is integral to general health, he says.

“Positive emotional states are associated with greater resistance to disease, better recovery from illness and a better ability to cope with illness,” he explains.

On the other hand, he says, negative emotional states have been proven to lead to a lower resistance to infection and higher risk of illnesses, such as heart disease, auto-immune disorders and inflammatory arthritis…

As proof of yoga’s benefits, Hassed points to a pivotal 1990 study by Dr Dean Ornish in the United States. Ornish tracked two groups of heart disease patients over a period of five years. The first group took medication only, and the second group took medication and also adopted a lifestyle based on yoga principles – incorporating exercise, meditation, diet and relaxation.

The five-year follow-up study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997, showed the medication-only group had experienced 2 times as many “major cardiac events” (ie heart attack or death) as the yoga-lifestyle group.

“He was the first person to prove heart disease is reversible,” Hassed says.

And he did it using yoga principles.

Professor Avni Sali, the foundation head of the Graduate School of Integrative Medicine at Swinburne University in Melbourne, believes the “stillness”, or meditation part of yoga, usually practised after postures have been completed, is the most beneficial part of the yoga program.

Sali has conducted studies to show yoga meditation can reduce levels in the blood of the stress hormone cortisol.

“If your stress hormones are down and your immune system is working better, you are less likely, theoretically, to get cancer,” he says.

Hassed says the reduction in stress levels, by means such as meditation, can also assist in controlling diabetes, which can be exacerbated by stress. He emphasises, however, yoga can never be a replacement for insulin.

Yoga can also be useful for treating adult diabetes.

“[Type 2] diabetes is very much an illness of modern Western lifestyle, so yoga is a powerful intervention for lifestyle diabetes,” he says.

Yoga meditation is also the basis of research conducted by Dr Ramesh Manocha, a research fellow at the Natural Therapies Unit at the Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick.

Manocha focused on sahaja yoga, a method of meditation developed by Shrimataji Nirmala Devi in India in the 1970s.

He has just finished a seven-year doctoral research project “aimed at the answering the question: does meditation work in any way – body, mind, spirit, whatever?”

“You have this discrepancy,” Manocha explains, “the public has a very positive perception about meditation but when you actually look at the scientific literature, the scientific literature doesn’t agree.”

He set out to investigate the discrepancy by taking about 60 people with severe asthma and randomly allocating them to two treatment groups. One group underwent a standard, government-approved stress management program, involving counselling, breathing techniques and relaxation. The other group were taught sahaja yoga techniques.

The findings, published in the medical journal Thorax, were that the emotional state of the sahaja group – measured using psycho-metric questionnaires – was two times better than that of the stress management group.

The sahaja group also demonstrated significantly lesser degree of irritation in the lungs. The other group showed no change.

“There was significant evidence indicating that the actual physical disease was . . . influenced, and it wasn’t just the participants’ subjective impressions which were changing,” he says.

At the Sydney Menopause Centre, Manocha has also used sahaja to treat a group of women suffering hot flushes. The women had about a 70 per cent reduction in their hot flushes over eight weeks, he says.

Last year, he tried the technique on a group of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“In six weeks, we had them sitting down for 20 minutes at a time and relating better to their friends and family,” he says. Three of the children were able to stop their medication after attending the clinic.

Dr Luis Vitetta, the deputy head and director of research at Swinburne’s Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, supervised another study involving yoga and children. One group of children was given reading to do and the other was led through yoga exercises.

There was a reduction in anxious mood in the yoga group, but measurements of cortisol levels in the children were inconclusive.

Vitetta says this only serves to show that yoga is not a quick fix. “You need to do yoga over a long period of time,” he says. “You don’t take yoga as you take a pill.”

Practised over long periods, there is some evidence yoga can help people with cancer, anxiety, depression, Vitetta says. It can even help you quit smoking, by “teaching people a unity of mind and body”.

“Yoga exists in the domain of mind/body medicine,” he says. “The mind/body connection is at the centre of health, whether you want to believe it or not.”

But doctors admit the benefits of yoga are not always taken seriously, especially when it comes to meditation and “mental stillness”.

Hassed says although yoga is becoming more widely accepted as a form of therapy, there is still very little about yoga in medical education. “Relative to its potential health benefits and a growing body of research, it seems to be under-represented in the health care system,” he says.

He argues governments should take notice of yoga, if not for the sake of patients, then for the cost savings it delivers.

During Ornish’s yoga/heart disease project, Hassed says an insurance company worked out that $83,000 was saved per patient, three years after they began the yoga treatment.

Avni believes it is the holistic nature of yoga which prevents it from gaining due recognition. That, and the fact that it receives minimal research funding, because there is no “product” and hence no pharmaceutical company, associated with yoga.

“You can’t put yoga in a bottle and sell it,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of the government to fund it.”
What is yoga

Yoga is a Hindu discipline and philosophy that has been practised in India for more than 5000 years. In the West, “yoga” is used to refer to the exercises only, but yoga is actually an entire lifestyle system, involving meditation, diet and good works. It was codified in the second century in a book called the Yoga Sutras.


The generic term for the physical postures and exercise part of the entire yoga philosophy. Hatha is also describe a gentle, traditional style of yoga.


Also called “hot” yoga, conducted in rooms heated to 38 degrees or more to aid muscle stretching. It is very dynamic and involves the repetition of 26 set asanas, or poses. Not for beginners.


A very physical form of “power”, yoga based on the original texts of Patanjali, the founder of yoga. Ashtanga is physically demanding, involving fast movement and breathing.


Focuses on ideal body alignment and posture. It is rigorous but gentle. Practitioners use props such as straps and wooden blocks to aid flexibility.
Roma’s a picture of health

Roma Blair spent three years in a Japanese prison camp in the Dutch East Indies in World War II. In that time, she gave birth with no doctor present, was given stitches without an anaesthetic and contracted two types of dysentery. Sometimes, she coughed up worms.

After the war, Blair was living in South Africa when her doctor referred her to a local yoga swami to help her with her ongoing health problems.

“I was nervous and in pain,” she says. “I was a very sick lady, but I’m very, very healthy today,” she says.

Blair believes yoga cured her. She was so impressed that when she returned to Australia in 1957, she established the Roma Blair yoga clubs in Sydney.

From 1959, she began filming yoga exercise shows for Channel Nine and featured in magazine lift-outs.

In 1966, she went to India and was made the first female Australian swami by Swami Satyananada.

Since then Blair, 80, has published six books on yoga, made two videos and four records.

Swarmi Sarasvati is also one of the longest-practising yoga experts in in Australia.

Sarasvati practises what she calls “complete lifestyle yoga” which is an integrated yoga, combining meditation, physical exercise and karma yoga (self reflection and doing good works).

She believes yoga can be useful in treating a range of illnesses, from stress-related complaints such as headache, insomnia and heart problems, to breathing difficulties and people with musculoskeletal pain.

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