BRING THE BREATH BACK TO YOGA
by Rama J. Vernon
The recent article in the New York Times entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” may be a blessing by opening a conversation about Yoga. For years, those of us who are the ancient veterans of Yoga in America, who have been practicing and teaching since the 1950s when people confused Yoga with Yogurt, have been concerned over the new fitness direction that Yoga has taken in this country.
Let’s face it. The term Yoga has been hijacked. The author of the article, Mr. Broad, is narrowly defining yoga according to his experiences with his injured yoga teacher, Mr. Black. For those of us who have been enlightened by Yoga for nearly six decades with no injuries to self or others, the article was horrifically corrosive. After reading it, I was worried about the risks of getting out of bed or of walking. I could shorten a hamstring without realizing it! But what about the risks of sitting at a computer all day and incurring repetitive stress injuries. Where can we go? There is nowhere to hide, not even in the inner sanctums of Shavasana, the corpse pose.
No mention was made in the article of varying methodologies of Yoga. All paths and lineages were painted with the same brush. Indra Devi, Swami Sivananda, Pattabhi Jois and Mr. Iyengar although very different from one another, are lumped together from their early teachings in the mid-20th century.
As I discovered over the past 55 years, Yoga is a way of “Being” not just doing. It is the exploration of what Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita calls inaction within an action. It is the essence and means to quiet the waves of the mind. When the waves are still, as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras say, “The Seer and the Seen become One.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “They realize the oneness that already is. “
In the l950’s, 60’s and even in the 70’s Yoga was still intact. However in the late 70’s, Yoga began to slip into a mode of physical exercise. The old English prefix ‘ex’ means to project outward. Instead of exercise, perhaps it is more accurate to view Yoga as ‘innercise.’ To experience Yoga as an ‘innercise,’ it is important to bring the breath back into our practice, and teaching, and allow it to move our body organically into a pose.
Swami Satchidananda, founder of Intregral Yoga and a disciple of Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishekesh was once asked if he was a Hindu. He thought quietly for a moment and then answered slowly and pensively, “I like to think of myself not as a Hindu but more as an “Undo.” What a revelation! There is nothing to do but undo. Instead of “doing” Yoga, perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are “undoing” through Yoga.
As the essence of all Yoga is to ”still the waves of the mind,” if we practice asana rapidly without breath, we create more restlessness, the opposite of Yoga. The breath, not the teacher or the clock, is the gage as to when it is time to come out of the pose. If the breath is erratic and staccato it is time to “slowly” exit the pose.
In l970, I was asked to give a talk and demonstration of Yoga to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s cabinet ministers. The presentation was well received and afterward some of the cabinet ministers said, you looked so relaxed, you didn’t even look as if you were in pain. You actually looked as if you were enjoying it.” I was stunned. “Yoga helps us to come out of pain not create more,” I finally replied. “Yes, I do enjoy it, it is my communion with God.” They were astounded. Mrs. Gandhi’s Yoga teacher who was in attendance was fascinated and then offered to demonstrate how he practiced Yoga. He grabbed his leg and forcefully put it on his opposite thigh and then grimaced and grunted with pain as he forced the opposite foot over into Padmasana, the Full Lotus. Yes, even the Indians can have stiffness in hips and legs. There are different approaches, I realized that day, and that this
approach could lead to injuries and dismissed it as a potential practice. He was surprised that my approach did not create but helped to heal peoples’ past injuries.
If our lives are not evolving from the practice of Yoga, perhaps we need to change our practice and our teachers. This New York Times article is a wake-up call for the Yoga teaching community to slow down, and re-evaluate one’s teaching and practice style and perhaps contemplate bringing the breath back into Yoga.
Years ago, I hosted Indra Devi as well as Mr. Iyengar. I went to Indra Devi’s class. She did not just teach Yoga…she WAS Yoga. Her presence filled the room casting a mantle of light upon us all. I realized that as teachers, we need to keep our connection to the Divine. It is the unspoken that touches the hearts and minds of the students far more than the technique. Her presence was a reminder of Why we were practicing Yoga..not just How.
It is not Yoga that creates strokes in relatively young and healthy people but the way in which they practice with rapid movements and no preparation which leads to spinal (and neck) compression rather than elongation. The author wrote of Mr. Iyengar emphasizing in the Cobra arching the neck as far back as possible. However, the neck should not be forced back in any pose as it creates cervical compression and restricts the circulation from moving between the spinal cord and brain. I remember many years ago, Mr. Iyengar emphasizing the extension of the back of the neck, because Cobras do not throw their heads back and look up but drew their head back and elongate what would be the back of their neck. The eyes instead of looking upward would be drawn towards the back of the head and intently gaze straight ahead without wavering.
