• What is Tantra? A Primer on Tantric Meditation

    Tantra is as misunderstood in the West, where it’s become synonymous with sexual rituals, as in the East, where it’s considered magic alchemy. But Tantra is actually a vast science that encompasses wisdom from Ayurvedic medicine, Samkhya/Yoga philosophy, Vedanta, Jyotish astrology and spiritual practices using yantras and mantras. The ultimate goal of Tantra is to systematically utilize all of the methods we can to accelerate transformation and help the practitioner to create a life that is richer and more complete. Its focus is on providing the correct approach and specific techniques to cause an individual to grow, become stronger and more capable by undoing all obstacles to freedom in the fastest way possible. According to Sandra Anderson, senior faculty at the Himalayan Institute, “Tibetan Buddhism, the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, and shakti sadhana (worship and practices centered on the Divine Mother) are all examples of the diverse faces of Tantra.”

    There are three paths of Tantra: the Kaula path, which relies on external rituals; the Mishra path, which blends internal and external practices; and the Samaya path, which is purely internal and meditative. Samaya Tantra is ultimately more like a deep communion with the creative force of the universe, Shakti, than worship in a ritualistic sense. Yantras, geometric figures, and mantras, vibrational sounds, create a locus for these universal powers (shaktis) to manifest in our inner and outer lives. Patanjali’s teaching on Tantric alchemy can be found in the Yoga Sutras, chapter 3.

    Tantra, in essence, signifies to expand beyond limitations. Its ideology recognizes that all of the powers, or shaktis, in the universe are encountered in the individual: Tatha brahmande, yatha pindande (“As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm”). In Tantra, the ultimate yantra is the body, and our self-realization potential (kundalini shakti, the vast powers dormant within us) is awakened through the use of asana, pranayama, bandhas, mudras and mantra. Through these systematic technics, the practitioner harnesses prana shakti, the creative lifeforce, to enable the dormant kundalini to rise through the chakras, riding on the river of the central channel to the crown, where it can join pure consciousness. This “awakening” brings an intense and inexplicable joy that is beyond time, space and causation. We feel empowered, healed and fulfilled.

    Tantric meditation, then, would use multiple tools and techniques to help us “pierce the veil” that obscures our awareness of limitless potential in the quickest and most effective ways. Using the simplest of asanas, one can stabilize the pelvic floor, strengthen the sacrum, and increase flexibility and stability in the spinal column. Pranayama serves to energize the solar plexus, access the heart center, and enter the eyebrow center, or third eye, to replenish the brain and nervous system. Subsequently, one can engage in the samyamas: Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (union/merging with the Infinite).

    Look for my guided Tantric Meditations on this platform to have a direct experience:

    Tantric Meditation for Clarity & Wisdom – The third eye (ajna chakra) is the center of clarity and wisdom. Blending breathing techniques (pranayama), chanting, visualization (kriya), and vibrational sound (mantra) to gain access to Turya, the fourth dimension, tap into the wisdom of the third eye and rest in a pool of restful, effortless awareness.

    Tantric Meditation to Clear Difficult Emotions – Tantric meditation is about the alchemy of transformation. In this meditation, you will use breath, concentration, visualization of energy movement and color, and meditation to transform difficult emotions in the heart center.

    Tantric Meditation for Empowerment – Connect to the creative forces of will, power, and determination residing in your manipura (third chakra), known as the city of gems, by using breathing techniques, visualization, concentration of prana at the navel center, and mantra.

    Tantric Meditation to Awaken Sushumna – One definition of a yogi is “one whose prana, or energy, is in the spine.” Connect to the spinal energy channel known as sushumna, clearing the path for Kundalini to rise, using breath, chanting AUM multiple times, visualization and meditation.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann is a somatic psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher, initiated in the Himalayan Tantric lineage of Sri Vidya. ParaYoga is a living link to the ancient traditions of yoga, meditation, and tantra. 

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  • Vichara: A key tool of self-study in yoga

    The systematic practice of raja yoga, the “royal” path, consists of three components: tapas (austerity, or going against the grain of our conditioning), svadyaya (self-study, or self-inquiry to understand the conditioning and overcome it), and ishvara pranidhana (the unshakeable faith in the ever-guiding and protecting power of a primordial inner guru, teacher, or guide).

