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.
You can be sure that when you fold your legs like a grasshopper, bend your ankles into a superlow squat, twist in half, and hold hands with yourself behind your back, a variety of sensations and emotions will arise. Although examining those feelings is an important part of the yogic process, beware of sensation hunting. Notice whether you instinctively push and pull on yourself until the grasping noose of your arms becomes like a scary vice that inhibits your breathing. Struggling in your asana practice like this leads to injury, and it can dull your natural sensitivity to the point where you don’t feel anything at all without extreme effort. The whole idea of yoga is to tune in to yourself so that you can create more sensitivity to subtlety—not less.
At the same time, Pasasana is a pose that requires some perseverance. If you are too passive as you practice, you will miss the vibrant aspect of juicy exertion that strengthens your muscles and bones and increases your ability to stay focused. Put simply: If you don’t put enough oomph into it, you’ll never touch your hands behind your back.
The solution then, is to look for the middle path, the place where you walk the line between too much effort and complete passivity. You tap into the middle path by listening to your body, moving with sensitivity, and engaging with what’s happening. You often hear the phrase “being present to the moment.” What this really means is being part of the moment. This happens through the middle path of commitment, patience, and listening.
The Buddha offered insight into this process. The story goes that a musician asked the Buddha how he should meditate. The Buddha replied, “How do you tune your instrument?” The musician said, “Not too tight, not too loose.” The Buddha said, “Exactly like that.” If you learn to apply this to Pasasana, your noose will evolve into a warm feeling of being held and supported by yourself and by your healthy, wakeful, engaged practice.
Pasasana (Noose Pose)
Extend your legs into Dandasana, and send some refreshing breaths into your ankles, knees, and hips. Bring your knees into your chest, rolling back on your exhalation and forward on your inhalation. The last time you rock forward, come up onto your feet into a low squat.
Start by doing a variation of the pose. Squat with a block or a wall about one foot behind you. Organize your legs and feet just as you did in Utkatasana, heels and toes touching. If your heels do not touch the ground in this position, slip a folded blanket underneath them.
Exhale and twist to the right. Place the outside of your left shoulder between your legs. Internally rotate your left arm and wrap it around your left leg. Reach your right arm behind you and place it on the block or touch the wall. After a few breaths, untwist and try the other side. Continue to work this way until you feel an opening to go farther.
To develop the full pose, use your abdominals to twist to the right again, but this time place your left shoulder on the outside of the right thigh. Strongly activate the inner thighs and cinch your legs together. Internally rotate both arms and reach around behind your back to bind. Use a strap if you can’t reach. Eventually, you will hold your right wrist with your left hand. Try to find a way to hold hands with yourself so the noose can be more a garland of flowers. After a few breaths, release the pose and do the other side.
As you work on Pasasana, take time with every step of the process. Listen to your muscles, bones, connective tissue, breath, and mind. They will all have valuable suggestions for when you should engage more effort, let go a bit, or perhaps just stay where you are, waiting to see what unfolds. Eventually your experience of physical feelings in your asana practice will evolve into an evenness of sensation throughout your entire body.
Often when you feel intensity in one particular area, it draws all your attention there. The entire mind becomes occupied by the little drama of the right shoulder, and you may forget you even have a whole body. Doesn’t that sound similar to how we sometimes live life, getting stuck in the small stuff and missing the big picture? When we do that, we have a harder time keeping things in perspective and making smart choices.
Rather than going for extremes, see if you can discover subtle shifts that might begin to even out your various sensations as well as your responses to sensations. Find balance by letting your awareness spread through your whole body. Observe what happens with your breath and your mind as your body finds balance and creates a container—not too tight and not too loose—of equanimity.
Really, straight from the mouth of Annie Carpenter who’s instructing us to do Child’s Pose on our fingertips like we have two giant cupcakes in our palms.
Who wants to smash a cupcake? Carpenter says she borrowed the tantalizing term from another teacher because it highlights an important reality; if we don’t have the ability to do a vinyasa on cupcake hands, we’re not getting proper lift of the forearms, armpits and core. If the front body doesn’t have that support we’re dumping on our wrists and shoulders. Check. We venture into Downward-Facing Dog—cradling those cupcakes. Then we move on to a more sustainable hand lock.
Hasta Bandha: While I’d previously been trying to press my palms flat on the mat, in Hasta Banda we suction up from the center palm so it’s no longer touching the mat. (Insert Carpenter’s suctioning sound effects here, closely related to the slurp.) Fingers are still pressing down and forward. Now we bring the mouth of the thumb and the mouth of the pinky in a tad to create a little canal between the two mounds of the hand. (The carpal tunnel to be exact.) Okay, keeping the canal open, stretch through the index finger. Feel the tendons in your forearms come online? If so, you’re having the lightbulb moment I did as my wrists become buoyant.
So next up is the shoulder girdle. She says it doesn’t change one iota between Standing Forward Bend and Upward-Facing Dog in your Sun Salutation. As Carpenter guides us through a round, a new horizon opens for my wrists and shoulders. Here are some tips that helped.
Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend): Carpenter says if she could fix one Sun Salutation pose, this would be it! The main thing I was doing wrong is putting my fingertips on the earth, with a rounded back. Carpenter told those of us with rounded backs to bend our knees and place our hands on the side of the shins so the back flattens. (Putting hands on the fronts of the shins encourages legs to hyperextend.) Now, widen across the collarbones, extend through the heart, and pull the shoulder blades down so the neck lengthens. As those shoulder blades push into the chest, lift from the bottom of the sternum, and extend the top of the sternum forward. Keep the shoulders on the back where they belong.
Plank Pose: Bend your knees enough to place your hands on the floor and step into plank without changing your shoulders. At this point, Carpenter adjusts me by lifting my bottom sternum up so my torso rises. I’m out of my wrists and into my core power! (Shaking and all.)
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose): Shift slightly forward into Chaturanga keeping the same shoulderactions: widen across collarbones, lift bottom ribs and bottom sternum up and back, slide shoulder blades down back. I’m doing a pose I’d avoided for the past year—pain-free! My hand lock is on and my core is solid.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog): Flowing into Upward Dog, Carpenter instructs us to move our feet back to keep the shoulders over the wrists, not in front of them. Reach back through the legs, she says, which both stacks the arms and keeps us out of the lower back. Now, pull the chest forward and push the floor away.
“That’s why we do workshops like this, Carpenter says. “It’s nitpicky but if you get this, flowing is fun for many years to come.”
Certified Ashtanga teacher David Garrigues discusses the nadi’s and how vital it is to understand the places where the nadis are closed in the body. As a practitioner discovering the most glorious nadi (Sushumna) in the Ashtanga practice is vital to inhabiting and lighting up the body.
Ashtanga Yoga teacher Kino MacGregor talks about the bandhas, a lifelong journey into the core strength of the inner body. One often misunderstood difference is between uddiyana bandha and uddiyana kriya. The first is from the navel down to the public bone and the second is a purification practice that can only be done on exhalation. Watch the clip to see the difference.