Pranayama is a key aspect of yoga. It's the conscious awareness of one's breath. The Sanskrit term is derived from prana, meaning "life force," and ayama, meaning "extension." Being able to cooperate with one's breathing helps to both energize and relax the body, and is an integral part to performing yoga poses and during meditation.
Richard Rosen began his study of yoga in 1980, training for several years in the early 1980s at the B.K.S. Iyengar Institute in San Francisco, CA. In 1987, Rosen co-founded the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, CA. He teaches workshops around the US and offers weekly classes in the Bay Area. He’s also a contributing editor for Yoga Journal Magazine and has written several books on yoga including; The Yoga of Breath, Original Yoga and Yoga FAQ.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rosen and ask him some questions regarding Pranayama. We hope his extensive experience and knowledge will help you get the most out of your own pranayama, yoga or meditation practice.
Q. Please share your own experience of pranayama
A. I began my practice of yoga in 1980 at the Yoga Room in Berkeley, CA. I read in a book that yoga was the best exercise ever invented, and since I was looking for a way to strengthen my body other than weight lifting, I decided to give it a try. I took to the practice immediately, though I was 33 years old and rather stiff. After two years, I decided to enter the 2-year Teacher Training Program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute (IYI) in San Francisco.
The program included five asana classes of increasing difficulty, and three breath awareness/pranayama classes. I hadn’t done much formal breathing in my public classes, but under the instruction of my teacher at IYI, I began a daily pranayama practice. It didn’t go well for at least two years. We often times don’t realize the powerful transformative effect that conscious breathing can have on the body-mind, for good or ill. In my early practice, I was very aggressive with the breath, which for me was totally inappropriate, and I paid the price. I had a constant battle with headaches, anxiety, and free-floating anger. These reactions only stopped when I found a teacher who convinced me to dial everything back and essentially start all over from square one.
I learned from this that the breath must be tamed, as the Hatha Pradipika puts it, “step by step” as you would a lion, elephant, or tiger, otherwise if you go too far too fast, it “kills the practitioner." This is, I hasten to add, an exaggeration no doubt to give emphasis to the caution, my life was never in danger. Over the years my practice has gone from something quite complicated to something now quite simple. One reason for this is that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) around 2003. The condition makes it difficult to sit quietly for any length of time, it also encourages the torso to slump which also puts a crimp in the breath.
So I’ve had to adjust my practice, performing it nowadays mostly reclining on a blanket support and focusing the breath on the areas in my body where the PD is feeling most apparent at the time. I believe that a breathing practice is at least as important to our well-being as an asana practice, and I always teach 10-15 minutes of conscious breathing in every one of my public classes.
Q. What are some precautions prior to practicing Pranayama?
Let me first say that pranayama is often rendered into English as “breath control.” This isn’t exactly incorrect, but suggesting to a Westerner that the practice involves “controlling” the breath could lead to some unfortunate results. Westerners ideally should be encouraged to “co-operate” with the breath, acknowledging that the breath has an innate intelligence that should be accounted for in the practice.
Students beginning a breathing practice, no matter how many years they’ve been working with asanas, should generally lie down on some kind of blanket support under their torso/spine. Most Westerners, because they start sitting in chairs at a very young age, are unable to sit on the floor with any semblance of proper breathing alignment. And if alignment is off, the spine is distorted to some degree, which prevents the diaphragm from moving easily and fully, which then interferes with breathing.
Pranayama practice requires enormous patience and perseverance. If you’re not willing to practice nearly daily, if you don’t have the patience to let the practice slowly unfold, then it’s probably best you don’t begin at all. With asanas you may find significant changes to the body-mind happening over several weeks or months. This isn’t intended to put you off breathing, but “progress” is much, much slower with the breath. If you’re looking for immediate results, it’s likely that won’t happen.
