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Yoganusthana: On Pranayama: Study Notes

day 0

 

8 dec 2013, 1 hour

 

orientation lecture

 

after some uncertainty, i am in geetaji’s pranayama  teaching session for teachers in india. it has only been an hour since i got off the train from bangalore.

 

most of the team from bangalore (meeting them for the first time) are here and i am hoping to get to know them a little bit before the end of this week.

 

in the hour-long orientation talk, geetaji starts by saying that these sessions have been in the offing for a while, but were postponed multiple times due to one reason or another. this time, since it coincides with the week of guruji’s 95th birthday, and also ends with gita jayanti  (thats another bonus this weekend – a lecture on the 12th chapter of the bhagwat gita ), she decided to take the plunge and that she will “do her best”. geetaji says the most profound things with a disarming innocence that comes straight from the heart without any artifice.

 

we hold the initial prayer position longer than usual, and geetaji uses this instance to comment on our state of readiness – the ability to be stable and still, the ability to visualize and internalize patanjali, and the ability to completely surrender to the primordial teacher.  geetaji talks about why in this system of practicing and teaching yoga, pranayama  is started late (and also in passing, why even the asana  classes are usually conducted only 2/3 time a week): anything valuable needs to be dispensed in moderation, else its value will, in fact, diminish; that the student’s ability to receive can become a limiting factor; that often times, there is a mismatch between the rhythm at which a student is receiving information and the rhythm at which the teacher is dispensing. to counter all of the above (and they are all separate reasons), spacing out the sessions gives the student time to reflect and to engage in self study – svadhaya . (at the institute in pune, geetaji usually teaches only one pranayama  class in a week to the senior students. in addition, the last week of the month, all intermediate and advanced classes are usually pranayamic  in nature).

 

we are reminded of our unease during the time of prayer, and therefore, the reason behind guruji’s interpretation of pranayama  in the lying down position. unsteadiness in the body due to a physical ailment, emotional or mental distress makes sitting upright for pranayama  very difficult and out of reach for almost all of us that live with the stresses and strains of the modern life. but what of people that feel sleepy when they lie down for pranayama ? sleep – nidra  – has been described as one of the five vrittis  in the yoga sutras of patanjali . if it expresses itself during pranamyama  (and sometimes this happens very soon after one has got up in the morning after a full night’s sleep), it is an indication that the mind/ nerves are still not rested and there is residual stress. geetaji also points out that even if one sleeps in the lying down position of pranayama , the physical positioning of the body ensures that the quality of the sleep is quite different from sleep on one’s bed in the night, and one will wake up feeling a lot more refreshed even after a brief savasana .

 

geetaji give example from her own practice when speaking about the importance of cultivating a ‘sensitive’ state in order to understand the subtleties of pranayama . overzealous asana practice can in fact, make one less sensitive. also doing too much of exhalative pranayama  like kapalabhati  and bhastrika , can make one insensitive to digital (i.e. using the fingers) pranayama.  oh yes, not supposed to eat heavy breakfast before the class which is from 10 am to 12:30 pm.

 

day 1

 

9 dec 2013, 2 hours

 

we start a little late due to the adjustments being made by the recording group (the entire programme is being streamed live to the observers who are seated on the floor above).

 

we do only 4 things in the next two hours – watch a volunteer lie down in savasana  on the floor (how does raya do savasana  with dozens of eyes on him?!!), we lie down on the floor ourselves; watch the volunteer lie down in savasana  with the back raised, and we do the same ourselves. and yet, at the end of the two hours, the mind feels full and satisfied – like it could not have digested another morsel of this meal, even though it was nutritious and delicious. the hallmark of a great teacher – to know when to stop.

 

today we did the positioning of the body – the gross and the auxillary muscles of breathing. at several times the interconnectedness of asanas  and pranayama  is obvious – like why do we work so much on our limbs in asanas  – because the muscles of the limbs are also the auxiliary muscles of breathing – e.g. can’t position the top chest without using the trapezius, the shoulder and the upper arm. also because, being the ‘organs of action’ – karmendriyas  – the limbs are usually extroverted – even when we do a nonphysical activity like just talking. geetaji gives the beautiful example of how a speaker either uses their arms and legs to communicate, or even if they do not, after a long session of talking, the arms and legs feel tired.

