teaching tips

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

IMG_3986.JPG

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.

How to Modify Yoga Poses

One of the most interesting and practical things I've learned in the viniyoga approach to teaching classes is how to modify various yoga tools. From yoga poses, to breathing patterns and meditation, all the pieces can be adapted to the different needs of individuals, or to a theme you might choose for a group class.

Learning how to modify yoga poses is crucial for teachers because group classes usually spend more time on asana than on other parts of practice, and modifications make poses more safe, effective and meaningful.  Plus, if you're just starting out with adapting yoga to different needs, it's easiest to begin with yoga poses, because they are tangible, visible things that can be understood at a gross level.

When you are modifying any yoga tool, the key idea to keep in mind is that these tools have function. There are really no rules, and the lists of alignment principles (knees over ankles, arms shoulder-height, feet 3 1/2 feet apart and parallel, etc) can be thrown out the window, as long as you and your students are paying attention and preserving the function of the chosen yoga pose.

Begin by defining what function you are hoping to achieve, choose movements and modifications that you anticipate will get you there, and pay attention to the students as they practice so you can guide them and change things as needed.

From a wide-angle view, here's how you can modify yoga poses:

Flexibility/Movement

These days, most people associate yoga with increased flexibility, and yoga poses are certainly a very useful tool for changing patterns of movement. Most yoga poses are designed with the idea of lengthening in mind--forward-bending lengthens the back of the body, for example, and lateral-bending lengthens the side.

As you are planning your class, think about what areas of the body you want to create the feeling of movement in. This depends on the overall purpose of your class and your specific population.

If you've observed that a student has lower back stiffness, you might have him change the position of his feet or bend his knees in a forward-bending pose, so that you can bring a bit more movement to the low back. You could have him sit on a chair or bolster to give the back more freedom in seated poses.

If you notice your students have shortness of breath, you might create more room for breathing by having students lift their arms wider so the rib cage moves more freely. Or you could emphasize forward-bending postures that move the abdomen in on the exhale to encourage a fuller breath.

Strength/Stability

Of course, yoga poses are not only about increasing flexibility. Most students in group classes will need some focus on developing strength as well. In fact, the people attracted to yoga class and bendy poses most likely need the strengthening aspect.

Take care not to confuse strength with strain, though. You don't want your students to be pushing or forcing their bodies past the boundary of what is safe for them. The same is true in regard to flexibility. Help them find a steady balance where the breath flows smoothly. (This is the concept of sthira-sukham-āsanam, Yoga Sutra 2.46.) 

You'll find that most students are disconnected from their strength in at least some areas of their body. Look for the areas that move too freely or seem to collapse--perhaps the shoulders, or lower back, or wrists. Those are the places that can use stability. You can modify yoga poses to give students the experience of what strength or stability feels like in the areas.

You can think of increasing stability as restricting movement. So for students whose lower backs arch excessively in virabhadrasana, a focus on lengthening the tailbone down will stabilize the lumbar spine. For hypermobile shoulders, interlacing fingers when bringing the arms overhead will restrict shoulder movement and encourage upper back strength. In standing poses, changing the width of the feet can restrict movement in the hips, legs and ankles and build strength.

Stability can also come from an outside source, and using a prop can help build a student's connection to inner strength. You might have your students place their back heel against a wall for added support in virabhadrasana or parsvottanasana. Or have students place a hand or fingertip against a wall in balancing poses.

Once your students have a feeling for strength without strain, then you can build and challenge it. You can remove common props, and have your students to try standing poses without a yoga mat. And you can introduce longer stays in poses that require strength.

Gesture/Attitude

A more subtle way of modifying yoga poses is to cultivate a particular attitude in them.

Give it a try:

  1. Sitting as you are, take 5-6 breaths with your shoulders rounded forward, just to see what that feels like.
  2. Then take several breaths with your shoulders in a neutral position.
  3. Then in a rolled back, military-style position.

Notice the difference in how you feel in each posture. By adopting a different "attitude" in your shoulders, you can influence how you feel, and even how you think.

Gestures are ways that your body communicates to the outside world, but they also leave an imprint on your mood and memory. Smiling, for instance, not only communicates joy or friendliness to others, but it lifts your own mood as well.

By incorporating simple, subtle gesture into yoga poses, we can bring the effects of the practice to a deeper level. It can be the subtle difference between turning palms up or down in a seated position, or bringing your hands over your heart while resting instead of to your lap or your sides.

Take some time to observe yourself and others, and you'll notice so many gestures and small movements that say a great deal about what the person is feeling and thinking. You can begin to incorporate gestures into yoga poses to evoke the feeling.

Just be sure to keep it subtle. Let your students feel what they feel. Don't try to control it by telling them what they are supposed to feel. If you are asking them to open their arms out to the sides as they breathe in, don't say they are "opening their hearts to possibilities." Let their experience speak for itself. Learning is much deeper when it comes from personal experience and inner wisdom, rather than an outside source.

Other Elements

There are many other ways you can modify a yoga pose. You might use a visualization, or bhavana, to influence how your students do and feel a movement. You could ask your students to imagine moving through water, for example, to help them move more slowly and fluidly, or you could have them imagine a rising sun, or a full moon, or a mountain. As with gestures above, an image or idea can create different attitudes in movement, and it impacts the rest of your system.

