Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Rather than use one of the Sutras for concentration this morning during pranayama and practice, I used one of Hanuman’s many epithets, Ekadriya Bhakta, which means single-pointed devotion. It’s similar to another Hanuman epithet, Mahabhakta, or great devotee.

It’s been proving very helpful while trying to measure the breath during the long inhales and exhales of pranayama. It helps set a rhythm. It also provides a point of reference to return to when the mind inevitably wanders.

Pranayama is loosely translated as prana control or breath control. Pranayama is used in yoga as a separate practice to help clear the body and mind. It is also used in asana practice to help maximize the benefits of the practice and focus the mind.

There are set, specific pranayama techniques that are sequenced in a set way in ashtanga, much like the series of asanas.

In addition to repeating Ekadriya Bhakta today, I tried internal gazing, looking upwards with my eyes closed and trying to “see” my forehead or third eye, during the kumbhakas, or retentions,.

Most of the interesting moments in the 45-minute ashtanga pranayama sequence come in the liminal moments. I tend to lose the most control during the transition periods between the long, slow inhales and the long, slow exhales. Starting the inhale or exhale after a long retention also proves difficult, because there’s a tendency to gasp, gulp, or snort. I’ve been focusing on slowly but surely decreasing the erratic moments, but as with most transition periods or points, they’re providing great lessons.

At first, exhaling all the breath and sitting completely empty was the worst part – it was like drowning. My brain would absolutely panic and my body would tremble. The reptilian brain went to fight-or-flight mode, and everything went crazy.

The difficulty has now become maintaining a long, slow breath into or out of a retention. The anticipation of exhaling all my air and then holding it is worse than the actual act. Also, exhaling after holding the breath is proving difficult, which is weird, because it seems like that would be the easiest part of all of it. But I’ve been losing my breath halfway through the exhale, needing to sip in a quick breath before continuing.

I will say, though, the whole process is getting more comfortable, and I’m very curious to see where it leads.

Following this morning’s pranayama, I tried to focus on Ekadriya Bhakta during practice. Could I maintain a single-pointed devotion to the moment during each pose? Well, no, but it made a great touchstone to return to when my attention wandered.

The other benefit of pranayama has been that my bandha control has increased exponentially, especially because we practice immediately afterwards. My nauli kriya has considerably improved. I’ve been practicing three surya namaskar As, doing nauli, then doing three surya namaskar Bs.

The churning really fires up the agni and activates the bandhas, so much that I often break a sweat just because of it. Then when I dip forward on the first surya namaskar B, it adds a whole new dimension to my stretch and awareness. It’s as though I can go even deeper.

Nauli has also been helping out because the temperature has dropped here. Even though I set up as close to the heater as possible, I noticed while practicing yesterday that, even though I was halfway through practice, my toes were still cold. I hate that.

As for the practice itself, it was phenomenal, as per usual. I practice all of first series, and start on the first poses of second, ending at bekasana, before moving to backbends. Today, I only did seven. My shoulders and hips seem to be opening further, facilitating a deeper urdhva dhanurasana.

Every day I notice such a disparity in the openness of my right and left hips that I can’t help but laugh — the right one is heaps more open than my left. I know there’s supposed to be a difference between the two, but I had no idea mine were this far apart.

I can comfortably sit in janu sirsasana C on the right side, and work on opening that hip in the pose. But on the left side I can barely approximate getting the arch of my foot against my thigh. The left side is a matter of working the knee to the floor.

Which is fine, because it really works the hell out of that left hip, getting it to externally rotate. It’s an instant lesson in humility, to go immediately from one side of competency to the other side, which is much, much more difficult.

Still, it’s a struggle to get rid of thoughts of normalcy – I keep thinking, “If my hips were normal, they’d be more even.” But really, what’s normal? I’m just working through the samskaras that have bound up in my hips.

I like the samskara metaphor — your actions in the past have wound themselves up like thread in your body, and are writ large through muscles, joints, tissue, and fascia. Through yoga, we attempt to unknot or unwind the threads.