Cessation, or Nirodha, arises in the yogic texts as the penultimate step of a yogi’s practice: When thoughts cease to make waves, unity is made apparent. (In Patanjali speak, “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.” [Chip Hartranft, trans.]) The practice of Raja Yoga stills the mind. With a still, or held, or suspended mind, we can experience our natural state of no-Self.
At the Grace School we’ve been practicing the mudras of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the mudras include a lot of breath retention – internal and external (antara kumbhaka and bahya kumbhaka). Sitting with root lock and web lock engaged, the life force is peacefully caged inside the chest. The kumbhaka is a delicate undertaking. Think of holding an egg in the center of the chest: the secure locks or bandhas allow a kind of subtle movement of energy in the chest, because even in stillness we find movement. Even in silence we find sound.
Kumbhaka translates as “pot,” or “potlike.” When we suspend the breath, before or after an inhalation, we are aware of the chest as a container. As we contain the life force, we develop an intimacy with it, and it builds. The release of the kumbhaka may be an extraordinary and blissful experience. We train ourselves to release the force with as much care and attention as we gathered and held it.
In my own practice, working with the life force through the various mechanisms of Pranayama has allowed me to play with the flow of time. As the conditioned experience of “inhale, exhale” is slowed and examined and experienced in intervals of nano-seconds, so time seems to slow for me. Time becomes as a river that passes through the human (merely) being – altered as it is cultivated in the agar-like substance of the body and mind.
Water takes the shape of the cup that holds it; water may also reflect the color, hue, and patterns of the cup that holds it. So it is with the Life Force passing through the container of this body.
Seventeen years ago I lay on the stoop of my house and watched my consciousness pixilate. The body was experiencing anaphylactic shock. Time slowed. The pine needles of the trees above me began to melt and then stipple themselves. As the eyesight blurred, another kind of vision emerged. The pine needles – thousands of dots, now – became a song. Somehow, sight and sound merged. Time slowed some more. The hearing became acute. The vibration in the bird passed through the agar of this body, even as the body became soggy with fluid. This body became the bird in the tree, singing. Time slowed some more. The pulse slowed and stopped. As the senses of sight and touch and smell ceased, the body was only hearing. I was in a world of only sound, then.
Seventeen years later I am able to experience the beauty that attended the medical trauma simply by sitting at Grace and breathing. Everyone: Slow down. Breathe. Feel who you are.