The Path To Bodhichitta

You start where you are, the practice will meet you there.

My Photo
Location: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Take A Deep Breath

Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. My chiropractor sternly told me to stay away from yoga for at least two weeks while he started straightening my spine. My back rejoiced at the prospect of being pain-free for a fortnight, but the rest of me fell apart. That same evening, I went to see my teacher, Parveen, and glumly broke the news to him. His reaction knocked my socks off.

"Of course you can still practice yoga," he said. "Do pranayama."

Pranayama? But that was just breathing. That wasn't doing yoga. That had nothing to do with lengthening my muscles, opening my chest, strengthening my arms and balancing on my head. That had nothing to do with evoking emotions of peace, strength and relaxation. I didn't want to do pranayama. In fact, that was my least favourite part of class. My mind would merrily skip off to distant lands during the first round of abdominal breathing and return during the final round of alternate nostril breathing. At that time, yoga for me, was about testing my body's limits and pushing it beyond them. Not sitting in stillness and silence, paying special attention to something I've been doing since the day I was born. I wanted to compete with myself and the other students. There was no competition in pranayama unless it was about who could retain their breath until their face exploded.

Then I went to the ashram for my teachers' training course. To my dismay, the pranayama sessions were even longer! Every part of my body screamed to move and I had to stifle many impatient sighs, as the swami led us through yet another round. As luck would have it, my competitiveness in the asana class finally came back to bite me. I threw out my back while practicing Vrschikasana (Scorpion) and was forbidden to practice that pose for the rest of the course. When I had somewhat healed, I returned to class and this time was instructed to use my breath instead of my muscles to get deeper into the backbends. Then, I was to use my breath to consciously relax in the pose. I agreed without the slightest clue of how I was meant to do this. I suppose my ignorance came through loud and clear, because one of the teachers kindly offered to give me a personal coaching session.

During that session, he instructed me to go into Bhujangasana (Cobra). Then he placed his hands on my calves and told me to consciously relax them with my exhalation. To my amazement, my calve muscles felt as though they were sinking into the floor. And I thought they were already relaxed! As the session progressed, I discovered that I was tensed even in Savasana (Corpes). I was floored!

And so I began my journey into the strange world of pranayama. It was frustrating in the beginning. The progression was slow and I had no idea if I was even doing it right. I didn't feel the calmness or peace that my teacher spoke about. For the first few weeks, all I used it for was to guide myself into the asanas. Then I took my seat in front of a beginners' class and I knew I had to get my act together. How could I wax lyrical about pranayama to my students when I hadn't felt the benefits myself? How could I tell my students to practice pranayama everyday if I only practiced it once a week? In yoga, walking the talk is non-negotiable and so I committed myself to a daily practice. I wish I could say that I've progressed in leaps and bounds, but it's more like limps and shuffles. I still catch myself doing shallow breathing while facing the computer and I still sigh inwardly when Parveen stretches the pranayama time a bit too long in class. But some things have changed.

I can sit longer without fidgeting.
I can breathe deeper without feeling like my lungs are about to burst.
My exhalations are longer and smoother.
I'm intergrating pranayama into daily life by using alternate nostril breathing to put myself to sleep and kapalabhati to keep me awake.
I've realised that I was wrong to say that stretching, lengthening and arching has nothing to do with pranayama. The correct thing to say is that pranayama has nothing to do with them.
I understand why pranayama is the backbone of asanas and I believe in it.

Progression in pranayama is slow, but for once, I'm not on a deadline. Pranayama, much more than asana, is a practice you engage in not just for its immediate, direct benefits, but for the steadiness, depth, and patience that are the eventual fruits of practice. I still have many more techniques to learn and that could take years to perfect.

Today, two girls came to sign up for this week's beginners' class. The class starts at 6.15pm and they were worried that they would be late due to rush hour traffic. How much of class would we miss, they asked. I told them they might miss the whole breathing session. Relief washed over their faces. Oh, it's just breathing, they said, that's ok then.

That's what they think.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home