Where do we start when approaching the determination to open up to practice options beyond the group class mentality with its double edged sword of support and dependancy? For example we could start by exploring what it means to cultivate a personal regular home practice in terms of looking at it as from the initial viewpoint of being a process, before considering what is its content.
At this point it might be helpful to examine what are the differences between the two concepts of process and content, so vital in the work of Desikachar around planning Yoga practices for individual students. Here it might also be useful to remind ourselves that Krishnamacharya and Desikachar considered teaching individuals as the only valid means to explore Yoga as having both a process and content.
“Yoga Sādhana is about what grows out of
practising alone amidst the inside at home, rather
than practising with others amidst the outside in class.”
So what is Yoga practice as a process?
Though there are many different aspects to Krishnamacharya and Desikachar’s teachings on cultivating a formal ‘home’ practice, they fall into two general groups:
In considering the relationship and intertwining of these multifarious practice elements we can use the analogy of raising a family. In other words how to accommodate the emerging issues we need to contend with, such as the impact on our time and energy, as we look to stream developmental priorities within these additional commitments.
Here I want to consider some of these issues just from the viewpoint of time. For example if we look at the issue of time within one aspect of practice, say Āsana,
Freedom of or in movement is obviously an asset and of course a useful pursuit in the world of homo-sedens that abounds these days. However movement according to the principles inherent in Haṭha Yoga has a further role other than mere freedom of movement as an end in itself. Thus in Haṭha Yoga the role of freedom in movement, albeit embedded with useful anatomical insights, is not the priority that appears to dominate the forms of Āsana utilised within many popular Yoga classes.
Of course freedom in movement is obviously a support in allowing us to apply the principles of Haṭha Āsana practice, but it is not the end in itself it seems to have become under the guise of calling it all Yoga. For example it can help with facilitating an exploration of the energetic processes that ultimately define, guide and differentiate Haṭha Yoga from movement forms such as exercise, fitness, dance, etc.
Yet these days it increasingly seems to be that, on the journey towards the deeper purpose inherent in Haṭha Yoga and its relationship to Rāja Yoga, we are more and more being sidetracked by the goals within the myriad of movement forms that proliferate or even ‘pose’ as Āsana practice today.
“Cultivating a home Yoga practice is an odyssey through a relationship. However, this odyssey not only requires patience and perseverance, but also enthusiasm and care. In this respect, as in any relationship, it is necessary to consider establishing priorities.
“Only through Yoga Yoga is known.
Only through Yoga Yoga arises.
One who is diligent with Yoga,
Enjoys Yoga for a long time.”
Vyāsa Commentary to Yoga Sūtra Chapter Three verse 6
To students interested in forming a relationship with a home practice with its attendant fruits, two initial suggestions are offered: First, think of a personal Yoga practice as if acquiring a new book. However before you try to fit this book into what is probably the already overcrowded bookshelf of life, take a decision to remove an existing book to make room for the new one.
What are the concepts of Sṛṣṭi Krama, Sthiti Krama and Antya Krama and what is their significance in relationship to the practice of Āsana, Prāṇāyāma and Dhyānam?
We can approach these three concepts and the question of their relationship with practice from a chronological and within that, a psychological viewpoint. According to the Yoga teachings from T Krishnamacharya there are three chronological and accompanying psychological stages of life, or Tri Krama.
1. The first Krama is the stage of growth and expansion known as Sṛṣṭi Krama. Here, chronologically, the starting point is the age from which people traditionally began the Āsana aspect of Yoga practice.
In exploring the principles that underpin the practice of Āsana the first idea to consider is that our practice is not just another form of exercise. Yoga Āsana are more than just physical postures or exercises to stretch and tone the body, or enhance our sense of personalised well-being. From within its Haṭha roots the concern of Yoga is our relationship with the force which is behind our movements and its source that initiates our every action.
Further the different practice elements that constitute a mature Yoga practice are not separate compartments. They are linked through the principles underpinning them. For example a respiratory competence learnt through the practice of Āsana facilitates progress within the seated practice of Prāṇāyāma. An enduring stable posture learnt through the practice of Prāṇāyāma supports the cultivation the meditative attitude inherent in progress towards Dhyāna or meditation.
