To further refine one’s home practice, Pranayama is essential. It is not a practice one approaches in a standard one-size-fits-all format as everyone has their own cardiovascular and respiratory rhythms. But certain fundamentals must be learned before one tries on their own. The Iyengars and the Hatha Yoga Pratipika warn that Pranayama practiced unskillfully can have damaging effects on the nervous system. In short, Pranayama is not merely “breathing exercises.” Pranayama is just as the name implies: management of the body’s “pranic” or energetic system.
B.K.S. Iyengar warned that one must not approach Pranayama casually and mechanically. Just as there are refinements in Asana, there are extremely subtle refinements in Pranayama. Again, these cannot be seen easily if at all by the teacher, so it is up to the practitioner to understand what needs to be refined.
One’s mental state cannot be agitated before doing or while in Pranayama. If that is the case, the practitioner must go back to Asana until the mental state is calmed. As a mental health care professional, this took me years to figure out. As a counselor, a common “coping skill” to teach for one who has anxiety is to “take deep breaths.” That has had mixed results in my counseling profession especially of for those who smoke daily and have respiratory problems. Breathing deeply has actually made them panic more! Through the years I have found teaching my clients Tadasana and supported Adho Mukha Svanasana as much more valuable technique of addressing anxiety than “breathing deeply.”
In the hierarchy of practice, Asana must be mastered before one can commence Pranayama. That does not mean one has to execute Asanas in the back of Light On Yoga to qualify. But the quality of the asanas you do have to have Sthira and Sukham (steadiness and well being). The aim of Pranayama isn’t merely to get out of an agitated state. The aim is to cultivate Pratyahara, or detachment from the senses.
It is recommended that people don’t start doing Pranayama until they have had regular and steady Asana practice for six months. This not to be snobby, but it is because the body needs to attain a basic sense of proper alignment before any effective work on the extremely subtle pranic system can be done. If you are new to Yoga, please see my tabs on Asana and Yoga Sequences and practice these with the help of a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor in your area. It is highly advisable to obtain a copy of Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar as he goes into tremendous detail of what I will cover briefly in these posts. With all of that, let us start to explore how to approach Pranayama.
Ideally, Pranayama is practiced separate from Asana. If you practice Asanas first, allow 30 minutes before commencing Pranayama practice. As Pranayama tries to cultivate Pratyahara, there should be no music playing and of course electronic devices should be silenced. It is very jarring to the nervous system to hear a cell phone go off while you are concentrating on the subtle body.
The four parts of the breath
To understand the basic structure of the breath, one needs to know at least the corresponding references in Sanskrit. The exhale is called Rechaka. The retention at the end of the exhale is called Bhaya Kumbhaka. The inhale is called Puraka. The retention at the end of the inhale is called Antara Kumbhaka. Kumbha means “pot” or “vessel” and the retention refers to the encapsulation of the Prana in the vessel. Eventually, the Kumbhakas increase in time duration according to the aim and skill of the practitioner.
Study these concepts, and in future posts I will show how to position the body for pranayama give basic instructions for UJjayi I and II Pranayama-s.
I’ve practiced pranayama method for decades, as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda author of Autobiography of a Yogi. The pranayam methods taught by Iyengar and Yogananda appear to be quite different in practice and but not in essence. Different names and focuses during the actual breathing part. The ultimate end of both seem the same: kundalini awakenening for soul liberation or self-realization.
Do you think there are any key differences in the ultimate goals of Iyengar pranayam method versus pranayama in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali or as taught by other gurus?
There is much more to your questions than meet the eye. B.K.S. Iyengar and Paramahansa Yogananda have very different lineages which in turn shape the scope of the “goals” of their practice. The only remote experience I have had in the Yogananda lineage is through the Bikram classes I took when I first started doing practice. Bikram states he is from Yogananda’s lineage. I was at best a neophyte in that style so I am in no authority to comment on the differences. And I cannot comment on other styles for the same reason.
That being said, the Iyengar’s approach is from the external to the internal (annamayakosa to anandamayakosa) as we have previously discussed. Pranayama is the last stage of the Bahrianga sadhana (external practice) and cultivates Pratyahara which is the first stage of the Antaranga sadhana (internal practice).
The first “goal” of pranayama is first to practice daily and uninterruptedly for a long period of time. Only then will the practitioner gain the realizations therein. Iyengar had the statement “when you inhale, you are taking the strength from God. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world.” Of course the ultimate goal of Yoga is to “yoke” Purusha with Ishvara, so there is a subtle element of bhakti in all the limbs of Iyengar’s approach. He was very sensitive to teach it secularly to make accessible to all, but as the practitioner gets further the bhakti elements become apparent.
Thanks for your questions Scott. I would recommend you check out of copy of Light On Pranayama from the library to further answer your questions. Even check out an Iyengar class in your area 🙂
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