About Eric (Internal Energy Bio)
What I learned, where I learned it, and how my practice grew.
Over a 30-year, period Eric Armstrong trained with a variety of international masters of the “Internal Energy” arts. This article lists his influences and tells how his practice grew from their teachings.
Contents (not linked, alas)
* Jung SuWon
* Ipsalu Tantra Kriya Yoga
* Ananda Raja Yoga
* Kriya Yoga — What’s in a name?
* Inner Connection, Inspiration, and Evolution
* Swami Asanganand Saraswati
* Unity Palo Alto
* Inner Energy Yoga & Meditation
- You would probably recognize much of Jung SuWon as “Tae Kwon Do” — but that’s because the Korean martial arts association decided to brand all of Korean martial arts with a single name.
- That branding was good for international recognition and growth of the art, but at the same time it overlooked significant differences between them. All have a variety of kicks and punches, but some focused on joint locks (powerful stuff, but not something we trained in). Some focused on competition.
- Others, like Jung SuWon, focused on inner spiritual growth. (Sparring was just a vehicle for that growth. It caused many things to come up, in a place where you could help dealing with them. For example: fear, lack of confidence, overconfidence, arrogance, intimidation, past trauma — you name it.)
- I trained under the founder of Jung SuWon, Grandmaster (Dr.) Tae Yun Kim. I describe her as “a force of nature”. She could be as gentle as a soft rain, or as powerful as a hurricane, yet always in control, always able to select the response most appropriate for the moment.
- One of her major lessons was this: To be a great teacher, you have to be a great student. Why? Obviously, you need to be a great student to master the subject at hand. But not so obviously, every person is different. To inspire, motivate, and create change, you have to do what works for each. For some, that’s a gentle rain. For others, it’s a hurricane. And for some, it’s a drought. Different people respond to different influences, so you’re constantly learning, even when others consider you a “teacher”.
- She herself trained under a Buddhist monk from the age of 5 or 6, until attaining her black belt as a young adult. To sustain her school, she founded a company that produced cleanroom monitoring equipment, developing the software to run it in the process. Staffed by her students and teachers, it eventually became a highly-successful, worldwide organization.
- During the 8 years I trained with Dr. Kim, I learned innumerable lessons I wish I had learned much earlier in my life. Chief among them was how to interact with others in a positive and amiable manner.
- But there were other important lessons, as well: When/Why fight, Need to Protect Borders (See more in Random Reincarnation & Permanent Enlightenment)
- It was a large school — practically a university — with many teachers I learned from. Master Instructors Michael Fell, Scott Salton, and David Pariseau were my main influences, but I learned from all of the brothers I lived and trained with — particularly my “big brother” Mark Amador. (He was younger than I, but my “senior” in oh-so-many respects.)
- During my time there, we shared a house — each with our own room, but eating and training together, often in the early morning or late evening. One house was used by the male students, one by the female students, and one by Grandmaster and her cadre of teachers.
- During the day, we all worked full time jobs. But we were expected to devote our attention and effort to that activity as part of our training. (When we ran into difficulty, Grandmaster and her senior instructors were always available for counseling and mentoring.)
- To my surprise, my martial arts training turned out to be “Bhakti Yoga” in disguise (the Yoga of Love and Devotion). For reasons I may never be able to fully explain, my devotional practices taught me to open my heart and experience true love. (Whodda thunkit?)
- Before going to bed every night, we each lit a candle and focused on it for a while before closing our eyes to meditate. That daily practice focused on opening the heart — which also turned out to be key to generating massive amounts of body heat, so I came to understand how Buddhist monks can sit on a cold mountaintop and dry wet sheets with their body heat.
- In retrospect, that was the first time I came to associate a quasi-mystical “activation of an energy center” with a tangible physiological activity. (Much later, I would figure out that the brown fat along the spine that burns fuel to produce heat was being activated in a circular feedback loop where the body heat was caused by my heart-opening feelings of love, while at the same time increasing those feelings.)
Ipsalu Tantra Kriya Yoga
- In contrast to my full-time martial arts practice, Ipsalu Tantra Kriya Yoga was taught in a series of intensives, spaced fairly widely apart. So while the level 1 training was a few times a year, by the time you got to Level 4 the training might be given every 4 years (with only one of the locations in geographical proximity, making them effectively 8 years apart).
- The founder of Ipsalu Bodhi Avinasha, came out of retirement to teach her process at an Ipsalu Tantra Festival I attended. So I’m happy to say that I got to train with her directly. And after our interactions, I’m even happier to say that she became a lifelong friend. (I suspect she knew that I would become a teacher long before I did!)
