Pranayama 2: The Questions

Being an ESL teacher taught me to answer every question – even the ones I didn’t quite know the answer to. I, after all, was the default expert on English and living in America, and experts are always expected to have an answer.

Pranayama has taught me to ask, listen, and experience quiet.

Maybe you had a job like mine, or a 3 year old in your life, or heard a koan and ached to give a logical answer, or were raised in a culture that rewards quick correct answers.


If gets interesting, for people like us, when we don’t answer – when we give space instead.

Because when we know how to listen, the answers are right there – we’re living them all the time.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyph to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life before he apprehends it as truth.”

interview-questionsOr as Rilke said, “I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Work with this the next time you’re deep in question in your practice or life by dropping the pronouns, but keeping the question. Sometimes, as Stephen Batchelor writes, all you’re left with is “?”.

The question becomes both smaller and larger than you – less personal and with less pressure to answer – the tightness you didn’t realize you were holding around the question loosens. That space allows for creativity in answer, and intuition a moment to creep in.

In your next asana practice, contemplate what your questions are. Perhaps one of these, or something altogether different:

What motivates my practice?
What is my path of yoga?
Why do I bother stretching my hamstrings?

Then allow it to become a mantra, a koan for your practice – just the question, without answering it.  Practice it, live it, and then, perhaps, creativity will seep in with an answer in the most unexpected way.


Pranayama Practice – What the sutras really say & how we really practice

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…  pranayamaor 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.

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

The final two niyamas: Svadhyaya and Isvara pranidhanadva can be the most challenging, both to work with and discuss, as they are the most internal and therefore less in the range of words and more in the range of experience.  The first evidence of which is finding it necessary to break Svadhyaya into three separate posts. We’ll see what happens when we get to Isvara! The second evidence to follow:)


Svadhyaya – Self-study:  study of the Self, study of the self, study of oneself, study by oneself

Svadhyaya 1 ~ Svadhyaya as Silence

With prior yamas and niyamas, we’ve been working with a lot of our patterned thoughts, words, actions, ways of seeing and being in the world.  Working towards cultivating those in a direction that create the most beneficial relationship with the world and all beings.  Svadhyaya is the stepping off point, a shift from that kind of work, or perhaps more aptly, a broadening.  Instead of focusing on our likes/dislikes, cravings, attachments, habits, reactivity exclusively, we are now looking beyond/beside/within it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecently Davidji gave a dharma talk related to the new Jivamukti t-shirts. On the front are the words “I AM”.  He asked us, what is on the back? For him, it’s “David”, for me “Jen”, for you “Your name here”.  The previous yamas and niyamas can be seen as practices cultivating the “Jen” side, svadhyaya asks us to investigate “I AM”.   And since we’ve spent the majority of our lives getting to know the back side of the t-shirt so well, a lot of svadhyaya is evening the scales with the “I AM” side.

As Rodney Yee said, “Suspend the knowing, the karmic history – the patterned ideas of you. To make space for you.”

In asana practice, we start off focusing and spending so much time on physical body alignment.  After a while, we get comfortable, we feel safe in the strange poses, and we begin to investigate our mental habits, our fidgets, our reactions and emotions.  When we begin to feel comfortable and safe within this level of exploration, we study our breath and the energy exchanges of the subtle body.  After that, we go one level deeper still – and that’s the level of svadhyaya.  It’s like we’re at the eye doctor, and they flip between two perspectives and ask “Is 1 or 2 clearer?” you respond, and again they flip, “Is A or B clearer?”, again “Is A or 2 clearer?”.  Except we’re our own eye doctor, and keep evolving through clearer and more evolved perspectives.  We’re working towards seeing ourselves at a level that is all “I AM”, and “Jen-ness” is quiet.  The amazing part of this is that when I can really be with “I AM”, then my “Jen-ness” becomes more and more brilliant.


Rodney Yee also says, “If you can’t relax, you can’t hear more than one voice at a time.”  Whether in our own minds, or in the room we’re standing in, we know from personal experience that the loudest voice we hear is not always the one we want to listen to.  So when we practice asana, pranayama and meditation, we’re moving towards a kind of relaxation where the eager, well-meaning, but loud and insistent Jen voices quiet down, so I can hear the voice of “I AM”.

Recommended practices for this work: restorative asana, pranayama, and nadam meditation