Skimming the surface

Here in Vancouver, Canucks fans are thrilled. Their team made the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 17 years. Me? I’m a sporadic and superficial sports watcher. I might half-watch Olympic events, Wimbledon finals, NCAA playoffs, Tour de France stages, hockey games. I might enjoy the drama and athleticism. But I am rather clueless about the actual sports.

Watching a hockey game, I know I’m catching only the gist, barely keeping my eye on the puck. When I moved to Canada, I had to Google “hat trick,” “penalty box,” “power play,” and “Don Cherry.” I can’t recall who won the Cup last year. Plus, I didn’t grow up skating or playing team sports. And I’ve never had to fight for my life.

Unlike those who have played hockey themselves, I am not vicariously experiencing the action. And unlike those who follow the NHL, I know nothing about the coaches or players or teams. I’m only skimming the surface.

Likewise, I am probably only vaguely experiencing pranayama (see here for Yoga Journal‘s summary of six lineages’ approaches to pranayama). I’ve irregularly practiced pranayama over the dozen-plus years that I’ve regularly practiced asana. It is a challenge for me to sit or lie still and even harder to smooth the breath and still the mind.

In Iyengar yoga, taking the physical form of pranayama is the first step. I can lie on an appropriate arrangement of blankets for supine pranayama; I can sit in supported Sukhasana or Virasana for seated pranayama. But after that the practice is very subtle. My teacher says there should be minimal effort—and no ambition—in pranayama. If you try too hard, you tighten the throat and force the breath.

So, I lie or sit there, taking the physical form and watching my inhales and exhales. I am following instructions. I’m not attracting attention or causing a stir. But inside I know that I’m only skimming the surface.

I felt similarly when I tried Zen meditation a while back. I sat on a zafu and zabuton like everyone else at the zendo. I sat for 40 minutes each time. But was my mind still? Who in the room had a still mind anyway? One’s outer form doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s inner state.

If I want to be a savvy hockey spectator, I have my work cut out for me. If I want to go deeper in pranayama, I also must work, regularly but without ambition.

Image: Halfmoon zafu and zabuton


  1. Nice post, yoga spy.
    I know exactly how you feel about scratching the surface of pranayama, perhaps worse because for the first 10 years or so I had an unhappy tendency to drift off and miss all of the instructions.
    It’s hard to return regularly to a practice so subtle, and one that furthermore demands that we give up looking for results, stop doing, and let pranayama do us.
    I’m happy to report that Devki Desai’s workshop at the IYAC convention had some subtle and powerful instructions on pranayama that I’m eager to work with.


  2. I really connected with pranayama when I was pregnant. We did it every afternoon at a Patricia Walden workshop I attended last summer, and I was able to continue at home every morning. More or less. For me, the limitations on my asana practice opened up space for pranayama. In the 5 months since my child’s birth, I have only practiced a few times. I get to asana 2-4 times per week, but pranayama has become a challenge once again.
    Good luck with your practice.


  3. i am a fan of hockey… i mean what good Canadian wouldn’t be? But… i prefer actually watching people I KNOW play (high school hockey was the best for that). My friend joined a women’s hockey league and it has been a BLAST watching her play.

    pranayama… i think i have too much theory behind my knowledge of the breath (as an SLP) to be able to fully move beyond anatomy and physiology to spiritual. So I never really feel like I’m missing anything really… cuz I don’t really buy into pranayama 100%. But there ya go. 🙂


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