    Vichara, or self-inquiry, is a Sanskrit term that is loosely translated as “discernment.” It is a systematic process that offers us a methodology for making the unconscious, conscious – a key tool offered by Vedanta which enables us to attain the ultimate goal of stilling the fluctuations of the mind and connecting with the Infinite, Pure Consciousness. As in Jungian psychology, which seeks to bring subconscious process and symbolic content to conscious awareness, a vichara process in yoga helps us to become more intimately aware of these subconscious patterns and tendencies so they can lose their power to seduce and entrap us.

    Ultimately, vichara is the ability to maintain a continuous awareness on the higher Self, the Paramatman or Ishvara, the untainted Purusha, or Supreme Soul. But in the initial stages, it helps bring us in touch with the higher aspects of our mind, the Buddhi, or wise, intuitive intellect – differentiating it from the lower functions  of the  mind, known as manas, the survival instincts, citta, the storehouse of all our memories, and ahamkara, the I-sense or ego identity. It is this Buddhi wise mind that gets us closer to that which is beyond the mind: Purusha, the Soul.

    The Yoga Vasishtha, one of the foremost Vedantic texts, is profusely illustrated with examples of vichara, recommending self-inquiry as the highest and most direct path to Self-Realization. So how do you do it? Here are some simple questions to ask yourself when you find yourself distressed or confused:

    • What situation or thought precipitated your thought or feeling?
    • What is the predominant emotion or feeling? (sadness, anger, fear…)
    • How did it manifest behaviorally? (yelling, withdrawing, judgment…)
    • What is the seed/root desire you need to uncover? We all live with these desires and they “color” our thoughts. They can be caused by samskaras, or past impressions; vasanas, the tendencies they engender; and vikalpas, the false beliefs that only live in our imagination and aren’t inherently real, separating us thus from Vidya. Through disentanglement from the thought forms, pure consciousness can begin to emerge.
    • Is the desire coming from our:
      • Higher Self, Soul, Purusha? How our Soul wants to express its purpose in this lifetime?
      • Or our lower self: manas, chitta, ahamkara, or Buddhi?
    • Can you trace it back the desire to when it took root in your life? While not necessary, this question can illuminate the origin of the unfulfilled desire to an event in early life that is still driving us.
    • Does it require adjustment (change something) or contentment (live with it) or both?

    How do you get rid of the desire that initiated the distress? Meditation uses fire of self-knowledge (jatavedas agni) to dissolve it. It increases our witness consciousness so we can dis-identify with the lower mind. Vyasa, in his commentary of the Yoga Sutras, recommends contemplating the Self/Purusha that is intransient so our awareness of it burns so brightly that it burns away avidya, the sense that the impermanent is real. We can then surrender to the divine, ishvara pranidhana, which connects us to something greater, thus allowing us to let go of outcomes (vairagya).

    Yoga Sutra 3.56 sattva purusayoh suddhi samye kaivalyam iti states that “with the attainment of equality between the purest aspect of sattvic buddhi and the pure consciousness of purusha, there comes absolute liberation, and that is the end.”

    Yoga Sutra 4.25 vishesa darshinah atma bhava bhavana vinivrittih completes the process, stating that “for one who has experienced this distinction between seer and this subtlest mind (cleared of all the colorings), the false identities and even the curiosity about the nature of one’s own self come to an end.”

    Complete liberation and the end of the search: This is the ultimate gift of vichara. May you be curious to begin the inquiry.
    [gery_box] By Inge Sengelmann[/grey_box]

    Inge Sengelmann is a somatic psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher, initiated in the Himalayan Tantric lineage of Sri Vidya. ParaYoga is a living link to the ancient traditions of yoga, meditation, and tantra. 

     

  • Trauma, the Gunas and the Polyvagal Theory

    Trauma field luminaries such as Peter Levine, PhD and Bessel van der Kolk, MD, among others, concur that trauma is in the body, not in the event – or in the story of the event. Trauma, they propose, is locked in the physiology as incomplete survival responses perpetuating a dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system – long after the event has ended. These processes are operating at the non-cognitive level of the brain stem and limbic systems, encoded in implicit memory as autonomic neurobiological and behavioral responses.

    “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself. They arise when residual energy from the experience is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.” Peter Levine, PhD, author of In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, published in 2010.

    “PTSD involves a fundamental dysregulation of arousal modulation at the brain stem level. PTSD patients suffer from baseline autonomic hyper-arousal and lower resting HRV (heart rate variability) compared to controls, suggesting that they have increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic tone.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, in remarks at the New York Academy of Sciences, 2006.

