Universal Sufism and Hazrat Inayat Khan

Sufism – difficulties with definition

In one of the last interviews conducted before his death, one of the greatest contemporary sufi masters, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh (1926 – 2008), stresses that when a meditative practice becomes defined with words, it stops being sufism. A sufi practice rejects dogmatism, labelling and patterns, a specific view on things is not valued in this path. Instead, an individual set of practices assigned to a disciple (murid) by his teacher (murshid/sheik/pir) is suggested. The main theme is abandoning one’s conditionings that attach us to a more or less subtle suffering. That is why some authors classify sufism as a peculiar branch/type of a widely understood yoga, next to classic, postclassical yoga, buddism etc.

Two sufi traditions

When you look at who defines themselves as a sufi or their practice as sufism, you will notice a clear division into two – practically opposing – traditions.

One of them is sufism based on muslim religion. Its teachers are often islamic theologicians or scholars of Islam. They see the beginning of sufism with the time of prophet Mahomet’s activity (6/7 a.d.) and as you can imagine the tradition/doctrine of abandoning dogmatism does not play the key part here. Thus it is not of special interest to me and neither does it present the background of Inayat Khan’s activity.

The other tradition, the one that has gained my trust, is the (yogic/meditative) mistical tradition developed in the Middle East (and later spread throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, including the Indian subcontinent). Followers of that tradition place the origin of sufism in the times of the Old Testament prophet Abraham, i.e. about 3000 BC. That tradition has not been followed by dogmatic theologicians but by mistics and dervishes. Inayat Khan, when referring to that tradition, used the term “universal sufism” to describe his teachings. Famous sufis of that tradition have been on numerous occasions accused of being unfaithful to Islam, and some of them have been executed, like Mansur Al-Hallaj, for example.

A lot of sufis of that tradition are outstanding poets, among others Rumi, Shams e-Tabriz, Rabia of Basra, Hafiz. Most of them are extraordinary individuals, leading excentric lives and teaching, sporadically one could find ascetics among them (the most famous sufi ascetic is at the same time one of the few mistics-women: Rabia of Basra).

Hazrat Inayat Khan

Hazrat Inayat Khan was born in Baroda in India in 1882, to a family of musicians. His grandfather was Maula Bakhsh, an outstanding musisian, called an “Indian Bethoveen”, founder of the Musical Academy in Baroda. It was in his house that Inayat Khan grew up, meeting people of various denominations, mainly muslims, hindu brahmins or worshippers of Zoroastrianism. Inayat Khan, as well as his grandfather and father (Rahmat Khan), showed a great musical talent, owing to which he became a full professor of the Musical Academy at the age of 20. The news about his beautiful voice and exquisite vine playing spread over the whole of India very quickly and that is why he used to be invited to play at princes’ courts.

However, despite being appreciated for his artistic achievements, young Inayat Khan does not feel accomplished. He pilgrimages throughout India. He visits, among others, a tomb of a sufi saint Moineddin Chisti. The atmosphere of the place encouraged him to search further. It became especially evident when in 1902 his beloved mother died and he was needed to fill an empty space of some kind. More and more often one could find him among yogis and dervishes. He turned to many teachers asking them to accept him as a disciple but they sent him away saying they couldn’t help him. Eventually, in 1904 Inayat Khan met his murshid (teacher), namely, Hazrat Shaykh al- Masha’ikh Muhammad Abu Hashim Madani. Hashim Madani initiated him to the Chisti sufi order, as well as to 3 other sufi paths (tariqas). Inayat Khan learnt from him for 4 years till the Shaykh’s death. Before the Shaykh died he had blessed Inayat and bade him to go to the West to harmonise it with the East, spreading the sufi wisdom.

The death of the teacher (1908) coincides with the death of the father (1910). That is why Inayat Khan decides to make the teacher’s wish come true and to go to the USA. He goes together with his brother Maheboob Khan and cousin Mohamed Ali Khan. A year later Inayat’s youngest brother – Musharaff Moulamia Khan – joins them. Although Inayat Khan got surprised by the complete lack of life rhythm and a nervous rush in the West, he quickly adjusted to the new reality, and at the same time more and more disciples began following his teachings in America, England, France, Holland and other countries. He was leading a family life as well: he got married to an American Ora Ray Baker (a.k.a. Pirani Ameena Begum), with whom he had four children. As a place of residence they have chosen Suresnes near Paris. That is where annual Summer Schools took place, to which murids (disciples) from all over the world came to have an opportunity of being taught by Inayat Khan. Apart from those Hazrat Inayat Khan intensely travelled with lectures. In 1927, exhausted by the intense lifestyle, he died prematurely in India.

