Breathing Lessons


By Tony Briggs  |  

When I first encountered pranayama, I thought it was a complete waste of time. I had been taking classes for a couple of years and had just found the instructor I later came to see as my first “real” yoga teacher. One day she announced to the class, “Today we’re going to do some pranayama.” Huh? I thought. What’s that? Prana—what?

We did some simple resting poses and then some very basic breath-awareness exercises, followed by Savasana (Corpse Pose). I wasn’t thrilled. I wanted a workout, to get strong and stretched out. That’s what I had come for, that’s what I’d paid for—and instead, I was lying on the floor just breathing. This wasn’t for me! Luckily, my teacher taught pranayama the last week of every month, so it was easy to avoid. I just skipped class that week.

But my real luck lay in my teacher’s dogged persistence. Month after month, she kept teaching pranayama, and month after month I kept resisting it—though I did occasionally show up for class. I was just like the guy in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. No matter how my teacher presented it, I kept on turning up my nose and saying, “I do not like this pran-a-yam. I do not like it, Sam-I-am.” And then one day something inside me suddenly clicked, and I changed my mind. During an agitated and confused time in my life, I glimpsed in pranayama practice the possibility of refuge. As I have slowly gone deeper into the practice over many years, that refuge has gone on opening inside me.

Given my own experience, it’s easy for me to empathize with students who are not drawn to pranayama right away. These days, many people get started in yoga when they see a video or some photos in a magazine, or when a friend tells them of the physical fitness benefits. Most new students encounter the outward shapes of the yoga asanas first. For a long time, the inner workings of the asanas can remain unseen, mysterious, and maybe a bit intimidating to the novice yogi. Particularly, the notion of using the breath and the breath’s rhythmic internal energy—prana—may seem a little too esoteric to be relevant or useful.

Traditionally, though, the practice of pranayama—releasing and channeling the body’s stores of internal pranic energy—has been seen as the core of hatha yoga practice. Pranayama is meant to nurture a high level of bodily health and mental clarity, both of which are crucial steps on the path to self-knowledge and a wholesome, authentic life.

Energy Control

Many people are aware of the theory in modern physics that matter and energy are just different manifestations of the same thing. So one way to look at the body or body-mind is as a cloud of energy—a cloud of energy so concentrated that it’s visible. Prana is just another word for that energy. Prana is the energy that moves the universe, or that is the universe.

So pranayama—literally, “control of prana”—isn’t just breathing exercises. Through pranayama, you use the breath to affect the constellation of energy that is your body-mind.

But why should you want to move this energy around?

One reason is the deeply seated, perhaps genetically ingrained impulse in the human species to make order out of disorder. When you start paying attention to energy, often the first thing you notice is that you’re not in charge; you don’t have any choice except to be moved by it. If you’re alive, energy moves and shapes you. And oftentimes it seems that the way the energy moves you is random and incoherent. Things happen which feel chaotic and out of control, and you long to give them some order.

Long ago, people discovered that their own minds are part of that disorder. We are subject to the wanderings and rapid turnings of thoughts and feelings we don’t seem to be in control of. The desire to calm this mental and emotional storm is age-old. In searching for methods to calm the mind, one of the tools that people discovered was the breath.

Normally, when you’re not paying attention to your breath, it is quite random, subject to all kinds of fluctuations according to your moods, your thoughts, the temperature around you, what you last ate, and so forth. But the early yogis discovered that if they could even out the breath, they could even out the jumpiness of the mind. Over time, they elaborated that discovery into the practices called pranayama.

Pranayama the Iyengar Way

There are as many approaches to pranayama as there are to the practice of asana. Some schools of yoga immediately introduce quite forceful and/or complex pranayama techniques, like kapalabhati (literally, “skull shining,” but better known as “breath of fire”) and nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). Other approaches incorporate pranayama techniques into asana practice from the very beginning. But my training is primarily in Iyengar Yoga, in which pranayama is taught, very slowly and carefully, as a separate practice from asana.

There are two main reasons for this caution. First, although the physical and mental effects of pranayama can be very subtle, they can also be very powerful. It’s fairly easy to become quite “spacey,” “inflated,” “ungrounded,” or just plain anxious if you practice pranayama techniques before your nervous system is prepared to handle the increased energy they can bring.

Second, in Iyengar Yoga the point of pranayama isn’t just to amp up the energy in the body. The point is to penetrate ever more deeply into a subtle understanding and control of that energy. I believe that the best way to develop that understanding and control is to practice pranayama separately from asanas, and to build a pranayama practice slowly and steadily, one step at a time.

