Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Did Sri K. Pattabhi Jois leave out the 'heart' of the practice? Or does it's heart lie elsewhere.

In case you don't make it to the end of the post... 

Happy New Year


What benefit do you see in adding kumbhaka during intense and difficult asana practice?

I was asked this question yesterday and It's a post I've had planned for sometime, parts of this will be cut and pasted from an earlier draft.

Here's the question in full.

 "I'm interested, what is your view on this: most people can't do intermediate series with smooth even breathing, the 'free breathing' Sharath advocates. What benefit do you see, then, in adding kumbhaka? Not just pranayama with kumbhakas, but kumbhakas during intense and difficult asana practice"?

Context: In my previous post this I week I mentioned how having explored Kumbhaka in Ashtanga Primary series over the last year I was now planning on exploring kumbhaka in the Ashtanga 2nd series for this coming year.

Kumbhaka = breath retention, in pranayama they can be long ( mine are average, 20 seconds, long enough to mentally chant the pranayama mantra) but in asana Krishnamacharya seems to be talking of much shorter kumbhaka of between 2-5 seconds, depending on the asana

The question above goes I think to the heart of the matter.

And It's something I've considered.

I used to practice along with Sharath's DVD, the full Ashtanga series in an hour, the inhalation and exhalation are around two seconds for each.

I've practiced with other DVDs, where the practice took a little longer, the time allowed for the inhalation 3-4 seconds, I've been in Led classes with Manju also, where the inhalation and exhalation have been around four seconds each.

Either way, if you want to go through the whole series in less than two hours you have to crack on a bit, the postures keep coming at you, next posture, next posture, bang, bang, bang....

We get used to it of course, practicing on our own we can take it a little more slower, we get fitter, there's more control over the breath, our transitions use up less energy,  we become more flexible such that we can ease into the postures more easily, in short, we learn how to conserve energy.

But what happens if you introduce kumbhaka, (breath retention of a couple of second ) into the mix, if we only have the same amount of time available to practice then aren't we're going to have to speed up the inhalation and exhalation once more.

Intermediate series is even more intense than Primary, my friend is right be concerned, do we really want to feed a kumbhaka element into the mix, won't that be dangerous.

It might give us pause to reflect....

Do we have to include a full series in each practice.

It will depend on how much time we have available. Pattabhi Jois suggested that if we have less time available,  that we do the Sury's and the last three finishing postures, how much goes in the middle will depend on the time available.

Do we have to move so quickly from one posture to the next?

This is governed by the breath, the movements follow the breath not the other way around. Pattabhi Jois in interviews talked about ten second inhalations and ten second exhalations, even, fifteen, twenty seconds,

So we can move more slowly, we can breath more slowly.

Do we only stay for five breaths in a postures?

In Yoga Mala Patabhi Jois writes for most postures

"...do puraka and rechaka as much as possible".

Pattabhi Jois teaching, notice all those beautifully curved backs, the forehead o the knee for Janu Sirsasana

The first western students mention that in the beginning there were 10 breaths in postures, later  8 before finally coming down to the 5 we currently have in most of the seated postures  (this may even be as few as 3 seconds depending on your led class and how much time is made available before moving to the next transition).

So we don't have to rocket through a full series.

We can practice half a series, even a third of a series

We can breath more slowly, long, full, inhalations and exhalations.

We can stay in postures longer.

Practice like this and introducing kumbhaka (breath retention) becomes possible, and remember we're talking short kumbhaka's of generally 2-5 seconds, an extension of the automatic pause between the inhalation and the exhalation and exhalation and inhalation.

Same goes for the Intermediate series, no you wouldn't introduce kumbhaka into your Sharath led intermediate in Mysore but including it in the regular self practice the rest of the week and practicing only half a practice with long slow breathing should be perfectly acceptable.

Except that it's not.

There is no kumbhaka in Current Ashtanga. 

I mentioned yesterday that in tweaking the order of the already laid out groupings of asana (Krishnamacharya had already grouped asana into Primary middle and Proficient in his 1941 Mysore book 'Yogasanagalu', the groups closely resembling the current Ashtanga sequences  ) Pattabhi Jois seems to have left out Krishnamacharya's use of Kumbhaka.

I put it, perhaps a little too provocatively yesterday,

"Pattabhi Jois seems to have 'tweaked' the order of Primary and Intermediate as well as removing the heart (kumbhaka) from the practice".

I say 'seems to', this is assuming that he was actually taught kumbhaka in asana by Krishnamacharya.

