Tantra and Yoga Nidra
- a little about the tradition behind Yoga
By Swami Janakananda
"At the point of sleep when sleep has not yet come and external wakefulness vanishes, at this point being is revealed." (Vigyana Bhairava Tantra)
Tantra is a timeless tradition with methods for raising consciousness.
The word Tantra actually means to expand - consciousness, knowledge of life - and to liberate - one's self.
The knowledge on which Tantra is based has been in use since the matriarchal period in prehistoric times, where women were not repressed and mythology was founded on fertility and feminine energy. Tantra still contains elements from that era. The religious aspects of Tantra show that women dominate in the form of goddesses - and women are equal to men in the performance of the rituals.
To meditate or philosophize
The "real" Tantrics use methods and have experiences - they act. They don't philosophize and are reluctant to write down anything at all. If they do, then it is solely for the purpose of inspiring others to do something, to meditate etc., instead of philosophizing.
It is therefore important to understand that Tantra is built upon practice and not on theorizing, where experience is forgotten and the understanding of terms, mythology and wisdom becomes more important than wisdom itself. Not everyone understands what it means to walk the path of self realization. For the teacher the object is to teach those who are receptive and who will actually use what they learn. However the teacher withholds his or her knowledge from those who are merely curious or sensation-seeking and who, with regard to the sexual rituals, are only lecherous and without sense for the deeper perspectives - wanting just a little taste only to hurry on to something else. It is important to safeguard the tradition, so that the genuine methods are not lost, misunderstood or diluted.
Intentional language in Tantra and elsewhere
Much of what we find in Tantra is therefore secret; it was either not written down or, when writing was introduced, was written in code language, which in Sanskrit is called Sandhabhasa.
These codes, or paraphrases, may appear as innocent stories - well, not always innocent. They may also have a pornographic content to scare or fascinate the reader so he would not discover the hidden content of the text. The real practices, if they were written down at all, were hidden in rituals, religious or
sexual texts, or behind names or numbers that would have had to be swapped with other words. They could only be understood by someone who had already been initiated part of the way - but even then the practices described in the scripts remained veiled in innuendo compared to when one receives guidance directly from another individual, for example, when instructed in advanced meditation.
This was not only an Indian phenomenon; it was also found in other places, among them on Iceland, where it was called Launmál (hidden language), meaning that behind the story, lies another story, an initiation, a practice.
The aspirant is tested
The aspirant receives various tasks over a long period, to ensure that his or her attitude is open and receptive. It is important to know whether the aspirant will misinterpret the teacher's intentions and actions, and if the person in question really will abandon fear and habitual thoughts about his or her own limitations.
Also, the student must be prepared gradually with various easier practices, and above all, his or her patience must be set to the test. Life in an ashram or in the teacher's home can provide the right environment for this training.
A clear and well known example is Milarepa's relationship with his teacher Marpa. Marpa gave the appearance of being a drunken, unreasonable and choleric farmer. But judging from the result of the training he gave Milarepa, he must have been one of the best teachers that ever lived, at least the best for Milarepa - Tibet's great guru. In short, Milarepa had to undergo a twenty year long training, with hardships that on occasions almost wore him out, and frustrations - that made him run away several times - about not being allowed to take part in the secret doctrines, which in all probability contained meditation techniques along the lines of Kriya Yoga and Inner Silence (see previous issues of Bindu).
My teacher Paramhansa Satyananda stayed with his teacher Swami Sivananda for twelve years in Rishikesh. He did mainly Karma Yoga there, which consisted of various practical tasks in the administration of the ashram and with its printing press.
Later he travelled around India as a mendicant. For a period of his wandering years he had the possibility to withdraw and, among other things, practice the methods he had learnt in his daily association with Swami Sivananda. His teacher had also put him on the track of things in the yoga and Tantric tradition, which during his travels he could find, draw forth and investigate - subsequently he was ready to teach others himself. Swami Satyananda was an exceptional teacher - no one else, neither before nor since, has elucidated the Tantric practises to such a degree. I write in the past tense, because he has now retired as a teacher.
Theory or practice
It is my experience that the more one talks of, for example, meditation in theory instead of practising it, the less one's mind believes it is necessary to do it - after all you "know it all already." The problem is that merely "knowing" has no effect. The body and mind have no use for knowing, if the exercises are not applied.
