Pranayama is the aspect of yoga related to breathing and breath control. This ancient practice is often treasured by long-term yogis, but can be notoriously difficult for newer students to grasp. Even seasoned practitioners might experience multiple false starts when attempting to establish an ongoing practice.
Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of a traditional yoga practice. Unlike its neighbouring limb asana (yoga postures), its benefits are not always so easily felt. For some people the subtlety of the initial pranayama experience can be mistaken for being non-existent. For others, the attempt to focus on the breath and inner workings of the body just seems to invite tension and stress.
A teacher will decide when to introduce pranayama to a student based on a continual process of observing and responding to the progress of each individual. Although direct, formal pranayama teaching would be delayed until the student showed signs of being ready and receptive, the preparatory groundwork for this teaching could be established from the beginning. The process of establishing a pranayama practice will unfold in different ways for different people but common stages along this path can be observed and anticipated.
Beginner students will often find it difficult to focus on their breath. The subtle nature of the breath is what tends to make it elusive for them. They respond more easily to the concrete physicality of their body. At this stage it is perhaps best to simply breathe naturally and normally through your nose, but to notice how this natural breathing tends to be influenced in different ways by different postures. In poses where your arms are raised above your head the breath will often feel strained and irregular, whilst in relaxing poses such as savasana (corpse pose) your breath will tend to naturally become more rhythmical and soft.
Your ability to remain quiet and still in savasana will help you to judge your preparedness for progressing towards pranayama. It is common for beginner students to be restless in savasana. As your asana practice develops it is predictable that you will become more outwardly still in savasana. This process may take several months. When this is established, the next stage is to deepen this stillness from the perspective your own inner experience. As you begin to more deeply relax the limbs of action (arms and legs), and calm the organs of perception (skin, eyes, ears, tongue) you will find that your attention starts to naturally focus more on the breath.
At this stage your asana practice can help to lead you closer to pranayama. Once the foundations of asana have been established you will have more capacity to notice the subtitles of the breath. For most people this process will unfold over a period of at least 12 months. You can more easily notice if you are holding your breath whilst practicing, or feel the impact that physical tension can have on your breathing. At this point introducing poses such as backbends will help to further open your chest, and improve your lung capacity.
Once this stage has been consolidated you will be ready to work with restorative chest opening poses and sustain a longer savasana. Poses such as viparita karani and setu bandha sarvangasana will be helpful in bringing your breath into the foreground of your awareness. You will probably still have difficulty remaining alert during a long savasana. For this reason it will be helpful to explore ways of using supports to keep your chest open whilst lying back. Basic pranayamas such as ujjayi exhalation and inhalation can now be introduced. An ideal class at this stage will involve an early period of miscellaneous poses, followed by some restorative poses, with a 10 minute savasana, then 5 minutes of introductory lying pranayama, before a final savasana to finish.
Once a student has demonstrated a commitment to yoga practice, and has progressed through the above stages, they will be ready for more direct pranayama teaching. For most people this process will commonly unfold over a period of at least 2 years. At this point you will be ready for classes that focus more directly on pranayama. An ideal class will now consist of preparatory restorative poses followed by an extended period of pranayama. An expanded range of pranayamas including viloma pranayama can now be included. The basic principles of how to sit for pranayama can be introduced, as could the Jalandhar Bandha head position. An ideal class at this stage will involve 45 minutes of restorative yoga, followed by 10 minutes of savasana, followed by 20 minutes of lying pranayama, 10 minutes of seated pranayama, and a final savasana to finish.
Although the first steps in learning pranayama can be difficult, perseverance and patience will gradually help to lead you towards its many benefits.
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