Day 5 IYNAUS Zoom Intensive - The Breath
It was chilly and very breezy when I set out for my walk this morning, so I left my swimming gear at home and set off in boots and coat. I should have known better, as inevitably once I've walked up the very steep hill which is known locally as Blackwards Hill and then descended back down the Cotswold Way into the shelter of the valley, I always yearn to swim. I had to settle instead, for sitting with my feet in the stream, watching the play of light on the water and the lambs come down to drink. As I walked home to prepare this evening's lesson for my class, I refelected on how utterly cheering I find birdsong - it's a completely spontaneous, involuntary reaction that happens inside - I just find it just uplifts my heart. What a different world it would be if there was only silence.
Abhi continued today with her supportive and calming programme, responding to the demand of the time. She gave an extremely clear exposition of how and where and why the breath moves in the body in the different asanas and how body, mind, breath are inextricably connected. She finished with a looong savasana followed by a question and answer session, by which time I was so relaxed that I forgot to listen or take notes! Speaking of which, I am going to return to my normal mode of blog notes, where I work mainly from memory - this will mean less detailed notes and many more mistakes and omissions- but I enjoy this challenge more, as it's a way of organising the learning in my own head and I tend remember the bits that were important to me. Otherwise I'm finding the blog is less a 'labour of love' and more just a 'labour'! Thankfully we do have the recording of the session emailed the day after, so anyone wanting more accurate notes will at least have that resource.
Day 5 IYNAUS Zoom Intensive
Invocation in swastikasana - Body, breath and mind have to be gathered together for the class. Yoga is Union. The easiest way to bring body and mind together is to adjust the sitting position – place your palms either side of the body and raise your trunk upwards. One part of the brain is involved to raise the spine, another part of the brain has to observe this action, to check whether it has been executed properly and still another part has to be responsible for maintenance of this action. Think of the brain as a multi-national company with many employees working for it – so many brain cells, so many neurons working together as a cohesive unit for you to function. Have that ichhati, that intention, to consciously bring this union between body, mind and breath, all those parts together – the breath supporting the sitting position, feel with each inhalation feel that upward rise of energy. With each inhalation and exhalation pay a kind attention to your sitting posture, so that you hold this pose together. Watch which parts of the body need your inhalation – if the dorsal is dull, inhale to move the dorsal spine in, if there is a thickness at the base of your neck, then inhale in that area to descend that downwards. A few moments of quietness to make our own observations and adjust where needed.
Adho Mukha Virasana bolster support for front body. Arms resting. As you exhale, let your chest embrace your supports. See that there is no hardness in the diaphragm – come slightly up and use your hands to manually spread the diaphragm from centre to the sides and rest down. See if the breathing is more comfortable? Then come up and do the wrong action again so that the effect is clear, just go down and only go for the forward action and notice how the breathing becomes hard. Now again correct – come up and while the chest moves forward, the top of the stomach should not move towards the chest – diaphragm and stomach spread it from the centre to the sides and once again lay the body down. Compare.
When you inhale which part of the body is moving and how? When you exhale which part of the body is moving and how? (Breath was moving in the back body).
When we stand in tadasana the chest is free and it can open for the breath to move freely there. When we go for any forward bend, the chest cannot inflate because it is impeded by the legs, this naturally shifts the breath to the back body.
Repeat AMVirasana and diaphragm adjustment. Here she spoke of a question received from one of the participants who is recovering from Covid. They were finding that when lying in supine positions, the breathing was worse. Abhi explained that the lungs, the chest, the intercostal muscles are so tired, that you should not further load them. Same for a beginning student with asthma – the muscles are so tight that stretching them over a bolster in supine poses will make them tighter still. Whereas in AMVirasana the diaphragm is soft and supported, feel how the chest itself softens and the entire back body is available for your breath. The air sacs in your back and side trunk are free.
Tadasana Here the chest is fully free so observe how the breath comes to this area.
