Monday, December 2, 2013

Breath as Beloved: Pranayama

Breathing is about as intimate as it gets.  Every cell of the body requires breath for what is called cellular respiration – taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide.  We take in air - our atmosphere – into our cells.  The pathway is a bit complex if you stop to notice it:  from the nose to the pharynx to the larynx to the trachea and into the lungs to the pulmonary capillaries to the heart to the aorta and finally to the individual cells.  And of course, it is reversed for the carbon dioxide.  All of this we do all the time without necessarily noticing.  In pranayama we practice noticing. 

A poem by Jane Kenyon:

In and Out

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life – in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh…

Recently, I shared a room with someone.  At 4:30am as I lay awake I listened to my roommate breathing.  The sound of breath, another’s breath, my own breath, in the quiet of the early morning, felt as if I was listening to the earth breathing, or perhaps the universe.

The yogis have paid a lot of attention to breathing. Breath and consciousness, they said, are two sides of the same coin.  Changing our breath through pranayama will inevitably change who we are.[1] To state the obvious, breath is life.  The yogis however, went farther in their investigations.  Breathing, they suggest, is our vehicle to touching prana, the “subtle energy that pervades every corner of the universe.”[2] The old yoga guides said that: “just as each of us breathes along and so lives in and through prana, so, too, does the entire universe.”[3]  This is undifferentiated cosmic prana or first prana.  This prana is intelligence and creativity.  Cosmic prana is also considered by some of the old guides as the source of everything.  It links us to the essence of our lives. 

After watching a cosmology course with my brain group I have been asking myself how one might tap into the amazing energy that is clearly present in the universe.  Scientists have been attempting this for a long time, of course, with technology and we consequently have nuclear energy and nuclear weapons that could destroy us all.  My musings have been much more modest and low tech.  I have wondered if the yogis might not have been on to something about tapping into the energy of the universe with the practice of pranayama.    

Thanks initially to Rodney Yee, who taught early morning pranayama at all of the five week long teacher trainings I attended very soon after I began practicing asana, I have always included some pranayama in my morning practice.  At times however, it has felt laborious and boring.  Over the last few years as I dropped increasingly into a place of feeling depleted in energy, I have been drawn back to a curiosity around pranayama, like a wounded animal searching for some kind of solace when I could not continue the vigorous asana practice I had been accustomed to.  The two times I have now attended Patricia Walden in Durango, CO, the highlight of the week has been the afternoon pranayama practice.  This last year she told me clearly that it is my energy body rather than my physical body that is depleted and I need to spend more time with pranayama – confirming the direction I was already going.  

And so I have spent more time in this most mysterious of practices – pranayama. 
And so I have fallen in love. 
And so my breath has become my beloved. 
And so my breath has become an opening to what the yogis call cosmic breath.
And so there have been times when I have tasted sweetness of something there are not words for. 
Ah but one must be careful:  “Just as lions, elephants and tigers are gradually controlled, so the prana is controlled through practice.  Otherwise the practitioner is destroyed.  By proper practice of pranayama, all diseases are eradicated.  Through improper practice, all diseases can arise.”[4]

Breath is air and air is wind.  There is a grandfather Medicine Man in a movie I quite love, Thunderhart.  The grandfather says, “Listen to the wind.”  I listen to the wind when I remember to do so.  Yesterday I could hear winter in the mountains when the wind was blowing.  It has a distinct sound.  When I hear winter in the mountains riding on the wind I remember sitting beside Pear Lake at 10,000ft in August and I am glad there are places in the mountains that close their doors to humans for part of the year. 

Listen to the wind. 
Listen to your breath. 
“Watch the wind to handle the sail.”[5]

Breathing is about as intimate as it gets.  Breath has the potential to open us to the Beloved.  The Beloved is the mystery in the ordinary – what we do all the time unconsciously.  The ordinary becomes the Sacred when we notice.    

In the name of the air,
The breeze
And the wind,
May our souls
Stay in rhythm
With eternal
       -- excerpted from “In Praise of Air” by John O’Donohue

[1] Rosen, Richard, The Yoga of Breath, (Shambala: 2002) p. 20.
[2] Ibid p. 18.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Svatmarama, Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, quoted in Rosen, Richard, p. 1.
[5] Chan Sayings, from Prajna Yoga Immersion at Esalen, 2013 with Tias Little, Brenda Proudfoot and Djuna Mascall. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Savasana:  Corpse Pose

In the movie, Dreams, the filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, is in a museum looking at paintings by Vincent van Gogh.  The viewer sees him from behind, moving slowly as he absorbs the works of art.  Then he picks up his gear, including an easel and paint, and to the surprise of the viewer, walks into one of the paintings.  He asks some women washing in the river where to find van Gogh and then heads off through some golden fields.  When he comes upon the artist at work, van Gogh turns to him and says, “Why aren’t you painting?” 

