Limiting pranayama to a couple of breathing techniques is equivalent to limiting yoga to an asana practice. In that limited point of view we are missing the point altogether. The Native Americans have a saying for each person’s life work, “the big work”.
The big work is how we live our lives, how we make each decision, and why we make each decision; it’s our diet, exercise, relation to self and others. Yoga is much like that if not exactly the same.
If you look closely at the 8 steps of Patanjalis yoga system there are two sets of 4. The first four deal more with the outer practice, our actions, our physical practice and our practice of controlling our life force. The second group of four takes us into our inner world and inner work. Pranayama is the fourth step for a specific reason; it’s the bridge between the two. Pranayama is the main part of our big work.
Most of us do pranayama without naming it or being conscious of it as a life practice around mastery of our energy. Yoga asks us to be conscious of our lives and the practice of hatha yoga (asana/ pranayama combined) is only one platform for practicing this and not the ends all that it has been made out to be. Mostly in yoga classes there is little more than asana being practiced and when pranayama is mentioned it is a request from the teacher to breath.
Here is a short list to get you started in a powerful pranayama practice and to get you involved in your big work.
On The Mat
- Hatha yoga is a combination of asana and pranayama. In my almost 20 years of practice I’ve come to realize that the pranayama practice is absolutely the foundation to the practice of hatha yoga. During the practice we are asking the mind to move into and drop the energy of the body away from the sympathetic nervous system (away from fight, flight, or freeze). When we are practicing postures and we are holding on for dear life with the breath frozen, the body tense, and endorphins flowing like a river, we are not truly engaged in pranayama. This is hardly different than an exercise class. If you catch yourself frozen ask yourself if you are serving your big work.
- I see a lot of people in yoga practice unconsciously throwing their bodies around. Going from one posture to another with little connection to the process that happens in between the poses. Pranayama is the control of our vital energy, our life force. When you get on your mat practice being present the entire time, practice moving from pose to pose with gracefulness and fluidity; an even expenditure of physical energy throughout the practice. Make the entire practice relevant, not just each asana. This is the work that comes off the mat.
- Asana translates to a loosely held posture. I see this as loosely held on 3 levels. 1. In our physical bodies we should feel incredibly powerful and from our energetic bodies we should feel safe and not fall into the sympathetic nervous system. In hatha yoga the idea is to play that edge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. 2. A perfect control of the breath. One of the biggest “tells” in hatha yoga that you’re not aligned with the full practice of both asana and pranayama is when your breath gets catchy. That space between the inhales and exhales becomes a catching point instead of a very controlled and smooth transition spot. 3. We can hold a very powerful and graceful posture and have a beautiful consistent deep breathing pattern and yet still be frantic on the inside. The deepest and most challenging work is to let go of any frantic or battles that are taking place so that we can open the nadis without blocking others.
Off The Mat
- When a bill comes in and you have the money to pay it, why let it sit in your face or on a cluttered desk causing you stress? Pay it. If you find yourself having to do dishes before you cook because you let them pile up and this frustrates you. Do your dishes. Living your life as it is here instead of being forced to deal with things last minute is a stressful way to go about it. It feels way more freeing living one step ahead of your life rather than the feeling of always needing to catch up. This is pranayama, this is making actions that will clear and free your energy.
- I’m not for or against this one. Stimulants. Some of us wake up and get right into our lives while others struggle with mornings. Coffee is the answer that some people choose to get their energy up and going. This is pranayama as well; we control our energy by choosing what foods or stimulants we put in our bodies and for what purposes. My two cents on this is to watch what you are serving on this one; addiction or conscious action?
- If you are constantly running late, you know how it feels in your body; you’re always on edge, frantic etc. Make it your big work to change this pattern and start preparing so that you can feel ease in your nervous system.
- Are you in a job or relationship that is taking it all from you? You’re burning energy here, burning through your reserves of prana. Again, go into your big work and see what needs to take place in order to get right with your pranayama practice. I’m not at all suggesting quitting, actually some of our best and most profound work comes in the places that challenge us to step up and take on the life in a new way. Sometimes quitting is the answer, other times practicing using your voice is, or setting boundaries, or asking hard questions, etc.
As you can see there are many ways to make pranayama a staple to your practice of conscious living. It’s endless really, have fun with it, laugh a lot, love a lot, make mistakes and be bold enough to own them, live in your big work.