I'd always assumed that Pattabhi Jois had held back the kumbhaka from his teaching, I asked Manju but he was adamant that there was no kumbhaka in asana, that his father didn't practice it and that Krishnamacharay was mistaken.

Now I love and respect Manju, I've taken a week long TT with him in Crete and hope to have the opportunity to do so again but I disagree with him on this, I don't believe it was a mistake.

Kumbhaka is everywhere in Krishnamacharya's first book Yoga Makaranda (1934) we find he went even further in his second book Yogasanagalu (1941) and put it in table form.


In both books we find the Vinyasa Count for each asana

We find instruction for long slow full breathing, 'like the pouring of oil'

We find the breath controlled at the back of the throat

We find practicing inhalation and exhalation as much as possible in a posture

We find long stays in postures suggested

We find bandhas indicated

We find the asana grouped into Primary, Middle and Advanced postures, the order strongly resembling the current Ashtanga series (except perhaps for the Advanced group).

We find the appropriate kumbhaka, whether following the inhalation or the exhalation clearly indicated for the majority of postures

We find all of the above elements in Pattabhi Jois' presentation of Ashtanga, current Ashtanga, except the last one, except for Kumbhaka.

Yes, the breath may have speeded up. Yes, the stays in the postures may have become shorter and yes, the inhalations and exhalations may have become quicker since Pattabhi Jois wrote Yoga Mala in the 1950's but kumbhaka never seems to have been included in Pattabhi Jois' teaching.

Quite the opposite in fact

In Pattabhi Jois' Yoga Mala, for Navasana we find

"The vinyasas that follow have been specified earlier. While coming into the state of this asana, never do kumbhaka, that is, never hold your breath".

Shirsasana

"In addition, the entire body should be kept erect and rechaka and puraka performed deeply, without kumbhaka".

And most explicitly in the section on the surynamaskaras

"Aspirants should know this method, which is best learned from a Guru. They should also note that kumbhaka, or breath retention does not occur either in the Surya Namaskara or the asanas.".

What to make of this. If we follow the lineage we should follow Pattabhi Jois' teaching on this but we have Krishnamacharya's texts, we can go directly to the source and  kumbhaka is everywhere in these texts and they were manuals, he wanted us to practice this way, we also know that he continued to include kumbhaka in his later teaching.

Or we can ignore the texts, ignore all mention of kumbhaka and it will be lost.

I don't really know about parampara or lineage, I do know that my teacher Ramaswami studied directly with Krishnamacharya for 33 years and that I was privileged enough to go through Krishnamacharya's works with him line by line in the classroom, vinyasa by vinyasa in the studio.

I know too that Ramaswami continues to teach  because he believes that aspects of Krishnamacharya's teaching have been neglected and may end up lost (perhaps he's disappointed that I focus on this aspect of Krishnamacharya rather than on those he himself might stress, perhaps he's bemused too that I continue to explore Ashtanga rather than sticking with Vinyasa krama (for me though they are the same thing)).

I think my research has highlighted that there was no early and late Krishnamacharya, he didn't change (not really) but perhaps how we practice his Ashtanga did. And perhaps that's fine, perhaps Pattabhi Jois was right to take the practice in the direction he did, perhaps he was never taught kumbhaka or neglected this aspect in his own practice and decided to do without it.

However his teacher, someone he revered, who's teaching he insisted he was following,  made kumbhaka central to the practice, put it into almost every asana in his first book and then went so far as to put it right there in a table in his second book (written in kanada, Jois' mother tongue).

How clear did he have to make it that this was an essential element of practice. Personally I think the use of bandhas and the control of the breath at the back of the throat, also the drishti makes no real sense without it, it's as if everyone is present at the wedding except the bride.

We know Krishnamacharya continued to teach kumbhaka throughout his life and we have his early books for heavens sake, we have Pattabhi Jois' teacher's books. If Krishnamacharya ever did study and memorise the Yoga Korunta the essence of it is most likely found right there in Yoga Makaranda ( and remember Krishnamacharya supposedly wrote it in the space of a couple of days). We have primary texts, right there, we have what he wanted to communicate about the practice, what he considered most essential, he wanted us to know and practice this stuff.


*

OK, why do I think kumbhaka is so important, such that I explore it in my practice every morning as well as going on and on about it here (apart from the fact krishnamacharya laid great stress on it)?

What benefit, as my friend asked, is there in adding kumbhaka..?

