Notes on Prāṇayāma

The following are some notes I have taken over the past few years on practicing and teaching prāṇayama. I wish I'd written dates and teachers so I could give attribution to the shared knowledge. The bulk of what I have learned came through teacher training with the Yoga Well Institute and discussions with my personal teacher, Pam Hightower, as well as reflections on my own experience.

What is Prāṇayāma?

Prāṇa is thought of as vital energy or sometimes spirit, and its presence is what makes the difference between something being alive or not. The word prāṇa comes from the word roots "pra" (completely) and "an" (moves), meaning "that which moves/exists throughout" or "that which moves well." The word root "āṇ" also means "to breathe," from which we have the association of prāṇa with breathing.

The word root "āyāma" means to stretch, or to extend. Some texts will translate prāṇayāma as "control of the breath," combining the roots of prāṇa (breath/life force) and yama (control/restraint). However, the second word should be -āyāma (note the long a), and while this difference may seem pedantic, a practice of controlling the breath and that of extending the breath will differ in their approach and attitude.

For me, the word "extension" doesn't simply mean lengthen, as in making the breath so many counts longer, as much as bringing a quality of evenness and endlessness to each breath. I think of the breath as fine thread, and the "extension" is the gentle drawing out of kinks and tangles so the thread is smooth.

According to the Yoga Sutra (2.49-50), prāṇayāma is practiced by interrupting, or consciously influencing, the natural/chaotic flow of the breath once the body is in a state of sthira-sukha (a balance of stability and ease). In prāṇayāma, we strive to keep the breath long and subtle/smooth (dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ) as we modify the exhale, inhale, and the suspension of breath after exhale and inhale.

Why do we practice prāṇayāma?

Prāṇayāma is the "chief way of focusing prāṇa," and the ideal tool for working with disruptions to the flow of energy in the body (see the prāṇa vayus) and for preparing the mind for meditation.

In a yoga practice or group class, we usually begin with movement to connect with the body. The body is easiest to move and be in relationship with, as it's a physical thing that we are accustomed to moving consciously. Then we move to the more subtle breath. By working with breath in prāṇayāma, we prime the mind for working with thought in meditation.

Prāṇayāma has a profound effect on the state of the human system. Depending on how it is structured, the practice can build capacity for clarity, or letting go, or digestion, or many other qualities that will prepare the system for the direction meditation is intended to go.

Yoga Sutra 2.51 and 2.52 give the result of prāṇayāma:

Once a student is established in prāṇayāma, the veil that obscures the light of knowing disappears, and the mind attains the capacity for concentration.

How do we practice prāṇayāma?

To begin a practice of prāṇayāma, we first need to know the capacity of the practitioner. The quality of a person's breathing is an indication of their state, and that state has a given capacity. Trying to exceed that capacity will only "anger" the prāṇa.

And while "angry prāṇa" may have a funny ring to it, it's no fun! I know this from a lot of experience angering my prāṇa by trying to push it too far. It leaves me feeling anxious, depleted, sleepless and generally miserable. Remember that this is your vital force you're working with. The goal is to develop a relationship with it, not take over its job!

One of my teachers put it this way: "The key is to participate in the way the state is functioning." This is true for all yoga tools in your system--consider yourself a participant, or a partner, not a micro manager (she tells herself).

That said, there are many techniques available for prāṇayama. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

You can change the length of different parts of the breath (the exhale, inhale, or pause after the exhale/inhale).

Usually you'll need to modify the size of the aperture the breath flows from to change the length. For this we have ujjayi breath, in which the throat is gently constricted to slow the flow of breath, or nostril-control breathing, in which we breathe through one nostril at a time. There are also sitali and sitkari, in which we breathe through the mouth (I'll post more on these individual techniques later).

Another way to alter the length of the breath is by using chanting, in whatever language you are comfortable with. Saying words or phrases of different lengths is a more subtle way to control the length of the breath, and in my experience, the more subtle I can be when working with prāṇa, the more digestible the practice will be.

