When I do yoga I breathe. Seems obvious, right? Without breath I suffocate; I die. Where’s the fun in snuffing out like a candle? One woman’s nirvana is another’s total freedom. I say this because I notice a profound resistance to proper pranayama in modern yoga classes. The teacher says “ujayii breath” and I don’t hear a thing. Nada. Nope. Nothing. Either no one’s practicing ujayii or I’m deaf. For the record, I am not deaf. Ujayii breath is the Darth Vader-y whispery controlled breathing held in the back of the throat. It’s soothing, calming, and naturally induces focus.
You may have learned breath-holding techniques in other sports such as weight lifting or running. All athletes eventually intuit the complex relationship between exertion and respiration. The long distance runners who sync pacing with respiration carry themselves further. But they’re athletes. They don’t have to make apologies for employing diaphragmatic musculature. Perhaps yoga practitioners don’t view themselves as athletes so much as spiritual practitioners. Maybe everyone’s trying so hard to be spiritual they’re hesitant to do something that looks as silly as Lion’s breath.
Pranayama isn’t silly. Control of the breath mos def increases one’s ability to perform complex asana. Pranayama isn’t some ugly stepchild of the yoga family. Pranayama is one of the original eight legs! You know, as in ashtanga (8 legs) ? Pranayama is a portmanteau of “prana” and “yama.” “Yama” as in leg number one in the yoga philosophy. Yama are abstinences, actions successful yogis attempt to abstain from for morality’s sake. We think of them as ethics, but a pure translation would render them as restraints. “Prana” is life-force. Pranayama are exercises that teach yoga practitioners how to channel physiological energy. Asana without pranayama lacks dynamism.
That’s the truth!
1) Ujayii. This is the most basic yogic breath. Ujayii feels controlled and silky. Use this breath to support vinyasa and sun salutes.
2) Long deep breathing: sometimes called “belly breathing” or three-part breath. This is the way babies breathe. At the bottom of the exhale I draw my navel in towards the center of my body. As I inhale I all my soft belly to expand, my ribs to move outwards, my chest to expand upwards in a prolonged, controlled action. This is often combined with a fixed gaze (dristi.)
3) Breath of fire: light like sniffing, this breath is performed at a rapid pace. The belly does draw in on the exhale.
These three basic pranayama are all I need for a Kundalini yoga class or a flow. They’re not the only pranayama. Forms of alternate nostril breathing often sequence at the end or beginning of hatha yoga classes. The result is mildly stimulating. Have you ever wondered why teachers chose a certain pranayama? (It never hurts to ask.) When I teach sometimes the reason is specific. I’m cooling down the class (stali) or causing relaxation by extension of the exhale. Other times I’m teaching control in general, use of the breath as feedback or focus.
Focus is limb five of eight limbed yoga practice. With meditation as limb six, and samadhi as eight. There’s no shame in focus. Focus is understanding how the mind works. Consider for example the word “bear.” Bear makes me think of little and little makes me think of my son when he was small and books from library by Maurice Sendak. The next thing ya know I’m fondly remembering the smell of ocean waves, the warmth of the Hawaiian sun, and other things associated with my life at age 24. But that’s just me. Another person might think of bear, claw, Bakery, treats, coffee and all sorts of alternate associations.
All very interesting, none of this focused.
Take the word “bear” write it on a piece of paper and draw a bunch of arrows out from it. My first association as “little.” Write the word little at the end of an arrow, then drag the mind back to the center of the circle: bear. What else comes to mind when I think of a bear? Grizzly. Fine, write grizzly at the end of another arrow. Draw the mind back to focus on bear. Set a timer for five minutes. Practice focusing on bear for five minutes. How many arrows do you fill? Don’t let any arrows wander off into a secondary association. Concentrate on bear.
A curious thing occurs to the honest querent.
With practice I find I no longer need a piece of paper, a pencil or a timer. But start with that and don’t cheat. The manual exercise will emphasize concentration. Over time concentrating on one thing will be possible for longer duration. With practice I find it is no longer necessary to contemplate aspects of a bear, the whole bear comes into focus. One learns how to think on one thing to the exclusion of others. This is a useful skill to have, not just in yoga. In life the ability to focus with discrimination saves me lots of tedious drama. While other people get lost in the details, real yogis get to the point.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees. While being able to fish the ace of spades out of a 52 card deck is impressive, being too single minded can be a problem in itself. I filter all the time based on what is important to me. Otherwise I would be overwhelmed by sensory data. If, for example, I get hung up on my tight hamstrings I might bug the yoga teacher to “focus” on hip openers. That would be a sorry choice. A misguided assumption. Hamstrings don’t exist in a vacuum. Ironically, focusing on them might require a whole life overhaul. Like maybe I need to spend less time commuting, sitting in chairs, over stressing, overeating. . . all sorts of karma might contribute to the harm done.
Kinda takes the wind out of my sails.
Which brings me back to where you walked in: pranayama, the control of vitality, is a practical arm of yoga. If you want to know more about yoga, and stuff like this, why not come to the June 18th workshop at Samsara Wellness Center ? The event is on my calendar page. I can’t promise to cover everything from the thousand year history of yoga in a single blog, but I do have more time and chance to entertain questions when in a workshop than a regular class. I’ll see ya there!
Now y’all play nice!