    Samkhya philosophy, from which Yoga emerges, divides reality into two categories: the knower, pure consciousness (Purusha) and the known, creation (Prakriti). The Gunas are the three forces that underlie all of creation; they are Tamas, or inertia/immobility; Rajas, or activity; Sattva, or essence/balance/clarity/consciousness. The interplay of these forces is the manifest universe, both physical and psychological. The Bhagavad Gita states: “There is nothing on the earth, in heaven, or even among the gods, that is free from these prakriti-born gunas.”

    The Polyvagal Theory (PVT) of the autonomic nervous system proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges, professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in North Carolina and leading psychophysiological researcher, can be conceptualized as a neurophysiological counterpart to the yogic concept of the gunas.

    Porges recognized that the autonomic nervous system responds in a highly sequenced, hierarchical response to environmental stimuli, based on a neural process he calls “neuroception” – an automatic function that evaluates risk and modulates vagal output, triggering or inhibiting defense strategies for survival. He proposed that, in addition to the sympathetic arousal system, there are two vagal motor systems – dorsal vagal (immobility) and ventral vagal (social engagement, emotion and communication) – and that primary emotions are related to autonomic function.

    Neuroception, as a process, determines whether specific features in the environment elicit specific physiological states that would support either a dorsal vagal immobilization response (tamas), a sympathetic fight-flight response (rajas), or a ventral-vagal or social engagement response (sattva). Any or all of these branches of the nervous system may become dysfunctional and/or “stuck,” as a result of overwhelming events, creating patterns of cognitive, emotional and behavioral dysregulation.

    Porges also re-conceptualized the autonomic nervous system to include target organ, afferent and efferent nerve pathways, and bidirectional communication between the heart and the central nervous system. The nerve fibers of the vagus nerve, which travels from the brainstem to the sacral area, are 80% afferent – meaning that they convey information from the body to the brain. Only 20% of the nerve fibers are efferent, downloading information from brain to body. This means that consciousness is in the body, as well as the brain. In yoga philosophy, consciousness resides even in the smallest atom, so why not in our cells and tissues?

    Brain physiology also lines up the brain with the yogic model of the mind. The brain contains evolutionary “layers” that develop as life required new modes of survival: a primordial/instinctual/primitive/”reptilian” brain equaling the yogic version of manas, our instinctual survival mind; the limbic system, primarily the amygdala and hippocampus, lines up with chitta, the storehouse of our memories; the sensory-motor cortex, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex, in their self-referencing functions, may equal asmita/ahamkara, our ego or self-sense of separate “I”; and the most evolved areas of the prefrontal cortex perhaps being the abode of Buddhi, the part of our mind capable of awareness, observation, discernment, attention and planning.

    A recent article in Frontiers of Neuroscience, authored by Dr. Porges and researchers in the field of yoga therapy, describe how these two different yet analogous frameworks—one based in neurophysiology and the other in an ancient wisdom tradition—highlight yoga therapy’s promotion of physical, mental and social wellbeing for self-regulation and resilience, creating a “translational framework” joining these two philosophical foundations.

    Why is all this important? To see the yoga, or union, between various theories for understanding human consciousness, and behavior, provides us more tools to help those students who come to us seeking to grow and heal mentally, emotionally and spiritually. By having a clearer understanding of the inter-relationship between the gunas and the autonomic nervous system presentations of trauma, one can combine the right set of practices (or therapies) for each unique individual. In such a way, we can maximize the desired effects: whether it is for greater emotional balance, optimal physical health, clearer mental focus, or reaching enlightenment.

    By Inge Sengelmann

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    Inge Sengelmann is a somatic psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher, initiated in the Himalayan Tantric lineage of Sri Vidya. ParaYoga is a living link to the ancient traditions of yoga, meditation, and tantra. 

    Caplan, M. (2018). Yoga & psyche: integrating the paths of yoga and psychology for healing, transformation and joy. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

    Swami Rama, Ballentine, Ajaya (1976). Yoga & Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute Press.

    Porges, S.W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Sullivan Marlysa B., Erb Matt, Schmalzl Laura, Moonaz Steffany, Noggle Taylor Jessica, Porges Stephen W. (2018). Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, Article 67. DOI=10.3389/fnhum.2018.00067  https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00067