The long and the short of it: On the Ashtanga breath (which, for the record, is not ujjayi!)

Speed limit of 8 via Gary Dincher's Flickr photostream

We ashtangis seem to love talking about the breath as much as we love the rhythmic act of breathing itself. Whether new to the practice or a decades-long practitioner, questions about the right and the wrong of breathing frequently bubble up. Answers to questions about the breath are as varied as the breath itself. Below, I’ve chosen some answers that have helped me get a better feel for this art of breathing.

How long and fast should the breath be?

“Medium” and “breathable,” according to David Garrigues:

Partly it’s going to be based on your mood, or your feeling at the time. It’s going to be based on what the posture is demanding. The point is, the breath is breathable. It’s varying. Guruji, he said that the breath is a medium breath. Which meant that it’s not too long and it’s not too short. It’s not like your best pranayama each vinyasa position — if that was the case, it would take too long; it would become forced, unnatural.

Watch the whole segment here:

Mark Darby says this in an interview posted on Wild Yogi:

Going back to the breath, if you see Jois teaching, in a way he teaches standing postures are slow, the breath is very long, when he comes to do the primary series it gets fast. And then it gets very slow again when it comes to finishing postures, because there is no vinyasa in standing and finishing postures so he makes the breaths longer. But as long as you have full breath and rhythm it doesn’t matter how long you breath.

What is the Ashtanga breath called?

This one seems pretty straightforward, right? The Ashtanga breath is called ujjayi breath, right?

Well . . . no. I was stunned to hear my teacher say this at a workshop last month. It turns out the more accurate way to refer to the breath used in the Ashtanga vinyasa practice is “breathing with sound.”

This revelation rippled a while ago among ashtangis who study in Mysore (or those who closely follow their blogs). I remember reading about it this past winter but I think I chose to not try to read too much into this — not enough context, as Steve at the Confluence Countdown noted at the time.

To catch you up if this is new to you, here is an excerpt of Suzy’s Mysore Blog’s coverage of Sharath’s conference notes from Jan. 8, 2012:

The ujjayi breath – how loud should it be?

Answer – which ujjayi breath? It is not ujjayi – it is just deep breathing with sound that’s all. Ujjayi is a pranayama. It is wrong to say that is ujjayi breath.

In the olden days, Guruji he didn’t understand English very well. You all have different accents. It is very difficult to understand people from New Zealand. So Guruji would say yes it’s ujjayi breath. Sometimes for me it is difficult to understand accents. So like that it became many things [Sharath impersonates Guruji] – ‘oh yeh, yeh, yeh’. If he said ‘okay, okay, okay’ it didn’t mean ‘yes’, it meant ‘I’ll think and tell you’. His heart was like a baby’s heart, his mind like a baby’s mind.

It should be deep breathing with sound. Not shallow breathing. Only the nervous system can purify if the breath goes in deep. Each part of my body can feel that breath, up to my toes. The blood is circulating everywhere. If I just do shallow breath, a dog’s breath [Sharath pants like a dog].

It is especially important in sarvangasana (shoulder stand). Shirshasana (head stand) and sarvangasana are very important – we should do for a long time. Sometimes when you get pain this is all because of not breathing properly. When you are doing kurmasana (turtle posture) your shoulders are like this [Sharath demonstrates hunched shoulders]. Try to relax in asana, try to take long breath.

Something will happen for me if you throw me in the water. The more you relax in water, the more easy it is to do the strokes.

Back in 2011, David Robson was surprised to learn this as well:

On my last trip to Mysore, I heard something new. It was during the weekly conference with Sharath. While talking about the breath during practice, someone mentioned “Ujjayi Breath.” Sharath corrected them, saying Ujjayi is a pranayama, a formal breathing exercise, and then moved on to another topic.

At first, I assumed I had misunderstood what Sharath was saying. I had always thought Ujjayi Breath was one of the key principles of Ashtanga Yoga. Confused, I went to the source, Yoga Mala, by Sri K Pattabhi Jois, to see what he had written more than 50 years ago. To my surprise, there is no mention of Ujjayi Breath with vinyasa. None.

