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Deva Parnell Portrait
KRIPALU YOGA:
Theory & Practice

by Deva Parnell

     In the ancient Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlined the eight-fold path of Ashtanga Yoga as: yama & niyama (ethical and moral codes of behavior), asana (postures), pranayama (breath and life-force control), pratyahara (internalizing outgoing attention), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption).

    Although this system has often been perceived and practiced in a linear form, it is understood in Kripalu Yoga as holistic. The very name astha (eight) anga (limbs), denotes that these are not eight steps to be practiced one at a time in a linear way. Just as each limb of our body is complementary to all the other limbs of the body, serving the body as a whole, each limb of Ashtanga Yoga can be practiced holistically to serve the ultimate purpose of the practice of yoga: the experience of unity in which the individual soul and cosmic soul merge.

      Kripalu Yoga places the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga within the context of three stages of practice: 1. willful practice, 2. a combination of will and surrender, and 3. surrender. These practices occur holistically. In other words, although your practice may focus on one stage, such as willful practice, it will naturally contain elements of the other two stages.

STAGE ONE:  WILLFUL PRACTICE

     In Stage One, you learn to pay precise attention to the alignment and details of each posture. You also learn how to breathe deeply, coordinating breath with movement.

     The conscious use of will is exclusively focused for internal awakening rather than external achievement. The training of will combined with consciousness is a preparation for moving toward the surrender of will. Any activity motivated by fear, guilt, or the need to seek approval is not willful in this sense. The act of will emerges from Source (inner knowing). It serves Source and is dedicated to the development of Source.

Asana (posture)
     Keeping your attention focused on correct alignment and detail does not mean seeking perfection in the posture. It means practicing the safest form of the posture, for your body, in order to prevent injury and maximize the beneficial effects. Beneficial effects come not from maximum strength or flexibility, but from correct form.

Press Points
     The press point method is a simple technique which aids in attuning to your body, assuring correct physical alignment and maximum stretch in a safe and supported way. By using press points you allow your body to go to its natural limit in a relaxed way without forcing. Imagine you are holding a piece of string with one end of the string in each hand. To create a straight line, simply press the ends of the string in opposite directions. Press points work the same way. In order to bring a body part into correct alignment, simply press the ends in opposite directions. For instance, if you want straighten your spine in a sitting position, press your sitz bones (ischial tuberosities) downward and the crown of the head upward. Some other frequently used press points are the soles of the feet, the pubic bone, the front of the hip-bones (ASIS or anterior superior iliac spine), the side of each hip (greater trochanter) and the tail-bone (coccyx). In order to bring awareness to a press point, a teacher or assistant may press their hand into a non-invasive press point. To activate the press point, simply press back.

Willful versus forceful
     Even though you want to maximize the physiological impact by being totally focused on the details and appropriate alignment of the body in each posture, do it consciously, not forcefully. Willful practice is not intrusive. It's not violent. It does not induce struggle or fight with the body. The body is approached respectfully as it is. By treating the body lovingly and consciously, you can cross your physical, mental, and emotional boundaries without a "fight or flight" reaction.

Self Acceptance
     Accept the limitations that are present in your body. Your inner journey begins from where you are. Self-acceptance removes disturbing thoughts and emotions caused by self-criticism, comparison, competition, etc. It creates relaxation in the mind, which in turn creates relaxation in the body. Accepting yourself also means accepting resistances, fears, and insecurities that may show up during your practice. Maintain your total focus on performing the posture consciously, to the best of your ability, in the most relaxed way.

Pranayama (breath and life-force control)
     Prana, life energy, is a natural, healing force that carries out all the life-giving, involuntary functions of the body. Prana mimics the mind and emotions. When the mind is disturbed, prana is disturbed. When the mind is confused and scattered, prana is confused and scattered. When the mind is indecisive, prana is indecisive. When the mind is focused, prana is focused.

