Tuesday, September 22, 2009

180/263 - Breath Retention

Sunday 9:30 am with Rohit.

I hurt my knee again -- in my sleep! I was rolling over or something and I woke up feeling that something was out of place in my leg. But it didn't hurt yet. Then I tried to straighten it, really without thinking, because I was still half asleep, and yikes, it was painful.

So I was set back a couple of weeks in practice. I skipped all of Triangle, more out of fear for the knee than anything else. And I felt pretty terrible just standing at the beginning of Pranayama. But gradually, it started to feel better during practice, and then better and better through the course of the day.

The big problem that my knee is now giving me is that it takes me forever to get into and out of savasana from Fixed Firm on. After Fixed Firm, it can take me almost the full savasana simply to straighten out my right leg. I'm not missing much, but I have the impression that the teachers think I'm really suffering, when the truth is that I'm just a bit of a gimp for now. Actually, its closer to the truth to say that I'm riding the border between caution and fear when swinging my body around. Controlled movements are fine for now, but its exactly the kind of lateral swinging that gets you quickly into savasana that is also the most perilous for the knee right now.

Other than that, practice was solid. The biggest improvement I've seen since the workshop is in Rabbit. The tip about how to move the shoulders, along with dancingj's image of having no weight on the head have really helped with the depth of this pose, and surprisingly, its easier to breathe in the pose as well. This may be the first time when I've made a big correction in form, and the posture actually got easier as a result. It makes me wonder if I'm doing something wrong...

The day 255 meditation is our first on Pranayama. It opens with this sutra: "Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention." There's an awful lot packed in those few words, and I doubt I will get close to unpacking all of it today.

Gates says that pranayama is where the internal and external parts of the practice meet. The control of the breath trains the mind to concentration on a single thing. And this concentration, in turn, opens the doorway to the metaphysical.

How do we start? Simple: just do what we are already doing but bring more attention to the breath. Inhale and exhale evenly through the nose, and try to retain the breath with a pause at the end of each inhalation and exhalation. From the sutra, we can see that there's extra emphasis on the retention aspect, on the pause I think there are two reasons for this. First, the pause is not totally natural for people, so focusing on it develops concentration. More important, its in the pause where we can find true stillness.

The idea of pausing and holding the breath comes in other disciplines as well. I use it all the time in photography. To get a better shot, especially with a slower shutter speed, simply make sure that you are holding your breath as you depress the shutter. I learned this trick, in turn, from reading about snipers, who do the same thing as they squeeze off the shot. In both of these, the object is to cultivate as much stillness as possible. And the same goes for yogis.

I need to focus some more on exactly this aspect in class. In many exercises, I know what to do on inhalation and exhalation, but the teachers rarely emphasize the still point between the two. In final spinal twist, for example, the idea is to lengthen the spine on the inhale, and twist more on the exhale. But the unspoken part is to find a still point in between the two. So that, I think, is my new big project. (And not just in final spinal twist.)

Of course, we have two breathing exercises in Bikram. The first is called pranayama, and it does just what this sutra describes -- regulating the inhalation and exhalation with retention. I wonder about the Blowing In Firm exercise at the end. It's a breathing exercise of course, but there is no regulation of inhaling. Instead, the inhales happen automatically. And, of course, retention is out of the question. Its just, blow blow blow blow blow blow blow. So, that makes me wonder whether other yogis consider this a form of Pranayama, or is it another kind of exercise. (Just to be clear. This question doesn't worry me at all. I'm not bothered in any way by the last exercise. I just am curious how it fits.)


thedancingj said...

Ooh, this is GREAT. I think that's a brilliant idea, to look at the points in the class where the breath is "still." There are definitely times in the class when I hold my inhales or exhales, but I don't think I could tell you where they are without actually doing the class. That'd be a cool thing to watch.

I'm so excited about your rabbit. :) I wouldn't worry about the hard/easy business. Most corrections make things harder. A few lucky ones make things easier. If that happens, then be happy. And a LOT of corrections can make things harder at first but easier in the long run. ... or vice versa. Clear as mud!!!

Duffy Pratt said...

Yes, it is clear as mud. And I was half worried and half joking. The rule of thumb so far has been -- if it seems easy or easier, then I'm probably doing something wrong. I know there are exceptions -- going down to perpendicular in Balancing Stick is easier than holding a slightly upright angle; going above 45 degrees in Locust makes the pose easier. And this Rabbit correction is in the same group. What's easier is the shoulder motion actually seems to create more room to breathe.

I'm looking forward to concentrating more on breathing in today's class.

hannahjustbreathe said...

Pranayama breathing is my new favorite part of class. Mastering the full six second count, perfectly timing my arm movements with my breath, remembering to pause and hold that final sip of air, in stillness, then repeating it all on the exhale. Ahhh! It's just such a marvelous way to begin class, find your center, find your focus and concentration.

I agree with Juliana---it'll be fun heading back to class tonight and seeing at what other points we can find a silent stillness in our breath. Great post!

Bosco said...

Yes, excellent post. I am excited to focus more on breathing.

Hannahjustbreathe, speaking of Pranayama, at class last night there was a newcomer who had done yoga other places before, but never at Bikram. During Pranayama breathing, despite the clear instructions, she drew a large circle with her hands during the inhale, and the put them in praying positions for the exhale. Hello? I was all ready for her tap dancing during Half Moon, but fortunately she started doing Bikram after the breathing.

Duffy Pratt said...


Pranayama is one of the least consistent areas of my practice. There are days when I'm trying to stay controlled and still have finished an inhale by the count of two. There are other days where the teacher couldn't count slow enough. One thing that has changed over time for me is my focus: for a long time I was obsessed with the height of my elbows. I basically treated it as another pose, and the breath was secondary. That's changed quite a bit. Now, I tend to focus on making as much noise as I can, and it makes the exercise much more fun.

George: isn't it amazing the sorts of things you can see from people who are already sure that they know what they are doing?