by Nayaswami Rambhakta
by Nayaswami Rambhakta
Nobody wants to read this.
Seriously, unless you’re already powerfully motivated to do (whatever it is), you just won’t care.
Thus the secret of doing the energization exercises is to figure out how to like them. As Swami said in Out of the Labyrinth, we should never give up something (e.g., sitting on our arses thinking about doing the rechargers) until we’re ready, with inner knowing, to replace it with something higher.
And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? No glamorous movies have been made about them – no Seven Recharging Monks, no Energizer Kid, no Recharger Trilogy, no Energizer Assassin, no Enter the Energizer, no A Touch of Energization, no Crouching Energizer, Hidden Recharger.
From the memory banks: I once watched Swami Kriyananda lead a group practice of the rechargers with the guests at the Expanding Light at Ananda Village. Swamiji stood on the front steps, while the guests stood on the ground facing him.
“Great,” I thought, I’ll take pictures of Swamiji and show the world how they really should be done. I had a mental image of him swelling up like the Incredible Hulk and rocketing through them like Ironman.
Alas, he did them like a regular person, looking rather like an ordinary middle-aged shlump. So much for Samurai Swamiji.
But I understood: the rechargers are not about creating a wonderful, cinematic visual impression. They’re about working inwardly with energy – they are pranayam – energy-control exercises.
How can I get ready to do these exercises with inner gusto, without martial-arts role models in the mold of Bruce Lee and Toshiro Mifune, and without whining or complaint or feeling that God is a slave driver – but just because I want to?
Let me stop here a moment. I hauled out this old article on a special day. This day, December 10, 2014, marks the forty-year anniversary of the evening when I stood in the yard of the house where I was living in Los Altos, California and decided to see how many days in a row I could do the rechargers.
Well, that’s a lie, because I didn’t actually live in the house. I was shelling out $40 a month to lay a sleeping bag on the bare concrete floor of the garage, my bedmate the stripped-down engine of a buddy’s VW Bug. Hey, don’t feel sorry for me – it was a Los Altos garage, A Mercedes – Beemer – Lexus garage.
I was paying off my Ananda membership before moving to the Village. I knew that I would be earning a pittance once I got there, and I thought, better to scrape together the $1000 membership fee while I still had a modestly well-paying job. When I wrote out the last check, I asked an artist at the Runner’s World office to decorate it with flowers.
Now then, how can we learn to love the energizers? And here begins my hopelessly cheerful article on a fitness topic that we all really don’t want to know about because our life is perfectly fine the way it is, thank you very much.
Or is it?
Okay, it’s hopeless. I’m going to scrap the idea of writing a serious, no-nonsense, Powerpoint studded article and tell a story instead. Because, as the advertising genius David Ogilvy said, nothing works like a demo. Ready? Okay. We begin.
In a talk at the Temple of Leaves at the Seclusion Retreat at Ananda Village – I think it must have been during Spiritual Renewal Week in September 1975 – Swami Kriyananda said, “Whenever you experience great fear, if you can manage to get your energy flowing smoothly and evenly throughout your body, you’ll very likely find that you’ll experience no fear at all.”
When I returned from SRW to my job in the Bay Area, I had a sparkling opportunity to test Swamiji’s statement.
I worked as a staff photographer for a company that published five sports magazines. The editor of the martial arts magazine asked me to accompany him to San Quentin State Prison and take pictures of a martial arts exhibition there.
It seems that one of the prison guards, a wonderfully heart-centered man, had battled the prison authorities for months to allow him to put on the expo. Hey, those animals were enough trouble without teaching them to do killer karate.
The editor would interview the martial artists while I took pictures of the demonstrations.
When we arrived, our friend the prison guard asked us to wait outside the main gate. The wait stretched to a half-hour.
As we milled about under those high, cold stone walls, I began to experience a deep, cold, crippling fear.
I’m guessing the fear stemmed from past-life memory of having been imprisoned. Regardless of its source, the fear was crippling. I was shaking inside, and I wondered desperately what to do.
It was then that I recalled what Swamiji had said about getting rid of fear by bringing our bodily energy under control.
I had practiced Yogananda’s energy control exercises fairly consistently. In eight years I had missed perhaps no more than sixty days. Now, I had a wonderful chance to see if they would help me release these crippling feelings.