- The other teachers I learned from the most were Nayano Burdine, Buddhyananda (Gary) Woodcox, and Janhavi Robinson.
- Buddhyanda was also deeply trained in the Ananda tradition founded by Yogananda, who came from a lineage of ascended masters that goes back to “Babaji” (aka Babaji Nagaraj).
- The Yogananda lineage is responsible for the Kriya Yoga half of Ipsalu’s teachings. That is the half of the teachings I resonated with most deeply. (The other half of the teachings stem from tantra master Osho. I grew from that that half, but it was the Kriya half that called to me.)
- Buddhyananda’s energy and the things he shared led me to investigate the Ananda tradition — a step that culminated in the powerful practice I now share with others.
- Intrigued as I was with notion of “Tantra”, though, it wasn’t something I was ready to dive into! Eight years in an “urban monk” celibacy program, on top of a background that left me “relationship challenged”, meant that Tantra was something I was interested in as a way to undo the past, but not something I was ready to embrace with open arms.
- Janhavi Robinson to the rescue! She gave a series of weekly “Meetups” that let me get my toes wet in Tantric philosophy.
- The biggest lesson I got in that series was about judgement. As an intellectually active, glass-half-empty kind of person, let’s say I was more than just a bit critical — of everything, including myself. But Janhavi helped me to understand that when you are critical, you make yourself separate, so the price of judgement is disconnection.
- I had experienced true connection in my martial arts meditations, and it was something I wanted more of. So that lesson in particular led me to engage in deeper levels of training.
- Naturally, Ipsalu courses are fundamentally ”Tantric” in nature. It’s sex-positive teaching helps to undo years of indoctrinated “Christian shame”. So it is sex-aware and sex-accepting, which entails a certain amount of body-centered activity. But it isn’t primarily about sex.
- Instead, it’s about the blissfully ecstatic energy flow (aka kundalini) that you experience when you transmute the sexual energy aroused during Tantric practices into a powerful, upward-flowing drive to enlightenment. (The Ipsalu practices I engaged in could probably be described as “lightky Tantric”. The got deeper, the further I went, but I didn’t go all the way, so I don’t know how deep they go.)
- The good news is that the 8-years of daily meditative discipline from my martial arts practice left me well-prepared to take on the work of meditating regularly between the relatively sporadic Ipsalu workshops I could attend.
- The one flaw in the Ipaslu practices I leared was that (like Ananda’s, below) they were rather time consuming. To an impatient Western mind that had built a post-college career as a competitive athlete and coach, I longed for a better, more time-efficient practice! (One which I believe I now have, and work to share.)
Hindu Temples & Sanskrit
- Hindu temples have marvelously open and loving people. There is a reason for that. In Hindu philosophy, since “God” is infinite, our finite human consciousness can only encompass a tiny facet. So we each find some aspect we resonant with, and perform meditative practices and devotional rituals with that aspect in mind.
- So Hinduism does not consist of “many gods”. Rather, it consists of one God with a multitude of aspects. Practitioners of Hinduism understand that, so they don’t just “tolerate” other practices. Instead, they have the same sense of unity with someone who engages the same form of devotion, or in a different form of devotion.
- That is an aspect of spirituality I can get behind! I had about decided to embrace Hinduism when I eventually discovered the Unity Spiritual Center in Palo Alto, CA — but that was still a decade and a half away. And you know, I still may! ‘Cuz Unity will embrace it. (Gotta love that!)
- My introduction to this understanding of Hinduism came about as a result of my interest in Sanskrit.
- Studying Greek philosophy in college, I had observed that some words should never be translated! Those key words have a rich variety of meanings, several of which may apply in a given context.
- If nothing else, the additional ideas associated with that word gives it a certain “flavor”. When you translate such words into a single idea in a different language, you pin down the meaning to just one. At the very least, you lose the flavor. At worst, you lose important meanings.
- As an example, consider “pranayama”. It means both breath, and energy. So I ask you: Is pranayama a breathing practice, or an energy-activation practice? Yes! It is!
- Fortunately, that is one word that generally isn’t translated in Western yoga teachings. But if it had been, we would read text that talk about breath on one page, and about energy on another, possibly never realizing that the discussion was about the same thing!
- As a result of what I learned in college, I was sensitive to the idea that translations could at times be somewhat misleading. I wanted to understand more about the practices I was learning, so I decided to learn more Sanskrit.
- The Sanskrit Bharta organization (or some spelling similar to that) teaches Conversational Sanskrit in Hindu temples, so I wound up going to some classes to see what I could learn. (I took it a couple of times, and learned a bit. But mostly I met some wonderful people, learned a lot about the pronunciation of Sanskrit, and was introduced to a variety of Hindu customs and ideas.)