Urdhva Hastasana - Now compare – where was the breath moving in AMVirasana and where do you feel it moving in urdhva hastasana? (I could feel the breath moving in the front top chest) – have a few breaths to fully experience this. Spread the arms sideways and spread the chest along with the arms from the centre to the sides -now where and how is the breath moving? (it was moving from the centre of the chest towards the arms).
Urdhva Hastasana palms facing forwards the location of the breath is again different?
Garudasana arms Find out how the breath is now moving horizontally. If you want to be clear on the difference, once again raise the arms up and experience that clear contrast of vertical movement in Urdhva Hastasana and horizontal movement in Garudasana.
Utkatasana (wall if required) The legs pull the lungs downwards, but the arms are pulling them upwards - observe how this once again changes the breathing pattern.
The variety of postures we learn is not just to put the body through its full range of movements, but also it creates all these different types of breath. This is not just the case with asana – the breath is constantly changing in all situations– how do we breathe when we are angry? Happy? Relaxed? Passionate? When we walk up a hill it’s different– and when we reach the top of the hill and we take the last few steps of the climb, the breath is different still.
When we open a bottle top that is very tight, how do we breathe? Do we inhale to open it? NO! When power is required, we have to exhale. We have to understand and study all these different aspects of the breath and this is where props are such a gift to us. If we are in Kapotasana or Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana unsupported, can we watch the breath? But once we take the support of the chair we can stay and observe freely.
Trikonasana – Go to the pose and watch where the breath touches. We found it was touching the top rib freely, but little or no breath in the bottom rib because this area was constricted so that the air sacs were crushed and could not take in the breath. We tend to reach down with the hand in such a way that the top rib hits up and the lower waist shrinks upward into the body. Come up and repeat – this time, rather than reaching with the right hand as you go down, you are going to exhale and reach down with the right hip and the bottom waist corner and now watch the breathing (this could now clearly be felt circulating in the bottom side trunk area, amazing!!). Repeat on left side, in exaggerated wrong manner and then repeat descending from the lower left hip / waist / rib.
So as students of yoga we need to be clear that a physical mistake extends into the plane of the breath also. Also, recall any situation in yoga or normal life when you were unable to breathe (choking sensation or swallowing water drowning sensation when you were learning to swim? ) When the breathing is restricted, can your mind be calm?? So understand the mental / emotional plane is also affected.
Parsvakonasana – Exhale and go down. Now like in the urdhva hastasana earlier, because the top arm is extended up,feel how the breath extends into that area in parsvakonasana.
Uttanasana to chair – Spread the shoulders so that no part of the shoulder impinges on the neck. When you move the back body to the front body, do not become narrow – maintain the width that God has given you and then go for the back body moving to the front body. 6 cycles of breath here. Shoulders wide and thighs apart. When you come up notice the state of the eyes and brain (they felt quiet). Those who felt pain or had some other distraction would have been unable to observe the breathing – the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states –‘Where the breath moves, there the mind moves’ So when I asked you to exhale and move the back body down to the front body, your mind went to that location – in this way for pranayama we have to learn to bring together body and breath.
Prasarita Paddotonasana head supported elbows in baddha hastasana if comfortable. Without letting lose the body (knees FIRM thighs FIRM) observe the breathing. 1 minute only.
Urdhva Hastana to Uttanasana repeating 6 rounds – inhaling to take arms up, exhaling to go down. You understood how the breath can give you quietness, now understand the ‘charge’ the breath can give you. Try going slowly a few rounds and then go faster and faster and observe how the breath follows suit. There is a rhythm between the body and breath.
Now a challenge – Can you breathe SLOW but go up and down FAST
Or can you breathe FAST and go up and down SLOW
Do you get it?? It’s just not possible! Understand you cannot demarcate between asana as physical body and pranayama as breath – they are inextricably linked, you cannot have one without the other.
Supta Virasana with bolster (Supta baddha konasana or supta swastikasana as alternatives). 4 attempts:
Go down normally – here most of us have learnt to arch back over the bolster, with the head reaching first, as it is looking for the security of reaching the support.
Come up and this time, come down onto the forearms and go down with THE BOTTOM DORSAL MOVING AWAY FROM THE WAIST - head should be the last to reach (you may feel a little hunched, but shoulders can be adjusted afterwards) Observe the breathing.