A month later I saw Sharath again. I had the chance to ask him if we do Ujjayi Breath during our asana practice. He said no, explaining that Ujjayi Breath is one of the Pranayama techniques of Ashtanga Yoga. In Ashtanga, Pranayama is begun only when a practitioner has started the Advanced Series. During our asana practice we only do steady and even purakaand rechaka, inhalation and exhalation.

In honor of the lineage of this tradition, I’ve stopped using the word “ujjayi” on this blog and when I teach. But I think until an entirely new generation of ashtangis comes up, the Ashtanga community at large might have to agree to disagree on the label of this breath with sound. My guess is that the first generation of Westerners who were the first to study with Pattabhi Jois will likely continue to use “ujjayi” and make a distinction between ujjayi during asana practice and ujjayi pranayama. (Correct me if I’m wrong on this!) The new generation of authorized teachers are already following Sharath’s lead. It’s all good, though, right? Isn’t this a classic tomato vs. tomahto situation? [At least I hope so, because I really don’t want to go back through two years’ worth of blog posts and change every instance of ujjayi. :-) ]

Or maybe a better analogy would be using a brand name for a generic item — saying “Kleenex” when holding a box of Target’s generic brand tissues isn’t technically correct, but we understand how the product is supposed to be used. The label doesn’t change how useful, powerful and beautiful this breath is.

For no particularly great reason, I’ll let “Speed of Sound” close this post.

>>Read more: More on the Ashtanga breath: What the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā tells us

(Photo credit: “Speed limit 8??” via Gary Dincher’s Flickr photostream)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, remixed

 Radiohead’s new album drops next week. It’s not actually a new Radiohead album per se. TKOL RMX 1234567 is a new album of Radiohead songs off The King of Limbs that have been remixed by artists like Caribou and Four Tet. I’ve always loved remixes because they’re a different way of imagining and experiencing the same lyrics and the same basic melodies.

I think going through your Ashtanga practice with a different teacher in the room can achieve a similar effect. Same postures and vinyasas — but perhaps a different glissando from pose to pose or a different vibrational quality in an adjustment.

That’s one of the many reasons why I’m looking forward to the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence taking place in San Diego next March. You’ll have five renowned teachers who clearly teach from the heart sharing their love of the practice. I’m looking forward to experiencing some live remixes of my Ashtanga practice.

What my salsa teacher wants my hips to do

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Salsa dress

My hips were not cooperating during my salsa lesson today. My instructor reminded me that my hips need to be set back from the center line — to a point where I feel like I am sticking my butt way out. I’ve spent so much time working with yoga instructors on finding a neutral space in my pelvic girdle that this adjustment feels tremendously exaggerated, awkward and basically awful.

But this is salsa, and it looks fantastic.

My boyfriend and I love salsa dancing. We had our first impromptu salsa lesson in, of all places, a winery in Traverse City. We paid a visit to the very cool Left Foot Charley tasting room (if you haven’t been, you should) on a night that happened to feature a great latin band. There were competitive dancers there who were moving so beautifully together. They clearly sensed that we were itching to move to that music too, but had no idea where to start. So they came over and pretty much forced us up and gave us our first “quick-quick-slow” lesson. I was wearing a pair of beat-up Vans that one of my sisters had given me, and my boyfriend was wearing hiking boots.

We figured if we could manage to dance that night while essentially wearing blocks on our feet — and enjoy it that much — we should get into this salsa thing.

Since then, we’ve been to a few salsa nights here and there, and we spent New Year’s Eve dancing at the Global Pachanga held at the JW Marriott in Grand Rapids. While we had a fantastic time doing our thing, it seemed everyone around us glided over that dance floor differently. That’s a lot of people who know what they’re doing, and they must have made the effort to learn somehow. So I made my commitment then and there that I would learn to move like that.

Making the transition from looking like you’re trying to salsa and looking like you’ve spent your whole life dancing this way starts, like so many things, with the hips.

“You know, it’s like if you’re running, you wouldn’t run like this,” my teacher said, pushing his pelvis forward and doing a mock run.

“I don’t run,” I interrupted. “But I see what you’re saying.”

“Ah, yes, I remember you told me that last time that you don’t run.” (I really don’t like running, and hope to never have to do it again for as long as I live.)