              *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *     

Awake, or trying to wake up and not wanting to.  My body hurts and the fatigue feels overwhelming. I manage to get up.  I attempt to sit in meditation.  My mind is not quiet.  My capacity to focus is poor.  I go into child’s pose, covering myself completely with the blanket but today, even this pose hurts.  I try a few other forward bends but nothing seems to work. 

Finally, I lay on my back with a folded blanket on my stomach.  Another blanket covers me completely, including my face.  I roll side to side, tucking in the edges of the blanket so that I feel swaddled.  This finally, is what I need, a swaddled savasana. 

Suddenly, I find myself in my own painting of savasana.  It is unfinished.  I feel the dry, parched land on one side and the more alive, lush plants and creatures on the other side.  My body is on/in the earth. Some parts of my body are flesh. Some parts are only bone.  I see things not yet in the painting – a rock at my head and one at my feet, a snake and a tiger. 

In the painting, the differentiation between existence and non-existence is dissolving.  When salt or sugar dissolve, the molecules separate into smaller particles like a pile of leaves blown apart by the wind.  Dissolving makes it appear that something has disappeared from existence when it has actually been spread out into particles too small to view.  In my painting, the process of dissolving has begun.  Or, the process of new life has begun.  It is difficult to tell the difference. They are the same process.

Shava means corpse.  Some schools of hatha yoga encouraged members to frequent graveyards and meditate on the transience of life while perched on a corpse.[i] Death for these yogis was the death of the ego identity and its consequent release from suffering.  For them, the graveyard is a place of personal transformation. 

“All that has a beginning must of necessity have an end.  All that is born must die, all that comes into existence must cease to exist.  Thus every existing thing unfailingly aims toward disintegration.  The power of destruction is the nearest thing to ‘Qualityless Immenisty’ into which all must return..”[ii]

Death holds a feeling of sweetness for me.  I imagine that we dissolve, just as sugar molecules dissolve, into something expansive: a “Qualityless Immensity.”  We humans have written myriads of texts about who or what this mysterious Immensity is, texts that we understand as sacred.  When I am exhausted, I want to dissolve into such a place of rest from which, I trust, there is some new emergence of the vividness of life.  I imagine the death of ego as the yogis understood it, is just such a place of rest.  Ego is a heavy word.  A healthy ego is, of course, necessary.  Yet, melting into the landscape of my painting where I am dissolving, and life is emerging, has great beauty and a feeling of freedom from all the thoughts and cares it is so easy to get tangled in.  I imagine this is death of the ego – the thing that distinguishes us from the landscape around us. 

I confess that in the early years of my yoga asana practice, I often skipped savasana.  I didn’t really feel I had the time or patience.  Now I have built a “savasana platform” for myself.  I regularly lay down in savasana at a moments notice when I am between tasks, or stuck, or just tired.  My cats love this new ritual and I am refreshed from the quiet moments. 

Listening to the radio program “On Being,” recently, a Rabbi told the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.  Jacob said to the angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”  The Rabbi suggested that when difficulty or some form of crisis arrives on our doorstep, as they most certainly will, we don’t let go until we find the blessing in them - the gift.  This perhaps, is a piece of the personal transformation the yogis were finding when they sat on a corpse to meditate.

I want to stay swaddled and in my own painting.  But eventually, like Kurosawa, I step back out of the painting, unroll my swaddling, and slowly get up onto my feet.  I think I am looking at the world differently though holding on to the experience feels like trying to grasp a cloud.  Instead I try walking through my day with the morning’s unique yoga practice of savasana as the background to everything I do and say and think. 

[i] Rosen, Richard, Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga, (Shambala: 2012) pp. 184-185.

[ii] Danielou, Alain, The Myths and Gods of India, (Inner Traditions International: 1985) p. 190

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sacrum:  The Strong Holy Bone

Sacred Places:  The Sacrum
The triangular bone at the base of the spine, the sacrum, mirrors the triangular bone at the base of the skull, the occipital bone.  They are at opposite ends of the spine pointing in opposite directions.  The sacrum is literally holy.  There are holes in the bone through which nerves leave the spinal cord to travel into the legs.  The sacrum isn’t just holy because of the holes.  The similarity of the words sacrum and sacred is obvious.  The sacrum was the part of the animal used by some ancient peoples as the sacrificial bone because it houses the procreative organs.

The spine running from the base of the skull - the occipital bone - to the sacrum, houses the spinal cord. The spinal cord carries millions of very long and very small axons – so small that one needs special equipment to see them. These axons connect the neurons of the brain to the legs.  This is all rather elementary of course, but worth being attentive to nonetheless. 

The spinal cord is also thought by yogis to house something called the sushumna.  The sushumna is one of three main nadis (energy channels) connecting the energy centers known as chakras.  We will keep it simple here and attend only to the sushumna.  The sushumna connects the root chakra to the chakra at the crown of the head so that prana (life force) can flow freely.  There is also said to be a dormant life force coiled at the base of the spine as a serpent.  This primal life force is called kundalini.