 

in savasana , geetaji’s instructions are precisely structured around, why a certain part of the body gets crooked (the head getting thrown back, the heels retracting, the chest dropping), what happens as a result of that crookedness, how to identify the uneven state of the body in a student (through visual observation and also through observing the same tendencies within oneself), and how to make adjustments.

 

even though “savasana  is my favorite pose” is the favorite yoga joke of many beginner students, they soon realize that it is not necessarily true. today we go through the detailed steps of going into the savasana  accurately – sitting in dandasana  exactly in the centre of the mat and widening the flesh of the buttocks, then bending the legs and lowering the torso on the floor by taking the support of the two elbows, releasing the lower waist/hip flesh downward and straightening the legs slowly one after the, still keeping the feet joined, adjusting the ribcage so that the sternum does not drop, rolling the shoulders back strongly enough that the heads of the shoulders are pinned to the floor and the shoulder blades move towards each other, straightening the arms and holding the sides of the mat to once again make sure that the body is still aligned in the centre of the mat, moving the grip of the hands down the mat towards the feet-side to elongate the arms while keeping the shoulders rolled back, and only then turning the palms to face up and roll the wrist from the little finger side towards the thumb side and the biceps inside out, adjusting the back of the neck at c1 and c2 vertebral level with one’s own hands so that the back of the neck stays long and the skull is balanced in the centre (“more difficult than balancing on the skull in sirsasana ”) finally letting the feet roll out to the sides, without letting the heels shorten and without widening the legs too much (at the end of an asana  practice, the feet can go to the outer edges of the mat. however when doing savasana  for pranayama , they need not be so wide). i notice all the crooked/ insensitive/ weak parts in my body that are usually masked by anyhow throwing oneself down on the floor at the end of an asana session – the right hip just spills out and also lifts up while the left side retracts in and the left thigh and left foot refuse to roll out as much as the right side. a lot of patience and hard work will be required in other asanas , before the savasana  becomes a comfortable pose.

 

supporting the back with a bolster/ blankets lifts the chest, broadens the lower lumbar area and alleviates many of the discomforts of lying down flat on the floor (the bolster is to be kept right up against the spine for beginners so that it prevents the muscles/ skin of the outer lumbar area from moving in towards the central spine) it also brings the breath directly into one’s consciousness. today we just spent time in getting to know the ‘normal’ breath – the different areas that it can touch from the sides of the navel all the way to the top chest. and we learnt to recognize that it is in fact the middle chest that comes into consciousness the fastest – so this is where the pranayama practice has to be started for a beginner.

 

geetaji had this to say about we were trying to do in today’s session – giving the first boil to the milk so that a thin layer of cream forms on top. thickening of the milk to form basundi  is still a long way off.

 

day 2

 

10 dec 2013, 2.5 hours

 

