Category Archives: Pranayama

Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

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When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!

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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.

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.

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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 jalandara 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!

 

Savasana: “the most difficult pose to master”

 

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Savasana, or corpse pose is the bridge between the external practice to the internal practice (bahiranga to antaranga). It is the linking pose between Asana and Pranayama (breath/vital energy control). It is one of the few asanas where one can attain Pratyahara (detachment from the senses). In short, it is arguably one of the most valuable postures in Yoga. But because of its absence of physical challenge, it becomes very difficult for the aspirant to stop the mind chatter (citta vritti) which is one of the major aims of true Yoga practice. Because of this, BKS Iyengar often referred to Savasana as “the most difficult pose to master.” Here is a brief tutorial:

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Props needed are a sticky mat, a strap, and a blanket

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Lay the sticky mat flat

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And use the strap as an intersecting line. This will be a guide for the spine.

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Sit on the sticky mat with knees bent and both feet on the strap.

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Symmetrically roll the spine down the strap measuring vertabrae by vertebrae.

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When the head touches the ground see that the chin does not project back like seen in the photo. If your neck does this you need a folded blanket…

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You can now see the neck is soft here.

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Using a chopstick, the measurement should be that the forehead should be well above the chin so the crease in the neck deepens.

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Now grasp the sides of the sticky mat and push the hands towards the feet. This lifts the chest.

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Keeping the feet along the midline…

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Slide one foot out at a time

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And let both feet fall to the side.

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Now release the arms

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And take them to a 60 degree angle away from the torso

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From the base of the arms, roll them externally pressing the index finger knuckle to the floor to spread the sternal area

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Then gradually let go of all effort, closing the eyes

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To create softness in the face, and block out light, you can gently lay the strap over the eyes.

To come out bend the knees to the chest and roll to the right, propping yourself back to a seated position.

In Light On Pranayama by BKS Iyengar, he dedicates 22 pages to teaching this pose (more than any other Asana). In subsequent years he had also taught many more refinements. So my demonstration is just the tip of the iceberg.

Use part of your lunch hour to add a daily pranayama practice

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Yoga must have been very different back in the day. Imagine if you had joined a yoga school in India around the time of Patanjali. You would have left all of your earthly belongings to study yoga. A portion of your daily practice, aside from learning Sanskrit, doing asana, practicing devotion to your teachers, doing japas and cleaning the temple, would be a regular practice of pranayama in preparation for meditation.

Fast forward to 2015. There is no temple. There is no renunciation. You have bills and if you are lucky you have a job. To top it off, yoga is becoming now a fad with endless selfie pictures on the news feed. Had enough? Perhaps you can reclaim some elements of the past by finding a quiet place, shutting off your devices, and doing 10 to 15 minutes of pranayama. That is not much to ask considering 15 minutes is only 1.042% of your day.

Pranayama is an extremely subtle practice on the nervous system, and the esoteric yoga anatomy. In the Iyengar system, pranayama is kept separate from asana practice. It requires total concentration. For beginners, pranayama is learned in Savasana (corpse pose) with support that expands the chest cavity. I would highly recommend getting Light On Pranayama and studying with a certified teacher before getting too “experimental” with pranayama. Iyengar strongly suggests it could be harmful if done improperly.

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I have found lunchtime to be optimal for my pranayama practice. It corresponds nicely to one’s natural circadian rhythm around “siesta time.” I can find a quiet place, set up my blankets, do 15 minutes of pranayama/savasana, and then eat my lunch. Since I am a case manager, I usually have the freedom to choose where I can do this. If you are in an office you can find an empty room or quiet area.

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My preferred pranayama setup

Today, I did pranayamas with a “breathing out” emphasis to reduce my job related stress. I did Ujjayi II, Viloma II, and Bhramari 2A and 2B (see Light on Pranayama). Afterwards it was like hitting the “reset” button. I was able take on my challenging daily tasks with a clear mind and and a sense of hopefulness that had been absent for the previous part of the day.

Another advantage of doing pranayama is that you don’t need any special workout/yoga clothing. Just make sure your clothing does not constrict your breathing. Having a regular pranayama practice is nowhere near as flashy as the ubiquitous #instagramyogis that swarm the interwebs, but true yoga is done for the inward experience.