November 18, 2013

Why We Practice: Teachings from Richard Freeman’s Workshop in Tel Aviv. ~ Yael Weisbach

Sahana Vavatu, the teacher–student manta, is one of the Shanti Pat mantras.

Before we started chanting it, Richard explained that, “Shanti Pat means the falling down of peace. Peace falls like snow falls.”

Richard’s presence bestows peacefulness, just like snowflakes cover everything on their way with a shimmering white serenity. He rids students from self-destructive arms—excessive motivation, competitiveness and arrogance.

We all become peaceful and quiet, eager to drink more of the nectar of his teaching.

But we can’t just enjoy this gift—we have to earn it.

Richard has his own language, terminology and metaphors. The more I listen to him, read his recommended books and follow his teachings, the better I can understand him. It’s not that he hides anything from us—oh no, he tells us everything out front—it’s just that we won’t get it unless we are ready for it.

Richard’s teaching is beyond language. Sometimes, I feel that if I listen carefully to the gaps between his words, I get the most precious gems of his wisdom. When I listen to his actual words, I find three words are highly popular in his speech: prana, apana, balance.

According to yogic texts, prana is life force. There are five different functions of prana called the five vayus. Prana and apana are two out of these five vayus. (It’s a little confusing that both the general life force and one of its functions are called prana. Yoga terminology is deliberately confusing with the purpose of motivating self investigation.)

Prana is inhalation, absorption, life, light, femininity, flexibility and jolliness. Apana is exhalation, elimination, death, shadow, masculinity, strength and grounding. Prana is tinker bell, apana is Hercules. Prana resides in the heart chakra, apana in the root chakra (pelvic floor).

Balancing prana and apana is like drinking espresso and beer at the same time—finding a place of relaxed wakefulness.

The balancing of prana and apana starts with our breathing. When we exhale we bring our attention to the heart and thus meditate on the best of the inhalation. When we inhale we bring our attention to the pelvic floor and meditate on the best of the exhalation. Thich Nhat Han said, “Breathing in I calm my body, breathing out I smile.”

It’s exactly the same principles, bringing the apanic quality of calmness into the pranic inhale, and bringing the pranic quality of smiling into the apanic exhale.

We also seek to balance prana and apana in our asana.

The asana must be alive, it moves. You can see it clearly from the way Richard moves—his shakti dances around him like a long black hair in the depth of the ocean. This is the ocean we churn every time we come to our yoga mat.

The beautiful Hindu myth, The Churning Of The Milky Ocean, tells the story of the gods who wanted to get the amrita, the nectar of immortality. For that, they had to cooperate with the demons. Light and shadow, prana and apana, must work together. The first thing that came out of the ocean through the churning process was the most horrible, stinky and lethal poison, called halahala.

People think that yoga is all about getting the nectar of life, but when we deepen our practice, at a certain point we must come face to face with our own halahala—the mixture of our shadows, suppressed thoughts, emotions and all the bullshit we prefer not to acknowledge or deal with. But if we ever want to get the amrita, we must cope with our shit.

And how do we do that?

Like the gods, we call Shiva, who, out of his great love for us, swallows it and saves us.

Shiva is a metaphor for pure consciousness, pure awareness. Richard warns us not to refer to the gods literally, not to confuse the map for the territory, the symbol for what it symbolizes.

The cool guy with a long black hair who meditates for thousands of years, makes love to his wife for thousands more years, and in between, destroys universes, probably never existed. “But what do I know,” says Richard, “I cannot see behind the clouds.”

And how do we find sthira sukham asanam, a steady and joyful asana, if we keep on playing and moving, looking to balance prana and apana?

Well, this is the whole point, Richard explains. Apana is sthira, and prana is sukham. We play with them until they both meet in this exciting moment of union that is called yoga—that’s what it’s all about.

Or not.

Nagarajuna, the father of Mahayana Buddhism, invented a dialectic of four corners. For example, when we try to understand the key alignment of an asana, we might think at first that the key is opening the heart, which means prana. Then, after few years of practice, we might realize that the key is actually rooting down, which is apana. A few more years down the road we realize, oh wait a minute, it’s both prana and apana, the whole key of yoga is balancing prana and apana! Then we meditate couple of years more and realize the key to the asana is neither prana nor apana.

Confused? Good!

Richard wants us to be so that we keep on practicing, questioning, investigating and studying. He wants us to stretch our mental abilities to realms we never though were possible. He teaches what it means to be completely flexible, way beyond the physical level—and if we start opening up to the yogic wisdom of his teaching, slowly, slowly things will start to unfold.

Or they won’t.


Like elephant journal on Facebook.


Asst. Editor: Jane Henderling/ Editor: Bryonie Wise

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Yael Weisbach