I began tensing and relaxing my muscles in groups, one group of muscles at a time, shifting the energy from one part of my body to another, using the tensing and relaxing techniques I had learned.
My first goal was to get at least some of my physical energy under control. I knew that purely mental methods wouldn’t work, that they would be useless, pitifully inadequate against the horrible mental turmoil that had nervous energy bouncing all over my insides. My heart and brain were far too wildly out of control for gentle mental remedies.
I didn’t do the energization exercises in the prescribed order. Instead, I stood a apart from the group of waiting martial artists and began pushing energy into one muscle group at a time, with absolute, uncompromising strength and will power. I was completely, one-hundred-percent determined and committed to the practice. I would NOT enter that prison in fear!
I chose each body part randomly, moving the energy where I felt the most nervousness and disharmony – in my right arm, right upper thigh, calf, neck, left forearm, stomach, abdomen, etc. Just tensing and relaxing with fierce, uncompromising will.
After ten minutes I began to feel my energy coming pretty much under my control. After a few more minutes of shoving energy around, I felt completely calm and at peace.
The guards inside the prison gate were a scary bunch – it was just four years since Black Panther George Jackson had led a breakout attempt at the prison during which Jackson, three guards, and two other inmates were killed. The gate guards were nasty-looking, hardcore, no-nonsense guys with cold fire in their eyes.
As we filed through the gates and across the huge inner courtyard, I was relaxed and inwardly calm. An amusing thing happened. At one point we passed a grassy field where several hundred prisoners milled about, talking in small groups. As we passed one group of particularly tough-looking prisoners, I heard one of them say, “Look at those guys – they’re so calm and poised!”
Inside, I laughed heartily. If he had seen me fifteen minutes earlier – a quivering mass of fear!
At this point, my record with the “rechargers” is fairly good. I’ve done them twice daily for forty years as of this evening, with four or five days when I did them just once, preceded by the eight years when I missed perhaps sixty days.
The thing is, I now do them effortlessly and very enjoyably. I never have to force myself to get off my butt and practice. I actually like doing them. And, beyond what I experienced at San Quentin, I find them very useful in my dull and ordinary life.
Whenever I get emotionally woun-up, I find that it helps to get apart from the source of the bother for a few minutes and do some tensing and relaxing, using my upset feelings to power my practice, as I did on that ferocious San Quentin morning, with full concentration and will.
After a while, I’m more likely to be able to control my emotions and see the situation in a calmer light.
Okay, big disclaimer. Am I claiming that the rechargers will turn you into a martial arts master – one of those Yojimbo samurais who go around slicing other people’s ears off with calm eyes and cool inner self-control.
Well, maybe, after you’ve done them for a while. But let me tell another story.
I learned a tremendously useful tip for handling emotionally loaded situations from Nayaswami Asha. I’ll share it with you here, but as you read, please keep in mind that it helps if you already have a pretty good inner sense of what self-control feels like.
Imagine yourself feeling like a self-restrained samurai warrior, self-restrained being the big idea. The rechargers, done regularly, will give you a healthy taste for that feeling. Parenthetically, they will also help you behave with greater maturity and poise in challenging situations, including many of the petty small social annoyances that God has strewn this world with to teach us self-control, compassion, and kindness.
But back to the story. When my partner, Ishani, and I got together, the romantic phase didn’t last long. It was apparent that, at this point in our lives – I was nearly sixty, Ishani was in her late forties – God intended to get right down to business and start teaching us to expand our awareness to include the other person’s reality. And He wasn’t going to be gentle about it.
To put no fine point upon it, we went through six years of absolute hell. God was swinging a baseball bat, and He wasn’t aiming for the wall, but for the cornfield beyond. And like a gentleman, I accept most of the blame for our troubles. Why not, really? It was mostly my fault. I’m not loathe to admit it, but I believe women are generally more often right when it comes to the issues that come up in relationships, because it is their area of special expertise, not ours.
After an endless series of weekends that stretched out to years of horrible disharmony and painful reconciliations and great relief, we were both feeling thoroughly imploded. We were at a point of to throw in the towel, and we decided to talk separately with Asha and ask for her help.