One of the potentials in the Haṭha Yoga teachings of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar is the understanding around the viniyoga or application of Bṛṃhaṇa Kriyā and Laṅghana Kriyā in terms of their potential to enhance sensory stimulation or to diminish sensory stimulation.
Both approaches can be used where appropriate to impact on how we are stimulated by the world through the senses and thus be more drawn to interact with it in a more extravert way, or how our sensory stimulation is quietened and thus we are more easily able to withdraw from the activities of the senses.
Both approaches are valid and applied according to our changing age, life situation and life stage. Here the role of a teacher is helpful in learning the skills of self application within our daily practice. We can learn how we can fine tune our practice according to our basic nature and where it needs to be within day to day living and its demands.
This alchemical process would also be difficult to explore other than in some very generalised way within a weekly group class given the mix of the age, gender, interests, needs, potentials and core physiological, energetic and psychological natures of the students.
Let alone where they are in their life circumstances, external demands, work roles and life stage or even the teacher having time and situation to explore each student personally to gain some insight into what is happening at that life moment within the small window offered by time and group size.
Hence throughout Krishnamacharya and Desikachar’s teaching life, apart from group classes for children and young adults, they taught only personal lessons.
Bṛṃhaṇa Kriyā and Laṅghana Kriyā as expansive and contractive activities are two potentials actualised through the Breath and Āsana.
Within the practice of Āsana, Mudrā and Prāṇāyāma they are actualised through an understanding of the primary principles that inform Haṭha Yoga and Āyurveda.
The alchemical process underpinning this understanding is the relationship between the two primary principles of Prāṇa and Agni in order to influence Haṭha Yoga concepts such as Prāṇa, Apāna, Nāḍī, Cakra, Agni and Kuṇḍalinī.
In terms of Bṛṃhaṇa Kriyā and Laṅghana Kriyā, the viniyoga of Bṛṃhaṇa affects a dispersion of Agni from the core to the periphery and the viniyoga of Laṅghana affects a withdrawal of Agni from the periphery to the core.
Understanding the application of this particular process facilitates access, through the Merudaṇḍa (spine), Prāṇa and Agni, to energising, cleansing and aligning potentials in the practice of Āsana, Mudrā and Prāṇāyāma.
These days, in certain situations, when asked what I do I sometimes say I write technical manuals and that usually moves the conversation quickly onto something like the British weather.
Why don’t I mention Yoga? Am I embarrassed about my relationship with Yoga? Not at all, its more about people’s reaction when asked and saying I am a Yoga teacher, a response somewhere as if an amalgam of being a fitness trainer, dentist and priest.
Also these feelings are often wrapped up in the response that I must do that or diverted into a projection around how I am seen in terms of say flexibility because I ‘do’ Yoga.
There are even folks I have been meeting occasionally for years and each time we meet I get the ‘I must do that’. Aside from the wry amusement at observing folks slight uncomfortableness as the word Yoga appears to represent something that at some level they feel they must need in their lives as if a commodity, there is for me a more important aspect that touches me.
This is around the difference between having to do something and wanting to do something.
According to such as the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, Aśvinī Mudrā and Mūla Bandha
are seen as very different forms in terms of definition and application.
Regarding application, only Aśvinī Mudrā is focussed around
the repeated contraction of the anal sphincter muscles.
My understanding from my discussions over the years with TKV Desikachar regarding the context and content of Yoga Makaranda, is that when teaching youngsters the length of the breath was minimised to a relatively short fixed length and use of Kumbhaka was limited to a few seconds Antar Kumbhaka and Bahya Kumbhaka.
However there were no limitations on the range or intensity of Āsana and lots of use of variations to be engaged with within each Āsana.
“The Āsana are presented in Vinyāsa Krama, the way it was taught to children in the Yogasāla.
This should not create the impression that T Krishnamacharya taught in this manner to everyone.”
– TKV Desikachar Introduction to Yoga Makaranda
In the adult there were no such limitations for the breath and the work with variations of the Āsana was re-prioritised to working with a fewer Āsana and fewer variations within each Āsana, but with the challenge of a greater range of breathing patterns both in length and combinations.
