esther m palmer

Let's talk about ISHTA meditation

ISHTA Yoga is a tantric yoga school. ISHTA Meditation teaches kriya techniques. "Kriyas" move energy or awareness (probably both) through the subtle body, i.e. channels and centers of energy flow. They are powerful techniques that create strong shifts in consciousness.

As far as I know, there are no studies that attempt to map energy lines to correlate with the subtle body maps that we have from various "energy-based" systems (e.g., yoga, tai chi, etc). Nor do I know of studies looking into what exactly is happening in various kriya techniques, whether at the subtle or physical level.

Which means we either a) have to be ok with not knowing what's at work in these kriyas or b) operate with the theories yoga philosophy presents, whether we believe them or not.

I am lousy at embracing fairy tales, which may be where subtle body maps belong, so why do I practice ISHTA meditation?

Why I teach ISHTA kriya techniques

My introduction to meditation was through ISHTA Yoga.

Everything I love about yoga was introduced to me through ISHTA.

You know how when you're falling in love, your amour seems flawless in your eyes? And everything they do is wonderful? Yeah, that's me through and through. When I fall, I fall hard and lose all sense of doubt.

And so it was with ISHTA. I loved everything about ISHTA, and what puzzled me, I just didn't question. Or at least not enough to take action. This blind faith continued through my training and my early days of teaching. It wasn't until my study went deeper, and my new love matured into long-term relationship, that I started to see that some of the promises my teachers made -- promises made in the name of teaching truth -- felt fundamentally disjunct to me.

Here's the thing. If something isn't fact, but you believe it anyway, then it can be true for you. BUT that doesn't make it TRUE. Humanity can't reveal a unified body of knowledge on personal truths.

from the heart

I love my teachers. I love that they teach what they teach they way they teach it for the reasons they teach it. (Mostly that last one.) But I don't believe everything they teach me. And since science hasn't yet gotten around to investigating all the nooks + crannies in this corner of philosophy, it's their word against mine. Or their belief sitting radically opposed to mine, if happily accompanying the same space of yoga.

yoga takes action

See, yoga's main worldview is one of action. Of testing things out until you figure out how you and the universe work. It's a personal, solo-journey, observation-based, knowledge-seeking practice (which is why some yogis refer to it as "a science," but it's definitely not science!). Yoga intends (as much as a philosophy can intend) for practitioners to TEST actions. We're supposed to try 'em out until we find the best practices to help us experience universal awareness.*

Yoga's trial-and-error philosophy doesn't care why a yoga action** works, just that it does. So, when I use my esoteric, tantric tools in meditation and they "work" for me, it doesn't "matter" that I don't believe the justification for their efficacy that I was taught.

action without belief... that works?!

I mean, it matters A LOT to me, just not in the moment I'm using them. In the moment, they feel like Christmas traditions! And waking up to Saturday morning cartoons! And being surrounded by a crew of super-buddies! And this is what I love about my ISHTA home and my ISHTA colleagues. They welcome me --and they will welcome you, too-- into the practice, doubts and all. They support my question asking, even if they don't always love it. They are OK with my not believing what they believe. And I have to be OK with their believing what they believe since there's no way for us to prove or disprove one another's beliefs... for now at least.

My genuine hope is that one day we'll have definitive answers about what's going on during the esoteric practices of yoga. But since I can't expect that I'll be alive to see it, for now, I can practice what I practice with love, and question fairytales with love, and let the contradictions in my mind sit in harmony ... because you never know from which corner you'll embrace the shift in perspective that shines a light on which questions to ask... to find the answers you seek.

And that is why I practice ISHTA meditation --because it feels like home to me.

I teach it because I love it. I have seen many others embrace it with a similar ease.

You can give it a try, too! Try the meditation of the day on my Everyday Meditation Podcast.

I truly hope you will find something useful in the practice and come to love it as I do... but more importantly, I hope you find the practices and tools that help you live with joy... and the freedom in your own mind to keep asking questions!


