Thursday, February 2, 2012

How Yoga Sadhana Leads to Mental and Emotional Purification

I recently completed the 4 Months Yogic Studies Course at the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger, India. It was the most challenging and painful experience that I've ever had.

From the moment that I stepped into the ashram something strange started to happen within me. My mind and my emotions became totally out of control.

An emotional roller coaster

I felt like a puppet of my emotions unable to do anything to change my negative thoughts and behaviors.

It was an emotional roller coaster, constantly up and down, up and down but mostly I was feeling very down. For four months I experienced depression, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and many other negative emotions. It was tough, believe me.

I completely lost my self-confidence and I could hardly recognize myself. It was very difficult to act normal, socialize and make friends with the other guys doing the course because I was constantly overwhelmed by my negative moods.

That sounds really bad, doesn't it?

Well, in reality, it was an awesome experience and I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to be there.

Now you might be asking yourself why the heck did I put myself through all this pain? Why didn't I just left the course right away? or why did I came to this ashram from the first place?

Well, it's all about mental purification, which is the outcome of any sadhana (spiritual practice like yoga and meditation) and this is something that is meant to happen in an ashram like the Bihar School of Yoga.

The influence of Saṁskāras: past mental impressions

Every action that we perform, every thought that we think, every word that we say, every experience that we live (even from past lives) leaves an impression in our mind.

These impressions, which can be either positive or negative, are called in Sanskrit samskaras.

They might become a habit if performed repetitively or they might leave a deep impression in our subconscious, like for instance a childhood trauma.

These samskaras can create a specific response to a situation.  They unconsciously force us to act or think in a particular way.  Feast of anger, jealousy, depression, self-destructive thoughts, distrust, phobias, shyness, low self-esteem can all be rooted in these samskaras.

In order to live a joyful and fulfilling life, in order to remain content in front of any situation, it is necessary to remove all these negative impressions from our minds. That's the purpose of all yoga practices, that's the purpose of sadhana.

The purpose of ashram life

And that's exactly what happens in an ashram.

An ashram creates the ideal environment for mental purification through different yoga practices like hatha yoga (the physical postures), meditation, karma yoga or seva (selfless work), mantra chanting and kirtan, devotional chants.

At the Bihar School of Yoga there is a lot of mantra chanting. It is said that it is not relevant the meaning of the mantra but actually the vibrations created by the Sanskrit words which have a very subtle effect on the mind.

After this experience, I believe even more in the power of mantras.

During our daily life, we don't regularly encounter situations to push all our buttons, and if we do we can simply choose to avoid that situation and then believe that the problem is "solved". But in an ashram, you have no choice but to deal with it and face all your demons.

"All the emotions which have been avoided and suppressed need to come out. The karma which was holding up one's evolution will have to be worked out. The inherent desires and ambitions have to be exhausted and expressed, otherwise they merely remain in a dormant state in the mind as barriers between one's present state of existence and the absolute experience." [Sadhana: The Path of Transformation, Swami Satyananda]

While staying in an ashram sometimes you can get very sick with fever, pain or diarrhea, and although it is easy to say "that was just a bug in the food" I do believe that it is more like a cleansing process; you know... not everybody gets sick. The bug is just nature's excuse to make sure that you purify your karmas.

"Samskaras of the past have to be burned; disease, discomfort, disturbance, insult, unpleasant situations all help to purge foreign matter from the soul. This is the meaning of purification." [Sadhana: The Path of Transformation, Swami Satyananda]

I didn't get sick at the Bihar School of Yoga, physically I was feeling pretty good. After a year and a half traveling in India and living in different ashrams, I've gotten sick plenty of times already, so I guess this time my purification had to happen at a mental level.

A humbling experience

I was very aware of my negative thoughts, emotions, and my negative behavior but even after all that time practicing meditation and learning yoga philosophy I felt I couldn't do anything about it.

It was a humbling experience cause sometimes you might think that you have overcome all your negative traits by your own efforts through yoga but then all of a sudden all those traits come back and with double intensity.

