Taittiriya Upanishad, Why Study the Wisdom Writings?

Pancha-Kośa: The Five Sheaths in Theory & Practice

Sat. Mar. 9 & 16
11:30 AM – 2:45 PM
All levels – Register online

Why do you practice Yoga?

Really! Ask yourself. I know, it is like asking yourself, why do

I eat? Because I have to, or because I feel better about myself when I practice. All the pains seem to subside. Is that why?

When I first started, almost forty years ago, I was interested in “Samadhi”, in this implied transcendent state, in feeling peaceful inside, and in “finding” my authentic self. That was the pitch at that time, when I was in my 20s and 30s. Through practice, I realized how wild my mind was and how filled I was with desire to get “better” at whatever I was doing. I wanted to perfect each pose; then, once I realized that there was no such thing as a “perfect” pose, I sought to refine my ability to enter into each pose, to become more sensitive to the feedback from the muscles, connective tissue, breath, and, through this process, I learned how to become deeply absorbed into each moment. Is this what the “Samadhi” moment is?

I live my life in growing orbits,
Which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
But that will be my attempt.  -Rainer Maria Rilke, 1899

This last weekend I went to the desert. I forget how much energy it takes to filter out the noise of excess stimulation from the city. The to-do list, the traffic, the choices, classes, people. I knew that I had this workshop to prepare for, on the Upanishads. The Taittiriyopanishad in particular. I love the Upanishads for they address the heart of the practice: May I come to know that from which all else is known. –Mundaka Upanishad.  The desert seems stripped of “stuff” and lies bare; not barren, but like a blank canvas. I sat on the cool earth, felt the wind, the sun, heard the distance, and waited.

The elements rose up within me; my body became the sensory tool to monitor experience

The earth below me, seemingly firm,
the earth within me, my bones seemingly firm,
the earth all around me, seemingly established in its cyclical
nature of coming and going.

The sky above me, seemingly vast,
the sky within me, when the mind’s itch and the heart’s desire is silent,
seemingly vast,
the sky all around me, seemingly timeless in its immensity.

Cast between the rhythm of becoming and the presence of being.

I love the Upanishads and the Vedas because they speak in metaphor and point the way toward something that cannot and perhaps should not be analyzed, the very personal process of becoming more aware. Yet here, in the Taittiriyopanishad, the student and teacher share a process. I read more, and sat with the desert.

Why do I practice yoga? In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar (Guruji) says: “The sadhaka’s aim is to bring the consciousness to a state of purity and translucence.” He goes on refer to the elements and the Kośas. In order to help man understand himself, the sages analyzed humans as being composed of five sheaths, or kośas. In Light on Life, Guruji further refines and applies these five sheaths with a path inward.

Anatomical Earth Stability
Physiological Water Vitality
Mental Fire Clarity
Intellectual Air Discernment
Blissful Either Bliss

“The first three sheaths are within the elements of nature. The intellectual sheath is said to be the layer of the individual soul and the blissful sheath is said to be the layer of the universal soul”. -LOY

Clearly, I am in good company as Guruji studied and applied these same teachings. “In effect, all five sheaths have to be penetrated to reach emancipation”. While Guruji’s process was one of moving from the elemental toward the spiritual, or, as he might say, from the gross to the subtle, perhaps attuning first to what is most immediate, the earth. As Rilke said, “I live my life in growing orbits”. Then, what lies beneath begins to reveal itself as a new foundation, and what lies beneath that, again, until the most fundamental foundation emerges.

May I come to know that from which all else is known. -Manduka Upanishad

The Taittiriyopanishad is the source material for the Kośas. It is the first time that the word Yoga is used in the wisdom literature. These teachings are ripe with inquiry and with meditative material. Join us for this workshop to study and apply these teachings.

SahaNaVavatu chant is the peace chant that introduces the Bhrahmananda Valli. In translation: Om! May It protect us both (teacher and pupil). May It cause us both to enjoy the bliss of Mukti (liberation). May we both exert to find out the true meaning of the scriptures. May our studies be fruitful. May we never quarrel with each other. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

I live my life in growing orbits,
Which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
But that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
And I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still don’t know if I am a falcon,
Or a storm, or a great song. –Rilke

Register online

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Pancha-Kośa: The Five Sheaths in Theory & Practice

2 Saturdays
March 9 & 16

11:30 AM – 2:45 PM

All levels

Register online

Sat, March 9  $75 – $85 after Mar  1
Sat, March 16  $75 – $85 after Mar  1
Both sessions  $140 – $170 after Mar  1

Join us to read, discuss, and practice the wisdom of the Bliss of Brahman chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad. In his spiritual masterpiece, Light on Life, Sri Iyengar chose to organize his thoughts along the lines of this brilliant paradigm. As he wrote in Astadala Yogamala“This Upanishad is the first scripture which reveals the five sheaths or envelopes that cover the light of the Self.”

