Monday, 24 February 2020

Prana-Pranayama- Yama-Niyama by Angela Zografou

Many times in my life I thought that I was treated unfairly, that I was unlucky, that things went wrong for me and so on… These things made me really upset. The worst of all was that I would waste all my energy analyzing things and asking “why”, something that made me exhausted and very upset. I realized that I had to find the right way to handle these situations; that I had to take responsibility and try to sort myself out instead of trying to change others and the way they behave. I knew that it had to do with finding the right balance between ego and mind and this led to me joining the ‘Step by Step’ class.
I was impressed when we first learned about ‘PRANA’, the vital energy and how correct breathing can charge, control and direct our energy.
We are filled with prana and prana is of vital importance in everything we do. We should not waste it or save it but invest it wisely so it brings about positive changes in our body and mind.
We have to realise that prana exists inside our body. It is in our breath, in our consciousness. The entire universe is a manifestation of prana. Mastering the breath means mastering prana.
We all need to find a profound interest in ourselves so we can connect. With whoever we create a profound interest, whether this is love or jealousy, we create opposite energy and this unlocks our prana. We should always remember though that we must learn to control or prana/energy.
Prana comes through the five elements of nature:
1.     Earth: By living in nature, walking on earth barefoot, touching the earth, enjoying nature-the trees, mountains the rivers, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and above all respecting nature. 
2.     Water: By drinking clean pure water and swimming in the sea and rivers.
3.     Fire: by spending time in the sunshine or even by letting the sunshine in through windows and doors.
4.     Ether: This element is associated with thoughts. Chanting mantras, being in a positive atmosphere and being in the company of true people enables us to increase prana.
5.     Air: By having a consistent pranayama practice, inhaling pure fresh air, living in fresh air and staying away from polluted environments.
How to charge our prana:
The secret is movement through exchange like:
·       Mortal and immortal like soul and ego
·       Between us and other human beings
·       Between us and the elements
There are three ways to move prana:
1.     Manually, through the blood
2.     Through our nervous system/wires, through moudras
3.     Wireless – through the mind
Yoga is a practice that deals directly with prana.
Yogi life starts with:
·       Breath – Pranayama
·       Yama Niyama good ethos/character
·       Diet
The name ‘Pranayama’ derives from the words ‘prana’ meaning vital energy and ‘ayama’ which means stretching/expansion.
Pranayama is basically the science of breath and practicing it will lead to mastering prana. Success can only be achieved by Regulatity, Repetition and Rhythm, essentially by making it a habit.
Through pranayama we can bring together the first three bodies - physical emotional/pranic and mental. These three bodies must be aligned so they are strengthened.
The perfect alignment comes through Yamas and Niyamas.
Yama & Niyama: The Path of Ethical Discipline
Yama means ‘taking a vow’ while niyama means ‘rule of conduct’. Yama and niyama are inter-dependent. Niyama strengthens and safeguards yama.
The basis of yama and niyama is that through ethical principles and the practice of correct conduct we will succeed in yoga and develop a positive personality.
When we become sufficiently advanced in the practices of yamas and niyamas, we can face every temptation by calling in the aid of pure and restraining thoughts. When the mind becomes pure it attains the state of steadiness. The ultimate aim is to perfectly establish in yama-niyama so that Samadhi (the highest state of mental concentration) will come by itself.