Kumbhaka....., it's is where it all happens, that moment of stillness between the inhalation and exhalation, the silence, peace, it's timeless, does feel like that sometimes and I'm really only beginning to explore this. It's in the kumbhaka that we can perhaps more fully explore internal drishti, we bring our attention to different chakras, not pretty rainbow chakras but areas of the body that the Rishis of old found most interesting to focus their attention.... or we can visualise effulgence in our hearts, we can float mantras, chant them mentally on the inhalation on the exhalation and then allow them to just be in the space of the kumbhaka.

If your of a religious frame of mind it's probably in the kumbhaka that you find god.

My current thinking, and something I'm really only just beginning to explore (those pretty rainbow chakra books turned me away from the cakra model until quite recently), is that Krishnamacharya was using kumbhaka in asana to focus the citta (awareness) at different cakra's. Or rather that the focus of attention on the cakra happens during kumbhaka but it's the choice of asana that is the focussing lens and directed at a particular cakra. So certain asana would be better than others for focussing awareness (citta) on a particular cakra. Many of the asana descriptions in Yoga Makaranda mention the benefit gained as relating to a particular cakra associated with that asana.

Here's a nice, concise example

38 Gandabherundasana (Figure 4.86, 4.87)



This has 10 vinyasas. The 6th and 7th vinyasas show the asana sthiti. The first picture shows the 6th vinyasa and the second picture shows the 7th. In the 4th vinyasa, come to caturanga dandasana sthiti and in the 5th vinyasa proceed to viparita salabasana sthiti. In the 6th vinyasa, spread the arms out wide, keeping them straight like a stick (like a wire) as shown in the picture. Take the soles of both feet and place them next to the ears such that the heels touch the arms and keep them there.
Next, do the 7th vinyasa as shown in the second picture. This is called supta ganda bherundasana. In this asana sthiti and in the preliminary positions, do equal recaka puraka kumbhaka. Keep the gaze fixed on the midbrow. This must not be forgotten.
Benefit: Goiter, inflammation of the glands of the neck and diseases due to mahodaram will be destroyed. The visuddhi and brahmaguha cakras will function correctly and this will take the mind to the state of savikalpa samadhi. Pregnant women should not do this.

For me, Krishnamacharya made kumbhaka the heart and soul of the practice.

I'm not really religious, not so spiritual perhaps but I find stillness there, the practice makes more sense for me with kumbhaka in it's place.

But perhaps you have a different view, I'm sure you do, on what constitutes the 'heart' of the practice, I'd be interested to hear what you feel it is.

UPDATE
I liked this comment to this post

Hi Anthony. What I've learned from my teacher in this tradition is that the teaching is not to forcefully hold the breath. No matter the length of time spent at the juncture between what we call inhale vs. exhale, the issue is that it should be like you are still inhaling, or like you are still exhaling. We are "at the top of our breath", still inhaling, yet 'not', exactly. This key being it's 'as if' we are still inhaling (or exhaling, which is a little trickier). This is how the breath remains smooth and steady, like oil pouring, even though it seems the oil is simply a vapour. So perhaps Jois took a strident position, to ensure that no clutching, no forceful holding, is employed as a misunderstanding. Leading to harm in one's system.
Does this make sense as a way to view 'both' stories about breath 'retention'??
UPDATE 2

A friend just sent me these two pages from Simon Borg-Oliver's book. I reviewed Simon's Book on an an earlier post , looking at his 'nine bandhas, yes nine 
The nine bandhas (yes Nine) in the APPLIED ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY OF YOGA of Simon Borg-oliver and Bianca machliss



from The Book is APPLIED ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY OF YOGA by Simon Borg-Olivier
MSc BAppSc (Physiotherapy) & Bianca Machliss BSc BAppSc (Physiotherapy)

*

My friend is perhaps concerned that I might corrupt the youth, that someone new to Ashtanga, might listen to some of this and try and introduce kumbhaka into their fledgling Ashtanga practice. She's probably right, as stated above you can't just introduce kumbhaka into a fast paced ashatnga practice, current practice seems to have taken a different trajectory. 

You could slow down certain sections though, try it on one or two postures where your breath and heart rate are nice and calm ( Krishnamacharya instructed Ramaswami to take a mini savasana if ever his breath became short or his heart rate fast).

Truth be told, probably not many get to the end of posts like this, my stats are great for jump back and backbend posts but drop through the floor for posts like this. So really, nothing to fear.

