Total health is physical, emotional and mental. A person can be physically healthy but he may not be mentally or emotionally healthy. For example, if he gets upset or irritated in small things, he is emotionally unhealthy. Our mind chatters constantly like a monkey. We’re not really mentally healthy until this monkey calms down.
The Refining Exercises were prepared by my Guru Shri. S.N. Tavariaji. There are 84 pranayamas and he wanted to put in the effects of these 84 pranayamas into 6 exercises.
Many of us have been practising the Refining Exercises for several years. However, if we know why we're doing these exercises and how they can be instrumental in transforming our lives, we will be able to do them in the proper way. Then, it won't feel like a repetition every day. Instead, something new will come up in our exercises that will transform us in some way.
The Refining Exercises are practised with the 3SRB rhythm set to 36 cycles per minute.
When the exercises become a little mechanical, we don’t breathe in up to 3 in the 1-2-3 of breathing in. So after 1-2, give an extra push to the breath to breathe in right up to the end of 3.
Taking the in-breath properly in rhythm will have a profound effect on us in 3 ways:
Recall: Recent scientific studies show that when we breathe in rhythm and if we give an extra push in the inspiration, the in-breath, it has a dramatic effect on our memory. The power of recall increases substantially. For example, It happens often that we meet someone and cannot remember the person’s identity. If at that time, we take an in-breath in the rhythm of 1-2-3, we will be able to recall much more easily.
Seen from a spiritual aspect, it means we have to remember who we are. We have forgotten the original ‘I’ for millions of years and we have to recall that ‘I’. That’s why Gurdjieff calls the whole exercise as self-remembering.
Increased Resistance to Stress: Rhythmic in-breathing also increases the threshold of electrical activity in the brain. Presently, our bioelectricity has greater amperage i.e. outflow is more. We are quick to react. To contain these reactions, our voltage must increase. As we become capable of holding higher voltages, our ability to hold and withstand stress also increases. Yoga calls this Dharana Shakti – the ability to hold. Mental work also happens easily
Decision-making: All of life’s decisions are coloured by our emotions. When we make decisions under this emotional hypnosis, they can only be termed as reactions. And a reaction in itself is a wrong decision. It can never lead one to happiness. The right decision can only come out of consciousness. Taking the in-breath in rhythm brings clarity to our decision-making. Thinking is separated from emotions and we don’t get carried away. Our emotional intelligence is awakened and judgements become more balanced. We judge without getting attached.
Besides the above, rhythmic in-breathing also increases motivation and develops our learning skills.
Thus, we see that just by making an extra effort at 3, we get so much that can help us advance in our career and life.
Decision-making: Many of our decisions in life are coloured by our emotions. We get emotionally hypnotised by something and take a decision. All decisions taken under the hypnosis of the emotional centre are reactions to life. And reactions can never lead to happiness because every reaction is already the wrong decision. Consciousness alone can make the right decision. Taking the in-breath in rhythm brings much more clarity to our decisions. It separates thinking from emotions and we don’t get carried away. Our emotional intelligence is awakened and judgements become more balanced. We judge without getting attached. So whenever you want to take a final decision on something, take a deep breath, hold, pause, bring in consciousness and then with the outgoing breath, take the decision.
Relaxing the Nostrils
While practicing the exercises, we will find that the muscles of the nose contract. Nearly everyone’s nasal passages contract.
We must make an extra effort to relax the nostrils, both while breathing in and out. To keep a check, put your fingers on your nostrils to see that they do not contract. Not a single muscle should be tense. If we can do this, it will have a profound effect on our capacity for self-observation.
And over a period of time, our power of smell will increase tremendously. Everyone has pheromones in the body - small molecules that give off smell. A person's body odour reveals many things about the thoughts passing through his mind, his way of thinking. As we practise relaxing the nostrils during the exercises, we'll gradually be able to decipher small smells and the difference between these smells. We’ll also be able to know when a person is telling the truth or lying because our sense of smell will pick it up. This will bring a lot of changes to the reactions we have.
Smell is directly connected to our sex life. Any animal before entering into sex, first smells his mate. So the capacity to enjoy sex will change just by relaxing the nostrils.
Many people have heart palpitations. By relaxing the nostrils, our heart response rate will also change. We won't get upset or feel hurt very easily.
Over the years, as I’ve observed people doing the exercises or even while sitting for a talk, I find many don’t have midline balance - one shoulder is higher than the other.
If you observe any painting of Shrinathji, the manifestation of Lord Krishna, you will find that one half is an exact replica of the other. This picture is very symbolic. When there is midline balance, the ida and pingala stop working and breath flows through the sushumna nadi - this is midline breathing.
