This is a post written by Nayaswami Gyandev McCord for Ananda, a spiritual movement based on the teachings of Yogananda—an elephant partner. Gyandev directs the Ananda Yoga training program at the Expanding Light spiritual retreat. We’re honored to work with anyone who is this dedicated to energizing, calming and uplifting our hearts, and showing us how to find a little more happiness in our lives. ~ Ed.
How can we live in joy every day? Or even just with less anxiety, more energy, greater calmness, and better focus on what matters most to us?
One of the greatest spiritual teachers of our time, Paramhansa Yogananda, taught a technology for living in joy. A master of the ancient practice of Kriya Yoga, Yogananda urged us not merely to believe that this is possible, but rather to experience it—and he offered specific methods for bringing about that experience.
Yoga is a Science and an Art
Yoga is a science because it is based on universal human realities, and because it offers specific, practical methods for attaining calmness, vitality, and joy. Even a mechanical practice can be immediately beneficial, but mechanics alone can never take us to yoga’s highest goal: Self-realization, union of our limited human consciousness with the unlimited, ever-joyful divine consciousness. That’s why yoga is also an art, because its highest benefits come only through sensitive, intuitive practice of those methods.
In short, we must get the “feel” of the yoga techniques. But how?
The Heart is the Key
Paramhansa Yogananda teaches that the key to art of yoga is the subtle energy of the heart chakra (energy center), located in the center of the chest. This is the center of our feeling capacity: love, generosity, compassion, intuitive understanding. Only through the heart can we perceive our true essence.
Yet our feeling faculty all too easily gets caught up in a swirl of emotional reactions to the daily barrage of headlines, deadlines, email, interruptions, obligations, delays, and disappointments. All this agitates the heart, dimming our capacity for true understanding. As the ancient sage Patanjali put it in his Yoga Sutras: “Yoga (‘union’ in Sanskrit) is the neutralization of the whirlpools of likes and dislikes.”
Yogananda’s technology for living in joy is based on first increasing the supply of prana (“subtle energy” in Sanskrit) in the body, then calming that energy (especially in the heart), and finally lifting as much prana as possible to the brain. Let’s look at these three steps:
Begin with More Energy
Yogananda taught a powerful system of “energization exercises” for increasing the supply of energy in the body. Practiced regularly, they enable one to live at a consistently higher level of energy. This system also teaches us pranayama, the ability to control energy.
Other yoga techniques can also help us raise our level of energy and learn to control it. Even the simplest asana (yoga pose) of all—proper upright standing posture—is a tremendous boon to your energy supply. Poor posture, on the other hand, diminishes your energy. Try the experiment of moving back and forth between the two, and prove it to yourself.
As another example, consider the full yogic breath: As you inhale, first expand the belly, then the lower rib cage, and finally the upper chest. As you exhale, relax the upper chest, then lower ribs, and finally the belly. Even a few breaths done in this way—without struggle or strain—can raise your energy level substantially.
Calm the Heart
Merely having more energy, however, is not enough. We need to calm it, else it will keep us preoccupied with the very things that disrupt our inner peace by agitating the heart. Properly practiced, yoga techniques—above all, meditation—calm the heart energies. The calmer and more receptive the heart is, the clearer our understanding of anything toward which we turn our attention.
Amidst all the headlines and deadlines of our daily lives, calming our heart can seem easier said than done, but my wife, Nayaswami Diksha McCord (Director of Ananda Meditation Teacher Training) recently shared a valuable insight:
“Some time ago, I watched a movie that conveyed the harsh reality and sufferings of the Afghan people. It was hard to watch, and that night, I had hard time sleeping. The next morning, as I sat to meditate, my heart was still so agitated that I couldn’t meditate. So I desperately prayed for help, and I heard an inner voice say: ‘Cut the cord, watch the breath.’
This woke me up, as if from a dream. I had been hypnotized by the sufferings in this world. So I tried to cut the cord, and withdraw my energy inward. It wasn’t easy; I had to use all my will power, but finally, I was able to detach myself, watch the breath, and calm down.”
The fact that Diksha meditates deeply and daily underscores the fact that it’s not easy to detach our hearts from the drama of the world, yet still be compassionate toward the suffering. It’s a challenge for all of us.
The process of calming the heart is greatly aided by a teacher, and thus we come to the much-misunderstood concept of guru (divinely realized teacher). Diksha was suffering in her heart. Her well-honed technical practice wasn’t enough this time, so she asked for help from her guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and help came into her heart as that intuitive insight.
“The purpose of the guru is not to weaken your will. It is to teach you secrets of developing your inner power, until you can stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds,” explains Paramhansa Yogananda, in his book The Essence of Self-Realization.
When we have a calm and open heart toward our family, our colleagues, our customers, and even those who mistreat us, we are better able to live in a calm and loving way through our everyday challenges. To say the least, the world needs our calm hearts today.
Learn to Control Energy
The final step is to bring that calm heart energy to the brain, especially to the prefrontal cortex, which yoga has long maintained—and modern neuroscience has confirmed—is the center of happiness in the body.
Yoga provides many ways to bring your energy up to your happiness center. Again, the breath can be a valuable aid. Energy rises naturally in the body whenever you inhale, and the full yogic breath can enhance that effect: feel that you are “scooping” energy up into the brain, especially to the prefrontal cortex. As you exhale, some energy will naturally descend, but feel that most of that “scooped-up energy” stays in the prefrontal cortex, where it can stimulate the feeling of joy in you.
Meditation is an even more effective tool for both calming the heart and stimulating the prefrontal cortex. According to my friend at Ananda Village, Dr. Peter Van Houten, “Meditation quiets the primitive, stress-induced responses of the brain’s limbic system, and activates the most advanced part of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of concentration, will, and happiness.” The more deeply, more intuitively, you tune in to this shift—and you “tune in” with the heart—the more vivid your actual experience of joy will be.
In all of these examples of yoga techniques, the mechanics are valuable components, but the practice is most effective only when the heart is energized, calm, and uplifted.
Bring your heart and your questions to the Experience Yogananda Weekend September 16-17 in Denver, Colorado at the First Church of Spiritual Science. I will be there sharing more of Yogananda’s technology for happiness. You will find out what Yogananda’s teachings mean for you—and the world.
Nayaswami Gyandev McCord, Director of Ananda Yoga
Editor: Catherine Monkman