Chai & Samosa after class

Chai & Samosa after class

Breathatics, Practicing with Literacy, and Thinking with Your Ears

By Michael Lucey

About a year ago I wrote a blog post called “Prashantisms,” about some of the kinds of things Prashant Iyengar says in his classes, and about the flavor of his language, and about his philosophy of teaching. Recently back from another month in Pune, where I took four classes a week from Prashant, I have his voice still very much in my ears.

Prashant’s teaching encourages students to focus on the interrelations between the body, the breath, and the mind. This, of course, means that he talks a lot about the breath itself, and his language in doing so is quite creative. He enjoys making up words modeled on other words, words that don’t really exist outside of his classes, but that capture your imagination. For instance, we know it is important to keep machines lubricated. In yoga, Prashant says, the embodiment should be kept breathicated. Different asanas “give you different breathicating possibilities.” Similarly, Prashant points out that in order to work on swimming, diving, and other similar sports, we often go to aquatics centers, and we call all of these activities aquatics. Think of yoga as breathatics, he says, as if you immerse yourself in the breath as you practice. Prashant regularly drives home the point that our actions when we practice should be composite actions. They don’t just involve the body. They involve the breath and the mind as well. His classes are meant to provide a space to experience, as he puts it, how breath and breath awareness permeate the body matter and create a different biodynamics.

In my blog post last year, I wrote about what Prashant calls vachika kriya, the act of speaking silently to yourself about the “whys and hows” of what you are doing as you practice. A few days ago, I was practicing along to a recording of one of Prashant’s classes that I brought back from Pune with me, and he spoke about vachika kriya as a kind of mental running commentary that goes on during your practice and that should produce in you a kind of yoga literacy: you should be learning to read and write the effects and consequences of what you are doing on your body, breath, and mind. Without cultivating this kind of literacy, he insisted, it is not possible to progress. But you shouldn’t just blabber, Prashant pointed out. The commentary you perform in vachika kriya involves speaking “when required as much as required.” Your commentary should be commensurate with what you do, and it should be a practice of honesty and truthfulness: be sure that you do what you say and say what you do. If you can do what you say and say what you do truthfully and with precision, then your literacy in yoga will grow.

Here’s an interesting suggestion for your practice from Prashant that is related to vachika kriya. If you are silently speaking to yourself as you practice, you must also be silently listening to yourself. Your ears and the part of the brain linked to them, Prashant says, can be involved even when you are speaking and listening silently, and what happens when you engage that part of your brain associated with your ears is important to notice. Your ears, Prashant says, have more insight than your eyes. What experience of your mind can you give yourself by becoming the student of “the mind behind the ears” as opposed to “the mind behind the eyes”?

In the class he taught on June 1 this year, Prashant suggested that we try using both our eyes and our ears in relation to bodily actions. As you press your inner heel, you might not simple imagine yourself seeing yourself doing that. Imagine yourself hearing yourself doing that: engage the mind behind the ears. Associate your eyes with your sternum as you lift and broaden it. Then associate your ears with your sternum as you lift and broaden it. What is the difference? It is like using a different kind of salt, Prashant says, in the preparation of a delicacy. When you use a different kind of salt, you get a different tasting delicacy. When you use your ears and the mind behind your ears to pay attention to what you are doing, the action is different. In moments like these, Prashant’s classes become, as he says, a laboratory for the exploration of the philosophical matter of the embodiment.

Explore, Prashant says, and see what you find when you are not quite sure where you are going.

Michael Lucey began studying Iyengar yoga in 1982 while living in England, and from his very first class has been fascinated by the many ways yoga can transform your relation to your body, mind, and breath. A certified Iyengar teacher (Junior Intermediate III), Michael completed the Advanced Studies Program at The Yoga Room in 1993, and began teaching yoga classes there in 1992. He studies regularly with Manouso Manos and Gloria Goldberg and visits Pune, India regularly to study with the Iyengar family. Joan White, Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin have all been significant mentors for him. His teaching is clear and informative, with the goal of encouraging students to develop their own ability to explore what yoga has to offer. Along with studying and teaching yoga, Michael is also a professor of comparative literature and French at UC Berkeley.

By Patricia Kalman

Being my first visit to Pune observing Guru Purnima was a wonderful experience. Although we arrived early, it was extremely crowded and just when I thought the room was as full as possible, they asked us to make more room! There were also people sitting downstairs listening on speakers.

First we chanted. Then there were three speakers before Guruji who shared their personal experiences–I did not learn their names. The first was a young woman–now a law student– who came for health reasons but who came away with a much deeper understanding about herself than she expected. The second speaker was also a young woman, an anthropologist, who came to observe his teaching although she, herself, was not a yoga student and came away with a lot of insights. The main speaker was a TV actor and maybe a psychologist, not sure really, but he spoke extensively on philosophy.

Finally Guruji came and sat on the stage and spoke briefly and humbly. I sent you a brief video clip to give you a sense of it. He apologized for sitting higher than the rest of us. I am very happy that I was able to be there

Then there was a lot of excitement as he was ready to bless each and everyone of us. There was kind of a push forward even though the teachers and assistants tried to create a line. For me there were moments of claustrophobia and then suddenly one of the teachers grabbed me and said now! Before I realized it I was kneeling in front of Guruji. It felt so chaotic and rushed that my first thoughts seemed irrational as I wondered if my scarf was on or if I even still had it. Then I looked up and he smiled so warmly as me; I will never forget it.

Then we all walked home in the light monsoon rain which was cool and refreshing after such   a wonderful evening

Patricia Kalman is a Certified Iyengar Teacher at the Intro II level. She lives in San Francisco and studies with Manouso Manos.