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.

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…

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 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.

 

As I am teaching on a yoga and horsemanship course in the Netherland with expert horse trainer Karine Vandenborre, the two of us have been discussing at length the many parallels and connections between the two disciplines. .
It is interesting to note that both are very ancient. The earliest texts describing yoga practices, such as the Upanishads and the Buddhist Pāli Canon are around the same age as Xenophon’s “Art of Horsemanship”. However, both disciplines are much more ancient than these written texts, pre-dating written history.

We also noted that while both pursuits were mostly or even exclusively male activities in the past, in the modern world, the gender balance is quite the opposite, with more women practising both. Indeed, on Karine’s horsefulness courses and our Sati yoga courses, the vast majority of participants are women. But the most important parallel for us is that both disciplines offer a path of self development through awareness and kindness.

Because both disciplines involve body and mind they also tend to complement one another very well. The ability to stretch beyond our limits (physically, emotionally and mentally) that is often necessary to make us more adept as horsemen and women can be increased through yoga practice, and then readily transferred to our horsemanship.

Likewise, the same qualities we aim to foster in the horse (balance, strength and suppleness, energy and calmness) become manifest in ourselves through the practice of yoga. In this way, horse and rider grow and develop together.
Linda Kohanov pointed out that our body is the horse that our mind is riding on, and it is true that often, the way we practice yoga is similar to the way we train our horses. This is why Karine’s horsefulness training methods appeal to me so much: they are very similar to the methods we use in Sati yoga to train our body and mind.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of combining horsemanship and Sati yoga practice is that because of their exquisite sensitivity and their willingness to engage with humans and give immediate feedback, horses actually make great mindfulness teachers. They read us like an open book and respond instantly to any change, continuously inviting us to be open, and mindful of our body, feelings and mind.