I've been quiet lately, I know. I haven't been writing much, or sending out emails to everyone. And I've been knitting — a lot. So much so, that people aren't surprised that I'm nearly finished another sweater — the fifth since February, plus the poncho I'm wearing as I write this, and a few other things for the grandson coming into our family this summer. I've been thinking, planning, staring out the window. Sometimes I go outside and dig up some weeds from the garden, or go for a walk. But mostly I sit and stare. I sit and stare from the breakfast room, from the sunroom, from the sitting room, from the front porch. There's a lot of sitting — on chairs, on the floor, on furniture in interesting ways, with feet up and legs crossed, or kneeling — and lot of staring, often with a cat. Cats are good companions when sitting and staring.
Now, this might sound like something is wrong, but it's been really wonderful. Please don't worry, I haven't only been sitting. I practice Gumdo, and I spend time with my family, and I have my daily practices. And I've been reading. Some of the things I've been reading are scientific articles. Other things are fiction. I've been reading about Jung and the religious function of the psyche. After I read, I go back to staring into the middle distance. I've been reading a book called The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you're not looking, by Michael C. Corballis. There is creativity in the wandering mind. It makes connections between things that a purposeful mind could miss. I remember one of my professors in my graphic design program saying that she often sat and stared out the window when working on a project for a client, and that this was some of her most productive time. It might not look like something is happening, but this is called the default-mode network of the brain. When there isn't something really exciting to take your attention, the default-mode network takes over, and connections are made in the brain that might have been busy doing something else previously, if you had been working directly on a project, your brain's attention focussed.
I've been developing a new course. It's something that has been percolating in the back of my head for years. I've tried a few times to take these ideas and create a course, but it never really worked. This time it feels formed. It happened while staring out the window at the neighbours white siding, 10 feet from the window, from here in the breakfast room, where I'm currently writing this, in my poncho. Finding Kevala Pranayama. That's it.
What is kevala pranayama? Well, sometimes it's called kevala kumbhaka. In yoga, pranayama are breathing practices in which we learn to control and expand inhales and exhales, and kumbhakas are the breath holds that happen either after inhale or exhale. Kevala pranayama is when breathing ceases (not forever, but for a time) and there is a sense of space and peace and calm. When a practitioner has control over pranayama and kumbhaka, kevala pranayama can naturally happen. This really is what the author Patañjali was talking about in The Yoga Sutras.
This occurs as all effort relaxes and coalescence arises, revealing that the body and the infinite universe are indivisible. Then one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites. With effort relaxing, the flow of inhalation and exhalation can be brought to a standstill; this is called breath regulation. As the movement patterns of each breath — inhalation, exhalation, lull — are observed as to duration, number, and area of focus, breath becomes spacious and subtle. As realization dawns, the distinction between breathing in and out falls away. Then the veil lifts from the mind's luminosity.
This natural happening of kevala pranayama reminds me of a conversation I had with Jane Clapp about numinous experiences. Numinous moments are spiritual or supernatural in nature. We can try to create numinosity in our lives by searching for moments of awe, but a numinous experience can't be contrived — it arrives when it arrives. But developing our awareness of the beauty of the world around us in daily practice, connecting to moments of bliss, primes us for the numinous when it comes.
Do you see the connection? The one I made while sitting and staring?
When I first practiced yoga, breathing was all about experience, manipulation, with very little regard for the details of what was happening in my physical body. I know many people who have practiced yoga and had similar experiences, the breathing practiced on the mat negatively influencing their normal breathing patterns and health. So, I moved from this experiencing the breath to understanding it and what we are doing when we breathe.
Breath is a mechanical and chemical requirement of the body. And I can talk, in great detail, about how that works. It's all very "left brain" — it's taking breathing apart and looking at its components, describing all of its parts. We seem to be stuck in the left hemisphere, according to Dr. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, and it's a problem. (Please take 12 minutes and watch the RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain embedded here, or find it on YouTube here.) We need to be using our whole brain. The left side of the brain looks at detail, but the right side of the brain takes a wider view. We need both the fine points and the big picture — with both parts we can understand the whole. The right side of the brain allows us to make meaning. What is life without meaning? Why do we breathe if there is no meaning?
I'm taking a 6 month course with Dr. Rosalba Courtney which starts next week on Integrative Breathing Therapy. It's going to be intense, and I know I'm going to learn a lot, but it's most likely going to be more left brain work (important stuff, don't get me wrong). However, I am going to keep going back to the bigger picture as I finish writing this new course, as I continue to be open to the experience of kevala pranayama as it happens in my life and practice, and how it changes me, connects me to myself, to the larger world around, to the present moment, to meaning — the trees and the forest. It doesn't have to be either/or — it can be both/and. I hope that I can help others find that balance though understanding and experience starting in January.
Between now and then I will finish the current sweater, and likely knit a few more things as well. And I hope I'll make some more connections as I let my mind wander while staring out the window.
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