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 July 31, 2012

When you go to India to study with the Iyengars you learn that they have an amazing gift for language. The English they speak is maybe not exactly the same English that you speak, but BKS Iyengar, as well as his daughter Geeta and his son Prashant, all speak with great poetic power and creativity. Prashant Iyengar’s classes are peppered with aphorisms that have come to be called Prashantisms: “Do pragmatically, not dogmatically”; “If you want to learn you must learn to teach yourself”; “Evolve the connectivities”; “Asanas are to be done by the body but for the mind.” Attend enough of Prashant’s classes and you will figure out that what he most wants to teach you is how to be a better practitioner, how to make your own practice better.
When we start doing yoga, it’s usually by going to classes. Starting a practice of our own is a major step, and learning how to practice is a long-term endeavor. What asanas should we do? How long should we hold them? How long should we practice? A natural first step is just to try to do at home something we’ve been taught in class. Sometimes the idea of practicing on your own is so intimidating, it seems like it’s just easier to go to class instead. But as we continue with yoga, we learn that while attending classes regularly is important, there’s something about practicing at home that can’t be replicated in a class. And it is as Prashant says, you have to learn to teach yourself.
On my last trip to Pune in June 2011, Prashant was asking if we could name what he called the 18 major kriyas (actions) that should be going on during our asana practice. I’m not sure I got all eighteen of them, but I know that one of them he calls vachika kriya, by which he means an act of speaking. Not that you are actually speaking aloud while practicing, but that you are silently speaking to yourself about “the whys and hows” of what you are doing in order to improve your level of engagement in the practice. This vachika kriya helps you to “do pragmatically, not dogmatically.” It helps you not to imagine that there’s only one right way to do things (e.g. the way you were taught most recently in a class), and not to think that you should always practice that same way. You use your asana practice as, to use Prashant’s word, a “laboratory” in which you are constantly checking in with yourself about how the experiment is going, and what the effects of your practice are.
Another one of the 18 kriyas Prashant refers to is the kriya of commencement, the arambha kriya. This is what you do when you begin your very first pose of the practice. Often during the first pose of Prashant’s classes, he will give the instruction to “evolve the connectivities,” by which he means that you remember that you are not just engaged in some physical activity, but you need to start to weave together or to knead together your sense of your self, your mental faculties, your body, and your breath. It is all of these aspects working together that make up a yoga practice. Then as you practice, by noticing how your body, your breath, and your mind are interacting, you begin to realize in your own way that “asanas are to be done by the body but for the mind.”
Learning how to practice seems like an endless task, but even for someone who is just beginning a home practice, these aphorisms of Prashant’s can be a big help. Suppose you are just going to practice four or five poses. Say they are Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), Utthita Trikonasana (triangle pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (side angle pose), Uttanasana (standing forward bend), and Savasana. In the first pose you “evolve the connectivities”: you check in with various parts of your body; you remember actions you have learned and try reapplying them today: you check in with your breath and maybe see what actions work best on the exhalation and what ones on the inhalation; you talk through all of this with yourself in your mind (vachika kriya) and as you do so, you notice how your mind is feeling as you begin the practice. You continue to work pragmatically through your chosen set of poses, remembering that you are doing these asanas with your body, but for your mind, aiming for a mind that is focussed, fully alert, and calm.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Lucey teaches Tuesday and Friday evenings at Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco