In my Pranayama (breath and energy control) practice this morning, I noticed my autonomic nervous system. I bumped up against it several times as I tried to inhale or exhale while it didn't think I needed to.
The friction happens most notably at the end of the exhale. The lungs are empty and the most "natural" thing to do is inhale to fill the lungs. The autonomic nervous system tells us "breathe in." So we usually do. During Pranayama practice, as I hold my lungs empty or inhale very slowly, the friction with my autonomic nervous system is palpable. It wants me to inhale quickly, but I consciously inhale slowly or not at all.
The second place where friction happens is when my blood has enough oxygen. In this state, my autonomic nervous system says, "No need to breathe so much. Either exhale or be still." During Pranayama practice I am sometimes in this physiological state only midway through the inhale and I try to complete the inhale. It is very difficult, like my muscles and brain shut down, preventing me from inhaling further. I have yet to navigate this obstacle, but I predict that at some point my autonomic nervous system will settle and I will be able to inhale at will.
When I arrive to this level of control, I will need to be incredibly careful about the state of my physiology, my heart rate and blood oxygen content because I will be consciously overriding an autonomic function designed to keep my body and brain supplied with the correct amount of oxygen.
The amazing thing about controlling the breath over several minutes is the realization that breathing is usually so subconscious. Even if we control the breath for a moment, we soon release it and let the autonomic nervous system monitor and govern it. We never get too far from the self-regulated balance of oxygen in the blood.
I think I may be approaching the true power of Pranayama practice: the awareness and even control of the autonomic nervous system. It is both exciting and frightening. I have to be very careful.
Tomorrow we fly for 22 hours to Calcutta, India. We will spend 5 weeks there studying at Ghosh's Yoga College of India, led by Muktamala Mitra, Bishnu Ghosh's granddaughter.
I am completely open to what we may learn. I have almost no expectations, other than to soak in the atmosphere of living in the Ghosh house and practicing in the rooms where BC Ghosh, Buddha Bose, Gouri Shankar and Bikram Choudhury practiced.
I plan to use much of my free time to continue and expand my pranayama practice, something that has brought me great comfort, joy and peace over the past few years. I feel ready to take it to the next level, and what better place to do that than India? (Admittedly, the air is not so good there.)
I also plan to write about the experience here in my online journal. I am starting a new "Category" on the right column called "Ghosh Study In India."
When we come to our practice each day, it is easy to bring expectations and baggage. What has this practice meant to me in the past? What was I capable of yesterday or last year? What do I expect my performance to be today? This is especially true if we do the same or similar practice each day.
While it is generally desire that brings us to our practice - the desire for fitness, stress relief, spirituality or something else - once we arrive and begin practicing our postures, breathing or meditation all desire and expectation should be discarded. The practice becomes immediate, with complete mental presence in the moment. There is no future and no past, no expectations and no baggage. Only right now, only our body and breath and mind right now.
(Has it really been a month since I've posted?!)
Practicing for myself has always been easy. Who else would I be practicing for? Recently, two developments have unfolded that make it more difficult for me to practice. They are revealing about the ego.
First, I have been teaching more. A lot more. Big classes, small classes, vigorous classes, gentle classes, fast ones and slow ones. Much of my focus is on the students, what they need, and how to communicate effectively with them. Each class needs a different approach, both a game plan beforehand and also the ability to change when things inevitably don't go as planned.
As I teach more, I also practice more. I demonstrate many things in class and often accompany the students in the postures for solidarity and motivation. I also practice a lot in preparation to teach, to familiarize myself with the movements and breath that I will ask the students to do.
But all this practice is not for me. It is focused on communication and service of my students.
Second, as my personal practice develops it moves inward and out of sight. It still requires time and concentration, even more than before, but Breathing exercises and Meditation are invisible. They don't develop new muscles or fancy new postures. So if I base my progress on my old measures, like growing flexibility and strength, it sometimes feels like I am stalled or sliding backward.
This only means that my relationship to my own practice is changing. It must change if I am to keep moving forward. My measures of progress will have to change, away from depth of stretch and drops of sweat, toward balance of energy, stillness of mind, and awareness and control of breath.
The goal is to feel and control
Each element of the body and mind.
Each muscle contracts or relaxes intentionally.
Each breath enters and exits on purpose.
Each thought... the thoughts are few and far between,
Focused on stillness and awareness.
"Yoga is said to be the union of the individual self and the supreme self (divine)... These are the limbs: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Yama and niyama are subdivided into ten types. Eight asanas are important and among them, three are the most important. Dharana is said to be of five types. Dhyana is of six types; among them, three are said to be more important. Samadhi is one, but some think it to be of many divisions."
From the Yoga Yajnavalkya.
For a couple of weeks I have been at 21 counts in my Samavrtti Pranayama,the even-counted breath. Unlike all the previous counts it has been pretty effortless from day 1. I continued at 21 counts for several days to allow my body and mind adjust instead of just moving forward right away. In doing so I learned a little bit about the state of my mind and body.
This has been the first count that was long enough to challenge my mind, at least for the first few minutes of each session. My mind expected to breathe faster and shorter. I had to consciously slow it and extend the inhales and exhales. This was the first time it felt like territory beyond "breathing deeply and slowly." I expect this challenge to continue for a few more weeks or months - my mind will be uncomfortable with the slowing of the breath. But eventually I expect it to settle and even crave the slow controlled breathing of Pranayama practice.
Because the count is starting to get long my lung capacity is being challenged, a big reason to progress slowly and patiently. I want to allow the lungs time to develop. I notice my upper lungs starting to come into play, a whole new world of breath capacity that is yet untapped. Along with this is muscular control of my upper ribcage to expand and draw air into the upper lungs. Occasionally it happens spontaneously to accommodate a huge breath, but I need to develop more consistency and control.
Tomorrow I will increase the count to 22.
Today I figured out how to focus on the sound of my breath during Pranayama practice. My complete attention became directed to to the thin, quiet evenness of the air coming in then going out. The count became easy, my lungs became full and then empty and my mind was still. I think I may be on to something.
Today I am up to 20 counts in Samavrtti Pranayama, the even-counted breath. I practiced at 19 counts for several days and was effortless yesterday, so today I changed to 20.
20 seconds in, 20 seconds out, for about 20 minutes. That will be my practice for the coming days or weeks, until I am effortless again.
If you are interested in beginning a Pranayama practice, please consult a qualified teacher. Never hold your breath longer than is comfortable, it will be detrimental to your health instead of beneficial.
"While today on the one hand we face the problem of meditators who do not adequately prepare the body for meditation, on the other hand we have Hatha yogis who get stuck in the meaningless drudgery of mere physical yoga. If the yogi does not go beyond the practice of posture and breath work, and does not graduate to and include formal meditation, then Hatha Yoga is not what it purports to be. It is then mere body-building, body-beautifying and gymnastics. There is nothing wrong with those, as long as the label clearly states we are doing only that. The problem with today's physical yoga is that it pretends to be more. And it is so only if it merges into the mental and spiritual disciplines of yoga."
From Yoga Meditation by Gregor Maehle.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga