Friday, 1 June 2012

Asana and Vinyasa : Ramaswami's June 2012 Newsletter

June 2012 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami—ASANA AND VINYASA

I am now in Vancouver, Canada teaching at Suzanne and Ryan's One Yoga
Studio, a beautiful facility. Presently I am teaching a five day 25
hour Certificate Program on Core Viyasakrama Asanas. We have a
compact enthusiastic group--very nice, warm yogis. The weekend I will
be teaching a workshop here on “Asana Pranayama. Mantras and
meditation” for a comprehensive daily practice involving the major
angas of Ashtanga Yoga.

The registration for my 200 hour Vinyasakrama Yoga Program at Loyola
Marymount University starting July 8th 2012 is as usual slow but
steady. Here is the link.
http://www.lmu.edu/pagefactory.aspx?PageID=34949&PageMode=View,

Early May, I was at Esalen Institute, California and taught a
practicum on Raja Yoga and Hata Yoga to a very compact group of Yoga
practitioners. It was 26 hr program spread over 6 days. It had
different asanas, then Viloma Ujjayi Pranayama and Meditation and
brief discussions on the theory of Hata Yoga and Raja Yoga. I thought
the program went well.
  *****

ASANA AND VINYASA
About five years ago when I started offering a 200 Hr Teacher Training
Program, I mainly wanted to cover a broad range of subjects Sri
Krishnamacharya taught me. I thought that to have an appreciation of
the depth and breadth of Krishnamacharya's teachings Asanas alone will
not do. But then even the asanabhyasa of Krishnamacharya was
distinctly different from the general contemporary Yoga as his was
based on traditional concepts of Yoga again based on teachings of such
great works as Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and his unique interpretation
of the Sutras and tradition and accepted authority. In what way was
his yogabhyasa different and distinct? I have written about it on
different occasions but I thought it would be good to put up the ideas
clearly.

There are hundreds of asanas in vogue, some standing like the famous
Virabhadrasana, lying down like apanasana, prone ones like
dhanurasana, inversions like Sarvangasana, which are practiced avidly
by yogabhyasis by the thousands all over the world, and have been for
generations. However the word asana, coming from the sanskrit root aas
'to sit', refers to a seated posture basically. Asana  means to be
seated or be in a seated position, as a good seated position was
considered essential for yogis to meditate for long hours and be in
Samadhi for a long time. It required that the Yogis had to discover
seated postures that would give comfort and stability and a few
classical poses came in to prominence. Padmasana,lotus pose, Virasana,
the hero pose,swastikasana are some such poses that have been
practiced for a very long time and reference to them can be found  in
itihasas and puranas. Svatmarama in Hatayogapradipika implies use of a
seated yoga posture for pranayama. One should firmly sit in a posture
and have moderate nourishing/easily digestible food and practice
pranayama as instructed by the Guru. Brahma sutras also mandates a
seated yogic posture for meditation.

It may be safe to infer that the asana word mentioned in the Yoga
Sutras as part of the Ashtanga Yoga system of Yoga  indicates a seated
pose. Asana is a position of the body in which one can be
comfortable(Sukha). The other parameter which  defines asana is sthira
or steadiness. It  also indicates a considerable duration. An asana is
a seated pose in which one can remain comfortable for a long time.
What to do in an asana? One would engage in the practice of other
angas from then on, like Pranayama, Pratyahara, and then the three
phased internal practices or antaranga sadhana of dharana, dhyana and
samadhi. Ultimately the yogi is able to transcend even that state of
ordinary object-based samadhi and reach a state of Nirodha which is
termed a state beyond the internal practice or athyangaranga.
Basically all are said to take place while the Yogi is in a seated
position called Asana.

So the purpose of learning asana anga is to be able sit for a long
time in a yogic posture, initially at least to be able to do a round
of uninterrupted Pranayama. What postures are good for that?
Traditionally, asanas like Padmasana, Siddhasana,Swastikasana
Vajrasana/ Virasana or Gomukhasana will meet the requirement.
Vajrasana and Virasana are perfectly balanced poses. Padmasana and
Sidhhasana are resorted to by yogis in large numbers as per tradition.
How to get into the posture in the first place and then be able to
remain in it comfortably and steadily for a long time? Someone defined
asana as a procedure to forget the body, not to be disturbed by bodily
distractions-like an ache here, an overstretch there, some numbness
somewhere, a silent injury in some other place.....

