|picture from North Sydney Yoga|
A huge thank you to Chiara for taking such detailed notes and for sharing them as well as to Gregor for being gracious enough to give their publication his blessing.
Given it's such a long and detailed report we've split it over three days roughly corresponding to the workshop and it's morning and afternoon sessions. Today is the Introduction plus Kapalabhati and pranayama, Tomorrow I'll post the section on Asana and Chakra (Yoga) meditation and on Saturday, Nauli Kriya and a led Class.
Chiara mentions Gregor's books but I've gone further and added pictures ( to brighten the text up a little) and links to the Amazon preview.
I'm sure Chiara will respond to any comments or questions you may have. Oh and please feel free to jump in if you were on the course with Chiara or any of Gregor's other workshops and have something to add ( but remember Chiara's report is split over three days/posts).
A vigorous practice is what we need sometimes, although I must admit that I do feel a bit frustrated when people assume that this does not or cannot happen in TKV Desikachar’s teachings.
After reading about Gregor Maehle's Pranayama book on Anthony's blog I bought it and found it extremely useful.
I mainly decided to attend the Hamburg workshop because the program was going to be as much about Pranayama and the upper limbs as about asana.
Then, as soon as I heard that a Yoga meditation book was in preparation I kept my search engines open and ordered it. It arrived just in time to almost complete a first reading before the workshop.
Many of the concepts treated during the workshop can be found in fantastic detail with step-by-step practical instructions in these two books, and although I do not have his earlier two ones I am guessing it must be the same for the practical tips on the different asanas.
We were about thirty or so participants, mostly Germans from Hamburg and around, a couple of foreigners including me.
Overall a really great workshop, I liked Gregor a lot, his "however"-s, and "korrekt"-s, his piercing and scrutinising eyes, his knowledge and his way of transmitting it, interspersed by the recalling of many personal experiences.
There was a lot of stuff to take home and ponder-practice on, especially if you have not read his books yet.
I can definitely recommend the Pranayama and Meditation ones, where he gives all the details I described above and so many more and of course so much better.
The Pranayama book has extremely detailed descriptions of all the essential breathing patterns and comes with many exercises to help build a strong practice, as well as being interspersed by many philosophical and gross and subtle physiology considerations.
In the Meditation book Gregor has the same approach, many many details and progressive practice, and I loved the connection between the different chakras and the yamas and niyamas he makes.
In both books the progression in the exercises is accompanied by recaps on the previous ones, so you are not even tempted to jump ahead, as we all too often tend to do.
I do not have the first two books but although ashtanga vinyasa is not my main practice anymore I may end up buying them...
I just wish he spent more time on the other stuff that was indicated on the program, like mantra chanting and the dharana-dhyana limbs, because he seems truly knowledgeable. Yoga philosophy appeared in bits here and there, not in a structured way but I guess it makes sense; you certainly cannot approach this stuff properly in only a few hours.
Gregor is going to be in Tuscany next summer (2014) and I think the Bali retreats could be worth it if you are seriously into Yoga.
Here follows a description of the workshop, a bit long I know but hopefully it will entice you to attend future workshops of Gregor's.
Please buy his books and do not hesitate to correct me if you were there too and I have misunderstood something.
Right at the beginning Gregor said that the main reason to start this European 'tour' was his preoccupation with the obsession so many practitioners have with the body, as if the main purpose of Yoga were to make the body beautiful.
In fact, quite the opposite, he said. Yoga really helps us to 'die before we die' in the sense of preparing us to part with the body and thus to start a process of dis-identification with it.
Essentially Yoga is a system to prepare us for the moment of death.
As a consequence with this obsession with the body he also sees an increase in injuries in Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners, which also concerns him a lot.
So the workshop also dealt with the very important parts of Yoga that are somewhat neglected. Starting with kriyas, pranayama and meditation (and here he made a note on the fact that Yoga meditation is completely different from Buddhist vipassana meditation, and mentioned the different levels of Yoga meditation, with and without object).
Gregor stressed that we do not have to be masters of all asanas to embark in pranayama; in fact it is a very important practice that should be part of our daily routine.
The inner layers Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya can be related to the samadhi with object and object-less samadhi respectively, with the outer layers being of fundamental importance to get there.
Mentioning the '80s movie 'Once they were warriors' and the drama of domestic violence, Gregor introduced the concept of conditioning, an extremely important concept to understand: we see things coloured by our previous experiences, we see the world according to our past. So if our father was beating our mother, this will somehow seem normal to us and we may be lead into behaving in a similar way.
Paraphrasing Patanjali he also said that you could only be a true scientist if you overcome the conditioning (and I can certainly relate to that, having seen several times in my previous life how easy it is to more or less subconsciously 'direct' scientific experiments towards the direction we want them to take).
So body, breath and mind are essential layers for conditioning, and since they act as back up drives for each other, if you really want to change yourself you need to act on all three layers simultaneously. For example a big insult to the body has an effect on the mind, and vice versa, and also breath has a similar role in our behaviour.
