A week ago exactly, I was in Seattle, where I attended a workshop at the lovely 8 Limbs Yoga centre in Capitol Hill, with three master teachers, Dr. Robert Svoboda, Dr. Claudia Welch and Dr. Scott Blossom. Dr. Svoboda is an Ayurvedic doctor, while Dr. Welch and Dr. Blossom are both doctors of Oriental Medicine with a strong interest and practice in Ayurveda. Dr. Blossom also happens to be a wonderful Yoga teacher; and the workshop focused on the topic of “Cultivating Prana” through Vinyasa Yoga and Ayurveda.
In both the Ayurveda and Yoga philosophies, Prana is incredibly important. You may have heard of it as “chi” or simply as “life-force.” As Dr. Svoboda said, “In the context of a living system, prana is both stable and continuous.” It is elemental, in fact to our goal of truly connecting mind and body and having a sustained link between how we live from the neck up to neck down. If we want to live a truly harmonious life, our work is to try to draw in as much Prana as possible into our bodies through the practices of Yoga, mindful eating, mindful living, meditation and chanting.
The challenge of course is making the time to cultivate Prana and also not allowing our beings to be impacted by the de-stabilizing elemental force known in Ayurveda as Vata.
What is Vata, exactly? In brief, the ancient Yogis and practioners of Ayurveda, tried to make sense of the external universe by dividing the natural phenonmena that they observed by noting both the effects of these phenomena as well as their inherent patterns. So developed the idea of the universal elements i.e. Air / Space which is Vata (derived from Vayu or the sansrkit word for wind), Fire: which is primarily Pitta and Earth which is known as Kapha.
These external elements also exist within our own bodies, according to the Ayurvedic sages and if you stop and consider what the Vata element might be in your body, you could deduce that it would be that which causes movement within your being, i.e. just like air, it would move quickly and so you could say that the Vata force is responsible for both digestion and elimination. The digestive fire would be the Pitta element. In Ayurveda, digestion and elimination are central to our health. Digestion represents both the taking in of all food – not just the physical food we eat, but everything, thoughts, impressions, energy, time spent with people we like or have an aversion to, i.e. all outward stimulation; while elimination implies the optimal processing of nutrients, the body’s ability to take what it needs from the food you draw in and the easeful discharge of what you don’t need.
The thing is, when you consider that since 1997 over half of the world’s population lives in urban cities – and most seem to be tying with New York’s “the City that doesn’t sleep” reputation – you might say that we live in a state of constant over-stimulation. We’re bombarded by messages, advertising, conversations, sounds etc. and as we live with even more density, we are going to find that this feeling of over-stimulation is only going to increase, which gives more freedom to the Vata element to play its erratic dance in our lives. In fact to feel Vata’s inducing sense of overwhelm just spend ten minutes going through your email inbox on Monday morning, or better still, late on a Sunday night.
This is why, finding a way to calm Vata, by cultivating our Prana or life-force is even more valuable today than it was for those ancient Yogis, thousands of years ago. You can bet that they probably had more peaceful lives than we do today.
For Dr. Blossom, the way to cultivate Prana through the Yoga practice is to draw the attention to the deeper tissues of the body, where the prana should be stored.
Just as we noted earlier that Prana is stabilizing, “the bone structure is the stabilizing tissue in our bodies,” he said. “It is also our body’s response to gravity – it sucks us down.”
This was interesting to me, as focusing on the bones is definitely how I have been practicing Yoga through my study with all my teachers. When you line up the bones and the joints in the body, your Yoga practice requires less muscular effort and there is a feeling of all parts of your body being connected with one another.
Yet, I liked how Dr. Blossom extrapolated this idea further. “The bones are very quiet, while the muscles are assertive, determined to be heard. To get to the bones, you have sift through. Plus the bones allow you to find the most efficient point of balance.”
A simple way to feel this in your own Yoga practice is to try Utkatasana (sometimes known misleadingly as Chair pose). Start with your toes touching, heels slightly apart, then focusing on your ankle joint, start to allow the knees to move forward as though they are pulling a string on the back of the knees taut. Stop when you find the maximum bend from your ankle joints only. You may realize that you have not gone as deep in this pose as your normally do, but you should feel really, really stable. In fact, your feet will feel as though they are sucking down into the earth. Now draw the weight back more onto your heels, as you do this, you’ll realize how there is more effort on your quadricep muscles and hip flexors to hold you up, now lean forward and you’ll feel more work again, even your toes will work harder, then come back to the place we arrived in first and stay here for a few breaths.
I found that I could have stayed here all afternoon, there was a comfort and buoyancy in the pose.
We moved on to a few sun salutations, again drawing awareness to the bones and then practiced some fluid side to side lunge movements that are part of the Shadow Yoga movement lexicon, the tradition Dr. Blossom teaches. It struck me how similar these movements are to what my husband Eoin practices and teaches as part of what he calls his surf/yoga superflow movement patterns, or Shiva Rea with her Kalaripayattu inspired vinyasa krama. And it is not surprising, given the melding in all these practices of years of hatha yoga, martial arts and mindful movment, each with their own nuanced approaches that call for a more fluid, seamless way of moving and being.
One thing I forgot to mention is how much I enjoyed standing in the “horse” stance, also familiar to tai-chi practioners, but here as part of the Yoga session. We are such electro-magnetic beings and it is inspiring to feel the tangibility of Prana.
Dr. Welch took us further.
“To feel Prana, you have to get really still” she said. And so, we sat in a simple meditation pose, while she led us through a flow of breath, focusing on our Pranamaya Kosha, explaining that we can get rid of old habit patterns and places in our body where the Prana is stuck, through the simple yet challenging act of focusing our attention there.
I remember putting my hands on my lower back on my kidneys – this place felt very stuck for me, but slowly, the breath started smoothing its way there. “It is the process of unbecoming” she said. Afterward, I thought about how often we are so quick to label ourselves as certain things, wife, husband, sister, brother, teacher, yogi, businessman, artist, chef.
What are some of your labels? And how attached are you to them?
The labelling process makes it hard to become unstuck. And isn’t this what we are trying to do through our spiritual practices? To not be so rigidly attached to habits, so we are free to try a better option of being? To be open to possibilities?
Ultimately, that was for me the biggest lesson of the weekend. As. Dr. Svoboda put it, “Languages are methods for conceptualizing reality.”
They are not reality.
Namaste + thank you for reading.
Please feel free to post your comments.
2010 is the last year that acclaimed Ayurvedic Scholar Dr. Robert Svoboda will be offering Public Lectures. You can view his schedule here.
Dr. Claudia Welch’s book on Womens Health is due to be published imminently. Stay connected with her here.
Dr. Scott Blossom practices acupuncture in Berkeley California and teaches Shadow Yoga with his wife Chandra. Learn more about them here. For more about Shadow Yoga, click here.