According to Sri Krishnamacharya the way to attain such perfection in
postures is to approach asana abhyasa following the vinyasakrama. He
would aver both during his teaching and in his books,  that asana
practice should be done with vinyasas to be able to achieve the asanas
siddhi, the ability to not just get into a posture somehow but, stay
in it comfortably and for the required length of time. Patanjali in
the II chapter 47 sutra gives the parameters for attaining asanasiddi
characterized by  stability/endurance and comfort. The two parameters
referred to in this sutra are prayatna saitilya and ananta samapatti.

Sri Krishnamacharya taught me yogasanas for several years following
the vinyasakrama. One of the main ingredients of his teaching was the
use of breath in asana vinyasas. I started studying with him when I
was 15 and studied with him until I was approaching 50. Invariably he
taught asanas with vinyasas and with the accompanying breathing. Every
expansive movement will start with an inhalation which would continue
smoothly until the completion of the movement 5 to say 10 seconds
long. Likewise every contraction movement like a forward bend or a
twist will start with an exhalation which exhalation would continue
with the movement until completion of the movement.
Inhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaale he wold say as he would ask you to raise the
arms in a posture, say Tadasana, Parvatasana or Vajrasana, and
exhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaale he would thunder as he would ask you to lower
your arms in the same postures. He would ask you to keep attention on
the breath, “follow the breath” he would say repeatedly. These two
instructions in the vinyasa asana practice continued  throughout  all
my 1 on 1 classes with him.

Somewhere along, one day I asked my Guru if there are any texts that
mention the use of breath in asana practice. Here is what I wrote in
Namarupa a few years back on this as part of an article on “My studies
with Sri T Krishnamacharya. [http://www.namarupa.org/magazine/nr06/
downloads/05_NR6-Srivatsa.pdf read the whole article]

Vinyása Krama was the mainstay of Krishnamacharya’s teaching of Hata
Yoga. The word vinyása is used to indicate an art form of practice.
This word is used in several arts, especially in South Indian Carnatic
music, a fully evolved classical music system. Vinyása Krama indicates
doing ásana with multiple aesthetic variations within the prescribed
parameters. Yoga was considered one of sixty-four ancient arts. Hence
if you approach yoga ásana practice as an art, that methodology is
Vinyása Krama. The beauty and efficacy of yoga is eloquently brought
out by Vinyása Krama.
What about breath synchronization, another important ingredient of
Krishnamacharya’s Vinyása Krama? What about mental focus on the breath
while doing ásana practice, central to vinyása yoga? None of the yoga
schools teaches yoga in this manner and no classic HathaYoga texts
mention breath synchronization in ásana practice specifically. Where
can one find references to these?

This was one of the few questions I asked my guru: Is Vinyása Krama an
old, traditional practice? Sri Krishnamacharya quoted a verse
indicating that reference to this practice can be found in a text
called Vrddha Sátápata and also in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. There
was no point in looking for an obscure text like Väddha Sátápata, but
Yoga Sutra was at hand. But where is the reference? There are hardly
two Sutras explaining ásana, and there is no reference to breath in
them—or is there?
Going back to my notes on Yoga Sutra classes with my guru, I found a
very interesting interpretation of the sutra, Prayatna-saithilya
anantasamápattibhyám. The word prayatna, very commonly used in India,
basically means “effort.” saithilya indicates “softness.” So Prayatna-
saithilya could mean “mild effort”; hence you find that many writers
on the Yoga Sutras declare that the way to achieve perfection in a
yoga posture is to “ease into the posture effortlessly.” This is
easier said than done. There are hundreds of practitioners who cannot
relax enough to be able to easily get into a posture like the Lotus,
for example. So we have to investigate the meaning of the word
prayatna as used by the darsanakáras in those days. Prayatna according
to (Navya)Nyáya, a sibling philosophy to yoga, is a bit involved.
Nyáya explains prayatna of three kinds (prayatnaê trividhaê proktam).
Two of them are the effort put in for happiness (pravätti) and the
effort to remove unhappiness (nivätti). Every being does this all the
time. One set of our efforts is always directed toward achieving
happiness and the other toward eradicating unhappiness. But the third
type of effort relevant here is the effort of life (jàvana-prayatna).
What is effort of life? It is the breath or breathing. Now we can say
that prayatna-saithilya is to make the breath smooth. Thus in ásana
practice according to Vinyása Krama, the breath should be smooth and
by implication long (dàrgha).