For the serious yoga practitioner, the pancha (five) – kośa model is as relevant today as it was twenty-five centuries ago, skillfully weaving the inner connections linking body, breath, mind, consciousness, and spirit. The Taittiriya is the earliest classical text which introduces the term “yoga” in a spiritual context. In this mini-seminar, John will distribute and introduce the root text and Lisa will translate this into an asana practice.

We will all then together transcend the physical and conceptual realms and attune to the spiritual essence of life revealed in silent meditation.

John Thomas Casey has been a Yoga scholar-practitioner since 1971, and holds a doctorate in Asian and Comparative Philosophy from the University of Hawai’i. John has taught courses on World Religions, Sanskrit language, Buddhism, and Yoga Studies at local colleges, while also helping to establish the MA program in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Lisa WalfordLisa Walford teaches internationally and has taught in the Los Angeles area for over thirty years. She is certified Intermediate Senior II.


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Pranayama is the Hub of Yoga

This amazing embodiment! This chariot that carries us through life! The body, the breath, the brain. How intimately connected, one cannot effect any part without impacting the whole.

Pranayama Course at IYILA, 3 weeks beginning in November. Tuesdays and Thursdays 7:15 – 8:30. Nov 6, 8, 13, 15, 27, 29

When I lie down in Savasana, I first feel my body release, a sense of heaviness as the weight of the body succumbs to gravity. Next, I begin to feel a rise and fall of the breath, and a gradual change in the rhythm of the breath. I might now become aware of the ricocheting triggers in my brain, thoughts like ping pong balls jumping back and forth. This part of the triad pesters my tranquility. When I ask my brain to quiet down,I realize that I have little control, at first. Return to the sensations in the body, yielding of muscular effort, the felt sense of the breath and the rhythm of the breath.

We now know that anything that we observe changes through the mere act of observation. When we lie down in Savasana, this transformation begins. We wait, watch, and witness the gradual change from an external orientation with the self to a deeply intimate connection with Self, sans the “identity” that we use in our daily interactions. It takes time for the mercurial brain to shift, to let go, to allow itself to be harnessed to the breath, and thus, to consciousness.

If you look at the breath in the form of the respiratory system, it is physical. But when the action of the breath on the mind is studied and understood, it becomes spiritual. Pranayama is the bridge between the physical and the spiritual. Hence, pranayama is the hub of yoga. -Tree of Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar

The true fruit of yoga is not a material achievement or performance. Yogis never measure the intake of oxygen. That is not what they are interested in. The yogi’s interest is to keep the head and the heart clean through the harmony of breath, and this is achieved through the practice of pranayama. ibid.

There is an ongoing discussion in the yoga community on whether yoga in the west has become a commodity. Whatever form of yoga one practices, if it brings some kind of peace, then it has been true to its roots. The health and healing aspects of yoga are well documented and accepted. However, the deeper transformative aspects of a consistent practice of yoga can only be gauged through personal experience over a long period of consistent practice.

Pranayama is the bridge between the external and internal experiences, just as we inhale and exhale. We are so accustomed to taking in, to imbibing sights, sounds, tastes,  that we become addicted and “hungry” for more. This is the animal nature of desire. But the other side is to let go, to let the stimulation drop away. Emptiness is an enigma for most of us as  we equate it with a lack of some “thing”. The experience of letting go of the hungry instinctual animal mind to avail oneself of the possibility of a deep tranquility that predisposes one to a new, less known of being may seem scary, even petrifying. It is the unknown. Yet this is the path of a true seeker.

Join us for a course in letting go and tuning in to witness how you are and how you might be. These six sessions are appropriate for those who are new to the pranayama practice as well as for those of you who practice regularly. I will be recording the sessions and will make them available to participants to help reinforce a personal practice.

For more information, please visit the IYILA website.

Visit my podcasts page to listen to the sessions so you can practice on your own.