Esoteric School’s (sufi order’s) practices

The most inportant part of Inayat Khan’s teaching – Universal Sufism (as opposed to the Islamic sufism, see above “two traditions of sufism) – were the practices of the Sufi Order, i.e. the Esoteric (Internal) School. The Sufi Order is an initiating path (tarika/tariqua) of a meditative practice, which means that to be introduced by the teacher to certain practices, one is required to be formally initiated into the lineage, through a ritual where the disciple confirms their willingness to learn from a given teacher and according to a certain lineage.

Inayat Khan’s universal sufism offers a number or various practices which, in a simplified way, can be divided into the following groups:

  • Personal contact with the teacher, being around the teacher,
  • Studying texts suggested by the teacher,
  • Simple physical exercises,
  • Invocations, prayers and blessings,
  • Breathing-rectifying/purifying exercises (e.g..20 purifying breaths) and breathing-concentrating exercises (called pranayama or kasab),
  • Concentration (muraqaba),
  • Shagal (exercises connected with working with the senses and emotions)
  • Wazifa (meditation practice with mantra recited aloud, sometimes combined with visual concentration or visualisation),
  • Fikar/fikr (meditation practice with silent mantra given in the thoughts, synchronised with breathing),
  • Sama/sema (practice of silence preceded by meditative music),
  • Zikar (also zikr, dhikr; meditative practice where a certain mantra is combined with a torso movement and a selected intention).

Each of these groups of practices is used for a specific purpose. In sufi practice physical exercises are used for releasing the tension, strengthening the body and preparing it for meditation. Prayers are used to create an appropriate state of mind, i.e. raising one’s mind to a certain ideal. Breathing-purifying practices and breathing-concentrating practices are used to clear the body and mind, as well as to prepare for meditation. A similar purpose is served by the muraqaba (concentration) practice, shagal (practices of restraining/withdrawing the senses) and sama (practice of silence after the meditation with music). Wazifa and fikar represent a great variety of meditative practices that are based on mantra. They are supposed to help with the work on specific qualities as each mantra (wazifa) is connected with a given quality. Zikar is a set of practices supposed to be leading to renounce/cast away one’s false conditionings and to understanding one’s true, free from suffering, nature.

Some traditions/lineages, originating from Inayat Khan’s teaching, also suggest walking meditation (walked zikar, walked fikar) as well as meditative dances. The former and the latter technique is a preparatory practice for the proper meditative practice (wazifa, fikar and especially zikar).

Other areas of Inayat Khan’s teaching

Inayat Khan’s teaching wasn’t limited solely to teaching a meditative practice (i.e. to the Esoteric School/sufi order). It also comprised other areas. Basically, in the main stream of Inayat’s linage the teachings entailed the following areas:

  • Esoteric School (Sufi Order) – meditation practice, the character of which I have described above.
  • Universal Worship – a ritual where individuals get a unified experience within various religions through reading from holy books of different religions on one given subject;
  • Healing Order – formed by groups focused on work with conscioussness aimed at healing;
  • Mistic symbolism – an area of the practice focused on a deeper understanding of symbols in everyday life, the essence of the practice are 2 rituals: a dance and drama ritual of 5 elements and the Ziraat ritual based on agrarian symbolism;
  • Brotherhood/ Sisterhood (Kinship) – an area of sufi teaching where some contents of sufi teaching that are understood and accessible to the non-initiated but could bring some benefits to their everyday lives are shared with non-initiated to the Sufi Order ones.

A little bit beyond the main stream two quite powerful groups of “Universal Peace Dances”, and even a sort of Knight Order (Hazratiyya Order Knights of Purity – Futuwwat-i Safwa-yi Silsila-yi Hazratiyya) that aims at consistent and reflective practicing the principles of good social life (so called Inayat Khan’s iron, bronze, silver and golden principles). I will write about this specific activity in another article some time.


Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part seven: 3 Bandhas

First part of the text: Breathing awareness

Second part of the text: Types of breathing

Third part of the text: Equalizing and ujjayi

Fourth part of the text: Concentrating on breathing

Fifth part of the text: Which movements should you synchronize with inhalations and which with exhalations..?

Sixth part of the text: Breathing intiates movement

In work with one’s body in yoga, next to asanas and vinyasas or pranayamas two other types of postures are applied: mudras (seals) and bandhas (locks). Bandha means to bind, to tie up, to link. The term refers to postures where certain organs or body parts are contracted and controlled. Bandhas are applied to gain greater control over certain body regions, as well as for transferring the work onto the deep muscles of the body (especially mula and uddiyana bandha), so that asanas become effortless. Moreover, one can compare the function of bandhas to that of fuses and transformers which control the flow of the life force (prana) in the organism. From the point of view of practicing asanas, mudras and pranayamas, the most important are the 3 bandhas I discuss below. The bandhas constitute development of the methods of synchronizing your breathing with movement I have described above.

