Partly it’s going to be based on your mood, or your feeling at the time. It’s going to be based on what the posture is demanding. The point is, the breath is breathable. It’s varying. Guruji, he said that the breath is a medium breath. Which meant that it’s not too long and it’s not too short. It’s not like your best pranayama each vinyasa position — if that was the case, it would take too long; it would become forced, unnatural.
The elegant shapes and impressive contortions of the asanas may be the most eye-catching element of hatha yoga, but yoga masters will tell you they’re hardly the point of practice.
Pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath, lies at the heart of yoga. The ancient sages taught that prana, the vital force circulating through us, can be cultivated and channeled through a panoply of breathing exercises. Pranayama serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices of yoga—like asana—and the internal, surrendering practices that lead us into deeper states of meditation.
Many accomplished yogis will tell you that minding the breath is central to the practice of yoga. But take a tour of a dozen yoga classes in the West and you’re likely to discover just as many approaches to pranayama. You may be taught complex techniques with daunting names like Kapalabhati (Skull Shining) and Deergha Swasam (Three-Part Deep Breathing) before you even strike your first pose. You may find breathing practices intermingled with the practice of the postures. Or you may be told that pranayama is so advanced and subtle that you shouldn’t bother with it until you’re well versed in the intricacies of inversions and forward bends.
So what’s a yogi to do? Breathe deep into the belly or high up into the chest? Make a sound so loud the walls shake or keep the breath as quiet as a whisper? Practice breathing techniques on your own or weave them throughout your existing asana practice? Dive into pranayama from the get-go or wait until you can touch your toes? To help answer these questions and sample the range of yogic breathing, we asked experts from six yoga traditions to share their approaches to pranayama.
The two names for the asana come from the Sanskrit words baka (“crane”) or kak (“crow”), and asana (आसन) meaning “posture” or “seat”.
While different yoga lineages use one name or another for the asana, Dharma Mittra makes a distinction, citing Kakasana as being with arms bent (like the shorter legs of a crow) and Bakasana with arms straight (like the longer legs of a crane). In the west, practitioners often mistranslate the Sanskrit “Bakasana” as the English “Crow Pose”.
Shift your focus from hip openness to hip stability.
In yoga, there is a tendency to assume that we can stretch our way through perceived problems. Consider the ever-elusive “hip opening.” We aspire to use our hip-opening practice as a panacea for all our aches and woes. We imagine that open hips will allow us to wrap our legs into fancy postures like Padmasana (Lotus Pose). But it’s possible that at a certain point, the coveted range of motion begins to work against us.
Hypermobility of the Hip Joint
Enter hypermobility, a general term that refers to an excessive range of motion in a joint, with a lack of stability to support that mobility. It can be something we are born with or something we develop through regular stretching. In the hip joint, it can also stem from weak hip stabilizers—the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and other muscles—from prolonged sitting or decreased activity. Hip hypermobility is something anyone can develop, especially in the yoga world where we focus so much on long, deep stretches to get that feel-good release.
Consider a classic hip opener like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose). It can seem more like a resting pose for some people, so they continue to seek a deeper stretch in variations or harder modifications. Yet stretching those areas that are already flexible makes the hypermobility more pronounced. This might not seem like a problem initially—deeper stretching feels good, and you get the release you crave—but the surrounding cartilage and ligaments also take on the impact of your movements, which can overtax and reduce their strength and stability, diminishing the support that is so key to the integrity of the hip joint.
So, instead of pushing deeper into flexible areas, notice spots where you are tight or weak. Then, look instead for poses to challenge the strength of the hips, thus shifting your focus from hip opening to hip stability. You don’t need to over-analyze this; the only thing required is mindfulness to honor what you feel.
The Five Layers of the Hip Joint
To comprehend the effects of hypermobility on the hip joint, we need a basic understanding of its five main layers, moving from deep to superficial. First, the boney structure of the joint is found where the ball-shaped head of the femur fits into the socket, called the pelvic acetabulum. It is surrounded by articular cartilage and a labrum, or lip, made of fibrocartilage and dense connective tissue, to help hold the ball in the socket. The joint capsule is a thin, fluid-filled sac surrounding the joint, held by ligaments, those tough but flexible fibers that connect bone to bone. Finally, atop these structures are the many tendons and muscles that effect movements.
Each of the deeper structures of the hip plays an important role in stability. The labrum deepens the socket and makes it more difficult for the head of the femur to slip out. It also plays a vital role in decreasing contact stress on the joint, and in ensuring lubrication between the femoral head and its socket.