We also use breathing techniques in which we consciously draw the lower belly in during exhale, or lift and expand the chest on inhale. As long as these are not too forced, they can be an excellent support for concentration and connection to the experience of the breath in stillness or in āsana practice. These breathing techniques include bandha practice as well--a complex topic I will have to cover in a separate post!

How Do I Develop a Prāṇayāma Practice?

Quite frankly, I would leave the work of creating your own practice to a qualified teacher. Even I am most successful when somebody else (who knows me and has carefully observed my state) plans my breathing practice. It's so hard to consider yourself and your practice objectively, especially if you have a goal you are tempted to rush toward.

If you are a teacher wanting to develop a prāṇayāma practice for your students, the first step is to observe their quality of breath at rest and during yoga practice. Is it smooth and easy? Does the body have freedom to move as the breath flows in and out?

Most students do not have a daily yoga practice and will be best served by beginner and early intermediate breathing practices. These include:

  • ujjayi breath and sound (chanting);
  • gradually lengthening the exhale (perhaps to 6 or 10 counts) while leaving the inhale free;
  • and building up to a ratio like 4.0.8.0 (inhale four counts, exhale eight counts).

These are the practices I give most often in group classes, although I might give something more challenging (like pausing after exhale, or lengthening inhale) to students who have been attending class consistently and are in a balanced state.

The best prelude to prāṇayāma is some movement connected to the breath. This helps students come in to their bodies and builds their concentration for working with the less tangible breath. Depending on the students' state, 10 to 30 minutes of asana usually warms them up to a seated breathing practice.

It is difficult to bear in mind that the simplest prāṇayāma practices are often the most useful! I have to remind myself frequently that the goal of prāṇayāma is stable energy and a steady mind, not having an impressive breath capacity. Whenever I feel tempted to push the breath, I look instead for a feeling of ease in my breath, heart and mind. Remember that this is a practice of meeting the breath where it is each day, of being curious about how it is, and accepting that it knows what it's doing.

Working with Energy: The Prana Vayus

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One of the many tools yoga philosophy provides for understanding the human system is the prāṇa vayu model, which describes how energy flows to keep our system working.

Prāṇa is life energy. It's presence is the difference between something being alive or inanimate. And the unobstructed movement of prāṇa throughout our system makes us vibrant and healthy.

Each of the vayus is a description of how and where prāṇa moves to accomplish energetic tasks in our system.

Prāṇa

The prāṇa vayu is located in the chest and head area and is responsible for intake (such as in eating, breathing in and seeing the world around you).

Samāna

The samāna vayu is located in the midsection, around the stomach and upper digestive organs responsible for absorption and integration.

Apāna

The apāna vayu is located in the lower abdomen and pelvic region. It is associated with elimination, the menstrual cycle, childbirth and general letting go.

Udāna

The udāna vayu is responsible for communication and self-expression. It is located in the throat, and is accessed in the area that stretches from the chest to the face.

Vyāna

The vyāna vayu is diffused throughout the body. It is responsible for circulation, sensation and connection.

How to apply the prāṇa vayu system in yoga practice

We can have some influence over the flow of prāṇa in one of the vayus by moving the area (āsana), modifying breathing and bringing attention to a space. We can also use meditation and connection with various objects, gestures (as in mudra and nyāsam) and sound (chanting) to effect different aspects of the human system.

In time, I will share some ideas for using yoga tools like poses, breathing and meditation to influence the various areas of prāṇa flow.

But to begin with, it's helpful to consider how we can observe a disturbance in prāṇa (prāṇa prakopa)

Since the flow of prāṇa is what makes a body work well, noticing what's not working so well in the body/mind/emotions is a good start for choosing a vayu to work with.

For example, painful menstrual cramps, diarrhea, constipation or IBS would be a strong indication that the apāna region needs some attention. If a person doesn't make eye contact or speaks very softly, or on the other hand, speaks without consideration, working with the udāna region would be useful.