we start where we had left off yesterday – lying down in savasana  with a bolster supporting the back. as we did yesterday, after lying down, we bend the arms at the elbows, push the elbows into the floor and turn the palms to face towards the face in order to adjust the trunk and the shoulder. today we spend more time on this action to see that the sternum from the bottom to the top stays lifted, the armpit-chest area moves forward and the heads of the shoulders move down towards the floor. the teacher presented a beautiful analogy for withdrawal of the senses – the sense of sight specifically. we have experienced that just closing the eye does little towards stilling the mental process of visualization. withdrawing the pupils and eyeballs first towards the back of the skull and then down below the cheekbones, widening the eyelids are further instructions usually given to quieten the eyes. today, geetaji asks us to simulate the condition of a blind person who has never seen anything and therefore, doesnt even understand what ‘visualisation’ is. over the next few minutes, we do ujjayi  stage 2 (normal inhalation, prolonged exhalation), ujjayi  stage 3 (prolonged inhalation, normal exhalation), and then ujjayi  stage 4 (prolonged inhalation, prolonged exhalation) with normal normal breaths between subsequent cycles of the ujjayi . the prolongation of the breath is a gentle and natural process and not a forced effort. no mention is made of the ‘sibilant sound’. we do this long enough to experience that the breath is in fact following the mind. geetaji explains how easy for the mind to catch on to a thought and lose the state of ‘emptiness’ that is required for the practice of pranayama  – by the throat getting irritated due to cough arising – even a cough arising in the neighbour’s throat, or by the teacher raising her voice. and as soon as that happens, the breath also loses its normalcy. for what is a ‘normal breath’ after all? it is the breath that moves when the mind, the intellect and the body are in a state of being perfectly positioned and perfectly still. most of the time what we call ‘normal breath’ is actually abnormal because it is under the influence of the imbalance in the body, mind or intellect. how difficult for us to attain and to maintain this state of stability and stillness with the added complexity of our conditioning to always ‘do’ something. even in a session such as this, mere observing seems inadequate in the absence of directions to put effort into something – into anything!

 

we now sit up in swastikasana , pressing the hands on the blanket/ bolster on the sides of the body to lift the trunk up. the upper arms moving a little behind the front line of the body and descending down, the elbow staying close to the body, the palms are placed on the thighs (“anywhere on the thigh that is comfortable”) with the palms facing down to begin with. the chin is taken down towards the chest in jalandhara bandha  and subsequently, both the base of the skull and the area just behind the crown of the head are adjusted with our own hands to descend the head. we continue the ujjayi  action for several cycles, introducing a mild retention after the inhalation (antara kumbhaka ) in order to stabilize the body before exhaling. geetaji says later “as soon as the kumbhaka  started, i could see through all of you like an x-ray”. afterwards, she diagnosed better than an x-ray – tilts in the body that are accentuated by the breath, as the breath pulls the body strongly to one side, unconscious lift of the shoulders and dropping of the chest, hardening at the apex of the ‘inverted v’ formed by the base of the sternum and the false ribs (corrected by increasing the height of the blanket), heaviness in the upper arms due to faulty positioning that pulls down the chest on that side (this was corrected by strongly rotating the biceps outwards, and then placing the hand a little behind the line of the body to continue that action). she observes fiercely and diagnoses fearlessly and then corrects using straightforward logic backed by decades of experience.

 

aha moment: why pranayama is an important part of the practice – asanas  familiarize one with the gross realities of the body but without using the subtlety of the breath, the subtle realities within the body cannot be known. all the skeletons hiding in my closet are coming tumbling out.

 

day 3

 

11 dec 2013, 2 hours

 

class 1 of 2

 

 

 

this should be obvious but i state it anyway: this is just a record my experience of attending this unique event. it is in no way a tutorial on learning pranayama . what the teacher is trying to transmit is probably getting completely mutilated as it passes through the filter of my ability to comprehend and my inclinations (it will be very interesting to watch the objective recording of the camera – dvd set coming

 

out on the 14th ). the third day felt like a good time to state this – because no one ever taught me pranayama  with such clarity from the absolute base level. and i belatedly acknowledge that it must be a very difficult subject to teach!

 

the first class of the day had a lot of people – two people to a mat and no place to straighten the legs if we lay down – maybe more than 300 people in a room meant for about half that number. it was a learning experience for the efficiency of people and space management.

 

and we learnt such exciting stuff – bhramari, kapala bhati  and bhastrika . forgive the excitement – its true that though i have done these pranayama  in various classes, no one ever taught me pranayama  with such clarity from the absolute base level.

