All about the IYTA’s Pranayama and Meditation Course
Posted by Katie Brown, 31-Aug-2020
This is an exceptional course presented by David Burgess. It is transformational – not just professionally but personally. But with anything that’s worth doing… it takes time.
We sat down with David to find out more…
Q: As you have stated, this course is a commitment – roughly how much time should people be dedicating to the course, study and practice? And how can they best manage this (presuming they already have a job, family etc…)
David: Yes, this course is very much a commitment of time, but not only time, it would be more accurately described as a commitment to managing one’s sadhana and hence is no small commitment.
In most cases the course will take a little less than a year, but you practise more often than not. That means a minimum of four days a week but better in truth if it is five or six.
Q: So is the commitment four half-hour sessions a week?
David: No that is just the nominal practise time, (around 15 minutes of designated pranayama and the same of meditation) beyond this one needs to complete a weekly journal that is submitted four times throughout the year and furthermore undertake associated reading, so around another hour or two per week.
Q: Is the reading really necessary?
David: As my teacher once said: “While theory without practise is little more than meaningless acquisition of knowledge, so too is practise without some degree of understanding!”
Q: Some would say that is a lot of time to allocate and I’m guessing others not enough?
David: Yes and both are right! It is a matter of perspective, competing priorities and desired outcomes.
Q: Would you care to elaborate?
David: Well to be honest probably not as this raises a larger question on the nature of sadhana which is beyond the scope of this discussion. Let’s just say that quality trumps quantity every time, and consistent practice is the real imperative. There are times in one’s life that may allow you to do more and there will certainly be times that will oblige you to do less. One has to ride that wave but know that it is a long game you are playing and it is a mix of persistence and tenacity that allows you to arrive/succeed.
And that is never going to happen if you regard yourself as being: “too busy,” or to think that yoga is synonymous with asana. There are times in one’s life where the branches of Karma, Bhakti and Gyana Yoga take priority.
One of the great skills I believe we all implicitly hope to gain from our practice is “timing”, discerning when the time is right to undertake the many projects that life throws our way. There is a time in one’s life when to take on a year-long course in pranayama makes great sense and other times where it doesn’t…to know which time it is is a very useful skill : – )
Q: I’ve heard you say that the ideal number of days to practice is six, why not seven?
David: On the seventh day, the recommendation is that you don’t practise, and amongst other reasons this is to prove to both yourself and those you love that you are not a fanatic! On that seventh day I advise students to take inspiration from the words of Charles Dickens and spend a good portion of that day it in a state of amiable dissipation and with unbounded license!
Such activities as lying in, almond croissants and a second cup of tea are all sound options on such days as these, swims, walks and non-obligatory books, family and friends and extended periods of being without doing all qualify. If you don’t have time for this day in your week then there is a fair chance you will struggle finding time on the other days for sadhana.
” I am so very busy,” is rarely a useful sankalpa…
Q: In a perfect world you say these practices are performed in the early morning after ablutions and asana. Why?
David: Well there are many reasons why this is such an auspicious time. To name a few: this is a quiet time with less distraction both from within and beyond, you have not eaten and your bowels and bladder can be empty which is highly desirable for practise, you are rested and if you have taken appropriate steps you should be bright and alert but without the events of the day to review and impinge in on your presentness.
Q: What is the rationale behind the sequence of practise you recommend?
David: Asana physically gets the prana moving and unlocks the granthis (energy blocks) energetically preparing one for pranayama which in turn prepares one for meditation. In short, by way of asana, pranayama and meditation we have shifted identification from the gross towards the subtle dimensions of human experience: from Annamaya to Pranamaya to Manomaya Kosha and beyond, from the outer to the inner form the gross towards the subtle
Q: What do you see being the main obstacles to regular practise?
David: Here in the west and in these days, we all consider ourselves to be time pressured and no doubt we are. On another level we still have 24 hours in a day which is pretty much the same as our forebears, how we prioritise and allocate that time has altered though. Mind you the priorities themselves have not really changed, e.g. food, shelter, procreation, companionship, work, contribution to society, understanding who we are, why we are here and where we are going you could say.
In yogic vernacular we are speaking of the ashramas and purusharthas. In today’s world we tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on Artha (fulfilling the material aspects of our life, and more time in Brahmacharya (student) and Grihasta (householder) ashramas/stages, less time is allocated to Dharma and Moksha and consequently our sadhana is given lower priority and hence is often compromised.
Q:Why do you use the term sadhana rather than yogic practise?
David: Sadhana is most often understood as a collective term for yogic practices and for many this translates simply as asana. When I use the term I am referring not only to yogic techniques e.g. asana, pranayama, dharana etc by sadhana here I mean any activity which is undertaken with yogic/expanded awareness so Sadhana here does not just refer to time on the mat or the pillow, it refers in fact far more, to what we do beyond these formal practise times and more importantly how we do activity both within and beyond these times.
