Baddha Konasana: Moments of Surrender

My whole life people has called me a butterfly:  Impossible to hold onto; whatever happens she will always fly her own way.

I got introduced to Baddha Konasana as Butterfly posture and never had a moment of not enjoying it. I started with stiffness, a back that would not lengthen forward,not even a tiny bit. The feeling of opening my hips in this posture gave me such a sensation, a feeling to just surrender and be. When my back was stiff i would round my spine and stay in this posture at least five minutes. Just breathing and enjoying it.

After two years of practice i discovered ashtanga, lucky for me baddha konasana was still in the sequence but could only hold it five breaths and had to practice it with a straight spine. I felt  a different dimension in the asana. Reaching forward i couldn’t surrender like before, but i felt more connected to my whole body.

Kamal’s adjustments in my butterfly made me feel the asana very strong. Every time in Mysore class i stayed longer in baddha konasana just so i would get adjusted. The last time Kamal adjusted me i asked him to let me go deeper. Until the moment he said: There is no more!

So Baddha Konasana is my first complete asana in primary series of ashtanga 🙂 From different perspectives a very special asana for me ❤

Ashtanga…
My practice. My dedication.
Everytime i get on my mat
A new journey is waiting on my path.
I could never imagine that body movement could go so intensely deep
Like a surreal reality with lifelessons to keep.
The mind is strong and some days
 it makes me doubt.
When im alone in my room.
My lazyness shouts
But i just observe and practice anyway,
I know the positivity that follows
Throughout the whole day.
The practice is on its best when mind dissapears.
Only dristi and breath remain,
Everything gets blurry and fades away.
Some strong energy overtakes.
Sometimes i dont feel like the practitioner is me…
The body gets so light
Like its on his own flight.
Yes ashtanga.
Something magical that came recently into my life, i feel so grateful.
Happy and alive!
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Keep Calm and Carry Om

I have been practising yoga for a number of years now. Yoga has been a comfort for me in difficult times and has allowed me to find softness within my mind and body. From a very early age, I learn to be strong, to keep calm and carry on and find peaceful  resolutions to conflict. Yoga seemed so natural to me. Yoga allowed me to find balance.

I first travelled to Rishikesh in 2011. I had quit my job as a producer for an advertising agency and decided to retain as a yoga teacher, however, i felt ill-equipped to teach. I decided to take some time out and travel to India, the spiritual home of yoga. I had been planning my first trip for a while. I was to start in Rishikesh and travel around India. My friend Alpesh had helped me plan my journey and was excited for me to be taking my new lifestyle so seriously.

I arrived in India in Autumn 2011 and was picked up by taxi and driven the 7 hours to Rishikesh. When I arrived and plugged my phone in I was given the devastating news that my friend Alpesh had passed away due to complications with Sickle Cell Anemia. I had only seen him 48 hours before. I was floored, I was helpless and I was alone. My visa didn’t allow me to exit India and re-enter for 28 days. I had to make the difficult decision to stay in India and miss his funeral. I spoke to his wife and she assured me that it is what he would have wanted.

The first 3 days I didn’t leave my hotel room, I sat on the balcony and took in the sights and sounds of Rishikesh from a safe distance. I eventually left my room and searched for a yoga class. As I said yoga has always helped me in difficult times. I wandered the streets of Rishikesh and came across a small yoga shala on top of a hotel run by a teacher called Yogi Kamal Singh.

Kamal was the teacher I needed in this difficult time. He was energetic, commanding, graceful and most of all he had a glimmer in his eye that reminded me of my playful friend Pesh. I continued to do classes with Kamal night and day for five days. On the fifth day, I was walking down to the Ganga and slipped into a pot hole and broke my foot. I could no longer continue practising with him. I had always vowed to return to learn more for this enigmatic teacher.

I am 42 now and call it a mid-life crisis, a breakdown or a spiritual calling I find myself returning to Rishikesh once more. The last seven years have been the toughest of my life. I have been lost since returning back to the UK. I had started a new career as a yoga teacher. I was working incredibly hard to pay for my a house. I was working sometimes 26 classes a week. My classes were full and I was a respected yoga teacher in my hometown. Something was missing, though, I had lost yoga. I had become a victim of my own success and had stopped practicing apart from a quick warm up to keep my body supple.

Last year whilst trying to short cut a practice I injured myself which meant that practicing had become painful when chest opening. I hated myself for it and true to form I continued to keep going and work harder. I finally crashed at the end of 2016 and decided that I needed to make some changes in my life. I was thinking about going to Thailand for some time out to sit on a beach and get some perspective.

In February of this year, a student asked me where to go in Rishikesh. Straight the way I said he should seek out Kamal at the Tattva Yoga Shala. Then it hit me, I needed to go back to finish what I started. Ashtanga yoga had always appealed to me because it wasn’t just Asana it was a system, a system that made sense to me.

I immediately booked the 500 hours teacher training at Tattvaa Yoga Shala. My friends and family thought that I was mad as I already had a 500 hour TTC but to me it made sense. Hopefully, I could put the past seven years behind me and use the ashtanga system to help heal the years of self-abuse and trauma.

