Christophe Mouze
I'm one of the founders of Sati yoga and the webmaster of this site.

All classic Yoga texts insist that Pranayama practice cannot be done properly without using Bandhas. The Yoga Rahasya of Sri Natamuni for example repetitively warns us:

If a person doesn’t fully understand the subtle aspects of the three Bandhas, the benefits of Pranayama cannot fully be obtained” (Sloka 60) and that “Pranayama without the three Bandhas is of no use… “ (Sloka 95).

However, the instructions in these texts are not always clear, so hopefully the following article will help clarify the use of Bandhas in Pranayama practice. It assumes a basic understanding of Bandhas.

The three bandhas in common use in Pranayamana practice are:

    • Mula Bandha

The root lock is the contraction of the muscles of the perineum or in women of the cervix. It occurs naturally during exhalation.

    • Udhiyana Bandha

The abdominal lock, is an inward (or backward) pull of the muscles of the lower abdomen, compressing the digestive organs.

    • Jalandhara Bandha

In the throat lock, the chin is pressed down on the upper chest and the throat is locked as if swallowing. This stretches the neck and compresses the throat.

These three Bandhas have effect on the circulation of pranic energy, and therefore on consciousness.

The table below summarizes the use of the Bandhas in the four phases of Pranayamana practice:

 

Mula Bandha Udhiyana Bandha Jalandhara Bandha
Puraka
(inhalation)
No No except in Ujayi Possible, but not necessary
Antar kumbhaka
(retention on full)
Yes No except in Ujayi Yes, necessary
Rechaka
(exhalation)
Yes Yes No
Bahia kumbhaka
(retention on empty)
Yes Possible (this is called Maha Bandha) Possible, but not necessary except if doing Maha Bandha

 

A full breathing cycle goes like this:

  • Inhale slowly (all Bandhas relaxed).
  • At the end of inhalation, close  and pull up Mula Bandha.
  • At the end of the retention, open Jalandhara Bandha and pull in Udhiyana Bandha, then exhale (Mula Bandha still on)
  • At the end of exhalation, relax Udhiyana Bandha (or, if practicing Maha Bandha, close Jalandhara Bandha and pull in Udhiyana Bandha).

Therefore Jalandhara Bandha is only needed if one practices with retention. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that: “Jalandhara is to be done at the end of inhalation, Udhiyana is to be done at the end of Kumbhaka and the beginning of exhalation “ (HYP, 2, 45) and advises: “At the end of inhalation, hold Jalandhara tightly.” (HYP, 2, 69).

Jalandhara Bandha must be mastered before one starts to practice with retention. The other Bandhas can be explored in Anapanasati and perfected during simple Pranayama practice without retention.

I recently came across a study (well two actually) by a team of scientists from the University of Louvain in Belgium, who had been investigating the relationship between emotional feelings and respiration. A subject which, as a keen pranayama practitioner, I find particularly interesting.

In the first study, participants were asked to produce an emotion (either joy, anger, fear or sadness) through the use of memory and fantasy and to describe the breathing pattern that fits best with the generated emotion. Results revealed that the resulting breathing patterns were:
(a) comparable to those objectively recorded in experiments on emotion arousal,
(b) consistently similar across individuals, and
(c) clearly differentiated among different types of emotions.

But what’s even more interesting is that a second study using breathing instructions based on the results of first study showed that it is possible to produce significant emotional feeling states by using specific breathing patterns.
A .pdf of the study can be downloaded here.

That breath and emotions are linked is no breaking news – yogis have known for centuries that the breath and the mind are closely connected – but the practical implications are thought-provoking, because these studies clearly demonstrate that by training our breath, we actually get better at managing our emotional responses.

The key to this, however, is regular practice. We need to learn and routinely practice breathing patterns that induce positive emotions so that when we are under stress, or in the grip of tumultuous feelings, we can consciously use these breathing patterns to still our racing mind and sooth our frayed nerves.
This, really, is what pranayama practice is about.

tao of natural breathingThe great Taoist philosopher Tchang Zu tells us that True man breathes with his heels, while the mass of men breathe with their throats.
Never mind the heels, you’re probably doing OK if you manage to take breath awareness as far down as your perineum, but breathing mostly with your chest, and with very little awareness of what’s really happening, is not a recipe for health and happiness.

In this 200 pages book, Dennis Lewis, a Qi Gong master and long-time-student of Taoism, skilfully takes us through the Taoist approach to mindful breathing. The parallels with the Sati yoga approach are striking. When he introduces us to what Gurudjeff calls “Presence”, this dimension in ourselves of inner quiet and inner clarity, as a both a precondition and a result of practising with the breath, his words echoes the Buddha’s on mindfulness of breathing. Indeed, most of the practices presented in this book are strikingly similar to yoga or Buddhist practices.

The chapter on “whole body breath” sheds light on the third practice of the Anapanasati Suta , breathing in and out sensitive to the entire body, and is a good introduction to this essential practice. While reading the chapter on the “spacious breath”, I found myself musing about the parallels between the “three breathing spaces” and the three bandhas in common use in pranayama, and most asana practitioners will find the encouragement to practice this type of breathing while under stress very useful. And what but the “smiling breath” was Thich Nhat Hanh talking about when he said “Breathing in, I calm body and mind, breathing out I smile“?

Most of the Specialized breathing practices listed in Appendix 1 have yogic equivalent, and I personally found the Taoist version of Ujayi breathing, called Reversed abdominal breathing, so interesting that I have included it in my regular practice. Dennis remarks on the psychological obstacles to authentic breathing and the psychological and the emotional dimensions of breathing practices are also very insightful.
This book is full of sound advice which asana, pranayama and meditation practitioners of all levels will find most useful. Highly recommended.
Click hore for more>>>

A short introduction to Swara yoga

Ida nadi Pingala nadi
Left nostril (and the whole left side of the body) Right nostril (and the whole right side of the body)
Moon Sun
Feminine Masculine
Yin Yang
Right brain Left brain
Intuitive Logical
Subjective Objective
Colors Words
Parasympathetic nervous system Sympathetic nervous system
Mental energy Physical energy
Attention Intention
Flexibility Strength
Cooperation Competition
Collective Individual
Introvert Extrovert
Samatha Vipasana
Prey Predator
Cold Hot
Negative Positive
Desire Action

 

Nadi Shodana is the practice of choice for balancing the swaras.

Further reading:

  • Breath, Mind and Consciousness by Harish Johari
  • Swara Yoga: The Tantric Science of Brain Breathing
    by Swami Muktibodhananda, Bihar School of Yoga

You may be doing the wrong practice, or doing the practice wrong….
…Or you may just need to be patient.

As any experienced practitioner knows, progress in yoga is not linear. Often, we feel stuck in our practice simply because we have reached a plateau, and while progress is not outwardly visible, underneath the surface, the practice is still working and, at some stage in the future, will bear fruit.

Assuming that you are practicing regularly, this will generally mean that after weeks or months of apparently fruitless struggle, things will start to become easy again. You can expect a few days or weeks of “yoga bliss” when everything seems to be working exactly as you want, before, probably, reaching another plateau and possibly feeling stuck again. In this case, which is probably the most common reason why people feel stuck, patience (one of the ten perfections in Buddhism) is all that’s required. Curb your ambition, enjoy your practice, and, as Patthabi Jois would probably have said “all is coming”.

But there may be other reasons why you are not progressing in your practice.
One reason is that you may be doing the practice wrong.
This should be checked with an experienced teacher, well versed in the style of yoga you are practising. This is one of the main reason why it is not recommended to practice without a teacher. A good teacher will know that you are practising wrong, and help you get your practice back on track, where, left on your own, you would be wasting time or even injuring yourself.

However, another, and potentially more serious reason could be that you are doing the wrong practice.
We once had on one of our residential courses a very dedicated ashtanga practitioner who hadn’t progressed much passed first series in her many years of practice. Her back bending was poor and her teacher (rightly) wouldn’t let her go pass ustrasana, which she was struggling with.
She was clearly a very ambitious and somewhat aggressive woman, a typical Pitta temperament to use the terminology of Ayurveda, and as far as both of us could judge, a heating practice like ashtanga was not (or was no longer!) what she needed to remain in balance. Unfortunately, she also seemed to be very attached to her ashtanga way, and found it difficult to switch to a softer practice such as yin or meditation, which was probably all what she needed to do, at least for a while.