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Facets of brilliant teaching, the Iyengar family

Lisa at RIMYI in 2013Yoga is a deeply personal experience. Guruji went to the depths of his practice to extract the essence of what it is to be human. He used his body to discover the step ladder that can take us from suffering to inner peace, and paved the path for the rest of us follow. Geeta and Prashant Iyengar, Guruji’s daughter and son, have both dedicated their lives to continuing this discovery. Geeta systematized how we practice, designed programs for women and supervised therapeutic classes. Prashant weaves esoteric elements of yoga into his teaching and bases much of his work on the breath. Each brings us a gift to unwrap through our studies.

I have studied with all three of these inspired teachers. Each brings his/her own discipline, insights and devotion to the daily practice. I have seen their interpretation evolve over time, and how each has chosen to adapt to the changes brought on through the aging process according to his/her needs. I could not ask for better role models.

The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras speaks on Sadhana, or Practice. Guruji translates the first sutra: TapahsvadhyayaIsvarapranidhanani  as “Burning zeal in practice, self-study and surrender to God area the acts of yoga. ” While these three pillars of practice exist in each of us, I might say that Geetaji embodies the more pragmatic approach of practice. She is able to show a clear and concise system to our method. Prashantji elaborates on the interconnections between the breath, body and mind as means of culturing personal transformation. Guruji’s entire life was built from his devotion to God. His practice was intense, his self-study unsurpassed, but his faith in Yoga carried him through times of scarcity and solitude.

In the introduction to Light on Yoga Iyengar suggests “When the restlessness of the mind, intellect and self is stilled through the practice of Yoga, the yogi by the grace of the Spirit within himself finds fulfillment.  Then he knows the joy of the eternal which is beyond the pale of the senses which his reason cannot grasp… The real meaning of Yoga – a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow.”

In this asana practice, I will introduce language used by each of these masters. Saturday’s practice will include standing and seated postures with some restorative work; Sunday will focus on inversions, pranayama and Prashant’s breath focus.

For more information, or to register, please email institute@iyila.org, call +1-310-558-8212. or visit http://iyila.org/facets-of-practice-the-trinity-of-iyengar-yoga-with-lisa-walford/ or https://www.facebook.com/events/533819957015276/.

Dates: Sat. June 23, 2018, 11:30 – 1:30 & Sun. June 24, 2018, 2:15 – 4:15
Levels: 1 & 2
B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles (IYILA)
1835 South La Cienega Blvd, Suite 240 (Google Map)
Los Angeles, CA, 90035 USA

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Light on Yoga, Practice Sequences from the Back of the Book

Saturday, May 26, 11:30 – 1:30 at IYILA

Practice together a dynamic and challenging sequence. Published when B.K.S. Iyengar was in his 40s, the sequences in the back of Light on Yoga show how he practiced earlier in life. The sequence for this session, week 26-30, includes inversions, Padmasana preparations and variations, seated poses, twists and backward extensions. The sequences In the Back of the Book are stimulating and balanced and show how diverse Iyengar Yoga really is.

This is designed as a practice session, so we will not break down the poses. We will have fun and ignite the passion that led our teacher to explore and practice yoga well into his 90s.

This series is for students who want to challenge their practice. Regular and consistent practice at Level 2, and above, is required, including Sirsasana with variations, and Sarvangasana with variations. Those with injuries, should have an understanding of how to take care of themselves

For more information, or to register, please email institute@iyila.org, call 310-558-8212. or visit http://iyila.org/the-back-of-the-book-sequences-from-light-on-yoga-with-lisa-walford/ or https://www.facebook.com/events/533819957015276/.

Date: Saturday May 26, 2018, 11:30 – 1:30
B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles (IYILA)
1835 South La Cienega Blvd, Suite 240 (Google Map)
Los Angeles, CA, 90035 USA

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Light on Life: Discourse at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in honor of the B.K.S. Centennial

Fours Sessions of Inspiration on Life and Using the Process of Yoga to Live Fully: Apr. 7 – May 5 at IYILA.

In this riveting and insightful book Shree B.K.S. Iyengar explains fundamental principals of Yoga in an accessible way and shows us how to apply these ideas for the modern  age.

For more info, or to register, visit here.

The seven chapters follow the “kosha” model of Self discovery and transformation through Yoga. Chapter titles include Stability, Vitality, Clarity, Wisdom, Bliss and Freedom.  I will introduce the structure of the Kosha model along with the salient ideas in this book and will encourage discussion to help understand how to apply these in your life. A 30 minute yoga practice will conclude each session. I love this book and quote from it frequently.

