Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pranayama, Or, Learning How to Breathe

We all know how to breathe, right? We do it without thinking, upwards of 20,000 times a day. How often do we slow down long enough to pay attention to what our breath is doing?

I've been immersing myself in the work of Krishnamacharya after being lent a copy of The Heart of Yoga by Debbie, my yoga teacher leading my training program down in Schroon Lake. I also took a 6-week class with my friend Emily, who is enrolled in another teacher training program following the traditions and teachings of Krishnamacharya down in New York City, and what I learned in her class about the breath was just astounding.

For those who aren't familiar with yoga, there are eight limbs to the practice of yoga. Yoga is more than just asana practice (poses). The eight limbs (as outlined in the sutras of Patanjali) are:

  1. Yama. The yamas can be described as how we interact with others. Basically, play nice with others.
  2. Niyama. The niyamas are about how to care for ourselves. Cleanliness, self-study, and surrender to God are all part of the niyamas.
  3. Asana. Asana is the physical practice of yoga poses that most of us are familiar with.
  4. Pranayama. Pranayama, the subject of this blog, is all about breath control. Pranayama is the study and practice of how to connect with your breath and your body and your mind. You'll see why I've suddenly become interested in pranayama in just a few minutes.
  5.  Pratyahara. This is the practice of turning inward, of detaching from our physical senses.
  6. Dharana. Once we have mastered the practice of detaching from our physical senses (not so easy), we are now prepared to tackle the complete detachment from our thoughts. (And you thought pratyahara was going to be difficult!)
  7. Dhyana. The next logical step in achieving our spiritual goal of enlightenment is to practice dhyana, which is the act of concentration without the production of thoughts. 
  8. Samadhi. This is the final stage, the stage of enlightenment and ecstasy, when you are able to transcend self and ego and understand the true nature of the divine.
You'll notice that most yoga classes don't spend a lot of time on the breath, or on the practice of pranayama. But the more I read about Krishnamacharya, the more I'm starting to think that the breath should be mastered BEFORE the study of asana. And here's why...

Krishnamacharya, like most other yoga teachers, instructs students that to be truly comfortable in a pose, they should be able to breathe comfortably.  What does that even mean? How many of us are even aware of when we are breathing comfortably?

Some of us are aware of how it feels when we are breathing uncomfortably. When you are exerting yourself, or you find yourself in a stressful situation with your heart pounding and your head spinning. (Which describes how I felt the first few weeks of the Thursday night vinyasa class. Krishnamacharya, in particular, taught that if you could felt your heart racing or pounding in a particular asana, then that asana was not for you - not yet, anyway.)

So, what does it feel like to breathe comfortably?

This is where the practice of pranayama comes in handy, and where I made my discoveries about breath and movement in my yoga classes with my friend Emily.

I discovered in her classes that even the simplest movements can have a profound affect on both my body and my mind, if I'm practicing them with full awareness of my breath. Raising and lowering my arms above my head can be as powerful a meditation to me as some of my favorite standing balancing poses like Eagle or Tree, if I'm paying attention to my breath.

The true meaning of vinyasa is the linking of breath and movement. But unless you know how to be aware of your breath, unless you can recognize the feeling of a smooth, full, even breath, how can you link your breath with your movement?

Think about it this way: you get into side angle pose. Your left leg is stretched out behind you, your right knee is bent directly over your right ankle. Your left arm is raised, either straight up into the air, or directly over your left ear. Your right arm is either lightly resting on your right knee, or your right palm has found its way down to the floor.

What's your breath doing?

For the first two or three months that I practiced that pose every day, my heart pounded. My breath was NOT smooth and even. It came in big gulps, it was ragged, it sounded like I had just tried to run a 6-minute mile.

After a few months of daily asana practice, I noticed that my breath came easier in side angle pose. (Most of the time.) It was smooth and deep and even. It almost felt like the breaths I take when I'm deeply relaxed, just before sleep.

But I had to practice some pranayama before I was really aware of what that felt like. It was a signal to me that my body and my mind and my breath were, indeed, connected in those few precious seconds.

Now, I'm practicing pranayama all the time. Even on the days when I can't do more than five or ten minutes of asana practice, I'm practicing pranayama at my desk, in the car, while I'm cooking. I'm switching my brain over into pranayama mode, picking one or two of the easier breathing exercises that I'm learning about, and trying to master them.

There are other reasons why I'm getting deeper into the practice of pranayama. I'm finding it intensely helpful during an anxiety attack or a panic attack. I'm also finding that it makes my asana practice more powerful, and allows me to go into a deeper state of meditation when I'm just sitting comfortably on my mat.

Pranayama is making me re-think my whole asana practice, and indeed, my entire practice of yoga. It's making me feel more connected with my body and mind, even on the tough days.