A few years ago I experienced something interesting during a month long Kriya Yoga course that I held. Students come to learn the great Kriya Yoga in silence. They have been prepared by previous courses with various yoga and meditation methods and with a certain amount of theory.
Apart from a few talks and discussions at the start of the course, I felt an urge to just let them meditate, do yoga and to generally be engaged with practical things. In other words, I had no desire to give lectures during the period of silence, which was quite appropriate as the students do not talk, write or read anything. The silence helps to remove the deeper lying tensions and maintains a good balance in the brain while also increasing the ability to experience.
Nevertheless, about halfway into the silent period, I needed to clarify a few things and to theoretically explain a little of how you can let go of automatic reactions and habits in the nervous system and in the mind. The lecture which I gave in the evening was, I am sure, inspiring for both the students and myself.
The following morning the students had a physical yoga class with another teacher. After the class the teacher told me that the awareness and concentration present the other mornings was not really there that morning. The students had daydreamed a little and time and again it seemed as though they had to force themselves to follow the instructions. It only happened that one morning during the entire course - the rest of the time they were quite alert.
When the silence was over, I asked them if they could remember how they felt the morning after the lecture. I promptly received an explanation from one of them and the others agreed. He said that the interesting things they had heard the evening before had filled his head to such an extent, that his mind thought his body no longer needed to do the exercises. It was not necessary - he knew it all already.
Concept or experience
What is theory worth, when it is not based on experience? If theory comes first, the intellect will block the experience - with expectations and effort, we can be lead in the wrong direction, while a know-all attitude hinders the openness to follow and receive guidance in, for example, a meditation. It gets in the way of sensitivity and the ability to experience what cannot be written down. It all quite easily becomes indoctrination. You are told how it is, instead of experiencing it yourself. Opinions and concepts become something learnt by rote and clung to, believed in, defended, even though they are not based on personal insight and first hand experience.
Take a word such as meditation. It has widely become a concept. The mind can come up with all sorts of ideas about what meditation is and actually avoid the essential. "Oh, but I have my own meditation," and then you sit and dream a bit. You never leave the limitations of the mind behind. Some even get the bright idea to teach on the grounds of such notions. There are those who say that they receive answers to all sorts of things in their meditation. It is probably true, but oh, they never leave their minds in peace.
It is the same with the word relaxation, which is used today to describe all kinds of things, from hypnosis to music. There are even some good musicians who call their music "meditation." One can only hope that their audience can enjoy the music without allowing themselves to be limited by such a claim.
In the 70's I recognized the problem with these labels as I prepared the release of a Yoga Nidra tape. I wanted to make it clear what Yoga Nidra was about and called it a "deep-relaxation". It only took a few months before that description was used for every kind of possible and impossible relaxation.
Unfortunately, the name Yoga Nidra is also used today for relaxations that have nothing to do with the effective technique that stems from the Tantric tradition and which we are discussing in this issue of Bindu.
Apart from what can be palmed off on us by others, the ideas that people themselves form of meditation can really stand in the way of reaching the relaxed or meditative state; such as the assumption that the mind should firstly be controlled. The mind does not stop, so why fight it and get frustrated?
Learn to bypass it by using a method and allow the mind to calm down by itself.
What does one get from meditation, if it does not give noticeable energy and zest for life in the day to day, and from relaxation, if one does not come out of it with greater clarity, calmness and overview?
Meditation is a break from all impressions, a way of emptying the mind. It is also a search for one's true identity, one's center - and for this you need methods that ensure you don't cheat yourself, but really reach your innermost.
The ritual in meditation helps you bypass the limitations of the mind
Classical meditations from Tantra and Zen show this alternative approach. The Tantric meditation is contained in the ritual. The Tantric ritual consists of methods which continually occupy the mind, leaving the thoughts to do as they please and drift by in the background. There is no need to struggle with them. You have something else to do. And if for a moment you become preoccupied with a thought, then all you need do is realise it, remember what it was you were doing and return to your practice.
Kriya Yoga is an example of this, using methods that open and cleanse the energy flows in the body, raise the level of energy and create an absorption that is independent of the mind's endeavors, expectations and ideas.