Jalandhara bandha

‘Jala’ means nectar; ‘dhara’ means maintaining, supporting. ‘Jalandhara bandha is a lock that supports the nectar. In Indian alchemy tradition it is believed that in the point between the eyebrows Amrita nectar, responsible for longevity, is kept. It usually flows through the throat down towards the stomach where it is burnt by the gastric fire (agni). Hatha Yogis have therefore devised two ways for preserving Amrita – inverse poses and jalandhara bandha. Combination of the two can be found in sarvangasana (shoulder stand), hence its importance within asana sequences. Tradition has it that the pose was discovered and taught by Jalandharanatha. Jalandhara banha helps to elongate the thoracic spine, calms the nervous system, as well as  helps control the breathing process.

To do the pose – maintaining raised sternum and elongated spine, you should lower your chin towards the suprasternal notch, a rather small concavity above the manubrium (upper part of the sternum), below the throat. When you lower your chin towards the sternum, the sternum also comes up towards the chin so that the torso is not hunched in the pose. The throat should remain relaxed in the pose. If  you experience any difficulties doing jalandhara bandha with a relaxed throat, then it would be advantageous to look closely at the mechanics of performing the pose. To do that, it is worth realising the existence of the following anatomical structures:
- hyoid bone,
- atlas (the first cervical vertebra),
- external occipital protuberance.
Hyoid bone is a horseshoe shaped bone you can feel on the border of the neck (throat) and chin. It is an untypical bone in that it is not attached to any other bones. To find it, examine with your index fingers its borders in the upper part of the neck, above the larynx. Atlas is the last cervical vertebra the head rests on (unfortunately, it can’t be traced by touch). External occipital protuberance is a bony protrusion at the back of the skull, just above the neck. You can easily feel it with your fingers.

The anatomical mechanism of perfoming jalandhara bandha is as follows:
- elongate the spine and raise the manubrium (upper part of the sternum) and collar bones,
- retract the hyoid bone towards the atlas so that the throat would retract and the chin could start to lower down,
- move  the atlas towards the external occipital protuberance, and the external occipital protuberance towards the top of the head.

During and after perfoming the whole procedure the skin on your face should remain soft and relaxed and the throat should remain soft. You don’t have to fully touch the chin to the sternum if you feel a tension starts to build up.

Uddiyana bandha

The ‘ut’ prefix means ‘upwards’ and the term ‘diiyaana’ comes from the root ‘dii’ meaning ‘to fly’ or to ‘lift. The term (rising – uddiyana) refers to lifting the diaphragm or lift the life force (prana). Uddiyana bandha helps to control the work of the torso, it makes internal organs healthy by softly lifting them and it also helps to softly elongate the front of the spine.
The pose is classically done standing with one’s feet hip width apart, with the torso slightly leaned forward but just as well one could do it sat on their heels in vajrasana. One should do it on an empty stomach, with the head lowered to jalahandrabandha. Sitting or standing, with your head lowered, observe the next 2-3 breaths. You will find that on inhaling your chest and abdomen expand and on exhalating – they close in, retract. After the next exhalation hold your breath for several seconds and take  a pretend breath (i.e. work as if you were breathing in but without letting the air in). Thus, in your chest you will create vacuum that will suck your belly up. When the breathlessness becomes uncomfortable, relax your abdomen and chest, after which you should softly breathe in again.

Bear in mind that uddiyana bandha is not just ‘pulling in your belly’. In fact, in uddiyana bandha abdominal muscles are relaxed. Pulling in your belly by force will only result in a more tense pose, while the real uddiyana bandha (described above) will provide more relaxation in the pose and soft elongation of the spine. The belly will be pulled in on its own, without your active participation, in fact it will be sucked in by the vacuum created by the ‘pretend inhalation’. If this kind of work seems difficult and hard to understand, then in order to understand it, block your nose and mouth and try to breathe in. Observe the delicate vacuum created around the upper abdomen. Next, when you understand the idea of the pose, resume practicing the proper uddiyana bandha.

Mula bandha

The term ‘mula’ means the root, source, base, pelvic floor (the perineum area). In this exercise one closes the area of the perineum, which prevents energy loss as well as transfers the work onto deep body muscles, hence increasing the spine’s stability.

Mula bandha, similarly to the previous exercise, should be practiced on holding the breath after breathing out. To perform the bandha, stabilise your body in the asana after breathing out and lift your perineum, flexing the pelvic loor muscles. You will probably notice that the bottom of your abdomen (the area between the navel and the pubic bone) retracts towards the spine on its own accord, too.

