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We don’t think about breathing too much, even though it’s vitally important to us. Because it happens automatically we tend to think everything’s taken care of.

But the breath is more than just “air in air out”; how we breathe affects how we feel, how much energy we have, even body temperature and mood are affected. The practice of pranayama is an ancient method for controlling energy in the body and mind.

Modern medicine acknowledges that improper breathing can cause stress, asthma symptoms in otherwise healthy people, even affect the heart (many sleep apnea sufferers have heart problems due to a lack of oxygen during sleep). Learning how to be aware of your breathing patterns and changing them for the better may be the best way to begin reversing many health problems.

In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, the ujjayi breath is the first one taught – deep, slow, even inhale and exhale breath, and sound in the throat – because it’s simple to learn and profound in its effect. Ujjayi is heating to the body and calming to the mind, and because the inhale breath is equal to the exhale breath in length with no holding of the breath it will over time create balance in the other systems of the body. When the practitioner has gained reasonable mastery over ujjayi breath and the asanas (postures) together, more advanced breath control methods may be learned. In the tradition, practicing incorrect pranayama can create disease while proper practice will alleviate and/or prevent disease.

In your daily life, notice your habits regarding your breath – is it shallow, rapid, uneven? Can you notice what you feel like emotionally when you breathe this way? Try deepening your breath, slowing it down, make it even and smooth; how does this change how you feel?

In my university courses many students note that after class they feel more relaxed, calmer, more focused. They are asked to practice ujjayi breath and reminded to return to it when they forget. Parallels are drawn between their Yoga practice and their daily lives and examples given to illustrate how Yoga can be brought into their interactions with others. For most, this is the first time they have thought of “exercise” being a mindful practice though it is hoped that it won’t be the last.

In the grand scheme of things, our practice is really an attempt to bring deeper meaning to the word “Yoga”; think of Yoga as the art and science of becoming fully conscious, a means of becoming aware of the inner workings of each cell in our bodies, how the energy flows in it, and how the same process (even in different forms) occurs in all other living things. And as “Ayurveda” is the science of life itself (and Yoga is a part of Ayurveda), this awareness transcends the mere physical workings of our being and extends to all aspects of living.

Through this awareness we can Begin to Realize, Embody, And Transmit Healing Energy to others in whatever form we choose….


I hear this a lot from people. Because of the images of long-time practitioners who have busted their asanas to be able to bend over backwards and stick their heads up their own butts (and live to tell about it) the average Joe and Jane can’t wrap their brains around the idea that these “freaks of nature” weren’t born that way.

Most people who practice never end up looking like they get a job with Cirque du Soleil, but they do end up more flexible than when they started. The keys are consistency, moderation, and long-term dedication to practicing every day (or almost every day). If you never start, you’ll never get where you want to go. If you only practice once a week your progress will be slow (assuming you make progress at all). Even if you only do a little each time (even five minutes!), practicing every day will make your routine smooth and effortless over time. As things get easier, you may wish to add more into your routine. If you do other things for fitness you could use the yoga routine to warm up, cool down, or both. If you play a sport, yoga can help keep you from injuring yourself by improving your joint mobility (a stiff joint usually ends up an injured joint. say hello to your knees….),

Here’s a short routine for you to try based on the Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar):

Stand with your feet together with weight balanced evenly between your feet. Lengthen your low back and draw in your lower belly slightly. Inhale deeply and exhale completely, each time trying to keep the ratio of in and out breath even.

Inhale, raise your arms up and stretch as tall as possible.

Exhale and fold as far down as you can; if you can’t touch the floor, bend your knees as much as you have to (you want to feel your abs!). If this is still very difficult stand up on your next inhale, lifting your arms up, and exhale to lower your arms to your sides. Don’t feel discouraged, you just need more time to loosen up! Repeat this until you can reach the floor. Perhaps this will be your entire practice every day until you can touch the floor without too much effort. Might take a week, might take longer, might take less time – you’ll never know until you just do it!

When you can reach the floor without too much difficulty (as in, you’re not busting a gut to do it), begin as before: inhale reach up, exhale touch the floor. Then inhale and just lift your head and chest (elongate your upper back) and exhale to step your right foot back into a lunge. Keep things challenging by keeping the back heel off the floor and reach back through the heel until your leg is straight (if this is not possible, lower your right knee toward the floor for balance but work at not putting your weight on the knee; you need to keep the pressure on your feet). Inhale and stand up; keep your left knee over your ankle and your back leg straight (or the back knee lightly touching down if needed). You want to feel the stretch in the top of your right hip and no pressure in your low back. If you feel your back, try to tuck your sitting bones under you and draw back your belly and ribs until your shoulders are over your hips.

If you can balance, reach your arms up, and if you can still balance try looking up at your hands. On an exhale, fold forward keeping your belly pulled in. Feel like you have to push your way to the floor rather than letting gravity pull you down. Keep the front knee bent and the back leg straight. Once you reach the floor, inhale and as you exhale step the left foot back next to the right until your body is parallel to the floor (as if you were about to do a pushup). Hold this position as you inhale again. Exhale, push your hips up and stretch your heels to the ground – if they don’t come down, you can step your feet forward until they do. Try to balance your weight between your hands and your feet. If you want to stay here for a few breaths, feel free!

On an inhale step your right foot forward and stand up to your “balancing warrior”. Exhale to fold back to the floor. Inhale step the back foot forward and lift your chest. Exhale to fold forward. Inhale to stand up with arms overhead. Exhale and lower your arms.

Repeat the entire thing stepping back with the left foot first.

If you find this difficult, remember that practice is the key to mastery of anything. If you want to be a better runner, practice running; if you want to be a better golfer, golf! But whether you are a runner or a golfer (or a housewife or GI Joe) you will benefit from stretching your muscles and building strength and endurance in a functional manner.

And just maybe, your next life will be as that circus freak with your leg behind your head!

(to see some of this online, check out YouTube!)

March 2009
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