     Breathing is the most powerful tool for accessing and balancing prana. By coordinating breath with movement, the pranic effects of the postures are activated and enhanced. For instance, if you inhale when moving into a backward-bending posture, the expansion of the abdomen, rib-cage and chest will be enhanced, the spine will be supported, and the effects of the posture will be more profound. Your body receives more prana. If you exhale when bending forward, thus contracting the abdomen, rib-cage and chest, the emptying of the lungs and internal massage of the abdomen will be more complete. Your body releases more toxins and is then able to absorb more prana. By breathing with, rather than against the natural expansion and contraction of your movements, prana begins to come into harmony and balance within your body.

     The conscious use of breath also induces greater sensitivity, deeper relaxation, and greater awareness. When you have reached your limit in a posture and are at the edge between comfort and discomfort, there is a tendency to hold your breath. This is an indication that you are holding stress. In order to release the stress, you must consciously relax, and the most important element that represents conscious relaxation is the breath moving freely in and out.

     There are times during the practice of asana when holding the breath (kumbhaka) is appropriate. However, when you find yourself holding your breath because of the strain you are experiencing, just relax and breathe freely, deeply, and continuously.

STAGE TWO:  WILL AND SURRENDER

     Once you have learned to perform the posture consciously, regardless of your flexibility, you are ready to move to the second phase, balancing the polarities of will and surrender. In this stage of practice, you continue to integrate all the guidelines of the first stage, but progressively prolong the holding of the posture. Stage Two teaches you how to withdraw your outgoing, scattered attention and focus it inward (pratyahara), anchoring it in the bodily sensations (dharana/concentration). This enables you to penetrate into the deeper layers of stress where you may encounter undigested mental and emotional traumas of the past.

Pratyahara (internalizing the outgoing energy)
     The slowing down of the movement into and out of the posture plays a very significant role in introducing the new element of internal focus into the practice of yoga postures. It allows you to enter into the subtlety of the experience, and recognize the subtle urges and sensations present in your body. It provides a space for you to deepen your connection with your body.

     Engaging in conscious, slow movements and deep relaxation allows you to sense where the mind jumps in, so that you can consciously return to your awareness of the internal experiences. The moment you begin to move slowly, you will encounter new sensations in your body.

Keep your mind fully absorbed in the sensations that are present at any given moment, whether you are at the entry level of the posture, holding, releasing, or transitioning between two postures. Maintain an unbroken stream of attention, acknowledging and flowing with the changing emotions that accompany the movements of the body. That unbroken stream of attention to the bodily sensations spontaneously and effortlessly focuses the wandering mind and develops intimacy between body, mind and emotions.

Dharana (concentration)
     Increased benefits come from increased concentration. Therefore, anchoring your attention to the sensations in the area of the body that is the primary focus of the posture greatly enhances and multiplies its benefits. For example, the throat is usually thought of as the physical focus of the Shoulderstand, and as attention if focused there, healing energy will be focused there as well. But practitioners must identify this point of focus by bringing their attention to the area where the sensation is the strongest, rather than according to a pre-conceived concept of where the point of focus "should" be.

Working with pain and fear
     In the face of intense sensation, labeled as "pain," unconscious fears and resistances may emerge. Initially it is important to trust the fear and back off. Even if you are perfectly safe, the belief that you are in danger veils reality, and that, in and of itself, can lead to injury. Once you have eased away from intense sensation, and the feeling of safety is reestablished, move back toward the edge and gently test your limits. Now you can simply witness, or objectively observe your experience, moving beyond the habitual, unconscious tendency toward fight or flight.

When to release the posture
     Once you have crossed the invisible boundaries of fear and emotion, you will know when you have come to your real physiological edge. At this point the body gives a clear signal that says, "Enough." With regular practice, you will know, from within, just how much you are able to release your psychological and emotional blocks and relax into the experience. Each time you perform the posture, you learn how to cross the mental and emotional boundaries while respecting the real physical boundary of your body, which may change from day to day. Therefore, nobody can really tell you when you should stop. It is for you to discover in the practice of being aware of your own body.

