We all know by now that yoga is so much more than just making beautiful shapes with our bodies. Asana practice is great fun but the true (traditional and original) aim of performing those bizarre shapes each day is to strengthen and purify your body, preparing it for the higher limbs of yoga.
Pranayama is the fourth limb, coming right after asana and before meditation. It is the practice of consciously controlling/expanding/lengthening your breath. Although asana has become super popular in the West (so much so that when we say “yoga” we are usually only referring to “asana”), pranayama is still perceived as being somewhat mystical and too spiritual for the typical, modern-day yogi.
But even if you have no interest in the spiritual side of the practice, the physical and psychological benefits of pranayama are well documented and are available to us all, no matter what our reasons for practising! These benefits range from reducing your heart rate and increasing the efficiency of your breathing to reducing stress and anxiety.
Gregor Maehle explains perfectly the relationship between asana, pranayama and meditation in his book “Pranayama – The breath of yoga”:
“First a certain base is created in asana. Without this base the body will constantly signal discomfort and in this way interfere with any sitting practice. Once you have reached a certain level in asana you can start practising pranayama. And once you have integrated this stage, you then go on and learn meditation. After you learn the basic method, meditation is then placed within pranayama, which itself is situated within asana. In this way the yogic limbs are stacked, like Russian dolls, within each other. The initial learning takes place in sequential steps but the application is a simultaneous process.”
On a mission to learn more about traditional Ashtanga pranayama, my travels led me to Ubud in Bali to practise with Iain Grysak. When I visited Ubud last year I only got to practise with Iain for 2 weeks as he was leaving for Mysore for the winter. But from day 1 I resonated very strongly with his style of teaching so I always hoped I’d have the chance to return.
I wanted to share my experience of this pranayama course with you guys as I learnt such an awful lot it would be a shame to keep it to myself! So without further ado, here’s a bit about how I learnt to breathe from the master.
N.B. Most of the analogies I include below are paraphrased from Iain’s explanations in class 🙂
A bit about Iain
Iain has been practising yoga since I was 8 years old! And you can tell he’s a dedicated practitioner because he looks about the same age as me even though he is now 41. Have you ever noticed how yoga has that anti-ageing effect on people?
He has had a daily Mysore practice for 13 years, which is so inspirational to me. When he teaches you can tell that it’s all coming from direct personal experience, not just from a textbook or passed on verbatim from others. And his instructions are so scientific it really appeals to the physicist in me!
Another reason I knew I wanted to learn more from him was his belief in incorporating the higher limbs of yoga from early on in a yogi’s practice. (If you have ever talked Ashtanga with me you’ll know I don’t stop talking about Gregor Maehle for this reason!)
Word of his fabulous teaching has spread throughout the Ashtanga community and students come from all over the world to practise with him. The tiny shala above The Seeds of Life café is always overflowing with yogis in the early hours of the morning.
A bit about the course
Iain teaches this four-week Ashtanga pranayama course a few times a year to students practising at his shala. It costs $600 (USD) to take part, which includes daily Mysore practice and 4 x 60 min pranayama workshops per week. The workshops took place from 9:30am – 10:30am in a small room above the Seeds of Life café. It’s widely accepted that pranayama is best practised after asana as your muscles are warm and loose and your mind is generally at its most calm.
It is open to anyone (including beginners) as long as you are attending daily Mysore practice, although if I were a complete beginner I think I would have been a little lost in some of the discussions we had during the sessions. Most people there seemed to have a few years’ worth of Ashtanga experience.
You can even join the course just for the first 2 weeks so it’s accessible even if you don’t have the ability to ditch work and head to Bali for a month!
There are all kinds of different methods of teaching and practising pranayama but Iain’s course focuses on the traditional method of the Ashtanga yoga path, as taught by Pattabhi Jois. Here’s a little more about what we covered:
Weeks 1 & 2
Lengthening the breath
The first week of the course was dedicated to practising techniques that lengthen and deepen the breath, such as Ujjayi and Viloma. This is a really important part of pranayama, which is often overlooked by teachers and practitioners. Moving too quickly into strong pranayama techniques without first expanding the breath to its full capacity can irritate the nervous system and cause tension in the body and mind.
Your asana practice helps to soften the muscles and relieve tension so that breath and prana can flow effortlessly throughout the body. It’s like planting a seed in the ground; if the soil is hard and compact then you won’t be able to push the seed in with your finger. In other words, a stiff body will block the flow of prana. But if you first turn the soil to make it soft then you can push the seed in easily.
So it’s important to maintain a regular asana practice as well as working on expanding and lengthening the breath with preparatory exercises before moving on to more advanced pranayama techniques. This will ensure a safe and effective practice.
Bandha and prana
As our pranayama practice was still fairly short at this point, we had plenty of time each day for discussion. Iain’s explanation of bandha has been nothing short of transformational for my practice. Like many other yogis I know, I was under the impression that bandhas were just muscular contractions, helping you to lift up and feel lighter in your practice. If you are one of those yogis then you might even wonder what the heck bandha has to do with a pranayama course.
Bandha is simply a word to describe the balancing of two opposing forces or energies to establish equilibrium (the physicist in me delights at this definition). The reason we want to maintain bandha throughout our asana practice should be obvious: equal and opposite forces create stability; stability allows us to operate with maximum strength and prevents injury.
