Categories
meditation teaching

yoga teachers and teaching philosophies

Old Site ~2007
Old Site ~2007

In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.  ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

 A Q&A with students back in 2007

(I’ve taken the old site down.)

Q: How long have you done yoga? Taught yoga? What’s philosophy for teaching a class?    —S.L.P.

I took my first yoga class in 1993. Needless to say, I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t even like my first class, an alleged intro class full of pretzel-twisting poses that were way beyond me. I tried & liked other classes, though, and did yoga off and on (more off) until 2002, when I realized it was really quite nice. “Really quite nice” doesn’t merit much time on a busy New Yorker’s schedule. I practiced once every week or two, when time permitted.

During a patch of big stress early in 2003, I realized just how much yoga helped me relax. I began to practice twice a week, and by summer I decided to do a teacher training, not because I wanted to teach (I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t see myself as a yoga teacher at all) but because I wanted to deepen my practice. I trained that fall, and in January, I walked into a job in spite of myself. I’ve been teaching since, and love it more each year. (Short answer: I’ve been teaching a bit over five years.)

My philosophy for teaching a class? I want you to come in, leave your life (good and bad) outside, work hard, meet your body, relax, find your breath, and have fun. How do I encourage this as a teacher? I don’t know. Teaching is extremely intuitive. I practiced daily and have studied with some great teachers. I absorb what I do and don’t like, and try to pass this on to you.

Sometimes I worry that I should do more—go to more teachers’ trainings (I plan to this summer), more retreats, more classes, do more preparation, and so on. But I work full time, I teach about 15 hours a week, and I’m in grad school. Doing more isn’t possible at present. But everything I do brings something to my teaching in a way that living and breathing only hathayoga cannot. I did grad work in South Asian Studies, and now Health and Behavioral Studies/Heath Education. I draw heavily on both in my yoga teaching.

I want people to get into their bodies and be honest with themselves. We neglect and abuse ourselves constantly, and we numb ourselves to life. Yoga can reverse this habit, and it isn’t all relaxation, or love and light, because often we open to the pain we’ve been taught all our lives to avoid. Better to be real and move through the pain (and the joy), than to be rigid and constantly defensive, or bubbly and fake. Or anxious. Or depressed. I’ve found that coming into the body is a remarkable way to do this.

 

Q: A teacher talked about seeing the good in everyone, even the people you don’t like. That’s not easy. You know, sometimes I don’t want to see the good in someone. Sometimes I just want to hate them. —J.F.S.

While there is merit in seeing the good, it isn’t easy. On one level, I agree with you. I don’t personally find the “be good” lectures in yoga particularly helpful (and there are many). Some may, and that’s great. Use it. But be aware that translated to the western psyche, being good when it isn’t sincere often translates to more anger and repression. If we want anger and repression, why not stick with where we are and forgo all the trouble? Again, I find this true for many, but not everyone.

I, personally, would hate them, if that’s what I felt truly felt. And I’d observe myself doing so, and perhaps, watch how that feels in general, and in my body. While working myself up can feel good and righteous for a bit, when I watch the process of feeling hate towards someone, I find that it doesn’t feel that great at all. It feels hot, leathery, and cramped. If I can feel the anger, watch it pass, and feel my pain and the hurt beneath the angst, I may or may not feel compassion toward the other person, but I sometimes find some for my own pain. And bad habits.

When this happens, I notice all the stories I tell myself about this terrible person and his/her behavior aren’t accurate, or even the point. The point of the stories is to protect me from the pain that I’ve learned to push away and point at someone else.

Part of the brilliance of yoga, when done regularly, is that it opens the heart and clears the mind just enough to want to be good, to not want to hurt others (even if they’ve hurt me), and to be brave enough to face the pain that lies beneath my angry, depressed, or anxiously cartwheeling mind. It’s not about faking like or resisting hate. It’s about being strong enough to observe how my mind works, how my body works, and how I trick myself into more and more pain by trying to avoid the truth of the pain I have. No, it’s not easy, and no, I don’t manage it much of the time.

I didn’t arrive at this by wanting to be good, and even less because someone suggested I should be. I just came to the point, about six years ago, that the behaviors I used to feel good didn’t work anymore, and had never worked very well at all, though they did get me through some hard times. I was making the same mistakes, thinking the same thoughts, having the same conversations over and over and over again. I wanted out, and wanted something else. I knew yoga made me feel good, so I did more of it. That led to meditation, and an intimacy with my mind and how it works.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Q: What is the ultimate goal of Western-style yoga from the instructor’s perspective? —A.T.

The ultimate goal? Hmm. “Western-style yoga” is extremely diverse and yoga instructors come in many stripes and colors.

From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior. I ultimately believe that yoga and meditation belong together because they balance one another. Those who only do hatha yoga can unwittingly get locked into physical habits or the exhilaration of the experience. Those who only meditate can unwittingly get stuck in mental habits—or the exhilaration of the experience. But together, they keep a check on the other and balance mind and body.

That said, most of my students don’t meditate. I did yoga about a year before I could sit still long enough to even attempt sitting meditation. For Columbia students, who are already way up in their heads, hatha yoga is very grounding. Sure, meditation would be great for them, but at this point yoga may well be enough.

 

Q: Given that everyone is different from another, how do yoga instructors evaluate their students’ progress?    —A.T.

Most of my students are grad students and with me two years, at the most. They are busy, and most aren’t dedicated to a yoga practice, so even getting to class is an accomplishment. This can make “progress” seem quite slow from where I stand, but they may be getting more benefits than the manic-yogi who shows up each day and rips through the practice out of addiction or habit.

What is progress? I may define progress one way and the student another. My goal of yoga may not agree with a student’s goal, but it doesn’t mean that we are mismatched in the studio.

The idea of a linear progression toward a specific goal doesn’t agree with my perception of yoga as a practice that is at least as cyclical as it is linear. I could evaluate progress along the lines of my last response (“From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior”). The student who does this may hit a huge crisis and feel as if life is falling apart. From this perspective, that may be the best thing in the world and just what s/he most needs. Ergo, fantastic progress!

If a student wants me to evaluate her/him, or we have a long term relationship, I’d need to know the student’s goals, abilities, and dreams (nothing less!) before I could do so, and even then it would be more about helping the student evaluate her/his practice on her/his own terms.

What about on a simply physical level? I’m not sure there is a simply physical level. Yes, I notice how someone’s down dog is coming along, and can give pointers, but I’m not sure that this is an evaluation of progress. Simply showing up to the mat with a sincere effort to focus on the body and breath is, to me, the biggest accomplishment for any student.

Categories
asana favorites meditation what is yoga

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana
Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.

Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.

There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Exactly.

Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.

While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.

There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”

I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahmin (highest) class alone.

AYS-2If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.

Sweeney also argues:

In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.

Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.

Sweeney finds it:

…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga.  Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.

As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.

And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:

I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.

So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.

b10009
Poster care of Ashtanga.com

This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.

If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga.  I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.

The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.

It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.

I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.

Categories
asana favorites yoga habits

how to do headstand (sirsasana)

In comments past, Merka asked:  “My vinyasa instructor LOVES inversions and headstands. However, I am slightly terrified of headstands because my arms are quite shaky when I do them. Do you recommend any arm exercises, in addition to downward dog, that would help build muscle? How do I encourage my body to relax when I’m in this position?”

I’m going to backtrack on this, because it also relates to M’s comment on virtual yoga, and because it seems to me that there is a lot of mystique and self-worth tied up with sirsasana and other inversions in a yoga practice. For some reason, many people seem to feel that if they can’t or don’t do headstand, they aren’t really doing yoga. I’m not suggesting this is you, Merka. It just reminds me that I know so many students who are fixated on it to the point of taking away from their overall practice. Yes, it’s cool to go upside down and there are many benefits. But it’s also very dangerous to do improperly because it can put so much weight on the neck, and those dangers can far exceed the benefits.

Sirsasana1
BKS Iyengar in headstand. Photo from haxoyoga.com

When I started doing yoga, I was quite weak. I did yoga because it relaxed me, and I had no designs on ever doing headstand, armstand, or anything I deemed fancy. But over the years (two?), a regular, well-balanced yoga practice gave me the strength and balance to do them easily. It was a natural progression that felt neither dramatic nor effortful.  And while I do practice headstand, I know much more accomplished practitioners than myself who don’t do headstand because of neck issues or other concerns. My point: if you don’t feel solid and safe in headstand, don’t do it. In this case, not doing headstand is being kind to yourself, and much more yogic.

So what do you do in class if everyone else is going up, and you feel inferior because you aren’t? Or feel like your being a wimp because you could, but…? Find your breath. It’s much better to feel comfortable where you are then to hurt yourself. Headstand does not make you a better yogi or a better person. Practice dolphin to forearm plank, which most instructors teach as a strengthening option for students not going up. If you are going up, use a wall. If the teacher doesn’t provide that option, and you don’t feel comfortable going to the wall anyway, then skip it and practice at home.

I often skip headstand in class if the teacher doesn’t know me well (or vice versa) and it’s taught in the middle of the room because I have a subtle twist through my body (because of dominant sight in one eye since birth. It’s been there through development) that often isn’t noticed until headstand, and I’m not interested in having that conversation or being misguided while upside down and unsupported in the middle of a stranger’s class.  So instead I do dolphin or whatever feels appropriate to me. And no one cares.

scorpion
If you fixate on headstand without looking at why you so desire to master it, as soon as you have, you’ll forget that accomplishment and chase after the next impressive pose. Image from dharmayogacenter.com.

Different schools have different ideas about how headstand should be done. Where I first trained, it was said that students shouldn’t be near the wall because they’d come to depend on it. I thought that was silly (training wheels, anyone?) and never tried headstand there for that reason. No way was I trying that in the middle on the floor. Other schools, like Iyengar, believe that it’s fine to have the wall behind you and come up one leg at a time when you are learning, as long is it is slow and careful, the abs are engaged, the forearms press down, and there’s no hopping. (I don’t mean press your body against the wall. I mean the wall is a few inches a way in case you fall back.) This is how I learned. Then I switched to a school that insists on coming up two legs at a time to protect the neck (which took some acclimation) but walls are fine. Yoga Journal advocates the two leg method, but suggests that hopping is okay: “Take both feet up at the same time, even if it means bending your knees and hopping lightly off the floor.” After years of safely lifting on leg at a time, I hurt my neck by “hopping lightly” with both legs. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Neither is throwing one leg up at a time, of course, or letting your head and neck take the weight.

I’m not interested in saying one way is right and another is wrong. All schools and methods are valid for their own reasons. Find one (one) that works for you and a good teacher who can guide you. Personal issues and injuries aside, you will progress to headstand when you have the strength, and you will move that into the middle of the room with the confidence and grace that come from a regular yoga practice. As they say, “Chit happens.”

Categories
favorites teaching yoga habits

grammar for yoga teachers

When looking for a studio to complete my advanced training, I admit that somewhere in the process of choosing ISHTA, a deciding factor was that most of their teachers had a basic command of grammar. Perhaps I could be less judgmental, but it’s a matter of elegance. If you want your students to respect you and trust the knowledge you have to impart, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics about words and phrases that are commonly used in yoga.

When to say “lay” and when to say “lie.” This is quite easy, as it’s generally used in present tense. The issue is not the action or the subject, it’s simply whether the verb takes a direct object. “Lay” takes a direct object, “lie” does not. Huh?

