Joyful and whole: That’s how you want to feel, and you know meditation can get you there. Yet for one reason or another you resist it: you may think you don’t have the right temperament, or you just can’t manage to find the time. But beyond all the excuses, you also know that the last thing your mind wants to do is get still.
According to the yoga tradition, the mind is by definition activity. Its job, which it doggedly carries on even when you’re sleeping, is to constantly assess your circumstances, make sure you’re safe and search for pleasure. Meditation, on the other hand, is what you experience when your mind is no longer searching the hidden joy that rests within every moment. The purpose of the mind and the goal of meditation are antithetical. So it’s no wonder that trying to quiet your mind creates distraction and restlessness. How, then, can you get to that place of feeling joyful and whole if your mind is naturally resistant? As it happens, there are several ways, each of which yields different levels of joy and awareness.
First, there’s the meditative state that occurs spontaneously whenever you’re engaged in something you love whether it’s practising yoga, surfing, bird watching or making love. The activity itself effortlessly settles your mind, thereby absorbing you into the moment and opening you to a heightened sense of being. While it can be deeply satisfying, it is a less profound meditative experience than others, since it diverts part of your attention to the activity and away from the actual source of the bliss, and it usually lasts only as long as the activity does.
Second, there’s intentional meditation. This usually involves sitting (or walking) in silence to still the mind or to disassociate from its normal state of activity. To do so, you focus on an object like a mantra or your breath, or you “witness” your thoughts without getting involved in them. If you have ever tried intentional meditation, you may have noticed that the mind at least in the beginning resists. This has less to do with your temperament than it does with your brain, which prefers to avoid stillness.
Then there’s Tantra, which predates Patanjali. This all-encompassing yoga tradition offers some powerful alternatives to common meditation practices. Instead of trying to still your mind or detach from it, you ask it to do what it loves best – move! Tantra offers an array of techniques, some of which require you to move attention in a particular pattern until your mind effortlessly becomes still. In these practices, you put your mind in motion, often by associating a dynamic image with it: moving your breath along subtle energy channels or “seeing” a sublime symbol opening and closing within your body. Since you “re-create” the moving image with each breath, your mind becomes so busy it doesn’t have time to think or resist.
You can use this remarkably simple and accessible method at any time.
Another technique is mental alternate nostril breathing, or prana shuddhi. Originally described in an ancient Tantric text, it’s a meditative, effortless version of the classic pranayama technique. Instead of physically blocking one nostril at a time and breathing deeply, you simply visualise your breath as a stream flowing alternately through one nostril at a time, with its endpoint in the third-eye centre. The rishis, or ancient seers who uncovered many yogic practices, found that when the flow between the two nostrils is balanced, the two sides of the brain harmonise and still the mind. And according to Tantric teachings, an active third-eye centre — the part of the brain associated with intuitive wisdom and spiritual vision — can open you to a direct experience of the Infinite.
While the physical pranayama practice affects your body and nervous system, prana shuddhi can be a more immediate path to a balanced and still mind. You can use this remarkably simple and accessible method at any time, either as a complete practice or as a preparation for your regular meditation practice.
What is Tantra Yoga?
While the word tantra has several definitions (textbook, system, loom), its literal meaning comes from the root tan (to extend or expand) and tra (instrument). Tantra, therefore, could be understood as the body of knowledge, or instrument, that moves you beyond all limitations. The Tantric approach is to use everything—all aspects of your self and life—to help you overcome all boundaries, physical, psychological, and spiritual. Tantric practices include asana, pranayama, mudras, Ayurveda, visualisation, contemplation, mantras, mental and physical techniques that cultivate kundalini (spiritual energy), astrology, herbology, various forms of devotional or ritual practices and a seemingly infinite variety of specific techniques.
Tantra Yoga’s ultimate aim is to empower us
Classical and Tantra yoga differ in both their approach and their goals. In classical yoga, the primary concern is quieting the mind. As Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutra, Yoga chitta vritti Nirodha, or “The goal of yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” We do this in order to isolate our highest nature (purusha) from everything else (prakriti). In Tantra, the emphasis is less on the mind and more on energy transformation. This is because your experiences and actions are rooted in your energy (pranic) landscape. “Just as a door is opened with a key, similarly a yogi opens the door to liberation with Kundalini/Shakti (boundless spiritual power),” states the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Tantric seers did not view the world as a distraction from spiritual experience; rather, they believed the two—spiritual experience and living in the world—could be exalted simultaneously. Tantric practices were designed to illuminate a vision of the sublime place where worldly and spiritual prosperity converge in their fullest glory. Tantra’s ultimate aim is to empower us to be a vital, joyful and fearless expression of our source—an infinite continuum of truth, beauty and auspiciousness.
Third Eye Seen
This ancient Tantric technique, prana shuddhi, is a mental version of alternate nostril breathing that balances and stills your mind.
Begin by sitting tall with your spine straight. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath flowing through both nostrils. After a moment, notice your breath rising and falling as two separate lines, through each nostril.
Begin to sense or visualise the breath ascending through your nostrils to meet in the midbrain, or third eye. The two lines of the breath form an inverted V.
Continue to watch these two streams rising and falling through your nostrils and merging at that midbrain point. Eventually you’ll sense a subtler layer to the breath that rides on the air current passing through your nostrils. Within a few minutes, you will become more sensitive and notice a feeling of energy or light that rides on the trail of your breath. The more relaxed you are, the more vivid this awareness will become. Gradually, you’ll experience the relationship between this energy, or light, and the third eye. These subtle currents feed, nurture and activate your midbrain centre.
In the last stage of the practice, you’ll become aware of a presence or soft glow of light at the third eye while your breath continues to ascend and descend easily. Allow yourself to melt mind, body and all limitations into that presence at the third eye while you remain aware of your breathe movement. In that space you’ll discover a sublime sense of your whole being merging into universal presence and peace. Rest in this space for as long as you like.
To bring yourself out of the practice, rub your hands together and place your warm palms over your eyes. Gently lower your chin. Feel your awareness descend through your body to your heart and navel. Give thanks, slowly open your eyes, and move gracefully back into the world.
Rod Stryker is the founder of ParaYoga (www.parayoga.com) and is the author of Tantra: The Radiant Soul of Yoga.