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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

Viniyoga: Creating a Personalized Practice
In the Viniyoga approach, pioneered by T. Krishnamacharya and his son T.K.V. Desikachar, breathing is the foundation upon which all other practices are built. "For us, even at the level of asana the focus is on the relationship between the flow of the breath and the movement of the spine," says Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute and author of the forthcoming Yoga for Transformation (Penguin, 2002). "Even within asana itself our emphasis is to understand very technically, even biomechanically, how to control the flow of the inhalation and the exhalation, and how and when to progressively deepen the flow of the breath."

During asana practice students are instructed to breathe in a way that supports the movement of the spine: usually inhaling during backbending movements, for example, and exhaling during forwardbending and twisting movements. Students are sometimes asked to change the length of the exhalation relative to the inhalation in a particular posture, or even to briefly hold their breath. At other times they are asked to alter their breathing pattern progressively as they repeat a movement. "Let's say we do an asana six times," Kraftsow says. "We can make the exhalation four seconds the first two times, six seconds the second two times, and eight seconds the last two times."

Once students are familiar with the quality and control of the breath during asana, they are introduced to formal breathing practices. Pranayama is generally introduced in a comfortable seated position—occasionally even in a chair—and is adapted in a reclining position for those who aren't able to sit for long periods of time. Long retentions and bandhas aren't introduced until more advanced stages of practice, Kraftsow says, unless there are therapeutic reasons for incorporating them.

In the Viniyoga approach, students are often taught to inhale from the top down, emphasizing an expansion of the upper chest first, then the middle torso, then the lower ribs, and finally the abdomen. "Our view is that chest-to-belly expansion will actually help you deepen the flow of breath," Kraftsow says. "If I'm trying to expand my chest, chest inhalation is going to facilitate that. If I'm trying to straighten my thoracic spine, chest inhalation is going to facilitate that. But there are many contexts in which chest breathing is contraindicated. If I have asthma, chest breathing might aggravate this condition." In such cases, he notes, a student would be offered a different breathing pattern, one that eases rather than exacerbates the condition.

True to the Viniyoga approach, which holds that yoga's practices should be offered in a personalized form that matches the needs of each particular student, Kraftsow says there's no set sequence of pranayama techniques once an essential awareness of the breath has been cultivated. "My first emphasis will be progressively lengthening the flow of the inhalation and the exhalation," he says. "And then the direction I'll go depends on your needs or interests. If you find yourself having low energy in the morning, I'd suggest one thing. If you're overweight or have high blood pressure, I'd suggest a different pranayama."

And although Viniyoga focuses on adapting the practice to suit the needs of each person, this doesn't mean students can approach the breath in a willy-nilly fashion. "One should be careful unless one has been initiated by someone who knows what they're doing," Kraftsow says. "I would encourage students to seek out a well-qualified and highly trained teacher before going deeply into strong pranayama practices."

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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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