Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Ok, so this isn’t a well-developed thought, but more of a journal entry.

Saturday afternoon, I attended a pranayama workshop led by Darren Main. What that is and why it matters requires a couple of backtracks.

First, pranayama is one of the eight limbs of the practice of yoga. It means “control of energy.” In most yoga classes in the US, it gets translated as “breath,” and it becomes teachers’ way to keep track of the students’ mindfulness: if the student has lost track of the ujjayi breath pattern (make a Darth Vader-type breath sound, in and out, and you’ll have the basic idea), then the student has also likely lost the mindfulness element of the practice, and the teacher needs to dial back the intensity and re-establish the breath pattern.

But pranayama is more than simply mindful breathing – it’s the practice of using the breath to explore the subtle energy pathways of the body, and it’s learning to harness that energy as desired in life. Second, I recently found a couple of books by Richard Rosen on pranayama, and I was been curious enough to want to explore the practice a bit more deeply. As I read through his first book, I came to realize that developing and exploring a pranayama practice was as demanding and time-consuming as developing and exploring a meditation practice had proven. I was skeptical that I had enough time to devote to it. But I kept reading, anyway, to see what I might glean, whether information or inspiration. I found bits and pieces of what he wrote to be interesting elaborations of my own experiences. Rosen’s writings provided a structure and framework to help make sense of my own experience.

I’d gone so far as to begin to amass the props (sandbag weights, long narrow cushion to support the spine, that sort of thing) that Rosen recommends for beginning the practice, the first box of ordered props arriving, as fate would have it, Saturday. The box arrived while I was at Darren Main’s workshop.

Before the workshop, I’d read a number of yoga and Buddhist authors who write of various meditation practices, and the unusual mind/body experiences that can result. The authors frequently insist that the experiences, as peculiar as they may be, just are, and those who experience them should avoid becoming attached to them. Saturday, I got a glimpse of what they were talking about.

The workshop was presented a studio where I practice periodically – a large heatable room, maybe 50 or so class members. A comfortable number for the room – not jammed mat-to-mat, but close enough to create a sense of togetherness. Darren spent about a half hour talking to us about what to expect of the experience. He described the process (that I’ll describe below), described some of the more unusual aspects of the experience, cautioned us about some of the ways that we might respond to the experiences, and then sent us to our mats and guided us.

He started us in Savasana – Corpse pose. He instructed us on the particular in-and-out breathing pattern he wanted us to follow, and then he coached us through it for five to ten minutes. As he’d previously predicted, the first few minutes, the practice seemed as pointless and foolish as it probably sounds to anyone reading this, compounded, perhaps, by the regret that I’d actually paid for the workshop. Consistent with his forewarning and instruction, I noticed that thought and continued the practice.

After about 15 minutes, I began to experience the increase of tension and energies in my hands and forearms. The best analogy I can provide is that they felt like capacitors charging up. I began to feel energies in them twitching and flexing the muscles. And as I continued to breathe, the energies in them grew. I had a feeling of deep wellness, while at the same time, I felt quite high. Following Darren's instructions, I worked the breath and postures he suggested. Coming out of a pose was accompanied by a sensational release of energy. My spine arched me into Matsyasana -- Fish pose, and I considered momentarily moving into several other poses.

As we resumed the same breath technique, I again felt the generation and localization of energy in my forearms, this time to a greater degree. Again, Darren coached the room on breathing and posture. Again, I moved into the pose he called for, holding the exhalation, this time holding the pose even longer, feeling the energy coursing through my body. When I couldn’t hold the pose any longer, I lowered to the floor, but my back then re-arched, drawing me in to an unsupported Fish pose.

Again, we resumed the technique. As I inhaled the story of Hiranyaksha occurred to me, as I was washed over by waves of joy of physical being. At the top of the inhale, I began laughing, which continued for a time, then subsided. Others in the room were also laughing, and our laughter tended to feed back to one another, and I felt a connection to the others, most of whom were laughing, one or two who were crying.

Again, Darren coached us through breathing, and called for another pose. But as I performed this one, I experienced what felt from the inside like an explosion of unimaginable energy – back arching, limbs trembling violently, and an incredible and otherwise indescribable coursing of energy through my limbs, torso and head. It was not pleasant, but wild and uncontrolled. At that point, my mind was in a mode or condition that was not rational, nor strongly in control of my body. I arched into an unsupported Fish pose, arms extended, the backs of my hands pressed into the floor, like feet are pressed into the floor in Upward Facing Dog pose. Darren must have seen my response, and he came over and placed a hand on my heart, a second on my forehead. Usually, the touch of a teacher has an immediate and profound calming effect on me, energy expressions relax, draining into the teacher’s touch like electricity into a grounded cable. But this time, Darren’s touch, though welcome, felt distant. It took several breath cycles for me to ground myself in his touch and relax the deep, body-contorting spasms.

Again, returning to the breath technique, I lapsed into laughter of a joy that is hard to express. Darren repeated the cycle one more, this time my experience being calmer, but still highly, highly energized, with abundant laughter.

I left the workshop lingering on the question of what it was, exactly, that I’d experienced? Just a result of high levels of oxygenation of the bloodstream? Exploitation or exploration of feedback loops in the wiring of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? A cheap and lawful acid-style trip based on oxygen? Maybe a bit of each.

As I’ve pondered that question, several realizations have come to me in the last three days.

First was a confirmation of the teaching that I’d discovered in less dramatic ways previously: that it is useful and accurate to talk of energy channels that run through the body and that affect the ways that we live, move, and breathe, that those energy pathways are not perfectly open, but rather can be obstructed – hence the capacitor-style accumulation of energy before the release; and that opening those energy channels affects the mind/body.

Second, the experience validates the reality of more subtle experiences with the breath – such as the general sense of well-being associated with a yoga asana practice that is not fully present with other exercise regimes.

Third, it was a validation of the statements in a number of works that advanced pranayama techniques should not be practiced without the presence, facilitation, and protection of a teacher who can serve as ground and guide. The power and extremity of my experience was safe and, despite its wildness, unthreatening, as I knew that Darren was there to aid me in controlling what I could not control myself. I suspect that without that level of protection, the experience could be mentally or emotionally harmful to some.

Fourth, community – practicing in the presence of others – makes a significant difference. At various stages of the practice, I felt strongly the presence of others, and their experiences fed into mine.

Fifth, the energy release I experienced during the third kundalini lock was akin to orgasm in its intensity, but many, many times more powerful and much more wild and unformed.

Sixth, the practice if repeated will, I think, help clear the energy pathways, like flushing water from the bottom of a dam can clear out sandbars that build up in tailwaters. I found myself on several occasions in the days following the experience more aware of clearer, brighter sense perceptions than I’d experienced prior to the workshop. It would be interesting to experiment with that.

Seventh, and finally, as various authors have noted, in the end, interesting energy experiences tend not to be life-transforming, but rather only interesting. The effort to develop and refine ourselves remains after the experience subsides. They can provide inspiration and sometimes can act as useful tools for specific purposes, but they are just experiences.