When it was my turn to go to Asha’s for counseling, I told her that whenever there was a great disharmony between Ishani and me, it seemed to work best if I would get in my truck and drive in the hills for an hour and a half, earnestly chanting and praying urgently for God to harmonize my heart. When my heart began to feel open and harmonized from the prayers and chanting, I said, I knew that I could come home, and that my healed and harmonized heart would be up to the challenge of helping to diffuse the situation, with God’s grace and special blessings.
Asha was silent for moment – I could see that she was turning inward and asking Swamiji she should say. And then, in a low voice, almost whispering, she said, “If you could go to Divine Mother in the moment…”
It was life-changing advice.
But what did “going to God in the moment” signify?
It meant being a warrior.
What could I do but try? I had nothing to lose. I would make the experiment. I felt I had no alternative.
Several weeks before my meeting with Asha, she had said, “When David and I were in India with Swamiji recently, he said, ‘Ishani is a wonderful woman. I’m so happy that Ishani and Rambhakta are together.’”
Very well then, what could we do but hang on?
I could sense very clearly when storm clouds of discontent were gathering on the horizon. There was a nervous feeling of disharmony, as if evil green lightning was crackling in the air. The storm was brewing and darkness was near.
After resolving to practice the counsel that Asha had given me, I found that help was always close at hand, if I would only do a simple but difficult thing. I would stop whatever I was doing, stand absolutely still, rooted in place, and say with utmost wholehearted determination, “Divine Mother, I will do ANYTHING to bring harmony in this situation. I will kill Rambhakta – I don’t want anything for him, no ego-pleasing being-right, no whiny self-justification, no ego balm or weak retreat. But you MUST GUIDE ME!”
What I found then was that Divine Mother was always eager to help us find love and understanding – so long as my prayer was sincere.
And – aha! – that is a very big “if,” isn’t it?
Because it meant that I had to take all of the resentment and scary fear and sadness and hopelessness and wanting-comfort and wanting-self-justification firmly in hand and crush it into a little ball of ashes and give it to God utterly and completely, leaving nothing for myself – and all while waiting in a kind of scary emptiness for God to tell me what to do.
But it was the answer. It was in fact the lesson that I’m convinced the six years of pain were intended to teach. Loving relationships on the spiritual path are seldom easy; ours has been one of the best, for the liberating lessons that it has brought us.
Okay, there I go again. “Liberating lessons” is far too gushy and abstract. What it gave us, in truth, was an appreciation, a visceral taste, even a lust for the joy of getting to know the other person’s reality.
What made it possible, at least on my side, was the fact that I had done the rechargers for umpty-dumpty dozens of years. In other words, twice a day I had walked into San Quentin and fought the battle for physical, mental, and emotional self-control. And if you don’t think the rechargers are about the martial arts, let me tell you, they are. They bring benefits that are extremely practical in all kinds of situations where self-restraint, moderation, intuition, self-mastery and self-offering are called for, whether it’s going into a very scary place, or public speaking, or dealing with difficult people, or loving a partner.
I did a fun thing, back in 1974 when I started my recent forty-year streak. I found a patch of bare ground outside the door of my little garage-home and vowed to do my regular practices there.
I loved to stand on that smooth patch of dirt early in the morning and again in the evening as the sun went down and do the rechargers there. It linked me to the best times of the day, just before work and just after, when the world seemed fresh and nature was happy – those quiet transition times when birds did their choreographed dances and the air was peaceful and hushed. It made me feel part of nature to do them then. After all, I was doing spiritual practice, dancing with the wind amid the transition-time aromas of flowers and dinners cooking. It was a homely, humble, right kind of feeling that helped me enjoy the practice very much.
Paramhansa Yogananda suggested that before meditating, it can help us calm our bodily energy (and consequently, calm the mind) if we tense and relax our whole body while inhaling deeply with a double-inhalation (“in-innnnnn”) then “throw the breath out” with a double-exhalation (“huh-huuuuuuuh”).
This practice, done with energy and attention, can open a wonderful portal to a feeling of calmness and relaxation that will help us kick-start our meditation.
Here are some – confessedly weird – tips that I’ve found, that help make whole-body tensing and relaxing a little easier.
At first, it might not feel natural or easy to tense the whole body. It’s not something we do every day. But it becomes easier if you begin the double-breathing aspect first, before you start tensing. First inhale forcefully, and only then start tensing a split second later. I think you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to engage your whole body.