 

bhramari  can be practiced both with and without a chin-lock. in the various pranayama , the location, duration and the pattern of the inhalation and exhalation differ. the inhalation in bhramari  starts at the lower back ribs and moves the lower ribs forward as it is completed. the bhramari  exhalation is sandwiched between two such inhalations. over the last couple of days, geetaji has mentioned the larynx/ voicebox a few times – about how singers usually recognise and use the ‘best’ part of their larynx, but how their unused parts can sometimes become weak, the need to rest the larynx for habitual speakers like professors – and the general ignorance and disinterest of everyone else about their larynx. it is true that i certainly havnt given much thought to mine – to its length form the top to the middle and to the bottom, and to its two sides – and how the quality of the sound changes as it emerges from these different areas. this is what we do today – and it is gratifyingly easy to recognize – how the sound emerges predominantly from one side, how the head and the body in fact starts swaying towards that side as well; and how the body can be centralized by distributing the origin of sound more equally in the larynx. doing the jalandhara bandha  in bhramari  makes it easier to keep the head centralized. attention also required to see that the bhramari exhalation is ‘thrown out’ of the body because drawing

 

it in would tend to collapse the body.

 

i must have blown my nostril several times whenever i have had cold. but never given much thought to the fact that the inner membranes of the nostrils tend to ‘fall’ on the septum if blown too frequently and too forcefully. the delicacy of their structure needs to be respected by doing kapalabhati  judiciously and correctly. in kapalbhati , the in-breath starts at the middle chest – so it can move quickly to the focus area of the pranayama  – the nostrils. the kapalbhati  breath is focused around the nostrils and is not be forced through:

 

the chest

the throat

the eyes

the head

geetaji gamely shows us examples of all of the above on herself.

 

unlike kapalbhati , the bhastrika  the inhalation originates form the sides of the naval area and the exhalative bhastrika  breaths are also in the abdominal – diaphragm area. i havent yet figured how to descriptively differentiate between the two any better than this so will stop right here.

 

day 3

 

11 dec 2013, 2 hours

 

class 2 of 2

 

this is an afternoon class. and sleep finally strikes! the beginning cycle of viloma  breathing in the lying down posture pass in a state of great struggle and am glad when finally asked to sit up.

 

we are asked to spread the breath between the left and the right sides of the body and i realize, that the breath was indeed unequally divided between the two parts before this.

 

over these two hours, inhale completely and then exhale with pauses; cycles of normal breath to come back to neutrality; we inhale with pauses followed by complete exhalation; cycles of normal breath to come back to neutrality.

 

later geetaji talks about the ‘holding’ and how its only in the pause after the inhalation (antara kumbhaka ) that one is really ‘holding’ something inside. the holding after complete exhalation is a contradiction in terms because one is really holding the emptiness – bahya kumbhaka  seems to happen much more naturally. and so to experience physiology subjectively – the exterior intercostal muscles being the muscles of inhalation and the interior intercostals being the exhalative muscles – it is indeed possible to sense the

 

expansion and lifting of the ribcage during inhalation coming from an outer layer of muscles, while the

 

inner layer of muscles seems to hold and stabilize the thoracic cavity form inside during the exhalation,

 

ensuring that it does not collapse.

 

geetaji has been using the terms ‘normal breath’ and complete/ ujjayi  breath frequently and giving

 

various interpretations of the difference. this is the one that stayed with me the longest – the normal

 

inhalation rises from somewhere in the vast inner space and the normal exhalation disappears

 

somewhere in the vast inner space; the complete inhalation has to be traced from its point of origin and

 

the complete exhalation as to be traced to its point of end.

 

till the very end, i cant shake off the feeling of being disappointed with myself – how easy to lose the

 

neutrality of the mind.

 

day 4

 

12 dec 2013, 2.5 hours

 

end of the fourth day and am exhausted. appetite lost.

 

had lunch with a dear friend from long ago after the class (being a dear friend and a co-practitioner, she

 

agreed it was probably not a good idea to do an annual catch-up right after the class.) and a long

 

conversation over telephone with a prospective team-member at our consulting business that could not

 

be avoided. and i admit i do not have a very regular pranayama  practice. but i am attributing at least

 

part of the exhaustion to the classes over the last three days. it might look like we are just sitting around –

 

and sometimes lying around – but it is getting tiring. in fact, it is starting to feel like the day after the

 

vipassana course ends – and i find myself wishing that people would stop talking! important to set aside

 

plenty of time for resting and being quiet.

