During classes last week, I realised that pranayama practice experience varies. The following ideas are taken directly from ‘108 Gems for Understanding Seated Breathing Practices: the Pranayama Sutras’ by the Funky Guru (aka Ranju Roy and David Charlton, Sadhana Mala). If your interest is piqued and you want to see the full text, please let me know. I have cited the ‘sutras’ that are most relevant to the classes.
This has been a really useful blog to engage with for my own practice. The subtleties of practice can so easily be forgotten or taken for granted. I have often said to students that if you do nothing else, do a breathing practice. I hope some of the following ideas will inspire you to engage with this practice in class and in your own space.
Context and Purpose of Pranayama practice:
Asana (posture) practice works from the outside in and its effects are immediate. Pranayama practice works from the inside out and its effects are cumulative and take longer to manifest.
In asana we use the movement of the breath to support the freedom of the body; in pranayama we use the stability of the body to support the freedom of the breath.
Pranayama has the effect of cleansing that which covers and obscures our perception and our light. It reduces heaviness and dullness of the mind.
Pranayama brings stability to the mind and is therefore a prerequisite of meditation.
Pranayama reduces blockages in our energetic system, allowing prana to flow and function. Prana can extend deep within our system. It is said that a yogi is ‘one whose prana is contained within the body’.
Kala: the rhythm of the Breath
The breath has four distinct phases:
- Inhalation – symbolised by springtime; growth, movement, opening
- AK (pause after inhalation) – symbolised by summer; fulfilment of spring
- Exhalation – autumn; letting go, releasing fruit and withdrawing
- BK (pause after exhalation) – winter; stillness, silence, recuperation
Varying the lengths of each phase changes the effect of the pranayama practice
Increasing the AK – intensifies experience, stimulates. To be treated with respect, it is not appropriate for everyone (22.214.171.124 – eg inhale 6; AK/pause 24; exhale 12; no BK/pause)
A samana practice, where all phases are equal, is stimulating and expansive (126.96.36.199). The ratio 1.½.1.½ is not technically samana but its effect is.
For relaxing and soothing the system: 188.8.131.52 or 1.0.1½.0
The most important aspect of working with ratios is to respect the quality of the breath, particularly the exhalation which should never be troubled or forced.
Finger counting allows you to focus on the quality of the breath without being distracted by the numbers. Each finger has 3 pads and the thumb is used as a marker to count the breaths. Each time a breath is completed, the thumb moves on. A complete cycle of 12 breaths is shown in the image. You also have the option to start at the base of each finger and work up, so four columns of three rather than a spiral.
This is the simplest pranayama technique. It is sometimes called ‘throat control breathing’ literally means ‘upwardly victorious’. Contracting the larynx allows the throat to act like a valve, controlling the speed and quality of the breath.
Ujjayi is also a desa for attention and supports the mind during pranayama.
Potential distractions of pranayama: how long can I make my breath? How long can I retain my breath?
Pranayama is a technique to free the blockages to prana, to stabilise the mind and to reveal our fundamental clarity. This requires a deep involvement with the subtleties of the breath. It is easy to be come rigid or habitual.
Posture, attention, counting, technique are all supports to maintain involvement.
When prana flows, there is a radical deconstruction, a letting go; a space opens to allow the profound in us to be revealed.