The spiritual import of Pranayama

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By the time you have gotten to the point of practicing Pranayama regularly, you take your practice seriously. Pranayama is the end of the line of the physical practice. Like approaching the end of the high dive board, this is where the practitioner takes the “plunge” from the known physical practice, to unknown internal practice. In short, Pranayama is the most spiritual physical practice one can do.

Sutra 1.34 says: pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyām vā prāṇasya, or the exhale and retention (rechaka and bahya kumbhaka) are a means to cease citta vritti (mind chatter). As you may remember from Sutra I.2 stopping the mind chatter the main aim of Yoga practice. B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Pranayama (1999 ed.) takes this Sutra’s concept a step further:

Exhalation is the process by which the energy of the body gradually unites with that of the mind, merges into to soul of the sadhaka and dissolves into cosmic energy. It is the path of return from the peripheries of the body towards the source of consciousness know as the path of renunciation (nivritti marga). (Page 100)  and Bahya Kumbhaka (retention on the exhale) is the state in which the yogi surrenders his very self, in the form of his breath, to the Lord and merges with the Universal Breath. It is the noblest form of surrender, as the yogi’s identity is totally merged with the Lord. (Page 106).

Here, Iyengar may be referring to the “fourth” type of pranayama found in Sutra II.51. This “fourth” type of pranayama “surpasses the limits of the internal and external.” Then uncovers the thin veil between ignorance and illumination. Then the practitioner is qualified for Dharana (paraphrasing Sutras II.52-53).

In short, these Sutras are telling us that Pranayama is a destroyer of Karma which is a fundamental “goal” of the serious yoga practitioner. And like Pranayama cannot be commenced until Asana is mastered, the Sutras are suggesting that one must be proficient in Pranayama before intensive concentration (Dharana) can be undertaken.

I am very far from this level of progression in my personal practice. But the reason I am posting this is that it seems most Yoga we see and read about are just addressing Asana for Asana’s sake. In other words, “30 days to master scorpion pose” which we see ubiquitously on the Yoga news feeds of Facebook and WordPress. Perhaps this post will show that there is a progression along the eight limbs, and that each rung, like a peak of a mountain, must be ascended with much preparation and awareness. That in itself is an extremely spiritual undertaking.

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Approaching the victorious path of Pranayama (Part 2)

Now that I have covered some of the main prerequisites for Pranayama, now I will teach how to do Ujjayi I and II. The word Ujjayi combines the words “expanding” (Ud) and “victorious” (Jaya) which may refer to the expansion of the chest, and the feeling of being a “champion” with the posturing of a wide and lifted chest. The I and II levels are taught from supported Savasana (corpse pose.)

First you need a proper blanket setup. My preferred Pranayama setup is with three Mexican style blankets. Notice that the fringes are opposite to create an even surface and notice the trifold of the “pillow” blanket.

pranayama blankets

See the instructions for Savasana for more detail about getting into the pose. The spine has to roll down evenly and the right and left side have to be even.

With the blankets you see the chest opening is exaggerated. This allows the lungs to open to their capacity. Also notice the chin relative to the sternum forming the basis for uddiyana bandha.

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Ujjayi Pranayama

Similarly to how Tadasana is the foundation for all standing Asanas and Dandasana is the foundation for all sitting Asanas, Ujjayi is the foundation and reference point for all the Pranayamas. Note that all Pranayamas are done through the nostrils.

Ujjayi I

  • From the reclined position, Ujjayi is commenced by first expelling all the “tidal air” out of the lungs.
  • Without manipulating the breath, commence normal breathing, but observe the four parts of the breath’s structure (Puraka, Bhaya Kumbhaka, Rechaka, Antara Kumbhaka).
  • Gradually when the mind slows to the pace of the breath, observe any imbalances in breathing patterns and adjust accordingly.
  • Eventually practice until there is no tension or quivering in the flow of the breath.
  • Maintain this process for 10 minutes.

Ujjayi II

  •  In Ujjayi II the exhale (Rechaka) is accented. From the above exercise, exhale completely until the lungs are emptied and don’t put pressure on the abdomen.
  • Inhale normally
  • Exhale slowly until the lungs are emptied.
  • Maintain this process for 10 minutes.

After Pranayama, undo the blanket setup for the chest and then commence Savasana for 10 minutes.