Chapter 1 – Stability: The yogi knows that the physical body is not only the temple for our soul but the means by which we embark on the inward journey to the core… The physical body corresponds to one of the elements of nature, namely, the earth..You are also developing the qualities of earth within yourself: solidity, shape, firmness, and strength.

In this chapter he reviews the true nature of health, awareness and attention, dynamic extension and he introduces the gunas (qualities of nature in yoga).

We are seeking the balance of polarity, not the antagonism of duality.

Chapter 2 – Vitality: Here he defines Prana and waxes poetic with different experiences in pranayama. Pranayama and the experience of prana is such a subjective topic that perhaps poetic language is the most useful here. One can only point at the moon, the experience will be a private affair. He dives into six emotional disturbances and offers six spokes of the wheel of peace. These are in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as well as throughout the sacred texts of yoga.

Prana is special because it carries awareness. It is the vehicle for consciousnessIn breathing you have to listen to the sound of mind’s vibration and adjust its harmony.

Chapter 3 – Clarity: Here we are introduced to the nature of the mind. This layer of the Self  has two faces. As the mind relates to the outer layers, the body and physiology, the mind plays a villain. It distracts us and pulls us in all kinds of wants, fears, preferences and prejudices. But when it faces inward, it become a hero. This chapter introduces the nature of memory and how to reduce suffering.

By transferring its allegiance from the pleasure-seeking mind to the discerning intelligence, memory no longer digs pits of old habit for us to fall into but becomes our true guru by guiding us toward perfect knowledge and behavior. By purifying memory, we purify the whole mind. For an average person, memory is a past state of mind. For the yogi, it is a present state of mind.

The final chapters cover Wisdom, Bliss, and Freedom, the inner sheaths in the kosa model of the reality of the Self. I found the following to be quite interesting as Iyengar understands that each student will have to use her/his own cultural and familial background as the foundation for this exploration of the Self.

The free man is innovative and open, even revolutionary, but he will also be steeped in tradition, through culture and hereditary.

While the reading is important and inspiring, I intend to make this course more conversational so that we learn to apply the skills and techniques of Yoga in our daily lives.  The ideas in this material are in the Yoga Sutras. Those of you interested in further studies in the Yoga Sutras will find this book exceptional. I taught a course on Light on Life at Loyola Marymont University ten years ago. Here we go again!

Hope to see you there!

April 7, 14, 28 and May 5
11:30 AM – 2:00 PM
Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles
1835 S La Cienega Blvd, Ste 240, Los Angeles, CA 90035

For more information, or to register, please visit
http://iyila.org/light-on-life-with-lisa-walford/, email institute@iyila.org, or call IYILA at  310.558.8212.

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Pranayama Intensive at IYILA in March

Update: Visit my podcast page to listen to this intensive via iTunes download the podcast feed, or download the individual mp3 files.

What is the ultimate aim of Yoga? What is your ultimate aim in practicing yoga? There are many answers to this question! Many practitioners will say that they seek tranquility and composure along with health and physical agility. When I first began practicing I was intoxicated by the stamina I built and the physical challenge. The sense of peace that came with Savasana was an unexpected bonus experience.

One of the most salient sutras in Patanjali’s discourse launches the second chapter, the chapter on practice. Tapas Svadhyaya Ishvarapranidhanani Kriya Yoga. Kriya literally means doing, work, or action (from the root √kr (to do). In the beginning we learn by doing, repetition, instruction. Svadhyaya directs us to study the Self (Sva = own √i means to go, literally going into the self). With consistent study I began to reflect and refine my practice on all levels, physically I became stronger, more confident and sensitive to the effect of my actions on all levels. My yoga practice was beginning to help me adjust my eating habits, sleep patterns, what I wanted to study and how I wanted to spend my time. Finally, Ishvara embodies mastery, or “lord” and pranidhanani means devotion or dedication. What is life worth if not to dedicate oneself to mastery, devotion, and practice?

Every yoga practice is a synthesis of body/mind/breath, for can we really separate one from the other? Pranayama is the conscious bridge between the body and the mind as it directly addresses the nervous system and the subtle essence called Prana. Pranayama further illumines the overarching application of Sutra 2.II as the inhalation is one of Tapas, and the exhalation Ishvarapranidhanani. The inhalation is the creative principal, it invigorates and energies; while with a conscious exhalation one surrenders all ego to an internal governor, the monarch of all existence, spirit. The reflective nature of Svadhyaya becomes the conscious bridge between the creative ego and sublimating that same ego to a higher power. B.K.S. Iyengar says, in Light on Life, that Prana is special because it carries awareness. It is the vehicle of consciousness.