In Yoga Nidra one does not try to relax, but rather occupy the mind with the methods given. The relaxation is triggered - it comes by itself.
How long can one concentrate on a thumb for example? One second? Two? The mind wants to go on to something else. Therefore the restlessness of the mind is accommodated and consciousness is transferred to the index finger and so on.
The mind is occupied in such a way that it does not have time for anything else and therefore it cannot hold any tension.
The purpose of the sexual ritual
"While being caressed, sweet princess, enter the caressing as everlasting life."
(Quotations: Vigyana Bhairava Tantra)
The famous or notorious sexual rituals (of which I have written a variation in my book Yoga, Tantra and Meditation in Daily Life) is a good example of Tantric rituals and practises having other purposes than people normally think.
It is usually believed to be an excellent therapy for people with sexual problems, or is thought to help achieve greater sexual freedom, and intensify sexual enjoyment. Yes, it probably can - but it has another purpose.
"At the start of sexual union, keep attentive on the fire in the beginning, and, so continuing, avoid the embers in the end."
It is a matter of capturing the mind and the sex drive is well suited for this purpose.
"When in such embrace your senses are shaken as leaves, enter this shaking."
When you are prepared through all the various practises belonging to the ritual, apart from bathing, eating etc., then the desired result is inevitable.
"Even remembering union, without the embrace, the transformation."
The purpose is to expand consciousness and increase the energy.
An uninterrupted experience
"The meaning of life
life itself provides,
until we begin
to inquire "
(Grook by Piet Hein)
The mind can imagine all kinds of things, both too much and too little, and it loves to argue, it loves to discuss. It can prove anything, but it can just as well disprove it.
When you dare to receive directly - when you do not expect sensational "experiences" or demand an answer for everything - then you can begin the transformation. The methods remain secret until you are ready to use them. You learn Kriya Yoga in silence.
Not giving out the methods to the uninitiated is a principle Tantrics have in common with Celtic druids (for whom it was directly forbidden to write anything of what they had learnt), the Egyptian initiates and, to a certain extent, with the indigenous people (Aborigines) living in the deserts of central Australia. Contrary to the Celtic and Egyptian elite, Tantra was and is part of the local culture.
The treasures of Tantra are not only reserved for a learned social class, but also form part of the living tradition in many villages where knowledge and experience is passed on from person to person for generations.
A timeless and living tradition
Anybody who proves to be suitable and receptive can share in the Tantric knowledge. A knowledge that is so comprehensive that the Tantric methods can be compared to contemporary science. In addition to methods to expand, raise and liberate human consciousness, Tantra also contains mathematics, astronomy, methods for healing and art of the highest calibre. It could be said that the Tantric tradition contains all conceivable means of helping people through life - and in mastering themselves.
Unfortunately, it has become fashionable nowadays to associate Tantra with sexual rituals alone. They are, of course, a part of the tradition, just as there are people that benefit from using them - but they are just one part of the rich Tantric tradition.
We are now going to deal with a group of methods and practices that are used in the Tantric rituals - also the sexual ones, but not only there. They can also be part of what we popularly call relaxation and meditation. Their purpose is to alter the state of your physical body and of consciousness, so that you become present, receptive and sensitive to what is further happening in the ritual or in the meditation.
These methods have a collective name: Nyasa.
According to the Oxford Sanskrit English Dictionary, the word Nyasa means: to place, to set on or in, to use, to touch, etc.
What are touched are the body's various parts - what is placed, is a mantra (sound), for example, on the appropriate places.
It is worth noting that the dictionary further defines Nyasa as: "Mental consecration or allocation of various bodily parts to guardian spirits". This definition is correct, as far as I can see, but is insufficient as it stands. One could just as well claim that all science is religion, as theology is still counted among the Sciences.
Apparently the "facts" elucidated in encyclopaedias depend on who is supplying the information; the diverse and at times peculiar or limited definitions of Yoga and Tantra are clear examples of that.