I arrived back in Rishikesh in Spring 2017. Rishikesh had changed, it felt more commercial. Kamal’s picture was on posters and banners all over Ram Jhula. The following day I attended the orientation meeting at the Gita ashram. From a class of around 15 in 2011, there was now over 50 in this class.

This time round I knew not to take anything for granted. India always has a way of throwing a curve ball at you. I had learned not to expect anything and to go with the flow. I have to be honest and say that I was disappointed.

I had signed up thinking that I was going to spend 8 weeks practicing and learning from Kamal. This is still the case but this time I had to share him with 53 other people most of whom were new to ashtanga. That meant starting again at the very bottom of the ladder.

I am now in my second week of an 8-week course and I am struggling both physically and mentally. My injury in my chest isn’t allowing me to backbend and I am finding twisting really difficult. In yoga backbends are heart openers allowing you to release stored emotional wounds and allowing you to connect deeply to the source of all life, the breath. I can’t breathe.

I am suffocating with the amount of people in the class. We sit down, legs crossed, for at least half the day. I find it difficult to sit up straight. I am broken. I find it difficult to have absolute beginners doing traditional Indian yoga adjustments on me. I find it too painful. I find it physically painful but I also find it emotionally painful. I have done this already and feel that I am going backwards. I keep thinking of the very first limb of Yoga; Ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-harm. Am I harming myself by being here? Am I harming myself by continually doubting my myself?

Rishikesh is also opening my emotional wounds, I am finding it difficult to open up. My heart is heavy, there is no room for compassion and no room for the pranic winds of change. Everyday I wake up wanting to run. I revert to source. Keep Calm and carry on. I am tired of everything being so hard. I can not sit and meditate because I have to sit with anger and frustration and I feel like I am going to explode.

 

I keep remembering the mantra I was given my a Vedic Astrologer the last time I was here;

Om Namah Shivaya

This means I bow to Shiva or I bow to my inner self. Shiva is the god of destruction, he makes ways for the new.

To be continued……

yoga teacher training rishikesh

What the hell am I doing here?

This was the first question I was asked on the first day at Tattvaa Yoga Teacher Training Certification (YTTC) course. It resonated very much with me and raised other questions within me: Who am I? Am I the corporate executive who just quit the job, a mother, a daughter or partner? These were the questions dwelling on my mind at the beginning of the course which we were encouraged to explore during the program.

I chose the YTTC because I wanted to do it sometime ago and never found the time. Now, that I have the time this was the first thing I scheduled in my calendar. I chose Tattvaa Yogashala Rishikesh India through extensive research and intuition and it turned out it was one of the best decisions in my life.

When I came to Rishikesh I wanted most of all to put some distance on my life events and time to reflect. I wanted clarity of mind and help with the major transformation in my life. What I found is 6 wonderful teachers and yogis whose lives were dedicated to us – the students.

The rigorous, disciplined boot camp type of schedule with asana classes starting at 6:30am and ending with meditation at 9pm didn’t allow much time for thinking. We were reminded all the time to be in the moment – ‘if you eat– you eat, if you sleep – you sleep that’s what a yogi does’ Kamalji, the founder of the school used to say. He also mentioned that Nike’s slogan ‘just do it’ doesn’t apply to yoga. We need to be mindful and aware of the mind, body and breath in all what we do.

So between struggling at asana practice, getting dizzy at pranayama, I found my favourite subjects – yoga philosophy and yoga nidra. Yoga philosophy taught by Swamiji and Sunilji was close to home. It dealt with questions humanity and I have been trying to understand: What is happiness? What is mind? How to still the monkey mind? Thru lively stories, references to Kung Fu Panda movies and Yoga Sutras texts I was captivated in the world of yoga. There I came to understand that Ashtanga stands for ‘Eight limbs of Yoga’ which correspond to eight steps to achieve enlightenment. Asanas, what most of the Western world know of are only one of the eight steps in achieving the final goal.

I was relieved when I understood that I am not totally doomed if I cannot wrap my legs around my head or do other posture. It is all about practice and awareness of NOW. Actually, all the asanas, meditation and pranayama have the end goal to still the mind and eventually transcend the mind. After day 4 when I actually wanted to quit and made a pact with my mind that I would go with the flow and give my best, I started to enjoy the morning practice and celebrated every small achievement and extra inch I was able to stretch.

One other thing that was emphasized during the month long program was to ‘mind our own business’ as Sunilji used to say. In other words, yoga is about self-awareness and internal discovery. It is a very good reminder as in reality most of the time we are externally oriented focused on what the others are saying or doing.

How about my thinking? I went there to think what is next in my life…Well, I’ve learned that the real thinking comes when the mind is quiet. Also, I was reminded that all things come according to their own time and order. No need to worry – the right things will come at the right time. So for now, I am enjoying my break, exploring new ways to enrich my life and those around me. I am passionate about inspiring and motivating people and helping them to reach their highest potential.

With the Tattvaa TTC I received the toolkit for rediscovering myself, my awesomeness and appreciation for the Universe life and force. I look forward going back spending more time in this oasis of spirituality where chants, ashrams and bells transcend time and space.

