Naljor: A Buddhist Approach to Yoga
The current popularity of yoga stands at all time high in the 5,000 years of its existence. Numerous celebrity endorsements, features in mainstream media, and the proliferation of online resources have introduced millions of people to the potential benefits of a regular practice. As a consequence, people around the world are picking up yoga mats and heading down to their local studios for weekly rounds of sun-salutations and warrior’s poses in the hopes of achieving stress relief, balance and improvements in overall health and well being.
Of course, anyone who spends time on the mat realizes that yoga is about much more than just the poses. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define yoga as a “cessation of vacillation of thought”. Other translations include “yoking” or “union”. That which must be yoked or harnessed, according to the late yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein “is attention, which ordinarily flits from object to object”. The ability to concentrate attention is what allows the yogi to work directly with the mind and ultimately to unify the lower self with the higher self.
The Golden Statue Wrapped in Rags
Tibetan Buddhist practitioners define yoga slightly differently than their Hindu counterparts. The word yoga, according to the Tibetan Buddhist Master Namkhai Norbu is rendered “naljor” in Tibetan. According to Norbu, “nal literally means original or authentic and jor means to discover or possess this condition. Accordingly, the meaning of naljor is to discover our real condition.”
The story of the “Golden Statue Wrapped in Rags”, which can be found in Arya Maitreya’s “Uttara Tantra”, illustrates this process of inner discovery through metaphor:
A god, having discovered by the road a precious [statue] of a Tathagata [Buddha] all wrapped in smelly tattered rags, would tell someone the fact of it lying there at the roadside, so that it might be recovered. Similarly, when the Buddhas, of unhindered vision, see the very substance of the Tathagatas [Buddhas] even in animals present but wrapped within the envelope of defilement, they also show the means by which it may be set free.
Encountering The Buddha Within
In Buddhist practice, there are many Buddhas, some male and some female. However, these Buddhas are not representative of an external God or object of worship – rather, they serve as a symbolic representation of our own inner potentialities for limitless wisdom, love and compassion. Collectively these qualities are known as our Buddha nature.
Our Buddha nature is pure and beautiful – much like a golden statue. When our mind is untroubled, our body is relaxed, and our breath is calm and quiet, we can sometimes even catch a glimpse of the Buddha within. As we come to rest in the quiet of our inner space, we quite naturally and spontaneously find ourselves able to feel more open, loving and able to see things from a broader perspective.
Unfortunately, the converse is also true. When we’re stressed out or threatened in some way, or when we have a lot of mental chatter, we can also see that we have the potential for hatred, obsessiveness, ignorance and many other destructive emotions within us. In many ways, these destructive emotions are very similar to a set of “tattered rags” that obscure our inner potentialities.
If these destructive emotions become strong enough, they can make it difficult to make meaningful contact with our Buddha nature. In fact, if our minds are deeply obscured by destructive emotions, those emotions can even make us forget that we, or others, have a Buddha Nature at all.
The Buddha is Present in Every Living Being
According to the metaphor, a God, or a Buddha has the divine vision and wisdom necessary to see that the mind of every living life form is ultimately pure. Supported by this vision, the gods and the Buddhas are able to see beyond our obscurations in order to ascertain our true inner value.
According to Tibetan Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, the Buddhas in particular remind us that we should “remove the tattered rags so the Buddha nature can manifest in its complete purity”.
How Do We Uncover the Golden Statue?
In order to “remove the tattered rags”, a yogi or yogini in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition practices naljor. In this context, naljor (or yoga) refers to the methods employed during the process of purification. In order to be considered authentic, these purification practices have to come from an enlightened source – namely a Buddha that originally achieved enlightenment through their practice.
Naljor: A Diverse Set of Practices
The yoga utilized in naljor practice can generally be categorized in three separate ways.
Practices for the Body
Many emotional obscurations can be linked to energetic blockages and damage to our energetic channels (nadis). When a yogi or yogini experiences ill health emotional disturbances, or difficulties in meditation, physical asanas can be used to move energy and repair damage to the energy system. In my tradition, these techniques are called “Mangalam Yantra Yoga”. Some schools also refer to these techniques as “Trul Khor” or the magical wheel.