The other part of the sutra refers to samápatti, or mental focus.
Where or on what should the mental focus be? It is to be on ananta
(ananta-samápatti). Now we have to investigate the contextual meaning
of the word ananta, translated as “endless” or “limitless,” which many
writers equate with infinity. So some schools tend to say that while
practicing ásanas, one should focus the attention on infinity, which
is inappropriate—and impossible, at least for the vast majority of
yogàs. Ananta also refers to the serpent, Ädisesa, whose incarnation
Patañjali is believed to be. So some schools suggest that one should
focus on a mental image of Ädisesa or Patañjali. It may be possible,
but it is uncomfortable to think that Patañjali would write that one
should focus on his form for the success of ásana practice. So what
might ananta symbolically signify? The word ananta can be considered
to be derived from the root, “ana”—to breathe (ana sváse). We are all
familiar with the group of words--prána, apána, vyána, etc., names of
the five pránas derived from the root “ana.” So in the sutra, ananta
could mean “breath”; ananta-samápatti is then translated as “focusing
the mind on the breath.” In fact Ananta, or the serpent king, is
associated with air. In mythology the cobra is associated with air;
there is a common mythological belief that cobras live on air. If you
look at the icon of Natarája (the dancing Siva), you will find all
five elements of the universe (earth, water, air, fire, and space)
represented symbolically in Siva. The matted red hair represents fire,
the Gangá in his tresses, the water element; the air element is said
to be represented by the snake around the Lord’s neck. So ananta-
samápatti would mean focusing the attention on the breath or prána.

Thus this sutra means that while practicing ásana, one should do
smooth inhalations and exhalations and focus the attention on the
breath. Since Vinyása Krama involves several aesthetic movements into
and within yoga postures, to achieve the coordination of movement,
breath, and mind, one should synchronize the breath with the movement
with the help of the focused mind. By such practice, slowly but
surely, the union of mind and body takes place, with the breath acting
as the harness.
But why don’t other texts talk about it? There is a saying, “Anuktam
anyato gráhyam.” If some details are missing from one text, they
should be gathered from other complementary texts. Hatha-yoga-
pradàpiká explains a number of ásanas but does not mention breath
synchronization and other basic parameters. But Hatha-yoga-pradàpiká
proclaims that its instructions are like a prerequisite for the Rája
Yoga practice of Patañjali. These two texts are therefore compatible.
Thus we can conclude that Patañjali gives the basic parameters of
ásana practice (and also of the other angas like Pránáyáma), but for
details we have to refer to compatible texts like Haôha-yoga-
pradàpiká,Yoga-Yájñavalkya and others.

My Guru had written a book called “Yogasanangalu” in Kannada, a copy
of which I have had for a long time, but never read it as it is in
Kannada. Of course I have gone through the wonderful asana pictures of
my Guru in it many many times. Recently I found a few pages of the
translation in the blog pages of my friend Antony Hall and I am
reproducing the relevant portion from it hereunder (Thank You Tony)

NOTE: The original version of yogasanagalu has now been translated
http://grimmly2007.blogspot.jp/p/yogasanagalu-translation-project.html
One further chapter, added later is still to be translated (Update July 2016 that final chapter may be on it's way soon).