You can use story and myth as well. One of my teachers began a class by telling a story about Ananta, the great serpent, to illustrate the concept of sthira/sukha. The image of the soft, heavy coils of the serpent's body and its strong, protective hood rising up was a powerful tool in communicating the idea of ease and stability.

Breath is, of course, a wonderful way to influence the effect of a yoga pose. It can be as simple as just noticing the breath, or imagining the breath move into or out of the body in a certain pattern. You could have students begin breathing just before the movement starts, so that the movement grows from the breath. Or students could count different parts of breath as they are moving or staying in a yoga pose.

I love introducing chanting or mantra in yoga poses. You can use a simple word or phrase (in Sanskrit or English) and ask the students to say it in their minds each time they come into the pose. Even just making a soft sound like "ahhh" brings the students to a more focused practice.

There is no end to ways you can modify yoga poses to make them a more personal and meaningful experience for your students, and to make them more than goals to reach, or an exercise to get through. Yoga poses have potential to enrich and harmonize the lives of your students. The teacher's role is to understand how they work, to see the impact they are having during practice, and to shape the practice and poses to serve their students best.

Finding Balance

Most of my new students arrive at yoga class ready to exercise.

They are ready to stretch, to balance, and maybe sweat a bit, so they can change, or fix, or maintain their bodies.

Then I ask them to breathe.

Over and over, I ask them to breathe. Finally, we move a bit, but I ask them to move slowly, or gently, or gradually.

This is not something most adults are used to doing. Especially in an exercise class.

But I wouldn't insist on it so strongly if it didn't work so well.

You see, yoga is not like other types of physical exercise.

Or it least, it ought not be, because it was designed to work differently. Yoga is about being able to direct the mind, because great change is possible (inevitable, really) when our perspective is cleared.

And as far as yoga is concerned, the mind and body are linked together so strongly, that moving and placing the body in a specific way is a very good preparation for meditation.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra gives the properties of yoga postures:

Sthira-sukham-āsanam.

Posture (āsana) is steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). Yoga postures have support and adequate strength, and they do not create pain or exacerbate medical conditions.

Prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām.

It is a perfect balance of effort (prayatna) and effortlessness (śaithilya) combined (bhyām) with complete and endless (ananta) concentration (samāpatti).

This feeling of perfect balance is so different than what we do in exercise and other physical work.

In exercise, we are encouraged to push beyond our limits, to lift one more, run faster or farther, and to get the job done. It's a test of will to overcome your physical limitations.

But will and tenacity can be misguided. They are directed by the ego, and can drive you full-speed in directions that you thought you wanted to go, but end up bringing you frustration or pain, upset your life or relationships.

I'm not denigrating exercise or physical fitness. But yoga is in a different category of activity. It's in the business of helping you see clearly. And letting you perpetuate habits of overworking, overcompensating or avoiding conflict is not in the program.

In my own practice, sthira-sukha is the absence of certain habits.

There is no setting of my jaw, no determination to achieve or prove something, and there is no reaching or pulling further. It feels like there is an internal engine giving me purpose and strength, but it's not willpower. It's a steady, feeling, quiet focus.

When I teach, I see too much sthira when my student's faces become hard around the corners of their eyes and lips. Their body language becomes rigid and closed. Their breath is loud or stops or moves in a sudden whoosh instead of a soft, steady stream. They seem to be pushing or holding on fiercely.

I see too much sukha when a student's spine looks collapsed. When their bodies surrender and suddenly look too heavy for them to hold. Their breath is uneven or too faint or quick. They are disengaged, and their attention flits from one thing in the room to another.

When my students achieve sthira-sukha in class, I can see their eyes and faces are calm. Their bodies have a sense of endless inner strength. They are fully invested in the practice, and move and breathe with a purposefulness that brings the work to a deeper level than just their bodies. 

Until they have sthira-sukha, they are doing exercise. Yes, it might be useful exercise. But when they have the balance of stability and ease, they are doing yoga.

If you've ever been in the room during one of my classes, I'm sure you have felt the difference.

When people are really doing yoga, they have presence and a deep power about them. They aren't just going through a series of motions, or following instructions to get somewhere. They are completely engaged, and they get more benefit from the practice as a result.

What they are learning through their bodies becomes a part of them.

It takes repeated practicing over a period of time to know what sthira-sukha feels like, and to be able to find it again. That's why I encourage students to practice, every day. It doesn't have to be a full 60-minute sequence to be incredibly useful. Five or ten minutes is enough to remember how to be stable and easy in your body. And eventually, that feeling becomes the norm.

When it does, then you are no longer distressed (an-abhighātaḥ) by conflict (dvaṅdva).

Tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ.

When you have mastered this feeling of sthira-sukha, you know it so well that things which caused stress before no longer bother you.

You know you are capable of meeting challenges directly, without strain or avoidance.

You no longer worry about what will happen, because you feel safe, strong and easy inside.

The feeling of steadiness and ease has become a part of who you are.