The joint capsule adds another layer of stability, plus secretes a lubricating substance that reduces friction. Meanwhile, the ligaments that surround the hip limit how much the joint can move, preventing dislocation and wear to the deeper layers of cartilage—the ligaments hold the bones together. However, ligaments aren’t elastic, so once they have been overstretched, they remain that way, and their ability to support the joint is compromised.
Finally, closest to the surface, the many tendons and muscles create all the motions of the hip and stabilize the joint when they are balanced in terms of strength and flexibility.
These five layers work together. When any one layer is not functioning, the rest have to work harder to pick up the slack. If your ligaments are overly stretched, the muscles must labor to stabilize the joint. And if your muscles are weak or not firing properly, the deeper layers of the ligaments or the labrum must compensate by absorbing the impact of your movements.
The trouble is, you can’t always tell when one layer is falling down on the job. The cartilage and ligaments have less sensation and deteriorate over longer periods, meaning you may not feel pain or notice any problems until the damage has already happened. As you get more flexible or “open” in the hips, it becomes even more important to create strength in the hip muscles to help stabilize that mobility.
A good way to practice is by focusing on your standing leg in balancing poses. Gluteus medius and minimus are critical for hip stability any time you are standing upright. These muscles help to position the femoral head in the hip socket, to keep you from sinking into and wearing down the labrum, cartilage, and ligaments. A pose like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) is a challenging opportunity to practice using gluteus medius and minimus to stabilize the hip of the standing leg, and strengthen those muscles so that they support you in all of your standing poses.
How to Activate the Hip Stabilizers
Here are three easy steps to activate the hip-stabilizing muscles—the gluteus medius and minimus—to prepare for a balancing pose like Warrior III. The key to each step is to keep the movement subtle rather than aim for large contractions. When we stabilize the joint, we simply need a gentle engagement rather than a huge action that can create tension.
1. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). First, imagine hugging your outer hips into the sockets by drawing them toward the midline of your body. Though the movement is subtle, you will feel the outer-hip muscles gently turn on to support the joint.
2. Next, visualize riding higher in the hip socket rather than sinking in the joint. This creates the integrity of those muscles that support the joint, to help protect the deeper structures.
3. Finally, gently engage the lower abdominals, to help support the hip joint with your core.
Once you achieve all three steps, slowly lean forward at the hip crease of the standing leg to come into Warrior III without losing that support, as you raise the lifted leg straight behind you. The arms can extend forward, come to your heart, or reach backward. If you get tired, come out by returning to Mountain Pose.
Yoga Sutra 2.46 The posture (asana) for Yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable, and this is the third of the eight rungs of Yoga.
(sthira sukham asanam)
sthira = steady, stable, motionless
sukham = comfortable, ease filled
asanam = meditation posture (from the root ~as, which means “to sit”)
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers us the opportunity to look at all symptoms, all physical pain, as areas of weakness that need attention and one-pointed perseverance to understand and ultimately overcome. Here, he is reminding us to go into our pain or discomfort and to use it as an access point to better know the self. Patanjali invites us to meet all that arises, not as an obstacle, but as a messenger that alerts us to a new discovery about ourselves and names persistent practice as the means to getting there.
Patanjali describes asana as “steady, comfortable, and relaxed” and states that the yogi should be able to hold the body in posture for a long period of time without feeling instability. This is the ultimate goal of asana practice but it doesn’t happen overnight and few of us get there without meeting some challenges along the way. We inevitably will run into those parts of ourselves, physical, mental, or emotional, that are weak, compromised, or asleep. Finding stability, comfort, and ease in posture takes time, commitment, and perseverance. It requires us to accept exactly where we are before we slowly, through consistent and persistent practice, open to a deeper potential. If we push through injury or painful sensation we are acting violently towards ourselves, causing further damage to the physical structure and further disturbance to the mind. This is not Yoga.
When we are willing to listen to the body’s signals physical pain and injury can help teach us how to most intelligently approach our bodies, our practice, and our lives.
If Yoga is, in its essence, the awakening to the inner reality of our being, than everything we encounter along our path is a messenger that brings us back to a deeper understanding of who we are. So stay interested and curious. Be willing to face all you encounter. Modify as necessary but never stop practicing.
As Gurujii (Pattabhi Jois) always said:. “ Slowly, slowly…Do your practice…and all is coming.”