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It is interesting to observe that doing Savasana after Asana practice, Savasana  feels “deep” relative to the physical postures. However, doing Savasana after Pranayama, one notices how “shallow” the Savasana is compared to the Pranayama practice. It is one of the few physical evidences we have that Pranayama is a deeper progression along the eight limbs than Asana.

I hope you found this post helpful in your practice. I will emphasize that this post is merely a perfunctory view of Pranayama. For more details and refinements, please refer to Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar and attend classes from an Iyengar Certified Yoga Instructor in your area.

OM Shanti

 

 

 

Approaching the victorious path of Pranayama (Part 1)

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To further refine one’s home practice, Pranayama is essential. It is not a practice one approaches in a standard one-size-fits-all format as everyone has their own cardiovascular and respiratory rhythms. But certain fundamentals must be learned before one tries on their own. The Iyengars and the Hatha Yoga Pratipika warn that Pranayama practiced unskillfully can have damaging effects on the nervous system. In short, Pranayama is not merely “breathing exercises.” Pranayama is just as the name implies: management of the body’s “pranic” or energetic system.

B.K.S. Iyengar warned that one must not approach Pranayama casually and mechanically. Just as there are refinements in Asana, there are extremely subtle refinements in Pranayama. Again, these cannot be seen easily if at all by the teacher, so it is up to the practitioner to understand what needs to be refined.

One’s mental state cannot be agitated before doing or while in Pranayama. If that is the case, the practitioner must go back to Asana until the mental state is calmed. As a mental health care professional, this took me years to figure out. As a counselor, a common “coping skill” to teach for one who has anxiety is to “take deep breaths.” That has had mixed results in my counseling profession especially of for those who smoke daily and have respiratory problems. Breathing deeply has actually made them panic more! Through the years I have found teaching my clients Tadasana and supported Adho Mukha Svanasana as much more valuable technique of addressing anxiety than “breathing deeply.”

In the hierarchy of practice, Asana must be mastered before one can commence Pranayama.  That does not mean one has to execute Asanas in the back of Light On Yoga to qualify.  But the quality of the asanas you do have to have Sthira and Sukham (steadiness and well being). The aim of Pranayama isn’t merely to get out of an agitated state. The aim is to cultivate Pratyahara, or detachment from the senses.

It is recommended that people don’t start doing Pranayama until they have had regular and steady Asana practice for six months. This not to be snobby, but it is because the body needs to attain a basic sense of proper alignment before any effective work on the extremely subtle pranic system can be done. If you are new to Yoga, please see my tabs on Asana and Yoga Sequences and practice these with the help of a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor in your area. It is highly advisable to obtain a copy of Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar as he goes into tremendous detail of what I will cover briefly in these posts. With all of that, let us start to explore how to approach Pranayama.

Ideally, Pranayama is practiced separate from Asana. If you practice Asanas first, allow 30 minutes before commencing Pranayama practice. As Pranayama tries to cultivate Pratyahara, there should be no music playing and of course electronic devices should be silenced. It is very jarring to the nervous system to hear a cell phone go off while you are concentrating on the subtle body.

The four parts of the breath

To understand the basic structure of the breath, one needs to know at least the corresponding references in Sanskrit. The exhale is called Rechaka. The retention at the end of the exhale is called Bhaya Kumbhaka. The inhale is called Puraka. The retention at the end of the inhale is called Antara Kumbhaka. Kumbha means “pot” or “vessel” and the retention refers to the encapsulation of the Prana in the vessel. Eventually, the Kumbhakas increase in time duration according to the aim and skill of the practitioner.

Study these concepts, and in future posts I will show how to position the body for pranayama give basic instructions for UJjayi I and II Pranayama-s.

Many blessings!

 

Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

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I write a great deal about Asana in my blog. One could argue that my blog is only about Asana and that I have not even come close to touching the other limbs. That would be a valid argument. I have been fortunate enough lately to devote much time to reading and studying the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. After hearing an interview with scholar Edwin Bryant, the idea has crystalized that has been inside of for much time: since Asanas are so powerful and profoundly life changing by themselves, the entire practice of Yoga is light years more powerful and transformative.

There are only three Yoga Sutra-s that address Asana: sthira sukham asanam (the seat/pose steadies and brings about comfort for the aspirant’s consciousness), prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām (mastery in the Asana is accomplished when the aspirant has a state of effortless effort in the body and in the consciousness), and tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ (from then on the aspirant is not vexed by the dualities that exist between the pure consciousness and the perceived world.)