Remember that mula bandha is neither flexing the anal sphincter nor the vagina, in women’s case. Either held for a longer period of time is harmful. If you find it difficult to locate the pelvic floor sit straight on a medium hard chair and without flexing the bottocks try to bring together the ischiadic tubers. Most probably you will feel a slight tension in the perineum are (between the anus and genitals) and that is the tension you want to copy in this exercise. If that is of little help, in the upward looking dog or any other backward bend flex the lower area of your bottocks and observe the sensations from the perineum area. After some time you should be able to work more and more subtly with this area.

It would be best to learn the bandhas from a good yoga teacher who has expertise on the subject. I would suggest a great deal of caution in learning the bandhas from books, DVDs etc. Srivatsa Ramaswami discourages practicing the bandhas by people with ulcers, constipation, collic, enlarged prostate, urinary system infections, problems with menstruation, STDs. He also advises overweight people to exercise caution. In many of these cases one can still perform some of the bandhas but only under detailed instruction by a qualified teacher so that the practice is extremely ‘soft’.

When menstruating and during pregnancy do not do mula bandha nor uddiyana bandha.

Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part six: Breathing initiates movement

First part of the text: Breathing awareness

Second part of the text: Types of breathing

Third part of the text: Equalizing and ujjayi

Fourth part of the text: Concentrating on breathing

Fifth part of the text: Which movements should you synchronize with inhalations and which with exhalations..?

yoga blog breathingIn asana practice it is breathing that initiates movement, not the other way round. In dynamic sequences movement lasts so long as breathing. However, in static asanas when we implement movement in a pose – we first initiate inhalation or exhalation and a moment later start the movement, which finishes with the ending of breathing. Thanks to that we avoid the conflict between movement and breathing, as well as we maximize the effect of breathing on the body and above all we maintain our minds in the state of mindfulness and concentration. It is very easy to experimentally follow that way of work on the example of a simple torso twist. Sit down cross legged and start twisting towards your right till it still feels comfortable for you. Stop there for a moment and do not do any “physical” movements (do not try to get deeper into the pose). Inhale and exhale more deeply a few times and observe the effect your breaths have on the torso. You will probably feel how inhalations expand your chest and elongate your spine and exhalations relax your body. We use these processes in the pose. Inhale and only when you feel the torso begins to “grow” (after 1,2,3 seconds) you should start to continue elongating your spine, then start exhaling and after you feel the pressure in your torso drop, the muscles relax (again, after 1-3 seconds) you can get deeper into the twist.

[Continue to the next post about 3 bandhas (mula, uddiyana and jalandhara bandha)]

Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part five: How to synchronize movement with inhalations and exhalations?

First part of the text: Breathing awareness

Second part of the text: Types of breathing

Third part of the text: Equalizing and ujjayi

Fourth part of the text: Concentrating on breathing

yoga blogIn asana practice we use the potential natural inhalations and exhalations have. The potential of inhalations is elongating the spine and expanding the chest and in a wider context – opening and activating the body (and mind); the potential of exhalations is relaxing the muscles (which facilitates getting into bends and twists and for stiff and in the case of obese people – getting into all poses), closing , calming down, giving in to gravity.

T.K.V. Desikachar writes: “The rules for linking breath and movement are basically simple: when we contract the body we exhale and when we expand the body we inhale. Exceptions are made only when we want to create a particular effect in the asana (…). (…) We do not simply inhale and exhale without attention, but instead we make sure that the breathing initiates the movement. The length of the breath will determine the speed of the movement.”

1.Raising arms should be synchronized with inhalation, lowering with exhalation.

2.Forward bend should be done on exhaling, lifting back from the bend on inhaling.

3.Twists should be done on exhaling, on inhaling you come back to the centre.

4.Backward bends should be done on inhaling, on exhaling you come back to the neutral position.

5.You should bring your legs to your torso on exhaling pull them away on exhalaling.

6.Utpluti – lifting one’s body in balances and jumps should be done on a pause (retention of breath) after exhaling.

7.You musn’t do any movements holding your breath after inhaling (because of the maximum opening of the abdomen and chest, which offers the maximum resistance to movement).

Continue to read about how to initiate movement with the help of breathing in static postures.

Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part four: Concentrating on breathing

First part of the text: Breathing awareness

Second part of the text: Types of breathing

Third part of the text: Equalizing and ujjayi

In order to remain in the state of relaxed mindfulness in asanas and to increase psychophysical stability, the mind should be concentrated on an object (on body mechanics or on the flow of breathing). A.G Mohan explains it in the following way in one of his books: “It is better to focus your mind on your breathing than on your movement. The reason is this: Breathing has a natural involuntary pattern. To make your breathing longer and smoother or of specific duration, it is essential that your mind be constantly aware of the flow of your breath. If your mind wanders and your awareness fades, your breathing will slip back into its usual involuntary pattern. This will alert you to the lack of focus in your mind and allow you to regain it. Movement, on the other hand, has no natural involuntary pattern. Patterns of movement that we do consciuosly can be learned over time. The patterns of movement that we do in asanas can also be learned, just as we learn to (…) ride a bicycle. Therefore, any asana program, no matter how varied the movements are, can become mechanical exercise that can be done very well with minimal attention. (…) Breathing cannot be programmed in this way. Therefore, if you wish to see when your mind is wandering, observing movement is not as usefull as observing breathing.”

Continue to read about how to synchronize movement with inhalations and exhalations.

Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part three: Equalizing your breaths – length, rhythm, ‘texture’ (ujjayi breathing)

First part of the text: Breathing awareness

Second part of the text: Types of breathing

Maciej Wielobob yogaIt is recommended that the process of prolonging one’s breathing should be started from equalizing inhalations and exhalations. It is worth observing what is an average length of exhalation. Then, you should equalize the breath, tuning it to its longer part (e.g. if the inhalation lasts 2 seconds and exhalation 3 seconds, you should equalize it so that both inhalation and exhalation would last 3 seconds). You should observe for a while if you feel comfortable with it and, as far as possible, continue to prolong your breaths. At first try to achieve a breathing rhythm where inhalation lasts 4-6 seconds, exhalation 4-6 seconds, both inhalation and exhalation are of the same length and subsequent breaths have exactly the same rhythm (length). After some time, of course, you can make attempts at prolonging the breaths further (Srivatsa Ramaswami suggests the target breathing rhythm should be at 1-2 breaths a minute, although that  is not within most people’s reach). The rhythm with equal inhalations and exhalations should be maintained throughout most of asanas (poses) and vinyasas (sequences), apart from holding forward bend poses where you should prolong only exhalations (because of the chest’s limited possibility to expand).
First of all, let the breath remain soft and uniform. Yoga – Upanishads say that inhalation should be as uniform as drinking water through a straw and exhalation as fluent as pouring oil from one vessel to another. Only such breath can be prolonged without causing tension.
Equalizing your breaths does not amount only to the aspect of length and rhythm of the breaths. One also has to pay attention to the sound of breathing. Neither the sound of inhalations nor the sound of exhalations should resonate (hum) on the nostrils but it would be desirable for it to resonate in the throat. Thus an aspirated  sound would appear, which to me reminds the one when one wants to whisper the sound “hah” with the mouth shut. The essential thing is: you are to hear the sound of breathing, both on inhaling and exhaling (the sound differs slightly when breathing in and out) so that you can control its uniformity throughout its whole duration but it shouldn’t be audible for people standing a few meters away. In the asana and pranayama practice we call such breathing ujjayi breathing. A.G. Mohan writes: “To regulate the breath during the practice of asanas, the technique of ujjayi breathing is important. In ujjayi breathing you constrict your vocal chords slightly as you breathe so that you can feel the air as it flows past. A slight hissing sound often results – the more you constrict your throat and force your breath, the louder the sound. With practice and greater control, you should be able to breathe slowly and very smoothly. Then the sound will diminish and you can direct your attention to a more subtle indicator: the internal sensation of your breath flowing. Krishnamacharya used to give the standard instruction, ‘Feel rubbing sensation in throat.’”. Practicing asanas not only do you maintain the same breathing rhythm the whole time but also the same intensity of the sound the breathing makes. If you lose control over one or the other aspect of breathing you should stop in a neutral pose and take a rest until you are able to control your breathing. What is more, when you synchronize your breathing with movement, you synchronize the movement not only with the duration or the breaths but with this uniformity aspect of breath as well.

Read the next post where I write why is it good to concentrate on breathing during asana practice: click here.

Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part two: How to breathe?

First part of the text – “Breathing awareness” – click here.

Breathing in yoga, yoga blog Maciej WielobobFrom my experience in teaching yoga, as well as in my previous experiences as a speech language therapist, it follows that a lot of people breathe incorrectly. Those incorrections in breathing result in not only chronic tensions in the body but in problems within the circulatory and nervous systems as well. If they aggravate throughout the years – they lead to serious body dysfunctions.

