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Pravritti-Nivritti and Finding a Suitable Practice

Emil Wendel and Heidi Schubert, yoga teachers

Emil and I in Bali this year

This is an article written by my good friend, yogi, and yoga teacher Tania Plahay who lives in London.  She is a really beautiful and inspiring person, and I thought that I should share this article with all of you since I think it is really important and relevant for each of us to learn how to find a yoga practice suitable for our lifestyle/bodies. Emil Wendel, who ran this workshop, is an amazing pranayama and meditation teacher who I had the great pleasure of getting to study with in Ubud, Bali for the last two years.  Great thanks to Emil and to Tania for letting me post this on my site, if you are interested in learning more about her please see her website at http://taniayogini.com

In September my pranayama (breathing techniques) and mediation teacher Emil Wendel visited Oxford to teach a workshop entitled ‘Pravitti vs. Nivritti Yoga – the great dialogue between the householder and renouncer traditions in ancient India, and why this is important to us’. Emil explained the way the modern practice of yoga grew out of two ancient paths. A path for the householder (Pravitti), which involved daily practices which could be done alongside one worldly life; and a path of the renouncer (Nivritti) – which generally involves going off a living in a cave and meditating from dawn to dusk.

Emil provided some fascinating insights to these two paths.  He talked about the dualist nature of these paths and the fact that they could potentially be seen to be in direct conflict with one another, opposite and mutually exclusive.  Emil explained that many of the famous yoga teachers were not living the life of the renouncer but living more in line with the householder path. For example B.K.S. Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Sri T.Krishnamacharya all had families and headed up households. Other teachers, such as Sivananda, lived more in line with the renouncer tradition but during parts of their lives had huge responsibilities, for example the running of major ashrams etc. Some such as Swami Satyananda lived an active life with lots of responsibilities but later in life handed over responsibilities to his successor and spent his last years living in seclusion.

So what does this mean for us yoga practitioners? Emil talked about the importance of choosing a practice both suitable to your type, and in line with what you aspire to. I love his example of his 80 something year old mother who he said he would advise against starting a strong ashtanga vinyasa based practice. Choosing a suitable practice is a long journey and requires contemplation, patience and guidance. You should try to adopt practices that suit your lifestyle. For example if you have a family trying to practice having no desires and no ego are unlikely to work, and that instead one might adopt practices more in line with a modern yogic life style. For example, giving to charity, undertaking voluntary work, and being compassionate are all part of  a suitable and sustainable practice (rather than saying that I’ll start tomorrow by getting up at 5.00am and doing a three hour practice, then and being unable to sustain it and beating yourself up about being a failure!).

Emil is a wonderful pranayama teacher and he gave us a talk about the different uses of breath work in the yoga practice, which are just as varied as the types of asana practices available. He described 6 different types of breath work:

1. Mindfulness or breath or ānāpānasmirti. This type of breathing is very common in the Buddhist tradition and basically involves becoming aware and meditating on the breath. This is a very simple yet powerful practice, which can be done anywhere and by anybody.

2. Pranayama as a tool for better health. We take approximately 21,600 breaths per day and these types of pranayama techniques seek to improve health through the breath. For example certain types of breathing are said to regulate the heart beat though their effects on your glands.

3. Patanjali (one of the key yoga philosophers and complier of the yoga sutras) wrote that you should only focus on slowing and extending the out-breath.

4. Ha-tha yoga techniques – in particular breathing ratios, often combined with bandhas (internal locks) and mudras (hand or body gestures). These type of techniques are often associated with tantric practices and are attempts to wake up the kundalini (the serpent of vital energy that lays sleeping at the base of the spine).

5) Prana Vidya – the use of prana for healing purposes. Some people are born with this power.

6) Swarha Yoga – in yoga it is believed that that energy or focus moves from the right to the left brain on a cyclical basis and this is linked to the flow of breath through the nostrils. Swarha Yoga involves living your live in accordance with your brain patterns, for example when the left brain was dominant it might be better to do more analytical tasks, but when it is in the right brain it might be better to focus on artistic tasks.

Pranayama teacher Emil Wendel

Emil Wendel and Tania Plahay

Emil then talked about the dualities in yoga and how some of these can be very confusing. For example, some teachers say to stay attentive and some say to let go, some say have no goals and some say have clear goals, some say appreciate the here and now and others say remain detached. Although on the surface these all seem dualist, in fact they often suggest something to achieve the opposite. For example we move our bodies in our asana practice in order to be able to sit still, we use our mind by focusing on the breath to come to a point of stillness where we have no mind and no breath.

At the end of the course Emil explained that yoga [is not about happiness – it] is about freedom and liberation (moksha). We should therefore choose our practice accordingly to how fast we want to precede and where we want to get, for example if we want health we might choose to practice pranayama techiques associated with health benefits, if we want to awaken our kundalini we can chose tantric practices. Everyone of us is an individual and as Krisnamurti said this path is a pathless land with no steps and no guru. However all of us have the ability to find the truth and guidance within, if we can be still, attentive and aware.

With thanks to Emil Wendel for his teachings. Any misrepresentation or errors in the above is totally my fault. To find out more about Emil and is teachings see his website:  http://beyond-the-asana.com. With thanks also to Ian and Josephine McDonald of  Oxford Yoga who ran Emil’s workshop – see here for more details about their other workshops and classes:  http://www.oxfordyoga.co.uk/index.html.


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