Sri Krishnamacharya wrote:
“Vinayasas” many people are curious about its secret. Some others want
to know its basis. I agree.
“prayatnashithilyanantasamapattibhyam” (Yoga Sutra II 47)

Please see Patanjala yogasutra and Vyasabhashya (P 2, S 47)

Both type of people (practitioners), be happy .

Vachaspathi Misra in that commentary

“Saamsiddhiko hi prayatnah shariradharako na
yogangasyopadeshtavyasanasya kaaranam. Tasmat
upadeshtavyasanasyayamashadhakah virodhi cha swabhavikah prayatnah.
Tasya cha yadruchhikasanahetutayaa sananiyamopahamtyatvat.”

Here is my translation: Surely the innate effort--prayatna-- (in every
being) is to sustain the body (which is prana, Prana and sariradharaka
are considered synonyms). But it (the normal innate breathing) is not
helpful in achieving the task on hand (achieving the yoga pose).
Therefore the natural/involuntary effort/breathing (swabhavika
prayatnah) is counterproductive in achieving the intended goal.
Consequently a man, practicing the specific posture as taught, should
resort to an effort(prayatna) which consists in the relaxation
(saitilya) of the natural/innate(swabhavika) effort (breath).
Otherwise the posture taught cannot be accomplished

Krishnamacharya continues to talk about using breath in asanas.
“Therefore, how many breathings for which asana? When is inhalation?
When is exhalation? In what way? When body is stretched forward,
inhalation or exhalation? What about when you raise your head? To know
this mystery and practice in order is called Vinayasa. These along
with the significance of each asana will be discussed in 1 to 32.”
********
Why do I do a flurry of Vinyasas?
So that I could sit in a Yogic posture
Firm, for long ,comfortable
Why sit in a Yogic posture?
So I can do Pranayama, Pratyahara
Do Parayana (chant), do dhyana (meditate)
May be then I can get into Samadhi.…
Why do I want to get into Samadhi?
To realize first hand
How intrinsically,immensely
delightfully peaceful
I really am
So why do I do all this
Flurry/Flow of Vinyasas ...?

So what have I been trying to say?

1. Asana in Raja Yoga (Patanjala Yoga) refers to a seated posture in
which the Yogi stays put comfortably and steadily for a long time

2. According to Patanjali and interpreted by Krishnamacharya it is
achieved by Vinyasas done with coordinated /synchronous smooth
breathing and focusing the mind on breath.  While doing the vinyasas,
Sri Krishnamacharya would ask us to breathe with a slight rubbing
sensation in the throat and producing a 'hissing sound' a la cobra—
another aspect of ananta samapatti. As mentioned earlier some
commentators refer to meditating on Ananta (ananta samapatti) and
normally it is done by Sri Krishnamacharya by saying a prayer in
praise of Patanjali at the beginning of a yoga practice session. There
are a few prayers on Patanjali. Sri Krishnamacharya  invariably
chanted the prayers  starting with “yastyaktva rupam..” then “yogena
chittasya..” and “aabahu purusha..” and then “Srimate Anantaya
Nagarajaya Namo Namah” at the beginning of a session while teaching
me, which I follow faithfully.

3. There are hundreds of vinyasas Sri Krishnamacharya taught. To meet
the requirements of different individuals one chooses the appropriate
ones from these. The individual package will depend upon the condition
of the individual and the posture/s one would look to attain siddhi
in. (Here is a commercial. To know and learn more about the myriad
vinyasas, systematically, please refer to my book “Complete Book of
Vinyasa Yoga”)