It's like if somebody was trying to tell you “Hey, you haven't solved these issues yet!”

I experienced a depression that I didn't experience since I was a teenager. All of a sudden my same childhood feelings and my same self destructive behavior, like hitting the wall with my fist, came back to me. What the heck is going on? I asked myself.

Although I was aware I was definitely not a drashta (a witness). I was totally identified with this situation. I felt that I had completely lost myself.

The day that I went out to the market in Munger to book my departure tickets I checked my Facebook and watched some of the pictures were I had been tagged, just before coming to the ashram. "What happened to me?" I asked myself again. I could hardly recognize myself.

And that's very ironic. I started this whole journey to find myself, to discover who I really am and be more authentic but here I actually went completely in the wrong direction.

But like a good yogi friend said to me on Skype: "It is great that you are experiencing this, it means that soon you will have a new birth, you will discover a new better you".

I did think many times about leaving the ashram but I knew that if I was having such difficulties it meant that that was the reason for me to be there, to work on those things.

And I also didn't want just to quit, whenever I say that I'm going to do something I try my best to actually do it. So I decided that I would stay no matter what, but still, thoughts about leaving earlier kept appearing in my mind again and again.

There are no accidents

There was nothing specific in the ashram or in the course that caused this, yet it happened there.  Like Master Oogway says: “there are no accidents.”

It was just the right time, the right place and the right circumstances for these things to happen.

Although there were things at the ashram that are purposely placed to push your buttons, like freezing cold shower during winter or dormitories being locked by 7.30pm, it was mainly random situations that triggered this samskaras in me.

From another point of view, everything happened because of the purification process that starts on a very subtle level with all the seva (selfless service), mantra chanting and kirtan that are a big part of the ashram schedule at the Bihar School of Yoga.

An experiment on the mind

But it was all quite interesting, sometimes I saw it like an experiment, an experiment on the mind.

In some occasions when I felt depressed and anxious feeling even palpitations on my chest and difficulty to breath properly I would all of a sudden have a spontaneous thought, a change of perspective about the situation that triggered these feelings.

This small change of perspective would in a fraction of a second change completely my mood, even to a physical level.

I wouldn't feel anymore the palpitations on my chest, my breath would become totally silent, deep, continuous and smooth. I would just feel relaxed, calm and at ease. It's really amazing how the mind can affect our bodies.

On other occasions, after working really hard on myself during the day to try to feel good I would finally manage to go to bed feeling awesome and powerful but then the next morning I would wake up feeling completely down without any mood to do anything at all.

That happened to me three nights in a raw. Perhaps a dream changed my mood but I wasn't able to remember any dreams in those three days.

Oh, by the way, you can have the weirdest dreams in this kind of place. 

In one dream that I had, there were some cats jumping from my chest towards a wall while I was laying down on my bed. They were trying to get out through a hole up in the wall but they would just fall back and try again, like in a carousel. 

Between the cats, there was a parrot doing the same thing but I was surprised that the cats wouldn't attack the parrot. I guess this represents the emotional roller coaster that I was going through, the cats were my negative samskaras and the parrot perhaps my true Self. Who knows.

On another occasion, I went to bed feeling really good but the next day to my surprise, when I woke up, I didn't have any feelings at all! My emotions were completely gone, there were no more positive emotions or negative emotions, they were all just gone.

Physically it felt good, my chest and my breath were completely relaxed, I was calm but somehow I just felt empty. Not sure if this was a good thing or not but it lasted only for a day.

We are not our thoughts nor our emotions

This was all very interesting, especially because I've never experienced these huge changes in mood, at least not in a very long time.

I always wake up feeling the same way that I did the night before. But here I was constantly experiencing changes in my moods.

This to me is a constant reminder of the teaching of the sages, “We are not our thoughts, we are not our emotions.” Or like a popular chant at the ashram says, “I am not this body, I am not this mind, I am not the senses, the Immortal Self I am.”

It's all part of the purification process

Many times while at the ashram I thought "I'm sick of this place, I hate this place, I wanna get the heck out of here."

