Tim Miller answers some pranayama questions for you

It wouldn’t hurt to ask Vayu for help.

Why, you might ask, when you’re already getting up at the crack of dawn (or before), rolling out your mat, and carefully controlling your breath for an hour and a half (or more) should you practice pranayama? I suppose the answer is right there in the eight limbs, so it’s right there in the name of the form you’re doing. That’s right. I’m trying to guilt you into it. You should practice pranayama because you should practice pranayama.

If you need more motivation, Patanjali says, “Prolonged exhalation and breath retention will promote peace of mind” (I.34). Who doesn’t need more peace of mind? Those darned vrittis.

In an earlier post, I talked about Tim Miller teaching the entire six-part Ashtanga pranayama sequence to his Second Series trainees. Tim, as I pointed out, teaches some version of pranayama everywhere he goes. During his teacher trainings, he invites all of the students to participate in his regular pranayama circle (6 a.m. sharp), and teaches a led pranayama. One day, I sat the led circle out and tried the whole sequence on my own, something I’d never done before. This brought up some practical questions, which Tim was kind enough to answer the next day. Here are the questions I asked, along with Tim’s very direct and practical answers:

Bobbie: If during something like nadi shodana you lose track of the count (like which retention you’re on, or how long you’ve held it), should you start over?

Tim [after some confusion as to how you could get lost]: No. Just pick it up where you left off. Do your best and continue.

B: You’ve said that if the breath becomes “grasping” or too fast exhaling, you know your retention is too long. Should we be aiming at a particular length of retention, or just to the level that’s comfortable?

Tim: You should be working on lengthening the breath, inhale, and exhale retention to a level that’s comfortable to you. You’re not continuously working on lengthening, but as you practice, lengthening will just happen until you get to a level that’s right for you. Pranayama should be soothing to the system, not a strain.

B: Can you select which of the six to practice, or are they a sequence?

Tim: It’s a sequence that should be practiced in order.

B: What is the rationale or intelligence of the sequence?

Tim: The first three progress from simple to increasingly more complex, in both the nature and length of retention. Bhastrika is very stimulating, and prepares you. Surya behedana is calming, and sitali closes out the process with a cooling breath.

B: Should you attempt all six, or wait until you get comfortable with one before you proceed to the next?

Tim: You should get comfortable with one until you move ahead.

B: I know you’ve said that the best times to practice pranayama are the transitional times of the day: Dusk/dawn, noon, twilight/night. Are there times when you should not practice?

Tim: It has its benefits both before and after practice, but I do it before. Guruji would teach it after. I don’t practice it on weekends. That choice can be individual. But you should have an empty stomach and a clear system. Because parts of it are so stimulating, you shouldn’t practice it late at night.

B: I know you learned the closing mantras [available here] from Guruji, but is there a particular reason for these four mantras?

Tim: You know, I wish I’d asked Guruji this, but I didn’t. The first is acknowledging the lineage, the parampara. The second we know. The third is from the Upanishads, often recited when people study in groups, asking for auspiciousness in the practice. The fourth is particular to the Brahmin caste.

Those were all my questions, but I thought, in honor of our great love of coffee here at The Confluence Countdown, I’d add one more. One of my fellow trainees asked:

Should you drink coffee before you practice pranayama?

Tim: You should definitely drink coffee before you practice pranayama.

I’d love to let that stand, but after being prodded, Tim added:

If you’re normally a coffee drinker, it could be total disaster to try it without drinking it. Coffee has a great quality of waking up the system and helping clean out the pipes.

Thanks to Tim Miller for his patient answers.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

8 thoughts on “Tim Miller answers some pranayama questions for you”

  1. Bobbie,

    When you do the Ashtanga sequence of pranayama, are the inhale and exhale equal or a 1:2 ratio?

    I don’t have access to a teacher and a very good book that I have states the latter, 1(inhale):2(exhale) ratio, should be used. However, the book isn’t Ashtanga based and an outline of the Ashtanga sequence, that I also have, makes no mention of that.

    Would be great if you could help me to clear up this confusion.


  2. “From practising only asana, one gains strength of the body; from the practice of only the yama, one develops compassion towards all living beings; from practising only pranayama, it is possible to achieve long life and good health.” ~ Yoga Makaranda by Krishnamacharya

    Today I took my daughter riding at the therapeutic riding association. As I was placing her neck brace and helmet on she started to choke. I noticed she was breathing steady and heavily. I asked her what are you doing and she said, “I’m doing pranayama daddy.” You see she is considered completely paralyzed but she can talk in a different way but can’t move a single limb in her body. She does breath on her own so I have been teaching her some pranayama. I told her whenever you are in distress use your pranayama until I can help you. We’ve practiced this over and over and she utilizes it. Today when I watched the yoga confluence and David Swenson was discussing Guruji working with a quadriplegic patient I knew I was on the right track with my daughter. I have been doing yoga and pranayama with her now for some time. She’s 7 and can’t move a muscle yet she benefits from asana and pranayama!

    “Take practice and all is coming.” ~ Guruji

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