The five yamas are the foundation of spiritual life. Following the yamas means sticking to ideas and principles so that the human nature is transformed into a divine nature.
The Five Yamas:
Ahimsa (non-violence) comes first because we must first remove our beastly nature. Ahimsa is perfect harmlessness and love. It is to refrain from the slightest thought of harm to any living creature. It is an attitude of universal benevolence.
Satya: (truthfulness) comes next. Thought must agree with word and word with action. To think of one thing, say another and do another is nothing but dishonesty. By telling lies you pollute your conscience and infect your subconscious mind. Truth means the strength to abide by positive principles.
Asteya: (non-stealing). This is another form of self-restraint. A person should neither steal nor have the intention or desire to steal anything belonging to another person. This applies to speech, thoughts and actions. Essentially one should avoid taking anything that is not freely given.
Brahmacharya: The fourth yama is the practice of continence. When controlled, the sexual energy is transformed into a special spiritual energy and it is stored up in the brain. You should open yourself to higher spiritual consciousness. Feel the divine presence and divine guidance in your life.
Aparigraha: The opposite of parigraha. Parigraha is greed. Aparigraha is a mental state in which the sensual desire is dead. Parigraha leads to anxiety to preserve, fear of loss, hatred, anger, untruthfulness, stealing, etc. Aparigraha puts an end to all these and gives peace and contentment.
Niyama, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying a prayer before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice.
The Five Niyamas
Shaucha: Shaucha is purity, both internal and external. External purity generates internal purity.   It is very much connected with simplicity.
Santosha: Santosha or contentment is connection with the soul.
Contentment does not mean satisfaction, but willingness to accept things as they are. Contented means to be satisfied with what you have and to be happy in whatever condition you are placed; you do not crave for things you do not have.
Tapas: Tapas means discipline. It also means restraint of the senses and meditation. It leads to control of the mind. Austerities like occasional fasting and observance of silence increase the power of endurance. One must practice physical and mental tapas in order to have a disciplined physical body and a balanced mind in all conditions of life.
Swadhyaya: Swadhyaya or self-study is not just study of scriptures and books but also enquiry into the nature of the self. Swadhyaya is asking the question, “Who am I? This will help you to sort out the personality so the self can come out. Through this you will also get inspired by those who have already done that. Swadhyaya clears doubts, inspires and elevates the mind and helps in concentration and meditation.
Ishwara pranidhana: The ability to surrender to God. This is the practice where one consecrates everything to the higher force. Self-surrender makes the devotee feel the reality of divine grace and God’s readiness to bestow help on him at all times.
When our yoga teacher kept on saying that she would not allow anyone who did not do yoga to join the ‘Step by Step’ class I could not really understand why. Now, a year on into my SBS class I have been able to understand that. Yoga is a practice that works directly with prana. Through yoga and the breathing techniques and discipline of the body and mind we can practice meditation!
Thank you Korina!

Friday, 31 January 2020

Importance of Conscious Breathing by Ruta Dzikaraite

Lately one can observe a worldwide growing emphasis on the subject of breathing. Dozens of spiritual gurus, meditation and education centers and so on talk and teach people about the importance of the breath and the power in knowing how to use it for one’s benefit.
There are numerous breathing techniques offered to master, therefore it is good for individual to find out and understand where do they come from, how do they affect us and how to correctly use them so we can increase the depth of our physical and spiritual being.
One of the reasons why breathing is so popular and effective is that one can experience its benefits immediately, even if for a short time at the beginning.
In a Yogic breathing, also known as Pranayama, we put the effort to master the flow of the Prana – the universal energy of life. Our breathing practice is the solid foundation on which we can grow and develop as compassionate human beings.
The miracle of breathing is in its simplicity: all of us are equipped with this amazing ability- no need to look far! Right here and right now we have all that we need to better ourselves.
And the yogic knowledge of pranayama gives us valuable explanations on how to use this wonderful tool.
The first step of conscious breathing is to become aware of the breath- to acknowledge the fact that the air is coming in and out, the lungs expand and contract, focus the mind on this and let the awareness arise- like a bridge between the mind and the body, which are no longer separated and can communicate with each other. When the mind is aware of the body, the body can share the valuable information necessary for harmonious functioning.
Conscious breathing also gives us a key to understand and regulate our emotional state. Most of us have experienced how stressful situations make our breath short and shallow, or how we are able to deeply exhale after some event that we were anxious about, like passing the exam or avoiding a car crash.
Deep and calm breathing quiets the mind, therefore we can see and analyze our emotions more clearly and avoid unnecessary conflicts within or in the outside world.
Also, very important is that with the breath work we can change our emotional response- create a certain gap in-between our old “automatic” reaction and the one we consciously choose. This will certainly require some effort from our part and here we must rely on the “holy trinity“ of repetition , rhythm and regularity to create a new , positive habit, but in the end we will reap a sweet fruit of our determination.
Benefits of Pranayama are many, as it works on different levels of our existence.
 Physiologically it improves upon one’s health and wellbeing, bringing more energy, health and overall better functioning of all body systems.
Psychologically it prepares us to handle the stress better, increases our ability to focus, therefore creating better relationships with ourselves and with others.
 And, of course, spiritually it helps to unfold our awareness, so we can become a silent observers, witnessing the phenomena of life.

