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Rumor has it that when B.K.S. Iyengar’s daughter Geeta asked him to teach her pranayama, he said, “Go practice Savasana (Corpse Pose) for 10 years. Then we’ll begin.” So, the road to learning pranayama starts with relaxation. Then you move on to breath awareness—of assessing what is in the way of your natural breath. Finally, there are many pranayama techniques that will keep you engaged for the rest of your life.
If you practice without a teacher, red flags that you’ve gone too far are as follows: tearing of the eyes, ringing in the ears, shaky handwriting, irritability, and anxiousness. All of these are signs that you need to do less—that you might want to consider resting in Savasana. It is important to be honest and accept the feedback your body gives you. It’s necessary to check in periodically with a proficient teacher who knows you well and has an extensive pranayama practice of their own (a daily pranayama practice for at least 10 years). The following sequence will help you relax, observe obstacles to peace (both internal and external), and prepare the diaphragm for deep breathing.
Lie back with a sandbag nearby. Straighten your legs and press them together. Reach strongly through your heels. Reach your arms along the ground above your head, and place a sandbag on your palms and wrists. If this is difficult on your shoulders, place your hands on a folded blanket instead. Your rib cage moves with your arms as you anchor your pelvis with your extended legs. This posture helps you feel the full length of your torso. It opens your shoulders and upper chest, and creates space in your hip joints. Stay for 3–5 minutes, breathing naturally.
Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Place a rolled blanket on the mat for your shoulder blades to rest on. Loop a strap around the middle of your thighs. Make sure your knees are facing up. Release your legs fully into the strap. Place a sandbag (or 10-pound weight) on the tops of your thighs. Now lie down. Crisscross your arms behind your head and reach toward opposite shoulders. Rest your head on your arms. This pose will open your torso to receiving prana. Stay here for 3–5 minutes, breathing naturally through your nose. Switch your arms halfway through.
Anantasana Vishnu’s Pose, variation
Remove the props and lie down on your right side with extended legs—as if doing a side-lying Mountain Pose. Keep your feet flexed and your top arm out in front of your chest with your fingers on the floor for stability. Prop your head in your right hand. Reach your right elbow farther from your torso to extend your bottom waist and rib cage. Stay for 1–3 minutes, then repeat on the other side. This opens the side of your body that is on the mat. Breathing easily depends significantly on finding space and freedom of movement in this part of the body.
Chair Squat, variation
Place the front legs of a chair along the long edge of your mat. Sit on the front edge of the seat. Separate your knees so your thighs (and feet) make a 90-degree angle with each other. Elongate your torso, and then release forward between your legs. Place your forehead on stacked blocks so that the pose feels easy. Bring your fingers to the floor, and use your elbows to lift up the skin of your inner knees and lightly press them back. This pose can quiet your nervous system and teach you how to move the flow of prana and breath into the back body. Stay for 3–5 minutes.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose, variation)
Lie back again, this time with bent legs. Lift your hips and place a block under your sacrum—at a height that is comfortable. Keep your upper arms parallel to each other, bending at the elbows to move your forearms perpendicular to the ground. Turn your palms toward your face, and place the tips of your index fingers to the tips of your thumbs. Lightly press down with your feet. Press your shoulders down, softening and lifting the base of your neck. Your chest is now in a backbend for easy breathing. Stay here for 5–10 minutes.
See also Restorative Yoga Poses
Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose, variation)
Fold 2 blankets 1 foot wide, 1.5 feet long, and 2 inches high. Stack them and place the long side a few inches from a wall. Sit on the blankets with one hip against the wall. Roll onto your back and straighten your legs up the wall. One edge of the blankets should run across the middle of your sacrum, and the other edge should be at the bottom of your shoulder blades. Move your arms into a cactus position to open your chest. This restorative pose will teach you how to release into deep states of relaxation—the foundation of pranayama. Rest here for 5–10 minutes.
Pranayama Setup, lying down
Fold a blanket to about 8 inches wide, 2 feet long, and 3 inches deep, and add it to the middle of your mat for spinal support. Fold another blanket into a pillow. Sit in front of the lower blanket with your sacrum against the short end. Extend your legs and loop a strap around the middle of your thighs. Place a sandbag just below your hips. Lie down. Make sure your forehead is slightly higher than your chin but low enough so as not to stretch the back of your neck. Release your arms by your sides, palms up. Practice pranayama here for 3–5 minutes.
Sukhasana Easy Pose, variation
Remove the props and sit on a block. Take the blanket you used for spinal support in the last pose and place it perpendicular to your seat. Cross your lower legs so that your ankles rest on the blanket. Place a block under each thigh. Make a big loop out of a strap, and put it around your torso, across your sacrum. Make a figure eight with the strap, and place the second loop around your knees to support your lower back in its natural curve. Rest the backs of your hands on your thighs, palms up. Release your head and lift your chest. Breathe here for 3–5 minutes.
See also Restorative Yoga Videos
WANT TO LEARN PRANAYAMA WITH RODNEY?
Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class program brings the wisdom of world-renowned teachers to your home-practice space, offering access to exclusive workshops with a different master teacher every six weeks. This month, Rodney Yee teaches how to practice basic pranayama techniques from Urban Zen Integrative Therapy. If you’re ready to get a fresh perspective—and maybe even meet a lifelong mentor—sign up for YJ’s yearlong membership at yogajournal.com/masterclass.