Friday, September 27, 2013

Kumbhaka - The "Pause"


Kumbhaka is what is regularly referred to as the retention of breath in a yoga practice. There are many pranayama (breathing) techniques that teach the use of kumbhaka, but the results are all the same: the pause. It's all about the pause.

Take a moment to sit up tall, breathe in deep, and hold. What do you feel? Notice.

I've heard that the pause is where we long to be. Suspended in that moment in between breaths, dimensions, and space. Frozen in time, but fully alive. In the pause there is seemingly nothing, but where we find EVERYTHING.

A frequent technique in movie making is the slow-motion animation, especially when something dramatic has occurred, like an accident of some kind. If you stop to consider it, you may recall a moment in your life when you felt like something was moving in slow-motion, where you felt a flush of life and a full connection to the moment until the fear snapped you back into reality.

I had a moment recently in class working on kumbhaka where I was immediately taken back to the moment of my car accident. There in my safe-haven yoga class, holding my breath, I recalled the moment my then boyfriend hit a ditch and the car began to flip upside down. I recalled so vividly that moment when we were suspended upside down above the ground - that moment before we hit the ground and my life changed forever. But it was more than recall, in that moment when I was holding my breath, that singular moment in time, I was transported back to that same moment in time when I held my breath for impact. Only there was no nearly 30 year time difference - it was all happening together at the same time. Well, that, and so much more.

In one singular moment in time, I flashed through my entire life...and near death. Now I wonder, had I momentarily left my body then? Now? What had connected me in that moment to all other moments when I had "paused" - not to think, but to truly be?

The 51st Sutra in Book 2 of the Yoga Sutras says: "Bahyabhyantara Visayaksepi Caturthah."
Translation: There is a fourth kind of pranayama that occurs during concentration on an internal or external object.

Swami Satchidananda describes this fourth pranayama as happening automatically when we do not concentrate on retention of breath because it will stop automatically. He calls this kevala kumbhaka, the easy, unintentional retention which occurs automatically in deep meditation. When deep enough in meditation, the breath stops, and when we reach samadhi (liberation/ bliss) it stops for several hours.

To be alive, we need a lot of energy (Prana). Every time we breathe in, we take in more prana. Even when we are still, the mind is still active, using prana. So, the only time when we cease to need prana, is when body-mind is still. Interesting. Even more interesting, is the next Sutra:

52. Tatah Ksiyate Prakasavaranam. Translation: "As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed."

There is a veil, a mental cover, over our inner Light. It keeps us from understanding Oneness. This Self is why we feel we are mortal and keeps us in pain and suffering. The Sutras go on to discuss some "super-human" powers that the yogi gains once this veil is lifted and samadhi is reached, like: becoming invisible, disappearance of the senses is explained, knowledge of your time of death, having the strength of an elephant, cessation of hunger and thirst is achieved, entering another's body, levitation, mastery over the elements, and so much more. This all leads me back to the knowledge that I was right when I was 7 years old watching the Justice League: I AM a superhero! I just haven't learned totally how to use my powers yet!

But in all seriousness, this information, these lessons, point to an understanding of what happens to us in life threatening situations, when we, out of survival instinct and in a singular moment, let go of the mind and truly connect. That same process happens during yoga, meditation, and pranayama practice. And the interesting thing is, that when you are in that moment, there is no time and space - all moments and all things are one...and, it's pretty cool.

As Pattabhi Jois said, "99% practice, 1% theory." You cannot try to understand without practice. The mind can only take you so far. So stop reading this blog, sit down, breathe, and pause!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Man Oh Man: 2 Yoga Classes with 2 Different Erik's in One Week!

This past week I took two separate yoga classes at different studios - both with male teachers. Other than Baron Baptiste and Dharma Mittra, most of the teachers I've taken classes with have been women. Although the historical evidence of yoga indicates it was mostly practiced by men in earlier times, we have certainly tipped the scales in modern-day yoga. Most local classes are anywhere from 80-95% female. In the cities I notice a much larger group of men practicing, and I do see more men dropping by taking yoga classes all the time. So perhaps the scales will eventually tip again - or, better yet, completely balance out!

I've been pondering the difference between male and female teachers to try and determine a defining difference between the two. I'm not sure that I've found a consistent one - I suppose like anything, it depends on the person. So I shifted my interest into determining if there is a difference in me when I practice with a male teacher vs. a female teacher. I'm still pondering that fully. What I can say, from this past week of practicing with two teachers who were; funny enough; both named Erik, is that there was a strong similarity in the Asthanga style influence, culminating to advanced arm balanced postures. However, the teaching style, the practice and my experience, were all completely different for each class.