A econd tip – okay, brace yourself, this is weird. When you tense the body, start with the buttocks. I don’t know why this works, perhaps because it’s the “middle” of the body? Possibly because we have more control of those muscles, since we use them all the time for walking, standing, sitting? In any case, starting “bum-first” makes it easier to tense the whole body.
Don’t step too hard on the gas at first – make it a controlled, strong, smooth, increasing flow of energy.
After each round of tensing and relaxing, pause for a moment before starting the next round. Make the intervals gradually longer, as you feel to. Dwell on the feeling of inwardness and peace that comes when you relax, as the energy flows back within. “Tense with will, relax and feel.” – Paramhansa Yogananda
Before I moved to Ananda, I lived in Palo Alto where I worked at Runner’s World magazine. One of my roles, as I mentioned earlier, was staff photographer for the company’s five magazines. On weekends I would often drive to San Francisco and run 14-17 miles, then walk in Golden Gate Park or downtown, taking pictures while doing silent spiritual practice.
One Saturday noon found me at Fisherman’s Wharf, where I sat in the amphitheater in front of the Maritime Museum, looking out at the Bay. I had walked a considerable distance and felt a need to get re-harmonized. I did some deep, slow breathing – not shallow, wimpy breaths but great full heaves of air, in and out, until my nerves began to calm. I then decided to meditate. I started with several rounds of vigorous tensing and relaxing, and on the last exhalation I felt the energy draining out of my limbs and outer body – like a small stream, its energy currents flowing happily back to their source. It was a most enjoyable sensation that brought an interiorization of mind that was relaxing and restoring.
The rechargers have saved my bacon many times when I’ve needed to find a more relaxed, interiorized, centered place inside.
Before moving to Ananda, I didn’t own a car. On my frequent visits to Ananda, I would ride the bus from Palo Alto to Nevada City. I would stop at a little hippie health food store in Nevada City and ask for a piece of cardboard, on which I would write “Ananda,” then hike out to Highway 49 and hitchhike to the Seclusion Retreat.
It was a long, draining, six-and-a-half-hour trip from the Bay Area to the Village, often requiring several thumbed rides to the remotely located retreat.
On one trip, I carried a heavy backpack laden with camera gear and spare clothes, and in my hand I lugged a dulcimer in its case. When I arrived at the Village I was unable to find a ride. I decided to walk the last five miles to the retreat. When I arrived after the long bus ride and hike, I was toast, kaputt, finito, and ready for a nap. Then someone – I think it was Anandi – asked me to lead the recharger practice before the evening meditation. I said okay.
It was all or nothing – I had no energy but what I could summon with my will power and Yogananda’s techniques. And, what did I have to lose? – if they worked, fine, and if not, I would enjoy a nice nap during the meditation.
I gave it my all, forcing energy throughout my body with ferocious will. At the end I felt renewed, restored, wide awake and able to meditate for two and a half hours alertly without even a nod.
At the annual Christmas eight-hour meditation one year, I decided to sit as close to Swami Kriyananda as possible. I’m sure it was owing to his blessing that I was able to sit motionless and without significant pain for the full eight hours. It was unusual, as I had spent three years paralyzed from the chest down in my twenties and had lingering spasticity in one leg and partial paralysis in the other, and inharmonious currents of energy in my spine, due, I suspect, to the severed nerves and damage from the tumor and surgeries. (Yogananda urged his disciples not to let surgeons operate on the spine.)
Yet when the mid-meditation break arrived I was very reluctant to stand up for The Blue Danube; I only stood to avoid making a distraction. The meditation wasn’t particularly deep; I’m rarely able to go deep because of the spinal damage; but it was peaceful and harmonious – not least, I think, because the rechargers had taught me to harmonize my physical energy.
So here we are, four decades down the road with a regular practice, about forty-seven years in total. I wouldn’t dream of not doing the rechargers now; they’ve been tremendously helpful, and I’m looking forward to the next forty years.
Here follows standard advice for doing the rechargers.
The energizers can give us a sense of inner contact with God, if we do them with the right motives and in the right spirit. Draw on God’s energy, calmness, and harmony while you do them.
