Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pranayama, More Than Breathing In and Out

Unconscious breathing is like eating iceberg lettuce, which is good for survival. 
Conscious breathing is like eating kale, which offers you what you need to survive and so much more!

A while ago I posted this status update on Facebook, because I felt it was one of the easiest answers to the question, "why should I practice pranayama?" Just as some foods can make dramatic changes in your chemical makeup, so can breathing practices.

Pranayama is like a nutritional supplement, working on your mental, emotional,  and spiritual health.

My knowledge of this branch of yoga is limited to my own experiences and research. The following are how I use these practices, which may or may not work for you. There are many texts out there that describe the benefits of breathing practices, if you are interested in diving into these subjects with more detail. As always, working directly with a live teacher is best in order to tailor these practices for your needs.

Mental Supplement

What happens when you sit down to meditate? If you're like me, your mind-stuff begins to pile up and your will to sit with it diminishes. I teach a Sunday night free breath and meditation class; some nights I include more breath and some nights it's more meditation. On the nights when I teach a solid 20 minutes of pranayama, the students report to me that they were able to settle into the meditation that followed with much more ease. Here are some techniques, if you interested in using breath as a means to meditation:

All techniques begin by finding an alert, relaxed physical position. On days when I need to recline to relieve pain, I will keep my eyes open in order to avoid falling asleep. Next, I will practice pranavidya, or observing my breath. I watch my breath for a few cycles, noting my depth, rhythm, sound and texture, before I move into the technique.

Ujayyi is an audible breath that I use when I need to feel warmth or stimulation (great for when I practice in the early, sleepy hours of the morning!). I begin by using ujayyi on both inhale and exhale, also noticing the quiet pauses at the top and bottom of the breath. After a few cycles of breath and when I feel comfortable with it, I will begin to quiet my exhales, so that only the inhale is audible. Whenever I catch myself make sound on my exhale, that's when I know that I've drifted in my attention.

Samavrtti is an equal-sided breath practice that has many layers and generations. Over the last 3 years, I've worked into a pattern of 6 second inhale, 6 second pause and 6 second exhale. I have not yet added the exhale, but that will be my next step over the next several months, beginning with a 2 second pause, then gradually increasing. Some days I can only manage 4 seconds for all sides of my breath. Whatever length my inhale is during my checkin, that's where I will set the length for the other parts. This is a subtler practice that requires more patience to build, and one that I like to use during times when my mind is particularly agitated.

Emotional Supplement

People who only know me from yoga classes have a hard time believing that I have a quick temper, but if you ask my family, they will confirm it. I spent years rejecting my temper, punishing myself and others around me for when it was triggered. I attempted to push it away, to sublimate it, but in the past few years, I've made a study of my temper to learn more about what happens when I'm triggered. I began to notice my tension, my energy, my thoughts and my breath. My temper is triggered by fear. Fear shows up in me as a tightening in my low back, my gut, my throat and my forehead. The path of my energy is similar to a tsunami's mysterious recession, followed by its catastrophic advance; my vital force free-falls downward for a split second (my face will usually drain of blood and turn white), then erupts upward with a forceful explosion (my face then turns bright red). During that initial recession, I suspend my breath; the eruption occurs simultaneous with a violent exhale, and the volume of my voice rises to ear drum - shattering volume. The is what my kids call the "mean mommy voice". Be grateful you've never experienced it.

Another emotion that I work with in my pranayama practice is grief, something I've had the opportunity to experience more of lately. For me, grief is actually fear combined with attachment, but it arises completely differently in me than fear.

If I were to describe my experience of grief using a grammatical analogy, I would say that it is a long list of depressing adjectives that get heavier, darker and more pressurized as the list goes on, punctuated occasionally with bouts of sobs that only mildly relieve the tension. It's hard to breathe in, and when I do inhale, it may catch or stutter. Grief lives on my shoulders, around my heart and down my arms. At times, I may feel like my wrists are handcuffed by it.

My study of grief has led me to the conclusion that I suffer because I reject it. The initial feelings of grief are good for me to experience, but because I try to stuff them down, they burst up through me, along with my opinions about them.

Grief, like, fear, needs a channel. My conscious breath opens that channel and relieves me of the extraneous suffering.

In order to reduce the effects of fear / anger, I use a technique I call the Tension Drain, which I learned from Tias Little in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As soon as I feel that tsunami-like recession, I look for a way to drain it downward. Like opening a valve, giving this energy a place to go usually helps me mitigate the rest of the response. To do this, I establish my connection with my feet (or seat, if I'm sitting). I focus of my exhales, attempting to make them as long or longer than my inhales. I visualize a drain at the bottoms of my feet and imagine I am rinsing the tension down and out. Usually, I feel the difference within a few breaths.

Grief constricts. To respond to grief, I use the following technique to connect with my Heart Chakra. In order to experience grief as a pure emotion and be able to then let it go, I have to first establish the best posture for it. If I am rounded inward, compressing the space around my heart and lungs, it will be harder to disengage from the heavy, seductive feelings of grief. Sitting upright or reclining with support along my spine are my typical postures. I then focus my attention to the space around my heart, imagining that the tightening softens with each breath and that my breath themselves originate from my heart. I see my breaths as a wave, rushing in and out in all directions. After a few moments of this, I begin to notice a feeling of spaciousness around my heart; often, I have to imagine this spacious quality before I notice it. Sometimes, I have to hack my way out of the comforting jungle of grief that has grown around my heart; each breath is a machete strike that clears away the space.

Spiritual Supplement

Prana is our life force, our spirit. Pranayama is the practice of studying, touching, channeling that life force. There are many written examples of the breath as a gift from our creator. My favorite is this one by Kabir:

Are you looking for me?
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but
When you really look for me, you will see me
instantly --
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
The breath inside the breath. Subtle, powerful, connected and with us all the time. Whatever your emotional, mental, physical states, your breath is always there, always part of the fabric of reality.

The So Hum mantra is perfectly suited to honoring that connection. So Hum is translated to mean I am That. I am a part of all of creation. Think about it: as you breathe in now, there are air molecules that may have been here for lifetimes, even eons. As you breathe out, notice what you are leaving in this world. Inhale and hear your breath quietly, organically whisper the word So. As you exhale, hear your breath make the sound of Hum. Over and over, I connect with my breath, with my community near me through my breath, and my larger community of humans through this mantra. So Hum.


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