Practicing Pranayama

by Linda Oshins

For years I tried to establish a home pranayama practice, which I abandoned over and over again. I knew how to perform each technique individually, but not how to put them together into a set of varied daily practice sequences. Today there is much more information available on pranayama, but then it was hard to come by. Mr. Iyengar’s text, Light on Pranayama, included everything I needed to know but was overwhelming in its detail and ultimately discouraging to me as a beginner. And the admonitions against practicing without the oversight of a guide were sobering. What could go so very wrong? In my case, emotional disturbance. After practicing for several weeks, I would notice that I had flashes of temper during the day, sometimes outright rage. I would abandon my practice again. I couldn’t take that lovely early morning experience on my meditation cushion out into the world.

Then along came Amy Weintraub. As part of her workshop on Yoga for Depression she teaches a number of breathing techniques that alter mood. I watched her either calm down or stimulate a roomful of students at will. To me it seemed as though she had such fine control that she could dial the mood up or down like I controlled the volume on a radio. I was missing something here, and I wanted to know what! I studied with Amy further and with every teacher I heard about who mentioned pranayama in the title of their workshop.

During this time I also become a Reiki practitioner. Every week a group of us spent time watching energy flow in ourselves and in each other. I watched the effects of different vibrations in myself and could elicit vibratory states at will. Each state seemed like a different “room” to me. I could walk through a door into a room where certain feelings were uppermost—physical sensations, emotions, mental states, and invitations to action or inaction. And this piece, along with the gifts from many different pranayama teachers, was the missing element in understanding pranayama.

Sculpting a pranayama practice is an art, but it’s based on listening closely to yourself and choosing techniques based on how you feel when you sit down on your meditation cushion to practice. And it leaves you in a state you choose yourself—either ready to get up and act in the world, ready to retreat into long periods in meditation, or somewhere in between. It’s not magic or incomprehensible. Its rules and gifts trace back to the body and to your and my ability to listen to ourselves knowingly. And to me, its gifts are stunning and lead easily in to meditation.

Teaching pranayama class yesterday I was awash in gratitude for the practices, amazed again as I noticed the subtle difference in tone between the inhale, the exhale and the pause at the end of the exhale. Even within a single breath we are introduced to waves of prana and to awareness itself.

I am teaching ongoing classes in pranayama,  offering a web-cast class on establishing a home pranayama practice, and a workshop for yoga teachers on teaching pranayama. If you are interested in practicing together, join in.