Once you can see a connection between an area of pain or difficulty and one of the vayus, you have some direction for choosing appropriate yoga techniques for bringing balance to that space.

Please remember that yoga practice we should never seek to control the system. Yoga practice is an opportunity to build or repair a relationship with the system, and the techniques you choose will work best if supportive and nourishing, not demanding or harsh. Especially where there is agitation in the system, go slow, be kind and choose a gentle approach.

Class Recordings: January 25, 2018

Classes today focused on developing a capacity for listening to the body, and for yoga practice as an opportunity to build a relationship with the body, breath and inner self. We are still working on yoga poses that stretch and strengthen the spine in preparation for staying in a deep twisting pose, and the breathing and meditation practices are designed to be inward and reflective. 

Thursday, January 25, 10:30 am

Thursday, January 25, 5:00 pm

These classes are hosted on my Patreon page, where you'll find lots of free videos and recordings to support your yoga practice. Enjoy!

Moving Inward: Meditation and Breathing for Balance in Winter

One of the things that surprised me most when I started a daily yoga practice was how effectively breathing, meditation, and chanting balance my mood and energy level, and how much more deeply the effect went than a sequence of yoga poses. An added bonus is that the inner practices are often more accessible practices for students, since there are no bendy or strenuous poses to do, and the practices themselves ask very little time to have a powerful effect.

Since they do have a powerful effect, though, it's very helpful to work with a teacher first hand to receive practices that will be appropriate. Different bodies, constitutions and minds have different responses to some of these practices. The practices I've outlined below are generally well-received, but pay attention to how you feel just after practicing and for the next day or so to know if they work for you.

These "inner" practices usually work best if they are preceded by some asana, as linking movement with breath will prepare you for the mental work of prāṇayāma and meditation. See my post on āsana in the winter for ideas on how to build a supportive physical practice.

Here are the breathing, meditation and chanting exercises I most often use in class during the cold months of the year.  In fact, I have two sets of practices, so that the practices respond to and support students when the seasons change. I encourage you to give each of these a try for a few days and see what happens.

Early Winter

I often teach and practice this general type of breathing and meditation from around Thanksgiving or the first hard frost to early January, after the holidays. Early winter season is dry and windy and cold, with a lot of holiday busy-ness and stress, and these practices are intended to be stabilizing and nourishing.

1. Prāṇayāma

Breathing practices in this time of year are almost always long exhale practices to bring some relief and calm into the system. For some students, a pause after inhale and exhale could also be steadying without causing agitation.

2. Meditation

I like to lead meditations on objects that are soft and steady this time of year. Like peaceful water, or warm light, and sometimes a dawn sun for morning classes. The goal of many meditation practices this time of year is to help students feel less frazzled by holiday stress.

3. Chanting

I usually find myself chanting Srisuktam this time of year, as the sounds and meaning are soothing and fill me with a sense of reassurance and contentment. I haven't written a blog post on Srisuktam yet, but here's a snippet you can hear.

Late Winter

Mid to late winter (mid January to mid March) is wet and dark and cold, and feels slow and heavy. To balance this, most physical practices I give have a mobilizing, warming effect, and the breathing and meditation practices are more energizing and focusing.

1. Prāṇayāma

Depending on student needs on the day of practice, I like to teach breathing with an even inhale or exhale and teach a ratio with a long exhale and short pause after inhale. However, most students attending yoga classes are there because they are looking for relief from stress, and challenging breathing practices will only be agitating, so I play it by ear with breathing.

2. Meditation

Light is a favorite object for me this time of year. Sunlight, moonlight, candlelight--it's all warming and uplifting. I also like to use a vibrant tree or other green living plants to help students feel a sense of vitality and energy. Especially around mid-February when students are so ready for winter to be over, connecting with the idea of newly-emerging buds and leaves can be very powerful.

