Friday, February 4, 2011

Sivananda Yoga Sadhana Intensive: A Pranayama Retreat

Two weeks of intensive pranayamas ( yogic breathing exercises aimed to control the prana or vital force energy, or Chi like the Chinese call it ) at the Sivananda Ashram in Madurai. It was tough, it was hard and it was intense, just the way I like it. And it included all the good stuff that all yogis love: all sorts of pranayamas including mudras and bandhas. It was an awesome experience and I recommend it to anybody who is really serious about yoga.

Swami Vishnudevananda, the founder of the Sivananda Ashram, develop this training based on his own practice, to give the students a glimpse to the advance practice that yogis do in the caves of the Himalayas and to have a real experience of what pranayama is.

We had two daily practices and each practice would take about 3 hours with only 40 minutes of asanas (the physical postures) and the rest just pranayamas! And by the last two days it extended up to four hours so it was in total eight hours a day! Very intense.

The training also included lots of mantra chanting and reading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Swami Vishnudevananda's commentaries (an ancient yoga text), and the Vivekachudamani written by Swami Shankaracharya, pure Advaita Vedanta philosophy which in 200 pages said nothing but
"Brahman alone is real, the universe is unreal, and the individual soul is no other than the Universal Soul"
, which on other words means
"The world that we see is not as real as we think it is, God is the only reality, the only existence, the only truth and our individual Soul is nothing but God himself. Wake up from the illusion, rise and be brave!".

I think instead of a training it was more like a retreat. We would meet twice a day with the teacher and he would tell us what practices we needed to do and then we were on our own. I really liked that.

We practiced all sorts of pranayamas. Anuloma Viloma, Surya Bheda, Ujjayi, Bhastrika, Sitali, Sitkari, Brahmari, Samanu with retention and applying all three bandhas. We also did Maha Mudra and Maha Vedha. I know, I know... it sounds like very weird stuff if you don't know anything about it, but I can't explain them all here otherwise it would be a very very long post.

In Anuloma Viloma you breathe through the left nostril then exhale through the right then inhale again through the right and exhale through the left. That's one round and this is a basic pranayama to create a sort of balance between the Yin and Yan energies within the body.

Everybody had different experiences. Some would feel heat all around their body or energy moving up and down, others would feel like floating and others would get very emotional, either extremely happy or sad. I felt like if I had received an electric shock and i was very alert an awake.

The first 4 days I was jet lagged but then all of a sudden I was full of energy and didn't feel sleepy at all during the day, not even during the meditations, even though I was sleeping like four or five hours a day, and I would still wake up very early in the morning without any trouble.

But for me it was mainly a mental challenge. I had to really control my patience and anxiety to finish the daily practices. The second day we were already doing 20 rounds of anuloma viloma and I was really struggling with it. I couldn't stop thinking that I wanted to finish on time for lunch or dinner although they had already told us the the meals would be waiting for us.

I was also constantly thinking about my holidays in New York where I spend Christmas and New Years Eve. So many nice memories, such a nice time and now all of a sudden I was sitting cross legged in an ashram in India counting Om 1, Om 2, Om 3, Om 4... while inhaling and retaining my breath in the company of 15 other crazy yogis like me, but we all look like any other regular guy or girl.

It was also pretty tough not to check my mails or FB for those two weeks although I could have easily check my mails on my phone. They recommended us to avoid any external contact to focus on the practice. I thought "how the he'll am I going to survive if I can barely finish the first couple of days!" But the next days I tried really hard to stay focus and just live one breath at a time, one day at a time. It was a good way to stay present otherwise I would have become insane. By the fifth day we were already doing 40 rounds! That's about one hour sitting on a small cushion on the floor doing Anuloma Viloma, and that was just one of the practices.

But this is not meant as a regular daily practice, is more like a spiritual boost to recharge your batteries. You need an appropriate environment, ideally in an ashram and with the right diet. Ashram food is already a bit restricted, 100% veg with no onions and no garlic but we also had to avoid salt during the two weeks. The advanced pranayamas are not meant to be done in the city because of the pollution and distractions.

The practice will normally make you withdraw from the world, you become introverted and you will like to be alone, that's not good unless you are planning to retire to a cave. This is what the teacher told us during the training, all the time, and he suggested that if we could we should take a few days before going back to the city.

Well, right after the course finished I had to go to the town nearby and it was quite tough. I found a taxi on the way, he had a very nasty look but he offer to take me to the town so he asked me to go in the car. I went in but after a few minutes I notice that he was just standing outside taking a piss and smoking a cigarette. Then when he finally came back to the car he lighted up another cigarette.

After all those intense breathing practices in such a pure environment breathing cigarette smoke didn't feel good at all so I asked him to please stop. He said "no problem sir" but even though I asked him several times he smoked it until the last bit, he was almost smoking his finger!

So I felt totally annoyed and very intolerant. What the heck! Instead of becoming a better person I became just more intolerant and impatience! Then I remember all what they told us at the training... "these are very advance practices and are not recommended for householders, you will become introverted and over sensitive, be careful", then I saw the face of the driver and I kind of saw Swami Vishnu laughing at me as if he was poking and telling me "I told you.. Didn't I?"

Just a few minutes in the town and I wanted to get out of there, so hectic, so much smoke, so much pollution! Again and again I saw Swamijis face everywhere. Then when I was near to the ashram on my way back I met the ashram driver and he gave me a lift. Once more I saw Swami Vishnu laughing but on a picture in the car :-)

Left (Swami Sivananda), Right (Swami Vishnudevananda)

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If you are looking for an intense pranayama retreat where you can learn and practice with intensity many different types of advanced pranayamas, at least for two weeks, then I can definitely recommend the Sivananda Sadhana Intensive course. You will have a direct personal experience of the effects of a pranayama practice in the state of your mind and body and you will develop the will power to continue with a home practice.

1 comment:

  1. haha its great to get little reminders always to "see god in every face"!