So, for anyone out there practicing yoga or thinking about practicing yoga: start with the basics. Before you dive into your asana practice, start with your breath.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ready to Get Spiritual? F**k It!**k+it
So, I was perusing through some books on Amazon, and after I downloaded the Buddhist Boot Camp book, this little gem popped up in my "You Might Like" list...

And it's called, "F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way".

I know there are probably a lot of people that will be offended just by the title of this book, but you know what? F**k it.

That's how it works!

For a measly $5, I decided to take a chance and download this little gem to my Kindle. I got into a hot bath with a drink and my journal, and started to read.

Now, I'm only a few chapters into this book, but I can totally see how it makes sense.

The basic idea behind the F**k It philosophy is this: in order to achieve enlightenment, pretty much every belief system out there requires you to give up your attachments to things, to people, to outcomes, to whatever.

And sometimes, when we find our stress levels rising, and our tempers flaring, and our patience wearing thin, the best thing we can do to re-gain our perspective is to simply say - you guessed it - fuck it.

Worried about work? Money? Relationships? Fuck it.

Have a to-do list a mile long, and only 24 hours in a day? Fuck it.

Your alarm clock didn't go off this morning, you had a headache, your car wouldn't start, and your bank account was overdrawn? Fuck it.

You get the idea.

I have to admit, I'm inspired by the message in this book. It sort of reminds me of what my father would tell me when I was a kid and getting stressed out about things like school, grades, friends, and all that other stuff that goes into teenage angst. Fuck it!

So this morning, when I felt that little nagging behind my right ribcage that might signal another gallbladder attack, I just took a deep breath and said to myself, fuck it.

And you know, I haven't felt a twinge since.

There are lots more chapters for me to explore in this book, and more to read, and more to report back on, but for now, and especially during the holidays, my mantra is going to be...F**k It!

Monday, December 16, 2013


Woa. Almost an entire month since my last post here? What the hell?


To be fair, there was another round of illness (sore throat, congestion, nausea, fever, wicked bad spastic cough), loads of yoga homework for teacher training, Thanksgiving, and now, preparing for solstice and Christmas. This is also that time of year that is a huge reminder that I am actually part of a retail marketing team, because my work schedule just feels completely out of control.

So, yeah, sometimes in between everything else, the blogging gets put off.

After missing classes at the studio for 2 weeks because I was either taking care of husband and child, or because I didn't want to be "that" person who unnecessarily spreads her germs around by coughing and sneezing and being sick in public, I went back on Friday night for a special EmPOWERment yoga practice led by Robin, followed by a screening of the movie Yogawoman.

The practice was amazing. After 2 weeks of stress and sickness and ever-shortening days, I could feel the anxiety bubbling up again in my stomach.

But the studio was warm and dim and cozy, and my friends were there, and Robin led us in this amazing practice to music that made me bust out laughing. Imagine doing Warrior I to the tune of "I'm Every Woman" by Chaka Khan, or the theme from Flash Dance. I dare you to not let even a giggle escape - it's impossible!

At the end of the practice, we sat in easy pose, with hands in a simple mudra, and Robin said, "List all the things you love about yourself." And even with the smile on my face, I had a hard time getting into that list, but I did it.

Afterwards, a projector was set up, and food was brought out, and we feasted and sat with each other and watched Yogawoman. (Which was a good movie, but a subject for a different blog post later on, I promise.)

I couldn't help but feel so cozy in that studio, even though it was close to -14° F outside. My "balanced dinner" that night consisted of a handful of spinach and cheese bites, some sundried tomato dip with pita crackers, a handful of popcorn, grapes, and a chunk of fair trade dark chocolate with almonds. Yummy.

It was a fun evening. After the movie, we all chatted some more - I realized that one of my friends from yoga classes and I were wearing the EXACT same sweater. Same color and everything. We chatted about our kids, about the weather, about nothing in particular, and I was overcome with this sense of community that I haven't felt in a very long time.

Finally, before I said goodbye to Robin, we gave each other a hug. She thanked me for coming. I said to her, "Thank you for doing this," and to my surprise, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude bubbling up in me.

I'll be honest - the last few months, I have been struggling to feel a sense of gratitude about anything. It just hasn't come naturally to me. But this - this felt genuine. So genuine, that it took me completely off guard.

Because what I meant when I said, "Thank you for doing this", was, "Thank you for doing this - all of it. The yoga. The studio. Being you. All of it. Thank you."

I went home feeling tired, but good. I was tired all the next day at teacher training, and absolutely exhausted yesterday morning. But I felt good.

I also felt the tiniest bit of hope stirring in me now. There is gratitude in there, somewhere.