Monday, April 21, 2008

Off the mat -- Finding Prana

(From the dharma talks to my students)

Often enough when I practice yoga, I find that I start from a low energy state. And by “low energy,” I’m talking less about the actual amount of energy available at a particular time and talking more about the way I feel and perceive that energy.

For many of us, the first time we start practicing yoga when we move into the first energetic pose – whether it’s Mountain or Downward facing Dog or Warrior 2 – as we first move into that pose, we are assembling it through will power. Some combination of our internal motivation or a teacher’s cajoling leads us to Warrior 2, raising our forward arm to shoulder height, and extending it forward from a vertical torso.

The energy that moves the arm into position comes almost mechanically and dully from our mind’s decision to position the arm.

That’s one experience of prana. And it’s not an unimportant one. In fact, it’s the one lots of people identify with, and it may be the only one that many perceive consistently, whether it’s used to get out of bed in the morning or to show up at work or to pick up the groceries or to feed the dog or to mow the lawn or to get up from the couch to go to bed at night.

But it’s not the only experience we can have of prana, by any means.

* * *

Think back to that first (or recent) practice session when moving into a pose was a mechanical exercise in willpower. Often enough, for me, the first one or two Sun A sequences of each practice feel this way.

But then something happens, though it happens gradually enough that I usually don’t notice it until it’s pretty far along: Instead of formulating the pose in my brain and then manipulating my various body parts into position, I find the pose begins to generate itself without the mechanistic effort of my brain’s control. I don’t mean to suggest that my mind is absent – it’s there and engaged and choosing poses and depth and alignment and the like – but the energy that creates the pose is no longer something applied, but rather something that begins to flow through the pose itself. It’s hard to find the right words for this.

The best way I can think of to describe it is that the energy and the pose aren’t really separated. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t as though everything turns into energy and lightness and ease. Many yoga poses remain at or beyond the borders of my capabilities. Some are incredibly difficult, requiring all the strength and endurance and flexibility I can muster. But the energy of the pose is internal to it – not external.

I once had a teacher who gave very precise instructions for poses. One day I was working with her one-on-one and she provided the usual set of meticulously specific instructions for a pose, and I grinned and asked what would happen if I did the pose with my neck bent rather than straight. I was just teasing her a bit about being so precise, but she, quite seriously, responded, “Oh, you should try it that way.” So I did.

Now I’m not sure whether it was one of those “magic teacher” experiences or whether I was warmed up enough to be aware of things that I’m often not aware of or what, but changing the pose made a subtle but very perceptible difference in the way the pose felt energetically. It’s a practice worth trying, just to reinforce the sometimes otherwise unnoticed experiences we have with prana.

Once you’ve noticed the experience of “doing it wrong,” you can feel the difference. I put “doing it wrong” in quotation marks, because, of course, when it comes to yoga, the only “wrong” way is the “not paying attention” way. Anything that happens with full attention isn’t wrong. It may be counterproductive to a particular objective, but it will never be “wrong.” Anyway, once you come to notice the difference, you can start to move into alignment with those patterns of energy. Why would you care? As you align with the energies of your body, your moves become more fluid, your balance stabilizes, you allow prana to guide you more deeply into poses, strengthening and stretching. Once you become familiar with its flow, you can move with it, using it as a counterpoint to your own actions. A dance.

Prana in this form sometimes gets labeled shakti, sometimes as the flow, sometimes other things. But often enough in Sun A or Sun B sequences, as we move with the breath, we’ll discover not just a trickle of energy, but a river current that pulls us on an inhale to Warrior 2, presses an exhale into Chautranaga dandasana, that makes Upward facing dog not just a counterpose, but a fully expressed embodiment of the heart, shoulders, and head, energized, that draws the torso, shoulder girdle and head back into “reverse” Warrior, and from there to the grounded power of extended side angle.

* * *

Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth (nod to Laurie G. for telling me to go read it) writes that there are three basic mind sets with which we should engage in life: acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm. His point is, I think, that any more negative or contracted mind sets will do us (or will lead us to do others) harm. But as I think about the three basic manifestations of prana on the mat, I wonder if Tolle’s point isn’t more fundamental than that.

Prana – energy – moves. We can accept it, enjoy it or embrace it, but if we resist it or seek to subjugate it to our wills, its flow is impeded. When that happens, often enough, I find myself completely lost in thoughts, oblivious to where I am, what I am doing. And when I do finally come back to myself, I can find energy knotted somewhere in my mind or body, the flow blocked, stuck. There are lots of mind-body sticking points.

Sometimes prana gets diverted into judgmental competitions, whether with another person in the room or with a notion of an ideal we hold in our heads. There is surely a kind of energy in such actions, but such efforts depend on a kind of cruel dualism – a separation of my Will from the prana itself, an effort to mechanize a river. When I indulge this urge, the river of prana soon reduces to a trickle, constricted around judgmental contraction. The more I separate myself from the experience of prana, the more I seek to subject it to my will, the less I find it available to me.

Yoga can be an exploration of and with prana. We can move into poses less with an attitude of conquest and accomplishment and willful ambition and more with a sense of exploration and discovery. At its best, yoga asana practice is a practice of bringing mindfulness to the experience of prana, and a pose sequence becomes an embodied dance of the experience of prana shaping the body’s position and motion and the body’s actions shaping the experience of prana.

* * *

So I tend to think of Tolle’s three mind sets as the three kinds of constructive prana experiences in practice: at the acceptance level is the mechanical application of energy to fulfill a mind-set objective. The self-aware energy experience of a pose itself is enjoyment – a kind of quiet, introspective, fun that leaves us calm, with heightened awareness, and peace. At the shakti level of experience is the free movement of prana through our bodies, drawing us from one pose to another, the movement becoming not “effortless” because there is no exhaustion, but rather “effortless” because there is no need to marshal energies to perform the pose – only efforts to channel the energies that flow, themselves, freely.

* * *

A river is not simply a channel through which water flows – it is the flowing water, itself.

We are not simply channels through which prana flows – we are the flowing prana.

We do not need to strive to gain or cling to hold prana any more than a river needs to cling to its water.

In your next practice, allow yourself to become quiet enough to perceive the prana. And then notice what you find.