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


Ahimsa-pratisthayam tat-sannidhau vaira-tyagah PYS II.35
In the presence of one who is established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease.

On the subway the other day there was a group of young teenagers. They were acting boisterously and reveling in each other, as teens are wont to do.  Suddenly, some part of their revel caused a great big BANG! of some kind to occur.

One teenager sheepishly says “That was loud…”

To which a compatriot replied “So?  We’re in public… we’re not bothering nobody.”

While most of us would smile, as I did, at the idea of the compatriot, it made me realize we tend to share her perspective to a certain extent.  We believe only in private do we affect others, are we important, can we disturb, are we connected. In public we tighten, draw in, arm ourselves and step out the door ready for battle.

That may seem a bit extreme, but take a moment to think about the degree to which you allow yourself to be vulnerable, perhaps even the degree to which you think vulnerability is more of a detriment to life, then a positive.  Every time we step away from being vulnerable, one layer of armor is put on in order to deal with others – in private or public.

The armor we put on is generally in places where we have been hurt before.  When someone “steps” on the places we’ve armored ourselves –  we get triggered and react himsically.  So ironically, in order to lessen harm, we wind up creating it.

In a recent teacher training with Rodney Yee, a student asked him “What do I do? All of these practices, when I practice them intently, leave me feeling sensitive. What do I do when I leave the practice space with that sensitivity?”  To which he replied. “Nothing”

For him, one major benefit of the practice is to create and cultivate this sensitivity, and then share it with others. What’s the point if you’re open, vulnerable, and able to be authentic on your mat, if you close it all off when you walk out the door?  Wouldn’t it be a more worthwhile question to ask “What do I do to stay sensitive when with others?” “How can I cultivate a vulnerability I can share with others?”

One way is to decide before you leave your house, every morning, to let go. Decide that nothing will be more important that day – not being on time, not your personal space, not being right – then ahimsa, then the breath.  Because your ability to breathe slow and steadily like in asana class, is in direct correlation to how long you can stay vulnerable without drawing on armor, or allowing yourself to get triggered into harmful feelings.

This requires a great deal of self-honesty, to know yourself that well.  We actually spend most of our time ignoring the places we’ve been wounded, the places we lash out, the places we’ve armored.  If we do look at them, we are usually looking at the story of how it happened, why it happened, etc. – and never just letting it be that it happened.

A second way is in a preceding sutra (PYS II.33).  “When one is disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think the opposite.”  This is not the idea of putting a silver-lining on an event.  It is the idea of antidotes – the idea that it’s not possible to hit someone and shake their hand at the same time.  We must make a choice.   It is a choice for our own inner state.  It does not mean we put a happy face on the situation or wish it were different. It’s acknowledging that the only thing that we can truly change is ourselves, and so we change it. We uncurl the fist, and open our hand to shake. It doesn’t mean the other person is any more likable, any less arrogant or hurtful, any closer to being a better person with better choices.  We have decided to shift our own perspective, without trying to shift anything else.

A third way to think about that is inspired by Ram Dass. In his book Paths to God, he relates a conversation he had with his father, a lawyer.  Ram Dass had recently put out a recording of his talks, and was selling it for the exact price it took him to produce. His father found this ridiculous, asking him, even, if he was against capitalism!  🙂  Ram Dass asked him how much he had charged his Uncle Henry on a recent case his father had argued for Uncle Henry.  His father asked if Ram Dass was crazy?! You don’t charge family.  Ram Dass’s reply was that since he saw everyone as his family, he wouldn’t rip them off any more than his father would rip off Uncle Henry.

David Life describes the practice of yoga, in one part, as a practice of widening our circle of compassion. That we have our usual group of people we include in there – and if we can just keep extending it to 3 more people, to a couple more, to all different types of beings, to nonbeings – then we really start living in ahimsa.

The People – By Beaver Chief

A fourth way is the koan level, as Michael Stone calls it. This is when you are so steady in ahimsa, you embody it when you walk, in the way you put away props, the way you get into bed, and out of bed, the way you do laundy, and buy a metrocard – it’s all en expression of ahimsa.

A last way comes to us from Dogen – who advises that we speak to everyone as we would a baby. I don’t believe he’s asking us to make babytalk to everyone we meet. But if you can think about moments when you are talking to a baby – and how open and vulnerable you are in front of a baby – they see right through you, there’s no place to hide, and what would you really try to hide anyway? Think also, of how you think of that baby – as full of potential, possibility, of the concentrated seed of all the world of humanity.  Then they get older and we start seeing them quite differently, and consequently, speaking to them quite differently.  Could you offer this to others? Could you speak to them from that place in you, to that place in them?

