by Kara-Leah Grant
Welcome to the third in this series of Yoga Explorations.
We’re going to take that understanding, and use Downward Dog and Three Legged Dog to look at how tuning into the breath can allow our body to move spontaneously within the structure of a posture.
As I mentioned in the first article on the Ascending and Descending breath, breath and prana are intimately linked.
Working with the breath directly in our yoga practice – allowing it to be our teacher – helps us to tune into the flow of prana around our body. We begin to learn how to direct the flow of prana, and notice where it’s blocked or stuck.
This approach to yoga is the inside out approach – connect to breath, work with prana, let it move our body and shape the postures for us.
But what is Prana – really? Does it exist? Is it real?
Many of my favourite yoga texts like Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati and Practical Yoga Psychology by Dr. Rishi Vivekananda explain what Prana is in detail. However, they also preface much of their explanation with “it is said” and “The Yogis views…” without specifying who is saying it or who the yogis are. For example:
Prana is the vital force permeating the body and all of matter. It actually energiizes the koshas and is vital for life at all levels… The yogis view the energy body as a discrete entity in it’s own right, which takes up the same space as the physical body but pverlaps it. The energy is said to flow through energy channels called nadis. A nadi is not a nerve; it is a distinct flow of prana independent of the presence of phsyical structures… There are said to be 72,000 nadis, but estmates vary and it is hard to know who originally counted them! ~ Practical Yoga Psychology by Dr. Rishi Vivekananda
Yet there are instances in the yoga world of well-documented cases of spontaneously arising yoga, where the practitioner surrenders to the flow of prana and is taken through a practice.
Stephen Cope, who spent time in the ’90s at Kripalu recounts an experience he had at the Ashram with the guru at the time, Amrit Desari.
Amrit began to move. Subtly at first. Just a finger tracing a slow path along the carpet, then an arm, rising effortlessly overhead. All eyes – open now – concentrated on his moving form. For the next twenty minutes, an ecstatic dance seemed to take over his body, drawing him down slowly, pulling him up gracefully, flinging him across the room violently. He shook, he reached, he strained as if to touch some unseen partner in the dance. His body entered spontaneously into postures I had never before seen. He was powerful, graceful, and uncannily lithe for a sixty-year-old man.
As Amrit entered deeper into the dance, the entire room seemed t be pulled down by a deep undertow of absorption. We were lost with him in the dance of energy. At the centre of this dance was a profound state of stillness, of quiet, that seemed to deepen with each passing minute. The room was both electric with energy and completely still at the same time.
Ten minutes or so into the experience I noticed a change in my perception. Colours had become brighter, bolder. the blue and gold tiles behind the altar were fairly pulsing with flashing hues. Light itself became a palpable golden presence… At one point I had an experience of energy rushing up and down my spine, as I’d had when he’s touched me, a tingling at the crown of my head, my whole body suffused with an intense heat.
Amrit’s movements reached a peak in movement of quiet frenzy that seemed remarkably like orgasm and then slowly dissolved. His body entered a deep quiet as he came back into lotus pose for meditation.
When at last Amrit opened his eyes and looked up, the room was still… I found that I had spontaneously entered the child pose, my forehead on the floor, arms at my side holding myself, my body pulsed with energy. ~ Stephen Cope, Yoga and The Quest for the True Self
After that experience, Stephen goes for a walk with a friend and asked what had happened in there.
“That was shakti,” laughed Bruce. “And you’ve just seen a classic Amrit Desai demonstration of the essence of Hatha Yoga.”
…I thought to myself. All this time I’d been doing postures and nobody had ever really told me what it was about. ~ Stephen Cope, Yoga and The Quest for the True Self
(If you haven’t yet read Stephen’s book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy!)
Shiva Rea’s teachings, through one of her master teachers Twee Merrigan, was the first time I experienced yoga teaching that worked directly with the flow of prana. (Hence the name of Shiva’s style, Prana Flow).
A huge light bulb went on for me. I’d been experiencing the movement of prana in my spine since 2000 and spontaneous yoga movement since 2004.
No other teachers I’d been to had understood my experiences (except Swami Shantimurti but he doesn’t really teach asana). Now I’d found a teacher who not only understood what I was experiencing, but taught in such a way to support the awakening of Shakti (a form of prana) within students.
And yes, this is the essence of yoga, yet it’s missing in so much of what we see in modern postural yoga. Few yoga classes directly work with the flow of prana within the postures.
One reason for this is many yoga teachers have no direct experience of prana, nor have they been taught about it. Another reason is that even teachers who do have direct experience may not be teaching from that place simply because that’s not what students come to class for.
Many students come to get a workout, or get flexible. Prana isn’t even on the radar for them.
But it is possible to teach from the perspective of the energetic body and make it accessible for modern yoga students – Shica Rea is a whizz at this. Students don’t even have to know what’s going on exactly – that what they’re being asked to do is all about moving energy.
When I teach, I sometimes never mention prana. Instead, all I have to do is make the breath front and centre of everything we do, and work specifically with the ways that prana flows in the body, using body vinyasas and pulsations to activate energetic alignment.
Which brings us right make around to what we learned in the first week when we explored the ascending and descending breath, and last week in exploring how to cultivate the core and radiate from the limbs.
These are ways to work with breath, and therefore prana, making our practice deeper and more potent. Plus, because when we first start we can’t always feel the flow of breath or prana in the body, we also learn to work with visualisation – a key Tantric technique.*
This combination of visualisation, breath, prana, playfulness and exploration opens up our practice and gives it space to be a creative and spontaneous arising of yoga.
This week we look at Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and Three-Legged Dog.
(ps. If you’re reading this it the email newsletter, and want to watch the video, you need to be an Insider. If you’re not a member of Inside the Box (starts at $29/yr) you may want to join up here, then you can access the video.)
Video Exploration #3 with Kara-Leah Grant
Using Breath Movements to Free the Body’s Spontaneous Movement
Now you’ve watched the video, here’s your Om-Work for the Week
Week #3 Om-Work: Take what you learned from Week #1 – Tadasana and Uttanasana, Week #2 – Plankasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana and add Week #3 to it – Downward Dog and Three-Legged Dog. Explore different ways of putting this flow together.
You might go Mountain, Forward Fold, Down Dog, High Plank, Low Plank, UpDog, Down Dog, Forward Fold, Mountain. Or you might mix it up and go Mountain, Forward Fold, High Plank, Low Plank, UpDog, Down Dog, Three legged Dog both side, High Plank, Low Plank, Updog, DownDog, Forwward Fold, Mountain.
You can go from DownDog, through High Plank, Low Pank, Updog and back again a few times.
Make the sequence your own. Be playful. Have fun. Take your time.
Focus on playing with the two breath pairs we’ve learned – Ascending & Descending Breath, and Cultivation & Radiation.
Go slowly through each posture, taking time to explore and play, surrendering to the flow of breath and allowing your body to open and move as it needs. Do it this way for the first round, but maybe do subsequent rounds with just one breath per pose.
It’s your practice. Make it up!
Do this every day this week.
You may end up going on to do more postures. Or you may just go into shavasana afterwards.
I want to write about Tantra in another article… suffice to say when I’m talking about tantric techniques, it’s got nothing to do with sex. Tantra is a philosophy older than Hatha Yoga and encompasses it’s practice. More on that to come, or you could read this article on Tantra by Swami Muktidharma.
Any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll respond. It’s likely that if you have that question, other people do too.