* Whether or not "universal awareness," or the "union" of yoga, is a thing that is possible for human beings to experience is another topic for debate and investigation, but I've decided to leave that one for another lifetime and just roll with not-knowing for now.

** What I'm calling a yoga action is normally referred to as a yoga "practice." I call yoga practices "tools," because they are instruments that aid your shift in awareness. I prefer this to "practice," since the whole of your journey with yoga is also called your "yoga practice." It can get confusing, fast.

Alignment is a bit of a buzz word in yoga these days. More and more styles and studios teach "alignment-focused" asana classes, and yet the physical practice of yoga still varies widely.

So what is alignment? Is it whatever a particular teacher or lineage says it is? Well, to put it simply, yeah, it kind of is.

"Alignment" as a category is merely an organizing principle within a system that keeps that system operating smoothly. Different approaches therefore end up with different principles of alignment. As best I understand, Iyengar yoga uses props and specific asana shapes to help students move continuously deeper into the capacity of their bodies. Ashtanga yoga lets the ease of breath determine whether or not a student's posture needs to change. Those are just two examples among dozens, the effects of any of these on you and your practice will be just as varied as the practices themselves.

ISHTA Yoga combines appreciation of anatomical alignment with a deep understanding of energetic alignment so that the physical body is kept steady and spacious, which allows an easy flow of not only movement through joints, tissues, nerves, etc, but also of prana (life force) through the subtle body. Anatomical alignment is any alignment that allows the normal functioning of the body to continue unimpeded without damage to any system (musculoskeletal, circulation, digestion, etc). Energetic alignment is similarly any alignment that allows free flow of the electricity that animates us!

Those are pretty broad definitions, so ISHTA teachers "break down" the skeleton into seven segments as a means to organize how they direct postural alignment. Each of these segments also corresponds with a chakra (energy center along the spine): segment 1, the legs and feet, corresponds with the first chakra; segment 2, the pelvis, corresponds with the second chakra; and so on. We typically address postural alignment from the foundation up (e.g., the feet up in tadasana/standing, the forearms up in headstand), paying careful attention to "ripple effects", because the alignment in one segment will by definition effect the alignment of at least the segments above and/or below.

In my experience, any misalignment, any imbalance of space or strength, effects your entire system in some way. Luckily, by the same token, one small shift to improve alignment will also begin to effect the whole system. (Our bodies are SUPER SMART.) Very often, I will guide a student to change her foot placement in order to create a shift in her hips and spine --a shift I don't necessarily need to ask for explicitly because she goes ahead and reorganizes her body to a comfortable position above the new foundation.

I love this approach because it is fairly intuitive once you have some appreciation for the skeleton and its structure. It also reminds me that before you change anything else in yourself, it can be useful to set a good foundation for the shift that's about to occur. You end up taking smooth steps of change rather than tumbling into an earthquake of change (which can be just as educational!).

I am also a student of the Alexander Technique (AT). AT helps students discover unconscious postural habits and then gradually “undo” those habits by, quite "simply", not doing them. AT teachers use hands-on guidance to help students identify the habits that need undoing, and while there is certainly space for foundation up adjustments, AT teachers typically address imbalances by starting with the head and neck. When the head doesn't balance evenly on top of the spine, it's a foregone conclusion that compression (lack of space) elsewhere in the body will be evident. Just as you need a strong foundation for shifting into your tallest, broadest, strongest self, you also need all the space that you can occupy available to you to fill! If a student's head sits forward of her neck or schlumps down, her skeleton does not have its full vertical height to organize into.

Having the benefit of an ISHTA and AT education, I teach "alignment" using both poles of "space making". Set your foundation so you can grow. Free your head so you can reach your greatest potential. And in the middle --well, your body will know exactly what to do. I've learned over the years from my AT study and my meditation practice that they key aligning myself is to undo unconscious patterns. That's not easy; it takes a deep consciousness of self and a willingness to let go of habits with which I have long identified. But if we can all commit to getting to know ourselves, the rest --the alignment of our bones and the energy that flows through them-- will take care of itself. That's the intelligence of evolution and the universe at work for you!

hari om tat sat!

