breathing

The importance of breath

Inhale…

I still remember the gorgeous, sensual, sun-kissed Californian girl teaching a Vinyasa class during my trip to Indonesia back in 2013. She went completely overboard by almost moaning the words ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ for every in- and exhalation we took during that class. For me, it seemed really overdone to put that much emphasis on something we are used to do automatically already.

Little did I know…

As a kid, I always felt short of breath. I felt like a part of my trachea was blocked, which restrained me from breathing in fully. While exercising, my body somehow decided to not breathe at al, so whenever I was running, playing field hockey or when I was dancing, I had to stop often because I was close to hyperventilating. After multiple examinations in the hospital, doctors prescribed me with several types of asthma medication, even though my lungs seemed healthy and my lung capacity was perfectly fine. As you can figure, the medication did not make any difference at all.

Only a couple of years later, another doctor looked more closely into the way I was breathing. She noticed that my breath was way too high and that my belly was moving inwards while inhaling and outwards while exhaling. She helped me to become aware of my breath with the use of several exercises. She managed to deepen my breath and got my natural breathing to a healthy level. It is interesting, to say at the least: something that we are supposed to do so intuitively – one of the first things we do when we are born into this world – was actually really hard for me to do in a relaxed and natural way.

While my way of breathing had improved by this, I still always felt short of breath when dealing with stressful situations. I felt like my breath was stuck in my chest and tried everything to elongate the breath to a deeper level, forcefully using my neck and chest muscles. Clearly, no improvements were made by these attempts; it only invited more stress into my body.

In the fall of 2015, after a couple of years of practicing different styles of yoga, I discovered the Astanga Vinyasa practice. Every inhalation and exhalation was not only counted, which was new for me, but also manipulated with the help of a breathing technique called Ujjayi breathing. By slightly contracting your glottis, you make a hissing sound, which allows you to breath more evenly. It also calms down your nervous system, heats up your body and helps you to stay focused on your breathing properly. There was no escape, no space to distract myself and think of anything other than my inhalation and exhalation and the following movements. It was a big liberation for me.

And when you come to think about it… Our breathing has such a great impact on our lives. Just look at the metaphorical influence of breathing on our language: we heave a sigh of relieve when we hear we passed an important exam, we hold our breath when we are at the edge of our seat watching a scary movie and our breath gets taken away when we suddenly bump into the person we secretly have crush on. Our reactions to situations in life influence our breathing unconsciously, that is for sure.

But what if vice versa, we were able to use the breath to influence the quality of our lives? What if the breath could help us to remain calm and neutral in stressful situations and to tame our wild monkey mind that always seduces and distracts us? It is possible…

By getting more in touch with our way of breathing, we can become more aware of the influence of it and even start using our breath to improve the quality and longevity of our lives. The breath then becomes a vehicle to turn our awareness inwards, where we can notice and give space to the ripples on the surface of our being. For me, both Astanga yoga and Pranayama have made a big difference in becoming attentive to this fact. I finally can breathe freely now.

…and exhale…

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.

Golden advice from the Tattvaa Yogashala founder & friends

We have collected some feedback just for you! Hear the experiences and advice first hand from the staff at Tattvaa Yogashala both past and present volunteers and Kamal ji himself. What you must know is once you have been welcomed into the Tattvaa home; you will always be a part of the ever growing worldwide family. The doors are always open; all you have to do is ask to come inside. If you’ve ever completed a TTC or just spent time at the drop in classes you would definitely have felt the infectious energy Kamal Singh transcends to all his students. Here are a few of those people’s perspectives after volunteering, assisting or participating in a teacher training program at Tattvaa Yogashala.

 

Yogi Kamal Singh – Founder of Tattvaa Yogashala, Rishikesh.  – “Enjoy every Breath you take and every movement you make.  Be Here Now and prepared, Rest will come to you.”

 

Sunil Sharma – Rishikesh. “Sit quietly and breathe. All is well when you stop doing and allow yourself to experience.”

 

Poleg Baum, Israel. “If you can, stay in Rishikesh. Explore and evolve your practice”.

 

Neha Rawat, Rishikesh.  “Get confident first. Keep practicing every day before you begin to teach.”

 

Alena Charow, London. “Always do your practice. To remember we are always all students. To practice the yamas and niyamas. And to always have compassion. Practice, practice all is coming.”

 

Priya Negi, Rishikesh. “Practice, practice, practice. Don’t stop the flow. Again come back to Rishikesh whenever you can, seeya!”

 

Nicole Lamb, Australia. “Take your time. Don’t rush your practice or your teachings. All will come naturally and organically. Trust the process and follow your intuition”.

 

Nacho Kaleta, Spain. “They have to be honest within themselves to be able to teach. Teach what you know is right and safe but teach anyway. You’ve learnt a tool which may help others lives. It is your must to share it even if it is only Surya Namaskar”.

 

Oliver Klein,Germany.  “Those who really want to teach, I would tell them that they first have to understand why we are doing each posture and only then it makes sense to teach. If they understand the posture, only then they can show and teach it and then, find your own style of teaching. Also interesting would be to practice with some authorized teacher by PJ.”

 

Deepak Nautiyal, Rishikesh. “Teach from your heart. Whatever you are doing be present and confident”.

 

Gau Monko, Astana, Kazakhstan. “Practice your teaching right after the completion of your course. When all the knowledge is fresh in your head, your hands remember the adjustments and you still feel the supporting energy of your teacher along with their guiding voice in your mind. Make mistakes, it will allow you to learn from them and grow.”

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.