Tag Archives: pranayama

More Blakeney Notes

Alas! It is sad when a good workshop ends as Laurie Blakeney’s last class was on Sunday. Rather than a bunch of unrelated tips, the main points I have gained from this workshop are: sequence based on effect and feeling versus just a the same clan of poses, and asanas are supposed to draw one more internally no matter how “difficult.”

There was one class where we did closed twists. That is the clan where I have a great amount of difficulty due to my girth. As usual, she had us start with about an hour of seated poses. We did Marichyasana III. She asked me to move my bent knee foot more to the side. I knew the instruction, but noticed that this is a pose I subconsciously avoid due to the discomfort it gives me. That may contribute to my fumbling around in the base. She also had us sit on one blanket when I normally use three. My anxiety even before we got into the pose was overwhelming.

But once we started executing the pose, I felt better. I moved my big belly over and got into the upper back. She used the analogy of a doctor using a stethoscope and putting it on your upper back, asking you to breathe into it. That worked wonders!

She then pointed to a photo on the wall at Guruji in the full pose with the arm wrap. “You see the black and white photo where the light is shining from his skin? Breath into those places where the light is brightest.” A “light” literally went on in my head in how I view the poses.

She also made the analogy of starch sting on a balloon in pranayama. This comes from a kids’ craft project where one dips a string in starch and wraps it around an inflated balloon makes the general shape of the balloon. When the balloon deflates, the string remains in the shape. This is how she said one can visualize the ribcage in pranayama practice.

She emphasized the importance of not skipping savasana after pranayama. She said that she knew of a nurse who would have an intense pranayama practice before work but eschewed her savasana. She said later in the day she would become irritable. Once the nurse started practicing savasana, she said the late day irritation dissipated.

 

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Jupiter’s South Pole…the great mandala

This image just came back from the NASA satellite Juno launched in 2011 to explore Jupiter. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Jupiter from the Voyager missions. It is such a turbulent planet with a toxic gaseous atmosphere and a great storm with winds up to 400 miles per hour. Jupiter’s beauty lies in its turbulence.

It also has many moons among which is Io, a volcanic moon which is a pure firework spouting sulfur hundreds of kilometers into space. That makes it visible from Earth, as Galileo discovered it in the 1600s from the crude astronomical instruments at the time.

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Io

I am part of a Hubble Image discussion group on Facebook on which there are serious astronomers. I am just there because I like to see the images from the universe. One scientist in the group commented that he does not like people referencing the spiritual or God when commenting on these images. To me, one can simultaneously be scientifically minded and still view the wonders of the universe as spiritual experience. In fact one who can’t do both is quite limited in my opinion.

As one gets into their yoga practice for several years, one starts to see that they are not separate from anything. The Upanisads say that Brahman is everywhere in the universe. When I see these images, I feel a deep connection, as though I am a part of them in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. The galaxy is full of wonder. Not only with its contents, but with its sheer vastness. The opening mantra of the Isa Upanishad talks about how all is infinite and perfect, and that we are very much a part of that infinity and perfection.

Carl Jung theorized about the archetypes, or images that recur throughout all of humanity. One he was particularly fascinated with was the mandala. One can see forms of mandalas in all religions. From the stained glass at in the Chartres Cathedral, to the dancing pattern in Sufi’s whirling dervishes, to Tibetan sand forms. When one sees the underside of Jupiter, one sees all of these and more.

Each ring in the photograph represents a different “belt” of clouds. Very much like the Earth’s tropics above and below the equator, these belts represent a different direction in which the weather patterns move. When we do twisting asanas like parivrtta trikonasana, our bodies take on this very same phenomenon with different fluids and gases of the body moving in spiraling patterns. When we do pranayama, the air enters our system and heats up immediately. This causes “storms” in our different bodily region and regulates our prana. When done correctly, the weather in our body is harmonious. When done improperly, like Jupiter, our nervous system becomes turbulent. We are not different than the universe. The universe is not different from us.

 

 

 

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.

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 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!

 

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.