As Bryant points out, reference to Asana only encompasses 12 words in a 1200 word text, or 1 percent. But rather dismissing Asana as unimportant because of its brief “cameo” in the Sutra-s, reflect on how powerful Asana has been in your life. For many of my readers, Asana is only what they have practiced. That is not a bad thing, as Asana as Bryant describes is “plugged in” to a larger system of total transformation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be to practice daily and uninterruptedly a concept like telling the truth, or keeping yourself clean, or not being greedy. Just practicing those concepts for one day would be life changing to many. Then one only begins to gather how difficult and how deep the whole of the Yoga Sutra-s are in what they are trying to impart to the reader.

By all means don’t give up your Asana practice! B.K.S. Iyengar taught that all limbs can be practiced in Asana and has proved it in how he changed the world’s view of Yoga.

Gandhi liberated India with concepts in the Yoga Sutra-s like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to duplicate these principles to create civil rights in the US. Similarly, the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s teach how to emancipate ourselves not only from sorrows, but from all the Karmic and Samskaric imprints we have inherited.

 

 

 

 

Appreciating Yoga’s relationship to Hinduism (instead of fearing it)

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People seem deathly afraid of Hinduism cropping up in the West for some strange reason. Just this week, two state legislators in Idaho protested when a Hindu prayer was said before the start of a session. One of the big debates of late is whether Yoga is a Hindu practice. There seems to even be legal rulings on whether or not Yoga should be considered a religion or a workout. In the same vein, why are we not afraid that Sufism is rooted in Islam, or that Qabbala is rooted in Judaism?

Many of the texts and concepts in Yoga are shared with people who practice Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) being a good example. It the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on a battlefield where Arjuna is in the middle. On one side are his teachers, and the other side are his family members. Arjuna is in an awful dilemma. Krishna advises him to use Yoga to conquer the dilemma and to do his dharma as a warrior.

Other Hindu elements crop of in the names of Yoga Asanas. Bharadvaja, Vashistha, Marchi, and Hanuman just to name a few were figures in the Mahabharata. Of course in Western Yoga classes, these poses are renamed based on their body movements like “the splits” and “twists.”

My view may not be a popular one, but instead of watering down the names and concepts of Yoga that come from Hinduism, why not embrace them? I am not asking you to drop your faith and become Hindu. But I am asking that Yoga practitioners in the West more deeply explore the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism, rather than just using the parts that are convenient for them to present to a judge who will rule and decide if Yoga is considered a religion or a workout.

When you study the Yoga Sutras and read about Siddhis  (superpowers that come from Yoga practice), it is helpful to read about Hanuman who displays his mastery of all the Siddhis in his efforts to reunite Sita and Rama. These stories show how powers cultivated in Yoga can be used properly and for the good of mankind. Not to say that anyone actually will attain Siddhis in their practice, but If you woke up one day and were able to float on air, wouldn’t it be nice to have a guideline on how to use this power?

Being a New Mexico native, then moving to Hawai’i, I have seen the recurrent theme of having a rich culture be exploited by people who first try to make money off the unique attributes of the culture, then completely water it down until there is no culture left to market. They just built a Target store in my hometown of Kailua, transforming a charming beach community into Anywhere Else, USA full of traffic. I see the same thing happening in Yoga. Look no further than the Wanderlust Facebook page to see what I mean.

So my challenge to practitioners of Yoga in the West is to read some of these texts like The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. Try to understand the concepts of reincarnation even though  that may not be your belief system. And minimally, use the Sanskrit terms of the Asana names instead of just calling them things like “updog.” As a deeper practice, go 30 days without buying things from those who commercialize and exploit Yoga, like the Lululemon store. Your Yoga practice will only get richer as a result.

 

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On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

 

It is said much recently that a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is its refinement on inversions. After years of practice, I will have to say another hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is the quality of the straight legs in Iyengar practitioners.

Straight legs are not something that happens overnight. Very much like that tear jerking scene in Forrest Gump when the young Forrest is bound by a confining leg brace, and then chased by bad kids, he finds his “real” legs and off he goes into an almost superhuman ability to run fast.

The same struggle, then liberation can be said of the years of practice it takes to truly straighten the legs in Iyengar Yoga. How many of you who have been to a bona fide Iyengar class for the first time heard “straighten your leg!” only to look down to your version of straight legs and wonder if the teacher is talking to someone else? That was my first 10 years of practice (with occasional relapses if I let my strong tamasic nature take over).

