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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Asana and Pranayama

As many of you who know me are aware, I have a (for the moment let’s call it) pesky vocal and respiratory tremor.  An inherited thing.  Mine emerged in 1993. Look up mixed spasmodic dysphonia here (link:  It also affects the nerves governing the structural muscles in my neck and upper chest, and to some degree my diaphragm.   This whole neuromuscular situation makes an independent headstand virtually impossible at present (though with a rope wall to support me that is not so much of an issue.  I know it’s not the same, but it’s what’s happening now and I’m going with it). 

The big deal is pranayama.  Without a doubt it’s my biggest single struggle in yoga, on all levels from the musculo-skeletal to psychological.   Off the mat, if you know me, dear Reader, you know that speaking is the big challenge.

So, for 20 years now, I have experimented with the help of my splendid teachers, and also on my own.  Some of these trials have helped and some have backfired spectacularly and painfully.  I’ve got stories, both funny and serious.  From all this, and in learning from Stephanie Quirk in her three-year therapeutics training, from Geeta Iyengar during a trip to Pune, and at the IYNAUS convention dedicated to Therapeutics in Portland, I have managed to draw out one huge insight that has helped immensely.  And even though what I have is a rare thing and likely you do not have it or know anyone beside me who does, I think it might help you, my one and only Reader, whoever you are. 

Firstly, my tremor stems from a form of instability in a particular region of the brain, or in the nerve path itself.  In truth, any illness or injury creates or is in itself an instability in the person afflicted. 
Therefore, for anyone with illness, injury or medical condition, both during after treatment of the acute symptoms, the sensible first principle in designing any part of the healing practice is to create psychological and physical stability, particularly in the area affected, and to maintain that while moving forward.  

Let’s see how important the notion of stability is in the Yoga Sutra: 

1) We find it in the very definition of Yoga (BKS Iyengar’s translations are in English below the Sanskrit):
YS I.2 :       yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodha                                                                                 
Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.
If the mind stops moving, it is by definition stable.

2) Here is Patanjali’s definition of practice:
YS I.13:       Tatra sthitau yatno’ bhyāsaḥ.                                                                
Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.

YS I.14  sa tu dīrgha –kāla –nairantarya –satkārāsevito dṛḍha –bhūmiḥ       
Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations.

First then, the effort to make the mind enter that stable nirodha state must itself be steady and stable, and secondly, when that steady effort is carried out over long periods of time with full attention and intention (stable over time and over the space of the entire mind), it creates a firm foundation (that is to say, a stable platform) for that yoga.

3)  Let’s look at the flip side, and see how Patanjali describes the obstacles to practice:
YS I.30:      vyādhi-styāna-saṁśaya-pramādālasyāvirati-bhrānti-darśanālabdha- bhūmikatvānavasthitatvāni citta-vikṣepās te ‘ntarāyāḥ
These obstacles are disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, lack of perseverance, and backsliding.

Some of these are one form or another of outright instability or vacillation in body, senses or mind. The others are merely more subtle or potential forms of instability, meaning they lead one toward unstable physical or mental situations.  The “heedless” person might drive or walk off a precipice, or wander into a dangerous situation without knowing it; one with “erroneous views” might think he can walk across the winter pond on ice that has not yet frozen thick enough. 

And not surprisingly, instability or unsteadfastness of body, senses, mind and actions leads to even more unsteadiness:
YS I.31:      duḥkha-daurmanasyāṅgam-ejayatva-śvāsa-praśvāsā vikṣepa-sahabhuvaḥ
Sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body and irregular breathing further distract the citta [mind].

Instability creates more instability.  A steady effort toward stability helps develop more stability.  I can relate. 

5)  Now let’s see how Patanjali thinks about the part of yoga practice that deals with physical effort, or posture:
YS II.46            sthira-sukham āsanam    
Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.

The very first word, sthiram, directly translates to “stable” or “steady.”  Iyengar translates that as “perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence…” Sukham is comfort, or benevolence as in good feelings.  Again, steadiness of body begets a steady or comfortable mind.

II.47      prayatna-śaithilyānanta-samāpattibhyām
Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.

That “infinite being within” is the “Ānanta” word in the sutra.  Ānanta is also a name for the cosmic serpent of infinite strength who supports the entire world as it moves through the cosmos.  In other words, Ānanta represents simultaneously the stable foundation of our posture as well as the source of its (potentially limitless) energy for movement.  The message here is that if you can reach the stable foundation of your own inner world, the power that emerges allows effortless action.

Here is the beautiful paradox of Yoga:  effortless movement, or doing, derives from the complete stability of the Self.  I love this sutra.

II.48      tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ
From then on, the sādhaka is undisturbed by dualities.

This brings us to the purpose of asana in the larger context of yoga. On the way to liberation, we have to find a means of stopping the mind/body in its constant shifting from “this” to “that,” (note, dvandva literally translates to “two-two,” or duality.  Asana practice, when developed, allows us to stop shifting from one object to another, one thought to another, one desire to another.  Āsana is the practice among the eight limbs of Pataṇjali’s yoga that is designed to place us in a position of unshakable equilibrium among this world of opposites.  Genuine stability.