Do them receptively, devotionally. You can make that contact. Just follow the instructions that Yogananda said are essential for success: Do them slowly, with deep willingness, in the order given, with closed eyes, and with calm concentration at the spiritual eye.
A temptation is to do them absent-mindedly, to stand outside the process and say, “Well, I’m doing this because it’s good for me and I’ll get such-and-such result.” But you’ll get minimal results if you do them mechanically. Merely putting in the time won’t give you the best effects. The exercises work devotionally: they are a divine dance – a physical chant – a way to pray with the body instead of with the mind. When you do them in that spirit, God responds as if you had offered Him a prayer.
If you do them devotionally, the spiritual benefits will become apparent. Remember Master’s promise, that the energization exercises will give you the vision of your body as energy, as light, and as a thought of God’s pure consciousness. When you have that perception, the body will no longer be an obstacle on your path.
The energization exercises stimulate the center of will power and spiritual awakening in the forehead, and thereby hasten the appearance of the spiritual eye in meditation.
Create an energization habit
Paramhansa Yogananda said that it takes three years to plant a new habit in the brain. Here are some suggestions to help you get through the temptations and distractions at the start.
Do the exercises at the same time every day. If you vary your practice times too much, the resulting irregularity and confusion will work against you. Be regular, and your subconscious mind will begin to support your new habit. It will be much easier to blast through inertia and start practicing at the times of day that you’ve set aside for the exercises.
Do them in the same place. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve set aside a little space for my twice-daily practice – a little patch of ground, a corner of a room, a few square feet on a deck, or a spot in front of a window.
If I’m practicing outdoors, the earth becomes packed smooth, giving it a well-worn, homely look. I’m sure, also, that helpful vibrations build up on that spot.
Do them with intense zeal, and the habit will form much faster. Let’s face it, 10-15 minutes of all-out effort twice a day won’t kill you. In fact, you’ll get great satisfaction from giving your best. And – hey – they’re called the rechargers, right?
Make a vow. Gandhi spoke of the wonderful freedom that his many disciplinary vows had given him. Keep a calendar of your practice, if you wish. Stubbornness and rajasic restlessness can be turned to the service of a worthy goal.
Reinforce your good habit in every possible way. Take time now and then to think deeply, willingly, and energetically about the spiritual advantages of doing the energization exercises – not in selfish terms, but with the understanding that the fastest way to get the selfless devotion and universal love that you crave is by pleasing Master.
Do them when you least feel like it. Unwillingness is an enemy, and willingness is a friend when it seems particularly hard to do the exercises: when you’re tired, busy, or feeling sad and unworthy. At such times, think of yourself as the good, noble warrior who’s been driven into a corner by unworthy opponents. Don’t allow unwillingness to take away your loyalty to “the good.” Do the rechargers with zeal, and unwillingness will flee.
Enjoy them. If you can form a daily habit, the energization exercises will reveal to you the stunning perfection of their design. There is endless joy and fascination in the beautiful, ever-new intricacies of their flow. Sometimes rollicking, bubbling laughter will rise up within you as you practice; sometimes the energy will flow so strongly that you can barely contain it – you’ll feel yourself swimming in an ocean of joyous, divine life. Even when you don’t get those experiences, enjoy the exercises just because they remind you, like chanting does, to turn your attention inward to the spiritual eye and to thoughts of God.
Realize their value. Unlike hatha yoga, there are no famous teachers who’ve made the energization exercises the cornerstone of their instruction; no academies of energization; no lovely picture books depicting quaint mountain monasteries dedicated to their practice; no medical research; no TV programs called Energizing with Elaine. So it takes a little extra courage and faith to practice something that’s new and lacks a long and hallowed tradition. You simply have to do the energization exercises to find out how great they are; no one will try to sell you on their worth.
I once attended a lecture in which the speaker (it was Brother Mokshananda of SRF) said: “I can stand here and inspire you with the things I say, but I can’t motivate you. That’s up to you.” You’ll have to cultivate your own desire to do the energization exercises. And the best way is to tie them firmly to the deepest desires of your heart. Realize that they can help you very much to find your inner connection with God.
“When I was lecturing around the world, I was saddened to see how very few people who were following Master’s teachings bothered to do the energization exercises.” – Swami Kriyananda
Don’t be that guy.
