I was asked this question yesterday and It's a post I've had planned for sometime, parts of this will be cut and pasted from an earlier draft.
Here's the question in full.
"I'm interested, what is your view on this: most people can't do intermediate series with smooth even breathing, the 'free breathing' Sharath advocates. What benefit do you see, then, in adding kumbhaka? Not just pranayama with kumbhakas, but kumbhakas during intense and difficult asana practice"?
Context: In my previous post this I week I mentioned how having explored Kumbhaka in Ashtanga Primary series over the last year I was now planning on exploring kumbhaka in the Ashtanga 2nd series for this coming year.
Kumbhaka = breath retention, in pranayama they can be long ( mine are average, 20 seconds, long enough to mentally chant the pranayama mantra) but in asana Krishnamacharya seems to be talking of much shorter kumbhaka of between 2-5 seconds, depending on the asana
The question above goes I think to the heart of the matter.
And It's something I've considered.
I used to practice along with Sharath's DVD, the full Ashtanga series in an hour, the inhalation and exhalation are around two seconds for each.
I've practiced with other DVDs, where the practice took a little longer, the time allowed for the inhalation 3-4 seconds, I've been in Led classes with Manju also, where the inhalation and exhalation have been around four seconds each.
Either way, if you want to go through the whole series in less than two hours you have to crack on a bit, the postures keep coming at you, next posture, next posture, bang, bang, bang....
We get used to it of course, practicing on our own we can take it a little more slower, we get fitter, there's more control over the breath, our transitions use up less energy, we become more flexible such that we can ease into the postures more easily, in short, we learn how to conserve energy.
But what happens if you introduce kumbhaka, (breath retention of a couple of second ) into the mix, if we only have the same amount of time available to practice then aren't we're going to have to speed up the inhalation and exhalation once more.
Intermediate series is even more intense than Primary, my friend is right be concerned, do we really want to feed a kumbhaka element into the mix, won't that be dangerous.
It might give us pause to reflect....
Do we have to include a full series in each practice.
It will depend on how much time we have available. Pattabhi Jois suggested that if we have less time available, that we do the Sury's and the last three finishing postures, how much goes in the middle will depend on the time available.
Do we have to move so quickly from one posture to the next?
This is governed by the breath, the movements follow the breath not the other way around. Pattabhi Jois in interviews talked about ten second inhalations and ten second exhalations, even, fifteen, twenty seconds,
So we can move more slowly, we can breath more slowly.
Do we only stay for five breaths in a postures?
In Yoga Mala Patabhi Jois writes for most postures
"...do puraka and rechaka as much as possible".
|Pattabhi Jois teaching, notice all those beautifully curved backs, the forehead o the knee for Janu Sirsasana|
The first western students mention that in the beginning there were 10 breaths in postures, later 8 before finally coming down to the 5 we currently have in most of the seated postures (this may even be as few as 3 seconds depending on your led class and how much time is made available before moving to the next transition).
So we don't have to rocket through a full series.
We can practice half a series, even a third of a series
We can breath more slowly, long, full, inhalations and exhalations.
We can stay in postures longer.
Practice like this and introducing kumbhaka (breath retention) becomes possible, and remember we're talking short kumbhaka's of generally 2-5 seconds, an extension of the automatic pause between the inhalation and the exhalation and exhalation and inhalation.
Same goes for the Intermediate series, no you wouldn't introduce kumbhaka into your Sharath led intermediate in Mysore but including it in the regular self practice the rest of the week and practicing only half a practice with long slow breathing should be perfectly acceptable.
Except that it's not.
There is no kumbhaka in Current Ashtanga.
I mentioned yesterday that in tweaking the order of the already laid out groupings of asana (Krishnamacharya had already grouped asana into Primary middle and Proficient in his 1941 Mysore book 'Yogasanagalu', the groups closely resembling the current Ashtanga sequences ) Pattabhi Jois seems to have left out Krishnamacharya's use of Kumbhaka.