Here is mine :) May be a bit Random, but 100 % Authentic. Love and Light: Aila

What the hell am I doing here..?

That is the question I hear Sunil repeat time to time while giving us the philosophy lecture, and quite frankly, I have been asking that several times during the three weeks I have been in India. It started when I was at the New Delhi airport, waiting three hours for the guy who was supposed to pick me up, not really wanting to leave the safety of the airport which seemed like my final link to my comfort zone. But eight hours later I was in the room that was supposed to be my home for the next three weeks, feeling cold and alone. I didn´t know the wifi password so I didn´t have any connection to the world as I had known before.

But I had made a commitment, which I later realized was my sankalpa: I would have an open heart and an open mind and take whatever I was given with open arms. I would attend everything 100 % even when I didn´t feel like and my legs would be tired of sitting on the floor in a meditative posture and see where it would lead. I would let someone else decide when I wake up, what I eat, when I do my intestinal cleansing and even when I breath in and out. And now, sitting in the same room three weeks later I can reassure it has been all worth it.

The reason I came to India might be kind of a western cliché: I got burnt out at my job, rehabilitated myself with yoga and realized I want to do something more with my life than work for the Swedish state. I attended a TTC in Sweden which only raised more questions about the union which is supposed to happen in yoga. A union with what, and how do I reach that? Is it even possible? Can I really teach yoga if I don´t understand the meaning of yoga? So I decided to make an effort to go closer to the source and found myself chanting mantras, doing pranayama and practicing yoga nidra which I knew was ”yogic sleep”, but what the hell is that really?

A week later I found myself being content in a somewhat new way: I didn´t really miss anything. Chanting made me calm and I enjoyed walking to the shala 6 am to do the morning ashtanga and pranayama practice. I was constantly busy but I didn´t feel I needed more time, a washing machine, the internet or even coffee.

Today I have done the final exam and realized I was in a somewhat new situation: I don´t really have to spend every free moment studying the Baghvad Gita or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (or memorizing asana names or practicing how to teach) and there is no evening meditation to attend.

So the next question is, what the hell am I going to do in Sweden? Will everything be the same? Am I going to stress to my job every morning, forget to breath, drink too much coffee and lose the feeling of contentment? Get caught up in all the so called demands of having a title, an apartment or as we say in Sweden: a Volvo, a dog and an house?

That is the real question. Sunil also says that during these three weeks we invest, our bodies are aching, we are confused of everything, we cleanse our body and our mind. We do pranayama and meditation, but we only get the effects of it all later. And there is no use of cleansing unless we keep our body and mind clean even afterwards. You don´t clean your home just in order to throw some dirt in it directly afterwards. So the real sadhana begins after India and it is not going to be easy. It is diffucult to combine our jobs with yoga, pranayama, meditation. It is hard to apply all of the yamas and niyamas in real life. But it would be stupid to do all of these things for a few weeks just so that I can go back to my old routines: after all I was I snowball that needed to be shaken so some of the snowflakes would fall of and I would reach closer to the core and see things for what they are.

I would advise anyone who needs to be shaken a bit to come here. But I would also say that you need two things: to know what the hell you are doing here and make it your sankalpa to be open to whatever you´re thrown at and take it with open arms. Give cleansing a chance and then you will know.

pratyahara

Lessons in Pratyahara: a Yogi Memoir

Last week I wrote a researched and technical essay about Patanjali’s fifth limb of ashtanga yoga, pratyahara. As I wrote in the essay, simply called Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal, pratyahara is the somewhat elusive and overlooked limb of Patanjali’s yoga system, which many of us stumble across and experience without even realising it. Two years ago if I had read the essay I wrote last week I would have been appreciative of the theory and technique, but still not quite understanding the experience of withdrawing my senses. Yoga is an experiential practice, after all. As Sri Pattabhi Jois always famously said, 99% and 1% theory.

The following essay is the less academic and more experiential version of how I stumbled across my own baby understandings of pratyahara. The yogis who helped me in this realisation also made me realise how much of a baby (if not a fetus) I am and many of us are on the yogic path, scratching just the tip of the iceberg and having yet to dive into the water and explore the true depths of this system. (Hint: pratyahara is one sure way into the water!) The yogis I speak of are those that are typically considered to be myths or legend. Or, at least, a calibre of yogi that in this modern age are all but extinct. But, they exist, hidden away in the caves of the high Himalayas where they can focus on their yoga practices and spiritual pursuits. When I say yoga practices I do not necessarily mean ten surya namaskara A and B followed by standing postures, seated, and finishing postures. These yogis have basically graduated, shall we say, from asana practice and spend most of their time (at least eight hours a day) sitting in samadhi, preparing for sitting in samadhi, or entertaining the occasional inquisitive baby yogi like me. In reading this essay  perhaps those who appreciate the technicality of my last essay but still can’t quite grasp the tangible and experiential aspects of pratyahara can discover a little something extra in the shared experience of another baby yogi.

