In the Ashtanga Yoga world the discussion about Pranayama is almost as big as the one on Adjustments: pranayama yes or pranayama not? And if yes, when?
On the path of yoga you may have encountered 2 different approaches:
- “do not attempt pranayama till you can sit in an asana for at least 3,5 hours” – typical of Ashtanga yoga as traditionally taught in Mysore, though often mitigated in ’till primary series is mastered’;
- “pranayama is for everybody, also for beginners” – often found in Hatha yoga world, at least in this part of the world (currently in Rishikesh, India).
I believe both approaches have plus and minus. Talking about the minuses, waiting to sit sthira sukham (firm and pleasantly) in a posture for such a long time before attempting pranayama might require all life and beyond, hence missing pranayama benefits, for part-time yogis as ourselves (well, if you are reading this, you likely are a part-time yogi :-D). On the other side, teaching control of prana to somebody who has developed no breath or body awareness yet, seems to me a bit stretched.
So what is the correct approach, if there is one correct approach?
According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika (one of the main yoga text), pranayama is to be practiced after being established in asanas and… learn it from a guru!
“Thus being established in asana and having control (of the body) taking a balanced diet, pranayama should be practised according to the instructions of the guru” – 2.1 HYP
And… why to learn it from a guru?
“By proper practice of pranayama, all diseases are eradicated. Through improper practice all diseases can arise” – 2.16 HYP
Does it stop you from wanting to mess around with your pranayama practice? 🙂
I personally believe a certain awareness of breath has to be developed before starting playing with your nervous system, as pranayama strongly works on it, hence I do share the mitigated traditional view. In addition, approach it gradually as recommended by the texts:
“Just as lions, elephants and tigers are gradually controlled, so the prana is controlled through practice. Otherwise the practitioner is destroyed” – 2.15 HYP
But even more, ask yourself why you want to practice pranayama. There is no reason to do it just for the sake of it. If it is for therapeutic purposes, most likely breathing exercices can help. Pranayama is something more, a spiritual practice whose aim is well defined:
“When prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air element)” – 2.2 HYP
“Therefore pranayama should be done daily with a sattvic state of mind so that the impurities are driven out of sushumna nadi and purification occurs‘ – 2.6 HYP
This is the belief I’ve developed based on my experience. What is yours?