Let's take Erik #1. This was a NJ studio. There was air conditioning and loud air pumping in for a majority of the class, so even though we did a Vinyasa style sequence, I never really broke a sweat. The sequence was "Vinyasa-light" - some basic Surya Namaskars, a few key postures, then on the floor for arm balance, followed by headstand, then floor asanas to savasana. There was really no mention of the spiritual of mental component. It was mostly focused on the physical attainment of the postures, without a lot of alignment details other than to step here or there. He would mention how he likes to do postures a certain way and why, but there was never a mention of muscle movement or engagement. I avoided the arm balance, knowing that I simply wasn't prepared to do so, but did take headstand. When I went up, I heard him whisper that he was there in case I needed him to hold my legs. I didn't, I was fine, but it was nice to know he was there in case I started to fall on someone. Other than that, he taught from the front of the room, not necessarily doing the practice, but occasionally showing the asana as he described it. I wasn't blown away by the experience. It was an ok class, with some challenging postures put in, but I never felt ready or supported enough throughout the class to even try the challenging poses. The arm balances, in my opinion, weren't worked up to with the Vin-light sequence, and in looking around, the only other student in said arm balances, was the other man in the room.

Erik #2, was a teacher in Philadelphia. Upon entering the studio, I was greeted with a warmer room, which gradually got hotter and allowed me to sweat - a lot. The practice was aggressively Asthanga in style, however, Erik took time to discuss the mental/spiritual focus with us before we even got moving. He consistently encouraged people throughout the practice as he walked the room, showcasing asanas only when necessary - like those meaty arm balances and tricky transitions in between postures. I found myself smiling and really enjoying the class - even though the girl in front of me (we were lined up face to face) had a pout on her the entire time. I felt inspired to move deeper into my practice and try the arm balanced - where as earlier in the week, I felt more defiant about even going there. For me the strange moment came when my new favorite pose, headstand, was  unattainable. What the heck is going on?,  I thought to myself.

Looking back, I realize that with Erik #1, I didn't really feel inspired, nurtured or guided through an experience. I didn't get a chance to dig deep. With Erik #2, I felt all that and more, pushed myself so that by the time we got to headstand, I was a little spent, and a lot in my ego too, in that "needing to please the teacher" mode. So while I didn't feel as inspired by Erik #1 and was thus able to truly work at my own pace and do what I needed to do for me, while being inspired by Erik #2, I pushed myself to the point where I went a little too far. I even had some severe hip pain throughout the day and evening.

Hmm, lots to consider. Which teacher was better? Which practice more authentic? Who knows, really? Just very different.

My initial question about working with male teachers and how it may be different from female still remains. I think that perhaps there is a potential in me to want to work more for a male teacher, and thus the potential for feeling more let down by them when their teaching style doesn't stand up (wow, isn't that loaded with information!). Where this comes form - some outdated energy based around male superiority, my own past experiences with male bosses, school teachers, or other men of authority? - I don't really know. Maybe I feel a kinship and same level of "peer" energy with female teachers, and thus not really viewing them subconsciously and energetically as true "teachers." Or does it come from a very basic survival instinct of the male species being the provider for the female? Christmas! I don't think I'm going to know for sure in one week and two classes, but I do see the potential for learning a lot more about myself.

Yoga is such an amazing journey to the self. What always starts as an external practice, winds up going deep inside. There's no one way, no right or wrong way - there's only your way, your path. I'm finding mine quite entertaining. I'm laughing at myself a lot more as I uncover more about me. I'm really ridiculous most of the time. I worry about silly things, spend a lot of time pondering potential situations in my head, and spend much more time giving than receiving. They, I believe, are by large truly feminine issues. What I learn a lot from men (not just teachers), is to enjoy my life, take care of myself, and deal with situations as they arise.

Candace Bushnell of "Sex and the City" fame said, "Men may have discovered fire, but women discovered how to play with it." I always liked that quote, wrote it down in my notebook of cool quotes wanting to use it one day. There it is. Take of it, what you will!

So I would encourage anyone - male or female - to take classes with a teacher of the opposite sex and see what comes up for you. These, of course, are only my thoughts and experiences.

I'd love to hear from you about what your thoughts are on male vs. female teachers and your personal experiences. Please write and post them to this blog-spot. Maybe we can get a little discussion going!
Namaste.