Ananda Raja Yoga
- Ananda Palo Alto has some of the most wonderful, loving people I’ve ever met. There is a celibate contingent, but there also partners, teachers, and general members. Out of deference to the celibates, it’s not as overtly sex-friendly as Ipsalu. But it has a strong focus on the movement of internal energy.
- The Ananda program was brought to the U.S. from India by Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi). His original Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) is still running in SoCal. (Ananda was founded by music maven and Yogananda disciple, Kriyananda.)
- I highly recommend Ananda Palo Alto’s Raja Yoga program. The classes are mostly taught from scripts Yogananda left, so the lectures are fantastic.
- The class meets weekly for 3 months, and runs about 3 hours per class. In addition to the lecture, it includes a great yoga segment with a moment to meditate after each asana (as instructed by Yogananda), a pot luck dinner you share with others in the class, and a deeper internal-energy segment to finish the night.
- The class was powerful, spiritually uplifting, and highly motivating. And did I mention that I love the people there?
- But despite my love for the folks at Ananda, I could not teach there (more on that later). In addition, you’re sworn to secrecy before you can learn learn Yogananda’s Kriya practice, so I was unable to take the final step, for fear it would prevent me from sharing the practice of my own that took 30 years to evolve.
- In short, I got to the end of the road, with respect to Ananda. But if ever I can, I will willing set on foot on that path again, if only for the sake of the people there!
- Note: For a more detailed account of my life up to and through Jung SuWon and Ananda Raja Yoga, read the online draft of Magical Moments & Lessons Learned: An Uncommon Biography, modeled after Yogananda’s extraordinary book. (One fine day, I may even publish it, after adding the material recorded here.)
Kriya Yoga — What’s in a name?
- You’ve heard of “karma”, right? Let’s start there. Karma Yoga is about actions you take that affect others. Hatha Yoga, on the other hand, is about actions you take for the sake of your health and physical well-being. Those practices consist of external actions — actions that someone else can see and duplicate.
- Kriya Yoga, on the other hand, consists of internal actions — actions you take for the sake of internal energy flows and spiritual growth. It’s a powerful, literally enlightening set of practices that are not yet well-enough known in the West. (But they’re getting there.)
- My own practice had it’s origins in the Ipsalu Tantra and Ananda Raja Yoga techniques I learned. But once I began practicing diligently, it rapidly evolved into a unique practice in it’s own right, by virtue of inspirations received in meditation and experimentation with the techniques suggested by those inspirations.
- One day, I hope to teach my practice to someone who then takes or has taken Ananda’s Kriya Yoga initiation, so they can tell me if I would still be able to share my practice after doing that. (If I had the go-ahead, I’d be back in a heart beat!)
- By my estimate, there are at least 9 versions of the practice I’m aware of: four at Ipsalu, two (reported to be different) at another school created by the co-founder of Ipsalu after he left, one “Cobra Breath” at the Chicago school (no longer extant) that led to the Ipsalu version(s), one Kriya Yoga practice at Ananda, and one “traditional” Kriya Yoga practice consisting of pranayama and the bandhas, taught by a visiting yoga guru I’ll get to a moment.
- In addition, there are dozens of variations of the practice I teach, with multiple options for which practices to include and the order in which you do them. So the goal of my class is to teach those components, and lead “instructive meditations” — not “guided meditations” where the guide has to present for meditation to occur, but rather the sharing of internal-activity sequences that others can use as a starting point so that, by the end of the course, Energy Flow Meditation becomes a self-directed activity.
- My opinion at this point is that any combination of breath work and internal energy activations constitutes “Kriya Yoga”, and which version you do is far less important than doing some version — because ultimately they all lead to the same destination: Experiencing yourself as an energy being, and feeling your connection to the greater energy that pervades the universe.
- (The guru tradition has benefits, but it also has limitations, as discussed in How Will Ananda Grow? So I’ve decided to teach in the Western academic tradition of acknowledging the shoulders I’m standing on as I share my discoveries. That, too, is an experiment!)
Inner Connection, Inspiration, and Evolution
- With it’s primary focus at the top of the spine, and coming as it did after Jung SuWon’s heart-opening practices and Ipsalu’s primary focus on generating energy at the bottom of the spine, Ananda’s Raja Yoga program put “the cherry on top” of my Energy Flow Meditation sundae.
- The combination of Raja Yoga practices (one form of Kriya Yoga) and Ipsalu’s Tantric Kriya Yoga practices was so powerful, in fact, that I was highly motivated. I wanted to meditate. Every day! I wanted to go deep my practice and share in the great energy I observed every week in the people at Ananda.