The breather must stay intensely aware of her/his reaction to the practice. According to the Hatha Pradipika, you should always do pranayama with a “sattvic mind," that is, a mind that is clear and calm. At the beginning of every practice then, there should be a period of attentive observation, both of the breath and the mind. If the latter is agitated, the first order of business is to quiet it down. This is why I believe that the first step in a breathing practice is to cultivate Corpse Pose (shavasana). In every one of my pranayama trainings, I also start with a mini-course in shavasana.
If your mind simply refuses to go sattvic, I recommend not starting the formal practice; the practice on a day like this would be to do no more than quiet (or at least try to quiet) the mind. And once the practice is underway, you should stay very alert to your emotional state. AT THE FIRST SIGN OF ANY EMOTIONAL DISRUPTION, STOP THE PRACTICE, and go about your day. There’s nothing to worry about if this happens fairly regularly at first. But if it happens practice after practice, then it’s time to ask for assistance from an experienced teacher.
Keep the practice very simple at first, the more complicated practices can wait until you’ve established a good “working relationship” with your breath.
Q. How does pranayama enhance the experience of yoga and meditation?
A. Although it’s usually slow-going at first, eventually the pranayama practice will take hold and make changes, though of course with all yoga practice, there’s no guarantee that the changes will occur and to what degree. Let me speak from my own experience. I would say first that pranayama has sharpened my sense of smell, though this is quite subjective and I have no “scientific” proof to back the claim up. Pranayama has also made breathing in asana practice easier, though again this is subjective.
Where it’s made the biggest difference is in my understanding of meditation (and yoga, which in my mind is the same thing). In order to observe the breath closely, I found it necessary to develop a witness (sakshin), a part of my awareness that stands back from the breath and observes it without judgment and criticism. As you might expect, this is difficult to maintain at first, but eventually it takes shape and becomes an integral part of the practice.
Then I discovered something very interesting, though I’ve no doubt I re-invented the wheel here. The witness began to show up in my everyday life, watching me intently during random hours of the day, which became longer and more frequent as time went on. I want to emphasize that the witness is NOT a judge and jury, I’ve never heard it make a comment about my thoughts, words, or behavior. That’s not its “trip,” as we used to say back in the 60s.
Have you ever heard of the observer effect? It states that just observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that situation or phenomenon. I know it’s often risky to apply concepts from physics into discussions about consciousness, misapplications and misinterpretations are common. But here the analogy is that by uncritically, but honestly, observing yourself during the day, your behavior is affected, usually positively. I don’t claim to be a better person than I was before I developed the witness, but I can say without reservation that I’m more self-aware, and that awareness in turn has a profound affect on my behavior. At least now when I engage in behavior that Patanjali would disapprove of, I’m aware of what I did when, and can decide to act differently the next time.
Q. What are the benefits of pranayama to your wellbeing?
A. About pranayama and mental health, I can only speak about my own experience. In about 2003, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (which I prefer to call a “condition”). One of the symptoms is depression and anxiety, which I experienced. I then started to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed for me some medication to deal with the anxiety. I went to the pharmacy to fill the prescription, and I decided to buy myself for a treat some chocolate as well. I paid for both at the pharmacy counter, and was amazed that the chocolate cost more than the anxiety pills (the cost of which admittedly was greatly reduced by my insurance).
By the time I got home I decided not to take the pills and instead work with my anxiety through my breath. It took awhile, but gradually I noticed a lessening of the anxiety. Of course by this time I’d been practicing asana for about 24 years, and breathing for 21, so I had a considerable advantage when working with myself.
I’ve tried this out with other PD people, but to be honest it doesn’t seem to work as well. I suspect they all tried to re-create what I did and failed for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they weren’t persistent enough and expected too much too soon. Having expectations for a breathing practice is definitely counter-productive. The practice will progress at its own rate, and there’s not a lot you can do to speed the process, except maybe to practice more than once a day, or make your practices longer.
I’d be very careful if using the breath on any mental condition. I strongly suggest that you get the assistance of an experienced teacher, one who is familiar with pranayama. I know it’s possible to relieve anxiety to some degree with breathing, but it’s also very possible, if practiced improperly, to worsen the condition.