Tonight I had a tech session about pranyama – which is basically breath work. (Prana = “life force” [spirit, breath] and yama = “restraint” [control]. So pranyama loosely translates into actions which control the breath – breath work.)
Interestingly, almost exactly one year ago today I had my very first tech session ever, and the focus of that session was the breath, too! (If you are curious, you can read that post here.) Now, considering that breath is an integral and absolutely critical part of yoga, it’s not too shocking that I’ve had more than one experience related to this topic. But still, I thought it was cool that things really are coming full circle as this yoga teacher training experience is winding down for me….
Anyway, back to the present. Pranyama is a skill that is cultivated through practice. We all breathe automatically and unconsciously; unfortunately, that isn’t always a good thing. Yes, it’s good that we breathe even when we aren’t thinking about it so that we can stay alive; but our breath influences so much of our experience in the world. When we breathe in tiny, shallow inhales and exhales from our upper chest (as so many of us do), this physical action contributes to physiological feelings of constriction and tension, which contribute (often unconsciously) to emotional and psychological feelings of anxiety and stress. But when we actively change our breath, when we breathe in deeper, slower, fuller inhales and exhales, we create a sense of physical expansiveness in our bodies – which contributes to emotional and psychological feelings of relaxation and calm. When we then practice specific methods of pranyama, we have the ability (and power) to create and cultivate other states in our bodies, and our minds. So, pranyama isn’t “just breathing” – it’s breathing in a very specific way, to create very specific results. It’s quite amazing, actually. (As one of my yoga teachers likes to quip: “When you change your breath, you change your mind. When you change your mind, you change your life.”)
And just like any other skill we want to get good at (be it physical asana practice, or developing musical abilities, or learning a new language, etc. etc. etc.), if we want to get good at this skill of pranyama, we have to practice it. So we spent the first half of the tech session learning and practicing two basic forms of pranyama, then we spent the other half of the session applying those forms of breathing to a moving asana practice.
The first type of pranyama we did is called “square breathing”. I actually learned this technique several years ago as a stress management tool, and I have found it to work incredibly well. It’s super-simple to learn, super-easy to remember, and can be done discreetly, literally anywhere. So, if you’re stuck in a line at the grocery store and feel your patience running thin, or on an airplane and feeling a little claustrophobic, or sitting in the dentist’s chair and feeling some anxiety, you may want to consider practicing this breathing technique. It’s helped me out many times.
Okay, so here’s square breathing:
- Inhale for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath in for a count of 4. (I.e., don’t breathe, don’t move any air at all. Just keep the air that is currently inside of you right where it is.)
- Exhale for a count of 4.
- Hold your breath out for a count of 4. (Again, don’t breathe, don’t move any air at all. Just keep the air that is currently outside of you right there.)
So, to simplify, square breathing is:
* Inhale 4.
* Hold 4.
* Exhale 4.
* Hold 4.
Repeat as many times as desired.
If you’d like to try this method of breathing for a round or two right now, go ahead. It will only take you 30 seconds, and I think you might be surprised by how you feel afterwards.
[Pause. I’m waiting for you.] :)
The second type of pranyama we learned is more complicated, and more challenging. It’s called visamavrtti pranyama. (vi = “not”; sama =”same”; vrtti =”length”) Here’s how this one goes. [For this description, I’m also going to include comments about which bandhas to engage for my yoga friends; if you have no idea what a bandha is, don’t worry about it – feel free to ignore that part.]
* Inhale for 4 [engage mula bandha]
* Hold for 16 [engage mula bandha and jalandhara bandha]
* Exhale for 8 [engage mula bandha]
* Hold for 12 [engage all three bandhas]
This breath work was quite a bit more challenging for me; I felt myself being pushed quite a bit on both holds. I was rather surprised at how well I was able to maintain the bandhas; but I could absolutely feel the desire to exhale and inhale “prematurely” come on pretty strong at different points in the pranyama. This is absolutely to be expected, and as our teacher explained, “Yoga is about meeting stress, and moving through it – not running from it or avoiding it all together.” It’s in the moving through a discomfort or a stressor that a person genuinely learns about the internal strength and power that was previously ‘hidden’ (untapped) inside of them. Pranyama is a very effective (yet still safe) way to experience stress, so that a person can encounter all of the internal resources they have – like resolve, courage, determination, dedication, and so on.
After we felt semi-confident doing pranyama from a seated, still position, we then applied breath ratios to dynamic asana. We did arm raises coupled with forward folds, then returning to a standing position (so, from standing, raise arms for an inhale of 4; fold forward with arms raised for an exhale of 8; return to standing with arms overhead for an inhale of 4; lower arms to the sides while still standing for an exhale of 8). We also did dynamic bridge poses with arms raising and lowering overhead for a 1:2 (inhale:exhale) breath ratio, and we practiced seated spinal twists with a 1:2 (inhale:exhale) breath ratio.
As we practiced coupling pranyaya (breath) with asana (movement), I felt myself falling in love with yoga again and again. There is something truly beautiful to me about the union of breath and body; and every time I get to experience it, I am humbled, awed, and delighted. I left this evening’s tech session breathing freely, and smiling broadly. I simply adore yoga.