Telluride Yoga Festival: River Cummings, en-Chanting.

Telluride Yoga Festival: River Cummings, en-Chanting.

Most individuals who have ever set foot in a yoga studio are familiar with the basic poses and the use of the breath to affect change. Not so much with chanting. The fact is, used in conjunction with postures, sounds intensify a practice. They “focus attention, deepen exhalation, increase circulation to the organs and balance the emotions,” according to Gary Kraftsow, founder, American Viniyoga Institute (one of River Cummings’ – and my – principal teachers).

At the Telluride Yoga Festival, Friday, July 9– Sunday, July 12, Viniyoga instructor and yoga therapist River Cummings is scheduled to teach “Healing with Vedic Chant,” Friday, 3 p.m. and “The Power of Sound: Deepen Your Practice with Chant,” Sunday 3 p.m.

River is also founder of Yogis for Earth, a brand new nonprofit dedicated to connecting the yoga and environmental communities on a local, grassroots level. YfE partners with studios worldwide to offer classes that benefit the local environment and sustainable farming. More here.

Tickets/passes to Telluride Yoga Festival 2015 here.

Viniyoga instructor and yoga therapist River Cummings at Telluride Yoga Festival teaching power of sound.

Viniyoga instructor and yoga therapist River Cummings at Telluride Yoga Festival teaching power of sound.

Here is how River describes her classes.

A complete practice in and of itself, chant is intimately embedded in traditional yoga sadhana. Vedic chant in particular is considered to be a profound tool for healing and transformation. TKV Desikachar, son of the legendary T Krishnamacharya, has said that chanting the Veda is the highest form of tapas one can undertake. I’m thrilled for the opportunity to be able to share this beautiful discipline with TYF attendees at this summer’s yoga festival.

On offer will be Healing with Vedic Chant, where we’ll be focusing on learning to chant one short section of the Veda that is typically used for restoring health. The majority of the session will be spent in seated call-and-response chanting practice. My second session is called the Power of Sound. Most suitable for advanced practitioners and teachers, this class will explore principles and techniques for creatively incorporating simple chanting in to asana, pranayama and meditation. Format will include some lecture and a short practice including asana.

Further, chanting, along with asana – or the physical practice of poses and movement through the poses with breath; pranayama or controlled breathing; svadhyaya or self-inquiry; and meditation, used by skillful yoga instructors in varying combinations, are tools of the yoga trade that can affect personal transformation, one of the goals of a long-term practice.

In the June issue of  ‘Yoga Journal’ River Cummings was featured in an article about three different but equally inspiring approaches to Sun Salutations. (Go here for details.) She modeled a Viniyoga sequence that took weight bearing out of the picture (and pressure off the joints, particularly shoulder).

With regard to meditation, the benefits have been widely published, among them, a regular practice supposedly increases attention span, pumps immunity, facilitates sleep, enhances a sense of connection to everyone and everything in your surroundings, helps with weight loss, improves metabolic function, is anti-aging. And that’s the short list.

But instead of making you feel good, meditation is making many of us anxious because we are not sure if we are doing it “right.” In the blog below, River Cummings addressed three of the most common misconceptions about mediation in the hope that these fundamental teachings and tips from the yoga tradition will help to demystify – and de-mythify – meditation, putting everyone’s mind at ease.

Read on…

If you are like many people out there, you’ve been hearing about the myriad benefits of meditation. It’s all the rage in the press these days and is supposedly the “magic pill” for all that ails you. I mean, I’ve heard testimonials claiming that it cures everything from mental illness to muffin top! It’s clear that it works… but how do you approach it? How do you know if you’re doing it “right”? What even is meditation… and what should you expect from it?

Myth # 1: the goal of meditation is for your mind to be totally peaceful and free of thoughts.

Awhile back, I had a student come to me expressing a tremendous amount of frustration with her meditation practice. After a little bit of inquiry (ok, prying) by yours truly, it turned out that she had started meditating for 15 minutes every morning because she thought she “should be meditating.” (A statement punctuated by a visible sinking of her face and chest, as if her “to do” list had just gained three pages and 300 pounds.) After a couple of weeks she bailed on her practice because she “wasn’t good at it.” Further prying revealed that she thought she wasn’t good at it because she experienced a near constant stream of thoughts and was frustrated that her mind wasn’t suddenly clear, calm and, well, thought free. Hmm…

In the yoga tradition there are several states of mind that are differentiated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (a primary source text). They cover the spectrum from the completely distracted and random – equivalent to a serious mental illness like schizophrenia – to the coveted completely-clear-and-mindful-Buddha state most beginning meditators assume is the goal. These are not considered “good” or “bad” states (after all yoga is not a moral system in that sense), but rather are viewed as beneficial or non-beneficial depending on the results they create. As well, these states of mind are assumed to exist and to be constantly in flux.

Reread that last sentence, please.

That’s right. It is totally human, totally normal for the mind to have thoughts, and for those thoughts to fluctuate. Focused on your breath one minute, daydreaming about lunch the next? Join the club! So just expect that your mind will wander and that random thoughts will show up. This is not only not bad, it’s actually very good because it gives you an opportunity to notice your mind wander and guide it gently back to the technique at hand. This takes us to myth #2…

Myth #2: If you’re using some kind of mental technique or focus point, if you’re actually doing something, it’s not “real meditation.” In real meditation you just sit and empty your mind.

