Spots of Time

April 20, 2004

Drunken Monkeys

"Our minds are like a drunk monkey bitten by a scorpion,” the Swami said. “We try to concentrate but our mind is all over the place, jumping here, jumping there.”

I could relate. Two days into my attempts at meditation and 99% of the time my mind was focusing on everything BUT nothing. Not only was my mind a drunk monkey stung by a scorpion, it also had attention deficiency syndrome and ants in its pants! Sitting cross-legged with my back straight and my eyes closed, in the company of nearly 200 other yogis didn’t seem to bring me closer to enlightenment. It did, however, cause my legs to go numb and feel like giant tree trunks, my back to ache and begin to slouch, and my eyes to periodically open to make sure everything else was still meditating.

Meditation, constant observation and calming of the mind, was a big part of the ashram/yoga experience, and one of the Five Points of Yoga (#5 – Positive Thinking & Meditation (Vedanta & Dhyana)). Every morning after rising at 5:30 a.m., we would gather in the main hall for 20-30 minutes of silent meditation. Meditation is an evolution of concentration, which might make it sound easy. But, try to concentrate quietly on just one thing without allowing your mind to wander and you’ll quickly see that even sustaining concentration is a big accomplishment. Even after two weeks of (and I must admit, not the most dedicated of) practice, I could only manage to maintain concentration - the precursor to . A couple of times I began to see colors, especially green and purple (like I imagine the aurora borealis would be if recreated in my head) but that was most likely do to a lack of oxygen to my brain than any progress in terms of enlightenment!

After meditation, we would chant for about 45 minutes in Sanskrit, and then be off to our morning asanas class. The first points of yoga, #1 Proper Exercise (Asanas), as well as points #2 Proper Breathing (Pranayama) and #3 Proper Relaxation (Savasana), were all an integral part of our two daily classes. Each class, which was usually held under a woven coconut palm covered shelter with a (hard) cow dung floor (you get use to it), began with the class resting in Savasana, or corpse pose, flat on our backs with our arms a foot to either side, our legs 2 feet apart, totally relaxed. We would then breath deeply from our abdominals, expanding out abdomen as we inhaled, contracting it as we exhaled – similar to the breathing exercises taught to singers, and the way that babies naturally breathe.

Sadasiva, our daily lecturer, told us that stress is the experience of holding onto something, whereas relaxing is letting go. By relaxing, we “cut the wire to defuse the bomb – so that when the button gets pushed, there is no explosion.” By relaxing physically – and mentally – we are better able to deal with difficult situations that arise – without an explosion. While the asanas classes improved our bodies physically, it also helped us mentally - focusing on the postures was akin to meditation, and the deep breathing exercises we did helped to bring extra oxygen to our brains, relaxing them as we nourished them.

Point #4, Proper Diet (Vegetarian) was easy to manage at the ashram, even for those who had never experimented with the concept. We were served two meals per day, the big morning meal at 10 a.m. and a lighter meal at 6 p.m. Yoga believes that certain foods are tamasic, or promote lethargy, and as a result, meat, eggs, garlic and onions were banned, as was smoking and alcohol, for those staying at the ashram. Even without the benefit of garlic and onions, the food was excellent – far from bland, it was mild and pleasing, and while some complained about the dishes, most people enjoyed the food.

A usual brunch would include rice, sambar (a liquid curry), chutney, cooked vegetables, beet and carrot salad, herbal tea and a chapatti, dosa or uttapam (one of several types of Indian bread). The dinner menu was more varied than brunch, but was frequently either idilli (similar to a formed moist cake of cream of wheat), sambar and coconut chutney, or chapatti and sambar, or couscous and dahl (lentils) – my personal favorite. I assumed I would be hungry all the time, especially with 4 hours of yoga per day, but in actuality the meals were perfectly adequate. On those days when I needed a sugar fix, or when I wasn’t particularly thrilled with dinner, I would go to the Health Hut, where yogis could buy fruit salads, fruit juices and teas, and even packages of chocolate cream cookies!

I found I didn't miss the meat at all, and have maintained my vegetarian status even now, two weeks after I left the ashram. While I have allowed eggs, garlic and onions back into my life, I am going to see how life without meat treats me. Seeing meat-producing animals on the streets, on the beach and in people's yards, certainly makes it easier. When you have spent 10 minutes watching a group of playful piglets run and jump, you feel much less likely to have pork chops or a ham sandwich for dinner!

With regards to the other points of yoga taught at the ashram, I hope that I will be able to maintain them in my life as well. For the past week I've been on a beach in Goa, and I rise every morning at 6 a.m. for yoga, leading myself and a friend from the ashram in pranayama, sun salutations and the 12 basic postures, as well as final relaxation. Now, if I can just bring the habit of meditation back!

As cynical as I may have sounded about my own half-hearted attempts at meditation, I believe the ashram/yogic message that regular meditation can be helpful in every aspect of your life – clearing and quieting your mind, culling through the mental garbage, etc. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages, thoughts, ideas, worries, concerns, frustrations and other thoughts that clog our mind and don’t allow it time to relax. By meditation, even for 10 minute every day, we allow our mind the opportunity to relax, something it probably hasn’t fully done (during waking hours) for years.

The same goes for the other points. Yoga is not alone in promoting regular fitness and proper diet – medical science has proven that regular exercise and a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables (even a non-vegetarian one), is foremost in maintaining a health body – both inside and out. And, in our crazy world of daily stresses, constant stimulation, the idea of taking time out to breathe deeply, or to relax fully, seem to be important points we might have missed in our desire to get ahead, running breathlessly between appointments, dates, school, work and social engagements, using every minute of our day to its fullest “potential.”

One of my favorite quotes of the ashram (besides the monkey one) came from a teacher during pranayama (proper breathing) exercises in an asanas class. “You can go without food for weeks, you can go without water for days but you can’t go without oxygen for more than a few minutes.”

So, sit up straight, close your eyes, and spend the next five minutes breathing deeply. Its a good place to start.