“Like the vast majority of men interested in Yoga I had no idea that a system designed to develop the latent possibilities and nobler qualities in man could be fraught with such danger at times to destroy the sanity or crush life out of one by the sheer weight of entirely foreign and uncontrollable conditions of the mind.”
Gopi Krishna

Kundalini – The Evolutionary Energy in Man

Graduality and Edges in Practice


Breathing Formula

A prerequisite for following the example in this post is an understanding of an expression such as:

4x 8-0-12-0

It is a formula for breathing, where the breath is made up of four parts: an inhale, a pause, an exhale and a pause. This particular formula indicates 4 breaths each of 8 second inhale, no pause, 12 second exhale, no pause.

Approaching An Edge

In my practice I am exploring going from one breath ratio to another in a particular asana. It is a journey and its map may look something like this:

If I try (I did) to simply jump to my destination I encounter an edge. A tension appears in my breath, If I want to overcome the tension I need to use force which generates more tension and my breath breaks. I am unable to go directly to my destination. The map now looks something like this:

My breath gives me access to part of the range, but not to all of it. So I look for a step that I can do. I start by increasing the number of breaths from 2 to 4:

When I am settled in this new capacity I can then break up those 4 breaths into 2 sets of 2 and add a short 2 second pause after the exhale in the 2nd set of breaths.

I can then introduce an additional pause after the inhale.

I can then bring all 4 breaths into my new capacity, which now includes pauses both after the inhale and exhale:

I can then again split the 4 breaths up into 2 pairs and extend the breath by extending the pauses … again starting from the pause after the exhale:

… and then extending also the pause after the inhale

… and the next step … is my destination … gradual steps brought me to what was previously an edge beyond my capacity.

I am never on the edge. I am always approaching an edge that is always moving away from me. In a way, in good practice I am always surrounded by capacities that once seemed beyond me.

… On the Way

There are also unknown gems I encounter on the way:

Skipping forward in the journey also means skipping over these gems of experience. Gradual steps bring me to them. I may not even be aware of these until I encounter them. They hold both realizations ans unasked questions. They hold wisdom that may never crystallize as understanding in my mind, they may resonate somewhere in my body or my heart. They may change for my perspective and inform my path. Like seeds, they may reside in me until the conditions are ripe for them to sprout and grow.

Taking Steps

Some steps take a short time (a few days), some take weeks, months, years … and maybe even lifetimes. It depends very much on the balance and integration of life and practice. If life throws me too often “into the red”, progress in practice may take longer. For example, I was already well established in 12-4-12-4 last year, but then life happened … and I am only now catching up with where I already was.

The key conscious indicator I have to making a step is breath itself. When I am well established in a practice there is a feeling of strength and spaciousness in the breath. There is a feeling of cofidence that I the breath is able to carry me another step forward in my exploration. I can push my body, I can push my mind, but if I try to push the breath the breath pushes back and teaches me to stop pushing.

One Posture

Things are actually much more colorful in reality where my real exploration was more like this:

In the journey I described above I chose, for the sake of simplicity, to focus on the last two breathes in the sequence. This means that in reality there is room for even more variation and gradually … there is more range of exploration … there can be different paths to explore on the way to my destination.

And there are other dimensions. Consider that in this example I’ve focused just on breath. There are dimensions of physical form (the posture itself), in attention (where focus is placed) and in recent months I’ve been learning about introducing sound. Each of these dimensions have their own gradual path of development and they are in constant interplay with each other.

What more, if I zoom out even more, this so called “destination” is just another step on a much longer exploration.

My destination is really 12 breaths of 12 second inhale, 12 second hold, 12 second exhale and a 12 second hold. That comes to a 48 second breath, repeated 12 times, that comes to an almost 10 minute stay … which is on one side of the posture which is asymmetrical which is therefore repeated on both sides … which comes to an almost 20 minute stay in one posture. That can be quite a space for exploration!

When years ago, I was first introduced to this “destination” the map I saw looked like the map above … it seemed impossible, out of my reach. Today, after years of gradual development I see a different map:

Perception itself changes during this exploration. What once seemed impossible now seems approachable.

A Practice Sequence

But even that is not the whole picture. This entire demonstration has addressed breath in one posture. But I never do a posture. My practice is a caringly assembled sequence of postures. Each posture has numerous dimensions of exploration. The sequence itself is intended as a gradual process of refinement, one posture preparing for the next … each opening doors to different potentials … gradually moving from gross to subtle.

A practice sequence can look something like this:

In a practice there are many opportunities to meet edges. Each edge can be met gradually or as a confrontation that generates tension. A practice can become a generator of tensions. Or it can be refined:

… and further refined:

The potentially wild energies of edges can be harnessed into a directed and limitless exploration.

If there is a downside to this approach it is a lack of superficial satisfactions. It can seem unexciting, even boring. There are no heroic achievements, no exhilarating drama. It requires long term, patient engagement.


… and life is a sequence of practices … and endless stream of edges, often out of our control. Practice is a good space to explore edges. It gives me an opportunity to become familiar with edges, to establish habits that can serve me when life’s edges crash into me.

This post began to resonate in me a couple of months go when Eric posed a question (I’m paraphrasing): how can we design something we cannot even comprehend yet? This post is a first piece of my reflection on this question. It hints at a direction I am exploring: a living process (of unfolding wholeness) that does not require comprehension.


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