Ruta Dzikaraite SBS team 2019-20 

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Is the Ego a ‘baddie’? by Tasoula Charalambous

The word ego has changed meaning for me over the years. I never really paid much attention to its deeper meaning in the past. If you check its dictionary definition you will realise that there are different interpretations.
One definition describes it as ‘a false part of our personality constructed in the mind’. Another definition states that ‘it is your idea or  opinion of yourself, especially your feeling of your own importance and ability’. In psychoanalysis, it is considered ‘the part of a person's mind that tries to match the hidden desires (= wishes) of the id (= part of the unconscious mind) with the demands of the real world. There are so many other definitions. All rather confusing I have to say, but the common factor is that nearly all the definitions have negative connotations.
 Even though I assume it is derived from the Greek word which simply means ‘I’, and refers to the self, when we talk about the ego in general we do usually use it negatively.  When we think someone is a bit self-centred and more concerned with his own well-being or character or promoting himself usually at someone else’s expense, we often say he or she has a big ego, or he or she is egoistical or he or she is all ego etc. This is obviously not a good trait and not one that anyone should be proud of, although of course egoistical people are obviously not aware of this and consider it a norm. it is not.
So what exactly is the ego in the more spiritual sense? What is it made of? What does it look like? Where is it? Is it in the head? Is that why we say someone is big-headed when they act selfishly?
I remember the SBS group being asked what the ego was. Even though we had just discussed it, it was still difficult to grasp and explain using the right words. It took some time and considerable group effort to come up with different answers.
- The self that is made from the mind. The mind will die; in the same way the self that is created from the mind is an illusion and is temporary.
-The ego is the part we want to ignore that is created by the mind.
-It’s a kind of programming that we use in our lives that we have to be careful of. 
I noticed the Ego was always referred to as a destroyer, a destructive force, something that definitely inhibits one’s spiritual path. And I remember asking if ‘it is a baddie’ as it seemed to serve no constructive purpose.
One thing is for sure, this ‘baddie’ does exist and most people allow it to control them making it very difficult for them to see what is important in their short time on this planet and to live a serene life without stress and anger and illusions and destructive or reckless behaviour.

Our discussions brought on further questions. If we were all egoless then would we all be spiritual beings from birth since there would be nothing to inhibit us from seeing the light from the outset? And why were we given egos anyway, if they are such a hindrance?
But there are reasons for its existence: so we can learn to live with it, to learn to discipline ourselves, to control our actions and behaviour, to learn to interact ethically with society and to be giving and generous and grateful, not wanting anything in return for our actions. Maybe it would all be too easy if we did not have an ego that would test us and help us discover our own strengths.
Perhaps the biggest test or achievement which can help us chose the correct spiritual path is to be able to minimise our ego to the point that it can no longer interfere in our spiritual lives, so we can ultimately ignore it and concentrate on all the divine instincts which we should be practicing and applying; simplicity, honesty, gratitude, pure love and all the many other qualities that will help us develop as spiritual beings and help us finally find our real Self and to become one with God.
However, in our materialistic society where everything is connected to money, fame, success, glory, it is so easy for the ego to thrive and to push aside these divine instincts. This is felt very strongly in the Western world where the media bombards us daily with so many things that we consider so important that we will strive to get them even though it has been proven time and time again that this is not the path to happiness and definitely not the path to God – to have that perfect body, the stunning wardrobe of clothes, that beautiful house, that fancy car.  People become nasty, depressed, unhappy, live in a fake world just to be able to have these things. We are made to believe that we will live for ever and when something happens – an illness let’s say – then we are shaken.  We then realise the vanity of it all.  And we also realise how temporary it all is. How can the ego help then? Unfortunately most people wake up when it is too late.