So how to even approach pranayama? 
 II.49      tasmin sati śvāsa-praśvāsayor gati-vicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ
Prāṇāyāma is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention.  It is to be practiced only after perfection in āsana is attained.

If you read only Mr. Iyengar’s translation of this sutra, you might conclude that since pretty much no one among us has perfected our asana, pretty much no one should be practicing pranayama (excepting my great teachers, and I’m not being sarcastic.  I do humbly bow to the deep knowledge and practice of my teachers.)  But no.  People all over the world do pranayama, and lots of them with far less than my own 35 years of practice under their belts do it better than I do.

I still have to lie in my savasana, like a smuggler in camouflage paint, silent on the forest floor, waiting patiently to sneak one smooth and steady inhalation or exhalation—rarely both—past the trigger-happy sentries in my chest and throat.  Maybe this time—Nope!  Next morning: Maybe this time—busted again!  Truly I think the tremor is the most sensitive part of me. It is ready to rock and roll even when I am not. 

But I have found a different way to look at pranayama through my practice of asana-with-tremor, and it follows from a different reading of the sutra.  Here is Edwin Bryant’s translation of the same sutra: 

II.49  When that [āsana] is accomplished, prāṇāyāma, breath control, [follows].  This consists of the regulation of the incoming and outgoing breaths.

Here is the heart of the post, and let’s link it back to all the sutras above: Asana can and should be used to create stability in mind and body.   Stability is the prerequisite for everything else in yoga practice. Stable asana is the physical reflection of the work Patanjali is urging on us through the whole of the Sutras.  With the help of my teachers I have learned to bring stability by using various supports where my own body and nervous system are lacking,  In this way a smoother, more regulated incoming and outgoing breath naturally follows.  As the day the night.  Asana well done (I don’t say “perfected;” just well done) gives rise to steady, rhythmic, soft, smooth even exhalation and inhalation.  Asana and this sort of pranayama are not separate from each other.

Clearly I am not referring to the complex pranayamas with different rhythms or ratios of inhalation to exhalation to retention of the sort described in such detail in Light on Pranayama.  The complexities of pranayama are more described in Patanjali’s next sutra:

II.50      bāhyābhyantara-stambha-vṛttiḥ deśa-kāla-saṅkhyābhiḥ paridṛṣṭo dirge-sūkṣmaḥ

I:  Prāṇāyāma has three movements: prolonged and fine inhalation, exhalation and retention; all regulated with precision according to duration and place.

 I look at this sutra and the breathwork it represents as if I were gazing wistfully from the hot prairie toward the distant cool mountains on the horizon.  I’ve got a ways to go to get to that prolonged and fine breath. 

But I can certainly feel the control of prana on an elementary level when I arrive at a steady posture.  Stability is the starting point for me.

Is this understandable? 


  1. First of all, thanks for sharing, especially something that must be so deeply personal. There is so much strength in that sort of vulnerability that it literally reaches out and touches, and there is much need for that. I do think I understand your post, within the confines of my limited ability to understand anything this complex; but, I must say, my understanding brings up more questions than answers, which may, or may not, ever get answered. But perhpas, just, you might consider elaborating on the following: 1. the stories that are both "funny and serious" would be something I'd love to hear. We all need to tell our stories, yes? After all, there is connection and community in such sharing. 2. I'm not sure I heard much detail about the "huge insight" that has helped you so immensely, but would very much welcome that. 3. Last, but not least, I think those "trigger happy sentries" need to be introduced so we, or at least I, can get to know them better, perhaps intimately. Do they stand guard to protect and defend or could you eventually dismiss them from duty, or at least disarm them? Or, maybe they simply need some tender loving care. Of course, only you know, for they are your sentries. Again, thanks for sharing.

  2. First, thanks, Ron, for the comments. Very helpful. I'll say here that the "huge insight" is in fact the one about how important the notion of stability is not just to me but to all of the practice of yoga. It is not just I who need it, though it seems that I need it differently in order to diminish the tremor. And happily I can find that stability in asana and the breathing that comes naturally out of asana practice. Usually it's only for a while, and then those sentries wake up and fire off some tremor impulses in my general direction, thereby breaking up my peaceful yoga party.

    I will write more about my successful and unsuccessful experiments to manage the tremor--those good and bad stories-- in other posts. Some are complicated stories and I might have to post sequences and such to illustrate the points. Lots of work, ugh. At least one story ought to be downright embarrassing for the teacher in question to remember, but in retrospect it was an invaluable lesson for me in how to use, or rather how not to use, yoga. I ought to tell that story, but to keep it about yoga and not about other people, I will need to change names and disguise locations, identities and such.

    So that makes two long posts to come up with. And I forgot--there's also the topic of what I am calling the trigger-happy sentries, and why they are there and how to work with them. That is a good question too.

  3. Often when I am struggling in a pose, and am reminded to search for steadiness of breath and thoughts, that is when I find steadiness in asana too. Nothing new to you, my teacher, but wonderfully beautiful to me, still a beginner. And also off the mat. You inspire me to remember that steadiness of mind and body will bring happiness in all the parts of my life.