Sometimes when I'm teaching meditation, I listen to the words coming out of my mouth and think, "who is this woman speaking these woo-woo words?!" Certainly not me.

Practical, skeptical, independent, critical, aetheist. Those are words that describe me (thankfully, there are other, friendlier words in my bio, too). Not "new-agey" or "touchy-feely" or "surrendering" or any of the things that newbies might associate with meditation. So when I guide students with instructions like "imagine a glow of light at the base of your spine" or "let the energy radiate out from behind your forehead" I feel a little lost.

That is, I know exactly where I am, but I feel doubtful that the essence of what I am teaching is coming through my words, that I'm translating properly the actions my students need to take (which aren't, in my experience and opinion, "woo-woo"), and that any potential benefit will escape being lost to that part of the brain that goes "huh?!" That's because the simple instructions I offer for meditation techniques are precursors to words that would follow if it were my teacher teaching me, words I'm not comfortable repeating, because I don't particularly know what "universal consciousness" is nor why we should expect that we are "connecting" to it via meditation. I don't, but he does, and when I am in his class, the way he teaches, I am free to take it or leave it. There's no pressure to be convinced, no judgment made based on one's beliefs, just techniques to practice. That's what we're supposed to "get" in yoga - the practice, not the motivation behind it.

When we meditate, we're doing something very real with our minds, which is why the tools we use are effective at stilling the mind, even if we are asking ourselves to feel or imagine "lines" of energy that cannot as yet be seen (or detected by science). I am quite confident in the practical nature of the techniques I teach, (all of which were taught to me by Alan Finger and senior teachers in the ISHTA lineage) and I LOVE that they are accessible. That all you need to learn are the techniques, and the body will take care of the rest. What is the rest, you ask? Simply stillness and, for me, a blissful state of honest-to-goodness awareness of myself. I don't mean the big Self, I mean the little self, little ol' me, the me I live with every day. That's the only me I know and, quite frankly, the only me I care to know. And if little me is part of a "true Self," "the universal consciousness," so be it. I don't really need to have (or want) that answer.

That there, that stubborn refusal to imagine what I don't need, that's very much who I am. The other day I took a free test to determine my natural "strengths" and "weaknesses." I like these kinds of things for all the self-congratulating reasons most of us do. And it's fun to see what my behaviors indicate about me in someone else's words. Turns out my greatest strength is curiosity. Yup, that one they got right. I luuuuuv asking questions, voiced or not. My next greatest strength? Faith. As in believes in a supernatural power. I nearly fell out of my chair. Like I said above, I'm an aetheist. I generally don't believe or believe in anything that I can't see, feel, or otherwise experience that doesn't also have significant scientific backing. (Which is why I'm a sucker for meditation --it's an honest experience and why or what doesn't change the experience-- but not so much for a single universal force. I don't believe there isn't one, I just don't believe there is.)

But writing this post, I realize that, while I certainly haven't started believing in a higher power (the very suggestion of hierarchy really irritates me), what I have cultivated is a willingness to let experiences change me. Reluctantly, perhaps, but nonetheless. A belief, faith if you must, in the use and value of experience. Now, the scientist in me knows that experiences aren't necessarily any more "real" than "beliefs," but as long as they are mine, they are something to work with on a daily basis, and what else is there than living day by day? Nothing I need.

And so, when I teach my students the techniques of meditation, I can stick with the actions, the very practical, not touchy-feely what to do (imagining things can't be weird - it's just the mind talking to the body, something it does all day long), not the why. Over time, their experiences will answer that question for them, too.

Hari om, om tat sat.

Last month I was reminded of the importance of and the inherent trouble with "believing." A friend and I were chatting and it came up that he subscribes (somewhat) to the validity of astrology, a system I view as essentially made up and coincidental. I, on the other hand, take similar guidance in how we relate to our environment from Ayurveda, a system that he seemed uncomfortable having come up in conversation (perhaps just as I had seemed when he asked me my astrological sign). It seems to me that Ayurveda carries a little bit more credibility in the scientific community, just judging from the two wikipedia entries, but at the level of use value to each of us, the validity of either comes down to what each of us believes about the world and how we can understand ourselves in it.

