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. assortedpracticalities.blogspot.com
By Kimberly Zanger Mackesy
Last month here at the Institute in Pune, India, there was a fellow yoga student who often wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a bold message: “The Power of Practice.” I loved that T-shirt. Like any good poem, it expressed a profound truth cryptically enough to leave room for the reader to interpret its meaning.
What, indeed, is the Power of Practice? There’s plenty of time to reflect on this here in Pune. Having 15.5 allocated practice hours per week gives ample time and space for the opening of our bodies and minds. We become like flowers drinking deeply from the life-giving waters of yoga.
My understanding unfolded some more last week during an especially inspiring class with Prashant Iyengar. As far as I can tell, Prashantji is unique in the stratosphere of Iyengar Yoga teachers in that he almost never gives instructions for physical movements. He expects you to know the poses. He’ll give an instruction to do a pose with an action, such as uddiyana kriya, in order to observe how that action changes the pose and its effects. But when it comes to mechanics you are on your own. Therein lies the paradoxical potential for bewilderment and beauty in a class with Prashantji. I’ve experienced both.
Prashantji’s teachings are philosophical and highly nuanced. I’ve struggled to keep up with his instructions, which are so subtle that at times I’ve found myself wondering whether I’m grasping anything at all. And yet…and yet…there are other sweet moments when his teachings draw me deeply into awe.
During this particular class, Prashantji told us that we should approach our āsanas unencumbered by our goals, free from our ideas of a certain version of a pose. We shouldn’t just follow what the teacher demonstrates or a list of physical instructions. Instead, he asked us to do something much more sophisticated: To delve deeply into the body, mind and breath and use those “diagnostics” to determine what to do, how to do it, and with what effects.
I see Prashantji’s teachings as an invitation to practice. He teaches that the dynamics of each āsana must be minutely examined and discovered afresh in every moment. He exhorts students to examine ourselves with microscopic attention and make our own determinations about how to work – and to do so with profound reverence.
I agree with his assertion that our practice gives us messages that we can’t hear while we are following instructions. What we learn from our teachers is, of course, of immense value, a fact that Prashantji also acknowledges. We must be taught how to do the āsanas correctly, and that is a learning process that never ends. And in addition to that way of learning, Prashantji insists that our eventual task is to use that knowledge to penetrate deeper on our own. (It’s like at the end of Back to the Future when Doc says to Marty, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”)
Eventually we have to listen to the sacred silence within in order to find our own instructions, and this only happens when we practice on our own. When we invest all the time, effort, willpower, energy, regularity and devotion we can muster, the practice itself becomes our teacher. It tells us what we need to do, how we need to do it, and why. That, to me, is the Power of Practice. I am grateful to Prashantji for teaching me how to show up for it.