The purpose of using Nyasa in Tantric yoga, in my opinion, is to awaken consciousness, which I hope is apparent from the articles in this issue. With that in mind, however, I will now quote a definition by Agehananda Bharati: "Literally, Nyasa is the process of charging a part of the body, or an organ of another living body, with a specified power through touch." And he continues. "For instance, by placing the firemudra [a way of holding the fingers when touching] on the heart region uttering the fire-mantra `ram', the adept's heart is made into the cosmic fire..."
Nyasa can consist of "touching" the various bodily parts by hand. It can be performed by oneself, or by one's partner or teacher. But it can also be done mentally, by thinking of the specific areas and calling them by name - this happens, for example, during the teacher's guidance of Yoga Nidra.
Nyasa also involves the "placing" of a mantra (sound, syllable or a combination of the two - a phrase) on different parts of the body. This is done mentally, or the mantra can be said aloud.
The Sanskrit alphabet, just like runes in their time in the Northern countries, does not only serve as a group of letters used to form words, but also each letter has an inherent power, a vibration that forms the basis of the science of mantra. In one form of Nyasa, the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are distributed over the whole body. This is called Matrika Nyasa.
"Matrika is the source of all mantras, the origin of all sciences and the soil from which all the principles, all sages and all knowledge are born." (Laxmi Tantra)
The above mentioned methods can be combined so that you touch your body or that of your partner, at the same time as you name the mantra for the place that you touch.
Matrika Nyasa, an example of which is given on the next page, is a different form of Nyasa from that which is used in Yoga Nidra. But if you have experienced the deep Yoga Nidra you will be able to see the similarities between one of the larger sections of Yoga Nidra and Matrika Nyasa.
The earth, water, fire, air and ether (space) elements also play a role in Nyasa. The body is divided into five parts, each with its own element.
And as previously mentioned, the body and its various parts can be consecrated to one or more guardian spirits - even to planets or holy places. The name of the spirits or gods, of the planet, place or element are then added to the string of mantras and recited aloud or repeated mentally.
Naturally Nyasa is used because it has an effect on the body and mind - and is not just an empty ritual. Nyasa is related to, and possibly even predates, Shiatsu and Acupuncture. But whereas these other two methods are based on the physical body and their energy points and are mainly used for healing, Nyasa is more than this, in that it also has methods for "touching" and awakening the mind's numerous dimensions, e.g. through the psychic chakras.
The long and deep Yoga Nidra is based on simple and therefore very effective variations of Nyasa, from beginning to end.
Once you have followed the guidance in the deep Yoga Nidra, while lying on your back, you are then familiar with the way you move your awareness through all parts of the body; with the experience of heaviness and lightness, warmth and cold, pain and contentment. And with how you get in contact with the chakras in different ways, and experience certain symbols, landscapes, pictures etc.
There are several dimensions to our being. In daily life we are familiar with the body, breath, thoughts, emotions, moods - and with states like
wakefulness, dreaming and sleeping. But there are other states such as the meditative, the shamanic, the hypnotic, the intoxicated ...
The dimensions of the human being are described from the basis of different backgrounds. Jung and Freud introduced concepts such as the conscious, the subconscious, the unconscious and libido.
In the European occult or mystic tradition there are concepts that to a certain degree correspond with other cultures': the physical body, body humours (as in Ajur Veda), vital energy, the astral body and the causal body. Similarly in Europe there is, or was, a concept such as bliss (intense and independent happiness).
In the Indian texts the Upanishads, we find the following description of the human dimensions:
The five sheaths
(from the Paingala Upanishad)
"Then the five sheaths made of food,
vital air, mind, understanding and bliss.
What is brought into being
only by the essence of food,
what grows only by the essence of food, that which finds rest in earth
full of the essence of food,
that is the sheath made of food.
That alone is the gross body.
The five vital airs,
along with the organs of action
constitute the sheath
made of the vital principle.
along with the organs of perception
is the sheath
made of mind.
along with the organs of perception
is the sheath made of intelligence.
These three sheaths (of life, mind and intelligence) form the subtle body.
The knowledge of one's own form is of the sheath made of bliss.
That is also the causal body.
The purpose of Nyasa and of Yoga Nidra is to touch and experience the various planes, to awaken consciousness in areas where it is normally dormant due to tensions. It can be in such ordinary places as organs and muscles. The tensions are thereby released, but that is only one step of the process. The aim is to experience that you are not bound to just one plane of consciousness, but that you consciously contain them all - and that leads to the insight, that one's true identity is the experiencing consciousness behind it all.
