Pranayama 2: Restraint, mercy, central axis

Notes from a four-part Pranayama workshop held in February 2012 at the Centre of Gravity. Led by Michael Stone and Grant Hutchinson.

– from the root pra “to fill ”
– Prana – energy of tree in spring (toward centre of heart)
– Apana – energy of tree in fall (toward centre of pelvic floor)
– Nadis are channels of prana in the body (Ida, Pingala and Sushumna)

As prana starts to settle and flow freely, the citta (attention)  also starts to settle.  Just as there are fluctuations (vrtti) in citta, there are also fluctuations in the prana.  As breath becomes shallower and silkier, your mind also begins to settle.  As the breath becomes more coarse, the mind also becomes gritty (more like canvas than silk)

When we’re sitting with things as they are – how can we do this with spaciousness and enjoyment? The right nostril is the sun energy, the energy of the day. The left nostril carries the moon energy, the energy of the night. Could we name the aim of the practice the act of balancing these nostrils? Balancing day and night. When the nostrils are balanced the sitting bones are evenly grounded.

What is Prana?
Prana is often talked about as the breath but it’s more than that. Prana can be felt throughout the entire body, it’s the vibratory quality of all sensation. How’s this for a paradox – we can only feel prana when we don’t turn it into an object. When I have a sensation I create a separate thing – an object – and on the other side of the object is a “me”, a subject experiencing the object. I’m someone that has a sensation in my nose. But before the “me” is added, if we can keep the sensation in its original context – then we’re dealing with prana. The practice is about leaving or returning to sensations back to their original context.

Yama is the god of death, yama also means restraint. Iyama means releasing restraint. Every time we’re defining experience we’re limiting and restraining it.

Bright Straw
Pranayama practice releases the restraint of the breath in hopes of appreciating prana not simply as personal experience, but an energy that unfolds into infinity. In other words, it is a practice of interdependence. This happens when the bright straw – the central channel – connects the seeds of prana (in the heart) and apana (in the mula bhanda). Then prana can stand up in the central axis of the body. Prana is a goddess that stands up on your pelvic floor and comes out of the crown of your head and then all form dissolves. When we can truly come into this moment the separation between the world and my world falls away. The usual space/time constructions of the mind are temporarily stilled. Here we can arrive at a visceral, bodily understanding of interconnectivity.

We can’t do mula bhanda because when the mind engages its knowledge-making abilities it invariably creates object and subject. All we can do is set up the conditions for this to arise. In the Bhagavad Gita it is mercy that allows this to happen. It arises from a heart place instead of a mind place.

The mind is forever creating stories about ourselves to support the practice of identification, to ground the identity of a self. But in reality everything is always shifting and changing. It can be hard to let go of these versions of ourselves. To see that the mountains are walking.

Central Axis
This is a practice of gathering energy towards the sushumna nadi, or central axis. This axis conveniently falls along the plumb line of the body. The past and future, the inside and outside, all meet in this moment, this axis. As our life unfolds in this moment, this is the only place they can connect.

Laya yoga (aka as kundalini yoga) is a state in meditation where forms dissolve. In medieval India many methods were developed to do this, some of them were ascetic in the extreme and harshly self punishing. The final chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes the practice of nadanusandana, listening to internal sounds. Instead of focusing on the object of sound, the named sound arising in the field of awareness, the focus is on the potential field of sound. Anupashya (seeing beyond seeing) is a practice of looking. Often when we look our eyes are grabbing and holding. But it’s also possible to soften the gaze, to look from the back of the skull. Instead of picking out objects we can see a field of sight – keeping our attention out at the edges of the field. In asana yoga this is the practice of drishti, or the gazing point (really: the gazing field), that allows sensations to come to the eyes. These are all practices of letting go.

Pranayama allows us to experience the full spectrum of the breath. Our breath is often pasted over with our habits, or fixed views. In pranayama we try to stretch out the breath so that we can see where we’re holding on too tightly. Stretching the breath means deeply feeling the emptiness at the end of the exhalation and the blooming at the top of the inhale. The inhale carries the energy of arising and presentation, the exhale carries the energy of dissolving and becoming something else.

It can be hard to stay with the breath, to keep our attention yoked to the breath, because there are samskaras pasted into it. When sensations occur that we have aversion to, when we experience negative situations we can stop the free flow of its expression, we put it away, and it’s held in the body, and it’s also held somewhere in the breath cycle. Samskaras predispose us to do the same thing again and again – to react in the same way to the same triggers, and these habit patterns are carried in the breath. When our attention is yoked to the breath and we get to the parts that carry our samskaras, the mind can go somewhere else in order to avoid the experience. That’s why it’s hard to stay with experience as it is, because it doesn’t fit our self image.

Is it possible to breathe, to observe prana without reacting to it? Then it can do its work, and allows us to create another samskara of non-reaction. This practice of pranayama is a practice of non-reactivity, of healing, dismantling the armour that keeps us from seeing things as they are. There are so many ways we short circuit experience, throwing shadows of what we already know across rooms, people, situations, we haven’t encountered yet. Stretching the breath changes this relationship.

There are three different stages of practice. The first is to feel the breath and feel how the breath is connected to this body. In our culture, feeling anything below the neck is a miracle. Great tracts of the body can be numb for years. The first stage wakes up the body. The second stage is about feeling the energy of prana and apana. Feeling the exhaling pattern while we’re exhaling. Feeling the inhaling pattern when we’re inhaling. In the third stage we offer the pranic pattern to the apanic pattern. When we exhale down we can feel energy gathering in the pelvic floor, the exhale ends at the pelvic floor, but this is also the seed of the pranic pattern, the seed of the inhale. And when we inhale up into the heart centre, and feel the bloom of the breath expanding, this is also the seed of the exhale.

These are all concentration  practices designed to bring us into the present moment. It doesn’t matter if you practicing one, two or three – the practice is to be here.

Fire breathing from the belly. We work with the deepest band of muscles in the core, they’re like an elastic waist band. We want to empty the lungs from this place. We use short exhalations that come from the lower belly. Where is it? Four fingers below the navel. The underside of the Ganesh belly.