3. Chanting

The Medha Mantra is my favorite chant when I'm feeling lethargic or lifeless, as can happen when the skies are gray for days on end. You can read about the Medha Mantra and listen to it here.

I hope you find these practice ideas helpful and supportive during the winter! You are welcome to listen to my classes to see how these sorts of practices work out in real life.

Class Recordings: January 18, 2018

These recordings are taken during my regular weekly yoga classes. This week we are working on twisting postures and preparing for some poses that require a little more flexibility in the legs, hips and spine (like janu sirsasana) and strength in the upper back and core.

Both classes include a pranayama for a lengthened exhale and a meditation on snow.

Thursday, 10:30 am, 1/18/18

Thursday, 5:00 pm, 1/18/18

The recordings are hosted on my Patreon page, where you can access many free class recordings, tutorials, and yoga videos. Enjoy!

Utkatāsana

Utkatasana, or chair pose, is a standing forward bend that lowers the hips toward the heels into a low squat. This pose asks for a lot of strength and flexibility, which makes it challenging for most students.

Primary Functions

Stretch the Lower Back and Hips

This low squat pairs gravity with full hip flexion to completely lengthen the lower back, especially in the classical form of the pose, in which the legs are together and the arms are extended overhead, which prevents the legs and upper back from compensating for any stiffness in the lower back.

Strengthen the Legs

The legs, especially the gluteal muscles, use a lot of power to press the body back up to standing. This makes utkatasana a good choice for building strength to prepare for staying in difficult standing poses.

Finding the Pose

  1. Begin standing in samasthiti, with legs together and hands by your side. Set jalamdhara bandha.
  2. Interlace the fingers and turn the palms out, away from your body.
  3. Inhale and raise the linked arms overhead so that arms are outside ears and the palms are facing the ceiling.
  4. Exhale and begin to sit hips down toward heels, maintaining jalamdhara bandha and keeping spine as vertical as possible. Arms remain extended overhead.
  5. Inhale and extend upper back and arms as you return to standing.
  6. Exhale and lower arms. Release hands.

Tips and Modifications

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Utkatāsana is very physically demanding. Most students won't be able to begin to lower the hips into a squat without bringing the feet wider (up to hip-width apart) and having the arms either in a wide "V" shape or lowering the arms as they exhale and lower the hips.

 I teach this variation of  utkatāsana  more often, as it's less demanding for the arms and upper back.

I teach this variation of utkatāsana more often, as it's less demanding for the arms and upper back.

Many students will also need a folded or rolled blanket under their heels to compensate for lower back tension, especially in the beginning.

If students are straining in this posture, I often give them uttanāsana or vajrasana forward bend as an alternative that will lengthen the lower back and still build some leg strength without being quite so demanding.

In Ashtanga yoga, utkatāsana is often practiced with a back arch and on an inhale. This is referred to as ardha utkatāsana and considered a backward bending posture in the Krishnamacharya/Desikachar tradition.

Primary Muscle Actions

  • Erector Spinae, Gluteal and Leg Muscles are strengthened.
  • Lower Back erector spinae and gluteal muscles are lengthened.
  • Depending on arm movement chosen, arm and shoulder muscles may be strengthened to maintain extended position.

Benefits

  • Lengthens lower back.
  • Strengthens entire back and legs.
  • Compresses abdominal area (apana region) and can help balance this region if not too intense.

Precautions

For students who have knee, hip or lower back injuries, and especially if these joints are inflamed, stiff or causing pain, utkatāsana is too intense. I suggest uttanāsana, vajrāsana forward bend (child's pose) or apānāsana as a safer option. For pregnant and menstruating students, I would suggest the same alternative.

Ankle injuries seem to be aggravated by this posture as well. Proceed slowly and with caution.

Uttānāsana

Uttānāsana is a standing forward bend that stretches the entire back of the body, from the bottom of the feet to the back of the head. It is a deceptively simple form--bending at the hip with the hands by the feet--but it's simplicity lends it to many adaptations.