I put it, perhaps a little too provocatively yesterday,
"Pattabhi Jois seems to have 'tweaked' the order of Primary and Intermediate as well as removing the heart (kumbhaka) from the practice".
I say 'seems to', this is assuming that he was actually taught kumbhaka in asana by Krishnamacharya.
I'd always assumed that Pattabhi Jois had held back the kumbhaka from his teaching, I asked Manju but he was adamant that there was no kumbhaka in asana, that his father didn't practice it and that Krishnamacharay was mistaken.
Now I love and respect Manju, I've taken a week long TT with him in Crete and hope to have the opportunity to do so again but I disagree with him on this, I don't believe it was a mistake.
Kumbhaka is everywhere in Krishnamacharya's first book Yoga Makaranda (1934) we find he went even further in his second book Yogasanagalu (1941) and put it in table form.
In both books we find the Vinyasa Count for each asana
We find instruction for long slow full breathing, 'like the pouring of oil'
We find the breath controlled at the back of the throat
We find practicing inhalation and exhalation as much as possible in a posture
We find long stays in postures suggested
We find bandhas indicated
We find the asana grouped into Primary, Middle and Advanced postures, the order strongly resembling the current Ashtanga series (except perhaps for the Advanced group).
We find the appropriate kumbhaka, whether following the inhalation or the exhalation clearly indicated for the majority of postures
We find all of the above elements in Pattabhi Jois' presentation of Ashtanga, current Ashtanga, except the last one, except for Kumbhaka.
Yes, the breath may have speeded up. Yes, the stays in the postures may have become shorter and yes, the inhalations and exhalations may have become quicker since Pattabhi Jois wrote Yoga Mala in the 1950's but kumbhaka never seems to have been included in Pattabhi Jois' teaching.
Quite the opposite in fact
In Pattabhi Jois' Yoga Mala, for Navasana we find
"The vinyasas that follow have been specified earlier. While coming into the state of this asana, never do kumbhaka, that is, never hold your breath".
"In addition, the entire body should be kept erect and rechaka and puraka performed deeply, without kumbhaka".
And most explicitly in the section on the surynamaskaras
"Aspirants should know this method, which is best learned from a Guru. They should also note that kumbhaka, or breath retention does not occur either in the Surya Namaskara or the asanas.".
What to make of this. If we follow the lineage we should follow Pattabhi Jois' teaching on this but we have Krishnamacharya's texts, we can go directly to the source and kumbhaka is everywhere in these texts and they were manuals, he wanted us to practice this way, we also know that he continued to include kumbhaka in his later teaching.
Or we can ignore the texts, ignore all mention of kumbhaka and it will be lost.
I don't really know about parampara or lineage, I do know that my teacher Ramaswami studied directly with Krishnamacharya for 33 years and that I was privileged enough to go through Krishnamacharya's works with him line by line in the classroom, vinyasa by vinyasa in the studio.
I know too that Ramaswami continues to teach because he believes that aspects of Krishnamacharya's teaching have been neglected and may end up lost (perhaps he's disappointed that I focus on this aspect of Krishnamacharya rather than on those he himself might stress, perhaps he's bemused too that I continue to explore Ashtanga rather than sticking with Vinyasa krama (for me though they are the same thing)).
I think my research has highlighted that there was no early and late Krishnamacharya, he didn't change (not really) but perhaps how we practice his Ashtanga did. And perhaps that's fine, perhaps Pattabhi Jois was right to take the practice in the direction he did, perhaps he was never taught kumbhaka or neglected this aspect in his own practice and decided to do without it.
However his teacher, someone he revered, who's teaching he insisted he was following, made kumbhaka central to the practice, put it into almost every asana in his first book and then went so far as to put it right there in a table in his second book (written in kanada, Jois' mother tongue).
