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Monthly Archives: April 2015

April 17, 2015

The Pace of the Practice

I recently read an opinion piece on slower paced yoga, you can read it here.  I teach both the vinyasa krama of Krishnamacharya (a slower paced yoga) and Ashtanga (a moderate paced yoga). A standard whole breath in Ashtanga is eight seconds long, go ahead and count out eight seconds in your head.  An initial goal for the length of breath in Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama is four breaths a minute.  I generally teach people to work towards a sixteen second breath first.  Yes, count out sixteen seconds in your head (eight second inhale, eight second exhale).  Perhaps in a good moment you may be able to lengthen your breath even more to thirty seconds – a fifteen second inhale, a fifteen second exhale.  For the most part, the longer the breath the better in Krishnamacharya’s yoga.

You may have noticed when writing about pacing, I’m referring to the breath, not body movement.  In both of these forms of yoga, your movement must be synchronized with your inhales and exhales, so if the yoga is to be slower paced, the breath must be longer. The persistent pace and rhythm of Ashtanga is one of its channels into meditation, while the lengthening of the breath (and even restraining the breath between inhales and exhales, if amenable to you) is one of Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa krama’s channels into meditation.

Concerning what may be popular at any given time, it’s important to not let the pendulum swing to either extreme. The article talks about a power yoga fad that started in the nineties, and suggests the pendulum is now swinging the other way.  I teach and practice the two styles I do for a number of reasons.  Krishnamacharya is the teacher of Pattabhi Jois (the guru of Ashtanga).  Ashtanga has resonated with me so much, that I wanted to know the larger system behind it, and so I started to study the yoga of Krishnamacharya.  The styles are quite closely related, have a lot of overlap, and have the same aim of mental peace, just approached from different ways.

The fact they are closely related makes them go together well.  While my main practice certainly is Ashtanga,  I find sometimes Krishnamacharya’s sequences are the better tools to get me to where I need to be, or are appropriate if I feel the need for a second practice in any given day. Learning the larger system behind Ashtanga has helped me understand it more, just as it has given me options for how I manage my mind and body.  I’d also like to note, slower often doesn’t equate to being easier.  Krishnamacharya’s yoga is no easier than Pattabhi Jois’s, yet its slower pace can be more favorable to some people and in some moments of life.  If you have a great love of something, it’s a good idea to get to know its roots.

Thank you for reading,

Marc

April 11, 2015

History and Culture: Adishesha

Adishesha, the naga king, is often pictured as a snake with a thousand heads.  He is known by a number of names, such as Ananta (endless) and Sesha (remaining), a reference to a snake shedding its skin.  The name Sesha evokes both the ideas of karma (the remnants of our actions have a lasting effect on us) and the atman (the True Self, the idea that when we die some essence of us is undestroyable, and thus remains).  Patanjali, the author of The Yoga Sutras, is sometimes thought of as an incarnation of Adishesha.

In The Yoga Makaranda by Krishnamacharya (the forefather of much of modern yoga), it’s stated that everyday before practicing yoga one should repeat the prayer, “Jivamani Bhrajatphana sahasra vidhdhrt vishvam/ Bharamandalaya anantaya nagarajaya namaha.” Krishnamacharya goes on to say, “do namaskaram (salute) to Adishesha, preform the relevant puja (ceremonial rites), meditate on Adishesha and then begin the practice.”  Naturally, Krishnamacharya was writing to an audience of Hindu Indians at the time he wrote this.  Even though many of us who practice yoga are not this audience, it’s respectful to the long history of yoga to have some appreciation for its native Indian roots.  Here is a short version of one of the stories of Adishesha:

Adishesha had a mother named Kadru and a stepmother named Vinata.  Their rivalry started when Kadru had wished for an strong army of one thousand snakes for sons, while Vinata asked for just two sons, but ones more powerful than Kadru’s one thousand put together.  Kadru fomented a deep hatred toward Vinata after this.  Kadru saw her chance for revenge when Vinata said she saw the magical flying horse Ucchashravas.  Kadru bet that Vinata could not tell her the exact color of the magical horse, and to which ever one of them guessed correctly, the other would have to be her servant forever.  Vinata of course guessed correctly right away, and said Ucchashravas was pure white; However, the next time the flying horse came by, Kadru had her snake sons coil around the horse’s tail, making it appear black.  Thinking she had lost the bet, Vinata became Kadru’s servant.

Adishesha however was disgusted by his mother’s dishonesty, and the cruelty of his brothers for going along with it.  He refused to take part, and began to preform penance to Brahma, the supreme god, in order to atone for the evil of his family.  Adishesha went into deep meditation, forgoing food and water, until he began to shrivel and dry up.  Brahma was so moved by his sacrifice that he offered Adishesha a wish.  Adishesha asked for the ability to control his mind, so he could do more penance.  Brahma granted him this, and then asked him a favor, he said, “The world of humans is unstable, please go to the underworld, the abode of Vishnu, and spread your cobra hood to support the world of men.  This Adishesha gladly did.

As you can see, Adishesha’s request of being able to control his mind has its connection to yoga.  In yoga, we are attempting to use meditation to control the fluctuations of our emotions and faulty perceptions.  Yoga is for everyone in the world, but it is also nice have an appreciation for the culture in which it has its roots.

With you,

Marc

Meditation: Let Go of the Past and Future

The attention to detail in my classes can be new to some people.  If you read my earlier post on meditation, Inviting a Meditative State, you’ll read that meditation often starts by focusing on something concrete (such as an object or action).  The details of the yoga practice is that something:  “gaze over your nose, keep your inhales and exhales of equal length, keep your chin tucked, keep your face relaxed”…etc.  The details of the asana and sequence are not only for the physical aspects of the practice, but they are also there to keep you focused, to guide you into meditation.  Often the first step in getting comfortable with a Krishnamacharya or Ashtanga practice is understanding the details are there to help you, meditation is the core of the practice.

As you practice the sequences more regularly they will likely become rather deep and quite athletic.  People don’t often associate meditation with so much physicality, but keeping the practice challenging is a part of keeping your mind focused on the here and now.  As you become more familiar and comfortable with your initial introduction to Krishnamacharya’s and Pattabhi Jois’s sequences, you will naturally begin to practice them in a deeper and more athletic manner.  It’s a way to help you let go of the past and future – to help you be in the moment, in meditation.  No one suddenly forces a student into demanding or advanced poses, it happens naturally over time, be it months or years.

This type of moving meditation is the same meditation as when we are sitting still, it’s just a different approach. I find it’s beneficial to have both a moving meditative practice and a still one.  The video attached to this post is a great introduction to meditation, please take the time to watch it.  It will help you in your journey as a yoga practitioner:

 

April 6, 2015

Inviting a Meditative State

A yoga practice is a tool to meditate, but where does one start?  Let us first define meditation in the simplest terms: meditation is a deep level of mental focus.  For most people, the best way to begin is to pick one subject to focus on, so for the purpose of our discussion let us say that one subject will be our yoga practice.

A yoga practice already has tools in place to aid meditation, tools such as:  the quality, rhythm, and synchronization of the breath (pranayama); the direction of the gaze (dristhi) in the position (asana); the precise alignment of the asana; the precise sequence of the positions and their synchronization with the breath (vinyasa).  These are good details to start with.  They may seem like a lot to keep up with, but that is the point.  Yoga is an exercise for the mind.

With meditation, expect to start off with concrete techniques such as these.  As your meditation becomes deeper perhaps you might switch to something abstract to focus on in your practice, such as: “letting go,” lightness, ease …etc.  If your meditation gets still deeper, you may start to focus only on the sensation of doing the practice – moving away from cognitive thought.  At last, if our mind is particularly strong that day, we may be able to experience a level of concentration to where our only focus is that we are doing our practice, with no other thought, not even the physical or emotional sensation of practicing.  Perhaps we may humbly consider this progression as our samadhi samprajnata (distinguished contemplation).

Many of us struggle with meditation because we are not told two simple things: meditation is focus, and it generally starts by focusing on something in the concrete world (such as an object, or activity).  Do not be deterred, you can do it.  When it becomes hard for you to maintain your focus, just go back to the concrete tools of a yoga practice described above: your breath, the direction of your gaze, the alignment of the position, the synchronization of asana to asana and breath to asana.  It is alright for it to feel like it’s a lot of mental work, you are doing just fine.

With you,

Marc

April 4, 2015

The Hard Path is the High Road

Whether you are new to yoga or not, learn to accept some hardship in order to receive great benefit.  Being challenged not only reveals your inner strength, but also many truths about yourself.  The truth is not a scary thing, it is either something to be proud of, or an opportunity to improve.  A person could live their whole life with the capability of being a great artist, yet never discover their ability because they never picked up a paint brush.  Likewise an artist who avoids criticism because of their fear of the truth will never improve until the flaws of their technique are revealed.

A good step to take with a yoga practice is to not ask it to be easy. Instead ask your yoga practice to give you the necessary challenge to discover your strength and to discover truths about yourself.  Yoga is a tool to focus and strengthen your mind, to learn to put all your brain power into whatever task is at hand.  Such a great benefit requires accepting some hardship.  For the greatest rewards from your yoga practice: have patience, allow things to take a long time; practice constantly, it’s alright to start out small, but practice; don’t give up, accept that there will be struggles and that it won’t always be easy.

With you,

Marc