I had been faithfully and consistently practicing and studying Patanjali’s eight limbed system of yoga and the subsequent Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga for five years. In my own study and practice of the Yoga Sutras and the eight limbs I found I was able to make the first four limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) comprehensive and practical enough to at least work on, but was always stumped by what Patanjali meant by learning to withdraw my senses. Most teachers I had asked over the previous years usually regurgitated some commentary on the Yoga Sutras, but I never really got what withdrawing my senses was all about. Some told me that it would come, as all the limbs grow and blossom with practice. But, how would I know when it arrived? All this baby/fetus yogi confusion until one day the beginning of understanding pratyahara found me in the Indian Himalayas.

I had made my way to Rishikesh, India to study Ashtanga yoga with Yogi Kamal Singh. One month into practice we had a week off to rest. But, I didn’t feel like resting and something else seemed to be calling me. I was in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world and the gateway to the great Himalayas. It was the whisperings of these mountains that beckoned me to venture into their depths. Early one morning instead of sleeping in I was riding in a bumpy collective jeep, squished between several Indians, winding up into the mountains on our way to the sacred village of Gangotri, where the great river Ganges begins. Eighteen hours in jeeps and one cold sleep in Uttarkashi later, I arrived in the little hamlet of Gangotri, a quiet and simple village lulled by the rushing jade waters of the baby mother Ganga and cradled by the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas.

My first evening I dined on noodle soup with my neighbour, Tomas, who happened to be the only other foreigner in town. While filling me in about the four hours of electricity a day, buckets of hot water for bathing available to purchase for 100 rupees, shockingly freezing nighttime temperatures, the one place to eat in town, and what I would need to trek the 18 kilometres to Gomukh (the glacier where at every moment the Ganges is born), he also mentioned to me something about hidden cave yogis. Hidden cave yogis!? It was true. Spiritual practitioners who had renounced the world and receded to the caves of the Himalayas in this holy place to dedicate their lives to the study and practice of yoga. Who were they and where could I find them? As it turned out, Tomas had been in Gangotri for several months for the purpose of learning from and meditating with these yogis, and was thus the perfect man to direct me to them. (Or, at least, to the ones that would talk to us baby yogis, as there are apparently many adult yogis who won’t even come out of samadhi to talk to teenager yogis!)

The next day I set out on my mission to find and talk to these mythical cave yogis. Though I could write an entire book relaying my experiences and learnings from these brilliant human beings, for now I will focus on the subject of this essay, which is pratyahara. Though I asked each of these sadhakas to summarise for me each of Patanjali’s eight limbs, I emphasised pratyahara, as I felt I was on the precipice of stumbling upon pratyahara in a more tangible way than regurgitated yoga sutras.

Later one night, a wiry and thickly bearded yogi with oversized shoes and orange robes led Tomas and me through the darkness, along the humming river to meet one of his well spoken teachers. There was no moon, and the frigid night was pierced with stars like diamonds poured across the sky.

We entered into a cave like stone hut and sat down on folded wool in the dimly lit space. Our host, the well respected yogi, prepared hot chai for all of us as we sat silently in the near freezing darkness. “So,” he began while pouring steaming chai into small cups, “how may I help you?” Tomas asked his usual questions about meditation and I asked my usual interrogation about the eight limbs. The little wiry yogi sat and listened as his teacher and friend share his wisdom with us.

We spoke about many aspects of yoga; and I even thought I saw him smile when I sheepishly told this being who had been meditating in these caves for decades that I had been doing asana practice for five years. After lightly scolding me for not being able to recite the one yoga sutra about asana in Sanskrit off the top of my head (scold-able, even for baby yogis), he continued: “ah, asana,” he laughed and then sighed, “the limb that distracts so many from the complete experience of ashtanga yoga. Such an obsession you have in the west with the body and asana.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “and that is why I have come to talk to you. To learn about the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s yoga.”

“Each limb arises out of the others,” he said simply.

“Yes, so far that has been my understanding. Most of the limbs I can at least grasp the theory of, but I just can’t make any sense of what pratyahara is and how to practice it.”

“Can you feel your prana?” he asked.

“Sorry?” I was surprised by the seemingly unrelated interest in life force energy.

“Are you aware of your energy body?” he rephrased the question.

I thought for a moment before replying, and then answered that I was.

“Good. So you already practice pratyahara.” He smiled and offered more hot chai, which was the only elixir for our frozen limbs. I pondered his words and sipped the chai through its comforting steam. “You are not understanding,” he said.

“No, I’m afraid not.” I admitted, “I still don’t understand how one withdraws the senses.”

“Pratyahara Sense withdrawal. It means to maintain the solidity of the connection with God within you, so that your attachment or aversion to that which you understand and cognate with your senses in the outer world does not disturb you. When you experience awareness of your pranic body, you already have the function of turning inwards. You see, the experience of the limbs all arise spontaneously with the practice of the preceding limbs. And sometimes without our intellectual knowing, we experience them.”

Suddenly, in a flash, I understood the beginnings of pratyahara. And this cave yogi was right, I had been practicing it without even realising. Even in simple ways in every day life. Every time I had stubbed my toe and not reacted to the pain shooting up from my foot, every time I had smelled something delicious cooking and had not let it distract me from whatever I was doing, or every time I remained undisturbed in the face of commotion on a busy street or in the metro. These are all very simple but real life manifestations of pratyahara. He must have seen the look of epiphany on my face because he started laughing and said “very good.”