 

Primary Functions of the Pose

Lengthen back of body

Flexion of hips and spine gently elongates the muscles of the entire back as well as the hips and legs. Lifting the arms also lengthens muscles around the chest and shoulders.

Strengthen the upper back

A lesser known benefit of uttānāsana is the incredible upper back strength the posture builds. This makes it a great preparation for lengthy seated practices like chanting, pranayama and meditation.

Abdominal compression

Compression of the lower abdomen while exhaling has a soothing, lightening effect as it moves the apana region, the area responsible for elimination. This can help digestion, elimination of waste and quality of breath.

Finding the Pose*

1. Begin standing with feet together and hands at your sides.

2. Set jalamdhara bandha,** in which you lengthen the back of the neck by inhaling, then setting the head slightly back and dropping the chin a bit toward the chest.

3. On an inhale, raise arms up from the front, so that arms come up alongside ears with palms facing forward.

4. On an exhale, draw lower abdomen toward spine and fold upper body over legs, maintaining jalamdhara bandha and length in spine.

5. Inhale, lift the arms and the upper back, extending through the spine as you return to standing with arms overhead.

6. Exhale, lower your arms by your sides.

*These instructions are the "classical" version of the posture, and they require a lot of training, flexibility and strength. Almost all students will need some of the modifications below, especially when starting out.

**I'll post more on jalamdhara bandha next week!

Tips and Modifications

 The classical version of uttanasana--note the straight legs and even curve throughout entire spine.

The classical version of uttanasana--note the straight legs and even curve throughout entire spine.

 Most students will need to bend the knees a bit to maintain length in the curve of the spine.

Most students will need to bend the knees a bit to maintain length in the curve of the spine.

Students will often need to modify this posture to compensate for tightness in the lower back by bringing their feet up to hip-width apart and/or bending their knees as they fold forward. On the other hand, very flexible students may need to keep their feet close and concentrate on drawing the belly in on the exhale to help lengthen the lower back. Teachers should look for movement happening in the lower back (the lower back arch should round out), and little to no rounding in the upper back.

Especially in the beginning, most students will need to bring arms quite a bit wider (in a "V" shape) as they inhale to allow more movement in the upper back. There should be a feeling of spaciousness as the arms lift overhead. If students feel strain when lifting the arms overhead, another option is to let the hands slide down the legs toward the knees or ankles as they fold forward. For students with neck strain, I often have them use one arm at a time, or keep arms by their hips, with fingers extending away from the head, to gently build some upper back strength without agitating the trapezius muscles.

Uttānāsana is often taught with the arms sweeping in a wide arc out to the sides on the way up and down. This movement of the arms removes some of the upper back strength and flexibility needed to do the full posture, which is often useful. But it also takes away some of the length in the lower back, and students may not achieve as much benefit from the posture.

 This seated modification of uttānāsana is good for exploring the pose in a safer, steadier movement.

This seated modification of uttānāsana is good for exploring the pose in a safer, steadier movement.

One of the tricky but critical parts of this pose is coming back up with the upper back in extension, rather than rounding forward. Rounding in the upper back puts strain on the lower back and hips, and also misses the strength-building piece of the pose which makes it such a good preparation for standing and seated postures. It also restricts breath capacity on the inhale, which for me is the most transformative piece of this posture. When there is space for the inhale to really expand, the entire posture seems to just grow from inside. Body and mind are uplifted, and the pose becomes invigorating and refreshing--it's a perfect preparatory movement for practice. Without the extension in the upper back, it feels like slogging through dull work, with a little back stretch in the middle.

Here's a tutorial to highlight the upper back movement in uttānāsana:

I find that practicing the seated version of uttānāsana makes the posture "easy enough" that I can actually experience it, not just push through it. It gives me opportunity to feel the lengthening in the lower back on the way down, and the strengthening on the way up, and to work at a speed and range of motion that is well within my capacity. Then I can apply what I've learned to the standing pose.