But now, after taken some time off at Palolem Beach, a small paradise in Goa, and being able to look back at this experience with new eyes, with more objectivity and with a relatively calm and steady mind I've realized, as I thought I would, that this was a truly an extraordinary and positive experience.

I've realized that although many times I felt discouraged and disappointed because after so much sadhana I can still become completely overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, unable to control my negative behaviors, it is these same sadhanas that actually brings all these negative thoughts and behaviors to the surface so they can be purified.

Like a friend of mine said to me on Skype: “Perhaps these feelings had to come out to finally get them expelled permanently out of your system, out of your being so you won't experience them ever again.”

And this is also a normal part of the purification process that adepts face while practicing yoga. The masters like Swami Satyananda always say that while practicing yoga you might think that instead of becoming a better person you feel like you are becoming the most horrible person ever.

But this is just because you become aware of your negative traits and because negative unconscious patterns come to the surface. And there is so much to be purified after many years (and life's) of accumulating samskaras.

“During the spiritual ascent, both negative and positive experiences are part of the cleansing process. When experiencing them, one is passing through what is called 'purgatory'. It is a natural process. Let it happen.” [Sadhana: The Path of Transformation, Swami Satyananda]

“On the spiritual path, an aspirant is involuntarily subject to a purging process. [...] consciousness has to be purged of its animal tendencies, the experiences of instinctive life. They are always there but during the course of sadhana they manifest in the form of jealousy, anger, greed, passion, desires, guilt, distractions and so on.

They seem to be obstacles but they are not; they are nature's way of purging the dirt. This process is always going on, but as one proceeds further in spiritual life, this purging might become so acute that it smells foul and one feels very bad about oneself, dirty, repulsive and completely hopeless. [...] These are not obstacles; they must be understood as part of the process of transformation and the reason why sadhana needs to be practiced.” [Sadhana: The Path of Transformation, Swami Satyananda]

Another thing to consider is that after spending some time in an ashram living a sattvic (pure) life we might become very sensitive and once we leave that sattvic environment to go back to the "real" world we can become intolerant and impatient before any situation.  We can easily lose our temper. 

This is also a normal reaction, we just need to be aware of it and try to adapt slowly to the new environment.

A yogi friend recently posted a very inspiring article "Cleaning before viewing" in her blog. It reminded me of everything that I went through in this ashram. I feel completely identified with Parshurama. This was an excellent read for me.

Through sadhana we can overcome our saṁskāras

But it was all not that bad, I did have some good days and some really really good days.

I was afraid that my negative moods wouldn't allow me to make some friends, cause honestly most of the time I didn't feel like talking with anybody, but fortunately, I did manage to make some good friends and enjoy their company.

Making friends that are following the same path is a very gratifying experience, a gift that should never be rejected.

And actually, through these same sadhanas, I was on some occasions able to put myself back together, to overcome my depression and anxiety and feel good.

It is through sadhana that this samskaras manifest and purify, it is through sadhana that we can overcome these negative samskaras and it is through sadhana that we can stop creating new samskaras.

I was able to put in practice many of the yoga techniques that I have learned in my life. I practice being a witness, self-awareness, focusing on opposite positive emotions, detachment, meditation, seva, and many other techniques.

All these techniques worked and although it was not so easy to put them in practice, with will power, positive thinking and determination several times I managed to totally transform my internal state.

A couple of days I even managed to feel a Divine presence in everything and everyone, that was a beautiful and powerful experience, I was very present.

Yes, I was still overcome again by my bad moods but now I realize that it is possible to change these moods if we really want to and yoga gives us many techniques to do so.

If it wasn't for Yoga I don't know where I would be. Well, I wouldn't have come to this ashram from the first place... but you know what I mean.

Seva, selfless service, became my savior

A good example of a technique that worked was seva (selfless work), one of the core teachings of Swami Satyananda and therefore the main emphasis at the Bihar School of Yoga.

When I had to go to Rikhia for the Yoga Poornima celebration my mind was completely out of control but I dedicated myself completely to seva.

