Inspired Practice

Yoga without pranayama is like a pool without water. It’s an empty practice. The sum total of what I knew about pranayama when I took my first teacher training was an alternate breath exercise my room-mate taught me. I easily mastered the ability to breath up one side and out the other nostril without using my fingers to block the air passages. I expected to learn more in “school”. Why the air quotes Kumari? Because if you’ve been to University then yoga teacher training isn’t school, per se. It’s the minimum standards as designated by Yoga Alliance for the protection of the public. grrr.

We didn’t do much pranayama in 200hr teacher training. It apparently isn’t required. We did a wee bit more in advanced teacher training. But when compared to asana, pranayama is a bit of the unwanted stepchild in yoga world. That’s a shame. Pranayama isn’t just good for you, it’s low calorie, stimulating, accessible to even old, injured and clumsy people. Plus it’s fun! It’s loads of fun to bring mystery and mysticism back into ye olde yoga practice. Pranayama has such substantial effects. Pranayama increases proprioception. Depending on the style, it can stimulate or soothe, can be focusing or disturbing.

What is Pranayama? My dictionary app defines it as “the regulation of the breath through certain techniques and exercises.” That’s sorta true. The Sanskrit breaks down to “prana” defined by the dictionary app as “breath” and “yama” as restraint. Technically speaking “prana” is not breath but life-force. Technically speaking life requires breath so in a round about way I could be ok with this definition. Sanskrit-English on-line dictionary comes up with a more poetic description of prana: spirit identified with the totality of dreaming. Defines yama aptly as: self-control, forbearance. Better, yeah? 

For the record, Not All Pranayama require breathing, but many do. Before I wander too far afield into why one would want to hold one’s breath lemme tell you some of the words in English that are related to breathing. How about inspiration? Expiration? Spirit? Aspire? Aspiration? Perspire? The idea that the soul infuses breath transcends cultures. Yogi Bhajan would say “Control your breath, control your life!” A birthing coach teaches slower, longer breaths for the purpose of relaxing and focus. Hyperventilating is unpleasant. Yes, breath controls us – ergo the ability to control breath is a spiritual practice.

Done regularly pranayama will strengthen both lungs and diaphragm. Shallow breathing is at the root of much modern anxiety and depression. I won’t play doctor here because I am not a physician but I can say what any kindly uncle or gentle neighbor could tell you, “paying attention to breath is paying attention.” Paying attention will resolve poor patterning, both emotional and physical. While we’re at it I’ll point out quite often physical problems have their roots in emotional ones and vice versa. Arthritis, a physical problem can certainly lead to depression. No one likes to feel limited, compromised or in pain!

Emotions like frustration, despair, anger and sadness can lay trapped in the body when not expressed. Trapped where exactly? Apparently in muscle tissue, fat, bone, heart and lungs. I say this because visibly a person’s posture becomes molded to circumstance. Any kid will tell ya, angry people look angry, happy people look friendly. Intellectual probing often adds guilt and shame to a congealed emotion. Head analysis does not equal bodily release. Idee Fixe release when expired or perspired through breath or body work, often spontaneously if only we can marry awareness to courage to do so.

Without going too far into particulars because once again, I am not a physician – – I have noticed that people who complain to me of anxiety, fear and a sense of alienation are very shallow or ineffective breathers. I wonder to myself as a lay person what effect learning pranayama would have on such people. Many of the anxious ones seem afraid to try. Of course they are. The depressed ones dismissive of the theory that emotions and breathing have a causal connection. But anatomy books and Western medicine bear me out.

I suspect people are dismissive of the power and effects of proper breathing because it’s free. There’s something weirdly authoritative, read important, wise, compelling, about getting a drug from a pharmacist. Even though science is on my side, i.e. science proves most of what happens to us happens in our minds, in our perception, say “psychosomatic” and people read “oh, make-believe.” That ain’t right. The point is not to diminish the power of our selves but to properly respect our abilities. I CAN convince myself that Zoloft is healing my depression more easily than I can convince myself that running will, mostly because I  don’t go out and run. oops.

During my first marriage when I suffered serious clinical depression I began to fear that I would lose the will to live. I noticed that running boosted endorphins. Running made me feel better for a short time, then wore off. Zoloft obliterated my feelings – both elation and despair. But yoga allowed me to explore root cause. (I define yoga here with all eight limbs, asana/pranayama/meditation etc.) Immediately after I left my first husband my depression lifted.

An accomplished yogi has masterly temperance, discipline, self-possession and forbearance. In the 1960s Swami Rama was studied by Western scientists at the Menninger Clinic who testified to his ability to voluntarily control bodily processes (such as heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature) that are normally considered to be non-voluntary.

During that first teacher training I flipped to the back of Light on Yoga and practiced some of the pranayama described by the author, BKS Iyengar. Older yoga books often show old fashioned alignment and funny yoga costumes but for pranayama they seemed to be my primary source. The pranayama I practiced had an uncanny effect on my kidney function. I realized after experimenting on my own that what I really wanted was someone who could teach me more succinctly which breath pattern would create what desired result. That information proved deliciously hard to come by.

I learned more pranayama from workshops and advanced teacher training but the major breakthrough came recently and serendipitously. The truth about pranayama is that like asana a certain amount basic information can be had – but the particulars must be self taught. I spent years on alignment and structured sequences for the purpose of – for the purpose of doing my own yoga. Sound arrogant? Consider the analogy to music: I spent years on scales and Mozart and stuff because I couldn’t have written anything as fine as Mozart, like ever – but ultimately the joy of doing his little piano pieces for kids did enable me to put together sounds for myself.

Nobody treats a kid taking piano lessons as an arrogant jerk for putting together a few small songs. Don’t let the turkeys get you down! Asana and pranayama and meditation and diet and ethics as taught by yoga teachers, nutritionists and spiritual leaders are an excellent framework for making up your own mind. Yes, please make up your own mind. I implore you.

As far as asana goes, people ask me what kind to do for their stiff knee, their fibromyalgia, their ADD, for creativity, for bunions you name it. I have a general idea of what would work. There is, don’t get me wrong, certain broad brush realities. There is a method. With basics in hand you need to get in there and earnestly experiment. Stiffness seems to respond best to slow repetitive movements until, of course, those patterns are causing the problem. Poor alignment in a perfectly good pose can cause issues. Yoga without pranayama won’t be half so effective on ADD, depression or anxiety. So no, i can’t just assign you a single pose to cure your issues, you need to do that pose fully, completely, correctly, and consistently.

If there’s ever so much to chose from where to begin? Ujaiyi is a simple and accessible pranayama. Learn it in less than a minute for badass sun salutes. Alternate nostril breathing isn’t difficult. Any solid Kundalini practice will include the breath of fire. What ever you do, for heaven’s sake don’t skip pranayama because you feel silly or uncomfortable breathing conspicuously. It’s not any sillier than making a down dog or a triangle pose, and ultimately pranayama will help as much or more as asana in your quality of life.

Now y’all place nice!

Sat Nam