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Pranayama – yoga beyond asana


August 21 2018 | Ashtanga yoga, Pranayama, Yoga philosophy

Beyond asana practice. Why and how to start Pranayama practice.

I remember myself as a novice in yoga practices. The hunger I had for devouring books and the curiosity towards my teachers, make me laugh now. I wondered then: can my teachers do this posture or that; can they hold their breath for 2 minutes; do they feel content most of the time; do they feel really at peace; have they been enlightened ??… Now I am smiling every time new yogis innocently ask me similar questions.

It is inspiring to witness the sharp minds, bright eyes, healthy and mobile bodies of those, who have been on the path of yoga for decades. But, at the end of the day, the quest of yoga is personal and it’s up to me, my practice, my self-inquiry, to find that inner space of peace, unity and contentment, and why not maintaining a healthy and vibrant body?

This little article is for those of you, who would like to start pranayama practice, but don’t know how. There are hundreds of books available nowadays. I read quite a few, but my personal practice is based on the book of Gregor Maehle “Pranayama. The breath of yoga”.

Gregor is a true researcher, a scientist and a life-long yogi. He has explored pranayama in many ancient and modern texts, as well as on his own self. He made a brilliant compilation of the basic pranayama and kriya practices and my humble essay is based on his advice, as well as my own practice.

First, if you wonder what pranayama is, – in Sanskrit it means extension of life force, where breath is the outer layer, or the gross manifestation of the prana (life force).  In Ashtanga yoga (8 limb yoga), the 3rd limb, asana (posture), is a gross, external limb of practice. The 5th limb, pratyahara (sense withdrawal), is a more subtle, internal limb. Pranayama, being the 4th limb, is a pivotal turning point of our practice from gross to subtle, connecting asana to the next evolutionary stages of yoga.

Second, if you wonder why you should practise pranayama, Gregor Maehle has produced a very convincing list. Practice of pranayama can balance the workings of our left and right brain hemispheres; it can harmonise our intuitive and analytical intelligence. Pranayama helps in balancing the actions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (fight/flight reflex and rest/relaxation). It can also balance the male and female, solar and lunar aspects of our being, as well as create a healthier interconnection between extrovert and introvert features of our psychology.

Moreover, the “father of the modern yoga”, T.Krishnamacharya, assigned the most important power for the spiritual development and health, not to asana, but to pranayama. And ancient scriptures in unison agree, that pranayama can cure and prevent diseases and restore the balance of body and mind.

If you are not convinced, please read Gregor’s book. If you are and would like to practise pranayama, all you need is your will, 10 min a day and your nose ?. Apparently, the switch to balancing major aspects of our being exists and “it is not at all hidden. It is the prominently protruding olfactory orifice right in the middle of your face: your nose”. (Gregor Maehle). Doesn’t it make you laugh? Well, it is proven by thousands of years and thousands of yogis, and referring you again to Gregor’s excellent book. For us, pranayama beginners, I’d just say that when we learn to breathe freely and switch from the right to the left nostrils without having an obstructed air flow, our mastery over all above, and so much beyond, can become possible.

And here is the first practical guide for those new to pranayama. In my next article I’ll share the next stages. For now, let’s start with a simple two-stage up and down wave:

  • Sit in Padmasana (Lotus) or Virasana. If you cannot yet, find a steady position where you can sit for at least 10 min with the straight spine, lifted chest, relaxed shoulders, hands with the palms facing up and eyes gently closed.
  • Observe the natural flow of your breath.
  • Notice natural pauses between each breath cycle.
  • Make the ratio 1:1, so if your inhale is 10, make your exhale 10 and try not to change the ratio during the practice.
  • When you feel established in the rhythm of your breath, bring your inner sight (drishti) into work, following your breath with your inner sight and directing your breath as follows:
    • Initiate the first half of your inhale from the abdominal area: expanding from the pubic bone to the navel into all directions and
    • Continue the second half of your inhale, raising up your chest up to your clavicles, expanding forward, side-wise and into your back
    • Notice a very gentle pause when inhale reached its end
    • On the first half of your exhale, deflate your upper and lower chest first
    • On the second half – upper and then lower abdomen
    • Observe a gentle pause in the end of your exhale
    • Do not strain, do not over-extend your breath. Make it comfortable and enjoyable
    • Start counting your exhales digitally, i.e. with your fingers:
      • Use your left thumb and travel it through your phalanxes, starting from the root of your index finger and completing with the middle phalanx of your ring finger (see main image of this article*)
      • Make 1-3 rounds of 12 breathes with the same 1:1 ratio
  • Practise every day for a week, and next week you can extend, say from 10 to 11, then 12 until you get to 30 sec per inhale and 30 per exhale. Do not push yourself. Brute force never works for pranayama. Just stay patient, joyful and kind to yourself

The next steps will be in the next essay.

*The image of this article is provided by John Scott and the numbers on the phalanxes are in Sanskrit. Here is the translation:

  1. Ekam
  2. Dve
  3. Trini
  4. Chatvari
  5. Pancha
  6. Shat
  7. Sapta
  8. Ashtau
  9. Nava
  10. Desha
  11. Ekadesha
  12. Dvadesha

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