Monday, February 2, 2009


Pranayama = breathwork. Prana = energy.

I thought I would touch on the energy of the breath this week. Very often in our Western practice, we gloss over the importance of bringing mindfulness to our breath during our practice. It is not uncommon, now that "yoga" has moved into a gym and fitness setting that the focus is purely on the asanas (postures) and how strong we are and how great we look in our very chic yoga cloths. Not that this is a bad thing, but it really distills the essence of what yoga is all about - a union.

From Shambhala Sun, an interview with Phillip Moffitt, Richard Freeman, and Ann Cushman on Sharing the Mat, bringing yoga and Buddhism together plus some additional essays. Richard Freeman is a longtime practitioner and instructor in Ashtanga Yoga.

Phillip Moffitt: To do hatha yoga without pranayama—without working with the breath—would not be practicing full awareness of the body. The breath and the body are entwined and both are reflected in the mind.

Pattabhi Jois noted in Yoga Mala, "Some Pranayama are useful for curing diseases, some for the purification of the nadis, and some for the arrest of the mind. All are important, however, through their practice requires that the preceding step - namely asana, be practiced as well. ...The nature of Pranayama should be known properly and practiced."

Or, to refer to a business class that I once attended, E+R=O. The Event plus your Reaction will equal the Outcome. If you can control your breath, you can control almost anything. Pretty powerful stuff to be teaching business people.

In the Ashtanga practice, Ujjayi is the most common breath practiced - the audible breath made from the slight constriction of the back of the throat to build heat in the body and focus the mind. In a traditional ashtanga practice, nadi shodanam (alternate nostril breathing) may also be practiced at the conclusion of the closing sequence.

A more contemporary practice might bring in (not all at once) kapalabhati breath, bhastrika breath, greater uddiyana (known as a kria - or cleansing breath), as well as nadi shodanam or 2-1 breath (exhales are twice as long as inhales).

But what I think it really boils down to is, just breathe. The tendency in class, or just about any kind of stretching, is to hold the breath. The tendency when we are anxious is to hold our breath or take small little panting breaths - make a conscious effort to lengthen those out. Angry? Step back, leave the room, whatever you need to do and take some long calming breaths. Because as odd as it seemed at the time, that one little equation, E+R=O, is incredibly powerful if we practice it.

"Practice and all is coming." Pattabhi Jois.


Eco Yogini said...

Wow so true! Once I was taught Ujjayi breath my entire practice changed. Instead of holding my breath and tensing up in the difficult postures I continue to breathe. It is truely amazing how just the audible reminder of my breath increases my focus and keeps me present on my mat. Three Ohms at the beginning and ending of class has a similar effect for me- I heard Ohms stimulate three of our chakras?
As a singer and Speech Pathologist the idea of breath was not a new one for me.:)
Fantastic blog! :)

Linda-Sama said...

good post!

after studying in India I learned that most (yes, most) yoga teachers in my experience, in my opinion, teach pranayama indiscriminately in classes, with no thought behind it. like pranayama is just something to throw into a class.

I've taken classes where the teacher starts out with kapalabhati. why? for what purpose? they just say "do it" and the majority of yoga students, maybe someone who just walked in, have no idea what it is. in my lineage, kapalabhati is not even considered pranayama, it's a kriya. and if a teacher tells the class to do it, I don't, because it goes against my dosha.

I could go on and on, but I won't! :)