 

we moved to digital pranayama  today. starting with a little lesson on nose anatomy – the openings of

 

the nostrils, the bridge, the outer walls, the inner membranes, the bony part – nasal bone – ending in a

 

notch where it meets the bridge of the nose. and the positioning of the fingers – the index and middle

 

fingers of the right hand curled in, the tips of the thumb, ring finger and little finger brought together. this

 

can be a little tricky – sometimes the index and middle fingers do not have enough flexibility to curl in

 

and the little finger might not have the extension to come up to meet the tip of the thumb – the left hand,

 

maladroit in general and never having done the pranayama mudra  before, has to be practically forced

 

into place with the right hand (“in conditions where the right hand cannot be used, the left one can be

 

used instead”).

 

we take the chin down towards the chest and start with anuloma pranayama  – long inhalation (both

 

hands on the thighs) and exhalation through both nostrils partially closed (tip of the thumb and tip of the

 

ring finger of the right hand on the two notches on either side of the bridge of the nose) and normal

 

inhalation (both hands back down on the thighs). several cycles of normal breathing before the next

 

cycle of pranayama . this apparently simple cycle was not so easy to execute. common problems –

 

long nails (!!), head starting to lift up gradually, eyeballs bulging as they sense the hand coming closer to

 

the face, the right shoulder gradually rolling forward, and most interestingly, the tendency to hurry up the

 

normal cycles of breath and go immediately into the next cycle of the pranayama  which keeps the right

 

arm in a state of readiness to move towards the nose, and lifts the right elbow away from the body.

 

geetaji called this the expression of the rajasik  nature. at the mental level, she instructed a powerful

 

lengthening of the right upper arm towards the floor and a weighting down of the outer corner of the

 

right elbow; at the mental level, she instructed the ‘arms to become humble’. in general, as much as the

 

actual anuloma pranayama , attention was focused on bringing the body and mind to a state of

 

neutrality through the normal breath cycles.

 

after a brief savasana , we sit up and take the chin down towards the chest for pratiloma pranayama  –

 

long exhalation (both hands on thighs), inhalation through both nostrils partially closed (tip of the thumb

 

and tip of the ring finger of the left hand on the two notches on either side of the bridge of the nose; the

 

skin moving from the bridge towards the nostrils. we used the left hand to rest the right arm and right

 

shoulder. and normal exhalation (both hands back down on the thighs). several cycles of normal

 

breathing before the next cycle of pranayama . the precaution here is that the breath should not be

 

‘sucked’ in past the inner membranes of the nose – these membranes should not be drawn up and

 

towards the septum. this is something we all do at some time or the other, sucking the breath in sharply

 

when we are feeling too tired. this is also how patients in the throes of an asthmatic attack are likely to

 

inhale. geetaji had mentioned earlier the connection between the membranes of the nose, and the

 

brain on one hand and the heart on the other. with attention and practice, it does become possible to

 

take the breath in without disturbing the inner membranes.

 

in both the pranayama , geetaji reminds us to be completely true to the length of our own inhalation and

 

exhalation and to bring the hand executing the pranayama  mudra down to the thigh as soon as the

 

breath is completed. this is poignant – as keeping the hand up in position after one has run out of breath

 

immediately turns the ‘reality’ of breath to the ‘void’ of no breath.

 

day 5

 

13 dec 2013 , 2.5 hours

 

this is the experience-summary of the last day of the workshop. the release of the recorded dvd’s is one

 

day away and i am wondering why i am even writing this.

 

we continue with digital pranayama  – starting with the exhalative cycles – inhaling through both nostrils

 

(right hand positioned in pranayama  mudra near the nose) and then closing the left nostril with the

 

index/ little finger, and exhaling through the right nostril partially closed; inhaling through both nostrils

 

(right hand positioned in pranayama  mudra near the nose) and then closing the right nostril with the

 

thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril partially closed with the index and little finger; this completes

 

one cycle. followed by several cycles of normal breathing and reinforcing the seated posture. the

 

inhalative cycles (where the inhalation is through only one partially closed nostril and exhalation is

 

through both nostrils) are preceded by savasana.