Spontaneous movement
     After you release, a moment of stillness before moving again allows you to actually feel the urge to move rather than moving habitually or according to the dictates of the mind. Then, allowing your body to move spontaneously in response to internal urges becomes deeply relaxing and highly balancing. These movements release a flood of pent-up energy and wash away deep-seated tensions and toxins.

Kripalu Yoga: a metaphor for life
     When you come to your toleration point during the prolonged holding of a posture, you encounter your self-perceived limitations, and to learn to consciously respect them, accept them and/or transcend them. As you cross those boundaries in the formal practice of Kripalu Yoga, you also learn how to encounter the fears and emotional reactions that appear daily in your interactions.

     At such times, life puts you into an uncomfortable or painful psychic posture that you may feel like running from, or aggressively blasting your way through. For example, when you are in an interaction with another person and you feel hurt, abused, unrecognized, criticized, or insulted, you're automatically thrown into that psychic posture. That's the time when it's important for you to use the lessons you have learned on your yoga mat.

     Each suppressed experience stored in the unconscious body/mind is like a smoldering fire—one that was smothered, and not burned fully. The smoke it creates can make it difficult for you to breathe and see. The perpetual irritation of life, however, is therapeutic. Again and again, it reveals suppressed experiences so that you may encounter them more consciously, and experience them fully so that the fire of reality may purify and integrate them.

     To allow that to happen, you need to move from thinking to feeling, encountering the moment energetically, just as you do in the prolonged holding of the more formal practice of postures. When you learn to apply non-judgmental awareness in your daily life situations, you'll be able to go through a painful experience in a creative and productive way. The awareness increases your capacity to handle stressful situations and emotional encounters. The experience that you would ordinarily resist becomes a new opening—a new possibility.

 
STAGE  THREE: 
SURRENDER TO THE WISDOM OF THE BODY

     Stage Three is the final expression of Kripalu Yoga. During this stage, all rules and restrictions that have been willfully practiced in the earlier stages are set aside. Instead, the postures are allowed to emerge spontaneously, guided by the wisdom of the body. These may be traditional postures or even postures that you have never seen before in any yoga book. Do not suppress them if they occur, for prana is far wiser than any book and knows exactly what the body needs at that particular moment. Done in this way, yoga postures have a totally new dimension. They have become a form of "Meditation in Motion", a prayer without words.

The wisdom of prana
     The focus of attention at this stage is to allow the inner wisdom of prana to move the body—uninhibited, unobstructed, and unmanipulated in any way by the mind. At this stage, everything that has been learned from books, traditions, techniques, and authorities about formal yoga postures and breathing exercises has to be dropped. From this point on, you must learn to focus on only one authority: inner guidance.

Dhyana (interaction or meditation)
     Once the link between mind and body has been established through concentrated focus on sensation, the mind continues its communication with and investigation of the body through an effortless, harmonious, and balanced flow of postures, precisely choreographed by the body's natural urges. As the interactive process of one-pointed investigation continues, the mind becomes increasingly involved in the bodily sensations, and ascends to a higher state where it sees what it has not previously seen, it knows what it has not previously known. The experience becomes meditative, giving a timeless quality to the movement. As you smoothly flow from one posture to another, guided by the prompting of your inner bodily urges, you progressively experience a deepening feeling of peace and stillness. In spite of the body's movements, the inner stillness grows progressively until you become absorbed in the inner music of movements created by the harmony of body, mind, and prana.

Samadhi (absorption)
     In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said, “As salt dissolves in water, so the mind dissolves into the soul and becomes one with it." At this moment there is total clarity and knowing. This state is known as samadhi , and the definition of yoga is related to this state. Movement after movement arises without any mental effort or forethought. A force greater and wiser than your waking mind comes through you, and in those moments you are fully alive, acting in total response to the urges that arise from within your body. All other thoughts, feelings, mental entities, distractions or perceptions -- including the feeling of "I" -- temporarily dissolve and you become totally absorbed. You see clearly and understand as never before. You have a sense of profound discovery. You are in an experience of ecstatic communion with God.

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