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

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