He told me I could practice at any moment in time, beginning by closing my eyes, regulating my breath, and tapping into my pranic body. Prana is, after all, the life force or god force that moves inside and through us. This can be done through visualisation and by using visualisation as a tool for exploring the inner and subtle body. Also, via the tool of visualisation, we can visualise a membrane around us where any external distractions slide off of us and our internal world, and the solidity of our connection to god and ourselves, remain undisturbed. These are simple real life baby step practices for baby yogis to learn more about their capacity for pratyahara.

We continued to talk with the cave yogi until even my brain had gone numb with the mountain cold. I walked back to my guesthouse in the darkness, still buzzing with  revelation.

Over the next days I trekked 40 kilometres into the high Himalayas to and from Gomukh, sleeping in a frozen goat cave like ashram where one evening I listened amusedly to a swami try to convince a geologist of the existence of God. The entire excursion, through all the discomforts of exhaustion, hunger, back pain, backpack straps rubbing the skin off my shoulders, sleeping on a stone floor, feeling the coldest I had ever felt in my life, losing toe nails, and destroying my feet, I maintained a connection to that solidity which is inside all of us. And in doing so none of these  discomforts bothered me, allowing for my little adventure to be a rudimentary baby yogi practice of pratyahara, to be an unexpected experience of going inwards, and to be a humbling act of devotion. In a funny way, my trek to the origin of the Ganges was basically a really great extended yoga practice, and one of the happiest experiences of my life.

Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal

yoga meditation

Pratyahara often seems to be the neglected and misunderstood limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed system of Ashtanga yoga. With the other limbs either being more tangible, easier to conceptualise, or so far off we don’t even bother, Patanjali’s vague fifth limb can be easily overlooked. Patanjali himself only dedicated two sutras to pratyahara in his Yoga Sutras. But, regardless of its obscurity, pratyahara is a very fundamental aspect of yoga.

Different yogic texts and different schools of yoga offer a variety of approaches to pratyahara, but its essential meaning remains consistent. Pratyahara is defined as the withdrawal of the senses or the independence from external stimuli. Focusing on Patanjali’s eight limbed system of aśtanga yoga, Patanjali places pratyahara as the fifth limb and the gatekeeper from the outer limbs to the inner limbs. Patanjali still considers sense withdrawal (pratyahara) to be an outer limb while listing concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi) as the inner limbs. Pratyahara is our bridge to higher practices of yoga. As long as we remain  dependent on external stimulus and our senses remain scattered rather than bound, our yoga practice shall remain externally oriented within the first four limbs: yama, niyama, asana and pranayama. Though with consistent and faithful yoga practice the limbs will eventually unfold themselves, pratyahara is so essential to our yogic development that it is deserving of more attention and practice than it typically is given.

Patanjali does not elaborate on how to practice or achieve pratyahara. In fact, the only limb he does describe in detail is samadhi. For the remaining seven limbs he only describes the results of these limbs once they have been achieved and does not give insight into technique or their practice. In Sutra 2.54 Patanjali states in Sanskrit sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah, which can be translated as “when the mind is withdrawn from the outside then the senses follow and disengage from the sense objects. This is pratyahara.” When we turn our attention inwards and detach from the stimulations and distractions of the external world then this is sense withdrawal. Patanjali continues in the next sutra 2.55: tatah parama vashyata indriyanam, or, “from that comes supreme command over the senses.” When we are no longer attached to or distracted by external gratification and stimulation, then we have achieved command over the senses and can focus the mind inwards. Therefore there are two aspects to pratyahara. The first aspect is the detachment from external aversions or desires by reigning in our wandering senses and withdrawing from the outer world. The second aspect is the going inside and realising that everything we need is already inside us.

As long as we believe we need external sensory stimulus the longer we continue to be a slave to our senses, our desires and the external world. This is not to advocate shutting out or negating the external world, as the world is our road to freedom. It is also not the say we shouldn’t enjoy the external world or sensory pleasure. Instead, it is to assert that the more we believe we need sensory stimulation and the more enslaved we are to external pleasures or aversions, the more difficult it will likely be to discover the inner world of consciousness and freedom. This is why we practice pratyahara.

Prana goes where the mind goes and it is no shock to say that the mind is generally unfocused. Therefore when our senses are unregulated, our mind follows our senses outwards, we attach to objects, and our prana becomes dispelled. When the senses reach out and we identify ourselves with the external world, we are pulled away and prana can not be accumulated and arrested inside the body. By pulling the senses inwards we begin to steady the mind fluctuations and retain prana. The accumulation and retention of prana is fundamental to practicing the higher limbs of yoga.

