Yoga is a path, leading us to discover ever-unfolding facets of this beautiful practice and, as a result, unknown facets of ourselves.
As our own relationship to and understanding of Yoga continues to deepen, the appreciation for the subtler forms of practice may grow: yogic techniques such as kriya, pranayama and meditation become rich fields for further exploration.
Moving through the body and then bathing in the stillness that remains during a deep savasana is a perfect entry point for beginning a sitting and breathing practice, taking that stillness and feeling of clarity and expanding it, allowing ourselves to dissolve into it.
Knowing how difficult it sometimes feels to make space for the more accessible, physical aspects of daily practice, we've thought about ways to invite these subtler elements into the daily rhythm. Here are some practical ideas for beginning a pranayama and sitting practice of your own:
Begin by incorporating short pranayama sessions after your asana practice and before savasana. This is a moment, particularly after a very physical practice, when the body is humming and sitting feels accessible and easeful. The mind is more receptive to stillness as well, having anchored in the humming body. Eight to ten rounds of simple Nadhi Shodhana are plenty to begin with and invite centering and calming.
After the breathing practice allow yourself to simply remain in the seat and feel the soft, natural breath as it flows in – cool under the tip of the nose – and out – warm under the tip of the nose. Soften the brain, dropping the mind into the heart with a feeling of dissolving into yourself. Stay for 2-3 minutes to begin with.
Once you have given yourself this small teaser taste of the power of breath expansion and stillness, you may become interested in deepening the practice. Working with a teacher who is experienced with pranayama is important. This may be accessible in a weekly class or on a retreat where you can dive deeply into the practice – but you should receive some personal guidance and observation to solidify your understanding of basic kriya and pranayama techniques. Once you feel comfortable with the technical elements of a kriya like kapalabhati, you can begin to structure a more expanded sitting and breathing practice.
As you deepen your own practice, be sure to establish a home base for yourself, that you can return to at any time for rest. In this case: your own natural, deep breath. Start by anchoring in this home base and move from there, inviting yourself to rest here as needed. Further, as you learn to gauge your response to stronger techniques, particularly if unaccustomed to longer breath practice, give yourself the option of savasana at any time – and if anxiety should arise, take savasana on the belly to calm the nervous system.
From the Gross to the Subtle
It seems a natural progression to move from the body, the physical realm, slowly towards the energetic layers. Therefore, even if you decide to devote your whole practice to pranayama, begin with some restorative poses to open and release the body. Open the hips and pelvis to allow for relaxed and extended sitting. Open the chest, side and back body to allow for free breathing. Then begin with cleansing preparatory techniques like kapalabhati kriya to move the energies through and out, rinsing the energetic body. From here, move to nadi shodhana and more subtle pranayama breathing. Take savasana between each practice to allow for integration and softening. And when you are finished breathing, sit and bathe in the stillness.
It's heartening to see the growing interest in connecting inward and breathing among the teachers and students we work with, and the way in which these subtler practices can flourish and crack the heart open beautifully when dedication and mindfulness are brought to the practice.