4. In practice,for the seated asana siddhi, inversions along with the
multitude of vinyasas in them are very helpful to relax and exercise
the lower extremities; so also the joints of the lower extremities
like the ankles, the knees, further up the hips and also the spinal
column. My Guru would ask us to be careful about thighs and waist.
“Never allow the thighs and waist to spread and get out of control”.
“Tape measure these and keep them under control.” And the inversions
with the vinyasas help keep the waistline and thigh size under
control, very essential to achieve seated posture siddhis. Since the
legs play an important role in seated poses these are very beneficial
to attain the sthiratva and sukhatva in seated poses. Further as many
varied vinyasas in scores of other asanas as possible should be
practiced to cover/exercise the whole body comprehensively and with
the bandhas at the end of exhalation and wherever appropriate. Yoga is
considered a sarvanga sadhana or a system that reaches and benefits
all parts of the body including the internal organs. It is achieved by
different vinyasas in different yoga poses, with appropriate breathing
and the bandhas. When a Yogi sits down to start the Pranayama, the
Yogi's whole body should be perfectly prepared with the Vinyasas in
different asanas with smooth mindful breathing. All these to make it
possible for the Yogi to sit comfortably for a long time and
concentrate on the job on hand like Pranayama or meditation and
completely be oblivious  of  the body .

5. A deliberate effort to link the breath with the movement mindfully
(mind/breath unity) will help the asana siddhi as per Patanjali's
instructions

6. Sri Krishnamacharya taught asanas with a proviso that it should not
be strenuous, no strain on the heart. Yoga should be helpful for the
heart by the judicious use of breath (respiratory pump effect) and
varied use of vinyasas (muscle pump effect). It is corroborated by a
verse in Hatayogapradeepika. Quoting Gorakshnatha,  Svatmarama says
“varjayet.......kayaklesa vidhim..” It indicates that the yogi should
avoid procedures that put strain/pain (klesa) on the system. Yoga is
to reduce pain or klesa, both physical(kaya klesa) and
psychological(the pancha klesas). Brahmananda in his commentary
explains kayaklesa that should be avoided will include, bahubhara
udvahana or carrying heavy weights and bahusuryanamaskara or
performing multiple sun salutations. Sri Krishnamacharya taught me Sun
Salutation with appropriate breathing with the movements but it was an
optional small part of the routine . Suryanamaskara chanting however
was an important aspect of the vedic chantings he taught me.

7. He also would say that a serious yogi should be krisa or lean. For
a yogi,heaviness caused by fat or lean (muscle) is not helpful.

8. The asanabhyasa I learnt from my Guru was not merely slowing down
the pace of the asana practice but a deliberate practice to slow down
the breathing rate itself. As against the normal breath rate of about
15 per minute, in Vinyasakrama the breath rate is brought down to
about 6 or less per minute during vinyasa practice for most of the
time. Without controlled breathing, the breath rate in many physical
exercises, outdoor games and gym workouts could be much higher than
the normal rate and is the antithesis of vinyasakrama I learnt from my
Guru consistently for many many years. Sri Krishnamacharya had a clear
preference for slowed breathing and advised his serious students not
to participate in activities that tend to increase the heart rate/
breath rate substantially like running etc. even as he had no
objection to walking as an exercise. This advice was of course for
serious yogabhyasis.

9. I remember that once  there was a talk/demonstration on Yoga by Sri
Krishnamacharya , if I remember correct, at  T S, in Adyar, Madras.
Sri Krishnamacharya spoke for a short while and asked someone in the
audience to come and check his pulse rate. It was about 60 or so. Then
Sri Krishnamacharya, sat up and did some pranayama and bandhas a few
times and asked his pulse rate to be checked. It was around 30. Within
a short duration with Pranayama ( and bandhas) he was able to
amazingly reduce the rate substantially.

10.When I was  young I actively participated in outdoor activities. I
even represented my college in three games, Cricket, Table Tennis and
Tennis (Captain). For a few years I was learning Yoga and also playing
outdoor games and I enjoyed both. But soon I realized the distinct
difference in the philosophy of both. While one--aerobics-- encouraged
free breathing, increased metabolism, substantially increased heart
rate during the physical activity, Yoga, at least the Yoga I learnt
from Sri Krishnamacharya encourages, nay mandates, deliberate slower
breathing, and achieve lower heart rate. I think both systems have
their own idiosyncrasies and distinct advantages. Aerobic kind of
exercises, especially the strenuous ones, may I say, tend to flog the
heart, by increasing the heart rate(sometimes even pounding),  breath
rate all of which of course help to strengthen the heart muscles and
develop collateral blood vessels. But then Yoga virtually accesses,
supports, caresses, gently massages and directly aids the heart in its
function. (For more on this please read my article “Yoga For the
Heart”, in my May 2009 Newsletter
http://groups.google.com/group/vinyasa-krama-announce/browse_thread/thread/b2623b8c86da2286?hl=en
)

