This past weekend I was invited to join a mediation retreat at Dharmagiri in the Drakensberg Mountain Range. Dharmagiri is situated close to Underberg, which is a small town in the dairy and cattle farming region in the Southern Drakensberg that runs through the Umzimkulu River valley at the foot of the Hlogoma Peak (‘place of echoes’). Dharmagiri centre lies directly below Bamboo Mountain, which forms part of the hiking route on the third day of the five day Giant’s Cup Trail, which I was lucky enough to do in December of 2014. It was both inspiring and odd to be looking up at - from a place of comfortable contemplation - what was so recently for me a desolate and challenging outdoor adventure.
Dharmagiri is a simple and hospitable retreat centre that runs programmes throughout the year, and is open to bookings from those who want to use the accommodation for their own like-minded retreats and workshops. Durban-based physician and specialist in Ayurveda, Dr Rajen Cooppan, was hosting a ‘Master Mind’ retreat that focused on deepening meditation practice through sound, hatha yoga, yoga mudras and chakras. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to not only soak up the positive energy and wisdom, but to also teach the hatha yoga sessions over the weekend.
I structured the classes based upon asanas (postures) that open the channels of energy flow in the body, clear the mind and heighten concentration. It is written in the earliest texts on hatha yoga (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) that the practice was originally formulated in order to enhance meditation and allow one to sit comfortably in mediation for longer periods without feeling aches, strains and discomfort. Balancing postures, such as Vrksasana (Tree posture), are intended not just to build strength and stability in the limbs, confidence and poise, but also to sharpen focus in the mind; a stable body and breath is a stable mind.
Yoga asanas done correctly – that are not forced or harming to the body - allow a clearer flow of vital energy throughout the body, flushing out stasis, blockages and perversions that cause illnesses, allowing for the transportation of nutrients and fresh vitality. When people start yoga they often say to me after a class that they used and felt muscles and parts of their body they have not in years, even decades. This is why yoga can feel strange at first and even uncomfortable.
When I describe the movement of ‘vital energy’ and ‘nutrients’ I mean the distribution of blood through and around muscles, joints, bones, nerves, organs and cells. Blood carries oxygen and ‘ether’ – or non-matter, energy – as well as nutrients throughout the body. When we are sedate, or have injuries and illnesses, the blood flow is impeded, sclerotic and weak. This is also the process that occurs with ageing in the body.
When you invert yourself in a shoulderstand (‘Sarvangasana’), for example, you suddenly shake everything up and reboot this flow of life force, allowing for a rush of blood to the brain, up the back, into the heart. The transportation system is alive, pumping and cleansing, healing and stimulating. Similarly, when you do a twist, such as the Bharadvajasana (‘sage twist’), you stretch and constrict the spine and all the crucial of nerves that run up and down it. Blood flow is confined and pushed out of this region as you hold the posture. This strengthens and massages the spine and nerves, as well as stretching and toning back and front torso muscles. Then, when the posture is carefully and consciously released, a sudden rush of blood surges along these canals and regions, like a supercharged injection of nature’s best medicine.
Once you finish your practice in which this revitalisation occurs, you feel an almost unexplainable sense of openness and calm. The final relaxation at the end of a hatha yoga session, when you lie on your mat in Savasana (‘the corpse pose’) and close your eyes for around 10 minutes, is the bridge between asana practice and mediation. The nervous system has been rebooted, and none of the niggling static tension is edgily grating on your brain. You also spent around an hour in silence, trying to listen to your breath and body. This is the perfect circumstance in which to begin mediation.