Yoga is only concerned with the body’s structure, and what’s going on with the alignment of bones and joints. Every now and then I need to tell my yoga students — especially students who are new to the mat — that they don’t need to look around to see how everyone else is doing it. That it doesn’t matter what they look like, because what matters is propriceptive awareness — gaining an understanding of how to set the body in space by feeling it.

How the body looks obviously matters in any type of dance. In salsa, when the hips slide back and that back leg straightens, you’ve won half the battle because you look the part. It goes against the grain for me to place my hips somewhere because it looks better that way, but it’s a fun challenge to switch gears that way.

My one and only resolution this year is to learn how to salsa — not how to move my feet, but how to get my body to mirror the exhilaration of what I already feel when there’s latin music playing and I’m on the dance floor.

And I learned today that with salsa, as with so many things, you won’t make progress until you start to become awareness of what your hips are doing with every movement.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Music for the people — via their yoga mats

Gaiam audio yoga mat

It's a mat. It's a speaker. Too bad it can't give you a massage too.

I was at Best Buy yesterday looking for a birthday present and walked past a short aisle full of yoga and Pilates equipment. A boxed mat by Gaiam caught my eye because it was billed as a audio mat.

What?

My first thought was that maybe this mat spoke to you every now and then. “Breathe.” “Send your shoulder blades away from your ears.” “Inhale, reach tall. Exhale, fold forward.”

I stepped closer to the box — not too close, though, because this whole talking yoga mat thing seemed a little creepy to me — and had reason for relief. Turned out this mat doesn’t actually talk to you, because that would be pretty creepy. What makes it an audio mat is that  you can connect an mp3 player to a little speaker that’s built in.

From Gaiam.com:

Find bliss at home or on the road with this first-of-its-kind Audio Yoga Mat. Designed with a small built-in speaker so you can work out or meditate while listening to your MP3 player or iPod® player. Or download our free instructional yoga program featuring world-renowned yoga expert Rodney Yee as he takes you through an at-home private yoga session. It is like having your own personal yoga instructor in the privacy of your home or when on the road.

What do you think?

My reactionary response to this mat was, “Seriously? Is this how commercialized yoga has become? Does anyone need a built-in speaker in their yoga mat?” But the practice of yoga is supposed us to teach us to be less reactionary, so that’s what this blog post is attempting to do. Am I missing something about the usefulness of this mat? Are there people whose practice would be helped by being able to pipe in music or an audio yoga class? I am open to hearing arguments in favor of this mat.

Seeing this mat made me think about the yoga of music or the music of yoga, depending on how you think about it. I’ll be the first to tell you that I love music. The sounds that come from a Radiohead song, for example, massage my brain and spirit in a way that nothing else in this world can (not even yoga).

Yoga and music is a murkier issue for me. I usually enjoy vinyasa (flow-style) yoga classes where music is played — even if it’s not necessarily music that I like. (I specifically say vinyasa classes because I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to Ashtanga classes, and prefer to not have music.) I feel as if I get some energy from the beat and the passion coming through the speakers. When the music that’s played is music I like, the energy boost can be helpful to the practice. Music can turn a heavy class into a light-heartened one.

Yet as a teacher, I’ve opted to not use music in my classes. For one thing, I don’t want to assume that my music tastes would work for everyone. If I were to play music, it would probably be albums by artists like Krishna Das and Annie Pace because I’d want to avoid songs in English where a student’s attention might be taken away by the lyrics.

Basically, I am in the school of thought that the music and rhythm found in a yoga class comes from the breath of those who are practicing. And from the Sanskrit counts of a led Ashtanga class: “Ekam, inhale. Dwi, exhale. Trini, inhale.” (“One, inhale. Two, exhale.”)

Yeah, those Sanskrit counts are something else. They massage my brain in a way that nothing else in this world could. Not even Radiohead.

(Photo credit: Bestbuy.com)

More from YogaRose.net:

>>”How do you turn the world right-side up?” — my post about Radiohead.

>>”Vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde” — my post about chanting and Madonna.


Vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde

If you saw the title of this post and it sparked an emotional reaction, you’re more than likely an Ashtangi. That is the first line of the traditional opening invocation that begins an Ashtanga practice. (To be precise, an “aum” is chanted first. For more on “aum,” often written as “om,” see this handy little YogaJournal.com beginner’s guide on yoga chants.)

For various reasons, the invocation has been the topic of a few conversations I’ve had with yogis in the last couple of weeks — some because they are relatively new to the practice, and some by way of discussing personal philosophy. As a teacher, for example, should you always include the chant, no matter what the setting for a class?

To me, the Ashtanga opening invocation is about honoring the teachers who came before our teachers — about honoring those who have helped clear the path before us. We have to walk this journey of life ourselves, but the teachings of history’s gurus can provide us with invaluable wisdom and comfort. I think chanting this invocation changes the quality and the intention of a practice. Sounds and the stories told in lyrics can change our moods and perception in other aspects of our lives — why not in a yoga practice? On my resources page, I link to this translation and recording of the invocation, as chanted by Pattabhi Jois himself. It’s beautiful in the depth and starkness of its simplicity.

This brings me to Madonna.

Unless you’re so young that you make me feel even older than I am (in which case, please don’t remind me), you probably sort of remember Madonna’s album Ray of Light. It came out in 1998, when I was finishing up journalism grad school. This was about a year before I set foot in my first yoga studio, and probably a couple years before I discovered Ashtanga yoga. So while I’m sure I’ve heard this song before — because one of my suitemates bought this album when it was released — I didn’t know what I was listening to at the time.

Ray of Light album coverMadonna, as you can imagine, does not go for simplicity. She sets this invocation to a trance-ish beat. Watch her live performance of this song at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998 — all garbed up in an Indian-inspired look to boot — or listen to the Dubtronic Cosmos Trance Remix, if you can’t get enough. There are other remixes as well, but you get the point.

For the record, I have this rather cool Tumblr blog to thank for reminding me that this song exists.

Does it drive you crazy that Madonna took the invocation and made a pop track out of it? Or do you think there’s something to be said for her reimagining tradition?

By the way, I know that this is the second blog post in as many months in which I’ve written about Madonna. (I posted “How to lose a practice in 10 days (or, what Madonna can teach us all about maintaining a yoga practice during the most hectic travel time of year)” over the holidays.) I promise not to make this habit. 😉 It’s just that as a former reporter, I am trained to follow news pegs. Madonna just seems to be flitting across my radar screen lately, and both as a journalist by training and a yogi by practice, I have learned to go with the flow.

How do you turn the world right-side-up again?

Sirsasana in padmasanaLong day.

Come to think of it, long week. Long month! I’ve been working evenings and weekends for…I don’t even want to count the weeks.

When the pressure is this high, when the work deadlines are this intense, when life likes to keeps throwing challenges your way — how do you keep grounded? I do yoga — especially the grounding practice of Ashtanga primary series. And I turn even more to the music that keeps me grounded.

Lately Iggy Pop, Arcade Fire, Gorillaz and MC Yogi have been in heavy rotation. (Never heard of MC Yogi? What I first learned about Ganesh — the mythical remover of obstacles — I learned from this very cool musician and ashtangi. If it’s the name that’s getting to you, get over it and check him out.)

Again and again, though, I return to Radiohead. Much like the way sun salutations start to melt the tensions of a day away, a Radiohead song can massage my brain like almost nothing else.

Yesterday was the birthday of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, and tonight I played Amnesiac, the most fitting soundtrack for today. “Like Spinning Plates” is one of my top 5 Radiohead songs, maybe it has something to do with how it was recorded. This overview comes from a most outstanding fan site:

“Thom sung the backwards melody. It was recorded forward then listened to backwards and he did the phrasing so as to create backward sounding words but its sung forwards.” Upside down/backwards.”

To me, the posture that most parallels how this song feels is sirsasana (headstand). In Ashtanga, we find inversions during the finishing postures, when we come up into sirsasana A (with hands clasps on the mat) and sirsasana B (with your legs parallel to the ground). There are seven headstands in second series. There is nothing like standing on your head and voluntarily coming into an upside-down space to help set the world right again. Going upside and backwards to set the world straight — how very yogic and how very rock-n-roll.