Compare and contrast – come up again and go down with the chest open, back curved in and head going first – Is the difference clear? It was very clear, breathing was much tighter and harder and the pose felt more stressful.
Final time go down with bottom dorsal moving AWAY from the waist. Diaphragm is softer, breathing is better.
The area between your outer chest corner and the shoulder – you have to learn to use the breath to widen and spread in that area. Be an artist – how an artist will make those strokes to create a masterpiece – in that manner inhale such that you reach that patch, notice how the sides of the chest moves, receives and responds to the inhalation.
Take the arms out to the sides. Inhale and divide the breath so that half spreads from the centre to the right lung and half from the centre to the left lung. We have already learnt how you can change the path the breath takes in the body by adjusting the arm position.
Arms over the head folded. See how we have developed the sensitivity to feel each change in the breath.
Janu Sirsasana head supported X 2 each side so that we can observe the breath. As you exhale, move the sides of the diaphragm forwards. Right leg is bent and you will notice right side of your body bulges, it is convex and left side of your body shrinks and is concave. Can you exhale in such a manner that you shift the contents of the body from the right to the left. Here she gave an extremely clear demonstration from behind of this shift. On the second attempt we observed in Urdhva Hasta Janu Sirsasana how the misalignment has already begun to set in. From Urdhva hasta itself, press the right knee down and shift the contents from the right to the left then move forward into the pose. Feel how now breath can circulate more evenly on both sides, head down, sides of the diaphragm moving forwards and then exhale as though I had put a heavy weight on your dorsal, move straight down there as if receding away from that weight.
You cannot neglect the breath for asana, you cannot neglect the body for pranayama.
If you stay in Janu Sirsasana with that misalignment, you can’t breathe and your brain will send urgent signal to come out.
Sirsasana take any support that you need to be comfortable and stable. Guruji has said that inversions done properly are the elixir of life – even if you only stay for 2 minutes, inversions are an invaluable opportunity to come into a state of presence. If there is fear in the pose, come down and go to the wall – please do not add to your quotient of fear at this time. Respecting the demands of this time is sensitivity and you have your whole life to learn to balance in sirsasana! It should be as natural as standing on your feet – use SKILL not STRENGTH no muscular effort. Raise the outer upper arms UP, raise the inner upper arms UP to match the height of the outer upper arms. Roll the groins inward and ASCEND the thighs, hips, ankles upwards. The spine has to hold you, the legs have to hold you. If the heat comes into the face, head, brain, this means you are holding yourself there with willpower – this is not correct, please come down and go to the wall. While adjusting the rest of the body, do not shake the brain. A calm feeling in the brain. From your ears to the shoulder blades there has to be a tremendous space, ascend up! Make the bones longer but flesh quiet.
Chair Sarvangasana - it’s okay to be dependent! Take the support of the chair and see how it nurtures your sarvangasana. A prop is a wonderful manifestation of a friend! A good friend gently whispers in your ear when something is amiss in your appearance. In the same way let the chair inform your pose– where there is unevenness between the contact of one side of the body and the chair and the other side of the body, the chair has to whisper in your ear. The back which is touching the seat of the chair should not push the seat heavily downwards, the entire back body has to rub upwards on the chair.
Savasana - Watch your waist, watch your buttocks – why is one side wide, one side narrow? Watch your back, your upper back, your upper, upper back – are they away from the neck? A mother does not only pay heed to the child which is accomplished, she is more concerned about the child that needs her support. In the same way, when you adjust your shoulder blades, don’t just pay heed to the part which moves. The upper, upper shoulder blade is not moving, don’t neglect it. Even though they’re not really mobile, take them in. Gently elongate the skin on the back of the arm GENTLY - subtle adjustments. Elongation of the muscles is relaxing for them – this way the brain diffuses into the body. Asmita – ego (The second of the five afflictions Patanjali lists) ego and self-identity have naturally faded away as the brain diffuses into the body. Breath softer, eyes looking deep into the chest. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, feet – let them all just fade away from the brain.