Q&A: Rising Early for Practice, Meditation, and Relaxation
I’ve read that systematic relaxation exercises are cleansing. If this is true, would you explain why these exercises have a purifying effect on the body?
I am sure you are familiar with the concept of mind over matter. Mind is the master of the body. The body and senses respond to the whims, wishes, desires, thoughts, and feelings of the mind. In other words, the mind uses the body as an instrument for accomplishing its goals, and to this end, it makes sure that the body is well-maintained. As long as the mind is clear, well-organized, and focused on achieving its goals, the body performs its functions well.
However, if the mind loses its focus on its goals and objectives and becomes prey to the charms and temptations of the world, it will begin to give random directions to the body. And that will affect the body’s functions. A scattered mind jumps from one idea to another, from one thought to another, putting a heavy toll on the brain, the nervous system, and all the body’s limbs and organs. After a while the body comes to know that the mind doesn’t know what it’s doing, and wonders why it is running frantically all over. It begins to see the mind as a careless slavedriver, and a rift opens between the body and the mind. If the boss is slothful, negligent, and irrational, what reason does the body have to be sincere and faithful to its job? Thus, the body’s endocrine system, digestive system, nervous system, and associated organs no longer function in harmony. Eventually disease arises.
Now let’s look at what happens to the mind when you practice systematic relaxation and see how this practice cleanses, heals, and rejuvenates the body. Begin by lying on your back with your feet approximately six inches apart, hands resting at a comfortable distance from the body, palms up. First tense your entire body, hold the tension for a few seconds, and then let it relax. This allows you to see the distinction between tension and relaxation. Then withdraw your mind from all external affairs and simply be aware of your body. Mentally visualize your body from head to toes, and then bring your attention to your breathing. Establish a calm and tranquil breath. After a few such breaths, bring your attention to your forehead. Tighten the skin on your forehead and then let it relax. By now you have a sense of what relaxation means. Then relax the various parts of your body one area at a time: the center between the eyebrows, eyebrows, eyes, facial muscles, neck, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, fingers, fingertips, heart region, naval center, etc., until you reach your toes. Then reverse the process and systematically return your awareness to your forehead, again relaxing each area in turn.
This process will engender a deep cleansing in your body. Why? Because in order to do the relaxation exercise, you have to have your mind with you. And you can have your mind with you only when all its scattered faculties have been reined in and collected. Then you turn that collected mind inward. By progressing methodically from one area to the next in your body, you are giving your mind an object to focus on, but at the same time you are not forcing it to stay on that object for a prolonged period. You have skillfully created a system of letting it move under your control. Instead of letting your mind run from Tokyo to New York to Mars to your office to a problem at home, you are letting it gently and systematically travel through your own body. This allows your mind to relax and trains it to be self-disciplined, and at the same time it lets it enjoy some degree of freedom in the form of a guided tour of the body.
When the mind is making its way around the various regions of the body attentively, all its limbs and organs become alert and begin to perform their proper functions.
Now let us see what effect this has on the body. The various systems of the body perform one of two main functions: cleansing and nourishing. When one is active, the other is relatively dormant. After meals, for example, when the digestive system becomes active, the cleansing organs such as the kidneys and the colon become less active. But when we sleep, our cleansing apparatus becomes active and the nourishing organs are relatively dormant. When the mind is making its way around the various regions of the body attentively, all its limbs and organs become alert and begin to perform their proper functions. After all, the master is making his rounds. The body is in a resting mode during a relaxation exercise, so the cleansing organs become active. This cleansing effect is enhanced when the mind is consciously making a tour of the body as part of a systematic relaxation.
Getting up before sunrise is vital, according to both ayurveda and yoga. Why is this so important to both health and spiritual practice?
According to ayurveda, the predawn hours are filled with prana (the life-force). The lunar energy that pervades the night has provided comfort and rest to all aspects of creation—minerals, plants, and creatures, from the simplest to the most complex. Now that they have rested, all forms of life are brimming with joy at the prospect of starting a new day with the dawn. Everything—from the dew on the grass to the molecules of air—is freshly charged with the energy of the moon. The more of this energy we can absorb, the more energy and resilience we will have to meet the opportunities and challenges of the coming day.
In the yoga tradition the period before sunrise is known as brahma bela (the time pervaded with higher consciousness). This is the hour when the moon weds the sun, the night weds the day, and the soul weds Brahman. In every sphere of creation, this is the time of union. If you tap into this aura you will find that your mind will lose much of its inclination to wander here and there; instead, it will be inclined to participate in this process of union. Thus, the predawn hours are the most natural and rewarding time for meditation.
Is it true that meditation is both cleansing and nourishing?
Yes. At the physical level meditation is cleansing for the same reason the relaxation practices are cleansing: as the body becomes deeply relaxed during meditation, the cleansing organs become more active. If you have been meditating for some time, you may have noticed that your bladder gets filled faster than at other times. Further, the waste matter which was not eliminated before your practice now tends to be flushed off from your colon without much effort. This is because during meditation the body gets the subtle message from inside, “Do not hold on; let go.”
At the mental level, meditation is cleansing because of the naturally occurring process of letting go. In meditation you are focusing your mind on the object of your meditation. Nothing else is of any concern. The residue of the past floats to the surface; if the mind has no interest in entertaining it, it drifts away. A meditative mind is filled with divine consciousness. And when you are lovingly and joyfully filling your mind with higher awareness, the mind has no time to hold on to the past, nor does it dwell on emptiness. This is why meditation is nourishing and why there is no reason to suppose (as some people who have no direct experience of meditation sometimes do) that meditation is a device of the devil. An empty mind may well be the devil’s playground, but a meditative mind is full of the Divine and has no room for anything else.
Meditation is healing on all levels. During meditation, the battery of the body is recharged. And because you are not wasting energy entertaining physical, mental, or emotional complaints, all forms of the healing force converge to nourish and heal even those aspects of your life that are outside of your conscious awareness. The spiritual nourishment you receive during meditation has a healing effect on all aspects of your body and mind.