Why is it so important for sadhana to be regular?
David: The aim is for sadhana to colour every moment. The degree to which this occurs is very much in my experience a function of the cumulative effect on our awareness of ongoing systematic practise and this is why in this course one finds this requirement.
There are times in life where it is easier or harder to make this commitment so before entering this course one needs to be confident that the time is right. A good percentage of people have enrolled but competing priorities and life circumstances have meant they couldn’t make it right through. Abhyasa is hard won!
Can you give me an idea of what is covered over this eleven month long course?
David: Practices are scheduled on a weekly basis, some practices are only included for a week or two being transitionary and others over several months. The course is broken into three terms. With the pranayama component the first term is dedicated to a category of practices known as Prana Nigraha.
These are the foundational breathing practices upon which the classical pranayamas are built. The Prana Nigraha practices develop heightened breath awareness and sensitivity, breath control and expanded breath capacity, these are all prerequisite to accurate and safe performance of the pranayamas.
Many of us these days have lost our natural pattern of breathing and need to attend to this before moving into the classical techniques. The subsequent pranayamas fall into three categories: Balancing e.g. Nadi Shodhana, Tranquilising e.g. Ujjayi, Bhramari, Sheetali and Vitalising e.g. Swarna, Kapalabhati and Bhastrika
The more technically complex practices are deconstructed and then reconstructed over weeks and months. In most weeks three nominated practices are done each day in sequence and followed by meditation practice (dharana). Just as with the pranayama a range of meditation techniques are systematically introduced in a similar fashion.
Q: Can you elaborate on the meditation techniques?
David: Just as there are categories of pranayama e.g. vitalising balancing, heating cooling, tranquilising there are categories of meditation
For example, Compassion and Loving Kindness, Open Monitoring, e.g. Mindfulness, and Focussed Attention. In this course the meditation techniques are drawn from the latter category, (focussed attention). Techniques from this category include Kaya Sthairyam, Trataka, Japa, Akasha, Ajapa Jap and Antar Mauna.
Q: Why did you choose these particular meditation techniques?
David: The simple answer is because I am very familiar with them having worked with them for more decades than I care to declare! One should only teach that which they know deeply, not bolted on and these I know well. The other categories are mostly drawn more as I understand it, from the Buddhist Tradition(s) and hence there are people far better qualified and experienced than I from whom to learn those techniques.
These techniques are not better or worse than the aforesaid, they are techniques that suit a range of temperaments very well and also they are very coherent to the pranayama techniques being used in this course.
Q: Why do we as yoga teachers need to know a variety of techniques?
David: In short because one size does not fit all!
While the desired outcome of meditation practice is the state of meditation there are diverse ways of achieving this (many paths up the mountain as they say) and which pathway one choses should be in response to the temperament and constitution of the practitioner rather than that of the teacher.
For a student to find that which suits them then trial and error across a range of practices seems to me the best way to find that with which one truly resonates, and thus avoiding the square peg and round hole scenario. This is so important as if that technique is not found with which you are at home, it is only a matter of time before you stop. It has to be in you, not on you.
Why is it important to move slowly through the practices?
David: Oh as you well know there are so many reasons why!
In short one needs to develop proficiency in walking before running. Just like when working with asana one needs to develop sufficient physical strength, endurance and flexibility to perform the practice as an asana rather than just technically as a physical posture. The same principles apply to pranayama and meditation.
The only difference is that asana primarily focuses on Annamaya while Pranayama is on Pranamaya and Dharana is on Manomaya Kosha. Mind you by that I am not saying exclusively focussing but yes primarily addressing those respective layers of who we are.
Using an analogy: while yes one needs to increase the voltage one needs also to increase the insulation. The yoga we are talking about here is not to be compared to dropping by the gym for a weekly class (as good as that is) or as a teacher doing a few rounds along with our students in a class or doing a few rounds of Surya before a morning dip. Please don’t get me wrong all the above are excellent but if one wants to go deeper you have to dive in and it is best to ascertain the depth before you do so..
Developing one’s viveka and vairagya doesn’t happen overnight. These act as the insulation in the above analogy. Sadhana is on one level an ongoing experiment to see how much voltage you can sustain,.. finding just how much is too much, too little and just right. For this you need discernment and detachment which are born of trial and error. As Patanjali tells us: Evolution through yoga requires Viveka, Vairagya and Abhyasa.
Q: is this course aimed at specifically yoga teachers or can anyone do the course?
David: This course is aimed at people that want to dive deeper and that appreciate that it is no hay ride!
Q: Presumably this will be a course that teaches people both personally and professionally. As a result what can they expect or hope to gain from this course?
David: The short answer is the desired outcome of this course is to increase self-reflective awareness. This course is for yogis and yoginis who want to walk their talk whether that is to self or others. They regardless of vocation will have as Muktananda said: Clearer insight into who they are, why they are here and where they are going. And along the way will add quite a range of pranayamas and dharanas to their quiver.