Following on from Charlie’s previous blog on Pranayama, here is his response to the questions at the end of that blog:
Pranayama is the elephant in the room for many Ashtanga Yoga teachers and practitioners. The texts are clear however. The majority of Hatha Yoga texts, and the more philosophical Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, agree that control of the prana or breath is the way to lead the mind into deeper levels of concentration and ultimately meditation. It therefore seems strange to me that there is so much mystery and confusion about these practices.
Pranayama, like any form of practice, including asana, should always be learned with the guidance of a skilled teacher, with respect for our individual capacities and abilities. That being said, I think that everyone can enjoy a beneficial daily pranayama practice.
Pranayama can potentially be dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly we need to understand that breathing is a biological reflex. Permanent brain damage can result after only three minutes of apnea (suspension of external breathing). Therefore it is essential that we learn the various kumbhaka (breath retentions) slowly and with awareness of our capacities. Additionally, the way that you breathe can affect your physiological and mental states. In someone who has a healthy breathing pattern the breath should come in and out of your nose silently, and your abdomen should move out on an inhale and in during an exhalation. Having taught pranayama for more than a decade, and having observed hundreds of people breathing, it is my impression that less than 40 per cent of people breathe in this way. In pranayama practice we consciously alter our breathing practice. For some people this can be very physically and psychologically challenging. Again, working with a skilled teacher will help you to proceed safely.
From my conversations with many of Pattabhi Jois’ older students it seems that during the 1970s and 80s students were often taught the various Ashtanga Yoga asana series pretty quickly, as well as the pranayama sequence. David Williams states, on his first trip to Mysore to study with Pattabhi Jois, ’I stayed in Mysore for four months. I learned first series, second series, and half of third series, plus the pranayama’ (For the full interview with David Williams on the Ashtanga Yoga NYC website, click here). These days, most people seem to get moved through the asana series quite slowly in Mysore. I don’t know why the teaching style has changed over the years.
Many western teachers are also following this style of teaching. Pranayama seems to be taught very infrequently. I know Tim Miller, Danny Paradise and David Williams personally. I can tell you that the pranayama sequence that they all teach during their individual workshops is the one that Pattabhi Jois taught them; it is the Ashtanga Yoga pranayama sequence. I have no idea why the pranayama sequence is now only taught in Mysore to people Steve (a commenter on the previous post) refers to as the ‘chosen ones’. This was certainly not the case in the past; just ask the people who were there.
In recent years the idea that we use ujayii breathing when doing asana has become a hot topic on the web. Ujayii is a pranayama, not a breathing technique. Let me explain. When I started practising Ashtanga Yoga in 1993 I was repeatedly told that when we did asana practice we used ujayii breathing. However when I looked into it I found that there is no mention of ujayii breathing in Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois’ book (see Confluence Countdown website’s article To Ujayii or Not to Ujayii, That is the Question).
Nancy Gilgoff, one of the first Americans to study with Pattabhi Jois states categorically that she never heard Guruji call it ujayii breathing; I never heard Pattabhi Jois call it ujayii. Sharath is repeatedly asked this question and his answer is always the same, it is free breathing with sound. Ujjayi, on the other hand, is a pranayama. The YogaRose.net blog covers the topic in some depth.
I hope that this helps. Thank you for posting and keep on reading,
Charlie Taylor-Rugman teaches Ashtanga Yoga privately in London and at workshops around the world. For more details visit: www.doashtanga.com
As always, if you’d like to respond to Charlie’s reply or add some of your own thoughts on this topic, feel free to do so via the comments below.