In the Iyengar tradition of yoga, pranayama – breath regulation – is introduced after asana – pose work. Mr. Iyengar’s reasoning is that yoga asanas steady the mind and prepare the body for the subtlety of breath work. Students do poses to open the rib cage, soften the groins and release the belly before pranayama.
The sequence of poses in preparation for pranayama brings freedom to the respiratory organs as well as soothes and quietens the brain and nervous system.
Patience and daily attendance to a pranayama practice are required in order that the brain relinquishes the illusion that it can control the breath. It might take years for the mind to recognize its folly and forsake it in favour of submersion in breath.
Why should you practice pranayama? If you do yoga for its fitness aspects, you may feel that you are investing all the time you have already. Keep in mind that pranayama will improve your asanas. However if yoga is a means to know your authentic self, then pranayama is essential.
To begin a dedicated practice, consider first a sequence of poses to prepare the body. Additionally use the necessary props for laying down while keeping the chest open and the groins soft.
The second stage is developing cooperation between the physical and psychological self. We invite the Witness self, or Seer, to the practice. Richard Rosen suggests that we begin and end each pranayama practice with the question; “Who is breathing?” A question that conceives its own answer over time.
The last and enduring stage is practise of preliminary and subsequent breath techniques.
If you do not have a pranayama bolster, folded blankets will do. Firm wool or cotton are best. Open the blanket and then fold it in half width-wise and smooth it. Hold it at two length-wise end corners and begin folding accordion style about 8 inches in width. Each side will have folds so the surface is even at the sides and is about 8 inches in width overall. Have a foam yoga block or a hard cover book of about 1.5” – 2”.
Sit in front of the folded blanket and as you lay down on your back, see that the spine is evenly set down on it. Make sure that your buttocks to the back waist are on the floor. In this way, only the spine is supported from the lowest back ribs to the back of the skull. Now add the “pillow” of the foam block or hard cover book under the the folded blanket and pull it toward your shoulders so that your head and neck have support.
Extend your arms to the sides of the body about 10 inches from the ribs with palms facing up to spread the upper back and make space in the side ribs and armpit ribs. Close the eyes, rest the eyeballs in a downward gaze and relax the skin, flesh and skeletal body. Make any adjustments necessary for sivasana or corpse pose.
Observe the movement, texture, sound and duration of the incoming and outflowing breath. Be patient. As scientists in other fields know, observing anything changes its behaviour and so it is with our breath. Your Witness or Seer steps forward and the busy problem-solving brain takes a back seat.
Your Witness is watching you stay relaxed as you attend. Over and over you will find yourself following thoughts and emotions and gently, persistently return to observation. With persistence you will begin to make distinctions from day to day about where the body is receiving breath and the duration of the inflow and outflow as well as the texture of breath. A word might come to mind that describes the texture or evenness of the breath.
Take only the normal volume. If tensions are detected in the throat, jaw, forehead, temples or eyes stop your pranayama for the day and return to it when softness and relaxation prevail.
Observation of the breath may be done in any circumstance of course. But the method described here provides support for the initial stages of breath work and develops discrimination which leads one to deeper self awareness.
Enjoy the investigation.
Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.