Practices for Speech
Breath is life and the wind that gives voice to our speech. As such, purification of speech is heavily dependent on conscious breathing exercises (Vayu Yogas) and the repetition of mantra.
Practices for the Mind
In naljor practice, meditation serves as one of the primary yogas used to purify the mind. At the initial stages of practice, one uses concentration to create a calm abiding state of mind (shamatha) to develop deeper insights into the true nature of the self and external reality (vipassana). In addition, naljor practitioners also use meditation to cultivate the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings (Bodhichitta). Typically, this is done by meditating on loving kindness, compassion and giving and taking (tong len).
At the higher stages of practice, a yogi/ni learns how to meditate directly on the Buddha within by visualizing themselves as a Buddha. It is said that by practicing visualization in this way, the immense qualities of the Buddha can arise within a practitioner within one single lifetime.
Yoga All Day Every Day
Naljor practices are designed to be fully integrated into all aspects of daily life. Some are practiced during waking hours, and others, such as dream yoga are practiced during sleep. Ultimately, when these techniques are blended with daily living, naljor becomes a 24-hour per day practice that can be extended over a lifetime.
By practicing in this way, every moment becomes an opportunity for positive transformation and awakening.
Does Buddhism Belong in a Yoga Class?
These days, most people associate yoga techniques with “Hindu” yoga practices. This is partly due to the fact that many of the modern yoga teachers responsible for popularizing the practice were Hindu practitioners, such as Parahahansa Yogananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. As a consequence, many people have come to think of yoga as a distinctly Hindu discipline.
While it’s true that many yoga practices can be traced to Hindu origins, there are also yoga practices with Jain and Buddhist roots. According to the contemporary Buddhist Master H.H. the Sakya Trizin, yogic practices were used by practitioners from both Buddhist and Hindu religions in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and reached their peak in India in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Fortunately, early yogic practitioners from Hindu and Buddhist lineages were not hindered by differences in their respective traditions. In fact, H.H. the Sakya Trizin states that “they were not interested in labels, any more that a nuclear physicist cares about his nationality when he compares notes with a foreign colleague.”
Since these practitioners were primarily interested in meditative realization, they regularly interacted with one another and regularly debated on the effectiveness of their methods and techniques. In fact, one of the earliest recognized figures in Hatha Yoga, the MahaSiddha Gorakshanath, is known to have practiced both Hindu and Buddhist yogas.
Thus, the exchange of ideas between Buddhist and Hindu yoga practitioners is nothing new and has been an accepted practice for centuries. In fact, it is widely known that T. Krishnamacharya himself, the teacher of both Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, traveled to Tibet in order to study yoga directly with a Tibetan Guru for over seven years in the early part of the 20th century.
Empowerment and Introduction to the Buddha Nature
Traditional naljor practices are typically done as a daily practice (sadhana). A sadhana is an incredibly powerful tool, and one of the most sophisticated methods of physical and psychological transformation ever taught. When practiced daily in its unaltered form, the potential for transformation, insight and healing that it unleashes is unparalleled.
Most sadhana practices are secret practices that are transmitted directly from a Buddhist meditation master (Vajra master) to a student in the form of a ritualized ceremony called an empowerment (abhishekha). During the empowerment, the Vajra master symbolically introduces a student to his or her Buddha nature, confers a mantra, and extends permission to undertake yoga practices associated with a particular Buddha or Buddha family.
Naljor-Inspired Yoga Practice
Traditionally, undertaking the empowerment ritual requires a formalized commitment to Buddhist practice and study, the undertaking of vows, and a commitment to serve the lineage from which the practice derives. This is not always possible for a number of reasons.
If you wish to explore a naljor practice inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, explore David’s four-video practice (coming soon).
Each video in the series begins with a simple breathing exercise to purify your speech, continues on to a set of simple physical poses designed to release physical blockages from your body and ends with a traditional meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to purify the mind.
Accessible Practices for Everyone
While the breathing exercises and physical practices contained in these videos are drawn from common, every day yoga techniques that you may be familiar with, the meditations themselves are drawn directly from Buddhist contemplations which can be found in many traditional sadhanas. Practicing these meditations requires no formal commitment, and their focus on the cultivation of very human qualities such as love and compassion makes them applicable to practitioners from all faith and backgrounds.
