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

Breathe Deep and Speak Up

After a much-needed night’s rest, I woke up this morning and realized I had totally left off one of the most important parts of the post “The long and the short of it: On the Ashtanga breath (which, for the record, is not ujjayi!).” (Note to self: I took what was probably my sixth-ever restorative yoga class Monday night, and perhaps writing after being lulled by the class into a sleepy state of stillness is not the best order in which to do things. That said, I think an occasional restorative yoga class is tremendously beneficial to rejuvenate — check one out if you’ve never tried it.)

The whole impetus of doing the post on breathing was that on Sunday, I saw @insideowl retweet a tweet from @ABQMysore, and it seemed like a good time to do a post I’ve been wanting to do since last month, when I first heard my teacher talk about breathing with sound versus ujjayi. Here’s the intriguing tweet that links to an Ashtanga Yoga Library post:

Q: Is Ujjāyī the same as “free breathing with sound”? A: No. They are different. The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā (हठ… http://fb.me/25oiwZGdp

(And big thanks to Isaac, who made sure I hadn’t missed this.)

Elise Espat, founder of Albuquerque Ashtanga Yoga Shala, begins the post by saying:

Q: Is Ujjāyī the same as “free breathing with sound”?

A: No. They are different.
Ujjāyī is a Kumbhaka (breath retention).
When we apply the Tristhana (asana, breathing, looking place) during our Ashtanga yoga practice, we use “free breathing with sound”. Each breath leads to the next with no retention.

It’s an excellent post. (By the way, if yo don’t already subscribe or have it bookmarked, the Ashtanga Yoga Library is a primo resource — includes everything from well-sourced blog posts like this one to a guide for beginners.) In any case, so that you don’t have to wait with bated breath to see the supporting arguments in this free breath versus ujjayi discussion, I’d suggest you leave YogaRose.net right now and head on over.

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

(Photo credit: “Breath Deep and Speak Up” via aforgrave’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.

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.

Like a matsya out of water: A yogi tries to learn how to swim

Wide-mouth-guppy

"Big mouth guppy" by Alice Chaos via Flickr Creative Commons

I don’t know how to swim, and I feel as if I am the only one in this country over 8 years old who falls into this category. Every year, I tell myself that this will be the year I stop flailing in water — the year that I can look at a pool and think about what I can do in that space, rather than what I can’t.

Well, tonight I took the first of eight 30-minutes classes I’ve signed up for through my local park and rec department. I figured it was time. I’m not getting any younger, and  life only gets busier. Besides, 2011 has been a great year so far for me trying out other ways to feel more expressive in my own skin.

Clinging

Being the former inquisitive reporter that I am, I asked the very sweet, young instructor if adults are the hardest to teach. She said no — that little kids cling to her and cry, scream. I asked her if she was sure that none of us (me) would eventually get to that point.

I don’t know why I don’t know how to swim. I have fond memories from my childhood of taking swimming lessons, with my mom and her radiant smile watching from the sides. But somehow either the lessons didn’t stick or fear took over. Fast forward, for instance, to my middle school years. I was extremely lucky to win a scholarship to Space Camp — yes, it was as awesome as it sounds — and while I mostly have fun recollections from that experience, there was one activity held in water. I think it was a team-building exercise to build some geometric shape in the middle of the pool. The only thing I contributed to was my lack of confidence in a body of water, because I remember clinging to the side of the pool most of the time. Fast forward again, to freshman year. At my high school, all students were required to take swimming in the ninth grade. But the pool was going through a renovation the semester I was set to take it, so I escaped (which, being a body-conscious teenager who did not want to be near any other human being (especially of the male variety) while wearing a bathing suit, I couldn’t have been happier about). I saw it as an escape at the time, but it was another opportunity to avoid facing my insecurities.

The dunk

Class sizes are limited to six in this program, and there were three in our group tonight — one of whom happens to be a former coworker. Neither of us knew we were taking this class, and we were surprised to see the other, in no small part due to the fact that we both think we are alone in not knowing how to swim.

The instructor started us out slow, allowing us to simply get accustomed to standing in the shallow end of the pool. While the pint-sized “starfish” next to our little area were all moving around with as much gusto as if they were on land, we adults  — being the land-tied creatures that we are — were very cautious, thinking about, and discussing with one another, every instruction before we actually tried it out.

I was feeling pretty good, though, until we were instructed to dunk our head under water and either blow out of our mouth or nose.

I hated it. And although we were supposed to do it a few times, I could only stand doing it twice.

