Pranayama, at least in my experience, was something that I understood early on as something esoteric. It was one of those hidden practices, something not to be done without a teacher (which was frustrating, because a look at any yoga studio’s schedule will show you that someone teaching pranayama on a regular basis is few and far between). Definitely, according to most translations of Yoga Sutra II.49, not to be done until asana was “mastered”.
It maybe looked a little bit like this guy… or maybe this one…
It was clear that it didn’t look like me. Which was disappointing, because at the same time you encounter these walls, you also encounter descriptions of how pranayama is one of the deepest yoga practices. For example, it is said to lead to “the dispersion of the covering that hides the light of I-Am or the Self.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.52
I went to teacher training, I read books, I learned nadhi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and other similar easily accessible techniques. Nothing that really felt like a practice that I could grow into, and there were still those nagging doubts about if I had mastered asana yet.
Then I really looked at what the Yoga Sutras were saying, and studied for a week intensive with Rodney Yee.
What the sutras actually say:
It’s not that you master asana, and are able to hold headstand for five minutes, or balance on your hands with your foot behind your head, or have a killer uddiyana bandha, or even have finally got down the exact alignment of tadasana. It actually has nothing do to with any achievable form of asana. It is, instead, that you worked within your practice and cultivated five qualities of asana as discussed in Sutras II.46, II.47, and II.48: steadiness, joy, relaxation, meditation, and equanimity. It is these qualities which prepare us for pranayama, it is these qualities which set up the conditions for a soothed parasympathetic system. Simple, unmysterious, completely accessible step one.
What I learned from Rodney Yee:
The next step in finesse of the breath is one of observation. He quotes Krishnamurti as saying observation is action. Unskillful action is the result of unskillful observation. Pranayama is not esoteric shooting stars – but the foundation of a skill vital for integrating our yoga practice into daily life.
He encouraged us to choose a pose, or a part of the body, or a moment in our day, and to investigate the breath fully. Where it is, how it moves, what stays tense, what needs our attention, what speeds through, what is relaxed, what is uptight.
You can try this right now. After closing your eyes, feel your breath in your nostrils. Feel the breath as it swirls right around the tip of the nose. Start to have a sense of how far away “your” breath travels into the air before it ceases to be yours. Start to have a sense of where “your” breath begins.
Stop whenever agitation arises. Pranayama is meant to quiet the nervous system, not aggravate it.
Cultivate an embodied experience of the difference between bearing witness (active, piercing, forceful) and bare witnessing (open, allowing, expansive) in your observation on the mat, cushion, or street.
As Richard Rosen says in Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals;
“Witnessing induces stillness. Initially we feel the stillness when our body relaxes and then our brain, for once, quiets down. This in turn leads to surrender, “letting go”. Westerners – and particularly Americans – are inclined to be go-getter types and not very good at surrendering. We tend to think of surrender as waving a white flag, of throwing in the towel, of giving up in disgrace. But in yoga we actually surrender things we no longer need, things that stand in the way of our own self-fulfillment.”
Intentional, unforced, quiet observation of the breath can be just the starting point for practice this year – taking just five minutes a day. The five minutes on your mat before class starts, five minutes before or after your meditation practice, five minutes on the subway. Get to know your breath beyond asana poses, and see if the changes you make this year can come a little bit more from surrendering, and a little bit less from force.
Then try to find one of those illusive pranayama teachers or check out Rodney Yee’s week intensive at Karuna Yoga in Massachusetts.