These profound contemplations will guide you through the process of mental purification and will connect to yourself and others in a genuine and meaningful way. Over time, these powerful practices will help you make contact with the Buddha within and will help you begin the process of uncovering the limitless love, compassion and wisdom that exists within all living beings.
May your practice bring you peace.
10 Ways Yoga Practice Can Lessen Your Holiday Stress
There is no better time to take your yoga practice “off the mat and into your life” than over the holidays! Whether you are a new student of yoga asana (movement) or a seasoned yogi, here’s a handy guide for using all the tools at your disposal–including breath, movement, and mindfulness–to limit stress and maximize happiness in the coming months:
1. Stay healthy.
Chronic health issues often flare up over the holidays, so don’t forget to use your yoga practice as preventive medicine. Keep persistent symptoms at bay with a daily dose of yoga. Drain your lymphatic system and increase blood circulation through postures and movement.
Try combating infections and colds by opening up your chest with a gentle fish, bridge, or bow pose. Don’t skimp on your yoga just because you are busy! Everyone has time for a quick round of sun salutations in the morning, a few standing forward bends at lunch, or some breathing techniques before bed–no mat or props needed. Remember the old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Were they talking about yoga?
2. Be worry-free
“I’m so stressed out. My mind is racing. Everything seems overwhelming. I just can’t stop thinking!” Are anxious feelings wearing down your holiday spirit? Politely excuse yourself from the party; turn off the computer – just take a break. Find a quiet, peaceful spot for some yogic mantra or meditation. You can quickly detach from worrisome thoughts by focusing on the individual sounds of the mantra or by simply following the breath – in and out.
Sometimes a longer exhalation or pausing at the end of your out-breath can calm a speedy mind. If time permits, do some asanas – child’s pose to really let go, balancing poses (like tree pose) to connect to earth and sky, or toe squat to stretch your feet and take the focus out of your mind and into your body. A restorative yoga session can be an hour well spent; your worries will literally melt into the mat and leave you feeling clear and refreshed.
3. Increase your concentration.
As if your life isn’t hectic enough, add in holidays with extended family, shopping, school recitals, the annual office party; the list goes on! All these distractions can wreak havoc on our memory, concentration, and problem-solving. In order to stay productive, incorporate asanas that increase mental focus–like warrior I, II, III, dancer’s pose, eagle pose, or shoulder stand–into your practice. Activate your tired brain with a series of breathing exercises. You can do them anywhere, anytime, seated or standing.
Really crunched for time? Take a few moments sitting in a comfortable seat (eyes closed or with an unfocused gaze), or stand in mountain pose with your hands in anjali mudra (palms together in front of your chest). The simple act of remaining still with palms pressed together can help bring you back to your center.
4. Keep your body toned and fit.
Maybe you’ve done one yoga class, maybe one thousand. No matter your strength, flexibility, muscle tone, core stabilization, balance, cardio health, enhanced athletic performance–the benefits of yoga become apparent with that very first stretch or twist. You might have a consistent practice when November rolls around. Suddenly there’s no time to cook dinner, let alone squeeze in an entire yoga series.
What to do? Do something rather than nothing! Try adding a few minutes of yoga before or after a workout, run or walk. Strike a few powerful poses before the kids get up in the morning, or discretely activate your core with tummy toning exercises while sitting on the couch. During the holiday season, concentrate on the target areas most important to you, and the rest can wait. If you need shoulders flexibility, keep up your downward dogs; if your spine is an issue, don’t skimp on back-bends, forward bends, and twists; if tricep strength is what you’re after, practice chaturangas as often as you can during your yoga flow.
5. Keep your weight stable
Everyone knows a good yoga series burns calories, builds muscle, and provides your body with a systematic, holistic workout. More importantly, yoga practice helps you make friends with your body. This is no small statement. When you know your body, you eat more consciously, recognizing the difference between a food craving and actual hunger. You make more sensible food choices, and intuitively eat less because you know when you are actually full.