Dedicated practitioners often get attached to their practice, turning it into a habit long after it has stopped being helpful. In yoga, as in life, it is quite common to see people stuck into old practice (job, relationship, habits…) that no longer serve them. And unfortunately, if you are stuck in the wrong practice, talking to your usual teacher probably won’t help. If the practice that they are teaching you is the wrong one for you, they may not have the insight or the integrity needed to know and let you know this. They, too, could be stuck with the same practice, or simply won’t want to loose a dedicated student.
Talking to another experienced teacher in a different style may however help you untie that knot. In his book “A Path with heart”, Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield mentions the case of a student who practised sincerely under a great Kundalini yoga teacher, but whose practice was making him more tense, agitated and scattered. In desperation, he asked a Tibetan lama what was wrong, and, after careful questioning, the lama concluded that the student had been given the wrong practice. Quite surprised, the student said that his teacher only taught that one practice! Wrong teacher. This student was lucky to find a knowledgeable lama, most of us have to figure that for ourselves.

So, to sum it all up, what do you do when you feel that you are not progressing in your yoga practice?
1) Be patient and keep practising.
2) Talk to your teacher (or a teacher experienced in the style of yoga you are practising) to find out if you are doing anything wrong.
3) And finally, talk to another experienced teacher to find out if that practice is right for you.

14 Feb 2021

I owe to my years of training in ashtanga vinyasa the habit to count my breath in asana practice. Viniyasa in, five breaths, vinyasa out, next posture…

This habit has one great benefit: it focuses the mind on the breath. In a way, you could say that you are doing a somewhat contorted form of Anapasati practice, and it’s actually a lot easier to focus on the breath this way than when you are just sitting there, doing nothing.

But it is also a very mixed blessing because counting means that you are focusing primarily on quantity, and, well, yes, anyone who’s walked into a hard core ashtanga class knows that quality can suffer, or even be ignored all together, as a result.

Recently, I started questioning my counting habit. These days, I tend to hold postures for a lot longer than five breath anyway, and to come out when my body’s telling me to, rather than after a fixed number of breath. So while for asymmetrical postures such as twists, counting still helps to ensure I’m holding the posture for roughly the same length on both sides, for symmetrical postures, counting was often a distraction rather than a help. When I started to drop counting all together, I could start to focus more on the quality and the length of the breath, which generally resulted in a softer and more subtle practice.

In pranayama practice, counting, while also very useful, can have pernicious effects too. Not only it focuses the mind on quantity rather than quality, but it can easily pull it into a competitive mood where we try to do more and more (for example with longer and longer kumbaka), and forget to notice when we are doing too much. Again, experimenting with dropping the counting all together was very interesting, and I now tend to use only occasional counting, more as a way to check where I am rather than as a guide to where I should be.

In Anapasati (mindfulness of breathing meditation) practice, counting can be useful too. The advice that is generally given is to count to a fixed number of breaths, usually between 5 and 10, up, then down, then back up again, on and on. If the mind is distracted or unsettled, this can be useful in keeping it a little more steady by giving the left brain something to busy itself with, but, here again, counting can quickly become a cumbersome prop.

Ultimately, counting is a tool. Sledgehammers are useful for driving fencing posts, but everyone knows they are not the best tools to crack nuts. And any tradesman will tell you that using the right tool for the job at hand makes the job easier, safer and quicker.

So, still counting? Well, sometimes…

14 Feb 2021

Tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah
Enthusiasm, inquiry and surrender are necessary to thread the path of yoga (The yoga sutras of Patanjali, II-1)

In this first aphorism of the Saddhana Pada, the second chapter of his classic manual on the practice of Raja yoga, Patanjali lists threes of the Niyamas, Tapah, Svadhyaya and Ishvara-pranidhana, stating that practiced together, they constitute Kriya yoga.

Let’s first look at each of these:

tapah
The Sanskrit root of the word tapah, tap means to cook, to heat or to burn. Early translators of the sutras, who generally were Sanskrit scholars rather than yoga practitioners, have often translated it as austerities, an unfortunate choice because the word has a negative connotation in Western languages, which Tapah certainly doesn’t have in Sanskrit. Alistair Shearers translates it as purification, which is one of its secondary meanings and is undoubtedly a better, if somewhat narrow translation. Matthew Remsky uses endurance, as a way to suggest how Tapah is this quality of determination and discipline needed to deal with the difficulties and set backs which we inevitably meet when we are threading the yoga path. Any translation of Tapah should reflect the fieriness, passion and courage which we need to keep practising, no matter what.
Tapah is akin to viriya (determination), one of the seven factors of awakening in Buddhism.