Quietness, stillness, and subtlety are much easier to glimpse and grasp in pranayama than they are in asana. The movements of the asanas, although beneficial in many ways, are also a distraction. When you sit or lie down in pranayama, the obvious physical movement of the body is gone, and you can concentrate on more inner qualities. When you do that, you become familiar at an experiential, cellular level with the experience of stillness and steadiness. You find that there is a rhythmic quality, like the rhythm of the breath, to the internal body-mind processes. Once you experience these rhythms in an ongoing way—which is what happens if you have a daily pranayama practice—the capacity to notice them (and to modulate them) spontaneously shows up in your asana practice as well. Once you become aware of the subtle, rhythmic qualities of the breath and the body, and of how these help focus your mind, you begin to realize that those rhythms have actually always been present in your asana work; you just didn’t notice them before because you were distracted by the physical, muscular challenges of doing the poses. From the very beginning, underneath the obvious work of bones and muscles is another, much more subtle level of working. Having a daily pranayama practice gives you an experiential awareness of that hidden realm.

Getting Started

To set up for beginning Iyengar-style pranayama practice, take a firm, densely woven blanket and fold it to create a bolster which measures approximately three inches thick, five inches wide, and 30 inches long. You will be resting on this bolster along the length of your spine. Take a second blanket and fold it across the bolster as a thin pillow for your head.

Sit with your legs stretched straight out in front of you and your long bolster extending out behind you. Then lie down so that your spine is supported all the way from the lumbar region to your skull. (This bolster both supports your spine and opens your chest). Separate your heels and move your arms out a comfortable distance from your sides, palms up. Make sure your body is arranged symmetrically on both sides of your spine. For the next couple of minutes, only relax. Do Savasana (Corpse Pose). Let your body be still; let your nerves become quiet. In this stillness and quietness, simply observe the quality of your natural breath.

You will probably notice that your breath is uneven and erratic. The breath is sometimes quick and sometimes slow, sometimes smooth, sometimes harsh; sometimes it even stops for a moment or two and then begins again. You might also notice that some parts of the lungs receive the breath more readily than others, or that your inhalation and exhalation are quite dissimilar. As much as you can, notice these qualities of your breath without interference and without judgments.

After several minutes of observing your breath in this way, begin shaping the breath to make it smoother and more regular. Without hurrying, you want gradually to guide your breath from its naturally rough and ragged gait toward a smooth and even rhythm. Make every part of the inhalation just like every other part of the inhalation, and do the same with the exhalation. This evening-out of the natural breath is called samavrtti, which means “same action” or “same turning.”

It’s the basis for all the more advanced pranayamas, and it’s the single biggest step you can take on the path from breathing unconsciously and erratically to breathing consciously and evenly.

In an untutored body, the most mobile part of the rib cage is usually right at the bottom of the breastbone. All the rest of the lungs are neglected; only this front and center portion really gets much attention. As you continue to breathe smoothly and regularly, begin to distribute your breath evenly so that the whole circumference of the lungs becomes equally elastic and receptive to the breath. Take your attention to the dark corners of the lungs where the breath is a little reluctant to penetrate, and use the attention itself to open those spaces to receive the breath a little more fully.

As you work with your breath, trying to even it out in both time and space, tactile feedback can be extremely helpful. Ask a yoga friend to place his hands on your rib cage and then breathe into his hands. The feedback from the pressure of your friend’s hands can tell you whether you’re breathing evenly—and your friend can give you verbal feedback, too. If you don’t have a person to help you, you can tie belts around your rib cage in two places: high up in your armpits, just below your collarbones and way down at the bottom, across your floating ribs. (If you have a long torso, you may be able to add a third belt in between). Cinch the belts up so they are snug, and then as you inhale, see whether you can feel the pressure of the belts evenly all the way around your ribs. The belts can’t respond to you as a person holding your ribs can, but you’ll quickly discover which portions of your ribs and your lungs you tend to neglect. Breathe a little more fully into those areas.

Once you’ve worked for a while with samavrtti, imagine your belly as an ocean and your chest as the shore. Your breath becomes a wave washing up from the ocean depths of your belly onto the wide shore of your chest and then falling back again. Let the wave of your breath wash back and forth from belly to chest, chest to belly, again and again. Keep your belly soft and deep—resting back towards your spine rather than pushing aggressively outward—and keep your chest wide and bright. Though the chest and belly will move slightly with each inhalation and exhalation, their basic shape should not change.

When you start working consciously with the breath, it naturally increases in volume. Don’t suppress that increase, but don’t actively encourage it, either. You’re not trying to ingest more air, but instead to increase the quality of your breath and your sensitivity to it. Growing up in the West, we have been thoroughly trained to want more instead of making do with what we have; most of us have a reflexive greed built into our breathing, so be cautious.

