Adding Pranayama and Meditation to Your Yoga Practice
—Pat HallCyndi Lee's reply:
There are various schools of thought regarding sequencing of pPranayama, meditation, and asana, as well as time of day and regularity of practice. I recommend that you do what works best for you.
It can be a challenge to do all these practices. Remember that practice is just that—practice for the rest of your life, even when you are not on the mat or cushion. Unless you are planning to become an ascetic yogi, it's important to maintain a healthy relationship between your practice and your other responsibilities. If you can stick to a regular schedule, that's great. If you find that you can't, that's okay, too. Do what you can when you can and don't worry about it. Otherwise you may create goals for yourself that are unrealistic, and when you are unable to accomplish them, you may feel guilty, which turns into resistance to practicing at all.
The amount of time you have and whether or not you are doing all three practices in one session will determine the sequence. If you decide to do them all in one session and you have enough time, an ideal practice would consist of a short seated meditation, light pranayama, and a full asana practice with at least 15 minutes of Savasana (Corpse Pose). Then do a longer pranayama and finish with 30 minutes of seated meditation.
Here's how: Begin with five minutes of meditation. The practice of mindfulness meditation uses the breath as a reference point for resting in the present moment. When you notice that you have gotten caught up in a thought, simply recognize that and gently return your attention to the movement of the breath. This will happen again and again. Mindfulness meditation is not a practice of getting rid of thoughts, but of noticing them, recognizing their impermanent nature, letting them go, and coming home to your breath.
The mind is often compared to a cup of dirty water. When it is shaken, the water is cloudy, but when it is still, the sand settles to the bottom of the cup and the water is clear. The practice of meditation is like letting the cup of water—your mind—be still.
Follow the meditation with a short pranayama practice consisting of a basic breath awareness exploration. Find a comfortable seated position and begin to notice the path of your breath. Without changing it, simply notice where your breath is moving with ease and where it feels stuck. Begin to gradually deepen your inhalation and extend your exhalation. Go slowly, breath by breath, each one slightly deeper than the one before. Notice how your body changes as your breath changes. What does that feel like in your chest, your side ribs, the back of your neck, your armpits, your jaw?
At this point, you can add a simple pranayama practice such as Sama Vritti, or Equal Breathing. This means inhaling and exhaling for an equal length. Find a comfortable seated position. Sit on a pillow, blanket, or bolster to make sure that your hips are higher than your knees. This will reduce strain on your lower back and support free movement of the breath. Exhale completely. Inhale through the nose for five counts and exhale through the nose for five counts. Continue this breathing pattern for as long as you'd like. Feel free to change the length of the breath to a shorter or longer count. As you practice Sama Vritti, continue to observe the quality, movement, and sound of your breath.
Please note that meditation practice and pranayama practice are not the same. Although they both involve concentration and breathing, meditation is a practice of cultivating awareness of our habitual thought patterns, and pranayama is a practice of refining breathing ability and awareness of prana flow.
Now you can let the meditative awareness and breath patterns inform your asana practice. Be sure to give yourself enough time for a good Savasana at the end—at least 10 minutes.
This a basic sequence that includes all three practices and could be done in 90 minutes. If you have a lot of time, you can try a longer sequence: 10-15 minutes of meditation, 30-45 minutes of pranayama ending with a Savasana, and 20-30 minutes of sitting meditation. Then you can take a short break of about 15 minutes or continue into your asana practice. You may choose to end your asana practice with another short meditation session.
If you don't have a long period of time, you can split up your practice throughout the day. Begin the day with a meditation-pranayama-meditation sequence. Later in the day, perhaps in the late afternoon or early evening, you can do your asana practice. You can also reverse the order—many people like to begin the day with asana practice and find pranayama to be a delicious afternoon treat.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM yoga center in New York City. She is a
longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and has been teaching yoga for over 20 years. Cyndi is the author of OM yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice(Chronicle Books) and the upcoming Yoga Body, Buddha Mind (Riverhead Books). For more information, visit www.omyoga.com