- But there was a problem! Despite my desire to meditate regular, I uncomfortable sitting on the floor — and an ill-advised knee surgery made it impossible to become comfortable.
- I found the solution at the end of my futon, where the mattress had pulled back just enough that I could tuck in my good leg and achieve the upright posture that made it possible to meditate comfortably for a long enough period of time to do some good.
- That was good for one leg, at least. After a year, that leg was quite flexible. And I had a regular meditation practice that was beginning to take on a life of its own. Inspirations were a daily occurrence, and I made an inner connection with Babaji — the heart and soul (and founder) of both the Ipsalu and Ananda lineages.
- Meanwhile, I began looking for a bench that was wide enough, deep enough, and the right height to work on the other leg. But there was no such bench to be found! So I wound up building what came to be called the “Instant Alignment” Yoga Meditation Bench. (It only took ten iterations and six years, but I now have a version that is easier and much less expensive than any of the previous nine. Yay!)
- At this point, the inspirations were accumulating, and my practice was evolving. I felt the call to teach it, but should I? Who was I, after all? Not a “guru”, certainly. And all the practices I had learned were supposed to to be kept secret. So I wondered if I should really be sharing the technique that had grown from those practices.
- I began going within to check. Whether you call it my “spirit guide”, “Babaji”, or “inspiration induced by the connection to the greater energy of the universe”, the answer kept coming back: “Yes. You should. The world needs this.”
- So I wrote the Bench Yoga book (the first in what will one day become a multi-volume series) and founded the MeditateBetter website.
- I had previously observed smaller ladies able to sit with one leg tucked up in Western chairs — an observation that had no doubt been one of my subconscious inspirations. But, while researching that book, I discovered that sitting in that manner was actually an ancient tradition in India, all but lost in the modern era.
- (Adding a seat cushion to the bench allows even the most inflexible Westerner to achieve the same meditation posture as someone who has trained in yoga for decades. It’s also great for taking a break during a Western yoga class, which tend to be rather strenuous!)
Swami Asanganand Saraswati
- While taking Sanskrit lessons at a local Hindu temple (where I would love to teach, one day!) I happened to see a flyer for a visiting yoga guru, Swami Asanganand Saraswati. (No web presence, alas, or I would happily provide a link.)
- His energy was so wonderful, that even though he was teaching in Hindi (of which I speak not one word), I attended his class just to bask in his energy and enjoy the meditations it precipitated.
- He loved my desire, and my commitment, so he began assigning people to translate for me. (Eventually, they wound up investing in wireless headphones, so everyone who needed a translation could benefit from the workshop — including 2nd generation kids from India!)
- The second or third workshop, Swami Saraswati delivered the best instruction in pranayama (breathwork energy practice) that I have ever encountered. (I strive to share what he taught in my classes. They’re not part of my normal Kriya Yoga practice, but they are so powerful and beneficial in their own right that I would be remiss if I didn’t pass them on. And as always, I acknowledge the source of the material I’m sharing.)
- Swami Saraswati also taught a course on traditional Kriya Yoga — the combination of pranayama practices and bandhas (inner muscle contractions intended to promote the flow of kundalini) — which is how I arrived at the understanding that any combination of breath work and internal energy activations qualifies as “Kriya Yoga”.
- Those classes also put the concept of “Kriya Yoga” into context: Karma Yoga consists of actions you take for others. Hatha Yoga consists of actions you take for your health and physical well-being. Kriya Yoga consists of internal actions you take for spiritual growth, and to promote internal energy flows.
Unity Palo Alto
- Some would call Unity Palo Alto a “church”. (The parent Unity organization tends to do that.) But Unity Palo Alto calls itself a “spiritual center”. I like that. A lot. As with all of Unity, services are open to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or affiliation, or any other surface difference. But Unity Palo Alto makes a point of being open to all paths of spiritual and personal growth, regardless of where you happen to be on that path. That is a trait I find most endearing.
- Like Ananda, Unity Palo Alto holds weekly services, which gives me an opportunity to be inspired and deepen my connection. But it’s openness also gives me an opportunity to interact with others from a variety of backgrounds.
- (Ananda is more “homogenous”, in that sense. But at the same time, everyone at at Ananda is on a path that is known to work. So diversity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the different paths that people share may provide an opportunities for enrichment. On the other hand, some of them may well turn out to be dead ends!)
- What I love the most about Unity, though, is that practitioners in a variety of spiritual and personal growth traditions can arrange to give classes there.