So how do I cultivate this Prana? And how do did I begin my Pranayama practice? Well, slowly. Guruji says, in Light on Pranayama, The practice of pranayama should not be mechanical. One cannot practice pranayama by force of will; hence, there should be no regimentation. Complete receptivity of the mind and intellect are essential. I am strong willed, I know that about myself. As a dancer I never let a day go by without doing my plies. As a new student of yoga, I insisted on a daily practice where, unless I challenged my limits, I felt that I had cheated myself. My ego was hard to harness and tame! Over time I realized that there was another, deep and rich resource within me that I could tape into with less physical effort and willfulness. Savasana beckoned.

Savasana directed me to tune into a higher consciousness, the eternal Tao. Although the Tao is formless and empty, it never fails to provide. Tao Te Ching. The Isha Upanishad (Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite) says: All this, whatever moves in this Universe, is indwelled by Isha; therefor, through renunciation, do thou enjoy and do not covet anyone’s wealth. (Swami Satyananda Saraswati). When I adjusted my willfullness to willingness, I felt that I became a recipient of growth rather then trying to manipulate my studies.

Such a journey begins with a first step. Whether through asana practice, through meditation, ecstatic dancing or being absorbed in nature, it is the mind that begins to taste a delight in the simplicity of being present. It is not easy, it rarely comes naturally. But unless the mind is relaxed, silent and receptive, one cannot really begin a pranayama practice. So the first step is with Savasana. Through Savasana of the eyes, the tongue, the ears, and all the organs of perception along with the muscles a deep receptivity emerges. It is as if one has removed all the strings of identity that inhibit the emergence of the inner light. The first step, then, is to begin. and what better time then with tomorrow morning?

Set up your pranayama props the night before. The morning is considered the most auspicious as the body is fresh and the mind innocent. Lie down and watch, wait and listen. Wait, witness and listen within. The journey will be full of surprises, but persevere. It took me several years before I began a sincere practice, and yet I remember, to this day, when I knew that I had taped into Prana. I never turned back.

So what it my ultimate aim in Yoga? The great Mahatma says it well:  Sense perceptions can be and often are false and deceptive, however real they seem to us. Where there is a realization outside the senses, it is infallible. It is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within.

For more information, or to sign up for my intensive, please click here. The intensive begins on Tuesday, March 6 from 7:15am – 8:30am, and meets Tuesdays and Thursdays for three weeks.

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Ādhyātmik preparations. “Flush out the mundane practice so that you can evolve.”

III.15: Krama anyatvam parinama anyatve hetuh. Successive sequential changes cause the distinctive changes in the consciousness. –Light on Yoga Sutras (LOYS)

In this session we applied and observed how the succession (krama) and sequence (krama) from different asanas transformed (parinama) Utthita Trikonasana. We went through a series of standing to Trikonasana, Sirsasana to Trikonasana, seated to Trikonasana, twisting and backarches, all punctuated by Utthita Trikonasana. Whatever asana came before gave a different access to the body and conditioned that Trikonasana. Prashant explained that we generally think of sequencing a complete series of poses from one point to another. Rarely, he said, do we practice to see how the application of the unique dynamics that are characteristic in any one asana will educate and condition the body/mind (embodiment). “Practice based on your sensitivity, not what you know or your abilities.  See what is proper, what is correct and what is right. The proper will be the right, so do not assume or impose, rather develop the access, the qualification and the perception.”

For example, after Bhardvajasana we went into Trikonasana. I found that the expression in the shoulders, shoulder blades and lungs that blossomed in Bhardvajasana was then featured in Utthita Trikonasana. Had the sequence after Bharadvajasana proceeded with other twists or forward extensions, I would not have gone as deeply into the potential and capacity of the shoulder blades and lungs in Trikonasana. The transformation “Parinama” of Utthita Trikonasana came through the succession of sequence “krama,” hence, Parinama Krama. So rather than a sequence leading towards a particular asana or focused around a category of asanas, the sequence can take one asana and “apply” other asanas to it, “apply” the conditions and capacities that another asana gives to the main one. In this case, Utthita Trikonasana.

