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 Yoga Confluence: Keep reading, keep practicing

Books for sale at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence

The Ashtanga Yoga Confluence is over, but the stream of knowledge and inspiration from this first-of-its-kind gathering doesn’t have to end for any of us.

Here’s a list of Confluence-related resources, which I’ve divided into various categories. Perhaps the most important list below is the one for workshops offered by the Confluence teachers. Nothing beats being in the same room to feel the radiance of these deeply devoted teachers.

==Blog posts specifically about the Confluence by the teachers==

Tim Miller

  • Tuesday, February 28th (a post just before the start of the gathering)
  • Tuesday, March 6th (a post just after the end of the gathering). I love that in this post, Tim Miller notes how he once asked Guruji what he thought about western students’ pronunciation of Sanskrit. Guruji said simply, “Eddie’s is correct.”

Eddie Stern

==Keeping up with the Confluence teachers’ writings==

==Blog posts and blog series by Ashtanga practitioners==

==Photos from the Confluence==

  • Michelle Haymoz, a student of Tim Miller’s, took stunning photos of the Confluence opening puja ceremony. See them here.
  • Lena Gardelli, the official photographer of the event, has started to post albums on her Facebook page. Take a look.

==Video==

==Keep learning from the Confluence teachers==

Nancy Gilgoff

Richard Freeman

Tim Miller

Eddie Stern

David Swenson

I’ll be adding to this as I come across new links. Tell me what I’ve missed by leaving a comment below. And, last but not least — happy practicing!

>>In this series:

© 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.

If you only read one response to the New York Times’ ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ piece…

…may I suggest that it be the one posted today by Eddie Stern?

Before we get to that, however, here’s a quick boilerplate for the roughly nine yoga practitioners out there who haven’t seen “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” the New York Times Magazine piece by William J. Broad — published today in the hard copy edition, and Jan. 5 online. (By the time the magazine hit newsstands and porches today, this story was already old news in the yoga blogging world, because reactions have been fired off steadily since the online posting of the article. So steadily, in fact, that if you do a Google search for “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” you get about 31,000 hits. If you narrow that field down by adding “Ashtanga,” you still get about 1,600 hits. And none of this takes into account all the comment threads ricocheting around Facebook over the past few days.)

Here’s a snippet of the original article, which is an excerpt from Broad’s soon-to-be-released book:

Not just students but celebrated teachers too, [profiled yoga teacher Glenn] Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, ‘they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,’ he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. ‘Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.’

Interesting responses include:

One response that seems to have particularly struck a chord with a range of ashtangis came from The Reluctant Ashtangi’s “Reading blogs can wreck your body.” The piece, which is well worth a read, says this in part:

Other things that Wreck Your Body:

– Hard Partying Wrecks Your Body (wassup, Charlie Sheen?!)

Food Wrecks Your Body

Tofu Wrecks Your Body (actually, this one just wrecks your brain, but what good is a body without a brain?)

Forward Head Posture Wrecks Your Body (with a nod oto the Alexander Method)

Alcohol Wrecks Your Body Or, as so eloquently expressed by The Smiths, “…past the pub that wrecks your body.” I’ll leave you on that glorious note. And, um, don’t dance or anything. That might wreck your body too.

 

The piece cooly ends with a YouTube clip of “The Queen is Dead.”

And then comes “How the NYT Can Wreck Yoga,” a post with the kind of clarity and flare that can only come from Eddie Stern, director of Ashtanga Yoga New York. Here’s a taste:

When there is a great potential for making money, quality is usually the first thing to be sacrificed. Fast food, anyone? It is unfortunate that this is exactly what we are facing now – yoga has been McDona-fied. It has been reduced from a practice that traditionally demanded dedication, discipline, sacrifice, humility, surrender, suffering, love, devotion, and rigorous self-investigation, to something that you can now learn to teach in a weekend. Or, more popularly, in a mere 200 hours you can become a bonafide, registered yoga instructor. 200 hours is spit. It is a joke. And it is a joke that is leading an entire tradition – that granted even in India was subject to ridicule – to an even greater harm. This is because we have an opportunity, in the West, to be leaders in the rising field of yoga, by bringing these transformative teachings to places where they will result in great good. Though it is true that this is already happening – in schools, prisons, hospitals, with veterans, and with everyday people who walk into a class off of the street – it is also true that a rotten apple can spoil the barrel, and this is what I fear is happening. And, it is a mighty big apple.