I worked non stop from the beginning until the end of the day.  This helped me to stop thinking and to consume all my energy so I was able to sleep deeply at night.  Seva truly became my savior.

Serving food is the most beautiful seva that I did. I can completely forget about myself because I can only focus on actually "serving" and serving with a smile.  That already creates a positive effect within. I felt really good after a few days.

Another of my favorite sevas was painting trees at the ashram.  I saw it as a meditation, focusing on the upward and downward movement of my hand, and doing the best job I could.  I felt like Karate Kid.  Lol.

Two weeks later when we came back to Rikhia for one more week I also tried to dedicate myself completely to seva but this time there was not that much work like in the first week.

Luckily I was feeling much better those days and I didn't really need more seva. I was happy to just sit down and enjoy the program. Life sends us what we really need at the right time.

Then once we were back into the ashram I started to experience again negative emotions. We had then the Satsang Week when Swami Niranjananda (the spiritual guide of the ashram) would give two satsangs (spiritual gatherings and talks) during the day for the whole week.

I was asked to be part of the "Set up" team which meant that I would be busy all day long doing seva arranging the hall for each event.

I didn't like that kind of seva at all but then I saw an opportunity. I realized that if I would be able to do the distribution of the chanting books to all the ashram guests during each satsang it would be just like serving food.

Sitting there on the floor handing the books to each person with a smile on my face was an amazing experience.  Once more I completely forgot about all my troubles and I experienced some of the best days during my stay at the ashram. I felt like myself again.  My whole attitude to that seva was changed by a small change of perception.

Listening to the inner guide

Finally, I did leave the ashram a few days before the official end of the course (when the certificates would be given), well maybe about a week earlier... Ok, Ok perhaps a little bit more than a week! But I will still receive my certificate (not like that's really important).

I decided to have a bit of compassion with myself. I realize that the best thing for me was to leave the place go to the beach, my natural habitat, and reconnect to myself. I had experienced enough and I just needed to assimilate the experience and work on myself. It was an excellent idea, I don't regret it at all.

Seeing the Divine in all

But it was not only being at the beach that helped me to reconnect with myself. Talking with some close friends just to share my experience was an excellent therapy.

While I was at the ashram I felt like I couldn't communicate with anybody because I felt so different, so not me, but as soon as I left it became easier. While at the beach and even during the two days journey towards the beach I spent many hours on Skype, and face to face, talking with friends from all around the world.

With each conversation, I received new insights into my experience and I learned more from it. It was like if God himself was talking to me through my friends. I feel very grateful for the friends that I have. These are a few more of the thoughts or quotes that my friends shared with me:

"God, grant me the ability to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Serenity Prayer

You can't change any situation, people or event but you can change yourself, you can change the way you experience or perceive life.

The only thing that we have control on is our belief system. Change your belief system and you will change your response to any situation.

Accept your pain, love your pain. It's a part of you

Trust your intuition, find out if it is your negative mind or your intuition.

Anxiety and insomnia are caused by fear, not trusting the process and the flow of life. Think: I lovingly release the day and slip into peaceful sleep knowing that tomorrow will take care of itself.

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  1. Marco, such a beautiful account of what every sincere sadhaka must face in order to reach the final goal. I must applaud your honesty and courage. Please do continue writing, its a source of inspiration and strength to a lot of us.
    All the best,

  2. Thanks Marco for sharing this!

    Your words are a fantastic description. I could mirror some of my own experience along the path and it really touched me.

    I must say the same as Anasuiya wrote - Please continue writing - its a source of inspiration and strenght to us- (a perfect Seva)

    Love the life you live and live the life you love

    Take care Marco!

    Love and light

    Eva Wiberg

  3. I am happy for you. You are on the right way...

    Take care

    With love

  4. Beautiful post marcoji. Thanks for sharing your experiences and emotions through such an open account, that itself is a great and humbling accomplishment. We can all connect with you. The path of yoga, finding the true blissful being which is the real nature of each one of us, is one with many obstacles and purifications- and u have here very beautifully shared ur experience with it and allows all of us to know that whatever we go through is normal, nothing to be ashamed about, its all part of it! Antah karana shuddhi...
    Keep writing and inspiring all the yogis around the world. Lots if love

  5. Dear Marco!
    Beautiful to read about all your experiences. What à journey !
    It's an inspiration to read and to stay True with all that happens with you, Inside you.

