Practising the scales with Christian Pisano
If it is possible to judge a teacher by his students, I was sure Christian Pisano would be an amazing teacher. Having met and practiced with a group of his students, as well as his lovely wife June in Pune in 2010, I expected to like their teacher. Their practices were great, well-balanced, and they were overall very nice people. So I came to Yoga Moves with high expectations. And, to take away the suspense: he didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately June was in India so she couldn’t join him – I would have loved to meet her again. But it was great to see a big Iyengar crowd gathered in Utrecht for the first time on 13 and 14 October.
Back to basics
The practices we did during the weekend were wonderfully simple. Maybe less physically challenging than some people would have expected, but with great attention to detail and a sound philosophical grounding. The title of the workshop was Preliminaries of Iyengar Yoga and that’s exactly what we did. Christian took us back to the base, and back to the breath. He stressed the importance of the introduction, in order to be able to see the background, the reason of coming to workshops like this. He told us that as practitioners, the practice can be difficult and sometimes lonely. Going to a workshop or a retreat can bring clarification of our practice of asana and pranayama in their context – and the context is yoga. He also emphasised starting at the beginning, ‘practicing the scales’, and going through the stages of asana practice one by one.
Vinyasa, vinyasa krama, viniyoga
These stages are referred to by the terms vinyasa, vinyasa krama and viniyoga. Vinyasa refers to the way we enter and exit a pose, moving in a deliberate way, and taking the breath into account. Vinyasa krama then, refers to the sequence of poses. We have to pay attention to the starting point, how to move into, stay in and come out of a posture in accordance with the breath, as well as the gradual flow of postures synchronised with the breath, and the unfolding of variations, modifications and intensifications of postures.
Mr. Iyengar often likens sequencing to making a garland of poses, stringing them together by the thread of consciousness. Sequencing one pose after the other gives the poses a richness and meaning that transcends the meaning and effect of a single pose.
Viniyoga, finally, is the application of means or techniques adapted to the individual needs at the moment of practice. Viniyoga is a Sanskrit term that implies differentiation, adaptation, and appropriate application. So in practice this means for both student and teacher, finding what is needed at this specific moment is an art, and never-ending process.
In the workshop, Christian not only talked about these concepts but also let us materialise them in our practice.
Emphasis on spaciousness
“Read the contraction you meet” is perhaps the phrase that stuck with me most. The goal of asana and pranayama is not just the physical exertion, or even the healing practice. Through these practices of the body and mind, we get to know that we are not the the body, nor the mind. At the same time, the body is an expression of the universe, and the universe is an extension of the body. That is why learning to read the body and mind is important. It is the start of all knowledge. If in the study of body and mind you meet a ‘contraction’, for instance physical tension, or mental aversion, Christian invites you ‘read’ it. Finding out where it comes from, what it means, is more important than making it go away or deepening it.
Options for everyone
Closing and opening the days with quotes from the Vijnana Bhairava, Christian effectively drew the philosophic backdrop to the asana practice. For instance, he read the following sloka as an introduction to the concept of spaciousness or vacuity in relation to yoga asana.
The yogi should contemplate over the skin-part in his body like (an outer, inconscient) wall.
“There is nothing substantial inside it (i.e. the skin)”;
meditating like this, he reaches a state which transcends all things meditable.
-Vijnana Bhairava verse 48 (read the Vijnana Bhairava online here.)
We had the chance to read our contractions in a broad range of postures from basic standing asanas through twists and a long restorative session, and even in padmasana in sirsasana – for those that had the ability, of course. Both in the philosophic readings and in the asana and pranayama practice, Christian offered options for all levels of students.
We were very grateful to have this opportunity to study with him, and hope to see him back in Utrecht!
The balance between philosophic study of texts and the applied practice of yoga is always a delicate one. Some people feel like ‘stop the babbling, lets get on the mat’, while others struggle to become concrete and get lost in theory. I think it helps to see other people’s experiences, even (or perhaps, especially) when they’re not coming from a yoga perspective. On the subject of the need to study our body and mind to realize that they do not define ‘us’, see this moving video of a woman who realises that she is not defined by her body. It becomes clear here how enormous the gap is between the intellectual concept, and the profundity of the actual realisation that we are not our bodies. Of course it’s not quite the same as Janine Shepherd’s story that’s shown in the video on the right.
Now, the concept of not being our mind is even harder to realise, and breathtakingly illustrated in the next video: Jill Bolte Taylors Stroke of Insight… I know this has been shown very often already but it’s still so worth watching.