I miss the early days when I was first doing yoga in NYC, in the mid- to late 1980′s. The feeling of freshness, of being clean and free, of feeling that a whole, new world was opening in me. There were no products for sale, no fifty types of yoga mats, just a towel and some cut-off sweatpants to practice in, or a pair of white, cotton ‘yoga’ pants that I could buy on Bleecker St. for $5. I still feel that freshness when I practice, and I love that – but when I look around at what is happening with yoga in America, I can’t help but feel sad.

When I saw the title of Broad’s article, the first thing that came to mind was Ice Cube’s old hip-hop song ‘Check Yo’ Self’ (‘You better check yo’self before you wreck yo’self’) – pretty good advice for the over-enthusiastic in yoga or any physical endeavor. I was going to post it, but it is so inappropriate, and the issue of injuries is too serious an issue; I will not make light of anyone’s pain. But, searching out Ice Cube did lead me down the dark path of youtube, where two hours later, I found myself still trolling through videos that fill me with a happy nostalgia for the rawness of youth – of early punk rock, and the passion and energy that was being expressed through so many amazing songs.

Sanskrit means refined, and many of the yogis of India were extremely elegant, in a simplicity-filled way. The rishis, who became the world’s first yogis, purposely left society to meditate in the forests, turning their backs on the mundanity and suffering of the world. They discovered something that ultimately can be of great benefit to us all, if we use it wisely.  This is quite the opposite of the rawness of music that I grew up with, like the Clash or Sex Pistols – but, still, listening to White Man (in Hammersmith Palais) still fills me with the same feeling of freedom I felt when I first heard it when I was probably about 14.  And who can argue with this lyric: “The new groups/ are not concerned/ with what there is to be learned/ they put on suits/ they think it’s funny/ turning rebellion into money”. I always loved that line, and now it just makes me think of Lululemon.

I’d write more, but my throat is on fire (rough return from my travels abroad), and I need to try to go back to bed. Just as well — you’re better off anyway leaving this blog and heading over to read the rest of what Eddie Stern has to say and see which YouTube video he ended his post with.

© 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.

 

‘A thousand little freedoms that we accomplish each day’

Why do yoga? For the health benefits? To try to achieve a particular physique? To escape our daily stresses?

Eddie Stern, who is an author and the director of Ashtanga Yoga New York, wrote this piece last year in the Huffington Post:

While in America there are certainly are many practicing yoga with profound sincerity, it seems as though they are dwarfed by a multi-billion dollar industry that is largely focused on, well, selling stuff that we don’t really need to practice yoga.

Anyway, let it be. That spirit of commercialism and consumerism has helped to make yoga a household word, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. I believe that increased accessibility to yoga is a positive result of yoga’s modernization.

Why do I believe this? Because everyone experiences suffering. Suffering is undiscriminating and it comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga affirms, though, that there is a way to deal with it: by practicing yoga poses, by breathing consciously for a few minutes each day, and by being attentive, thoughtful human beings, we can mitigate the mental torments we all experience.

What I loved about this post in the Huffington Post — one of the most influential blogs out there right now — is that Stern cuts to the chase about what yoga is about to an audience not necessarily primed for it.

During the week-long training I took with David Swenson in 2009, someone asked him what his elevator pitch for Ashtanga yoga is. I thought then and I still think now that it was a good question — because there are inevitably times when talking to someone who is curious about yoga when you can say the right thing to pique their interest enough that they commit to at least try it once.

Yoga as a system is designed to do nothing less than liberate us. By connecting breaths to movement, yoga helps us to focus on our breath and free us from the relentless invasion of thoughts and worries that invade our mind-space — even if that freedom lasts for a few seconds or for a few minutes while we are practicing on our mat.

Moksha is the Sanskrit word for liberation. The entry for “moksha” in B.K.S. Iyengar’s gorgeous, must-read book Light on Life says, “See freedom.”

I love what Iyengar writes in the chapter “Living in Freedom”:

I have suggested that moksha is a thousand little freedoms that we accomplish each day — the ice cream returned to the freezer or the bitter retort left unsaid.

He also later reiterates that moksha is “training in detaching ourselves from the sufferings of everyday life, in a thousand ways.”

I really like that. Maybe I should make that my elevator pitch for what yoga is and why it’s worth practicing.

I have so much more I would say but I am writing blog post on my iPhone while relaxing at the beach. Moksha indeed.

Hope you find your own little freedom on this Independence Day — and every day.

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(Photo credit: By Evaporation Blues)

© 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.