By Azahar Aguilar
Life breath, life energy, life force. Pranayama is the vital energy behind a yoga asana practice, and instructors have the opportunity in every class to make time for the basics, if not more advanced techniques as well. Wonderful moments exist at the beginning, middle or end of a practice, no matter the style of class, which offer space for the instructor to speak on the importance of pranayama, and the tools that guide prana energy.
If new faces populate an instructor’s class, the simple emphasis of pranayama building blocks can create such a different experience for yoga students. Duo space exists to remind veterans to focus on the prana, and to newcomers, the opportunity to view their breath and body anew.
Certain practices have pranayama exercises and explanations built directly in, Bikram and Hot Yoga does this well by always incorporating Pranayama at the beginning of the course with Standing Deep Breathing and at the end with Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath). Other practices can incorporate attention on the breath exercises in key poses.
Standing Deep Breathing: At the beginning of class, the pupils stand tall, feet slightly separated, shoulders pulled back, crown of the head lifted. Gather the hands together in a fist down to the webbing, and place the thumbs against the throat and the knuckles underneath the chin. Relax the shoulders and exhale out all stale air through the mouth. Slowly lift the elbows up toward the ceiling on an inhale through the nose, to the count of five or six seconds, biceps parallel and shoulders stay down. Once the elbows reach shoulder height, slowly exhale out the breath for the same five to six seconds, through an open mouth. At the same time tilt the head back to open the throat, squeeze the elbows as close together as possible with arms parallel with the floor. Repeat this process ten times, and bring elbows down to neutral to complete each circle and begin again.
As the practitioners activate their bellies in this exercise, encourage them to fully fill the belly with breath – to expand it out into the room, and with the inhale, pull the belly button into the spine, to allow all the air to press out fully. This sets the energy for the entire class, and allows an immediate connection to the prana.
Tree: Midway through class, from a tall standing position, take the right leg and press the bottom of the foot in a kickstand with toes pressed in the ground for beginners, against the calf for intermediates, inside the thigh for more advanced, or inside the hip crease on the left leg (outside knife edge of the right foot pressed there), and remind the body to pull the right knee toward the back of the mat for alignment with the left knee.
Allow the pupils to place one hand on the belly and one hand over the chest when in their own version of tree. Take a breath and focus the students on the movement there, the feel of the rise and fall of the belly. Actively press the belly out and notice the lift and expansion on the inhale – and then allow it to collapse back towards the spine with exhale. Continue this conscious breath and body movement for the length of tree, all the while focusing the drishti, the gaze, at a solid point in the room in front of the practitioner.
Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath): To end class (before Savasana), with eyes closed sit in a comfortable seated position (Lotus, hips over heels or laying down), with the hands resting long (on the knees if comfortable), spine tall, and exhale out used breath. Breathe in halfway, then quickly snap the belly up and into the spine on exhales, while at the same time blow out air through the mouth as though there were a candle six inches in front of the face. Breaths are fast and sharp. Repeat quickly thirty times slow, and thirty times fast, and check in with how the body feels the entire time (as this is a more advanced technique).
Savasana: The end of class is another beautiful space to teach the technique to feel the belly lift and fill, and collapse and empty. Again, use the hands on the stomach and/or one on the belly and one on the heart, to allow the practitioners to fully feel what their body does during the full breath – new and veteran yogis both. With the earth underneath the body as complete support, the breath feels much different than it did in the standing tree exercise above.
All of these options also give the instructor space to walk around the room and connect with a row of students at a time. Watch how the bodies take in breath, and move to help certain yogis connect more fully and safely.
At some point in the class, offer the space for practitioners to ask questions after class, and communicate pranayama, especially more advanced methods, are difficult to perform correctly. This also opens the door to one’s education on the subject.
Breath must have a center stage moment (or many moments) in each yoga class. The importance, technique and reminder to connect with the sacred life force allow students a fuller and safer yoga experience. Honor the breath, energy, life force, and soul of the yoga asana practice by acknowledging the tools of breath.
© Copyright – Azahar Aguilar / Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division
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