The “Six Course Meal” of Ashtanga Pranayama

It’s a great way to wake up.

Every morning at 6 a.m., Tim does a pranayama circle at his shala. When teacher trainings are in session, the circle extends to his trainees, and Tim teaches pranayama step by step. And by “step,” I mean baby steps. We start with the most basic pranayama forms, and as we progress the training wheels of the basic exercises (like following the breath up and down the seven chakra positions, and short retentions) fall off and we move to more sophisticated retentions.

It’s not really my place to teach pranayama in this blog (there’s a full breakdown and description here—thanks to Alicia Johnson for finding it), but I will say that every day of our training, Tim has been adding either longer retentions and/or the next form. On Wednesday, we got the full system. In more user-friendly, but very basic terms, it is:

  1. Exhale and inhale retentions (rechaka kumbhaka and puruka kumbhaka)
  2. Retentions on both the inhale and the exhale (puruka rechaka kumbhaka)
  3. Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)
  4. Bellows breath (bhastrika)
  5. Single-side inhale retentions (surya and chandra behdana)
  6. Cooling breath (sitali).

“Are you ready for the full six course meal?” Tim said, as we gathered around in a circle, “This will take about 45 minutes. It could be the longest 45 minutes of your life. Or it could be the best.”

Tim guides you through using a series of hand signals he’s developed, so we know where we are at any given moment in the sequence. He watches the time, so we feel secure in the knowledge that someone’s keeping watch over us, and being merciful (perhaps “compassionate” would be a better word) with retention length. We’re free to experience pranayama without preoccupation with the math, in other words—but Tim’s advice is to learn to count the retentions and cycles as you go through it with him. It’s exactly like taking a led class. Only for pranayama.

At this point, we’ve been schooled in the various purposes of the pranayama exercises. Tim has also gone over the history of it, and we’ve heard many stories of Guruji’s epic inhales and monolithically long exhale retentions, stories of experienced and knowledgeable practitioners (here unnamed) walking away, unable to endure.  The teaching of pranayama requires a lot of attention and supervision, so as the years progressed and Mysore became more crowded, Guruji’s requirement for learning it became more strict. Tim takes a more democratic approach. He taught it at the Confluence, and usually teaches some form of it wherever he goes.

Tim has also discussed when to do it (the times of transition in the day: sunrise, noon, sunset; or before or after practice), and its benefits. The most obvious benefits are found in Patanjali: Controlling the fluctuations of the Mind. But there are others, involving the subtle body—Second Series shares its Sanskrit name with one of its forms, the alternate nostril breathing, nadi shodhana. It’s a facilitator for clarity, focus, attention—a form of practice.

For those of us in the circle, Tim’s Led Pranayama is both a private and a communal experience. The room is quiet, except for the sound of synchronized breath, and silence during the retentions. Some are experienced and regular participants of Tim’s daily practice. They anchor the circle. Throughout the whole set, the sound of Tim’s breath guides us: There is a clear distinction between the sound of his inhale and of his exhale. Even his inhale and exhale retentions have a distinct sound. You may get lost, but there’s always the potential to keep trying.

Some of us have been through pranayama with Tim many times. This was my first time going through all six forms at once. The feeling was indescribable. It was as if a series of windows opened in my body and mind. Whatever trepidation I felt about going through the sequence just fell away, and I was left to experience the benefits without fear. And then to take that clarity on to the mat, to practice more.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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