Seeing as pratyahara is quite important, as it leads us from the outside to the inside (which, as Yogi Sunil Sharma always emphasises, is a defining factor of yoga); how does one practice it? As mentioned above, Patanjali describes the effects of achieving the limbs but not their practice. As with most yogic traditions, practical technique is meant to be taught by a qualified teacher according to the capacity of the student. Even later more instructive texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are meant to be taken in conjunction with a guru’s teachings. Just as there are delineated techniques for the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation, so there are also described techniques for the practice of pratyahara. Where asana works on a physical level, pranayama on an energetic level, and meditation on a mind level, pratyahara works on all three levels and thus is practiced in asana, pranayama, and meditation.

An important technique to withdrawing the senses is to bind them to something else. We do this in our daily ashtanga asana practice, sometimes without realising. As we breathe and move through our postures we remove our attention from the external world, beginning by focusing on our body alignment and movement. The sense of sight is bound by the practice of dristi, or, the prescribed focal point of the gaze. The sense of hearing is bound by listening to our ujjayi breath. The tactile sense is bound by our body in asana and by the consistent activation of bandha. As our asana practice becomes more advanced so does our capacity for pratyahara and we become more adept at disengaging from environmental stimulation.

There are also specific asanas that help to induce sense withdrawal. Supta kurmasana, or bound tortoise pose, is an excellent example of this. As a leg over head posture (and the first leg over head posture of the ashtanga vinyasa system), it functions as a very deep forward bend. Forward bends themselves function as the first steps on the path inwards. Supta kurmasana is compared to a tortoise  withdrawing its limbs into its shell from the outer world. The shell is our mind and the limbs are our senses. This asana is a direct practice of the faculties of sense withdrawal.

In many of his thorough and well researched books on yoga Gregor Maehle prescribes inversions (headstand, shoulder stand, etc.) as a direct practice of pratyahara. Citing many yogic texts and scriptures, Maehle states clearly that by accumulating and arresting amrita, the nectar of immortality, in the cavities of the skull associated with our highest chakras, then pratyahara will be achieved. This is done by the correct and responsible practice of inversions. He even suggests that in our daily asana practice we should extend our practice of inversions and  recommends that 60 minutes be spent on asana and 30 minutes be spent on inversions and closing postures. Maehle’s in depth and clearly explained research on inversions and pratyahara can be found in his book on yogic meditation.

The breath is a powerful vehicle that brings us from our outer world into our inner world. Through the consistent practice of breathing exercises and pranayama we are using our faculty of pratyahara by binding our attention to our breath. Assuming we have become sufficiently competent in the elementary practices of pratyahara from proficient asana practice, we can now practice binding our senses to the finer aspects of our breath and subtle bodies. By focusing on evening the force and length of the breath, counting the length and number of our inhalations and exhalations, using proper yogic breathing cycles and breath waves, and becoming aware of our breath and prana moving through our subtle body, we are practicing an intermediate level of pratyahara.

 The practice of Bhramari pranayama (humming bee breath) as outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika can also be considered a direct practice of sense withdrawal. During the practice we use the fingers and hands to pull in and close our senses to the outside world. The fingers cover the eyes and close the ears to external awareness. By humming like a bumble bee we are aware only of the buzzing sound, bringing the agitated mind to a tranquil state and bringing the senses from the external to the internal.

A yogic meditation practice for pratyahara, though outside of the traditional ashtanga system, is yoga nidra meditation. Yoga nidra, meaning psychic sleep, is a practice that uses body awareness to withdraw from the external world and enter into the subconscious and unconscious realms of the psyche. Instructions are given during this guided meditation to bind the senses to various things such as sounds and points on the body. Through the process of binding the senses they are  automatically withdrawn, allowing the practitioner to completely relax and access the deepest parts of the internal world. Yoga Nidra meditation is a powerful practice that effectively trains and strengthens our capacity for pratyahara.

 As pratyahara is the gateway from the outer to the inner limbs, and dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) are the limbs that subsequently follow pratyahara, it is to be assumed at this point that as a yoga practitioner our capacity for withdrawing the senses is sufficiently developed as these practices are more advanced. Again, as with asana and pranayama practice, there are also systemised techniques in ashtanga system for the practice of meditation. Though many understand the practice of meditation to be simply sitting still and watching the breath, that method functions more as a practice in relaxation and self awareness rather than a meditation practice. While it is a good preparatory exercise for meditation and will fine tune the capacity for pratyahara, we are unlikely to get very far by just watching the breath. As we have learned to control our breath and have become more familiar with our energy body and our flow of prana, we can use pratyahara practice during meditation to begin to train the mind to bind. By removing our senses inwards, listening to our breath and feeling the sensation of prana  moving through the subtle body, we can begin to focus our attention on our shoshumna (central energy channel) and chakras (central energy centres). This is the beginning of learning to bind and suspend the mind, which is the beginning of yogic meditation.

The sixth and seventh limbs are when the ability to bind the senses transmutes into the ability to bind the mind. Once all the activity of the mind is bound during meditation, the mental fluctuations suspend, and the eighth limb samadhi (of which there are eight sub-limbs), or absorption, can be experienced and practiced. This is how the mastery of pratyahara will ultimately lead us from the outer limbs to the higher practices of yoga and internal exaltation. As is written in the Maitri Upanishad: “if the fuel of the senses is withheld, the mind is reabsorbed into the heart.” When the senses are withdrawn through the practice of pratyahara, the inner limbs of yoga begin to blossom and a whole other universe is placed at our fingertips.

