Teachers Notebook: Focus on Pranayama in Asana
By incorporating conscious breathing into asana practice, you can help your students experience how it can support and enhance the effects of each posture.
One way to ensure that your students get the full effect of their yoga practice is to help them align their movements with their breath. The breath provides the barometer we need to figure out whether we’re moving too fast or feeling a bit sluggish, whether our alignment is creating space and freedom in the body or restricting it. Your students will love this abbreviated master class sequence. You’ll find the entire sequence (plus others) in our YogaFit Pranayama training, happening at our ever-popular Minneapolis MBF in June. Check it out!
1. Begin class with the students in a supine position, on their mats, knees bent and soles of the feet on the floor, legs extended, or legs over a bolster, depending on the comfort level of the students. Review the three-part yogic breath and remind students that the word pranayama means control of the breath as well as the control and extension of prana, the subtle life force that circulates throughout all of the koshas. Use the placements of the hands on the body (abdomen, chest, and upper chest near the collarbones) to feel the three-part breath.
2. Bridge Pose vinyasa. Place the soles of the feet on the floor with the knees and fit hip-width apart. On an inhalation, start to lift the hips, low back, mid back and then upper back off of the floor. At the same time, raise the arms overhead alongside the body so that the hips are at the person’s maximal lift at the same time that the arms are overhead and reaching behind the student. Exhale and simultaneously bring the arms back down to the sides and use the musculature of the core to articulate the vertebrae and return the body to the mat. Repeat this 5 to 10 times, with a focus on the three-part breath.
3. Knees to Chest vinyasa. Draw the knees into the chest and gently squeeze in concert with the breath. Inhale and gently allow the legs to move away from the body, exhale and feel the legs draw into the chest. Integrate this movement with the contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm muscle.
4. Supine twist. By opening up the spine, we begin to stretch some of the accessory muscles of respiration, including the serratus anterior and the intercostals muscles. Begin by drawing the right knee into the chest and roll it over to the left. Extend both arms out into a t-shape. Bring attention to the right side of the body, particularly the area in the upper, mid and lower chest in order to stretch the accessory muscles of breathing. Repeat the supine twist on the left.
5. Cat/Cow Stretches. Practice cat/cow stretches, focusing on the articulation of the spine and the movement of breath. Repeat 4-10 times.
6. Downward-Facing Dog. From all fours, move into downward facing dog. In this position, pay attention to and slightly exaggerate the natural action of the abdominal muscles to contract on the exhalation. A wonderful pose to engage Uddiyana Bandha, the lift of the abdominal muscles that support the spine.
7. Kapalabhati Pranayama. From Downward Dog, come to All Fours and then into a cross-legged position. With the spine long and tall, take a deep inhalation, and then exhale completely. At the end of the exhale, draw the abdominal muscles in rapidly as you continue exhaling sharply through the nose. Start with one round of up to 20 breaths and then rest and breathe normally for a few breaths. Stop here or repeat one to three times. Pause and notice the breath and state of mind before moving on to the next pose.
8. Mountain Pose. Come back into Downward-Facing Dog and walk the hands toward the feet to come up to standing. From Mountain Pose, begin several rounds of Ujjayi Pranayama, with a slight constriction in the back of the throat. Many people describe this as being like Darth Vadar or the sound of the ocean. Combining ujjayi breath and asana, practice 3 to 6 sun salutations.
9. Standing Pose vinyasa. In a standing pose sequence—Warrior I, Warrior II, and Triangle—use the inhalation to extend the arms out to the side in a sweeping motion and end the inhalation with the arms overhead. Moving into Warrior II, exhale the arms out to the sides. Inhale and then exhale the arms into Triangle Pose. Repeat the sequence several times on both sides. This helps integrate breath and movement, stretches the accessory muscles of respiration, and provides a visual with the arms for the expansion of the breath.
10. Extended Side Angle variations. Use a lateral pose such as extended side angle or extended side angle variations to continue this work with the extension through the lungs and the side waist.
11. Child’s Pose. Segue back into downward facing dog and notice the movement of the breath through the sides of the body. From downward facing dog, move into child’s pose. Notice the movement of the breath in the sides of the body and the back of the body along the spine. On the inhalation, feel the shoulder blades slightly lift away from the body, and on an exhalation, feel the shoulder blades drop back in to the body. Sit up slowly.
12. Savasana. Finish with 5 to 10 minutes of Savasana.