Approaching pranayama and meditation

The best part about teaching Yoga? Being a forever-student. After 6 years of teaching full-time, I’m finally diving deep into studentship again myself, and it’s been the most rewarding journey. Working with the amazing Stephen Thomas in a rich advanced teacher training, I’m learning so much more about the subtle practices that are often sidelined in public Yoga classes.

The focus in the consumer-based Yoga industry is – at this moment in the evolution of Yoga – very much on the gross, physical elements of the practice: postural Yoga is in. Moving the body to achieve moments of quiet in the mind. This is an effective and valid way of practicing a facet of Yoga, and it is still just that: one small aspect of a much larger, much deeper and much richer phenomenon.

Through this intensive study of the subtler elements – the seated practice – pranayama and meditation – my own understanding of what Yoga is has expanded. What admittedly often felt like ‘boring Yoga’ in the past has grown to become a source of joy, fascination and deep curiosity as I begin to sense small flickers of a sweetness that feels somehow profound. A settling into myself, arriving, quieting, noticing a stillness that serves as the backdrop for the constant hum of my active mind. Learning to see the difference between that backdrop and the doings of the mind.

Getting started on the path of the seated practice is wonderful (and much easier, safer and deeper) in the company of a seasoned teacher. However, if you are not in a position right now to immerse in a training or attend a retreat in order to dive in, you can begin integrating some simple practices such as alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) and single-point-focus meditation (Ekagrata) into your own routine.

To practice, find your upright, seated posture, making sure that the pelvic region is relaxed, the lower back long, the shoulders and face soft. Sitting up a bit higher on a cushion or blanket is advisable as it generally creates more spaciousness and ease in the body. Once in the seat, begin by regulating your breathing, drawing your breath inward from top to bottom, holding a soft tone in the lower belly. Feel the ribs, chest and upper belly expand with the inhale breath and soften with the exhale. Establish a home-base breath to which you can return at any time in the practice.

Nadi Shodhana
Alternate nostril breathing is a heart-piece of the pranayama practice, as it works both to cleanse and prepare the energetic body for further practice and on its own creates a fertile space for sitting in stillness. When I only have time for one breathing practice – both in my personal practice and as a teacher in class – I typically choose a few rounds of nadi shodhana.

Let your left-hand rest on your left thigh, palm face-down or hand in chin mudra. Take Vishnu mudra with your right hand and place the right thumb in the small indentation above the right nostril. The right ring-finger in the small indentation above the left nostril. Inhale and exhale fully through both nostrils, then close the right side with your thumb and inhale left for a count of five. Exhale right for a count of seven. Inhale right for five, exhale left for seven. Inhale left for five….and so on. As you continue, you may expand the exhale breath up to a count of ten. This is the most simple, informal way of practicing alternate nostril breathing. There are many refining techniques, including kumbaka – breath retention – but these should be learned directly from a trusted teacher and practiced with supervision until stability is achieved.

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The simplest and also most challenging seated practice! Ekagrata means ‘single point of focus’ and implies sitting in meditation concentrating single-mindedly on one element – like the natural breath or a visualization or mantra, or perhaps even holding a steady gaze on a candle flame. As soon as we notice the mind wandering – which tends to happen constantly– we gently nudge ourselves back to observing our single point. Simple in theory and effective as it gives us a clear framework for how to handle our wild and free mind, quieting through compassionate self-discipline, but oh-so challenging as the mind tends to fight this kind of disciplining like a toddler having a tantrum. I find that the few rounds of nadi shodhana often create some fertile ground for a bit of stillness and both practice and teach in this order.

Further methods
To deepen the seated practice and learn more about pranayama (breath expansion) and kriya (cleansing techniques to prepare for pranayama and meditation – such as kapalabhati, uddhiyana bandha or agni sara) it is advisable to work closely with a trusted teacher. These techniques are sometimes touched on in public classes and can be explained in online tutorials, but to truly deepen the practice, a training or retreat offer the most appropriate and safe setting for further study.

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Lisa Dietrich

Chief Editor

Movement, travel and Yoga have been a constant and defining part of Lisa's path, which has led her, with many colorful detours in the arts, life in New York City...

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