It is more than just an idea, it is something you realize - an experience.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead extends this experience beyond life into the realm of death. These teachings help prepare you for the realization that you are neither the fascinating nor the terrifying planes you encounter after death, but that they too are only experiences that you need not get trapped in on the way.
In order to see the use of Nyasa in another light, let us look at what we call Chakra.
Chakra, the psychic centers
The word Chakra has in our "New Age" been taken out of its original context and debased. Its meaning has become limited to the physical and, at its best, the mental, while lacking the perspectives and possibilities found in the Tantric tradition, from where the term stems. To awaken a chakra and use it consciously is quite a different process from what is going on today; a whole market exists where people promote chakra cream, chakra massage, chakra machines and I don't know what. Psychic sensitivity and the prospect of more profound experiences is drowned in materialism and narrow minded concepts. They play with people's expectations and notions and have no experiences themselves.
I have written about Chakra previously, in Bindu no. 4 in the series of articles on Kriya Yoga, and in a chapter of my book: Yoga, Tantra and Meditation in Daily Life.
Energy whirls and flows
The subtle body, or energy body, consists of numerous minor energy whirls or points of consciousness. They are called chakra and are evenly distributed over the whole body (compare with Sei or Gen points in Chinese medicine). Between them flows Prana, the psychic energy (as in Ki or Chi energy) in the nadis (similar to Meridians, see also Bindu no. 4 - "Yoga and the finer energy").
These minor chakras are touched in Yoga Nidra.
In the beginning of the relaxation, you go through the body mentally at such a pace that you have time to just touch the places named in the guidance, but not enough to think of anything else. By thinking of these small chakra, the whole body is gradually made conscious - as are the respective areas in the cerebral cortex (.
In itself, the body is one big chakra - a point of consciousness, an energy whirl.
The major chakras
The major chakras have many dimensions. On the physical level they are central areas in the body that are linked to the nervous system and the nadis. They are found at the base of the body, above the perineum: Muladhara; in the spine: Swadhisthana, Manipura, Anahata, Vishuddhi; in the head: Lalana; and in the brain: Ajna, Bindu and Sahasrara. There are a few others, but these are the ones most commonly used.
The various dimensions of a chakra
A chakra is not only physical, but consists of all the human dimensions.
A chakra can be regarded as a microcosmic image of an individual, just as an individual possibly is microcosmic in comparison to the universe. That, at any rate, is what the Hopis (in northern Arizona) say:
"The living body of man and the living body of the earth were constructed in the same way. Through each ran an axis, man's axis being the backbone, the vertebral column, which controlled the equilibrium of his movements and his functions. Along this axis were several vibratory centers which echoed the primordial sound of life throughout the universe or sounded a warning if anything went wrong."
(Book of the Hopi, F. Waters)
Initially the body is brought into harmony by yoga exercises. Then blockages in the energy flows are removed by breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. Yoga creates a solid and lasting balance in the entire organism and in the area of each chakra. Thereafter, additional consciousness is brought into these centers by the use of Yoga Nidra, Kriya Yoga and other Tantric meditations. Now begins a cleansing of the old attachments, habits and inhibitions (vritti) rooted in our actions and mind scape.
Then the chakras are ready for an awakening, where you are not carried away by deeply embedded patterns and behavioral traits (samskara) that have been imprinted on the mind over the years.
During the awakening, which comes and goes at first, until it has become completely established, the encounter with the contents of the various planes of consciousness continues.
"An individual's destiny is determined by his or her unconscious radiation," a Danish writer, Poul Martin Mĝller once expressed it.
The relationship between body, mind, emotions and vital energy (prana) is communicated through the major chakras. When they are awakened, you gain insight into different levels of your being, and into your normally unconscious reactions. You realize how your states influence the outcome of your actions.
Eventually the chakras can be opened fully - the interpretative filters of the cosmic energy rays or vibrations are gone. When we no longer hold back, but allow all the chakras to communicate freely, with energy flowing unhindered through them, as it does through the universe, then we enter into a greater wholeness as true cosmic beings.