- Although I trained in Ipsalu practices, and even took some very helpful teacher training, I am not an “Ipsalu teacher”. And if I taught in an Ipsalu setting, I couldn’t share that practice that has evolved for me, or techniques learned in Ananda. (I couldn’t even revise the Tai Chi segment, taking into account the Chen-style “Taiji” I had studied, along with martial arts principles I had ingrained.)
- Similarly, I wouldn’t really be able to teach at Ananda. Since both Ananda and Ipsalu are “guru-based” traditions, I would be limited to teaching what the guru left us.
- That (in a very big “nutshell”) is how I came to teach at Unity Palo Alto.
In addition, I have benefitted from many courses offered there. So in some sense, Unity Palo Alto is the “Spiritual University” I dreamt about, once upon a time.
- The Unity organization has some 300 chapters spread around the globe, so there may well be one near you. But some may be more like a typical “church” (which would not necessarily have appealed to me). But Reverend John Riley, the head minster at Unity Palo Alto, has a wider focus.
- The first few services, I heard him quote from the Bible in ways I could respect (i.e. quoting what Jesus actually taught, as opposed to other things that are “in the bible”, but which can be used to justify anything on earth you feel like doing!
- More importantly (for me), I also heard him quote from the Vedas (ancient texts from India that record and codify the wisdom of that tradition.
- Everyone I met there was “open” as well. For me, it was akin to the Hindu community I had grown to love. Although I was never really part of it, that tradition recognizes that God is infinite, and we are finite, so the most we can comprehend is a tiny fraction — an aspect of the infinite. So the “many Gods” in Hindu tradition are in reality many facets of one God. (To tell you the truth, it is Shiva that speaks to me. :__)
- As a result, followers Hinduism don’t simply “tolerate” other tradtiions. Instead, they recognize people of other faiths as “fellow travelers”, and feel a oneness with them. It’s a viewpoint I appreciate. (To my mind, it is the only religious viewpoint worth entertaining.)
- Outside of Hindu temples, Unity Palo Alto is the only other organization I’ve found that has the same sense of open acceptance (not “tolerance”). That openness is what gave me the opportunity to teach.
Inner Energy Yoga & Meditation
- My practice was derived from multiple guru-based traditions. It then it took on “a life of its own”, evolving into a series of practices that were inspired in meditation, which I have never seen taught (nearing 40, at last count).
- But because my practice contains so many influences, none of the guru-based traditions I studied are open to me, as a way to share my practice with others. (They would be, if I were willing to confine myself to the subset of practices they teach. But it’s just not in me to do that!)
- So I am indebted to Unity Palo Alto for giving me a place where I can share the practice I call it __Energy Flow Yoga and Meditation__.
- At the same time, that organization is helping me to grow! Their weekly services and the other classes available there are helping me grow in important ways.
- You see, I’m happy to be called “Coach”. Or as one of my students put it, “guru-in-training”. I can live with those. Because I do have a Powerful, Positivity-Promoting Practice that does a world of good. (P to the 4th. Trademark the property of yours truly!)
- At the same time, there are areas of my life that still need a lot of work. So many areas! I’m getting there, and I’m making progress. But I’m not “there”, just yet.
- For those reasons, I call myself “an inspired bubble of imperfection, with important things to share”.
- In no way, shape, or form then do I claim the level of perfection that would qualify one as a “guru”. So I don’t claim responsibility for someone else’s life. (Should they do this or that? They will have to meditate on it and see what resonates inside! I will help them look at different aspects of the choices, but the decision is theirs!)
- That stance is especially in force when it comes to a spiritual practice. I encourage (even insist) that they have some spiritual practice — one they engage in regularly, and diligently. It can be mine, or some other practice they are drawn to. They can use what I share to enhance their practice, use it as it is, or leave it if it’s not working for them.
- Perhaps most importantly, for me, is the fact that my practice is deepening because I’m teaching it. Other people’s lives are improving as a result of my classes, too, and that fact that fills me with joy.
- I benefit substantially from giving the class, as well. My meditations are often longer, deeper, and more tightly focused when I’m sharing them with others. And invariably gain new insights as I prepare for the next class in my 8-week series. (If nothing else, I’m figuring what things I have time to teach, and the best sequence for teaching them.)
- Meanwhile, the energy I get back in the class is indescribable. As they connect with a power far greater than themselves, a smile comes to their face, a light shines from their eyes, and their heart fills with joy. It is incredibly rewarding to witness, and to know I had a hand in the awakening.
- So yeah, I am benefiting in many ways from giving classes, and from my association with Unity Palo Alto.
Learn More: The Many Facets of Eric