In the end – it’s working towards cultivating a place of ahimsa within you – so it’s not so much something you have to do. You don’t have to do ahimsa, and try to speak ahimsa. You just are ahimsa, then you’re just sharing it with others. You are reshaping the field of people, beings, nonbeings, and energy around you, just the way you are.

Teachings of the teachers

The first week of 2012 brings my teachers to New York City. If you’ve ever been been touched by one of my classes, it was their light passing through to you.  I highly recommend taking the opportunity to directly study with them, as they don’t spend much time in the city.  Hopefully I’ll see you there!

Sharon Gannon & David Life

Jivamukti Tribe Gathering
January 1st-5th

Rodney Yee & Colleen Saidman Yee

Vira Yoga
January 4th
January 5th

Wanderlust ~ 1

My best friend, Alana, and I journeyed to Wanderlust Vermont.  Those of you in the NYC region have by now heard various tales from yogi/music friends of yours who made the same journey.  There is a unified feeling of what an amazing experience it was. What has amazed me is how the connection of it, the wonder of it, has actually continued to grow outside of actually being there. Like teachings you receive but don’t quite yet grasp, that later reveal themselves when you are ready or when they are needed, Wanderlust has become a continued unraveling of experience.  Over the next few months of summer, in addition to my regular post, I will also post one on the continued insights and influences of Wanderlust. For the first:

My first thoughts on talking about the festival were about being in the moment. It started at 9:50am, Friday, on my first day of yoga there. I was on my mat waiting for Rodney and Colleen’s class on the feet, and the woman on the mat next to me got on line to speak to them.  For those of you who haven’t yet made it to a conference/retreat/festival/teacher training, at the end students line up to talk to the teachers, take pictures, smile, thank them, give an offering, share a story or insight, etc. It’s like the end of a regular yoga class, but a bit more formal, and a bit more rock star. Traditionally, one waits until the end of his/her class to approach the teachers… but not this yogi. She was going to start the experience off by getting in line for the class that was finishing before ours. Returning to the mat next to mine, holding her smartphone, she suddenly exclaimed to me that she could not yet Facebook the picture, as she had wanted to, because she was supposed to be at work! I was not quite sure how to respond (not using Facebook myself, I figured there was probably some sort of common response I could make, but was completely unsure what), so I smiled, nodded, and went back into my own space.

Later that night, at the Andrew Bird concert, people had their phones up from start to finish. Same thing the next night at Michael Franti’s (wow!) show.  They watched the entire show through their phones. At Michael Franti’s concert in particular, when he moved out into the crowd, people were so excited about his nearness, that they instantly held up their phones to document. The very act distanced them as clearly as if he were again back up on stage.

It reminded me of the quote by Chief Seattle on travelling: “Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints.”  Can we take memories, without taking documentation of them? Or perhaps even more importantly, can we take pictures; can we make memories, without needing to immediately share them? What happens to “memory” through the distance of a recording device? How much of a memory is it really, when it’s turned around so quickly to others?

In yoga, every experience creates a samskara – a groove – a psychic record of our very own. In neuroscience, I believe they have a similar idea of how nerve connections function in the brain, creating patterns based on our actions (thought, said, and performed). Unlike actual records, our samkaras are changeable, given enough intention and time.  I wonder if by immediately documenting and sharing every noteworthy (and even not-so-noteworthy) event, we’re cheating ourselves of the chance to set a deep groove, or to switch an old one to a new track.  We miss the opportunity to allow the experience, the moment, to settle in and be just ours for awhile – and all that can come out of that kind of incubation.

Realistically, and honestly (I did take a few snapshots of my own, and have been checking out some videos posted on line- if you watch this one, you can catch a brief glimpse of me in tie-dyed pants in the acro yoga class), smartphones, tablets, facebook, twitter and everything else we have that has encouraged this new shift in experiencing is not going anywhere, and nor would most of us ask it to.  Could we, instead, start on the trek towards creating the guidelines that will keep us in control of our technology? Could we consider yoga as an inspiration?

I suggest that every time you mentally reach out to document and share, pause. Consider: How much will this take me out of the present moment (including being present with the people I’m with)? How necessary is it that it happen now? And then opt, as often as possible, to give the experience time to settle in and be yours, before it becomes everyone else’s.

In my teacher training, I remember David and Sharon, or perhaps it was the mentors, give us the advice not to be so concerned with writing down in our manuals everything that was said.  They advised that we receive the teachings, and trust that they would be there, in us, when we needed/were ready for them later.  That’s a lot of trust.

I think we’re in danger of losing this trust in ourselves – to just receive the moment, just hear, just feel, just see, just taste, just laugh, just be, and trust that it will all be there later, when we need it, when we’re ready for it.