Cultivating True Presence with Yoga: Asana and Pranayama
A Way to Health and Peace
There is a common misconception in the Western world of yoga as purely a physical practice, or a fitness routine. The word “yoga” has many definitions, among them “to come together,” “to unite,” and “to tie the strands of the mind together,” implying that yoga is first and foremost a mental and spiritual practice (Desikachar, p. 5). In The Heart of Yoga, TKV Desikachar (son of renowned yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer, and scholar, Tiramulai Krishnamacharya) discusses the physical and non-physical aspects of yoga, which we use to cultivate true presence. By focusing inwardly and connecting breath with movement, we unite our mind, body, and breath. This allows us to be more present with moment-to-moment experience. Rather than getting lost in thought, we begin to experience life more fully and respond more consciously to whatever arises, beginning on the yoga mat and extending out into our daily lives.
Yoga involves awareness in all aspects of life: our relationships, our actions, our behavior, and our health. When one begins a yoga practice, he or she wishes to make a change – to progress to a previously unattained point – by being aware of moment-to-moment consciousness and acting deliberately with a clear mind. Beginning a yoga practice, one embarks on a journey of conscious personal evolution. Focusing inwardly on the breath and merging breath with movement, one becomes more in touch with what is happening moment to moment and starts to feel a deeper connection to oneself and the world.
According to Desikachar, “yoga attempts to create a state in which we are always present – really present – in every action, in every moment” (p. 6). When we are attentive, we are better able to carry out tasks without being “prisoners to our habits” and making mistakes (p. 6). We become better equipped to handle the ups and downs of our daily lives, and our relationships improve as a result. This attentiveness, and presence, is often clouded by “avidya,” or “incorrect comprehension,” however (p. 10). The way we perceive events is colored by our ego (asmita), fear (abhinevesa), desire (raga), and our rejection of people, events, or places (dvesa). These four branches of avidya cloud our perceptions, and can lead us to actions that are detrimental to our wellbeing or that of others. The practice of yoga enables us to become aware of incorrect perceptions, and therefore to act consciously in ways that will benefit everyone.
Yoga involves various practices used to cultivate awareness and presence. Today I will discuss Asana and Pranayama, two of the most commonly known aspects of yoga in the West. Asana practice matches movement with breath in various postures, in a specific order, starting out simply and progressing into deeper postures when the body is ready. Pranayama refers to breathing techniques that increase our breath capacity and allow prana to flow freely without blockages. “Prana” means “that which is infinitely everywhere,” and ayama means “stretch” or “extend” (p. 54). Prana is also known as Qi or Chi in Chinese medicine. It is brought into the body through the breath, but it is so much more than air. It is the energy of life itself, contained in everything. It is that which gives us life.
Asana practice refers to the physical postures associated with yoga. They are the visible part of the practice. “Asana,” or “posture,” is derived from the Sanskrit root “as,” meaning “to stay,” “to be,” “to sit,” or “to be established in a particular position” (p. 17). Paraphrasing Patanjali, Desikachar explains that when one practices an asana, both “sthira” – steadiness and alertness – and “sukha” – the ability to remain comfortable in a posture – are present to an equal degree (p. 17). If we attempt postures for which we are not prepared, neither of these qualities is present. We must be aware of where we are, where our abilities lie or tension exists, and practice postures in an evolutionary way – from simple to more complex. “Practicing the postures progressively, we gradually achieve more steadiness, alertness, and overall comfort” (p. 18). This awareness of where we are and acting consciously from that starting point are “the foundation for our whole yoga practice” (p. 18). “In yoga we try in every action to be as attentive as possible to everything we do” (p. 23).
This awareness comes from attention to the breath and linking the breath to movement: “The first step of our yoga practice is to consciously link breath and body … We do this by allowing every movement to be led by the breath as we practice the asanas” (p. 18). Desikachar recommends raising the arms on an inhale and lowering them on an exhale to feel the connection of the breath to the movement. Other postures that can easily be combined with the breath are twists, where you twist to the side on an exhale and come back to center on the inhale; Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), where you begin on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor and breathe into the posture raising your hips and exhale back down to the starting position; and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), where you inhale and rise up into the posture, and then exhale down onto your belly (pp. 20-21). With some exceptions, we generally contract the body on an exhale and expand the body on an inhale. Not only do we focus on linking the breath with the movement – and letting the breath initiate the movement – but we also try to lengthen our breath and make it full, deep, and smooth.
Ujjayi Breathing/Victorious Breath
In asana practice (and sometimes in meditation), we typically use “ujjayi” breathing. In ujjayi breathing, we inhale and exhale through the nostrils. We slightly contract the glottis, a valve in the throat, producing a sound similar to an ocean wave. It has also been compared to Darth Vader! This sound is a good measure of the quality of our practice – if it is smooth, steady, and not strained, we are practicing in line with our current state or ability. If the breath is labored and the sound is choppy or unsteady, we are practicing beyond our abilities and should practice more simple asanas (p. 23). This presence, and awareness, is the foundation of a yoga practice: “However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind we can hardly claim what we are doing is yoga” (p. 23).
Nadi shodhana pranayama makes the mind peaceful and balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It is an excellent pranayama to use during meditation or any time we feel stressed. Nadi Shodhana is alternate nostril breathing, done without using the throat (as we do in ujjayi). We lengthen the inhales and exhales, breathing through one nostril at a time, using the thumb or fingers to close the other nostril. First, inhale deeply through both nostrils and exhale through the mouth. Next, close the right nostril and breathe in through the left. Then close the left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale through the right, then close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Inhale through the left… Repeat these steps for a few minutes. Nadi shodhana, like everything else in yoga, should never be forced. If nasal passageways are blocked, practice throat breathing instead (p. 62).
Kapalabhati is a strong breathing technique used to clear the senses and create energy. “If we have a lot of mucus in the air passages or feel tension and blockages in the chest it is often helpful to breathe quickly” (p. 62). Kapalabhati is diaphragmatic breathing. With rapid short, powerful exhales through the nostrils, the abdominals act as a pump – on the exhale, the abdominal muscles contract. Do not practice kapalabhati during menstruation or pregnancy, or with an abdominal hernia. Consult a doctor in the case of high blood pressure. Start with 30 seconds to a minute, and increase as is comfortable with practice.
There are many other forms of pranayama, but these are some I have encountered in many yoga classes, and that I regularly use on my own. I especially love nadi shodhana – I always feel so relaxed, refreshed, and clear-headed after I practice it for just a few minutes. I also sometimes use ujjayi breathing without even thinking about it – it’s very calming and centering. Many videos depicting these techniques are freely available online. Experiment with these techniques and look into others – our breath is so powerful and we can achieve serious benefits by manipulating it!
Many of us come to yoga for its physical benefits. We want to look good and feel good; we want to switch up our work out routine. We want to recover from an injury. Regular practice increases one’s flexibility, mobility, and strength. Through personal experience and according to the stories of many people, I’ve learned it can sometimes be the only thing that heals a physical ailment or injury. Its physical benefits are too many to list here. However, once we get deeper into the practice we begin to notice its all-encompassing benefits – to the whole self, not just the body. Yoga cultivates presence and awareness. It enables us to live in a more authentic way, with increased joy and peace. In future posts, I will discuss other limbs on the “tree of yoga.” For now, I hope I’ve inspired you to try some of these Asana and Pranayama exercises on a regular basis and notice what happens!