The first type of breathing one needs to learn – especially if one has breathing problems – is, so called, abdominal breathing. In this breathing method your abdomen fills up and expands on inhaling and decreases its volume and retracts towards the back on exhaling. Practicing this type of breathing is best started from exercises in a lying pose. Lie on your back and gently put your hands on your abdomen, relax. Breathe so that your abdomen would lift your hands on inhalation and on exhalation it would sink in. Because of gravity, in a lying position inhalation is a more active process and on exhalation one simply relaxes and breathes out so that the abdomen would sink in. This type of breathing should be practiced in a lying position until it becomes natural and effortless. The next step is to practice the abdominal breathing in a seated position. Gravitational forces work in a different way there – inhalation becomes a more passive process and you need to slightly initiate the exhalation by retracting your abdomen towards the back (this mode of breathing is later used in such techniques as kapalabhati and bhastrika). The anatomical mechanism at work here is as follows: on inhalation the diaphragm lowers thus diminishing the space in the abdominal cavity, that is why the abdomen opens and fills in so that the organs could remain relaxed. This type of breathing should be very relaxing, calming, even making you fall asleep (that is why it is recommend when you can’t fall asleep, for example). It is the only way of breathing that corrects erroneous breathing habits, e.g. clavicular breathing. You should not move on to other breathing modes unless you adequately master abdominal breathing.
When you have mastered abdominal breathing (then and only then) you can move to practicing thoracic (diaphragmatic-costal) breathing. In this way of breathing on inhaling you should make sure that the abdominal wall remains still (does not expand nor cave in), so that the diaphragm has a limited possibility of moving downwards. As a result inhalation expands lower ribs sideways and then opens the rest of the chest. Exhalation reverses the process. To practice this type of breathing sit down in a seated pose with one hand on the abdomen (to control if it does not move) and the other in the lower ribs area (to control if they expand). Make sure that with consecutive breaths the abdomen remains still and lower ribs expand sideways. If you feel dizzy, it means you breathe incorrectly (concentrating on the upper chest not on the rib cage).
When you learn this type of breathing, move on to the full breathing that encompasses the two breathing modes. T.K.V. Desikachar advises to work in the following way: I suggest that when we inhale we first fill the chest and then fill the abdomen, and as we exhale we release the abdomen first and then finally we empty (…) the chest region. (…) The technique I am suggesting has the great advantage  of stretching the spine and straightening the back. (from The Heart of Yoga, p. 22). [Please note that when we say here "fill" it doesn't reffer to literally filling in the lungs, but to the specific consciousness of the work of respiratory muscles.]

If possible, do inhalations and exhalation through the nose.

In the next post we cover ujjayi breath and the idea of equalizing the rythm of breathing: click here to continue.

Synchronizing breathing with movement in yoga asana practice. Part one: Breathing awareness

yoga blog maciej wielobob asana breathBreath is central to Yoga, because it’s central to life… And yoga is about life. – used to say Sri Krishnamacharya, known as “the father of modern yoga”, teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, P. Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, S. Ramaswami and A.G. Mohan. On the other hand, a great Indian mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan describes a certain paradox: It is clear even to those who do not know medical science that the whole mechanism of the body stops when the breath has departed. That means that however perfect the mechanism of the body may be, in the absence of breath the body is a corpse. In other words, what is living in the body, or what makes it living, is breath. And how few of us realize this fact. We go on day after day, working, busy with everyday life, absorbed in the thoughts we have, occupied with business, pursuing motives, and yet ignoring the principle upon which the whole of life is based. If someone says, “Prayer is a very important thing,” people may think, “Yes, perhaps.” If one says, “Meditation is a great thing,” people may say: ” Yes, it is something.” But when one says, “Breathing is a great secret,” the reaction is: “Why, I have never thought about it. What is it really?”
In an interesting interview I had a pleasure to watch some time ago, Mark Whitwell says, he is suprised that all the breathing work Krishnamacharya used to teach has not been reflected in popular yoga styles. Mark  underlines that definitely the central feature of asana practice is liberating the breathing. He notices that obviously we can enter an asana in a gymnastic way but it then becomes a sport and not yoga. I personally, as a yoga teacher, have similar experience. There are people who come to me who have previously been doing yoga asana practice in other places and I have hardly ever met a person who has been told how to work with breathing before. Most teachers, unfortunately, limit themselves to simple statements: “Breathe!”, “Don’t hold your breath!”, “Calm breathing…”, and that is too little to make use of the potential of breathing in the practice.
In yoga asana practice we move around a closely connected system of our organism, breathing and mind.

Breathing awareness

In order for the  full synchrony of the body, mind and breathing to occur, one needs to increase their self awareness. One of the ways of increasing the awareness of breathing is the practice of breathing observation in savasana (corpse pose). You should lie down to relax so that you are positioned comfortably and symmetrically. Classically, one observes their breathing according to 3 categories:

1.time: is your breathing shallow or deep? short or long? are inhalations longer than exhalations or the other way round? are there any pauses between breaths? if so, do they occur after inhalations or after exhalations?
2.place: is your breathing flowing equally through the right and left nostril? is your breath equally filling the right and the left lung? Which part of the trunk is being expanded most with each  breath?
3.“texture” of breathing: is your breathing smooth/uniform or rather rough/uneven? does your breathing appear to be soft or rather hard? etc.