Over the holidays, even our most thoughtful meal planning can be disrupted, it’s hard to say no to grandma’s pumpkin pie, or your cousin might be eyeing your dinner plate to see if you’ve eaten all his homemade mashed potatoes. Try keeping your “yogi mind” at family dinners. Stay centered, drink plenty of water, and don’t forget to breathe deeply when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. You can also practice cardio yoga styles during the holidays– power vinyasa, warm or hot flow, sculpt with weights–to get maximum aerobic benefits in the shortest amount of time.
6. Lift your mood and maintain a positive outlook.
Yoga practice is a great way to boost sagging spirits and tame your depression. Yoga raises your heart rate and gets the blood flowing throughout the body.
If you are feeling blue, try stretching your arms overhead and spreading your toes wide in a simple raised arm mountain pose. Backbend in bridge or cobra, opening your chest, rib-cage, and heart. Any inversion that gets your head lower than your heart–supported headstand, legs-up-the-wall pose, shoulder stand, or handstand–can have a positive effect on mood. If the holidays have really got you down, remember to take care of yourself.
Relax and rejuvenate in your favorite restorative pose; don’t skimp on any blankets or props needed for extra comfort. For mental stimulation, use a breathing exercise like bellow’s breath to stir your prana – it’s better than a cup of coffee! Let your yoga practice serve as a physical reminder that your mood won’t stay low forever. Change happens all by itself if you stay on your mat, breath, and follow the sequence of poses.
7. Sleep more
Work is stressful and your parents are coming for an extended holiday stay. You’re worried and anxious so it’s hard to fall asleep. You toss and turn all night, and now you’re cranky and irritated at breakfast. The sleep deprivation cycle begins and with it all the troubling symptoms; insomnia, exhaustion, overstimulated nervous system, chronic stress, sensory overload, muscle tightening, tension headaches, and more.
How can yoga help? Get in a rigorous session during the day, so your body is tired by nightfall, or try a gentle yoga series before bed. Deep exhalations allow your nervous system to relax and your breathing to slow down. Use poses that relieve physical tension such as spinal twists (seated or supine), plow, or a gentle forward fold (let your head hang). Turn out the lights, turn off the day. Climb into bed and let it all go with a final savasana.
8. Improve your vitality and energy
What happens when you follow a sequence of yoga movements choreographed to the rhythm of your breath? Your blood flow increases, more oxygen gets delivered to your cells and tissues, red blood cell and hemoglobin counts rise. You feel rejuvenated. What about when you’re tired? A series of sun salutations can warm and stimulate both the body and the mind. Chair and eagle are also energizing poses you can do anytime; hold them longer to generate more heat and internal energy.
Be sure to make an extra effort to keep your yoga practice going over the holidays; you’ll be rewarded with more vibrancy and stamina to enjoy the whole winter season. Did you overindulge in turkey, stuffing or green bean casserole at Thanksgiving dinner? You’re not alone. Intestinal symptoms like indigestion, acid reflux, bloating and constipation can sap your energy. Wind removing pose (wide leg, legs together, or one leg at a time to target different segments of your colon), twisting poses (to massage your abdomen), reclining bound angle pose (for all your abdominal organs), or some gentle cat-cow movements can offer instant relief for intestinal distress.
9. Maintain your mind-body connection
First, you cut your thumb chopping walnuts for the holiday cookies. Then you trip in your new high heels, twisting your ankle, and minutes later you spill wine on the carpet. Why are we so clumsy and accident-prone during the holiday season? Blame it on the stress- feeling overwhelmed can make you move too fast, lose your mind-body connection, and react with a fight-or-flight response to ordinary situations.
After bandaging your thumb, soaking your ankle, and cleaning the wine stain, cut the cycle of mindlessness- come back to your yoga! Try breathing exercises, balancing poses, or seated meditation. The mindfulness coupled with the physical embodiment your yoga brings can help you recover faster, protect you from further injury, improve your coordination and reaction time, and help you balance better (especially in those heels).
10. Be centered, present, and in the moment
Your commitment to yoga practice is the most precious gift you can give to yourself. Don’t hesitate to use all of your yoga tools– breath, movement, and mindfulness– to keep your holiday season stress-free. Enjoy. Appreciate. Celebrate. Mourn. Rejoice. Connect. Forgive. Extend. Radiate. When you are centered, present, and in the moment, you can give and receive, love and be loved, touch and be touched back. Happy Holidays and Happy Yoga.