It occurred to me then that I don’t mind being in water — I mind the act, or even the thought of the act — of having my head under water. I can’t pinpoint why, but maybe  it reminds me of having asthma attacks as a kid. All I knew is I wanted out — immediately.

Testing new waters

As a yoga instructor, one of my favorite classes to teach is an intro to yoga class. I think of it as being a tour guide to a new experience — which means that I can’t take anything for granted. I may be accustomed to connecting a movement to a breath, but that doesn’t mean the person on the mat in front of me is. I may feel a sense of exhilaration from the chest-breathing (versus breathing into the low belly) technique used in Ashtanga yoga — called ujjayi breath — but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible to someone who is stepping on a yoga mat for the first time.

Needless to say, I was grateful that this instructor took nothing for granted either. She didn’t even assume that we were comfortable standing in three feet of water away from a wall. The 30 minutes felt like 15, and by the end, we were getting from one end of the pool to the other using swimming strokes but with one hand holding on to a flotation barbell.

I’m looking forward to next week, and I’m happy to take this slowly so that I can start to isolate what exactly it is that’s holding me back.

Guppies, yoga-style

If you’re curious about the title of the blog post, matsya means “fish” in Sanskrit. Matsyasana, or fish posture, occurs in the finishing sequence of Ashtanga yoga. In Ashtanga, you see it done while the legs are in padmasana, or lotus pose. Outside of Ashtanga yoga, I see it more frequently with legs extended.

Myths of the Asanas tells the story of Matsya, the special fish who overhead Shiva telling Parvati about yoga. By listening, the fish became the first student of yoga. The book continues:

When someone becomes truly enlightened, he or she has an opportunity to return to earth in order to help the rest of us who are interested in this kind of liberation. Matsya chose to come back, and he was born, as legend tells it, as half fish, half human. He was called Matsyendranath, ‘the lord of the fishes.’

Ardha matsyendrasana, or half lord of the fish pose, is a spinal twist that occurs in Ashtanga second series. There is a a very challenging posture called purna matsyendrasana, or full fish pose, that occurs in a very advanced series of Ashtanga yoga. The difference between the two is that in the full version of the pose, the bent leg is in half-lotus.

(Photo credit: “Big mouth guppy” by Alice Chaos via Flickr Creative Commons)

© 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.

Horsing around (London edition)

Horse-face posture

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to travel to London last week. It was my first visit there, and I hope it won’t be my only. Let’s get the obvious question out of the way – what’s going on in the photo?

This was the result of sheer playfulness. We stumbled on this perplexing statue of a horse’s face, and I couldn’t resist getting into vatayanasana. The Sanskirt translates into horse-face posture, so this was meant to be a visual pun of sorts for the geeky ashtangi. Vatayanasana — which involves having one leg in half lotus while the opposite leg’s foot is firmly planted on the floor — appears near the end of the second series sequence. According to Gregor Maehle, this posture begins the energetic wind-down of the series.

For this trip, though, this posture marked the energetic wind-up. As with any city of this size, and this much history, there was only time to taste the sights and sounds, from checking out the actual Rosetta Stone displayed in the British Museum to having Champagne afternoon tea (yes, this is a thing! You can have a glass of Champagne before the tea comes – fantastic).

If time weren’t an issue, I would have gone to a different yoga studio every day. I managed to make it to two traditional shalas – Ashtanga Yoga London in Central London, and The Shala in South London. Both were wonderful studios — extremely welcoming and very traditional.

In the yoga classes I teach, I will sometimes say that learning Ashtanga is like learning a language – one that allows you to communicate with a deeper part of yourself, and also one that allows you to roll out your mat anywhere in the world and be able to participate in a shared experience with a group you’ve never met before. That’s absolutely what happened for me in London. At Ashtanga Yoga London, a Mysore-style shala that is so traditional you practice your finishing postures in another room, I immediately felt the familiarity of the ujjayi breathing and the walls gently sweating from the collective heat built up that morning. At The Shala, I took a led primary series class, and on the first ekam (“one” in Sanskrit) of surya namaskara A (sun salutation A), I knew I was where I should be.

To be sure, there were some minor differences in sequences. I think of them as accents of a sequence, if that makes sense. These minor differences, such as whether you enter include a rounded-back baddha konasana (bound-angle pose) or only do a flat-back baddha konasana, probably most reflects when the instructor studied in Mysore with Pattabhi Jois. Although we say Ashtanga is the same sequence, it’s not exactly the same.

The most salient feeling I came away from my visits to the studios was how grounded I felt. Thousands of miles away from home, in studios I had never been in before, I felt at home because my practice was with me.

Padmasana

Padmasana in Trafalgar Square