The sacrum is home to the first two chakras and kundalini.  Like axons, one cannot see the nadis with the naked eye and we do not yet have special equipment with which to see them.  We must therefore rely on the testimony of what many practitioners of yoga have experienced and perceived in their own bodies. 

The word sacrum comes from the Latin sacred.  The Greek word for it, “heiron osteon” means strong.  The sacrum, and the muscles around it, supports our bodies in the variety of positions (postures) we place ourselves in during the course of our daily lives. 

When I hurt my back recently, I suddenly felt unsupported and consequently rather fragile.  Postures that I am used to taking for granted I can hang out in without discomfort, brought pain and fear.  In my asana practice I moved with hesitancy rather than confidence.  I could not trust my sacrum to support me. 

About the same time as I was feeling the pain in my sacrum, a red shouldered hawk flew into my window.  The sound of it hitting the window was loud and startling.  It took a few moments for the realization of what had happened to penetrate my brain.  As soon as it did, I raced outside to find the hawk lying on its side stunned.  I picked it up and put it upright on its feet on the deck.  Not knowing what else to do, I sat and watched it.  After what seemed a long time, I saw its feet opening and closing. I carried it to a branch and found that it was able to hold on.  Again I stayed with it, watching.  After what again felt like a long time, it looked at me, seemed surprised (though it had repeatedly looked at me before), and flew off to a nearby tree. 

Consulting Ted Andrews, author or Animal Speak, I was intrigued by the following:  “The red tail (Andrews uses the red tail but it could also be applied to the red shouldered) is very symbolic.  It has ties to the kundalini, the seat of the primal life force.  In the human body it is associated with the base chakra, located at the base of the spine the coccyx or tailbone.”[1]  Interesting that a bird that soars so high and majestically and whose call I hear every morning in the spring, would be connected to the base of the spine, the root, the part of us that is connected to the earth.

As my back began to feel a little better, I continued to find myself hesitant and fearful, particularly about handstand.  I still could not trust my sacrum enough to kick up with confidence.  One morning during my asana practice, a light bulb exploded in my understanding.  Trust goes both ways.  How could I expect to trust my sacrum to support me if my sacrum could not trust me not to hurt it? 

The sacrum, the sacred, the hawk, the earth – the earth that we have so deeply harmed in our taking and taking and forgetting that it too is sacred.  Living in a time when it seems the pace of destruction of the earth is moving faster than the pace of learning how not to harm; when the harm we do may soon be beyond the capacity to reverse or renew; how can there be a sacred trust between humans and the earth?  How can we soar when the roots are damaged, in pain and in fear?

In my own body, I began to move out of pain when I more consciously and clearly practiced something called moola bandha.  Moola Bandha is often referred to rather too quickly or is taught in a way that creates problems by over-tightening the pelvic floor muscles. Put simplistically, moola bandha is a lift of the muscles of the pelvic floor, specifically the perineum. What appears simple is quite the opposite.  It takes time, patience, consistent practice and careful observation to learn to work with these small muscles.

Therapeutically, working with the pelvic floor is very important and is rarely called moola bandha.  Large numbers of women have incontinence and both men and women suffer from pain in the pelvic floor, so much so that Stanford published a book called, A Headache in the Pelvis in 2005.  The pelvic floor can be hypotonic (too weak) or hypertonic (too tight) or both.  It can be as important to learn to release the muscles of the pelvic floor, as it is to strengthen them.[2]

A bandha is a kind of lock, often compared to the locks used to raise a ship higher and higher in order for it to transition to the next large body of water.  Swami Buddhananda who wrote Moola Bandha: The Master Key, calls the lock paradoxical.  “By locking or contracting certain muscles on the physical level a subtle process of unlocking goes on simultaneously on mental and pranic levels.”[3]  He also suggests that moola bandha has a direct effect on the brain.  With this comment we circle back around to the sacrum connecting to the skull through the spinal cord or the sushumna; to the hawk soaring but closely connected to what is happening on the ground; to the pain in my sacrum. 

Sitting in meditation in the morning I begin to feel free of pain again as I become more skilled with my moola bandha practice.  There are some moments when I feel my mind is deeply quiet and expansive. There are moments of feeling something is indeed unlocking, of spaciousness within stability. And then I hear the call of the hawk – high and haunting and utterly beautiful. Later, I kick up into handstand with more confidence. 

[1] Andrews, Ted, Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2003) p. 154.

[2] For more in-depth information on yoga and the pelvic floor see Leslie Howard: leslie  Brenda has also trained with Leslie and is in process of receiving her certification from Leslie.  

[3] Swami Buddhananda, Moola Bandha: The Master Key, (Munger, Bihar, India:  Yoga Publications Trust, 1978) p. 2.