How clear did he have to make it that this was an essential element of practice. Personally I think the use of bandhas and the control of the breath at the back of the throat, also the drishti makes no real sense without it, it's as if everyone is present at the wedding except the bride.
We know Krishnamacharya continued to teach kumbhaka throughout his life and we have his early books for heavens sake, we have Pattabhi Jois' teacher's books. If Krishnamacharya ever did study and memorise the Yoga Korunta the essence of it is most likely found right there in Yoga Makaranda ( and remember Krishnamacharya supposedly wrote it in the space of a couple of days). We have primary texts, right there, we have what he wanted to communicate about the practice, what he considered most essential, he wanted us to know and practice this stuff.
What benefit, as my friend asked, is there in adding kumbhaka..?
Kumbhaka....., it's is where it all happens, that moment of stillness between the inhalation and exhalation, the silence, peace, it's timeless, does feel like that sometimes and I'm really only beginning to explore this. It's in the kumbhaka that we can perhaps more fully explore internal drishti, we bring our attention to different chakras, not pretty rainbow chakras but areas of the body that the Rishis of old found most interesting to focus their attention.... or we can visualise effulgence in our hearts, we can float mantras, chant them mentally on the inhalation on the exhalation and then allow them to just be in the space of the kumbhaka.
If your of a religious frame of mind it's probably in the kumbhaka that you find god.
My current thinking, and something I'm really only just beginning to explore (those pretty rainbow chakra books turned me away from the cakra model until quite recently), is that Krishnamacharya was using kumbhaka in asana to focus the citta (awareness) at different cakra's. Or rather that the focus of attention on the cakra happens during kumbhaka but it's the choice of asana that is the focussing lens and directed at a particular cakra. So certain asana would be better than others for focussing awareness (citta) on a particular cakra. Many of the asana descriptions in Yoga Makaranda mention the benefit gained as relating to a particular cakra associated with that asana.
Here's a nice, concise example
38 Gandabherundasana (Figure 4.86, 4.87)
This has 10 vinyasas. The 6th and 7th vinyasas show the asana sthiti. The first picture shows the 6th vinyasa and the second picture shows the 7th. In the ￼4th vinyasa, come to caturanga dandasana sthiti and in the 5th vinyasa proceed to viparita salabasana sthiti. In the 6th vinyasa, spread the arms out wide, keeping them straight like a stick (like a wire) as shown in the picture. Take the soles of both feet and place them next to the ears such that the heels touch the arms and keep them there.
Next, do the 7th vinyasa as shown in the second picture. This is called supta ganda bherundasana. In this asana sthiti and in the preliminary positions, do equal recaka puraka kumbhaka. Keep the gaze fixed on the midbrow. This must not be forgotten.
Benefit: Goiter, inflammation of the glands of the neck and diseases due to mahodaram will be destroyed. The visuddhi and brahmaguha cakras will function correctly and this will take the mind to the state of savikalpa samadhi. Pregnant women should not do this.
For me, Krishnamacharya made kumbhaka the heart and soul of the practice.
I'm not really religious, not so spiritual perhaps but I find stillness there, the practice makes more sense for me with kumbhaka in it's place.
But perhaps you have a different view, I'm sure you do, on what constitutes the 'heart' of the practice, I'd be interested to hear what you feel it is.
I liked this comment to this post
In the video I'm on the right practicing a Yoga makaranda inspired Ashtanga, my friend Oscar on the left practicing Vinyasa krama. I really wish we had one of oscar's Ashtanga students practicing current Ashtanga along side us to contrast the three approaches but also show up much of what they have in common. The Video was shot the day after the recent Krishnamacharya workshop I gave at Oscar's Yoga studio, Yoga Centro Victoria, Leon, Spain. I'm hoping to be presenting a similar workshop at Living Yoga Valencia at the end of January (dates to be confirmed. I'll also be teaching three classes at the Yoga Rainbow festival in Turkey at the beginning of May.