This is the state we want to achieve. It will bring tremendous balance in our life and we will be able to perceive the truth in every situation.
Right now, while doing the exercises or even throughout the day, we're either breathing from the left or right. So in the first exercise, we place our hands softly on our chest and bring symmetry to both sides of our body. By doing so, we can balance the breath in such a way that at a certain point, we will feel we're only breathing from the middle.
What will happen with midline breathing? Presently, we're always one-sided. Suppose I fall in love with someone. Then we're both on our best behaviour. We get married and things start changing and I say, this is not the girl I fell in love with. Everyone has a side which is in light and a side which is in darkness. That other side was already there but it was hidden.
At the time of falling in love, If I could have seen both sides, then when the other side is revealed, will I feel any pain? I'll know I fell in love with the whole.
We call this the law of the pendulum - everything swings, from happiness to sadness, from good to bad, from day to night, from winter to summer. Nothing lasts forever. At some point, the pendulum stops. In the Hindu shastras, this law is called yama i.e. to stop. Its opposite comes and takes over. Summer dies and winter comes and takes over.
Midline breathing builds up an inner form of perception called viveka i.e. the ability to see the duality of life - the hidden and the apparent side. Once our eyes open to this duality, we can rise to a higher state where we see beyond duality.
If you can do this for even a minute each day, you'll feel balanced and relaxed the whole day.
Let’s detail each exercise.
First Refining Exercise
There are two elements in the Anahata chakra. The first is moh, infatuation - it gets easily hypnotized. The second element is the wind element. The imbalance of the wind element causes disease.
Relax the Throat: While practising the first exercise, the throat muscles tend to become tense. Therefore, one should relax and breathe in i.e. without tension in the outer throat muscles. From here, gradually, we must go deeper and relax the vocal cords, especially while speaking. (more about this in the sixth Refining Exercise) But first, we must begin with the outer throat muscles. This will take a long time.
Forced In-Breath: Extra effort at 3 in the first exercise (as described earlier) reactivates the whole limbic system, made up of the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The amygdala is the main organ for emotional stability - a small point in the brain that controls our emotions. We live in emotional storms, always swinging from one end to the other. With this practice, our emotions gradually reach a state of balance. This enables us to work with our fears, setting us on the path to freedom from Fear itself.
Push up the Intercostal Muscles: Intercostal muscles are several groups of muscles that run between the ribs, and help form and move the chest wall. Most of these spaces between our ribs have become stale and dead.
In the First and Second Refining Exercises, especially the First, we must make the breath move into those spaces between the ribs. We want to make these spaces come alive.
In these exercises, we consciously push the breath between the ribs to open out that area. We want to sense that the breath is pushing up the intercostal muscles a little. For most of us, these intercostal muscles, the whole shoulder area has become stressed. We're holding on to so much of tension in the shoulder area.
We hold a lot of sadness and loneliness, and it's all blocked in the ribcage. This is viraha, heart-ache. If our intercostal muscles are blocked, we never feel for other people. We always feel for self. We must understand that what we call love is not love. We feel happy when we fall in love with someone. But the moment that person criticizes us, we react with anger and hurt. Then, do we love the other or do we love ourselves? We think it is love but it’s actually the Ego.
When these intercostal muscles open up, we are able to feel what the other is feeling. If someone now criticizes us, instead of being hurt, we feel for that person. We ask – ‘Where did this come from?’ ‘What is happening with this person?’ ‘There must be something to it.’ Our mental & emotional perspective shifts from being bothered about ourselves to being concerned about the other. We shift from our own perspective to seeing ourselves the way the other person sees us.
If one watched my Guru Tavariaji breathe, there would be a whole movement of the intercostal muscles. In every breath, these two muscles would go up completely. Each breath of his was as if he was moving a mountain. That was the power in his every breath. This showed that he's only living for other people, to teach other people.
As we practise pushing the breath between the ribs, and the whole area is cleansed of sadness, joy comes into our lives.
Expand the Chest: I see that in many people, the chest does not expand in the First Refining Exercise. They try but nothing moves. It's stuck. This is directly connected to our self-esteem in life. There is a feeling of ‘I am of no use’ or ‘He is better than me’.
There are two types of will power - Will Power and Spiritual Will. When we want to build something, when we want to change another person, we need Will Power. But if we want to be peaceful and rise in consciousness, we need Spiritual Will. Will Power drives us to change people and circumstances. Spiritual Will makes us want to change ourselves. For this, the chest area must open up.
Second Refining Exercise
As we go deeper into the Second Refining Exercise, we come to a point where we feel the breath massaging the diaphragm. The diaphragm is directly connected to power and wisdom - the chi. In the old days, engines would have flywheels. The engine’s functionality depended on the flywheel. Similarly, the flywheel of life is the diaphragm. When we massage the diaphragm, we increase our capacity for living.