Classically, uttānāsana is practiced with a "sthiti", or a short stay, on the way in to the pose, as well as on the way out, as a way to prepare for and to release the posture. For sthiti into posture: Inhale, allowing inhale to extend spine still further. Exhale, and fold forward as much as you can while keeping upper back long and neck in jalamdhara position. For sthiti on the way out: Inhale, letting breath extend the spine (it will lift your upper body out of the posture a bit). Exhale, bending forward, but not quite the entire way.

Primary Muscle Actions

  • Lengthens erector spinae, as well as quadratus lumborum, gluteal muscles, hamstrings and gastrocnemius.
  • Strengthens erector spinae, gluteal muscles and posterior neck muscles.
  • Depending on choice of arm movement, can lengthen pectoralis muscles, trapezius and latissumus dorsi, and strengthens latissimus dorsi, deltoid and rhomboid muscles.

Benefits

  • Lengthens entire back of body.
  • Strengthens postural muscles of upper body.
  • Compresses abdomen on exhale--moves apāna region.
  • Improves quality of exhale, which creates space for inhale, and helps digestion and elimination.

Precautions

Especially for students with back injuries or recent back surgery, proceed with caution. Students who come to yoga for flexibility often remark that they want to touch their toes, and may push (or pull) into deeper versions of this pose before their bodies are willing. The movement of this pose originates from the breath, and should be strong, but also steady and contained.

If students are not able to do standing uttānāsana with strain or pain, I teach them a seated version. If the seated version is still too much, we focus on floor poses (like apānāsana) and breathing.

Students with hip or knee injuries also have difficulty with bending forward without pain in this posture, and I usually recommend a seated or lying down forward-bend in that case as well.

I have heard that having the head below the heart is contraindicated for students with glaucoma, but I've also heard that the change in blood pressure to the eyes is insignificant when bending over. If this is a concern for you, I recommend talking to your doctor for professional medical advice.

Additional Resources

How to bend forward without stressing the spine (by Olga Kabel at Sequence Wiz)

Class Recordings: Beginning Yoga, January 2018

Here are recordings from the 6-week Beginning Yoga class I taught in January and February 2018.

If you were a student in the class, I hope you find these recordings helpful to remember and practice techniques between classes. If you weren't able to come to class this time around, you are welcome to use these recordings for your own practice at home. I hope you find these recordings supportive and informative.

Class 1 - Focus on smooth breathing and poses that stretch the back of the body

Class 2 - Focus on breathing and backward-bending poses that lengthen the front of the body and strengthen the back

Class 3 - Introduction of Side-bending postures and furthering exhale lengthening and meditation practice

Class 4 - Twisting Postures and introducing a pause after exhale and sitting meditation

Class 5 - Downward Facing Dog pose*

Class 6 - Some balance challenges and a quieting, focusing breath and meditation practice to close our series

The links will take to the files on my Patreon page, where you'll find many more class recordings, videos and other resources. Enjoy!

I hope you find these recordings useful. You can learn more about the next Beginning Yoga series here, or email me if you'd like to inquire about the class.

*I forgot to record the Beginner class on February 8, so I taught similar content to next week's 5pm Thursday class to share here

Class Recordings, January 11, 2018

Please enjoy these recordings from my regular weekly yoga classes on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

Both classes emphasize building upper back strength in forward bending and backward bending poses, with the goal of preparing for twisting poses and the seated forward-bend, janu sirsasana. The yoga poses, breathing and meditation were also designed to give a "cleansing" effect, which is useful at the beginning of the year, after the excesses and disruption of the holidays.

Thursday, 10:30 am, 1/11/18

Thursday, 5:00 pm, 1/11/18

Live class recordings are hosted on my Patreon page, where you'll find many recordings and videos, all for free!