Lay your head down on the mat. Lay what? If you can answer that with a word in your sentence (your head, your hand, your iphone, yourself), use “lay.”

Lie down on the mat. Lie what? If there’s no word there to explain what (a direct object), then it’s “lie.” Lie over the bolster, not lay over the bolster.

(Note that “bolster” does not answer the question of what is to be moved.)

Fairly easy, if you quickly ask yourself if what is to be moved is in the sentence before you choose your words.

spine

Another frequent problem is vertebra vs. vertebrae. The first is singular, the second plural. We have 33 vertebrae, each one a vertebra. “Roll up to the top of your spine, stacking the vertebrae as you go.” “Roll up the spine, one vertebra at a time.” Same goes for scapula and scapulae, though scapulas is also correct plural form. Scapula is not.

I’ll refrain from some pet peeves, which aren’t exactly grammatical errors, such as suggesting the class enjoy a “juicy” hip opener. For the visual student, this is quite distracting. When not pertaining to food or weather, juicy connotes:

a. Rich in wealth, fit to be ‘sucked’ (quot. 1621); or  c. Suggestive, esp. in a sexual way; piquant, racy, sensational. colloq.

Is this really what we want to imbibe? (Definitions care of OED.)

Feel free to share your favorite yoga pet peeves. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

Categories
asana pranayama yoga habits

how to slide pranayama into your day

After working on my general blog all week, which includes some info about my ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka, I’m tempted to write about nethra vyamamam (yogic eye exercises). My eyes are burning after staring at the computer screen all day and I haven’t done these practices regularly in years. Alas, I’ll stay on topic: fitting pranayama into the day. Lauren asked how to fit it in when not practicing asana, and Amy wants to know the same.

To Lauren, I say try to get a little bit of asana in every day, even if it’s just a long adho mukha svanasana (down dog) or a surya namaskara (sun salutation) or two. Even viparita karani (legs up the wall) is better than nothing. If you have ten minutes, consider these.

I try to do five minutes of pranayama in the morning or before bed. If I’m energetic, I just sit down and do it. If I’m exhausted, I make my way into legs up the wall and rest there a few minutes. Then I begin some gentle pranayama. If it’s morning, I might sit up afterward and do more vigorous pranayama if I have time, and end with a savanasa (corpse pose). If you don’t have five minutes? You need pranayama even more than when you do. Squeeze it in! It will create the space you need to minimize stress by stepping back so that you don’t overreact to situations and make small problems bigger by creating mind storms (vritti) over little things, like unpleasant service or a missed subway.

Which techniques I choose are similar to what I’d choose for a class, mentioned in the last post.

I suspect you want some ideas about pranayama on the subway and at your desk. Yes, you can take a 5 minute break and breathe. You know this—the real question is how to create the discipline to do it. Creating a habit is probably the best option. “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it” (Horace Mann). Until the habit is formed, make yourself take a break for pranayama everyday at the same time daily, or when you are doing something specific, like riding home on the train, or when you begin to feel a certain way. After hours at the computer, I begin to feel a bit spacey. That’s my time.

pranay.women
image from SarahLee.tv

Obviously, your choice of pranayama will be somewhat determined by where you are. In public, apa japa, deergha swasam or the krama breath are good choices. If your work space is somewhat private, you can do almost anything that won’t get in the way of your ability to return to what you were doing (nothing too intense). Make a note of how you feel after each exercise. If time permits, write it in an email or in your calendar so that you can reflect on how it’s helping. This can help to ingrain the habit.

If you find that you have trouble making yourself practice, do pranayama before whatever you usually do—before you open your book or ipod on the train, before tea, coffee, or chocolate, before calling a friend or searching out co-workers at the water cooler (Andrea). And make sure you’re practicing pranayama regularly with a teacher, which can be inspirational itself. If your teacher doesn’t do pranayama, ask if s/he’ll start. Many teachers are shy to instruct it because they think it’s not wanted.

