July 12, 2012

Mantra: how to turn Adversity into Service.

The teacher who taught me to use mantra practice to turn adversity into service.

Hari Om, the healing mantra, plays in the background of the yoga class, cultivating an atmosphere of receptivity and lightness. People in the room are gently focused and the distinctions in our physical abilities disappear. After an hour of stretching, everyone prepares for an end relaxation. There is a tangible feeling of quietness.

“Take a deep breath in,” I say. “Take another deep breath. Exhale slowly.”

The relaxation starts to take effect on all of us.

This yoga class is for people working with Parkinson’s disease. It was my neurologist’s idea.

“You teach yoga?” he asked. “Then consider offering a class for people dealing with what you are facing. It could help you come to terms with Parkinson’s.”

His words rang a bell. My teacher, Swami Radha, often said, “You have to give back to life. If you have an illness or disease, find out what you can do for others. It is the best medicine.”

Toward the end of her life her arthritis took a turn for the worse, resulting in the need for constant care and assistance. She could have arranged for professional nursing care. Instead, her response was to use the condition as an opportunity to bring some of her students closer for a period of deeper training. I saw how she turned adversity into service. We had the opportunity to serve her through tending to her physical needs. She, in turn, gave a great deal to us. Her example during this time made a deep impression on me. The arthritis didn’t stop her work at all, but deepened it.

Swami Radha’s very feminine approach to teaching was healing in itself. She taught by example. Her trust and confidence in the Divine allowed her to give her students lots of responsibility, in which there were many opportunities to learn. She constantly challenged us to think deeply, to use our intelligence, to have our feet on the ground and head in heaven.

Her concern about women was how we keep “jumping into the ditch” of emotions, undermining our deeply intuitive connection with life, and how this tendency prevents us from meeting our potential. Widely read and informed, she was always looking for examples of women who were living their ideals through selfless service and going beyond the norm.

In Skydancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Tibetan Lady Yeshe Tsogyel11), a book she highly recommended, woman is said to have unlimited potential to realize her inner divinity and to manifest that divinity in order to liberate herself and help others transform themselves. The key to this potential is woman’s receptivity—a capacity for sensation and feeling, an intuitive nature and the ability to transform, to make sense of and to touch the heart.

Searching for clues in my own process, I try to be receptive and learn from the symptoms of Parkinson’s —tremors, muscle rigidity, reduced dexterity and slowness of movement. I ask myself: Where do I slow down in life? What makes me stop? What makes me shake? Old habits of fearfulness could well be manifesting in my body in this way. I am learning that for me inaction is toxic. I am face to face with passivity—a desire to back away from struggles rather than enter the fray.

Mantra practice, the repetition of sacred syllables, has been a big help in working with these challenges. The word mantra literally means “the thought that protects.” Supported by the practice and feeling its protection, I have a sense that these holding-back tendencies can be transformed into inner strength. Chanting the mantra also helps me to be patient and improves the physical symptoms. It calms my mind and gently focuses my attention on the positive.

Each mantra has a melody (raga) that creates a particular vibration. Playing Hari Om in the yoga class brings in a protective vibration that can help all of us let go of thoughts that obstruct healing. The wonderful thing about mantra is how it can be practiced in many different ways. It can be chanted aloud, repeated mentally, whispered, hummed, written and listened to. Penetrating the mind’s ever present multitude of thoughts, the mantra can settle emotions, give rise to insights, and leave a person with feelings of harmony and goodwill.

Working with the mantra, developing confidence and putting my reflections into practice has let me reach out and take action. Getting the yoga class going opened a door to something very positive. Being in the class, bringing my experience forward, learning from each session and modifying the approach has a great effect on my personal encounter with Parkinson’s. I see myself mirrored in the people who come and feel this is a real opportunity to give something back to life, turning adversity into service.

My teacher’s vision and perspective live on since her death in 1995. She focused her teachings on finding the purpose of life and living it. She knew that our state of health and well-being can be closely related to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Swami Radha was like a high-flying eagle whose sense of service brought a light to everyone around her. She often said in those last years, “I have a Volkswagen body, and a Cadillac mind.” She used everything she had to point us toward using our bodies as a spiritual tool.


Swami Radhakrishnananda lives and teaches at Radha Yoga Centre in Spokane, Washington. One of her focuses is understanding the body as a spiritual tool through the practice of Hatha Yoga and East Indian prayer dance.

1) Keith Dowman, Snow Lion, NY, 1997.


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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