Ashtanga Yoga: Mysore, Teacher Training Courses, and Anatomy

Anatomy and physiology as western medicine understands it has not traditionally been apart of the Ashtanga Yoga system as it has been taught over many generations and centuries. But today as yoga related injuries are becoming more and more common and more people are interested in doing yoga, perhaps we need to reinvestigate the place that western science’s understanding of the musculoskeletal system has in the learning and practice of Ashtanga yoga today. This is not to say that Ashtanga teachers do not teach anatomy, as of course many do. It is instead to look at how anatomy can be a potent tool in making the increasingly popular traditional Ashtanga practice be safe and accessible to a modern and changing world. As Sri Pattabhi Jois so famously said, “Ashtanga yoga is for everyone.” Integrating anatomy into teaching will help to keep it that way.

Traditionally to learn and teach Ashtanga, one travels to Mysore for extended periods of time to practice with the living guru (the late Sri Pattabhi Jois or his grandson Sharath Jois) and learn directly from the source. When the guru sees that the student has sufficient understanding of the practice, they are then given the authorisation or, much more rarely, the certification to teach. This traditional way of learning yoga is called parampara in Sanskrit and describes the knowledge that is passed in succession directly from teacher to student. This is a wonderful, traditional and important way to learn any spiritual practice, under the direct and intimate guidance of the guru where information can be transmitted directly to the disciple.

This method of teaching yoga has worked in India for thousands of years. And it does work  very effectively if the student also conducts self-study (or svādhyāya in Sanskrit, one of Patanjali’s niyamas) outside of practice of important theory. Sri Pattabhi Jois always used to say Ashtanga is “99% practice and 1% theory”, as both will give us complete knowledge of the Ashtanga system. Most knowledge, or experiential knowledge, comes from simply doing the practice. But that 1% theoretical understanding of philosophy, scripture, and the anatomy of the body are just as important as they help to structure the knowledge derived from the practice.

This traditional and effective method of learning contrasts vastly from the modern methods of becoming a yoga teacher, i.e the yoga teacher training course. Within a short period of time, sometimes even in just a few weeks, students are eligible to teach yoga. Contrary to the Mysore method of becoming a teacher, this method requires a lot less practice but, conversely, it does often include a lot more theory. Yoga Alliance requires that teacher training programs include a set number of hours of philosophy and anatomy lecture. Therefore modern yogis aspiring to be teachers are forced to learn about bones, muscles, joints, and how it all works together.  Because of the general laxity of practice time requirement (Yoga Alliance’s requirement of 100 hours compared to Mysore’s standard of several years of practice), students in TTC courses (unless they have maintained regular practice for years prior) typically learn less experientially and more theoretically.

Personally, a combination of these two learning methods, the traditional Mysore way and the modern TTC way, would probably be ideal. Recently Sharath Jois has started conducting teacher training courses in Mysore for those who are already authorized to teach, and though I have not personally taken this course I can only assume that he will be teaching at least some anatomy in addition to other  theoretical knowledge. This, I believe, would be a nice balance between the two methods. But what does this have to do with anatomy and why is anatomy suddenly so important?

For five years I practiced Ashtanga yoga with many great teachers, none of which really mentioned anything about anatomy. I did a lot of self study from Gregor Maehle’s wonderful books on Ashtanga yoga to teach myself about anatomy, and every time something hurt I would turn to his books or the internet for answers. This is not to say that my traditional Mysore teachers didn’t know anatomy, but they probably were not taught to teach with anatomy as a regular reference. But understanding something so anatomically subtle and complex such a sacrum nutation will make or break (literally) your backbends. This is incredibly important, as such an injury can also break your practice. Learning anatomy can help with that!

It wasn’t until I began learning Ashtanga from Yogi Kamal Singh in Rishikesh, who places a strong emphasis on alignment and understanding the anatomy and physiology of what is happening to the body inside the postures, that I found a teacher who used anatomy as a strong teaching tool. Something as simple as the inner rotation of the thigh in most Primary Series asanas can prevent chronic  backspin down the line. And learning anatomy can teach us to prevent injury in the future. Yogi Kamal Singh always says that the injury begins the first time we do the wrong movement, even if the pain follows months or even years later. By teaching his students the intricacies but also the simplicities of anatomy it is undoubtable he has prevented and corrected many misalignment that would otherwise lead to pain or injury.

Anatomy is important because people are getting hurt while doing yoga. Particularly a yoga so dynamic as Ashtanga yoga. And though Ashtanga effectively brings us within and allows us to transcend our physical form in many ways, ultimately our body is our temple and it is our vehicle for that transcendence. In the same way that you would educate yourself on the mechanics of your car to ensure its functionally, we should also learn about and care for the vehicle that is our physical body.