 

as in all other days, geetaji gives several practical instructions:

 

• kaka mudra  if the throat gets dry

 

•  covering the eyes in savasana  in case the light is bright

 

•  smoothing the skin on the foreheads to pacify the brain

 

•  adjusting both the inner ears with the index fingers

 

•  adjusting the nape of the neck as well as the part just behind the crown of the head when taking

 

the head down in jalandhara bandha

 

•  the thumb in pranayama mudra  is more symmetrical and easier to control than the index finger/

 

little finger. this can make it easier to control the inhalation and exhalation of breath through the

 

right nostril easier. to get the same control over the left nostril, one can change the hands so that

 

the left hand is used in pranayama mudra  when the focus of the inhalation/ exhalation is the left

 

nostril.

 

•  strong exhalative pranayamas like bhastrika  and kapalabjati  counterindicated during

 

menstruation and pregnancy

 

•  the use of bhastrika  and kapalbhati  during the digital pranayama to free up either one of both

 

nostrils in case they feel blocked

 

however, with the distance of two days having passed already since the last day of the pranayama

 

workshop, i am just summarizing the predominant themes that have been repeated over and over – or at

 

least the ones that i heard:

 

•  inculcating the discipline of the basic postures: in savasana  and sukhasana , keeping the sternum

 

lifted, coiling the shoulders back, extending the legs and the arms equally and completely,

 

dropping both the feet out to the sides equally, rolling the thumbs of both hands out equally,

 

keeping the head and the neck passive and in the centre, keeping the senses withdrawn. again

 

and again, geetaji repeated the instructions for the positioning and pacifying of the body and

 

the mind.

 

•  although the larger objective of pranayama  is stated as controlling the flow of breath so that the

 

nectar of the breath can be extracted – the ayama  (lengthening) of the prana  (energy) in the

 

breath – on a more perceptible level, this was a training on how to use the breath like a

 

searchlight to identify the crooked, insensitive, imbalanced areas of the body. geetaji invoked

 

the sutra 2.52 “tatah kshiyate prakashavaranam ” – removal of the veil allowing the true nature to

 

shine through. this kind of a diagnosis was eluding me in the asana practice, especially because

 

over the years, my body has learnt tricks to gloss over the imperfections, and hidden from my

 

consciousness, they are actually accentuating. however, once identified, the sensations come

 

through powerfully and then the asana practice can be the right arena to deal with them.

 

geetaji uses strong words, “if you recognize the imbalance and still do not correct it, you are

 

stupid!”

 

• anuloma  – in the direction of the natural hair growth; pratiloma  – against the direction of the

 

natural hair growth. in pranayama , the exhalation process comes more easily. it is ‘sahaja’  or

 

easy, because it is natural – it is not against nature. the direction of nature need not always come

 

easy. e.g. internal disciplines like truthfulness, non-stealing, non-covetousness, have to be

 

imposed with strong discipline till they become ‘sahaja’ .

 

•  misuse/ misinformation – geetaji cautioned against blindly doing any pranayama, anywhere as

 

has become a practice at least in india. from the cleanliness and sanctitiy of the space itself, to

 

the appropriateness of the particular pranayama  to the physical and emotional condition of the

 

student, unless the correct principles are followed, not only will the pranayama not have the

 

desired effect, it can be counterproductive.

 

•  just as the entire system of practice as evolved by guruji is not just about performing asanas in a

 

gross manner, but about bringing the focus on the subtle by cultivating an attitude of sensitivity,

 

so also guruji has focused on digital pranayama to refine workting through the breath, as against

 

using strong actions of bhastrika and kapalabhati – which are suggested to be used only as and

 

when required

 

•  and (in the light on pranayama) directions have been given about how to make the best use of

 

of the various pranayama – .e.g if the nose is mildly blocked, kapalabhati can be practicesd for a

 

while to clear the nose and then digital pranayama can be practiced.

 

finally did not get time to spend any time with the people from bangalore.

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