III.15: Krama anyatvam parinama anyatve hetuh. Successive sequential changes cause the distinctive changes in the consciousness. -LOYS

  • Trikonasana
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana
  • Uthtita Parsvakonasna to Utthita Trikonasana
  • Padmasana or Swastikasana, and then into Trikonasana

Prashant guided us to observe if the connection between these two sharpened our perception of the legs, or the spine, or the spine to the legs, or the legs to the breath, etc. He encouraged us to go slow, to come in and out of the pose at will and to repeat on the same side. “Parinama kriya”, the acts will create “Parinama krama” changes.

Develop discretion; see when the proper is right. Observe the succession of changes, the first hierarchy is biomechanical, then the breath, the exhalation and the inhalation.”

It was a different experience when the exploration of the “what” and the “for what” or “for whom” became my own discovery. How the legs affected the spine which then affected the lungs which then impacted the breath. I had to stay receptive to not “impose” my learned order of what to do for my hips, etc. He did say that we may not want to practice like this all the time, but that we should go deeper into the subject rather than always depending on what the teacher says.

Identify changes that come because of the sermon that comes from within, go slow, and watch the changes and relationship with what came before, the ‘parinama krama’ of Padmasana to Utthita Trikonasana is different. You have to practice to develop sagacity.”

Brick Setubandha krama to Utthita Trikonasana:

  • Krama parinamatvam: in brick setubandha, what did you open? Practice to build sensitivity, go until you feel the seal open up to you. How does the tailbone move?
  • Brick Setubandha to Utthita Trikonasana

How has the access given to you from the brick affected Trikonasana? With the brick at the tailbone or sacrum, what happened inside? What seal was opened here that is different than in Parsvakonasana? This is a social event within, take the climate and health conditions into account. At some stage of your pursuit Vayu Askasha will open.”

“The Parinama will be affected by psychodynamics as well; I want to learn, I want to study, I want to comprehend” he explained.

On a personal note, I took three months away from teaching this last summer. I surprised to see how long it took before my inner dialog in practice was completely present and no longer automatically focused on how I might describe an action while teaching. I wanted to take time off to study. Generally, as I teach often, even though I may practice my syllabus or something I want to work on, I find that there is always an inner dialog that translates what I am doing into what to do or how to do it. For that is what I have to do as a teacher, translate my direct experience into a form that will be accessible to my students. The inner teacher was so acclimated to figuring out how to present material to students that that inner voice had become a tyrant, always on. Over a period of time this changed, I began to hold asanas longer and be present simply for myself and within myself. Prashant often lectures us on how we are always doing, we are rarely done and never reflect on the Doer.

The enormous launching points in the psyche and what came before all effect the changes. This is how you get profundity and maturity.

  • Bharadvajasana to Utthita Trikonasana
  • Sirsasana with Padmasana or drop back
  • Trikonasana
  • Bharadvajasana
  • Marichyasana

“Consider how each pose effects and or creates a learning foundation for any particular asana. “Each asana is a marvel; we have to look at it like a yoga asana and not like a physical culture.” Different permutations and combinations make different results.”

Prashantji’s tea analogy is now famous, and effective every time I hear it. Good tea is the combination of the right amount of hot water, tea leaves, milk and sugar. If you have too many tea leaves or leave the leaves to steep too long, the tea become bitter. If you have a lot of milk and only a little tea and a lot of sugar, the milk tea is something else, sugar and milk. So it takes the proper amounts and combinations to make good tea.

Different succession of changes will create different manifestations. And the changes happen moment to moment. First we may find that we are dull, the tamo guna predominates. Or, we may be restless, stressed, and unable to focus. The gunas play a big part in transformation. “Tamas gives density and mass, and when these qualities exceed our needs, we call it dullness and inertia. The negative aspect of rajas is turbulent, frenetic, and agitated. We want a quick mind, not an agitated one. We also want a calm, clear mind, which brings us to sattva… We use the word luminosity, which is the inner, serene qulity of light, to describe sattva. The interplay of these three guna forces is of crucial importance in your yoga practice.” -Light on Life

“Sometimes you feel dullness so you may want to “hit” the pose, quick treatment, and use raja guna to drive tamo guna. Go slow, for sattva guna you must let it evolve. This way the condition fades in and you come to know the characteristics and diagnostics, dorsal major, spine major, etc. Some will have a mindset, some a breathset, some will be more physical. This is not attentiveness, it is a comprehensive approach to the practice.