svadhyaya
The most common translation of the term is (self) study, sometimes even narrowed down to the injunction to study ancient books of wisdom. Alistair Shearers translates it as refinement while Matthew Remsky uses learning. Svadhyaya of course is all of this, as well as this constant, almost childlike curiosity that questions everything. It is akin to dhamma vicaya (investigation of Dhammas), one of the seven factors of awakening in Buddhism. It finds an appropriate expression in the “What is this?” question of Zen Buddhism, or in the “Know thyself” of ancient Greek philosophers. To thread the path of yoga, we need svadhyaya to find our own truth.

ishvara-pranidhana
Because ishvara is usually translated as God (or Supreme Being), the most common translations of ishvara-pranidhana are surrender to God or dedication to God. These translations don’t always resonate with our Western secular culture. Alistair Shearers simply uses surrender, while Godfrey Devereux suggests “absorption in the source” – may be closer to Patanjali’s intended meaning.
Unshakeable faith in the guiding and protecting power of the universe is the essence of ishvara pranidhana. In the Kriya yoga context, the soft, feminine quality of ishvara-pranidhana balances the fiery masculine energy of Tapah. Tapah without svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana just inflates the ego. Ishvara pranidhana helps us recognise that we are not in charge, and from there we can cultivate a more trusting relationship with the universe.

According to Zen, the three essential conditions for successful practice are Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Determination. This accords with this sutra, for without Doubt, why would we inquire, without Determination, how could we succeed in our practice, and without Faith, how could we ever surrender?

The Kriya yoga of Patanjali should not be confused with the yoga system of Mahavatar Babaji and Lahiri Mahasaya, popularised in the West by Paramahansa Yogananda in his book Autobiography of a Yogi. The Kriya yoga of Patanjali is simply the practice of Tapah, svadhyaya and ishvara-pranidhana. These three preliminary practices aim to neutralise the causes of suffering that are rooted in ignorance and prepare the aspirant for the practice of Aṣṭāṅga (eight limbs) yoga.

Further reading:
The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali translated by by Alistair Shearer
Threads of Yoga: A Remix of Patanjali’s Sutra’s by Matthew Remski
Yoga Unveiled by Godfrey Devereux

12 Feb 2021

Hatha yoga cannot succeed without Raja yoga, nor Raja without hatha.
Therefore, practice the two to perfection 
(Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2-76)

Finding and maintaining the balance between physical and meditative practices can be challenging at time for anyone on a journey of self development.
I realised early on in my yoga journey that Hatha yoga wouldn’t be enough.
Sure, Hatha yoga practices make the body strong and flexible. And yes, freeing the body and breath from limiting patterns increases energy and will power, opening new possibilities. Through hatha yoga practice, we become emotionally freer, stronger and more resilient.
The Buddha himself advised that “If the body isn’t cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated, then the mind can be cultivated.” The practice of asana and pranayama is an excellent way to build mindfulness of the body, the first foundation of mindfulness. But if we neglect to develop the healthy qualities of heart and mind that support this mindfulness, its gifts are mostly aimless. And to develop these qualities, we need the container of ethical practices.

Raja Yoga Swami Purohit, in his commentary on the Yoga sutra (ISDN 0571103200), wrote: “I met many who practiced Hatha yoga as a stepping stone to Raja yoga, but the few who were mere Hatha yogis had great powers, strong healthy bodies and immense vanity. (…) They were generally amenable to praise, and some more worldly than average worldly men. This was the chief reason why I lost faith in Hatha yoga.
And indeed, time and time again over the past 25 years, I have met great hatha yoga practitioners who, without the preliminary ethical practices of yama and niyama fell victim to pride, greed or lust. Their mind lacked stability, and their lives often reflected this.

Buddhist teachers seem to fare much better in that department. Their rigorous training in ethical and meditative practices apparently produced a far more stable mind. Although some of them sometimes fall victim to greed and delusion as well, their training in mindfulness, or simply peer pressure, meant this is less obvious and less frequent.
But, I also frequently met on meditation retreats long term Buddhist practitioners who didn’t seem to make much progress. Their sitting posture was poor, and they didn’t seem to have much awareness of it. They had been struggling with the same hindrances for years, and while they had often developed a high degree of tolerance for discomfort and could sit them out, progress was slow at best. They clearly would have benefited from some hatha yoga practices.

