In the late 1990s, I took to yoga asana without a second thought. My body immediately loved it. I initially attended three to five classes weekly. My little apartment, with carpet and cat, wasn’t ideal for home practice, but I eventually appropriated a floor and wall space at the UC Berkeley rec center for my practice.
Pranayama is another animal. Stillness, physical or mental, is not second nature to me. I’ve attended classes and done some reading on pranayama over the years. But adding breath work to my current two-hour asana practice simply hasn’t happened.
The immaculate expanse of a New Year is nudging me to start. Actually it’s shouting at me. THE TIME IS NOW! DON’T WASTE ANOTHER YEAR!
I’ll need to refer to class notes and BKS Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama for a refresher on technique, but I’ll always remember the following teachings on regular practice and appropriate mindset:
- Breath is essential According to my teacher Louie Ettling, senior teachers consider pranayama more essential than asana. When I told her that I can go through the motions of pranayama but don’t quite “get it,” she said that it might seem difficult and unrewarding at first, but change is happening, however unapparent. She promised me that I’d someday recall our conversation and find it unbelievable.
- No ambition Louie says that pranayama cannot be done with ambition or too much effort. If you push yourself, your breathing becomes tense and labored. Unlike asana, where rigorous effort is involved, pranayama must come from a relaxed body and mind.
- Posture In class, Louie typically includes both supine and seated pranayama. For healthy people, she says, sitting upright is ideal; but for those who cannot sit without stress (and for all beginners), lying down brings ease.
- Start small Don’t assume that a pranayama session must last an hour: that’s daunting. Louie advises starting with 10 minutes daily.
- Simple breath awareness The first step in any pranayama technique is to establish a smooth, slow breath cycle. The trachea and other respiratory organs must be soft. The posture must be upright or reclined with open chest. If I simply lie on a blanket stack and observe my breath, I might develop a smoother, slower breath cycle. A fine start!
- Learn by doing During the December workshop that I attended in Hawaii, Aadil Palkhivala wisely pointed out that no one can “lead” you in pranayama or talk you through techniques. A teacher can demonstrate and explain, but must be silent while students try it on their own. In asana, a teacher can effectively call out instructions, correct with words or touch, and communicate in the moment. In pranayama, such talk and interaction would only distract (and possibly disrupt or disturb) students.
- Pranayama shouldn’t make you sleepy! During a reclined pranayama exercise with Aadil, he used a metronome to help us determine our natural inhale and exhale lengths. Halfway through, at least one person drifted off. I stayed awake but realized when we sat up that I’d been daydreaming during the final moments. Aadil asked for our responses and then gave his: “You don’t need pranayama. You need more sleep!”
He teaches with humor and was joking, but only partly. He stated that vata people need 7 hours of nightly sleep, plus a 15 minute nap; pittas need 8 hours at night plus a 30 minute nap; and kaphas need 9 hours at night plus a 45 minute nap. (Naps?!) Even if you’re not sold on dosha types, it’s true that individuals vary in hours of sleep needed (and that it’s critical to meet your minimum). It’s also true that pranayama is impossible if you’re drowsy.
Among my 2012 resolutions, two are obvious: Do 10 minutes of pranayama and sleep at least 7.5 hours daily.