Let me show you a comparison of  “straight legs”  vs. “Iyengar straight legs” in a Padangusthasana (big toe pose), a forward bend.

uttanasana bent

This woman is flexible enough to touch her toes. But look at the angle behind the knee joint. It may appear to the untrained eye that her legs are straight, but her legs are not a straight as they can be.

pandangusthasana iyengar

This may not be a fair comparison, but look at Guruji’s pose during his prime. Very little angle behind the knee and the front of his legs are “poker straight” as he often described them.

So how does the aspirant get the legs of Iyengar? In addition to daily uninterrupted practice, there are ways in which you can start to address the tamasic nature of the strong and lazy legs.

For my basic students, I often have them do Pasrvottanasana (intense stretch of the side body pose) with one heel against the wall and with a chair.

parsvottanasna with chair

 

If there is a mantra in Iyengar Yoga, it would be that “contact is intelligence.” The contact with the back heel pressing hard on the wall cultures the leg to work properly as a “straight’ leg. Many are shocked at how difficult it is do this even though they are lithe and flexible.

Another exercise to straighten the leg is Supta Padangusthasana I with belt around the big toe mound.

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Now the leg is in the air and doesn’t have the earth to press down on. The belt acts as a gauge to which degree you can press against. I like to use the metaphor of using a gas pedal where you slowly accelerate like you are trying to maintain a constant but slow speed like you are driving in a school zone. By pressing the big toe mound into the strap, one notices the effect on the knee and how the more your press, the more the kneecap recedes into the socket. Don’t completely plantar flex the foot like a ballerina. You have to temper that by extending up from the back of the ankle toward the ceiling. The proper foot in an inversion is partially dorsi flexed and partially plantar flexed.

Straight legs are a necessary element for inversions. Without the firmness in the legs the weight sinks on the the neck and head in Salamba Sirsasana. Notice the quality of the legs in Guruji’s Salamba Sirsasana and notice the corresponding lift in his shoulders.

sirsasana iyengar

 

The contraindication for this exercise is for those who hyperextend their knees. The instruction would be for those practitioners to learn where they are pushing too hard in the back of their knee and decrease the effort to preserve the joint over years of practice. That may be a future blog post.

To come full circle, inversions are an a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. But you cannot have proper inversions until you have straight legs. Now “straighten your legs!!!”

The Solar System

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People come to Yoga for various reasons. The overwhelming majority come to the practice to address health concerns, followed by a few who come to the practice to address mental concerns. All paths which lead the practitioner to Yoga are valid.

Today I was thinking about the Solar system and how it relates to this concept. Imagine the Sun represents the merging of Purusha (the True Self) with Ishvara (God). Each planet represents our motivation to come to Yoga practice and how far away we are from the “Sun.”

Pluto is the farthest planet from the Sun. It is so small that there is a debate among astronomers whether it should even be classified as a planet. This can be representative of the student who is motivated to do Yoga because it is a means of making quick money.

The next closest to the sun is Neptune. It is a large planet, but still far away from the Sun. This can be represented of the student who is motivated to do Yoga because it is the latest fitness trend.

This is followed by Uranus. The next closest planet to the Sun. This represents the student who comes to the practice because of health concerns and that there are no other means of bring relief to his/her ailment aside from Yoga.

Then comes Saturn. Mighty planet with large rings made from ice. This represents the physically healthy student who comes to Yoga to develop refinement in his/her physicality.

Next is Jupiter, the largest planet of the solar system. This can represent the student who realizes that Yoga can address mental stress in addition to it’s physical benefits.

Then comes Mars, the red planet. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga because he/she is curious about the philosophical aspects of Yoga.

Our planet Earth is next. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga for its traditional aspects.

The next plant is Venus. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga to gain wisdom.

The last planet closest to the sun is Mercury. This is for the student who comes to the practice to be be closer to God.

Lastly, the Sun. This represents attainment in Yoga and realization of the practitioner.

Our Universe is much larger than we originally thought. There are an estimated 100-200 billion galaxies. Some of those galaxies merge into one. This shows that the practice goes beyond what we can comprehend or perceive.

merging galaxies

 

The point of the essay is that our motivation changes with continued practice. The more we practice Yoga, the more we get a “glimpse” of our True Selves and hence get a step closer to the Sun. May you all one day “merge” your True Self with the divine in your practice.