Mula bandha is the balancing of opposing forces around the pelvis, which you can practise in a seated posture like padmasana or just an easy cross-legged position:
The forces arise due to the flow of prana through the body. As you inhale, the pranic energy rises upwards and you feel yourself growing taller from the pelvis as the crown of your head reaches up towards the sky. But at the same time, try to maintain an awareness of the sitting bones grounding into the earth.
On the exhale, apanic energy travels downwards and the pelvic floor roots into the earth. But try to maintain an awareness of the pranic energy at the same time, i.e. maintain the length you created in your spine when you inhaled.
The result of breathing in this way is a state of equilibrium, where prana and apana are completely balanced around the pelvis. This naturally encourages the pelvic floor to lift, which is why you might have heard teachers saying “squeeze your pelvic floor” when instructing on mula bandha.
We worked through the postures of the sun salutation to look at the effects of bandha within the context of our asana practice.
This part has had a huge impact on the way I practice. There’s so much I want to talk about in detail that I think this deserves a separate post. But suffice to say, if you’ve ever watched the way advanced practitioners glide and float through their vinyasas, the key to this lightness is in your bandha (and bandha is powered by the breath!)
Weeks 3 & 4
At the beginning of week 3 we added the nadi shodhana pranayama, or alternate nostril breathing, to the end of our practice. In this technique, you close off alternate nostrils as well as maintaining a gentle constriction at the back of the throat (Ujjayi) so the air passageway is even narrower, hence slowing down the breath even more. It’s known to have grounding and balancing effects so should be performed at the end of your pranayama practice after more strenuous exercises. Nadi shodhana also purifies the energy channels in the body, allowing prana to flow freely.
I’ve also used this as a stand-alone practice when I’ve been feeling particularly overwhelmed by negative thoughts/emotions and found it extremely helpful. It has a calming effect on the nervous system that you can feel almost immediately.
We then learned two versions of kumbhaka, or breath retention. You might have heard stories of how long certain yogis were able to hold their breath, most notably T. Krishnamacharya, who was so advanced in his kumbhaka practice that observing medical doctors confirmed that his heart had stopped beating!
Although beginners can practise certain versions, kumbhaka can be quite strong and really shouldn’t be attempted without the guidance of a qualified teacher.
In the first version we hold the breath OUT for 10 seconds after exhaling and repeat 3 times. This is known as rechaka kumbhaka or exhale retentions.
Then we move on to puruka kumbhaka (inhale retentions), which is holding the breath IN for 20 seconds after inhaling. This version requires correct application of jalandhara bandha. This is where you create a lock in your throat by dropping your chin to your sternum and gripping your throat muscles as you swallow. It’s vital that you have a qualified instructor to observe your technique here: this bandha protects your ears and brain from physical damage when you’re retaining your breath for long periods of time.
In the next version, known as puruka rechaka kumbhaka, the idea is the same but you don’t get a break between the inhalations and exhalations. So after inhaling deeply and applying jalandhara bandha, you hold the breath in for 15 seconds, exhale slowly and hold the breath out for 10 seconds. You repeat this 3 times before returning to Ujjayi breathing.
As your practice matures over many years, you can slowly increase the length of your kumbhakas. Advanced yogis have been known to hold their breath for minutes at a time, but this is after they’ve been doing intensive pranayama 3 times a day for many months on end…take it nice and slow for a good ten years or so!
It’s common to encounter feelings of tension and resistance when holding the breath in this way, so the biggest challenge is learning not to react. Instead if you can learn to observe these feelings as they arise and relax your whole body even further, the act of holding/retaining your breath actually starts to become bearable, almost pleasant. There’s also a lovely sense of calm and euphoria after you release the hold on the breath.
As we become more accustomed to the physical aspects of pranayama, we can begin to incorporate other elements that differentiate kumbhaka from simply holding the breath. These include things like internal drishti and focusing the mind on a sacred object for meditation.
So at this point our daily pranayama practice went like this:
- Ujjayi breathing to warm up
- Viloma breathing to extend and deepen the breath
- Rechaka kumbhaka and puruka kumbhaka
- Puruka rechaka kumbhaka
- Nadi shodhana
- Ujjayi breathing
I don’t think it’s in the official Ashtanga pranayama sequence but Iain advised us to begin and end with Ujjayi breath as a way to compare the quality of your breath before and after practice. I really like to do this as it’s soothing to notice how much calmer your nervous system is after just half an hour of pranayama.
I intend to stick with this lineup for a good six months or so, or until I feel ready to add some of the other Ashtanga pranayama exercises into my practice.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this pranayama course to any Ashtanga practitioner looking to deepen their understanding of pranayama, bandha and asana. Iain is definitely one of my favourite teachers so far and that’s up against 10 other instructors I’ve practised with in the past 12 months! There are only a handful of people in the world who teach yoga in such a holistic and traditional way so it’s a trip well-worth making (in case the lure of beautiful Bali isn’t enough to tempt you already!)
Since finishing the course, I’ve been continuing with my daily pranayama routine for about 30 mins just before lunchtime. I’m planning to continue to use the techniques I learned with Iain to expand and lengthen my breath and, aside from the psychological benefits (which are pretty immediate!), I hope to report back on how my new standalone pranayama practice influences my asana and/or meditation practice. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading y’all 🙂