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Teaching Pranayama

You know from your own practice that pranayama—breath control—has profound benefits for your body and mind. But when and how should you teach it to your students? Learn how six yogic traditions understand this powerful practice.

By Claudia Cummins

Kundalini: Combining Mudra, Mantra, and Breath
In Kundalini yoga, introduced to the West by Yogi Bhajan, breathing practices are integrated into all classes along with asana, chanting, meditation, and other cleansing practices designed to liberate healing flows of energy from the base of the spine. Strong pranayama techniques are fundamental to this approach, and breathing is given greater emphasis than precision of movement or technique. "In Kundalini Yoga, breath is as important as asana," says Kundalini instructor Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. "That's the root, that's the structure—breathing into a soul, living within a body. Everything else is frosting on the cake."

Pranayama techniques in this tradition are often woven directly into the practice of asana. For example, in a class students might hold a posture like Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) for five minutes or more while breathing rapidly, inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose. Or one particular movement—standing on your knees and then bowing down into Child's Pose—may be repeated for 10 minutes or so, while breathing in a particular rhythm and chanting one phrase or mantra, sometimes to music.

An important element of Kundalini Yoga is the Breath of Fire, a rapid diaphragmatic breath similar to what's called Kapalabhati in other traditions. Khalsa doesn't overwhelm beginning students with detailed techniques; instead, she encourages them to dive into the practice immediately. "Usually I just say, Open your mouth and pant like a dog,' " Khalsa says. "or, Pretend you're a Saint Bernard in the Mojave Desert.' " Once students get a feel for this fast-paced breath, with the belly swelling on the inhalation and pressing back in toward the spine on the exhalation, Khalsa instructs them to close the mouth and continue this breath through the nose. In a typical class, Breath of Fire might be practiced for several minutes on its own or else performed while moving through a repetitive series of movements, like scissoring the legs back and forth overhead while lying on one's back.

In addition to Breath of Fire, students are also taught techniques that emphasize long, deep breathing, Khalsa says, as well as alternate nostril breathing. Kriyas (cleansing practices), mantras (sacred sounds), and mudras (hand gestures) are combined together with various breath techniques. Khalsa says the unique combination of these techniques helps turbocharge the breath and foster deeper states of meditation. "Breath alone is just a physical exercise, " she says. "But when you start adding the other components, that brings change about much quicker than sitting and following your breath alone."

Consideration of the chakras, or energy centers, is also integral to the Kundalini tradition. Khalsa encourages her students to feel the breath originating from the lowest three chakras at the base of the torso. "We have to bring forth the prana, the life force, from the source," she says. "And the source is really the mother, the Earth."

When they're not practicing a particular breathing pattern, Khalsa encourages her students to breathe in a very relaxed and easy fashion, with the belly swelling on the inhalation and then releasing back toward the spine on the exhalation. Sometimes if she notices that a student's belly isn't moving with the breath, she'll place the spine of a book into the belly horizontally and tell the student to press against it with the abdomen on an inhalation and then release the pressure against the book on an exhalation. "So many people do yoga for years and never breathe right," Khalsa says. "Their breathing is nutty; it's barely there. Their practice might look really good, but it's not taking them where they really want to go," she says. "Most of us inhale way more than we exhale, and we need to reverse that so we give back more than we take. The breath heals more than anything else in the whole wide world."

Finding Your Own Way
How can so many experts offer such different approaches to pranayama? In part this variety results from the brevity of the ancient texts upon which our modern practices are based. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, for example, says that lengthening the exhalation can help to reduce disturbances of the mind, but doesn't offer detailed techniques for doing that.

"Different people come along and interpret these very succinct verses in different ways, and then they practice based on their interpretation," says Kripalu's Yoganand. "Yoga is so powerful that people tend to get an effect almost regardless of what they do. So someone says, 'I did it this way and it worked, so I must be right,' and someone else says, 'I did it completely differently, but it worked, so I must be right.' Since neither can convince the other and since they both have experience to support their beliefs, they go off and generate two schools. It makes perfect sense that no one can agree. Everyone's experience is different."

In the West you can even find teachers who counsel us to step with caution into traditional pranayama practices. When students aren't well prepared, they say, classical breathing techniques can actually distort natural and organic patterns of breathing, forcing us into rigid and controlled ways of being.

"Most people begin yoga with so many pre-existing blocks and holding patterns that to introduce a controlled breathing regime right away further concretizes the blocks," says Donna Farhi, yoga teacher and author of The Breathing Book (Henry Holt, 1996). "I think it's extremely important to remove the blocks and holding patterns first, to reveal the natural breath that is our birthright. And then it can be very interesting to explore the subtle movement of prana through formal pranayama work. But for the most part this controlled practice is introduced too soon and often only obscures the unconscious forces that drive the breath-holding patterns."

Viewed alongside one another, these varied perspectives offer us the unsettling yet inspiring prospect that there may not be one right way to reap the gifts of pranayama. As teachers, we need to offer a range of tools to our students and let them use their experience and discrimination to discern which approach works best. Each of them must decide for themselves which method steers them closest to yoga's ultimate gift: the ease, balance, and inner quiet that reveals the very heart of life.

Claudia Cummins lives in Mansfield, Ohio. She took her first pranayama class more than a decade ago and has been inspired by the power and the poetry of the breath ever since.

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Reader Comments

Shirley

Strange to read Mary Dunn's thoughts on pranayama quoted in the present tense. She was a wonderful teacher who is still missed, since her death in 2008. Is this an older article republished, or did Ms. Cummins choose to emphasize the eternal nature of spiritual practice by writing as though Mary were still with us?

NSManian

Excellent articles on Pranayama. kudos to you for this wondeful presentation

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