Certainly Antar Kumbhaka or Bahya Kumbhaka of 10″ was commonplace in the adult practice and here the ‘perfection’ of the Āsana was measured by mastery of all aspects of the breath rather than for the youngster, where ‘perfection’ of the Āsana was measured by mastery of all aspects of the form. This was consistent with Krishnamacharya’s teaching in his Yoga Rahasya on Yoga Sādhana and Stages of Life.
Furthermore my understanding is that if we use a particular Āsana with all its permutations of form and thus less focus on the variations of the breath it operates more as an Āsana. If we use a specific primary Āsana with the focus on all its permutations of breath and thus less priority around the variations of the form it operates more as a Mudrā.
Sarvaṅgāsana is such an example with its 32 variations devised by Krishnamacharya emphasising its role as an Āsana and its static solo form with its focus on extensive breath ratios involving all four aspects of the breath, perhaps augmented by the Tri Bandha, emphasising its role as a Mudrā.
For more on introduction to Yoga Makaranda read……
Introduction to the Yoga Makaranda by TKV Desikachar
For more on Sarvaṅgāsana as a Mudrā read….
Saravāṅgāsana as a Mudrā – Part One
In the beginning of our journey into the arts of Āsana and Prāṇāyāma, the outcome of our exploration into the breath in Āsana sets a direction and parameters for the beginnings of our exploration into how and where to develop the breath in Prāṇāyāma.
As we establish, progress and refine our practice of Prāṇāyāma, the strengths and issues that arise from our practice of Prāṇāyāma invite a subtler investigation of the breath in Āsana.
This investigation with its reciprocal and yet increasingly subtle direction offers a more precise guidance for where and how we revisit and engage with our work with the breath in Āsana.
Over time we come to both realise and experience the uniqueness of the breath within each of these two arts and the increasingly subtle development of the qualities of the relationship between the breath in Āsana, with that of the breath in Prāṇāyāma.
The implications of Krishnamacharya’s and Desikachar’s teachings on practice are:
we need to develop the twin aspects of learning Yoga practice techniques and Yoga practice theory through engaging in learning how to practice, rather than just learning what to practice.
This means learning to engage with the process of what it means to have a personal Yoga practice alongside engaging learning to study the theory of the component principles that underpin what constitutes creating and sustaining a personalised Yoga practice.
“Yoga must be adapted to an individuals needs, expectations and possibilities,
rather than adapting an individuals needs, expectations and possibilities to Yoga.”
These twin aspects of the arts of Yoga practice techniques and Yoga practice theory support our being able to independently and intelligently choose, adapt and ultimately self-develop and self-refine our personal Yoga Sādhana.
In looking at how to deepen (rather than broaden) our personal practice choosing to focus on exploring the breath can be a key to unlocking the mystery of the relationship between body, breath, mind and beyond.
Here we can think of the deepening into our practice arising through progressively slowing the patterning of our breathing. To do this we have to reconsider our practice, not in terms of what we do with our body but what we do with the breath within our body.
This means firstly knowing what is our basic practice breath rate per minute and then progressively slowing that rate as we progress from Āsana, through to Mudrā and then to Prāṇāyāma.
For example when working with Āsana we can start with four breaths per minute, then with Mudrā slow it to three breaths per minute and finally with Prāṇāyāma, slow it again to two breaths per minute.
Personal Yoga Lessons can be offered whether for Fitness, Well Being or Recovery
Private lessons can be for anybody in any situation or life phase, though those with specific interests or needs
will find the advantages of working individually more beneficial than group classes.
Furthermore certain situations may better suited to individual Yoga Lessons and require practices and advice customised and developed for home use within the privacy of a personal context.
Thus whatever your situation 121 lessons mean Yoga can be customised to meet your needs as a:
- Developmental Practice for Personal Pursuits of body, breath or mind, or
- Constitutional Practice for Lifestyle Support in sustaining health, energy and vitality, or
- Therapeutic Practice within Recovery from illness, disease or unhelpful lifestyle consequences
The Press tells us that over 20 million Americans ‘practice’ Yoga (and in the process spend 10.3 billion $ annually!). I wonder what that statistic, oft promoted as a success statement for Yoga, really means?