Intro to Pranayama
Anusara yoga is rooted in Tantric philosophy that looks for the good in all things. It is accepting things as they are and then responding with love (to paraphrase John Friend). This viewpoint underlies they way that we see pranayama. Prana, in Sanskrit, means life force that animates all things. Prana can be seen as manifesting in the breath. Yama means restraints or control, so together the word pranayama is sometimes understood to mean control of the life force. Alternatively pranayama could be broken to the too root words prana and ayama. Ayama means to lengthen, stretch or extend, so with using these two root words pranayama means extending and freeing the life force. Doug Keller explains that we can control prana no more than we sit in a rowboat and move the ocean with our paddle. But floating on the ocean of prana we can navigate our way thorough its currents. Some schools of yoga see prana as dangerous and so powerful it may harm us, therefore prana must be controlled so as to not harm. In Anusara we recognize that all is divine and good, including ourselves. We are not separate from prana, it is part of us, so it cannot harm us.
Pranayama, more specifically, is used to refers to conscious expansion of our natural capacity for breathing. There are many forms and techniques of pranayama, or patterns of breathing that are consciously engaged for a period of time. The three most basic forms are Full Yogic Breath, and Ujjayi. They both build upon the natural breath.
Many people breath shallowly, overusing our chest, neck and shoulder muscles rather than the diaphragm. When stress is frequent, this can quickly become a habitual way of breathing, even when a person is not under stress. This is a learned habit, no the natural way of breathing. Natural Breath is breathing fully, starting in lower diaphragm (belly and lower ribs). With this breath the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and it helps the body and mind to relax. Once diaphragmatic breathing is mastered, students can move to full yogic breath, where breath is even and full through the three distinct areas of the torso: belly/diaphragm, mid-chest, and upper chest.
These are the step for Full Yogic Breath:
• To begin, learn to breath into the 3 distinct regions where the breath flows.
1. Bring your hands to rest gently on your belly. Invite the breath to flow all the way down into the hands. Feel the diaphragm expand downwards into the hands with each inhale and contract upwards with each exhale.2. Place the hands on the lower ribs, with the thumbs hooked around towards the back and the fingers spread wide. Feel the ribs expand to the sides and into the hands on the inhale and soften inwards and down on the exhale.
3. Hook the thumbs under the armpits and rest the hands on the upper chest. Feel the chest and collarbones rise on the inhale, and soften downwards on the exhale.
• Practice inviting the breath into each region individually, when you feel comfortable with this, link the three together for the Full Yogic Breath:
• Inhale expand the breath into the belly, continue to expand into the lower ribs, and then all they way up to the collar bones.
• Exhale, draw the belly inwards, the ribs soften down and the collar bones soften downwards.
Ujjayi means “victory from expansion.” Ujjayi breathing is a type of pranayama in itself and is incorporated into other forms of pranayama. Ujjayi breath is characterized by its sound and by its evenness of flow from beginning to end. The ujjayi sound is made by toning the epiglottis in the throat. It is made as if you were making a “haaa” sound to fog up a mirror, but through the nose rather than the mouth. In addition to feeling the evenness of inhale and exhale, with the ujjayi sound you can hear it as well. The softness of the ujjayi sound is calming and in itself can be used as a manta, as a point of focus to take us deeper into meditation. As Doug Keller eloquently explains, “When we focus on the breath, we are listening to and contemplating the true nature of Consciousness as it is spoken through the breath.”