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The elixir of life, Pranayama

Day 3, Dec. 19, 2017, PM session. Pune, India

After an exhaustive and exhilarating exploration of how the shoulder blades can support the lungs, chest and neck, we were ripe for pranayama. The afternoon session began with an introduction to AUM. Speaking, chanting and singing are all exhalative acts, he explained. While we listen to the sound we hear, the resonance continues in the body after the audible sound is over. Prashant Iyengar had us chant the A but the pronunciation was “eh” (as in went, just the “e”). We observed the physical sound and natural exhalation to feel where the lasting echo could be felt. It was in the belly. We did the same for U, which vibrated in the chest and heart region. The M filled the skull and mind with a serene finality. AUM.

Prashant then explained that these are the centers of passion, emotion and ego and that all are mental facets. These need cleansing, and he is very graphic about the “sh__t” we hold onto. “No dietitian speaks of a diet for the mind, we cannot fast in the mind, we are always gobbling for the mind; its mouth is too big and always open. And always constipated. Rechaka (exhalation) is a purgative, it can relax. By abdominal confinement you will have purgation of passion, with flushing in the chest we release emotional fecal matter, and exhalation in the brain quiets the mind. Expulsion, surrender, immersion; there are so many things that need to be parted with.”

The belly, he continued, is a major organ with instinctive characteristics. When we have a panic attack the belly tightens. This reminds me of the many digestive illnesses and conditions that we see these days. From diverticulitis, GERD, and Chron’s disease to IBS, the “Gut Brain” has become a significant source of dukkha in modern times. Stress exacerbates the situation.

“For beginners, we teach about the chest. You must understand the concept of hierarchy in how we present and how things change when you have studied for a while. The Uddiyanic touch and influence is paramount. So part of your asana practice must prepare for and address pranayama and how the asanas share a lineage with pranayama. To do this, monitor the breathing process.”

Supta Baddha Konasana with X bolsters and the arms extended overhead.

“Exhale and evacuate, deeply, Uddiyana is a stress ejection system.”

While Prashant explores Uddiyana Kriya in much of his work, Guruji rarely did work the bandhas or kriyas. Guruji said that these happen naturally in the asana practice. Uddiyana happens in Paschimottanasana, Sirsasana, Rope Sirsasana and in Adho Mukha Svanasana. Prashant never negates the importance of the asana practice, and builds upon it. His lens does focus heavily on the kriyas though.

At the tail of exhalation there is an abdominal contraction. In most people the abdominal organs and muscles have become torpid and dull.

“Another aspect of exhalation is to develop the capacity of hibernation, the nerves need this training. When I ask you to do a deeper and deeper exhalation, there is hibernation.”

Savasana with Viloma 2. In Viloma 2 you inhale softly, tenderly as Prashanji would say. The exhalation is in stages so that you divide the exhalation into three or more sections. The pause between sections is the silent “hibernation” that I think of as listening to silence. The pauses also extend the exhalation in a controlled and natural way.

“There are three stages to progress through. Nominally pause, significant pause, substantial pause. Most of the becoming takes place in the process, not in the attainment. This requires a particular kind of patience. You cannot have a worldly approach here. When the journey is long the vehicle has to correspond to the distance traveled. You do not take a rickshaw to go to London.” In the beginning, he said, you will be fascinated. But over time the intrigue wears off and you must develop a neutral mind.

I am reminded of the story that Guruji once told. When he first started practicing pranayama, his mind was so restless that he kept stopping his practice. He was young and practiced many backbends. Once he started working with forward bends, he was able to begin a consistent pranayama practice. His nervous system was not properly prepared nor had he cultivated the reflective mind that would prepare him for his pranayama practice.

The pranayama practice is so rich, so poignant and profound that it becomes the foundation of the day for most serious seekers.

From Guruji’s Light on Life: We have seen that as leaves move in the wind, your mind moves with the breath. When breath is regulated and pacified, there is a neutralizing effect on the mind. And when you hold your breath, you hold your soul. By retaining the full in-breath, you hold the divine infinite within yourself. At this moment you have reached the full potential of our individuality, but it is a divine individuality and not the small, selfish creature you normally take yourself for. By exhaling you generously give out your individual self to the universal world…. Inhalation engulfs the whole body with life. Exhalation surrenders that life to the source of life – the Life Giver. The body moves in toward the core of its being, like a puppy nestling against its mother, secure and trusting.

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The razor’s edge

Sri BKS Iyengar praying to PatanjaliDay 3, Dec. 19, 2017, AM session, Pune, India.

“We do not merely breathe to live, we breathe to become. Moment to moment there is a constant becoming taking place in us, either positive or negative. Change is a constant process. Those changes can be slowed down or change directions by the breathing. We become by the breath.”

