Monday, February 13, 2006

Mala breaths

Although I spent more than a dozen hours this past weekend studying Sanskrit, the idea that has most affected me today was Manorama's explanation of mala beads.

For those not inclined to plow through yesterday's notes, Manorama used a string of mala beads to show why the Yoga Sutras are named for thread (sutra="thread," like "suture" in English). Mala beads are for meditators and mantra chanters the equivalent of rosary beads for Catholics. In a string of mala beads, there are 108 beads, and one uses them to keep track of repetitions of mantras, holding a bead between finger and thumb while chanting the mantra, then moving to the next bead for the next mantra repetition.

Listening to Manorama's explanation, my mind wandered a bit (as it always wanders), thinking about beads on strings, rather than the specific connection to the etymology of the name of the "Yoga Sutras." Later she compared mantra practice to asana practice (asana = physical posture -- what typically gets called a "yoga pose"). My wandering mind noted at that point that I practice a form of asana yoga that links postures to in-breaths and out-breaths. (Not a momentous insight -- what I practice is called vinyasa yoga, and in all the varieties of vinyasa practice, every one of them links each posture with a particular in-breath or out-breath.)

From there it wasn't too much of a leap, today, to thinking of each breath I take -- in asana practice or sitting at my desk in my office -- as a bead on a mala string. In-breath, out-breath, next bead. In-breath, out breath, next bead. In breath, out-breath, next bead. (You get the picture.)

So in this afternoon's asana practice, instead of focusing on a sequence of specific postures (Warrior 2, Warrior 1, Warrior 2, Reverse Warrior, Reverse Triangle, High Plank, Low Plank), I was thinking "In-breath (posture), out-breath (posture), in-breath (posture), out-breath (posture).

I readily acknowledge that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary -- or even remarkable -- about this change of mind-set. Indeed, I've been practicing asanas for years under the instruction of dozens of teachers, almost every one of them insisting that the breath was primary, the pose secondary. But today, I think I finally got it -- or, rather, I finally wanted the breaths strung together on a mala string more than I wanted a series of perfect poses.

As fate would have it, the teacher in today's class wasn't particularly careful to instruct on breaths, nor to time them usefully -- so poses that I could only hold for a moment or two on an in-breath, she kept us in for long enough that if I'd kept inhaling, I could have exploded one of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. But perhaps that irregularity in the practice actually helped. Because instead of worrying about staying with the teacher's erratic breath calls, I thought, "in-breath, out-breath, next bead." If they coincided with the posture movements the teacher was calling, so much the better, but I stuck with my breath pattern, first and foremost, whether in or out of synch with the teacher and the class.

Of course, paying attention to my practice in this way, I found it really hard to focus on breathing in certain poses. The backbend of wheel pose ( (and, just for clarity, I don't do wheel pose with anything like the grace of the linked image) leaves my breathing shortened, the back of my rib cage constricted. Each breath is labored in and out. The tightness of my abdominal muscles in peacock pose ( prevents me from breathing in anything other than tiny sips in and out. But gentle or strong, tiny or deep, today, I linked some of those breaths into beads on a string. I noticed a couple of times, especially after the abdominal crunch work that power yoga practice uniquely injects into the middle of an asana practice, that I had completely forgotten my mala beads and was holding my breath. And once, I even noticed that my body wanted to pant out some accumulated fear. At that point, I thought, rather more rapidly than I had during calmer parts of the practice: "in-breath, out-breath, next bead."

And my mind calmed.

Cool enough. The best part, though, was realizing on the way home that I was linking my breathing then. And at my desk, later.

And even now.

In-breath and out-breath are obvious in chanting mantras. They can't really be ignored, as a mantra stops when the out-breath is done, and it can only resume after the in-breath is done. While other activities are not as overtly dependent upon the breath as mantra, they are just as dependent covertly.