Pranayama – making light of mule work

Pranayama is mule work,’¬† joked (or half-joked) Richard Rosen during a pranayama workshop he led in London. This is how one of his teachers had once described the breathing practices of yoga.

Many yogis give up pranayama easily because it is a practice that doesn’t initially give as much return as, say, asana (posture practice). We can come to it somewhat begrudgingly at first, as something ‘we need to do’, before curiosity and appreciation develop. This takes time and perseverance. It also requires the willingness to initially do little, while watching ourselves and the habits that obstruct our breathing.

We can feel as if we are even going backwards during this process, as old habits and patterns break down, making way for new, fertile ground. Pranayama can also release experiences we would otherwise keep locked inside, pleasant and unpleasant.

‘We don’t get how powerful breathing can be,’ he said. This is certainly true.

If you are not yet familiar with Richard Rosen, he has long been a contributing editor at Yoga Journal and is the author of the books The Yoga of Breath, Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals and Original Yoga among others. He originally studied in the Iyengar tradition and has been teaching since the late 80s. His depth of knowledge and reverence for the practice are immediately evident, as is his humility. Greeting each student on arrival, his delivery is precise and kind; I felt at ease and in good hands from the off.

Richard shared that he has been living with Parkinson’s for the past 17 years, and has experienced associated symptoms of anxiety and depression. While he says he has become weaker, less flexible and less adept with balance, his practice has clearly sustained him and makes for an inspiring example.

Back to pranayama. Let’s face it: today, it is probably the most neglected yoga practice, for the reasons mentioned above. Those of us experienced in it can appreciate the humour of the mule reference.

Much of what is shared today is (understandably) preparatory breathwork. Pranayama is rarely offered in classes and is much less frequently the focus of trainings, courses and workshops than, for example, asana or even meditation. Pranayama proper also demands dedication and patience as part of one’s personal practice. And, as Richard emphasised, pranayama has to be a daily practice (initially of 15-20 minutes) if we are to develop the requisite sensitivity to appreciate and practice it correctly and safely.

Richard gave a helpful overview of the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘hatha’ pranayama, reflected in two of the yoga texts: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

In the Sutras, we are urged to still the fluctuations of consciousness, and the pranayama techniques one might usually think of could be seen as fluctuations. In this context, the practice of slowing down the breath until it is almost imperceptible prepares us for pratyhara, the retraction of our senses from our environment. This, in turn, prepares us for meditation and our understanding of the independence of purusha (the Self, what is unchanging and permanent) from prakriti (the ever-changing material world or matter, including consciousness). While it may be challenging to see how this works in practical terms, we do know that slowing down the breath slows down the brain.

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika on the other hand, we see quite another story: actively working with the vayus (literally breath, or types/sections of energy/breath flow in the body), energetic locks (bandhas), cleansing techniques (kriyas) and pranayama techniques awakens kundalini, the latent female energy in the shape of a serpent, otherwise dormant at the base of the spine. The text emphasises how potent and dangerous this process can be if it is not learned with a teacher or practised in an appropriate way. This text outlines specific pranayama techniques; how to practise them, their benefits and necessary precautions.

Cultivating the witness – the greater significance of pranayama

Richard explained how pranayama¬†cultivates the witness, as we learn to step back from our breath and watch ourselves breathe, much as we watch thoughts and feelings when we sit for meditation. This ‘observer effect’ is profound when integrated into our everyday life: we gain a compassionate, invisible presence that watches us during the day, without judgement. A major benefit of the practice, to put it lightly.

When to practise pranayama

In terms of when to practise pranayama, first thing in the day is an ideal time. Richard shared that B.K.S. Iyengar advised taking pranayama practice, then a 30-minute break, then asana. Traditionally, dawn and twilight are said to be appropriate times, a balance between light and dark and the energies of the body. Noon and midnight might be other options.

Workshop practice

We then moved into practice, beginning with warm-up exercises for the torso, groins, hips and supported savasana. Savasana is the ‘beginning of pranayama‘, leting the brain ‘shrink and drop’ and slowing down breathing. We used bricks, sandbags and belts. This all brought us to sit well. There was an exercise with a brick between the throat and the wall to locate and sense jalandhara bandha. This bandha protects the brain in retentions while allowing pressure in the lungs to strengthen the torso.

As part of our settling and preparation, our first breaths were kapalabhati, nadi sodhana, ajapa (I particularly enjoyed this silent, internal mantra of the sound of the breath) and ujjayi. Seated, we practised graduated viloma, bhramari and surya bedhana before exploring maha mudra. Wonderful.

Observing and reflecting on our breathing and what we are doing to interfere with it ultimately brings us to the question ‘who is breathing?’ This is perhaps the deepest significance of the practice.

This workshop was a joy to experience. Taking place in one of London’s huge studios, we were a small group of 20 or so, all keen to spend our Sunday morning with this exquisite practice and a trusted guide. Mule work made light indeed.

I believe Richard visits London to teach every year or so. I can only recommend that you spend time with him if you can. It is always special to be in the presence of someone who personifies the practice.

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