The Victorious Breath

Once you can practice samavrtti with ease for 10 to 15 minutes, you can move on to the practice of Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath). Ujjayi is simply doing samavrtti with the addition of a slight closure at the root of your throat. Narrowing the throat by half-closing the epiglottis (the piece of cartilage at the top of your voice box) gives your breath a voice. Let that voice become your teacher. Listen to the tone of that voice as you inhale and exhale, and make that tone as even and smooth as you can, without any catches or wavering and without any change in pitch. Listening to the voice of ujjayi pranayama will give you greater sensitivity and control over the nuances of your breath.

At first, you may wonder exactly how to manipulate this epiglottal valve at the root of your throat. Here are two methods which can help you learn this action. First, just sigh, and notice the slight constriction in your throat that occurs. That’s the area you need to control when you’re practicing ujjayi. A second way is to open your mouth and inhale softly, noticing where the breath touches your throat. For most people, that will be deep down at the base and back of the throat. Again, that’s the spot you need to constrict slightly to practice ujjayi. After you’ve zeroed in on this area, close your mouth and inhale, letting the breath touch your throat there. Once you can inhale in this way, practice exhaling with the same constriction of the epiglottis.

Take a Seat

You need to practice samavrtti and ujjayi pranayama in the lying down position until you’ve achieved some degree of mastery. You don’t have to be flawless, but you should be able to lie down and breathe for 15 minutes while maintaining a soft and even rhythm—without gasping, shortness of breath, or dizziness. When you’ve gained that much control, you’re ready to try seated pranayama.

At this point, your breath may not exactly billow like the breath of God—but still, it’s a force to be reckoned with. Remember the three little pigs and the big bad wolf? All the old fairy tales can be read as yoga texts in disguise: If your seated posture is a house of straw, or even a house of sticks, the big bad wolf is going to huff and puff and blow your house right down. Your seated posture has to be a house of bricks.

Spend several minutes establishing a firm and balanced seated posture that you can maintain, without distraction, for the duration of your pranayama practice. Fold two or three blankets to make a firm cushion three to six inches tall. (The exact height depends on the openness of your hips). Whichever cross-legged asana you assume for pranayama—use Padmasana (Lotus Pose) if you can hold it comfortably throughout your pranayama session; otherwise, use a simpler pose like Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus), Sukhasana (Easy Pose), or Siddhasana (Adept’s Pose)—both your knees must be below the level of your groins. Your femurs should feel like they’re slightly falling out of your hip sockets.

One knee will be higher than the other. In order to balance your pelvis, prop up the lower knee with another folded blanket or a rolled sticky mat. Bring both knees to the same level, but keep them below the groins. If you need to, increase the height of your cushion. Balance evenly on your sitting bones—left to right and front to back—and sit up tall, but keep the front floating ribs and the bottom of your breastbone resting back into your torso rather than jutting forward against the skin. Keep your top chest open and the side walls of the chest at the armpits forward and up. Relax your shoulders. Place your palms down on your knees, with arms straight but not stiff. This palms-down position creates less strain in the shoulders and upper back than the classical palms-up position. It also gives a firm tripod support for the spine.

In order to practice pranayama in the seated position, you must employ Light on Pranayama, B.K.S. Iyengar cautions, “If pranayama is performed without jalandhara bandha, pressure is immediately felt in the heart, brain, eyeballs, and the inner ear. This can lead to dizziness.”

To accomplish jalandhara bandha, raise the top of your sternum toward your chin; retaining that height, tuck the hinge of your jaw toward your inner ears. Then softly lower your chin toward your sternum. There should be no strain. If your neck is a bit stiff, place a rolled cloth between your sternum and chin, and hold it there by continually lifting your breastbone. In the beginning, gravity and your breath will cause your spine to waver and collapse again and again. But with dedicated practice, your posture will become firm, yet still responsive to the breath.

Sitting with your spine erect and using jalandhara bandha, practice samavrtti and ujjayi for five to 15 minutes. You will probably feel warm and may even sweat. Don’t worry. This heat will pass as your practice matures. But any time you find yourself gasping, or feel any shortness of breath, dizziness, or ringing in your ears, you are definitely exceeding your capacity and should either go back to an easier pranayama or stop for the day and take Savasana. Other more subtle signs of excess are dry or itching eyeballs, a dry tongue, or pressure in the inner ears.

Retaining the Breath

Up to this point in your exploration of pranayama, you’ve been working to clarify and refine the movements of the breath. In the next step, we’ll also work with the gaps between the movements of the inhalation and exhalation. At the end of each inhalation, the breath naturally stops moving, just for a moment, before your exhalation begins. Similarly, at the end of your exhalation, there’s a slight pause before the next inhalation begins. So each breath cycle really has four stages—inhalation, pause, exhalation, pause—though unless consciously extended, the pauses tend to be very brief. The practice of consciously extending these pauses is called kumbhaka, or retention.