Ashtanga yoga is so alluring often because it is so steeped in lineage and rarely veers away from tradition. But why isn’t anatomy included in this tradition? There are so many possible reasons why Ashtanga yoga or any traditional form of yoga was not often taught with the reference of anatomy. Aside from the obvious western versus eastern medicine view of the human organism, one hypothesis that an Indian teacher of mine explained that I really enjoyed was that firstly the Indian body is different from the Western body. And secondly that the average body from fifty years ago is different than the average body today. Up until relatively recently Indians lived similarly to how they have lived for centuries; eating local foods without preservatives or processing, sitting on the floor, working jobs that requires them to be relatively active, etc. This, unfortunately, has all begun to change as Westernisation has spread around the world, accounting for more intake of processed foods laden with chemicals, desk jobs, western illnesses, etc. The average Indian body of the time when Jois was teaching in Mysore was relatively flexible, strong, and limber  compared to the contemporary western body. Even the western body of fifty years ago, right around the time of industrialised food beginning to take over, was more lean and flexible. The contemporary western body is on average stiff, weak, toxic, heavy, and supported by an unhealthy spine. Today, in 2016, western bodies are typically unhealthier than the Asian body and even the Western body that Jois was teaching in the 1970’s. Food for thought.

So, how can we use Ashtanga yoga to heal an unhealthy body and spine without exasperating any imbalances or weaknesses? We can focus on anatomy and  structural realignment of the body. Krishnamacharya was a great example of this when he taught the Ashtanga system of yoga to a very ill and weak B.K.S. Iyengar in a way that healed and realigned his sick body. He did this by using props, focusing on alignment, and bringing awareness to anatomy and the dynamics of the body. This method is what is now known as Iyengar yoga. But perhaps Ashtanga yoga today can learn a little bit from this important example, otherwise our vehicles may not make it to their destination.

In the six years I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga I have learned from a variety of incredible teachers: authorised, certified, unauthorised, Iyengar based, etc. And though I have hardly practiced with every teacher out there, I did notice a pattern that those who had studied primarily in Mysore or under orthodox Ashtanga teachers discus anatomy relatively less than those who are unauthorised, have studied with first generation Mysore teachers (such as Tim Miller and David Swenson), or those who have an Iyengar background.

Fitness Mantra for Your Mind, Body and Soul – Ashtanga Yoga!

How are you maintaining a balance with the fast paced world? Do you sometimes feel tired of life? Do you want to strengthen your body so that it can withstand the daily pressures of life? Are you sick of the daily exercises which are boring and which actually you want to avoid every morning? If your answer is a ‘yes’, then read on. And if it is a ‘no’, then I must say, there is something special for you too.

DSC_2707.jpgOne of the biggest drawbacks of your regular exercises is that it can provide fitness to your body only; what about your mind and soul? One simple answer – Try the age-old practice of Yoga. Yes, whatever you call it, yoga, dance yoga, kickboxing yoga, yoga workout or anything else, the point is that it can certainly give you a solution.

What you need is to join a yoga class. You can go for a yoga centre or a yoga studio, whatever it is and start practicing. One advantage of joining such classes is that you can have the proper training from the yoga teachers. Once you have learnt Ashtanga Yoga you can easily practice it at your home. You just need to buy some equipment like a yoga DVD, a yoga bag and a mat to perform the exercise.

DSC_2533No matter where you practice, at home or at a class, doing the yoga correctly is very important for a positive outcome. Whereas a right posture can cure many diseases, a wrong one can create troubles too. Here are some types of yoga which are very popular nowadays.

Pilates Yoga- Developed by George Pilates, this type of exercise is very popular in the United States. Though it is referred as yoga, actually it is not. The only resemblance is that it also gives an exercise to the mind. It can be referred to as a yoga with movement or yoga with machines.

Bikram Yoga- Bikram yoga is a more aerobic and a physical type of yoga. It was founded by Bikram Choudhry. This type of yoga is not meant for everyone. It is carried out in a warm room with a temperature around 90 to 100 degrees and therefore it is also called as hot yoga.

Power Yoga- This is actually a modified version of Ashtanga yoga, which will be described later on. It is a practice of doing ‘yoga poses’ in a continuous series of exercises. This type of yoga helps you to enhance your inner power and to make a connection with your soul.

Ashtanga Yoga- In Sanskrit, Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’ and it refers to the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras. It was taken from Yoga Korunta, a very ancient text. A student has to progress through six different series in this type of yoga.

This method helps in the realignment of the spine, detoxification of the body, building strength and flexibility and also in the strengthening of the nervous system.

There are three different levels of Ashtanga yoga. The first level helps you to align the body and gets the toxins out of your body. The second level helps to clean and open the energy channels. The last level is for the advanced ones and it helps in measuring power and grace.

Ashtanga yoga is a very popular type of yoga. It is a very energetic and athletic form of practice. It has many benefits like relieving from sore muscle and joint pain. Along with these physical benefits, it does have some mental and emotional benefits also. If you practice this yoga, you gain the ability to focus mentally and release the negative energy. It will give you relief from unwanted tensions as well.

If you are searching for a perfect yoga fitness program, Ashtanga yoga can be a good choice for you. If you are a beginner in the field of yoga then this can be quite tough for you to start with. You can start with some other simple methods. After bringing yourself up to its level and gaining the required fitness level, you can surely give it a try and reap the benefits!