This year (2020) has definitely turned everything upside down and may have triggered anxiety for alot of us….. it’s not necessarily all bad, there are so many good things that we can take as lessons to be learnt if we choose to. Coronavirus has forced us to slow down and notice the important things in life and to question many other things that may not be so important. Black Lives Matter has both brought us together and torn us apart, it’s caused us to stop and think about our own actions and words and how they may have a big impact on someone, even if that wasn’t our intention. Personal defenses might go up to protect ourselves from the negative feelings around white privilege, here’s an opportunity to look inward and contemplate where and why are these feelings are coming up . There are so many valid view points on a vast array of things, that sometimes it’s hard to really notice “How do I actually feel on this matter?”, “What do I believe, what are my thoughts?”, ” What do I want, where am I going?” . There are so many questions that may be coming up at this time, but there is one thing that I do know for sure and it’s that I feel saddened by the divide that still exists in the world. In order for any of our questions to be answered, we need to first ask the question and allow time and space for the answer to come to us.
I often get a sense that the world is in a fragile place right now and with so much noise coming from outside influences, I find that it’s hard to think. So this month we’ll be focusing on the breath or pranayama (breath control) in our asana practice to enable us to find some physical and mental breathing space.
WHAT IS PRANAYAMA?
The more common understanding of Pranayana is Prana-yama translated as “breath control” or “control of life force”, it is also sometimes described Prana-ayama translated as “breath liberation” or “expansion of the life force”.
Mindfulness and breathing go together, when we focus or attention on the breath we automatically become more mindful to what is happening in the present moment, allowing the body and mind to become calmer…quieter. When we pair mindfulness, breathing and asana together then we have the ingredients to make something special.
When we pair mindfulness, breathing and asana together then we have the ingredients to make something special.
Many of us Yogi’s understand the importance of breathing during the physical practice, however maintaining awareness of the breath can be difficult as the body is moved into many different shapes. The more challenging a pose the more the breath tends to get left behind but it is during these more demanding poses that the breath becomes even more important to allow us to maintain steadiness and ease (Sthira Sukha Asanam) in our practice. We want to try and aim for Sthira and Sukha is every asana and the breath enables us to do this. Asana is the third limb of Yoga (The Yama’s being the first and the Niyama’s being the second), Sthira means Steadiness (or stable and grounded, strong) and Sukha means Ease (or comfortable, peaceful), the aim is to have equal amounts of both. Very often we strive so much to get into the pose that we become rigid, other times we become so comfortable that we lose focus… think of those times when you might have thought “oh I must do my nails” or “What is that on the wall”! When you come into an asana we want to find steadiness, the foundation and alignment and then we bring our awareness to the breath moving in and out of the body to find that ease… the inhale brings to our attention the places where we feel restricted or stuck and the exhale allows us to soften that tension so we can become more comfortable in the steadiness and perhaps even deepen into the pose naturally.
HOW TO BREATHE DURING AN ASANA PRACTICE
The first step is to simply notice the natural movement of the breath coming in and out of the body. You can do this lying down or sitting up, it can be useful to place both hands on the belly or one hand on the belly and the other on the heart centre and notice what happens when the breath enters the body and what happens when the breath leaves the body. Then simply notice the natural pause that happens at the top of the inhale and the pause at the bottom of the exhale.
Once we’ve become aware of the natural breath, then we can begin the practice of Pranayama by either lengthening the inhale and/or lengthening the exhale, perhaps retaining the breath at the top of the inhale or hold the breath out at the bottom of the exhale, depending on what we are aiming for. There are many ways that we can work with the breath in a yoga practice but the basic yogic breathing is called Ujjayi Pranayama and this is where we want to begin.
WHAT IS UJJAYI BREATH
Ujjaya breath is a practice of breathing in and out through the nose with a very slight narrowing of the throat around the epiglottis (which is the flap used to cover the windpipe when we sallow to prevent food going down the wrong way). In Ujjayi breathing we use this flap to narrow the opening of the larynx to create a gentle sound that is often described as the sound of the ocean or wind flowing through trees.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF UJJAYI PRANAYAMA?
Breathing in and out through the nose warms and filters the air, which warms the lungs, then the blood, the blood then warms the body, inviting the body to awaken to the movement of the asanas.
The sound and sensation of the breath helps us stay attuned to the breath moving through the body with steadiness and ease
The soothing sound of the breath helps to calm the nervous system and creates space for a quieter internal practice
HOW TO DO UJJAYA PRANAYAMA
Sitting or standing in a comfortable position, hold one hand up to your mouth imagining that it was a mirror, with the mouth open; breath out onto your hand as if you were fogging up the mirror making a sighing sound, as you breath in with the mouth still open, imagine that you are defogging the mirror by sucking the air back in. This naturally uses the epiglottis to create the sound.
Next do the same thing but with mouth closed and now you are imagining that you are using the nose to fog up the mirror as you breath out and drawing the air back in through the nose to defog the mirror. The sound still coming from the throat.
Then see if you play around with the sound, making it louder and quieter until you find a place where the breath feels soft and delicate.
As we move through our Asana practice this month with will explore allowing the sound and movement of the breath to be our teacher, perhaps inspiring ourselves to tune and look inward before looking outward for all our answers. As the saying goes Not all questions can be answered by Google.
POSE OF THE MONTH
Triang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana (One Leg Forward Bend)
Triang – Three Limbs
Mukha – Face
Eka – One
Pada – Foot
Paschima – West or “back of the body”
Uttana – Intense Stretch
Asana – Pose
Level – 1-2 (Intermediate)
MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL BENEFITS
Improves awareness and focus
Calms the mind
Opens hips and knees
Stretches the hamstrings
Soothes the Nervous System
Tones the abdominal muscles in a passive way
Stimulates the stomach, kidney, liver and reproductive organs
Boosts Energy in the body
Elongates the spine
Can be helpful for ankle and knee sprains or swelling in the legs (after a flight)
Sciatica and piriformis syndrome
CAUTIONS AND CONTRAINDICATIONS
Recent injury or surgery especially in the back, hips, knees, ankles, shoulders.
Internal Organ Ailments
HINTS AND TIPS
If you find that you are tipping to one side and that the sit bones are unbalanced, then it is advised to sit on a block or blanket. You can place the prop under one or both sit bones, see what feel more comfortable for you.
You can use a belt to catch hold of your foot if it’s to far away.