So yes, I have been pondering a lot about the ego.  Is it all baddie? Does it not serve any useful purpose? How can we deal with it, live with it, use it, disregard it?
The other day, when I received the latest copy of the Yoga Life magazine, I noticed a short article on this very issue that I have been pondering on and I read it with interest. I must say it helped clarify and corroborate what we have already learnt. The article itself was named ‘I want to kill my ego’, which as the article says is something which any aspiring spiritual person would probably say and want. We feel this is the only way to reach the truth, to overcome the final hurdle that is stopping us from reaching the highest level, Atman.  To kill the ego.
So does the author of the article consider the ego an enemy? Actually no. On the contrary, this is apparently a common misconception. ‘Those who see more clearly know the ego is a necessary step in the unfolding of the soul. It is an essential stage in the evolution of consciousness and all must experience it to its fullest’.
The article also goes on to explain that the ego is a fictitious centre and all experiences are thought-waves of the mind in relation to that ego. Ego itself is a kind of thought-wave within the mind and thought-waves create the illusion of ego through past , present and future life events. Apparently ego and the conditioned mind go together. But eventually when you attain enlightenment or you are moving towards it, the ego changes, it goes through different stages and eventually becomes Satwic, pure, harmonised. And once it becomes Satwic it is no longer an obstacle. It is no longer the enemy, but a friend.
So this is good news. It helps us understand the ego a little bit more.  It seems to me that although the ego is always there, a part of us, in the ‘mind’, it can be transformed slowly but surely so that it can work with us and not against us. A necessary part of spirituality therefore is understanding this and accepting that the transformation is possible because as the article says ‘the ego is like a river flowing to meet the ocean of Cosmic consciousness and merge with it forever.  At that point ego dissolves on its own accord, like a salt doll entering the sea’.
Another important point that we need to be aware of, however, is that  in the period we live in now (where we are approximately 70% ego!) the ego has become so strong and cunning that it has almost made us dependent upon it, so we actually need it to survive. In the last thousand years of human existence it has learnt to work with the survival instinct in order to ensure its own survival. So we need to be able to separate the two. ‘We have to have enough ego not to stand in front of the bus.’ Thus, separation of the two is most definitely necessary so we can see which is which and how to react.
We can only do this with awareness of awareness. We need to know about the ego, what it is, so that every time something happens to us we are in the position to ask ‘who is talking’; we need to know if it is the ego or the soul. Slowly by understanding the ego we can get to know the difference.
So the ego is part of the path; we have to have it, realise it and then leave it behind. We have to have it and  then lose it rather than not to have had it at all. The ego must come out and not be suppressed. Once we have everything, then we can move on to the next stage which is to be or to have nothing. And that is when we can say we are continuing on the right path.
However the ego is very cunning as once the ego is out it definitely does not want to go away so that is why we need awareness of awareness, an understanding of what is happening, so we can put the ego to sleep, make it dormant. But we also need a lot of strength, discipline, the use of regularity, repetition and rhythm in our lives and  of course knowledge. It may take a long time to achieve, weeks, months, years even, it is not something that can be understood or applied so easily in the brutal and materialistic illusory world that we live in.
Our ultimate goal is to learn how to push it into the background permanently or if not permanently, then relentlessly, so that our true selves can eventually be revealed and so that we can reach spiritual levels which would otherwise be impossible to attain if the ego has its way.