It is worth reminding that one requirement of observation is refraining from interfering with the observed processes, even if they contradict our expectations. For many a non-interfering observation is a great challenge.
Next, the observation process should be transferred onto the asana practice, as well as on mindful everyday activity. Observe how different poses influence the breathing? In some poses, can you feel it is limited? In which can you breathe effortlessly? In which poses, which movements, is it easier for you to inhale and in which ones to exhale?

At the same time, apart from such passive awakening of your breathing self-awareness, it is worth beginning to synchronize breathing with movement, however,  it will be discussed later on.

In the next post I cover the topic how to breath in asana practice – click here to read it.

Yoga/ meditation practice and vegetarianism. Some thoughts by Hazrat Inayat Khan

From time to time there’re some discussions about vegatarian diet and practice. I don’t eat meat since 2000 or 2001, but I don’t like making an ideology out of it. We have to consider that being in any kind of ideology leads to denying the facts. Some time ago I found a text on vegetarianism by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a great sufi master from India who founded so called “universal sufism” because of his experience with classical sufism, yoga and advaita vedanta. In this text Inayat Khan presents in a non-dogmatic way some usefull insights about vegatarian diet and the practice of meditation. I attach the text below.

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The question of vegetarian diet is often discussed among seekers after philosophical truth.  Some people give no importance to what they eat or drink, and there are some who give more importance to it than necessary.
There are two things which speak against flesh-eating; one thing is that meat, as a substance, hinders spiritual progress, and the other is that the unkindness towards the animals is a breach of moral law.  Speaking about the first question, it is no doubt true that meat causes two kinds of harm to an adept.  One is that it produces in man to a certain extent the animal nature; also it has an influence on the character of man.  The nature of the animal he eats certainly has an influence upon a man’s character.  It was therefore that the prophets of Beni Israel forbade their followers to eat the flesh of certain kinds of animals and birds.  Mystically speaking, it clogs the channels of the breath, and the important psychical centers which work in man as the instruments of wireless telegraphy.  Morally, there is no doubt that it has a hardening effect upon the heart of man, which is meant to sympathize, not only with his fellow-man, but with every living creature.  There is no doubt that if all the people in the world became vegetarians, there would be no more wars.  A person who refrained from killing the lower creatures would surely not be inclined to kill his fellow-man.
Of course, there is another side to the question:  Life exists in all aspects of the creation, even in plants; and if one does not see the harm done to the plants, it is because they cannot express themselves.  And, looking from this point of view, one can observe that life lives on life.  At the same time, the creation is a process by which the lower form of life evolves to a higher form, and the life used in this process of evolution is not really lost, on the contrary it is raised to a higher consciousness.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the animal which is used as the food of man has been transformed from the animal kingdom to the human, which is really a natural process of evolution, the human kingdom being the goal of the lower creation.  However, this point of view does not help man, morally or physically, in his individual evolution; he has not gained by eating flesh, on the contrary, he has allowed himself to evolve more slowly than he could otherwise have evolved.
The impression on the consciousness of man of having done harm to another creature which can feel pain as he himself can is not a good one; it blunts the fine, tender, and sympathetic feeling towards all living beings.  At the same time not every person who eats meat is capable of considering the subject philosophically, and therefore of giving an answer to his conscience or to another one, as an explanation of having caused harm to a living creature for his enjoyment.
For many thousands of years the human race has lived on flesh food, especially in the cold countries, and the bodies made with that essence for thousands of years are so dependent upon flesh food that they cannot abstain from it without causing some harm to their health.  Man feeds on things of which he is made, and it is not, in every case, easy for a man to give up flesh food, even if he realized its disadvantages.  There are countries where there are deserts — no trees to be found for miles — and the inhabitants could not live if they did not live on flesh food.  For the evolution of humanity in general, uniformity is necessary.  If some ate flesh and others lived on vegetables, it would be as if carnivorous and herbivorous animals were living in the same forest.  Certainly people living different lives cannot live together harmoniously, and the strong must in every case have the upper hand.  Tenderness of heart will not answer the same purpose as strength and power.  Therefore it is a question how vegetarian diet can be introduced in the world.  There is another side to this question:  If the animals were left alone they would multiply and the herbivorous would become a prey to the carnivorous animals.  The tigers and lions and bears and wolves would increase and would be in search of man; so the human kingdom would diminish and the animal’s increase.
For those who strive in the spiritual path it is most essential to be thoughtful and considerate, and to be kind to the whole creation, and if they can manage to live a vegetarian life, it is no doubt very helpful to them.  It is not right, however, for a vegetarian to look at the flesh-eater with contempt and regard his own harmless attitude with pride.  There are many vegetarians who will prove selfish and unkind to their fellow-man, whereas there are many non-vegetarians who will prove to be otherwise.  Verily, charity of the heart must begin at home and then expand so that it may reach the very lowest of the creation.
Hazrat Inayat Khan