Moving on to the practical aspects, we worked on the Kapalabhati kriya (skull polishing) where the fast and intense Kapalabhati breathing increases these movements and depletes the blood of CO2 simultaneously increasing oxygenation. Which is why it is very important to perform Kapalabhati properly, meaning leaving time for a full inhalation to take place after the fast and vigorous exhale. In practice, exhalation should take about 1/5 of the time and inhalation ca. 4/5 of the breathing cycle.
Given that Kapalabhati may turn the Apana Vayu up, it is not indicated during pregnancy or menstruation.
The lower abdominal muscles need to be engaged fully in the exhalation, we need to work on the lower part of the transverse abdominis. Therefore Kapalabhati is also a great preparation for Uddiyana Bandha and if done well, Moola Bandha will also spontaneously engage.
He said that people tend to hold Uddiyana Bandha too high and this will inevitably strain the diaphragm (since transverse abdominis and diaphragm interdigitate with each other) and consequently the heart, which is also connected to the diaphragm through a tendon.
It is important to keep the ribcage lifted, and Jalandhara Bandha can help with holding it up.
He gave us a couple of practical exercises:
- put one fist on the belly below the navel and the other hand on top of that. Press the belly during the exhalation phase to increase contraction and awareness.
- press the two index fingers to the side of the rectum abdominis two inches below the navel to feel the contraction in the transverse during the exhalation.
He made us practice with a metronome set at 40 bpm, in rounds of 20 or so.
In terms of building up our practice, we should start with three rounds of 20 with a pause (Ujjayi or just rest) in between and slowly (meaning months of practice) build up to 300 uninterrupted cycles at a frequency of 60 bpm, so ultimately for 5 minutes uninterrupted Kapalabhati.
We should only increase the speed if we can guarantee that the inhalation is still completely passive and full after the exhale.
He recommends practicing pranayama after the asana practice and before Shavasana. And in any case Shavasana should only be performed if we are really, really tired and for not longer than a couple of minutes.
Two reasons for this
- pranic absorption will be much more efficient after asana practice (and we will then also truly understand how important inversions are)
- after asana practice the nadis are generally balanced, both nostrils will be free, but after Shavasana most likely than not one of the nostrils will block up again so we will be unbalanced again
Meditation should be done before dawn, that is the time of the day when we are closer to God.
For Nadi Shodana he said it doesn't really matter which hand we use.
In fact, if we have a shoulder imbalance it may be useful to use the weaker side as the hand that closes the nostrils, in order not to loose even more strength and worsen the imbalance.
He recommended against Surya Bhedana since we already, as a society, use too much of the left hemisphere.
For pregnancy, standard practice should be Chandra Bhedana, since the right hemisphere and side of the body are those involved in the anabolic processes.
Essentially Surya and Chandra Bhedana are therapeutic pranayamas, so are not indicated for all people. Nadi Shodana is a much better general pranayama, balancing the nadis.
Nadi Shodana starts and finishes with the left nostril, to balance the anabolic functions.
For Nadi Shodana he advised against counting the cycles, better to set an alarm after 10-15 minutes and just carry on with the practice, aiming at lengthening the breath (finding our edge, and not progressing further until the breath length we use can be sustained even on our most shitty days). Otherwise, by maintaining both a high number of breathing cycles and lengthening the breath, we could easily be spending all day doing pranayama, which we may or may not afford to do.
Which is why Sri T Krishnamacharya was so happy when his householder duties were over, as he could then dedicate fully to practice (pranayama, which he loved, and a limited number of asanas, mainly inversions and Padmasana, Paschimottanasana).
Similarly we should aim at using a mantra to extend breath length, starting from OM repeated as many times as many seconds we want the breath to be, and counting these times moving along the fingers with the thumb (yogic counting) rather than count 'one, two, three...'.
Also it is better to use counts of seconds and ratios which are easily up-scaleable like 1:1, 1:2, 1:2:1:1;0, 1:2:2:2 etc he said, as visamavritti ratios like 3:4 tend to become very complicated to 'upgrade'. He used a metronome all along.
Then we can start upgrading and use the Gayatri Mantra one or more times for each breathing cycle to measure the length of inhalation and exhalation.
The drishti for Pranayama should gradually move to Bhrumadhya inside the head, but without muscular strain. So it is better to start from Nasagra, and then move to the middle of the eyebrows before Bhrumadhya proper.
If we perform Pranayama with our eyes closed (easier at the beginning) we should focus on our chosen Ishta Devata. This is important because we will ultimately become what we think about.
As teachers, we should always make students start from a samavrtti ratio and gradually modify to a visamavrtti that is more appropriate for the effects we want to elicit (keeping in mind that the inhalation will make us more rajasic and the exhalation will make us more tamasic). Kumbhakas are sattvic, especially the kevala ones. And they will be even more sattvic if we focus on our chosen Ishta Devata, as we should always do.
*Continued tomorrow Asana and Yoga Meditation