Sweet taboo: Music

There seem to be just a few more touchy subjects within the Ashtanga world than playing music during practice. We’ve touched on it a few times, including here and here (our most commented upon post to date). Few people seem to be agnostic about it.

The thing is, music can be beneficial — at least to the physical side of things. There’s new news on that front, via the always handy New York Times. It’s about music’s ability to boost a high-intensity interval workout.

Here’s the key takeaway:

The volunteers all reported that the intervals had been hard. In fact, their feelings about the difficulty were almost identical, whether they had been listening to music or not.

What is interesting is that their power output had been substantially greater when they were listening to music. They were pedaling much more ferociously than without music. But they did not find that effort to be more unpleasant. Without music, the workout struck them as about the equivalent of an eight or higher on a zero to 10 scale of disagreeableness (with 10 being unbearable).

With music, each interval still felt like about an eight or higher to the riders, but they were working much harder during each 30-second spurt. The intensity increased but not the discomfort.

Polled by the scientists at the end of the experiment, all 20 riders said that if they were to take up interval training on their own after the study, they definitely would listen to music to get themselves through the workout.

So, to a question: Can there be a role for music within an Ashtanga practice?

Here’s where I think the answer could be yes: when researching or exploring new, difficult poses. I think that experience can be near enough to the intensity of an interval workout. (For so many, this seems to be all about Kapotasana.) And what I mean is an initial exploration of the physical side of asana, of the reaching and crunching and stretching and ouching as one attempts to find the calmness and stillness of a “proper” pose. Of the discovery of where your body — your grossest kosha — can go before you begin to peel down into the deeper sheaths.

For that, probably turn the music off.

There’s also this: Music also can just be a nice change of pace and scenery.

Posted by Steve

5 hours of driving, 3 hours of Tim Miller

Bobbie and I both had a couple of bigger “aha” moments on Saturday during Tim Miller’s workshop on sadhana, a fundraiser for the Sean O’Shea Foundation.

Sadhana, Tim explained, also means “great accomplishment” — and that was more the theme for his talk/ asana practice/ pranayama/ bhakti exploration.

We’ll get to those other moments in the coming days; we need to let them cook a little.

Here, though, is a run of a few highlights from the afternoon:

  • I appreciated this from Tim: “My ideas are not necessarily supposed to be confused with truth.”
  • Without the distractions of the Internet or HBO (I will assume he watches Game of Thrones), the ancient yogis had the time to undertake an “exploration of the internal landscape.” And it is an attempt to uncover that which already exists within us. I think the “already” there is fairly important.
  • All really good sadhanas share one thing: lineage. It comes down from yogis who have done a lot of study and personal experimentation. He also noted that Ashtanga has been taken through some of the 20th Century’s greatest minds and bodies.
  • Ashtanga, as a breath-based system (he definitely emphasized the breath during the day), works profoundly on the second kosha — pranamaya kosha.
  • Another little joke to pass on: While talking about how to get through the mental kosha — the manamaya kosha — he spoke about the role of mantra — that which protects the mind from “spinning out into vritti-ville.” I think I have an ocean front condo there.
  • Tim set up the various ways we move through the koshas, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras. He then asked: How do we cross the threshold from the fourth — vijnanamaya kosha — to the fifth, the anandamaya? You don’t get there through effort. You have to surrender — to grace, love, compassion.
  • “Polishing the mirror is the essence of sadhana.”

And he plugged Ram Dass’ latest book, of the same name.

More to come. Oh, and we did end up driving about five hours for the three-hour workshop. A good ratio.

Posted by Steve


The Nadis and Your Gut Feeling

koshas1During his discussions of the effects of a Second Series practice, and in his workshop discussions of the “subtle body,” Tim Miller is fond of pointing out that we’re not talking about something that exists in the empirical world. “If I cut you open,” he says, “and dissect you, will I be able to find your nadis? No.”

The Second Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is named “nadi shodhana”—often translated as “nerve cleansing.” The “nerves” we’re talking about, though, are the invisible channels that are part of the body of prana, one of the five koshas. The nadis channel prana in that particular body. So the purpose of the Second Series of Ashtanga is to clear these channels in order to make prana flow more freely, and so in turn to allow the practitioner a way to access the less. . .gross aspects of yoga practice.

Gross. I mean, of course, “physical.” Tim’s way of explaining the intersections of the nadis up the central channel—the chakras—often involve very physical explanations, stories, in fact. Such as the journey of Ram down the nerve channel to rescue Sita and return to a state of unity in the seventh chakra, sahasrara, that resides just above the physical head. It’s wonderful to hear this story—the story of the Ramayana—retold as the story of the quest for unity in individual, in the self. He expands and elaborates: It’s also the desire for Siva to be united with the creative force, Shakti. Stasis and energy in balance. A great story.

The first chakra is, of course, muladhara, the root. Way down there. And so by extension, Sita’s journey involves traveling through some nether regions of the gut.

So my ears perked up when, listening to National Public Radio last week, I heard that scientist have found evidence that the microbes in our gut talk to our brain and can drastically effect how we think, even our sense of well-being.

Bet you didn’t see that coming. Gross!

But yes, that’s what they’ve found. I’ve been around long enough to remember when you first started hearing talk of what are now known as “probiotics.” The newer round of research in this area has discovered that microbes found in the human gut can be sorted into kinds, can indicate the kind of diet a person eats, can cure diseases in the form of a microbe transplant (yes, exactly what you’re thinking it might involve), and that our microbes communicate with our brains. From the NPR story:

I’m always by profession a skeptic,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But I do believe that our gut microbes affect what goes on in our brains.

They’re calling this interior, invisible landscape “the human microbiome.” The study found that mice that were fed probiotics got, well, happier. Which led them to wonder, how were the microbes communicating with the brain?

A big nerve known as the vagus nerve, which runs all the way from the brain to the abdomen, was a prime suspect. And when researchers in Ireland cut the vagus nerve in mice, they no longer saw the brain respond to changes in the gut.

The vagus nerve is the highway of communication between what’s going on in the gut and what’s going on in the brain,” says John Cryan of the University College Cork in Ireland, who has collaborated with Collins.

Gut microbes may also communicate with the brain in other ways, scientists say, by modulating the immune system or by producing their own versions of neurotransmitters.

So all this got me wondering about the kinds of stories we tell about the practice, mystic, poetic, and scientific. And of the journey that begins with the physical practice of vinyasa, which leads to diet changes and to a sense of well-being and thoughtfulness—and, yes, to an awareness of prana and its journey up the sushumna nadi, and how the practice can make the ways straight.

Posted by Bobbie