In his classic book Mastery, American aikido expert George Leonard details the beginner’s approach on the journey to mastery: Start with something simple. Try touching your forehead with your hand. Ah, that’s easy, automatic. Nothing to it. But there was a time when you were as far removed from the mastery of that simple skill as someone who doesn’t play piano is from playing a Beethoven sonata.
For most students, this simple example is analogous to how you begin a yoga practice. If you’re lucky, it’s in an introductory class in a room full of similarly inexperienced students. The teacher’s first instruction sounds like a foreign language, and although you consider yourself relatively healthy and intelligent, dyslexia attacks: You forget where the left hand is, or the right foot, and look around the room, suddenly frightfully aware of your limited faculties of perception.
Having taught an “Intro to Yoga” class for years, I know this is a familiar scenario. So familiar, in fact, that I have simplified the initial instructions I give in class to vocabulary and movements that are recognizable to most beginners. But even after you are not a beginner anymore, going back to basics—doing less, but with more awareness—allows you to find the essence of the most fundamental poses and touch “beginner’s mind.”
The first pose I teach is Balasana (Child’s Pose). For many of us, this asana possesses a deep physical and psychological memory of our time as infants. The shape of the pose is useful for many reasons, but in particular, it forces you to confront your attitudes and patterns of breathing, the health of your organs, and your level of awareness in moving from the abdomen. It is a very simple pose to begin with physically, yet it requires patience and the ability to surrender to gravity and a state of nondoing.
In Balasana, the shape of the pose forces the front of the rib cage to compress and causes an internal resistance to full, frontal breathing, which is the adopted pattern for most of us. In this resistance you will confront—possibly for the first time—the notion of breathing somewhere other than the front of your lungs, or in such a way as to avoid distending your belly as you inhale. As the frontal ribs are compressed, the unyielding presence of the internal organs and the compression of the abdomen trapped against the thighs limit the diaphragm, sometimes resulting in feelings of claustrophobia, nausea, or even fear. This further precludes soft, even breathing.
In “Salutation to the Teacher and the Eternal One,” a paper written by T. Krishnamacharya and distributed to students at the Yoga Mandiram in Madras, he says: “One important thing to be constantly kept in mind when doing asanas is the regulation of the breath. It should be slow, thin, long, and steady: breathing through both nostrils with a rubbing sensation at the throat and through the esophagus, inhaling when coming to the straight posture, and exhaling when bending the body.”
The breath described here is commonly known as Ujjayi Pranayama (Conquerer Breath). The word “ujjayi” can be broken down into the prefix ud—which means upward or superior in rank and conveys a sense of preeminence or power—and jaya, which means conquest, victory, triumph, or success. Like many Sanskrit terms, the word “jaya” has a compound meaning—it also implies restraint or curbing. Slightly contracting the back of the throat (the glottis) in ujjayi breathing creates a delicate friction and produces a soft, audible sound. Try fogging up a window with your breath—the sound you hear will be similar to the sound of ujjayi.
Slowing the inhalation and exhalation forces the breath to lengthen, and by the very nature of elongation, the vital force of the breath “narrows.” As it narrows, it moves closer to the spine, toward the sushumna nadi. The word “nadi” comes from the Sanskrit root nad, meaning movement.
Simply defined, nadis operate as conduits for the movement of subtle energy, prana, through the body. Like water, prana manifests in a dynamic flow, and hatha yoga is the body’s elemental irrigator: A yoga posture both increases the amount of prana available and removes obstacles to smooth circulation.
Ujjayi breathing, done while in Child’s Pose or other poses, squeezes the body as if it were a sponge and increases its capacity to soak up energy.
To begin the pose, kneel down, sitting on your heels, with your knees and feet together. Bend forward on an exhalation and place your forehead on the floor. Swing your arms around to the floor behind you with the palms turned up. If this is not comfortable for your neck or it’s difficult to reach the floor, support the forehead with a blanket. Bring your attention to the breath: Is it distorted by the compression of the abdomen?
As you begin your next inhalation, imagine you are drawing your breath in through your navel and feel the navel move slightly back toward the spine. You may not get a “full” breath. Your ujjayi breath should create a soft, audible noise from the back of your throat, and you should sense a soft suction in the abdomen pulling in the stem of the navel.
As you continue inhaling, the fullness of your breath moves behind the heart, filling the back of the lungs and softening the spine. As the thoracic ribs expand slightly, feel the skin across your shoulder blades stretching. The energy of the frontal chest and ribs should be still. As you exhale, release the weight of your abdominal organs, soften the diaphragm, and surrender the arms, feeling their weight pulling down on the shoulders and collarbones.
The release of the organs draws your energy down into the pelvic floor, which in effect rebounds up and triggers subtle movement in the spine. With practice, you will notice more space in the abdomen as the organs become toned and supple. The pattern of breathing into your back will become familiar, and your spine will elongate freely as your breath works slowly to expand and release the tension in your ribs.
Although very basic in nature, Child’s Pose will help you develop a broader understanding of the breath and allow you to recognize the role your organs play with the subtle energies of your body. While it may not be a physically challenging posture, Balasana will help you cultivate the attitude necessary for deeper practice.