Tim Miller, one of Pattabhi Jois’ first American students, gave a number of workshops in Europe this summer. It was great to spend time with Tim and to gain the benefit of his immense knowledge. One of the things I liked best about Tim’s workshop was that he taught people the Ashtanga Yoga pranayama (seated breathing) sequence, introducing it to a huge number of people who have never experienced it before. In recent years a number of Pattabhi Jois’ students have started to share their knowledge of the Ashtanga Yoga pranayama sequence. This offers Ashtanga students a fantastic opportunity to deepen their existing practice and to reap the many benefits that pranayama practice offers.
All of the ancient Hatha Yoga texts tell us that pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, is an essential component of any balanced Yoga practice. Unfortunately many Ashtanga Yoga teachers and practitioners neglect pranayama, choosing instead to dedicate their time to asana (posture) practice exclusively. Many Ashtangis often say that they don’t need to do a formal seated pranayama practice. They argue that because they accompany their asana by breathing with sound (sometimes wrongly called Ujjayi breathing) and engaging the bandhas throughout their daily practice they are also ‘doing’ pranayama; unfortunately this is not the case. Pranayama focuses not only on the flow in and out of the breath, but also on kumbhaka (the retention of prana either after inhalation or exhalation). Pattabhi Jois always encouraged us to lengthen the breath during asana practice. He told us that holding the breath – in effect doing kumbhaka – was not appropriate during asana. Ashtangis often find the practice of kumbhaka very challenging. It is surprisingly common to find students who can almost effortlessly practice third series, but who struggle to hold their breath for more than a few seconds without strain. In my experience there is little correlation between the ability to perform asana and the skill of kumbhaka. Over the years I have taught a number of free divers. Many found primary series extremely challenging, but all could effortlessly practice the Ashtanga Yoga pranayama sequence, holding the breath with ease for extremely long periods, often lasting minutes.
Like most people, my introduction to Ashtanga Yoga practice was by attending a class and doing asana. Having played a lot of sport, I really enjoyed the sheer physicality of the practice and was soon hooked. I practised for a few years and then in 1999 I made my first trip to India, staying there for six months. During this trip I travelled in southern India before commencing my studies with Pattabhi Jois. It was during this trip that I was introduced to the Ashtanga Yoga pranayama series. I have practised it ever since. I love teaching pranayama to people and seeing them enjoy the many physical and mental benefits that regular practice can offer.
Why then are so few Ashtangis doing a seated pranayama practice?
I think there are three key reasons for this. The first is due to the lack of experienced teachers sharing the practice. There are very few UK-based Yoga teachers who have learnt some or all of the Ashtanga Yoga pranayama practice, as taught by Pattabhi Jois – the originator of this style of Yoga. Many of those who know the sequence do not practise it regularly, and even fewer teach it. Those who do know the sequence were often told not to share the practice with others. This situation is in direct contrast to many other styles of Hatha Yoga, such as the Sivananda style, where pranayama is taught and shared with everyone once they can hold a comfortable seated position for a reasonable length of time.
The second reason is often fear. When I started practising asana I heard many stories of people going crazy or mad from doing too much pranayama practice “when they weren’t ready for it.” I was told that excessive pranayama practice could drive you insane, make your hair turn grey and a whole lot of other stuff too. These negative side effects put people off practising. This scaremongering seemed a strange attitude to me; medical research has shown that inappropriate breathing can lead to a variety of health issues, but pranayama is a way of correcting these inappropriate breathing patterns and learning to breathe fully. By working with the guidance of a skilled teacher, and when practised with respect for your personal boundaries, pranayama is a wonderful practice. Pranayama aims at making us increasingly mindful of the way that we breathe.
Thirdly, I believe that both students and teachers are excessively focused on the external forms of Yoga. You can see whether someone is flexible, or if a student can do drop backs, or put their leg behind their head. Observing if someone is meditating is impossible. Are they just sitting with their eyes closed daydreaming? Are they really focused with a clear mind? Who can tell?
My personal feeling is that anyone who can sit still for more than five minutes in a cross-legged position with a straight back should be doing a little pranayama every day. As physical strength increases the pranayama practice can be deepened. Pranayama makes you feel great, both physically and mentally. Physically it leaves you feeling relaxed yet alert, and mentally it helps you to deepen your concentration before meditation. Why would anyone not want to experience these benefits? I’ve taught pranayama for many years to a huge number of people and helped them to enjoy the benefits of a regular practice. We all know how good asana practice makes you feel, so once you can sit up straight why not start on your pranayama journey?
Charlie Taylor-Rugman teaches Ashtanga Yoga privately in London and at workshops around the world. For more details visit: www.doashtanga.com
Have you ever tried practising pranayama? How did it make you feel? Perhaps you feel apprehensive about developing your own breathing practice because of warnings against it. How important is pranayama to your Yoga practice? We would love to hear from you any thoughts you have on Charlie’s article – please add your voice in the comments section below! Read part two of Charlie’s Pranayama & Ashtanga blog here