Tasoula Charalambous SBS team 2019-


Thursday, 23 January 2020

The Human Struggle to Reach the Divine by Maro Papamichael

When Korina suggested that I should participate in the Yoga Step by Step course, I was reluctant to do so, because I felt that I didn’t need to acquire more theoretical knowledge about spiritual awakening. I needed to strengthen my ability to transcend thinking and analysing and connect with the space of presence, more often. For the past decade or so, the experiences, difficult circumstances and people that I had encountered, had brought about a shift in me, an opening into a new dimension of life that I became aware of after reading Eckhart Tolle.
I believe that what made me change my mind and attend the course was not the undoubted power of persuasion of our yoga teacher, but a voice inside me. The reason I had decided to start yoga practice with her, in the first place, was the physical problems that I had developed after doing radiotherapy, so I had the intuition that she hadn’t come into my life by chance and the same applied to my illness too. I now believe that it was a necessary next step to take at this point in my life.
Firstly, being in a group of people who shared the same need for spiritual awareness, was very helpful, comforting and inspiring. It also complied with my Dharma path i.e. the need to work closely with people.  Secondly, a new, more analytical dimension of spirituality was disclosed to me that enabled me to see it from another viewpoint and equip myself with the means to maintain access to it.
It was very useful to learn about prana and the five bodies and how important it is to save, charge and direct prana. How to keep the energy channels in our body free through pranayama techniques and yoga practice, allowing prana to flow evenly and freely, aligning the first three bodies so that we may move messages to the two higher bodies.  A knowledge very important for our spiritual development, since misalignment of the physical body, the pranic body and the mental body, will prevent us from connecting with our superconscious mind and our blissful, spiritual state.
I found  the practice of Pratipaksha Bavana very useful and I recommend it to assist people I care about. When my mind (emotional body) is suffering with anxiety, stress or fear, doing a physical activity like a walk in the quiet and serenity of a park full of trees, looking at the vast space of the sky, the colours of the sun, or dancing to music, really helps remove harmful emotions and bring me back to a balanced state.
We have learned that Regularity, Repetition and Rhythm are the key characteristics for our pranayama practice to be effective. The discipline to do so must arise out of the conscious awareness that we need the practice, to keep us in a healthy physical balance, to prevent the kleshas, the Ego and past conditioning to gain power and prevail, obscuring awareness. The same applies for practicing the Yama and Niyama.
Religions have attempted to control man’s lower animal instincts and drives, by enforcing sets of rules similar to Yama and Niyama : non-violence, non-stealing, truthfulness, control of sexual urge, and non-greed, reinforced through austerities, discipline, self-study and submission to Cosmic Will or obedience to Cosmic Law. I believe that suppression has the opposite result and causes extreme behaviours, psychological issues and suffering through feelings of guilt, or remorse.  Whatever is suppressed by physical or emotional force, will inevitably become stronger, or cause more harm than good.
When we are aware, though, that we carry programmings and habits that go back to millions of years of evolution and that we are creatures torn between our bestial urges and our divine nature, struggling towards the light but chained to the past by these instincts and drives, then we may be kinder and more understanding to ourselves and others.  We may observe these obstacles (the kleshas) described by Patanjali as they arise in our daily life, accept them as inevitable and work on transcending them in order to evolve and achieve connection with our Conscience (Buddhi) and the higher consciousness (Chit), by practicing the Yama and Niyama. No guilt, no fear, no suppression, but through awareness of our six-fold existence. An awareness that our true identity is not limited to our senses, our cell memory, impulses and instincts, the sense that we exist, being able to use the thinking mind, the Ego, as a tool, a servant of the soul.
If we feel, for example, extremely upset because someone has parked in our space, we may be able to realise in us the deep-seated instinct of a false sense of individuality,  mine-ness wanting to protect our territory just like animals do.  If we are extremely competitive, it is again due to the same error of ignorance of the real nature of things, being in the grip of the Ego.  Engaging in gluttony or in uninhibited extreme behaviours and excessive sexual acts which result in blocking the flow of prana and wasting it, harming our physical body and other human beings, will be seen as the result of being submerged in the animal drive to pursue pleasure.  Our fear of illness and pain, the survival instinct, clinging to life, may result in extreme and obsessive behaviours which throw us off balance, wasting our prana and having the opposite result on our physical well-being.
Awareness of the above animal instincts in us and the need of the soul to experience difficult situations in order to burn karma, allows us to step back and observe the situation at hand from a different angle, not being dragged like a dog on the leash by each situation, but consciously choosing the appropriate response to it.  Through detachment and taking responsibility for our actions and our difficult experiences, we burn karma without creating more, freeing ourselves from the endless chain of births and deaths. The key word in our lives must be love, the sense of oneness. Everything that happens in our lives is then of relative importance, not absolute.  We must allow love to filter all our actions and reactions and show us the way.
The way to awareness may vary with each person. Theory and analysing, or praying in front of icons, may be useful but are not a prerequisite for spiritual awareness and connection with the Divine. For some people the portal to the Divine may open through religious practices, for others through meditation, or as a result of extreme suffering, or by just sitting still in the forest, listening to the sound of the water flowing and the leaves rustling by the soft touch of the breeze. The following story was told by E. Tolle in one of his talks: A Zen master was walking with one of his disciples in the forest when the disciple asked “Master, how do I enter Zen?” The master stopped and said “Be quiet for a while.  Can you hear the sound of the stream?” The disciple stopped walking and tried very hard to hear the stream flowing.  “I can hear it master!” he said after a while. “Enter Zen from there!” the master said and continued walking.  After a while the disciple asked again “Master, what would you have said, if I couldn’t hear the stream?” The master replied “Enter Zen from there!”
I would like to end my essay by quoting the final paragraph of the text on Evolutionary Quirks, Yama-Niyama & the Human Brain by Smt Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani:  “The long evolutionary meandering through the flesh of 8.400.000 incarnations can thus be shortened.  One may rise out of the blind bestial passions in the darkness of unconscious ignorance, to the radiant Divine Consciousness of a truly Enlightened Being.  The long journey is shortened and the goal, so long distant, becomes a living reality.  The dewdrop slips into the shining sea!  The “devil” is vanquished by the Divine.  The beast becomes the beauty. The old, old story has a happy ending.
Maro Papamichael - 09/01/2020

Prana-Pranayama- Yama-Niyama by Angela Zografou

PRANA AND HOW PRANAYAMA CONTROLS AND DIRECTS PRANA Many times in my life I thought that I was treated unfairly, that I was unlucky,...