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.

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