In researching yoga blogs, I happened upon this bit about going home and getting on the mat instead of the internet, even for a minute. Yes! For me, that minute can turn into a 90 minute practice—even when I’d thought I was hungry.

Categories
favorites pranayama

pranayama प्राणायाम

Thanks for all the excellent comments. Because I’m delighted and surprised that there’s an interest in pranayama (breathing practices), that’s where I’ll start.

Pranayama translates from the Sanskrit, प्राणायाम, as “restraint of life force.” Prana is life force, or energy, similar to qi (chi) in Chinese medicine. It is said to travel most easily with the breath, and prana is sometimes translated as breath, or even as spirit. Iyengar says that, “It is as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God….prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma)….Chitta [mindstuff, or thoughts] and prana are in close association.”

The suffix -āyāma translates as regulate, restrain, or most commonly, control. In the Indian edition of Light on Pranayama, the opening page explains, “Pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, leads to a control of emotions which in turn brings stability, concentration, and mental poise.” Who doesn’t need a bit of that?

Pranayama Yoga chart Reproduction of illustration from Yogini Sunita’s, Pranayama Yoga: The Lotus and the Rose: The Art of Relaxation, Walsall, England, 1965

This is a vast topic, and I’d love input from teachers more versed in it than myself. Some argue that pranayama is too powerful for beginners to practice. I disagree. I learned the fundamentals of yoga in a class at IYI that taught three pranayama techniques at the end of every class. When my practice advanced, I explored other classes around the city, and while many were amazing, I noticed that without the pranayama (which is absent in most classes), the classes weren’t as grounding and the effects didn’t last as long.

I don’t want to get into how to do pranayama here. It’s best to learn from a teacher in person, rather than by reading about it. I do think it’s valuable to talk about different types of pranayama and their benefits. The quick parenthetical explanations below are meant as quick descriptors or reminders—not instructions!

In the last post Sarah commented, “I love to do some sort of centering technique before asana to draw my attention to the midline, like nadi shodana (alternate nostril) or a ham-sa kriya (attention up and down the spine). I would love to hear what other people do after asana, if not going right into meditation.”

I, too, like to begin class with pranayama, not only because I find it impossible to squeeze into the end of my short, 60-minute classes. I usually start with a reclined apa japa (simple awareness of breath) or deergha swasam (complete, three-part breath), followed by krama breath on the inhalation (inhale-hold for three steps of inhalation), or a seated nadi shodana, sitali (inhalation through rolled tongue), or kapalabhati (skull-shining, with quick expulsions on the exhalation and natural, small inhalations). It depends on the mood of the class. If they need to settle, I’m partial to nadi shodana. If they need energy or if it’s cold in the room, kapalabhati. If it’s hot, sitali. If they’re a little dull, krama. I haven’t taught murcha (covering the ears) or bramuri (murcha with humming on exhale) yet, but I plan to start, as I love them. I think bastrika is too intense for my short classes, so I don’t teach it. I do teach the bandhas (locks), but subtly.

After asana, I don’t usually have time for pranayama, but in the IYI classes that I mentioned, deerga swasam was taught directly after savasana (corpse pose), followed by kapalabhati, nadi shodana, one minute of meditation, and closing chants (in that order).  If I had time, I’d definitely teach any of the above-mentioned breaths after asana, except kapalabhati or bastrika as there isn’t enough time afterward to ground. I also might add krama on exhalation as well. How do others approach this? And how do you discipline yourself to end in time for pranayama, if time is short?

In comments on the last post, Lauren said that she’s “interested in learning more on the different breathing techniques and how I can incorporate these techniques into my life when I am not practicing.” I’ll speak to this in the next post.

An aside: I imagined that all the unemployed were probably sending people to long term volunteer stays at places like Kripalu and other ashrams. Indeed, the New York Times did a story on it the other day.

Next: how to slide pranayama into your day