"The first rule of yoga is there has to be breath. If there is no breath then you are only stretching" - Certified Ashtanga Teacher Mark Darby
Have you ever been to a Mark Whitwell class? I've seen people cry it's so powerful. The first time I saw him was at Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree California. I'd actually never heard of him before. There were lots of different styles of yoga at the festival and since I had my own daily Ashtanga practice I didn't really care if I took any classes. When I heard that Mark was a student of Krishnamacharya I changed my mind and I'm glad I did. The first 60 minutes of the class was spent talking about what yoga really was and then the last 30 practicing asana. The asana was 100% focused around the breath. No handstands, no pidgeon, no scorpion or other popular crowd pleasers. Just simple movement with breath that anyone could do. People were moved. They felt it and realized - this is yoga.
"The breath movement is the body movement" - Mark Whitwell
I often make the comparison of a yoga class without a focus on the breath to eating nonorganic fruit. From the outside the fruit looks the same, you can hold it in your hands and you can eat it. You think to yourself "well at least I am eating fruit and not junk food". After awhile the experience becomes normal and the one you are used to. Everyone else is also eating the food like substance so it must be ok. Then one day someone takes you to the Farmer's market. You hold in your hand an in season, lovingly cared for, bright red apple. You sink your teeth into it and the flavours and aromas intoxicate your senses. No one needs to tell you that this is what an apple should taste like. You just know and it's beyond words. It's the same in a breath centered yoga class. It's the juice. It's the nutrients. It's the prana. Just as our grocery stores have been filled with "food like substances" our yoga studios have been filled with "yoga like classes." Luckily there's an easy solution.
Ok so why is breath so important to yoga? There's a few reasons.
1. When the breath is calm the mind is calm
You know how this works right? In life when you get excited, scared or in a panic the breath starts to speed up and gets shallow. When you are calm, relaxed and peaceful the breath is slow, deep and even. Working in reverse order we control the breath to control the mind. In the Ashtanga Yoga lineage we are instructed to make the inhalation match the length and intensity of the exhalation. Controlling the intensity and length of our inhalation and exhalation calms the mind and the body. As the outer circumstances change, moving through asanas or life, we can maintain inner peace by controlling the breath and therefore the mind.
2. Let the breath be your Guru - Krishnamacharya
I heard this quote from Mark and it really resonated with me. It's why in a mysore style class there isn't a lot of talking. The student needs to be able to hear their guru, their breath. It's very self empowering since you don't need to look outside your self to know what to do. You listen to your breath as you move through your practice and use the quality of it to make adjustments within your own body (which is different then everybody else's). You know that if your breath gets fast and constricted you are in the red light zone and should slow down, make adjustments or lessen the physical effort. It keeps you honest. If you are somewhere you shouldn't be just yet the breath will let you know.
"Will of mind can cheat the body but it can't cheat the breath" - Mark Whitwell
A myofascial therapist once explained to me the theory of feedback and feedforward information. In feedforward you are telling the body what to do. So for example if the teacher of the class says "tuck your tailbone" then you say "body - tuck tailbone". You use your mind to make your body do something, In feedback information you listen to what the body is telling you. So if the breath is calm in a deep backbend then you can trust everything is ok. You might tuck your tailbone but maybe for your body you don't. You have to decide by listening to the information your body is telling you. It will depend on you and your breath at that moment in time. This isn't to say feedforward information won't be helpful. Try it and see. In the end though come back to your breath (your guru) and do what works best for you. I've found 9 times out of 10 my body knows the answer my mind doesn't.
3. The inhalation and exhalation is the merging of two opposites within your own body - Mark Whitwell
Ha-tha Yoga. Ha means sun and tha means moon. Two opposites just like inhalation and exhalation. I had actually never thought of this till Mark explained it to us and when he did I found it made so much sense. Life itself is made up of opposites that are continuously coming together and then moving apart. Just as man and women or rather masculine and feminine energies come together and move apart in love our inhale and exhale merges back and forth. When you consciously watch this happen in your own body it is like you are making love to yourself. LOVE - not sex. It's different. Mark describes it as "participating in life itself - being with that which breathes you". Words can't describe this experience. It's so simple yet so powerful.
4. Because the Guru said so.
If the asanas and the Surya Namaskara are to be practiced, they must be done so in accordance with the prescribed vinyasa method only. As the sage Vamana says, ‘Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin na karayet (O yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa).’ When yoga is practiced with a knowledge of its proper method, it is quite easy to learn, but practiced without such knowledge, it becomes a very difficult undertaking, Therefore, aspirants should not forget to learn the method of vinyasa, as well as of rechaka and puraka , and to follow it in their practice.”
~ From Yoga Mala (Sri K.Pattabhi Jois)
Most of the yoga asana you see today (most not all) has come from the lineage of Krishnamarchaya. He was considered the teacher of teachers and is called the father of modern yoga. He taught Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar, Pattahbi Jois, AG Mohan, Mark Whitwell and his son TKV Desikachar. Parampara is when the teachings are passed from the guru to the disciple in person so that the student understands it completely and nothing has been left out. This is no 200 hour teacher training course. These people were yoga scholars and devoted their lives to learning his teachings. The method of vinyasa, which means movement with breath, comes from this lineage. When you decide you want to learn yoga be sure that your teacher has learned from parampara. You wouldn't learn how to fly a plane from someone who only did 200 hours of flying would you? Why would this be any different?
What to do next
Luckily there is an easy solution to this. Come into your breath as you move through your yoga class. Whatever class you take just let the breath move your body. Begin the inhale, raise your arms. Begin the exhale, lower your arms and so on. Of course this is much easier to do when you are doing your own practice and moving at your own pace. This is what's so good about Mysore style in that its individual. In led classes you have to keep up to the teacher who is teaching for the room and not one person in particular. It would be like a doctor trying to see 40 patients at once and give a general prescription. Luckily there are many good teachers out there who do make breath the central focus. Seek them out. There is one in your city right now. At least at this time, unlike organic food, they still charge the same rate;)
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