Here's a video of what a Krishnamacharya Ashtanga practice might look like with Kumbhaka in it's rightful place. This is just a short section of the two and a half hour practice that pretty much followed the current Ashtanga series but with the instructions for the asana found in Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda. It's slow ( it doesn't necessarily have to be THIS slow) and I imagine very few find it watchable to the end let alone wish to practice like this, but perhaps I'm wrong.... 

Slow might be the new black, remember that 'slow cooking' movement a while back.



In the video I'm on the right practicing a Yoga makaranda inspired Ashtanga, my friend Oscar on the left practicing Vinyasa krama. I really wish we had one of oscar's Ashtanga students practicing current Ashtanga along side us to contrast the three approaches but also show up much of what they have in common. The Video was shot the day after the recent Krishnamacharya workshop I gave at Oscar's Yoga studio, Yoga Centro Victoria, Leon, Spain. I'm hoping to be presenting a similar workshop at Living Yoga Valencia at the end of January (dates to be confirmed. I'll also be teaching three classes at the Yoga Rainbow festival in Turkey at the beginning of May.

14 comments:

  1. Yes Anthony, I think kumbhakas are at the heart of the practice, precisely for the reasons you mention.

    So we should not be afraid to explore them as long as we have the intelligence to watch closely what happens, to not force them, to only make them last as long as they have ease and provide an insight within.
    They can provide increased alignment and stability, facilitate the application of bandhas.
    Personally, I love external kumbhakas although I am slowly and carefully learning to appreciate the power of internal ones.

    Never make them last so long that the following breath will be a struggle or faster or too deep.

    For this to happen, it takes awareness of our state of mind, it takes humbleness to accept that it will be possible some days and others not.
    It takes discrimination.

    Happy New Year to you too!!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for this chiara as well your recent fb comments around this, useful. Interesting that there seems to be more discussion of this from the viniyoga direction, Ramaswami doesn't tend to stress it although he indicates kumbhaka occasionally, cakra also. That of course makes me question whether Krishnamacharya saw it himself as the 'heart' of the practice in his later years as he seems to in the 30's/40', the Mysore years. Perhaps in the later years he was laying more stress on pranayama and the meditative limbs rather than on asana which seemed to take on more and more of a therapy role.

      "Never make them last so long that the following breath will be a struggle or faster or too deep."
      Yes, good tip too for pranayama in general, of course we can hold our breaths for a relatively long time but that's not the point, we're introducing kumbhaka again and again, as you say the clue to how it's going is how smooth and steady the following inhalation or exhalation is, there's an art to it, especially in asana, DISCRIMINTION : )

      best wishes for 2014

      Delete
  2. Brilliant article Anthony. Although I no longer practice ashtanga vinyasa I find your research inspiring and really in line with the method that's inspiring me.



    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Anthony. What I've learned from my teacher in this tradition is that the teaching is not to forcefully hold the breath. No matter the length of time spent at the juncture between what we call inhale vs. exhale, the issue is that it should be like you are still inhaling, or like you are still exhaling. We are "at the top of our breath", still inhaling, yet 'not', exactly. This key being it's 'as if' we are still inhaling (or exhaling, which is a little trickier). This is how the breath remains smooth and steady, like oil pouring, even though it seems the oil is simply a vapour. So perhaps Jois took a strident position, to ensure that no clutching, no forceful holding, is employed as a misunderstanding. Leading to harm in one's system.
    Does this make sense as a way to view 'both' stories about breath 'retention'??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like this Anon, makes a lot of sense to me.
      I've always tended to think of it as an extension of the space between the in and the out and the out and the in rather than a forceful holding of the breath, he talks of extending the space starting with 2 seconds leading up to five, very occasionally he mentions 10 seconds. I like it to imagine it as throwing a tennis ball in the air, there's that moment when it seems to hover before dropping back to earth, gets even better if you substitute a silk scarf for a tennis ball ( how I learned to juggle).

      "We are "at the top of our breath", still inhaling, yet 'not', exactly. This key being it's 'as if' we are still inhaling (or exhaling, which is a little trickier)."

      Will play with that idea tomorrow, love the 'vapour' idea too and of course it's bahya and antah kumbhaka that krishnamacharya is referring too.

      Perhaps your right and that it does balance 'both stories', finding Jois being so explicit about not holding the breath in Yoga Mala was a surprise and perhaps it's revealing, an attempt to stress that there is not a 'forceful' holding of the breath.