The solar plexus - where the fire element resides - also lies in this area. It is the seat of the manipura chakra which contains the element of anger. And in the kidneys there is fear. Through this exercise, we overcome two very important emotions of anger and fear.
The liver, kidneys, gallbladder, intestines, spleen and pancreas are all storehouses of frustration. The imbalance of the water element in these organs gives rise to all choleric diseases.
While practising the Second Refining Exercise, we must pull in the solar plexus to release all stored frustration.
The solar plexus is also connected to our worries about money. It is blocked. The solar plexus must push into the pancreas as if it is an arrow piercing in. This is the exact spot where the Japanese would perform hara-kiri.
As long as there is guilt in life we cannot redeem ourselves. Guilt is the lowest of the negative emotions. We hurt someone and then feel guilty. This feeling of guilt is nothing but the gathering of energy to cause hurt again. Guilt is not a positive emotion. It’s just the other side of the pendulum - we gather energy do the whole thing all over again. Guilt does not bring in understanding of the situation.
In the Second Refining Exercise, as in the Gold Nugget, we pull in the abdomen below the navel. The piercing of this area will remove guilt from our lives. The feeling of inadequacy – ‘I cannot do this’ - is also removed.
Our mind is often reluctant to perform life’s duties. ‘I don’t have the mood, the desire.’ Just by pulling in the lower abdomen, all this changes.
Finally, it is also very important to feel the fat on the stomach in this exercise. That is why we put our hands there. There are two kinds of fat —soft fat and hard fat. If the fat around the stomach is too hard, it means we’ve suppressed too many emotions and have a deep desire to control others. If the fat is too soft and loose, we lack Will Power to do normal things in life. We run away from situations. With this simple exercise, we bring elasticity to this area.
Third Refining Exercise
The Third Refining Exercise is related to our back. The back is our unconscious mind.
What is the difference between unconscious, subconscious and conscious? Osho, in one of his lectures, tells the story of a man sitting in a parking lot in front of a mall. A beautiful girl walks out of the mall. On seeing her, desire begins to rise in the man. But when the girl comes closer, he realises it is his sister. And the desire goes away. The original desire was the unconscious mind. But the recognition that it was his sister came from the subconscious mind.
Man, over thousands of years of civilization, has tried to tame the unconscious mind by conditioning it - through education, manners and information. That is why man has a subconscious mind where all his conditioning lies. Animals do not have a subconscious mind. A lion does not understand 'This is my sister'. A mate is a mate for a lion. Animals only have a little part of the conscious mind and the rest is the unconscious, collective mind. But man has an unconscious mind, a subconscious mind and a conscious mind.
Our unconscious mind lies in our back and this is where we dump everything we don't want to confront. This is our dark side. Nobody knows what lies here but everything we project onto others comes from this area. At times, a thought comes which we feel is not my thought. It has come from this dark side.
Everything we don't want to face in life is thrown into the dark side. We may have to apologise to someone, but keep postponing it. Or say we have to file our tax returns ‑ we say I'll do it tomorrow and throw it into the dark side. So much lies in the dark side, connected with our thoughts about food, relationships, sex. All of this accumulates in our shoulder blades. There’s always tension in the shoulder blades because we don’t want to encounter our dark side. We don't want light to go here.
The asana we assume while doing this exercise is called paschimottanasana. Paschim means west, which refers to the back. Taan means to pull. While doing this asana, we activate the sacral pump at the bottom of our spine. This sacral pump pushes the prana up the backbone, up the sushumna naadi. So while doing the Third Refining Exercise, as the prana moves up and down the spinal column, there is a clearing which rids the backbone of all negative emotions, bringing in consciousness of our dark side. Courage to face certain things develops.
It’s said, if you avoid making a phone call, that's the phone call you have to make. All that we are unwilling to acknowledge, all our intellectual laziness, everything we want to run away from in life, we don't want to accept - it’s all lying here in this area. That is why we face back problems. The unconscious mind is our waste paper basket that we will have to face at some time. The Third Refining Exercise opens that up.
Fourth Refining Exercise
When Tavariaji taught me the exercises in private, he said that we can move the shoulders up and down in the First and Fourth Refining Exercises. What we must be mindful of is whether our shoulders stay relaxed under the burden of life or do they become tense? Check yourself in the mirror. Many people just cannot relax their shoulders. Life has become a baggage for them.
There‘s tension in the cheeks, as well. Therefore, while blowing out in the Fourth Refining Exercise, keep the cheek muscles relaxed. Keep making an effort to relax the cheeks.