Oh really? I beg to differ. According to the yoga tradition, the first stage of meditation has to do with training attention. For insight in to this, just think of other things you might associate that word “training” with. Like, if you want to run a marathon, you wouldn’t expect to just hop up off the couch, dust the Dorito crumbs off your lap, and jet out for your 26 miles, right? You would be wise to build up slowly in order to avoid unpleasant consequences.

The same is true of your mind. Considering that the natural state of the mind is to ping-pong about like a boisterous puppy, we first need to train it a bit. Train the puppy! This is where technique comes in. There are many, many techniques out there, but they all have to do with choosing an object of focus. Some very traditional objects are things like your breathing; a candle flame; an inspiring image, like a picture representing the divine, the Buddha, or your favorite wise person; a sacred sound (mantra); or inspiring concept like “peace”, “wisdom”, or “love” – but you could even use your own posture or physical sensations. Anything can be used as a focusing device, but the tradition suggests choosing something that is positive or uplifting, and something that is appealing to you. It is very important that you choose something that appeals to you for this stage. You can think of it as incentive. After all, your puppy training is likely to have better results using milk bones as reward as opposed to, say, tofu, right? So set yourself up for success by choosing something enjoyable!

Once your object is chosen, the training process has to do with simply guiding the boisterous puppy of your mind back to attentiveness on the object. For the purpose of this analogy you can consider yourself a certified Enlightened Puppy Trainer. Meaning you’re not going to punish or yell at the puppy, or be angry with him. Each time he goes astray you are going to kindly but firmly guide him back to being attentive. That’s it.

You expect your mind to wander a bit, so when it does, there’s no surprise and no self-chastising. It’s not a failure, it’s simply the way the process goes. When you notice your mind has wandered, then kindly turn it back to your object. Since you like the object, there is a subtle sense of “Oh, yay! A treat!” in that moment – if your mind hadn’t wandered in the first place, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to receive that treat! So, you enjoy your treat until the puppy of your attention bounds off after something else… creating another opportunity for a treat 🙂

This is called dharana and, simply stated, it is the practice of meditation. It is, in fact, the only stage of the meditation process over which you have any control whatsoever.

Myth #3: Samadhi is the ultimate state of union/peace/bliss. It’s the goal of meditation, and it’s something you should be able to work toward. If you’re not in samadhi, well, you’re not good at meditation yet. (Or maybe you’re just not meant to be enlightened in this lifetime…)

Huh? Now, wait just a minute! That can’t be a myth! Samadhi’s what it’s all about, right? Um… Wrong. Before you ask for your money back, hear me out…

This is a real doozy, and an attitude that unfortunately stops many fledgling meditators in their tracks. As I mentioned above, the only stage of the meditation practice you can control is dharana. You can choose where to put your attention. But what happens after that is anybody’s guess. It’s a mystery! If you’re curious to discover what that mystery might have in store for you, you keep on with your dharana to find out what will happen. The yoga tradition does give us some clues, though.

As the puppy of your mind begins to get in a bit of a groove with the training, some amount of what is called dhyana is likely to arise. Dhyana means you begin to understand the object you’re focusing on a little more deeply. You get a little closer to it. It’s not quite as foreign, as separate, as it once was. This just makes sense, right? If you concentrate on something, at some point you begin to have insight into it. A relationship is formed. Just the same way as when you’re forming a relationship with another person and over time you begin to know that person a bit better. We say you “get closer” to that person. The same begins to happen with whatever you are focusing on in meditation. The way it is expressed in the Yoga Sutra is that the mind “takes on the shape” of the object of concentration (another good reason to choose your object carefully!). Of course, like a relationship between two people, this process varies from person to person and object to object. Also like with another person, you need time and consistency for the relationship to grow.

As you continue to practice your dharana, you may notice the relationship, dhyana, begin to deepen. It will just happen naturally, at its own pace. At certain points you may feel so close to the object of your dharana that you “lose yourself.” It’s as if the twoness of separation disappears and you’ve become one with the object. In the yoga tradition this is called samadhi, and we’ve all experienced it in our lives from time to time. When we become so engrossed in something that we totally forget about ourselves, lose track of time, and tune out everything else, that’s a kind of samadhi. In the yoga tradition the state of samadhi is described as a state in which “only the object shines.” Artists get lost in “the creative process,” athletes enter “the zone,” thinkers have “flashes of insight.” These are everyday samadhi experiences and, as you know, they come and go. They are not something that can be forced, something that can be practiced. You just keep on with your activity and enjoy the bonus of those special samadhi moments when they arise.

The same is true with meditation. You just keep up with your dharana, keep enjoying being with your puppy. Sometimes you may have moments of stillness amid the flowing thoughts. Sometimes insights may arise, sometimes you may lose yourself completely and enter samadhi with the object of your attention. Know that the puppy will eventually bound off after a butterfly or want to chase a squirrel, and be prepared to patiently guide him back. If you continue to attend to your dharana practice with gentleness, consistency and curiosity, you are sure to have interesting experiences. As my teacher’s teacher, Mr. Desikachar, was fond of saying, with a twinkle in his eye, “if you do the practice, I can guarantee you that something will happen…”

What will that be for you? You won’t know until you try. Who knows… that muffin top may even disappear.

About River Cummings:

With over 25 years in the field of yoga, River Cummings is a dedicated long-time student of yoga, yoga therapy, and Vedic chant in the lineage of T.K.V. Desikachar and T. Krishnamacharya. She joyfully calls Boulder, CO her home and is honored to offer yoga teacher trainings, workshops, retreats and consulting worldwide.

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