I do, generally, believe what science has to tell us. As a diligent student who has often looked up to teachers as embodiers of truth itself, most "facts" I learned in school have long been just that. And most of them still are, but some have since been disproven, replaced with new facts uncovered by science. (Of course, in some cases, it wasn't the availability of facts that was missing, just the sharing of the whole story, but I'll save you my diatribe on our broken education system.) This new information, for someone like me, is unsettling. If everything is black and white and fixed, great. I can just learn the facts and put them to use. But if some things are certain and some things aren't€¦? Well, then, how am I sure which "facts" to believe? Which then raises for me the question of what it means to believe or believe in something -anything.

In the yoga sutras, the practice of yoga is defined as requiring the exercise of three things: tapas, ishvara pranidhana, and svadhyaya.

Tapas translates as "heat," that which burns out impurities, or basically the effort + persistence you need to contribute to find balance.

Ishvara pranidhana translates as surrender to the "universal intelligence" or simply to the idea that you can't control everything and need to allow what will happen to happen.

And svadhyaya translates to self study, meaning the essential or "big" self, that which is universal in each of us.

Now, just as often (as in the Satchidananda translation/commentary that I am using), you'll see ishvara pranidhana translated as "surrender to god" and svadhyaya as the "study of spiritual books" (implied is that in these books the truth of the Self is documented), but those concepts don't have any use value for me, so I've put the original Sanskrit concepts into language that does (translations are never perfect, after all!), with many thanks to my teachers at ISHTA (in this instance I am thinking of Peter FerkoKristin Leal, Mona Anand, and Alan Finger) who've given me the broader understanding of yoga within which to do so.

That said, the "spiritual books" bit really bugs me; if there is nothing to assure me that they got it right, why should I trust that my study of them will bring me closer to understanding all that is?

In my continued effort to make some sense of this (still within the context of the sutras), I went back to sutra 1.7 (the sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference, and scriptural testimony), from which I take away that we can build useful knowledge through a synthesis of our own experiences, established knowledge, and our conclusions drawn from both experience and established knowledge.

What is established knowledge? Well, it's probably become clear that I rely on the knowledge that science and observation (history, philosophy, art, etc) have made available to us, understanding that what we "know" is only as certain as it is current. But I also allow that it can be different for each of us, depending on one's beliefs in what constitutes fact/reality/what can be known + explored. I believe that knowledge is liberating, that through objective understanding, one can find harmony with one's subjective experience.

That's what I get from svadhyaya, tapas, and ishvara pranidhana. But even in my take away, belief and trust are part of negotiating how to use the information I'm taking in. It's nice to have evidence that is impersonal and not specific to me, but I still have to believe that it holds true for it to really do me any good. Or do I? Is that the reality I'm looking for, the one I don't have to believe in?

In a response to the question of why we use Sanskrit mantras (sounds) in meditation, Alan (Finger) writes that you can use any word that is simple and is something you truly believe, but that the mantras are "better" to use because their vibrations correspond to nadis (energy lines) in the body. I think he's saying that believing is critical, but that the mantras have an effect on the subtle body irrespective of belief. This makes sense to me, but I am not yet sure that I believe it is true, because I don't have enough knowledge or experience of this to take Alan (or even ancient texts) at his word (even though I really want to).

But I do have an experience of and read studies that claim that we have this amazing (or not so amazing, depending on how you view it) thing we can do, which is to affect the physical reality in our bodies and energy simply with our thoughts, with our belief. We can't make matter exist by believing it to be so, but we can make ourselves happy (and many other states) by believing we are so.

Where does the difference in those two roles of belief lie? I'm not sure, but for now, I'm going to do my best to keep thinking happy thoughts.

Om shanti, om tat sat.


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