Once you gain some proficiency with the smoothly moving breath of ujjayi, you can begin to investigate these pauses. Your goal should be to open and expand the still moments between the movements of inhalation and exhalation. In Light on Pranayama, Iyengar says, “[Kumbhaka] … means the withdrawal of the intellect from the organs of perception and action, to focus on the seat of Atma (purusa), the origin of consciousness. Kumbhaka keeps the sadhaka [student] silent at the physical, moral, mental, and spiritual levels.”

When you begin practicing retentions, it’s best to lie down again as you did for samavrtti. Arrange yourself symmetrically on your bolster as you did before and take a few minutes to establish ujjayi breathing. Then introduce only the inhalation retention, so that your breath cycle becomes: inhalation, retention, exhalation. In your inhalation retention (and later in your exhalation retention, too), it is important to hold the volume of the retention constant by using the stability of your lungs, your diaphragm, and your rib cage muscles, not by further constricting your throat. At first, you should only practice the inhalation retention every fourth breath, so your pattern will be three cycles of ujjayi without the retention, and then one cycle with the retention.

Establish a regular breathing pattern that you can maintain without disturbance for at least five minutes. (If necessary, use the inhalation retention only once out of every five breaths, or once out of six—but whatever frequency you choose, maintain your pattern consistently). The retention should never disturb the exhalation which follows. If the retentions cause shakiness or roughness in your basic ujjayi breath, try making your retentions shorter, or go back to the practice of just ujjayi or even of samavrtti. If even those practices feel like too much, go back to the beginning and watch your breath without modifying it in any way.

As you continue to practice over several weeks or months, you can begin to increase the frequency of your inhalation retentions. After a while, take only two regular ujjayi cycles before a cycle that includes the retention. Then alternate between a regular ujjayi cycle and a retention cycle. Eventually, you want to be able to include an inhalation retention in every ujjayi breath.

When you can include the inhalation retention in every breath for five minutes without your breath becoming ragged in any way, you can begin practicing ujjayi breath with only exhalation retentions. Approach your practice of these retentions according to the same gradual method you used for your inhalation retentions.

When you can do each kumbhaka separately with ease, you are ready to try combining them into the full cycle of yogic breathing. Again, proceed slowly and incrementally. One way to practice is to alternate a breath including only the inhalation retention with a breath including only the exhalation retention. (Your pattern would be: inhalation, retention, exhalation; inhalation, exhalation, retention). If that pattern is too challenging, you can insert a full cycle of regular ujjayi breathing between each cycle that includes a retention. Eventually, you can work up to including both retentions in the same breath, so that your pattern becomes: inhalation, retention, exhalation, retention.

Try to make each phase of this full yogic breath the same length, so the phases have a ratio of 1:1:1:1. Over the centuries yogis have investigated the effects of many different specific ratios, but in the beginning you should simply focus on establishing a regular, even rhythm. The more advanced pranayamas, such as nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), the many different breath ratios, and ballistic types of pranayama like kapalabhati and bhastrika (bellows breath) should be learned under the guidance of a skilled teacher.

The Need for Faith

The practice of pranayama cannot be hurried. It can easily take a year or two of daily practice to master the material covered in this article. And pranayama demands daily practice. Traditionally, an intermittent pranayama practice has been considered dangerous for the lung tissue
and unsettling to the nervous system. Pranayama, much more than asana, is a practice you engage in not just for its immediate, direct benefits, but for the steadiness, depth, and patience that are the eventual fruits of practice.

As you practice pranayama, carefully observing the process, you’re following in the footsteps of countless old-time yogis. Over the course of centuries, they played around with the breath, trying this, that, and the other thing. Through trial and error, they slowly developed a repertoire of specific pranayama techniques which, if you reproduce them accurately, will yield predictable results, giving you more awareness of, and more control over, your internal world.

But when you start pranayama, at first you may have to take the results on faith. In the beginning, pranayama can be boring; it’s very subtle, and there’s no obvious excitement and immediate payoff of well-being, as there often is in asana practice. You do the same thing day in and day out, and it doesn’t seem as though you’re progressing.

That’s when you need faith. Since you have no prior experience of a sophisticated, sustained pranayama practice, you have to trust in all the people who have gone before you. You have to be willing, at least in the short term, to try pranayama on an experimental basis, to see if you can verify in your own internal life what the old texts are telling you.

Despite my original dislike of pranayama, I can testify that it’s worth your effort. After a while, I began to notice that during the 15 or 20 minutes I was practicing, I felt calmer, quieter, more centered, more in touch with the pulses of my breath, body, and mind. The change wasn’t all that dramatic, but over time I became more familiar with those qualities—and not just on the micro level of my practice, but on the macro level of my whole life. Now, many years later, I notice that I feel more of those qualities than before I began pranayama. Of course, my life isn’t a controlled experiment; I can’t be sure pranayama accounts for the changes. But I’m willing to have faith in the wisdom of those old-time yogis.