A Streak Ends
My streak of daily energization practice ended in 2016, after almost 42 years, during a five-day hospital stay with cellulitis – a spreading infection in the cells of a lower leg.
I had no regrets about not practicing the exercises – I knew that it was the will of my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, that I end the streak.
Perhaps it was meant to forestall any feelings of prideful attachment to my long practice. Perhaps Master wanted me to know that it simply didn’t matter – that I had proved my sincerity.
A friend asked if I had done the exercises mentally during my hospital stay. I could have easily done so, but when I turned within and consulted Master, the answer that came was, “No need – just relax, live, and go on. It’s not important.”
Many benefits have come from years of regular practice. One of the most useful has been the realization that the energization exercises are not just about the physical body.
During a visit to the Ananda Seclusion Retreat in 1974, Anandi asked me to lead a session of the energizers for the retreat guests.
Before we began, I explained the benefits – that they enable us to get control over our physical energy, so that we can more easily go deep in meditation.
Later, at lunch, a woman protested indignantly, “You failed to point out the greatest benefit of the rechargers – that they tone-up the will!”
Well, okay, that’s certainly a benefit. But it’s hardly the only or primary one, in my view.
In fact, they do “tone-up” the will, especially if we keep our attention gently at the point between the eyebrows, the bodily center of will power and concentration, as Yogananda recommended.
But the benefits are manifold. As I ease into my next 40-year streak, at the conclusion of which I’ll be 115, I increasingly realize that their most beneficial effects are spiritual.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that if we were stranded on a desert island and had the energization exercises the only available spiritual tool to work with, we would eventually discover all of the other methods that he taught.
In my practice, I find a current of energy being awakened in the spine and raised to the higher centers in the brain. It’s a most enjoyable sensation, and it has little to do with the benefits to the body.
The increase in energy, and the lifting of my awareness, are apparent in how I feel before and after my practice. Walking to the Yogananda shrine where I regularly do the exercises in our Ananda community, I may be feeling drained from the day’s work. But after practicing, my energy is transformed, and more important, my mood is completely changed.
To achieve these results, I find it helps to remember to keep my eyes and awareness upturned, and my attention gently focused behind the forehead, at the point between the eyebrows.
This is the part of the brain where happiness, optimism, and a cheerful, sunny outlook reside. The practice of centering my attention there more or less automatically raises my consciousness to an enjoyable state where I feel happy, willing, enthusiastic, and expansive.
Although Yogananda said to do the exercises with eyes closed, I generally find that I’m better able to remember to keep my attention at the forehead if I keep my eyes open or half-closed, at least part of the time. When I’m tired particularly, it helps me be aware of the position of my eyes if I’m looking at the outside world.
Yogananda said that the position of the eyes reflects the level of our consciousness – a lowered gaze suggests subconsciousness, a straightforward gaze is associated with conscious awareness, and uplifted eyes reflect superconsciousness.
At the end of the day, if my energy is sagging, I find it easier to prevent my eyes from drooping if I keep them open.
In view of Master’s counsel, however, I’m sure it’s not ideal to practice with open eyes; I mention it only in case you may have trouble doing the exercises with eyes closed from time to time.
As I exercise, I feel the practice opening and energizing my spine, starting at the bottom and progressing to the top. It’s an enjoyable feeling, as the exercises work with each separate level of the spine to open a passage for an upward flow of energy.
An SRF monk told us that Master asked some of his advanced disciples to help him design the exercises. I imagine he wanted each exercise to have a specific physical and spiritual effect. I’m guessing that he asked the disciples to help him identify the movements that would have the greatest effect at each level of the spine.
I’ll often pause in my practice, when I feel a fresh wave of energy rising in the spine. I’ll bend my spine backward and thrust my chest out, because I feel that it opens the spine and allows the energy to flow more freely. I don’t know if I feel the energy being blocked because of two old spinal surgeries that turned my spine into a pretzel. But the feeling of energy being awakened and lifted is unmistakable, and the backward bend is accompanied by a feeling of energy being released to flow more freely.
Most evenings after doing the energizers, I arrive at our community temple feeling thoroughly energized and renewed.
Rambhakta is a member of the Nayaswami Order. He is the author of The Joyful Athlete – The Wisdom of the Heart in Exercise & Sports Training and co-author of Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Children Who Excel in School and Life.