Start with something simple. Try touching your forehead with your hand. Ah, that’s easy, automatic. Nothing to it. But there was a time when you were as far removed from the mastery of that simple skill as a non-pianist is from playing a Beethoven sonata. First, you had to learn to control the movements of your hands (you were just a baby then) and somehow get them to move where you wanted them to…
For most of us, this simple example is a good analogy for how we begin our yoga practice. We go to our first class. If we’re lucky, it’s an introduction to yoga class in a room full of students with a similar level, or lack of, experience. The teacher’s first instruction sounds like a foreign language, and although you consider yourself relatively healthy and intelligent, dyslexia attacks.
You forget your left and right… forward becomes backward… your gaze shoots around the room looking for an example of right, as you’ve become frightfully aware of your mind abandoning you. Unfortunately, you pick the wrong person to imitate, and now it’s a rapid downward spiral to humility, as the teacher notices that you’re in trouble and singles you out by name.
How could something so simple get so confusing? It’s about then, that you think maybe yoga wasn’t such a good idea and the Zumba class at the gym might have suited you better.
Having taught an Intro class for many years, this is a familiar scenario. So familiar in fact, that I have simplified the initial instructions I give in class now to vocabulary and movements that are recognizable and easy for most beginners. In class, as well as in one’s practice, going back to basics - doing less, but with more awareness - allows us to find the essence of what we do in the most fundamental poses, and reacquaint ourselves with “beginner’s mind”, as if for the first time.
Mainly for those reasons, the first pose I teach in class is Child’s Pose. For many, the shape of this pose possesses a deep physical and psychological memory from our time as infants, and most beginners find it doable. The pose is useful for many reasons, but particularly, it forces us to confront our attitudes and patterns of breathing, the health of our organs, and our level of awareness in moving from the abdomen and into the spine. It is a very simple pose to begin with physically, yet it requires patience, a deep state of “non-doing,” and the ability to surrender into gravity. Learning these things lays the foundation for a deeper and sustainable practice over a lifetime.
In coming to terms with our breath, the shape of the pose forces the front of the ribcage to compress and causes an internal resistance to full, frontal breathing, which for most of us is our adopted pattern. In this resistance, we confront, possibly for the first time, the notion of breathing somewhere other than the front of our lungs, or in such a way as to avoid distending our “bellies” as we inhale. As the frontal ribs are compressed, the unyielding presence of the internal organs and the compression of the abdomen trapped against the thighs limits the diaphragm, and sometimes the feelings of claustrophobia or nausea arise. This usually causes various degrees of fear, often resulting in additional thoracic or abdominal contraction., limiting our “guts”, and precluding a soft, even breath. In the classical treatises on the Hatha Yoga, as well as the numerous other martial disciplines like Chi Gung, Aikido, Tai Chi, etc., mastery of the breath holds a significant key to the containment of mental fluctuations. Kariba Ekken, a seventeenth century mystic, put it eloquently:
“If you would foster a calm spirit, first regulate your breathing; for when that is under control, the heart will be at peace; but when breathing is spasmodic, then it will be troubled. Therefore, before attempting to anything, first regulate your breathing on which your temper will be softened, your spirit calmed.”
T. Krishnamarcharya, guru to B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar, refers to the same principles of breathing with instructions given in his booklet Salutation To The Teacher and The Eternal One:
“One important thing to be constantly kept in mind when doing asanas, is the regulation of the breath. It should be slow, thin, long and steady; breathing through both nostrils with rubbing sensation at the throat and through the esophagus, inhaling when coming to the straight posture and exhaling when bending the body.”
The breath as described here, is commonly known as Ujjayi Pranayama. T. Krishnamarcharya is credited as one of the first contemporary yoga teachers to introduce pranayama during the practice of asana. B.K.S. Iyengar defines pranayama as the “extension of breath and its control.” The word Ujjayi, can be broken down into the prefix ud, which means upward or superiority in rank and conveys a sense of pre-eminence or power; and jaya, which means conquest, victory, triumph, or success. Like many Sanskrit terms the word jaya has a compound meaning, and according to another translation in Light on Yoga, it also implies restraint or curbing. By slightly contracting the back of the throat (glottis), a delicate friction or resistance is created, producing a soft audible sound.
Other forms of restraining the physical breath are found in the martial arts. For example in Bushido, the Japanese Way of the Warrior, the student works to control the physical aspect of the breath, lest the opponent discover his point of vulnerability, known as “suki” - a gap in activity caused by any distraction, such as taking a breath. In Dragon Gate Taoism, the whole methodology of practice revolves around working with stillness, tuning the body, tuning the breath, refining the physique, and refining the spirit. Tuning the breath means bringing, what they refer to as “real breathing” (subtle energy of the breath) with “ordinary breathing” (physical breath), so that when ordinary breathing is stilled, the real breathing goes into operation. One of their beginning practices involves placing heavy slabs of stone on the chest of the beginning student in a supine position, and leaving them to figure from where to breathe, or die.
So for beginner’s, to understand and establish proper breathing is critical. By slowing down the inhalation and exhalation, the breath is forced to lengthen, and by the very nature of elongation and maintaining a constant rhythm, the subtle energy or vital force of the breath “narrows.” As it narrows, it moves closer to the spine, towards the central nadi known as Sushumna. The word nadi comes from the Sanskrit root nad, meaning movement. In the Rigveda, one of the most ancient Hindu scriptures, the word nadi means “stream”. Simply defined, nadis operate as channels or conduits for the movement of gross or subtle energy in the body. The vital force of the breath is called prana, and is similar to that of life force expounded upon in the martial arts and oriental medicine. It is a physical phenomenon that is intrinsically present in all life.
In one sense, prana is akin to water in that it can manifest itself as a dynamic flow. A hatha yoga posture both increases the amount of prana available and removes obstacles to smooth circulation. Using the analogy of water, hatha yoga is the elemental irrigator of the body. Once the channels (nadis) are cleared, water (energy) is distributed throughout. While performing hatha yoga with slow, relaxed breathing, the specific alignment of the physical and organic body creates the necessary conditions to trigger the production of energy. A greater movement of prana results in an increased level of vitality and health within the body’s systems. It is quite a radical approach when compared with the more familiar forms of exercise like running or aerobics, which work primarily on the cardiovascular system, or weight training, which builds only localized muscular strength. Since hatha yoga works directly with the flow of life force, it can induce subtle changes at the cellular level. Employing this type of breathing forces the body to work like a squeezed sponge, expanding powerfully, thereby increasing it’s capacity to soak up the energy intrinsically. Blockages in pranic flow are opened up gently in this manner without applying potentially damaging force to the body.
In the Tao Te Ching, this principle was understood:
The softest of stuff in the world
Penetrates quickly the hardest;
Insubstantial, it enters
Where no room is.
By this I know the benefit
Of something done by quiet being;
In all the world but few can know
Accomplishment apart from work,
Instruction when no words are used.