      The 'space between' seems to disappear more and more the faster your inhalation and exhalation and so a 5 second bhaya kumbhaka can seem highly pronounced but if your inhalation is around eight seconds then there is already an automatic space of 1-2 seconds, extending it just a little bit by bit seems less dramatic.
      Thank you for sharing how you learned it from your teacher.

      Delete
  4. Anthony thanks for all the great info. I"ve learned so much here! Some would say the stillness you are experiencing is god but we have to name it because we are mortals but that place you go to I think that's the aim! A happy, healthy, successful new year to you and your family.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Brad, hope 2014 goes well for you and yours also.
      Interesting thing about this "stillness" is that the kumbhaka's kind of add up or rather join together, it's not that the 2-5 seconds or so feel timeless but they accumulate, I'm not putting this well...... the focus is usually on the inhalation or the exhalation but it kind of turns things around and it's the inhalation and exhalation that seems to come between the kumbhaka, so the space, the kumbhaka becomes the more dominant feature, the inhalation and exhalation kind of move into the background and it seems like there are just kumbhakas linking up throughout the practice.... how many kumbhaka's in a two hour practice, I should count, something like 12 five second kumbhaka's a posture, 30 or so postures, what's that, something like forty minutes in kumbhaka. It's an interesting experience.

      Delete
  5. It is an interesting find; all those khumbakas as listed. We know though, through the big differences in the methods taught by Iyengar, Jois & Ramaswami that there isn't a 'one size fits all' in asana technique / method. We have the luxury of choosing to do what we are attracted to and what we think we can take the most benefit from. For me, that's Ashtanga, as taught at KPJAYI, (which doesn't introduce retentions until the pranayamas are practiced). I believe that the retentions are the 'heart' of the pranayama practices, not asana.

    Some years ago, when I practiced regularly in London, my (then) primary teacher was away in Mysore. He always arranged a good teacher to cover his absence. The cover teacher turned up a day earlier, and took himself through Intermediate in a space in front of my mat. He did every asana with the required strength, grace and with the fluidity of mercury. It was like the Mona Lisa in motion. So, to re-iterate Susan's point, I think most of us (Jois-method) students, are happy to practice and practice, aspiring to achieve free-breathing throughout whichever series we are studying. We may never get there, but we love the ride!

    Put more simply, all those retentions, within a dynamic asana practice (moving meditation), would be like taking a lovely warm shower, but switching it off, and back on again every 30 seconds.

    If, however, someone's is attracted to doing a slow, almost static practice, maybe. Choices, choices, Jois is my choice.

    All the best for 2014.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Grrr, just list my long response on ipad.
    Yes, perhaps The young Pattabhi felt the kumbhaka got in the way, that reducing or getting rid of it altogether turned the whole practice into a moving meditation, we know he practiced long stays and with a long slow breath ( Manju) though, perhaps Anon is right above that the kumbhaka is not so much a holding of the breath but an almost absence of breath, a vapour, continuation of the inhalation and exhalation. Of course this begs the question if a Kumbhaka isn't the heart of the practice then what is. What I find continuously of interest is how Krishnamacharya and the different lineages, in their different ways, found so much in asana, they don't so much elevate it above the other limbs as find more within it, Krishnamacharya's gift perhaps.
    As you say choices, choices. I prefer options, options, we don't necessarily have to change our practice to explore a longer stay in one or two postures ( we do that anyway in finishing), or perhaps introduce kumbhaka into our Paschimottanasana.
    Happy New Year to you and your family and may you still find time to strum a chord or two.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Out of curiosity, would you measure your blood pressure using a home cuff over a series of two practices, one in which khumbaka is introduced and one where it is not. As you note in the comment above, it is a 40 minute cumulative difference and I am curious to know how or if it affects the heart rate and blood pressure over a full practice, not to mention the mental aspects/benefits

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. that's apparently what Krishnamacharya was doing, measuring his heart rate before and after practice!

      Delete
    2. I just experimented on myself. Prior to an ashtanga practice of just srya a and b plus standing and finishing sequence, and after a cup of coffee 30 mins after waking, my syst/dia was 112/73 andheart rate was 55. Afterthe practice is 112/68, with heart at 59. Interesting. I use an Omron electronic bp cuff.

      Delete
    3. I have a watch that measures heart rate Anon, went crazy with it a while back stopping constantly to check throughout my practice and my day, turns out it doesn't change that much but then it might not be a great watch, cheap thing. new balance duo sport, fun though

      Delete

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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