In my own practice, I have found that keeping a balance between the ethical and meditative practices of Raja yoga and the physical practices of Hatha yoga is indeed the best way to ensure steady progress.
Swatmarama knew what he was talking about:)

In yoga, Dana is mentioned as one of the ten niyamas in the Yoga Yajnavalkya (and in subsequent classics, such as the Hatha yoga pradipika, who borrowed from it).

The practice of Dana also has a very important place in the teachings of the Buddha. Along with morality (sila) and meditation practice, Dana is mentioned as one of three ways of gaining merits and in Theravadan Buddhism, it is the first of the ten paramis or perfections (qualities to be cultivated by all practionners).

The Buddha particularly stressed the importance of the attitude with which a gift is given. Dana is giving freely without expecting anything in return. The act of giving is motivated solely by compassion, good will or the desire for someone else’s happiness.
As a practice, Dana helps both the donor and the receiver to overcome greed (one of the three poisons of the mind, alongside hatred and delusion) and to develop wisdom and non-attachment.

In our contemporary world, by turning on its head the capitalist assumption that everything has a price, the practice of Dana is a powerful tool to help build a new economical paradigm in which one takes what they need and gives what they can. Rather than enticing us into provider / consumer relationships, it invites us to explore economic relationships which contribute towards the culture of sharing that we so badly need to overcome the many challenges of the 21st century.

Read more on Dana…
There’s more to giving than you think

In Buddhism, the five hindrances are temporary mental states that impede practice.
They can be regarded as obstacles to mindfulness in daily life as well, clouding our Judgement and hindering our ability to respond appropriately to situations.
They all rooted in aversion, attachment and ignorance.

  1. Attachment / desire for sensual pleasure and more generally the leaning of the mind toward what is pleasurable and its inclination to cling to it is the first hindrance. In meditation practice, it may manifest as an attractive idea,memory or fantasy that distracts us from the practice. To counteract this, we practice guarding the doors of the sense faculties (Pratyahara) and moderation in eating (mitahara, the advice is to stop eating before you are full). We learn to look for happiness inside ourselves, and to be content with what we have (Santosha).
    Experiencing this hindrance is like being in debt as we endlessly have to work to fulfil our desires.
  2. Ill will and hatred (aversion) is the leaning of the mind away from what is perceived as painful, unpleasant or uncomfortable. It may manifest as anger, fear, impatience, etc. To counteract this, we practice Ahimsa, non harming, and develop a friendly attitude (metta, or maitri in Sanskrit) towards all beings. The well known Buddhist practice of metta Bhavana is a powerful antidote to ill will and all aversive states.
    Experiencing this hindrance is like being ill as is prevents us from enjoying life and experiencing joy.
  3. Sloth and torpor may take different forms, such as laziness, procrastination, depression or sleepiness. It is a general lack of energy that prevents us from doing the practice. In the short term, it can be remedied by any method that will raise energy, such as focusing on the inhalation part of the breath, adjusting or changing the posture, etc. In the long term, moderation in eating and spending more time outdoor will help, as will, of course making sure we get enough rest and play. If sloth and torpor is a recurring problem in your practice, try dynamic yoga styles of asana practice and emphasize Samavritti and other energizing pranayama.
    This hindrance is like being in prison because we can’t do anything while we’re experiencing it.
  4. Restlessness and worries is a high energy hindrance which prevents us from practising by constantly pulling our attention away from the practice. Its antidote is sukkha (relaxation, ease). In the short term, using the breath to foster stillness, calm and contentment or adjusting the posture for a more comfortable one will help. In the long term, we may need to make lifestyle adjustments to slow down and foster a more relaxed attitude to life. Self reflection and inquiry (swadyaha) will help. Try yin yoga styles of asana practice and emphasize Visamavritti pranayama.
    Experiencing restlessness is like being a slave (to the constantly changing demands of our restless mind).
  5. Doubt and especially self doubt is closely related to Restlessness and becomes a problem when it prevents us from practising, with questions such as “is this the right practice for me?”, “will I ever get it right?”, etc..
    Study and the advice, encouragement and support of teachers and like minded friends who are travelling in the same direction will greatly help to strengthen the determination necessary to overcome paralysing doubts.
    Experiencing doubt is like travelling through a dangerous place as we are unsure which way to go.

 

The support of a sangha of teachers and like minded friends is possibly the greatest help we can have along the path. It helps us overcome all the hindrances, and as such, should be always be eagerly sough by all practitioners.