Initially, we'll feel we cannot breathe out forcefully without the cheeks becoming tense. But with practice, the cheeks will be relaxed and we can create force without tension.
This is something totally new. We feel force is the result of tension. We lift weights, run on the treadmill, work hard to achieve something etc. We generate force with tension.
The whole idea of yoga is force without tension. As we learn to blow out without tension, there will be changes inside - force will be created without tension. This concept doesn't exist in the West. This is a totally Eastern concept - to create energy without tension.
Also, tension in the cheeks reveals a lot about a person’s eating habits. Such a person will eat very fast, with no pause. This is not enjoyment of food.
As we relax our cheeks, our way of eating changes. Extraction of nourishment does not depend upon the amount of food. Some people eat a lot but are able to extract little nourishment from their food, while others eat very little but extract maximum nourishment. Thus, how much of nourishment we can extract depends on how relaxed our cheeks are.
This power of extracting nourishment will reflect in other parts of our lives. Many people work a lot but make little profit. Others work for an hour and make a lot more. We will find that we can accomplish more by doing less. It will also increase our capacity to extract enjoyment from life.
This is also the area of expression and communication. Many people understand but they cannot express. Relaxing our cheeks in these exercises will increase our power of expression. Also, make an effort to loosen the jaw bone joints or the screws of the jaw bone while doing this exercise. It will help us communicate and express our understanding with clarity.
Many people live a closed life, they can't relate and are not open to anything new. They're so set in their lives, they don't want to change their routine at all. This is again because of the same tension. All this will change by simply relaxing the cheeks.
Fifth Refining Exercise
The obvious effect of the Fifth Refining Exercise is that the holding of breath allows the bloodstream to absorb more oxygen and send it to the cells. But a little bit of carbon dioxide also enters the brain via the bloodstream which causes the chattering monkey inside to calm down for a fraction of a second, .
This is a very important exercise and can be used in everyday life. Say, we’re stuck in traffic or someone is angry with us and we feel irritated. Breathe in, pause and relax the irritation.
This exercise brings a pause in our life. Our entire effort in spirituality is to be free of reactions. This simple technique will free us of reactions. Wherever we feel we’ll react, we simply take a deep breath and pause.
Gurdjieff would sometimes use the Stop exercise in the middle of certain sacred dances that he taught his disciples. In the midst of the frenzy of the dance, he would suddenly shout ‘Stop’. Now whatever position the dancers were in, they had to stop without putting their foot on the ground or getting comfortable.
Just imagine. If we’re in frenzied activity and somebody shouts - Stop - and we stop inside, then it is possible that we will be thrown to the centre that is totally silent. Like the eye of the cyclone, it’s absolutely peaceful there.
Life is fast movement. We’re thinking constantly, running here and there, doing so many things. In that heightened activity, a sudden pause will throw us into the inner centre which is always silent. This is the area of total silence within us.
Try doing this consciously. Set a timer that rings a few times a day and when it rings, pause immediately. If you’re on one side of the pendulum, maybe you’ll be thrown to the other side and experience an area of deep silence. Once you’ve touched this deep silence, you’ll never be the same again. It’s something no-one can take away from you.
Sixth Refining Exercise
We get hurt very easily. We get hurt if we’re criticised or if our children say something to us. Accumulated hurt turns into tension in the throat. After a certain point, this tension leads to high blood pressure.
In the Sixth Refining Exercise, we learn to relax the throat muscles on the outer part of the throat and subsequently, the vocal cords that are situated deeper.
Simply by relaxing the throat, we will learn to become free of all the hurts we've accumulated here from childhood.
This exercise will also increase our capacity to digest pain. The more pain we hold on to, the greater is the tension in our neck area. To be able to increase our capacity to swallow pain, we must make suffering voluntary. The mark of a spiritually evolved person is that he's able to bear another person's insults, unpleasantness, over-talking etc. He's able to bear it, digest it. He’s no longer hypnotised by pain, he has risen above it.
Swallowing in this exercise massages the vocal cords. What we say is the cheeks and the jaw, and what we are is the tone of our voice. One may say ‘Hello, how are you?’. But the tone may say something completely different.
Everyone has a distinct tone. It is the total outcome of that person and says everything about him/her. Many people have a tone of self-pity or a tragic or sorry tone. Some others have a very powerful, egoistic tone or even a frightening one. As we relax our tone and free it of aggressiveness, we change our vibrational tone and thus our level of being.
Moreover, by relaxing the neck, we bring the emotional center and the intellectual center into balance. Understanding is a function of the emotional center. As the tone of our voice changes, we grow in understanding and our very life will change.
--- Rajen Vakil