Understanding ‘vinyasa’ in the context of 3 models of asana practice

yoga blog Maciej Wielobob vinyasaLately, for no apparent reason, the term vinyasa has become unusually popular and therefore, in my impression, sometimes blatantly abused. For many people the term has become an equivalent to “a logical sequence” or “a dynamic sequence”, which, obviously, can be partly true. However, in any concept the most important element is its context and in the vinyasa (and yoga vinyasa) the context (often a forgotten one) is breathing.

For the following part of the article to make sense I need to bring forward the idea of 3 models of asana practice. In asana practice (as in the remaining aspects of yoga) one operates on 3 elements: on body, breathing and mind. They are characterised by the fact that when you influence one of those elements, you also influence the other two. It is easy to observe in everyday life. When somebody makes us angry (the aspect of the mind), we can notice our blood pressure and pulse increase (body) and our breathing accelerates (the aspect of breathing). When we run up the stairs to the 10th floor (body aspect), breathing accelerates and the mind is more aroused and less focused. Of course, those examples show the body-breathing-mind in negative connections and in yoga (including asana practice) we seek to use those connections, but in a positive way. Thus, we have arrived at 3 models of asana practice:

1. model one – ‘from the body’ – in this model we work with precision on body position to ultimately influence the state of the mind and breathing (obviously, it is not hard to guess that a typical representative of such an approach is B.K.S. Iyengar and his yoga)
2. model two – ‘from the mind’ – in this approach we use the potential of the mind to alter the state of breathing and the body (organism) – this includes the Sivananda, Satyanda models, etc.
3. Model three – ‘from breathing’ – here we appropriately model the work with the process of breathing to influence in a certain way the body and the state of mind – this is the vinyasa model (ashtanga vinyasa, vinyasa krama and related approaches).

I compare those models to cars that we can drive and I always underline that you can’t drive two cars at a time (at most one car can tow the other). The same is true for the models of practice – you can’t be using 2 models of practice at the same time and level, you can sometimes apply certain elements of the other model, but that would be equivalent to ‘towing’ – full subordinance to the model of the superior model. If somebody is still wondering how to combine those two models, it is worth asking the following question: ‘what for?’. If, for isntance, in model ‘c’ (‘from breathing’) it is breathing that gradually models the position of the body, why should I diminish my work and add at the other end positioning of the body according to model ‘a’, all the more that the mind will be unsettled and not calm and focused.

Now then, traditionally, the approaches to asana practice we would refer to using a broad term vinyasa, belong to the ‘from breathing’ models (‘c) of work! That is why, to me, the recently promoted notion of ‘vinyasa in Iyengar yoga’  seems absurd, oxymoronic, as it were. The fact, that asana practice in Iyengar model can be led in a logic movement sequence, at times even a dynamic movement sequence, does not mean that it is a ‘vinyasa’. In B.K.S. Iyengar’s approach, the leading point of focus is the body and it is against the body that a sequence is built, whereas in a vinyasa model – the focal point is breathing and it is against breathing that a sequence is crafted. This makes a considerable difference. Naturally, this is only terminology, however terminology carries with it a certain range of meaning, which leads to misunderstandings I will write about in the next paragraph.

Another bothering me phenomenon that is often found among ashtanga vinyasa yoga teachers (in Poland, I don’t how does this look like in other countries), especially if they used to practice asanas according to Iyengar’s paradigm, is an attempt at combining the principles of ashtanga vinyasa and Iyengar’s method on equal terms. The attemps at combining the two stem from a good motive, namely, mostly from the fact that ashtanga vinyasa teachers want to adjust the practice to their students’ needs. Unfortunately, they often loose the point of both methods. The resulting creation does not originate from precise work with breathing as in a classical vinyasa, nor does it apply precise work with the body, as in Iyengar yoga. It reminds me of a joke about a compromise where the wife wanted to have a mink coat and the husband wanted a car but they got a fox scarf and they kept it in the garage. (Of course, there are also positive examples of combining the methods, where, for instance, somebody uses the work on breathing from ashtanga or vinyasa krama model but at the same time uses ‘Iyengar style’ props for practice or modifies positions).