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