    We are all equal, we are all one
    Love and light, always

  6. I find this blog post very inspiring and I wanted to share it with you:

  7. Go see ag mohan...he's the real deaI to went to Bihar and though in some ways it was good like I made some good friends there is is also an exploitation factor and their hatha yoga classes were horrible... the teachers there could teach you how to clean toilets but none of them even practiced hatha, raja or anything but seva so how can have any experience? Swami satyananda himself said he learned nothing about yoga at sivananda so he learned everything by books and made stuff up..if sivananda was his guru why are his teachings not the exact same? Sivananda was a morbidly obese man, a great guy, but not a hatha, or raja yogi so why is he writing on a topic he knows nothing about... I did the sivananda training course (Vishnu devananda) and that course destroyed my back...the organization is corrupt and they know very little about the how and why of asana practice...go to mohanji and you will stop anymore searching as he is he only teacher that uses logic and common sense...most the yoga today is made up baloney to spread a name or style or recruit disciples that cannot think for themselves...if something feels wrong it probably got sick because your intuition was telling you to leave and you were fighting it...the people in place are good people but they are sincerely confused

    1. dont write such a thing about Swami Sivananda....u r incurring really bad karmas by writing such comments for such a divine soul....take care !!

    2. matreyaji please give details about mohanji. who is he and how to contact him.

  8. 4 months Yoga course in Munger - really transforming - place, practice and energy. You can grow only through facing the obstacles, and eventually overcoming them.
    BYB is the Tradition, Scientia Sacra that Bela Hamvas writes about, in practice and real.
    Maybe the only real Ashram in India - where one really can learn what Yoga is.

  9. Great article, I really relate and have found this very helpful. Thank you. Om Shanti!

  10. During this 4 months course, did you get chance to meet Swami Niranjananda ?

    1. Hi Astral. If we wanted to meet him personally we were able to ask for an appointment and I think most of the time he was available. I never asked for an appointment but he was always there for the many different events that we had at the ashram. He gave only one direct class to the group and a couple of times he sat with all of us to have a little chat.

  11. I believe everyone has unique experiences based on their Sanskaras. I personally felt very uncomfortable in Rikhipeeth. I left after 2 days. There is too much formal stuff going on without the essence of heart in it. The residents look very unhappy.

    Without any backbiting I have to say that the driver of the shuttle vehicle summed it up very well: DUKHI ATMAS (Sad Souls) hanging around, especially the foreigner female spiritual aspirants. We all need to smile & laugh and be funny, not be serious. Visit Meher Baba's Ashram in Meherabad.

    Yoga should be about awakening pure divine love latent in all human beings, not some objective to be achieved. We are looking for something that we have never lost. All kinds of yogic practices are tools or techniques to awaken our GOD (GODLINESS or Divinity). Unfortunately we all start IDENTIFYING with our practices & continue to get entangled in sanskaric ignorance. Go explore VIPASSANA but don't get serious. Vipassana is the real deal for the 21st century. GET A LIFE.

  12. What is the cost please tel me.

  13. Thank you for sharing this.
    Very helpful information for Yoga practitioners

  14. Hi Marco...Truly a great post..

    This is the kind of intense and transformative experience that i have been looking for to get rid of various negative emotions and perceptions that have accumulated in my life.

    Unfortunately, I cannot do a 4 month course at a stretch. Can you please suggest an alternative ashram or course of 30-45 days which can deliver a similar transformative expereience.



  15. Thank you so much for sharing. I am experiencing these negative emotions right now, I left a week early form my yoga course as well ( different form yours). I was so confused and scared. Your experience has given me some courage and strength to go through with this. I am no longer in the course, but I will continue my sadhana.

    Thank you.