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. According to yoga philosophy, the postures are merely preludes to deeper states of meditation that lead us toward enlightenment, where our minds grow perfectly still and our lives grow infinitely big. But just how do we make the leap from Downward Dog to samadhi? Ancient yoga texts give us a clear answer: Breathe like a yogi.
Pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath, lies at the heart of yoga. It has a mysterious power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind. The ancient sages taught that prana, the vital force circulating through us, can be cultivated and channeled through a panoply of breathing exercises. In the process, the mind is calmed, rejuvenated, and uplifted. pPranayama 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.
How can so many experts offer such different approaches to pranayama? In part this variety results from the brevity of the ancient texts upon which our modern practices are based. Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, for example, says that lengthening the exhalation can help to reduce disturbances of the mind, but doesn’t offer detailed techniques for doing that.
“Different people come along and interpret these very succinct verses in different ways, and then they practice based on their interpretation,” says Kripalu’s Yoganand. “Yoga is so powerful that people tend to get an effect almost regardless of what they do. So someone says, ‘I did it this way and it worked, so I must be right,’ and someone else says, ‘I did it completely differently, but it worked, so I must be right.’ Since neither can convince the other and since they both have experience to support their beliefs, they go off and generate two schools. It makes perfect sense that no one can agree. Everyone’s experience is different.”
In the West you can even find teachers who counsel us to step with caution into traditional pranayama practices. When students aren’t well prepared, they say, classical breathing techniques can actually distort natural and organic patterns of breathing, forcing us into rigid and controlled ways of being.
“Most people begin yoga with so many pre-existing blocks and holding patterns that to introduce a controlled breathing regime right away further concretizes the blocks,” says Donna Farhi, yoga teacher and author of The Breathing Book (Henry Holt, 1996). “I think it’s extremely important to remove the blocks and holding patterns first, to reveal the natural breath that is our birthright. And then it can be very interesting to explore the subtle movement of prana through formal pranayama work. But for the most part this controlled practice is introduced too soon and often only obscures the unconscious forces that drive the breath-holding patterns.”
Viewed alongside one another, these varied perspectives offer us the unsettling yet inspiring prospect that there may not be one right way to reap the gifts of pranayama. As teachers, we need to offer a range of tools to our students and let them use their experience and discrimination to discern which approach works best. Each of them must decide for themselves which method steers them closest to yoga’s ultimate gift: the ease, balance, and inner quiet that reveals the very heart of life.
Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Teaching Pranayama by Claudia Cummins