11.  So, Yoga may not be practised as a workout with heavy breathing,
profuse sweating and accelerated heart rate . The nicety about
hatayoga is the smooth, long, more complete breathing even while doing
those beautifully flowing vinyasas and asanas and unique Mudras, else
there is physiologically no difference between Yoga and aerobics/
workouts.  And one must admit Sri Krishnamacharya knew a thing or two
about the heart and health. He lived for a hundred years a healthy man
and also, as documented, had shown tremendous control over the heart
and its beat.

    Sincerely
Srivatsa Ramaswami

P S. Please write to info@vinyasakrama.com for comments and
suggestions. My earlier Newsletters can be accessed by visiting my
website www.vinyasakrama.com and clicking on the Newsletter tab.

  If I practice asanas alone all my life and expect everything
mentioned in Yoga texts to come to me, then how come Yogis of
yesteryears like Sri Krishnamacharya studied, practised and taught
other yogangas like Pranayama, chanting, meditation , texts and others
in addition to those exquisite yoga postures? Am I missing something
very vital in my lifelong Yoga practice?

4 comments:

  1. Are Ashtanga and/or vinyasa krama is good enough for heart health?


    Every year I have the same conversation with my personal physicaian during my annual physical. D. Do you do any aerobic exercises? Me. No, but I do a dynamic type of yoga. I try to explain what I do, but he never gets it because he has his own image of yoga. D. That’s not enough. You need to increase your heart rate to 140 – 150 to get the aerobic effect. I say OK , but never get around to it. I have not done any other exercise for over 10 years but I feel that I’m in the best shape of my life. Blood work results come out normal including lipids. Few years ago, I even passed a stress test a without breaking a sweat.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Curious the Doctor actually asked about 'aerobic' exercise, here I think they're happy if you just go for a walk. When i saw the doctor with my Kidney stones and mentioned I practised Yoga she said "...perfect, no need to send you to the physio".

    I'm not sure wether the aerobic impression of Ashtanga is a mistaken. In the beginning your getting hot and sweaty and breath perhaps all over the place but that doesn't strike me to be the intention, one reason people get stopped supposedly (when they lose control of their breath at a posture). I've been practising long enough now that I can get through Primary with my breath pretty steady throughout and most of 2nd series too except perhaps for the odd couple of postures, tittibhasana c for some reason, Nakrasana.

    I want to believe that Ashtanga can still be practiced in line with Krishnamacharya's intention.

    ReplyDelete
  3. In the intro to "Power Yoga" by Beryl Bender Birch, she says " with this practice you are training the lungs to increase their volume and uptake while training the heart to increase its efficiency. Studies on advanced practitioners of this yoga system shows that the resultant effects on the heart and lungs are very similar to the effects of aerobic sports- the resting heart rate slows, the capacity of heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to muscles increases, and the anaerobic threshold moves further away."

    The above analysis makes logical sense to me. I was wondering if anyone has come across published results?

    Grimmly, I have started to practice Ashtanga at a slower pace with deeper breathings and beginning to enjoy it even more. You have charactrized it correctly as Krishnamacharya's intentions.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The points above re: ashtanga bring to mind how the breaths per asana decreased as more and more people went to Mysore. It seemed to go from 25 breaths for therapy, to 8 breaths, to 5 and then 3 breaths. It seems most Mysore classes now teach 5 breaths. I tend to think the more breaths one takes per asana, the slower the overall rate will be. However, this also increases the length of the practice, which for most working people doesn't work well. I know I have difficulty fitting in my practice in the mornings from 4-6 am, prior to leaving for work. If I sleep too long, the whole practice has to be truncated. Is there anyone out here who practices ashtanga with 8 or more breaths? If so, how is your breathing rate affected?

    ReplyDelete

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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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