In the incidence of a college student who intensified his practice by sitting in Vajrasana on his heels for hours a day, his injury cannot be blamed on Yoga but on his own ambition and lack of discernment. Vajrasana is NOT a classical sitting pose for meditation.
The article also alludes to the Shoulderstand, as “tucking the chin deep into the chest. No! That is not the way it is practiced. In Sarvangasana, we bring the chest to the chin…not the chin to the chest. We roll the upper arms outward affixing the outer elbows to the earth. “This is a SHOULDER stand…not a NECK stand,” Mr. Iyengar would say. Known as Sarvangasana, meaning the whole or entire parts of the body, the Shoulderstand is commonly referred to as the Queen of Asana (The Headstand is the King) and is known to affect and benefit every gland, organ and system of our body. It affects the physical as well as subtle body. The article mentioned it stimulates the thyroid. No, it does not unless the thyroid is hypoactive. Sarvangasana balances the thyroid rather than stimulate it. Matsyasana, the fish pose is the one that is stimulating to the thyroid and is excellent for those with hypoactive (underactive) thryroid. The fish without the shoulderstand first, can be over stimulating to the nervous system because of the affects to the adrenaline glands. Those of us who have practiced these poses for half a century can testify that it balances the thyroid and parathyroids which are responsible for our metabolic processes and metabolism of calcium.
In Shoulderstand, the 7th cervical vertebra eventually does not even touch the mat. Sarvangasana is known to prevent strokes and heart attacks as well as alleviate neck and shoulder tension. It beneficially affects the cerebellum which doesn’t only coordinate muscles but is what the Yogis call the seat of the subconscious mind. Mr. Broad also relates this pose to the thalamus gland. However, the thalamus which relays sensory messages to the outer brain also relates to subtle energy center that awaken our conscious to vaster states of awareness. The thalamus which holds a blue print of every cell of the body sits above the hypothalamus which is now known as the master endocrine gland. Perhaps one day the thalamus may be recognized as the true master endocrine gland that regulates all others under its hierarchical structure. This gland relates to the crown chakra and is impacted by Sirshasana, the Headstand, far more than the Shoulderstand.
In relation to Sarvangasana, the article refers to the pons, attributing only the role it plays in respiration. It does, but it is also the switchboard or relay center between the spinal cord and the brain. When there is compression or tension in this area, we see the aging process in the slowing down of the reflexes. Sasrvangasana preserves the youthfullness of the reflexes. The area of the pons where the spinal cord meets the base of the brain is known as the medulla oblongata. This is the area that Swami Paramamahamsa calls the “seat of the soul.” Within the arena of the “back brain” is what is known in the Yoga Sutras as the “Cave of Brahma,” the creator.
Sarvangasana is a pose of meditation where the heart is above the head, which the Yogis relate to the ego. In it, the ego is humbled and the heart reigns supreme over the mind, if only for a short time. This is an extraordinary pose that also elongates the carotid sinus and arteries and can diminish excessive plaque which instead of creating, can actually help prevent strokes and heart attacks.
Sarvangasana increases circulation of blood, lymph and cerebral spinal fluids. The article states concerns for the basilar artery which arises from the union of the two vertebral arteries that feed the pons. He references that reduction in blood flow to the basilar artery has been known to produce a variety of strokes. In a correct shoulderstand, there is no pressure upon the basilar artery, but the pose can benefit its circulatory flow.
In referring to the woman of 28 who suffered a stroke while attempting Urdva Dhanurasana which is correctly known as the “Upward Bow.” It is not the wheel, which is something different. Again depending upon the teaching, the head is not placed on the floor as this can induce compression in the neck if the arms are weak and the shoulders are not flexible. In any pose the neck is never compressed or arched. Again, what were the instructions? What was trying to be achieved? What is being promoted in the name and of Yoga? There is also no mention of the impact of pharmaceutical drugs and the effects of legal or illegal drugs ingested into the system. How do we know the condition of the people getting injured?
Please Mr. Broad and Mr. Black, do not blame Yoga but look to the teachers’ interpretation of what they call Yoga. Many years ago a group of long-time teachers came to Swami Satchidananda voicing their concerns over the direction that Yoga was taking in this country and how it was taught as aerobic exercise that would eventually lead to injuries. Swamiji was pensive and then said, “You must trust…trust in Yoga”. Thank you for opening this discussion that will allow everyone in the Yoga community to stop and take a big breath.