Breathing Lessons

BY TONY BRIGGS  /  originally posted here in Yoga Journal

When I first encountered pranayama, I thought it was a complete waste of time. I had been taking classes for a couple of years and had just found the instructor I later came to see as my first “real” yoga teacher. One day she announced to the class, “Today we’re going to do some pranayama.” Huh? I thought. What’s that? Prana—what?

yoga beachWe did some simple resting poses and then some very basic breath-awareness exercises, followed by Savasana (Corpse Pose). I wasn’t thrilled. I wanted a workout, to get strong and stretched out. That’s what I had come for, that’s what I’d paid for—and instead, I was lying on the floor just breathing. This wasn’t for me! Luckily, my teacher taught pranayama the last week of every month, so it was easy to avoid. I just skipped class that week.

But my real luck lay in my teacher’s dogged persistence. Month after month, she kept teaching pranayama, and month after month I kept resisting it—though I did occasionally show up for class. I was just like the guy in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. No matter how my teacher presented it, I kept on turning up my nose and saying, “I do not like this pran-a-yam. I do not like it, Sam-I-am.” And then one day something inside me suddenly clicked, and I changed my mind. During an agitated and confused time in my life, I glimpsed in pranayama practice the possibility of refuge. As I have slowly gone deeper into the practice over many years, that refuge has gone on opening inside me.

Given my own experience, it’s easy for me to empathize with students who are not drawn to pranayama right away. These days, many people get started in yoga when they see a video or some photos in a magazine, or when a friend tells them of the physical fitness benefits. Most new students encounter the outward shapes of the yoga asanas first. For a long time, the inner workings of the asanas can remain unseen, mysterious, and maybe a bit intimidating to the novice yogi. Particularly, the notion of using the breath and the breath’s rhythmic internal energy—prana—may seem a little too esoteric to be relevant or useful.

Traditionally, though, the practice of pranayama—releasing and channeling the body’s stores of internal pranic energy—has been seen as the core of hatha yoga practice. Pranayama is meant to nurture a high level of bodily health and mental clarity, both of which are crucial steps on the path to self-knowledge and a wholesome, authentic life. 

Energy Control

Many people are aware of the theory in modern physics that matter and energy are just different manifestations of the same thing. So one way to look at the body or body-mind is as a cloud of energy—a cloud of energy so concentrated that it’s visible. Prana is just another word for that energy. Prana is the energy that moves the universe, or that is the universe.

So pranayama—literally, “control of prana”—isn’t just breathing exercises. Through pranayama, you use the breath to affect the constellation of energy that is your body-mind.

But why should you want to move this energy around?

One reason is the deeply seated, perhaps genetically ingrained impulse in the human species to make order out of disorder. When you start paying attention to energy, often the first thing you notice is that you’re not in charge; you don’t have any choice except to be moved by it. If you’re alive, energy moves and shapes you. And oftentimes it seems that the way the energy moves you is random and incoherent. Things happen which feel chaotic and out of control, and you long to give them some order.

Long ago, people discovered that their own minds are part of that disorder. We are subject to the wanderings and rapid turnings of thoughts and feelings we don’t seem to be in control of. The desire to calm this mental and emotional storm is age-old. In searching for methods to calm the mind, one of the tools that people discovered was the breath.

Normally, when you’re not paying attention to your breath, it is quite random, subject to all kinds of fluctuations according to your moods, your thoughts, the temperature around you, what you last ate, and so forth. But the early yogis discovered that if they could even out the breath, they could even out the jumpiness of the mind. Over time, they elaborated that discovery into the practices called pranayama.

Pranayama the Iyengar Way

There are as many approaches to pranayama as there are to the practice of asana. Some schools of yoga immediately introduce quite forceful and/or complex pranayama techniques, like kapalabhati(literally, “skull shining,” but better known as “breath of fire”) and nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). Other approaches incorporate pranayama techniques into asana practice from the very beginning. But my training is primarily in Iyengar Yoga, in which pranayama is taught, very slowly and carefully, as a separate practice from asana.

There are two main reasons for this caution. First, although the physical and mental effects of pranayama can be very subtle, they can also be very powerful. It’s fairly easy to become quite “spacey,” “inflated,” “ungrounded,” or just plain anxious if you practice pranayama techniques before your nervous system is prepared to handle the increased energy they can bring.

Second, in Iyengar Yoga the point of pranayama isn’t just to amp up the energy in the body. The point is to penetrate ever more deeply into a subtle understanding and control of that energy. I believe that the best way to develop that understanding and control is to practice pranayama separately from asanas, and to build a pranayama practice slowly and steadily, one step at a time.

Quietness, stillness, and subtlety are much easier to glimpse and grasp in pranayama than they are in asana. The movements of the asanas, although beneficial in many ways, are also a distraction. When you sit or lie down in pranayama, the obvious physical movement of the body is gone, and you can concentrate on more inner qualities. When you do that, you become familiar at an experiential, cellular level with the experience of stillness and steadiness. You find that there is a rhythmic quality, like the rhythm of the breath, to the internal body-mind processes. Once you experience these rhythms in an ongoing way—which is what happens if you have a daily pranayama practice—the capacity to notice them (and to modulate them) spontaneously shows up in your asana practice as well. Once you become aware of the subtle, rhythmic qualities of the breath and the body, and of how these help focus your mind, you begin to realize that those rhythms have actually always been present in your asana work; you just didn’t notice them before because you were distracted by the physical, muscular challenges of doing the poses. From the very beginning, underneath the obvious work of bones and muscles is another, much more subtle level of working. Having a daily pranayama practice gives you an experiential awareness of that hidden realm.

Getting Started

To set up for beginning Iyengar-style pranayama practice, take a firm, densely woven blanket and fold it to create a bolster which measures approximately three inches thick, five inches wide, and 30 inches long. You will be resting on this bolster along the length of your spine. Take a second blanket and fold it across the bolster as a thin pillow for your head.

Sit with your legs stretched straight out in front of you and your long bolster extending out behind you. Then lie down so that your spine is supported all the way from the lumbar region to your skull. (This bolster both supports your spine and opens your chest). Separate your heels and move your arms out a comfortable distance from your sides, palms up. Make sure your body is arranged symmetrically on both sides of your spine. For the next couple of minutes, only relax. Do Savasana (Corpse Pose). Let your body be still; let your nerves become quiet. In this stillness and quietness, simply observe the quality of your natural breath.

Continue reading here in Yoga Journal

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