Thus began the third morning session. In a similar way to how his father penetrated so deeply in the asanas and through the layers of the body to become established in quietude and to understand the mind, Prashant has investigated the process of becoming embodied intelligence. To those who are unfamiliar with his work and vernacular it may seem overly intellectual. He might say that we want the teacher to tell us exactly what to do and what not to do, whereas what he wants is to give us a map and landmarks to discover the path to freedom for ourselves. He has now reminded us twice of a dinner discussion where his father told him that the difference between the two of them was that Guruji made difficult things simple and Prashant makes simple things difficult. Prashant then went on to apologize if that was the case for us, and he hopes that future generations will make his work simple. I find him very humble in his willingness to explain his process and to become someone of stature under the shadow of the great B.K.S. Iyengar. Finding autonomy with a greater than great father is not easy!

One facet of his work is learning how to build a continuum of awareness in every moment. In an asana, he explains, “there is the commencement and progression, and then you can mitigate, change, try to understand the states of asana in a microscopic way. There is a difference between staying and maintaining, and coming out of the pose. There has to be an efficacy that is developed, it is not the point to work hard and the die in the pose.  There must be freedom to do, freedom to maintain, freedom in striking efficacy. At some point you must go to a settled condition for you must get settled to get absorbed.”

Absorption for what? Prashant quoted from sutra II.47: prayatna saithiya  anantasamapattibhyam, Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached. (Light on Yoga Sutras) In the commentary on this sutra Guruji says: When the sadhaka has reached that state of balance, attention, extension, diffusion and relaxation take place simultaneously in the body and intelligence, and they merge in the seat of the soul. This is a sign of release from the dualities of pleasure and pain.  Ananta: infinite.

Sutra I.17  lists four stages of absorption, Vitarka, vicara ananda asmitarupa anugamat samprajnatah.  Practice and detachment develop four types of samadhi (absorption): self-analysis, synthesis, bliss, and the experience of pure being. (Light on Yoga Sutras) These mirror Prashant’s scheme of evolving awareness where we begin by observing, acting, reacting, responding, testing, etc. The synthesis comes when the breathing schematic (pattern, method) is as integrated into the experience as the rarefied and evolved physical expression of the pose. Going in. Bliss, ananta. Absorption, awareness, alertness, from the core to the periphery and the reverse.

“What is alertness, and how do we cultivate it in us? Can you remove the awareness aspect and say that you are alert? This is not possible. Awareness is the other side of the coin of the breath. Awareness is a constant flow and attention will come out of awareness. Attention will come and go, but the flow is available to you, whenever you are thirsty you can draw water.” Prashant said.

“Study the process of evolving awareness. With every part deepen your shoulder sensitivity, connectivity. Mark the breathing process right from the beginning so you know how to negotiate. You must have a classified process, a systematic process that evolves. If you try to do everything, nothing is done, if you do one thing, it is done well.  The shoulders are important for understanding the mind sensitivity. What poses will you use for the shoulders to be accessed, addressed and involved?  These are one of the paradigms. Once you develop that channel of observation, you will understand.” Prashant said.

Prashant then focused us completely on the shoulder blade “addressals” (the act of addressing something) as he led us through a delightful sequence. At one point he riffed on how modern anatomists say that the shoulder blades are there to support the lungs. Why not call them shoulder plates? He said, if they are to support the lungs. A blade is sharp. He asked us to round our backs and see how we felt, and to then draw the “blades” in deep and see how the mind became sharp. The Upanishads refer to the awakening process as walking the razor’s edge, he continued. You have to be alert and sharp!

Adho Mukha Svanasana
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Swastikasana with fingertips behind
Baddha Padmasana, head up
Utthita Trikonasana + arm positions
Standing back arch
Urdhva Dhanurasana
Block Setubhanda Sarvangasana
Tadasana + Paschimonamaskarasana
Urdhva Mukha Baddangulyasana
Sirsasana + variations
Salamba Sarvangasana + variations

“In the pose, exhale deeply, more and more, evacuate every organ to serve the shoulder, we must evacuate first before we can take anything in. You must be circumspect in your approach, the theme, the scheme, develop sensitivity, something will go out of the network and you must have the conscience to reconnect. It is not for someone else to correct and correct, you have to find out. I have never come across an astronomer who says that they are bored of watching the sky. There is an enormous amount to explore. You may do and do and once your neck pains, you walk out. You must explore, the potentials will come to the surface”. Prashant said.

Such tenacity and dedication to mold something as rich as this…

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