I went to a new class at Main Street Yoga yesterday, and I was surprised that there was no asana whatsoever for the first 30 minutes.
As we all settled in criss-cross applesauce style on our mats, the instructor began her routine speech about how part of this particular class is learning advanced breathing techniques. Okay, I thought, I can get down with that. A few minutes of Ujjayi before practice never hurt anybody.
About three minutes in to her lecture about breathing, I started itching to move. I had come to this yoga class to get rid of some bad energy I was holding in my body from an emotional night before. I wanted strong postures, moving flows. This sitting and listening deal was starting to make me energetically and emotionally uncomfortable.
But I pushed myself to be present and focus. I actually enjoyed soaking in some more yogi knowledge. My teacher was explaining Kapalabhati, Skull Shining Breath. What especially caught my attention is that Kapalabhati actually activates the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight side of our brain. Weird, I thought, because the purpose of yoga for most Westerners is to give us a chance to get out of the fight or flight state we live in and into the rest and digest state of the parasympathetic nervous system. My teacher explained how Kapalabhati can cause anxiety or trigger panic attacks. So why should we practice this technique? It seems so counterproductive to everything I know about yoga.
Well, Kapalabhati is recognized as having the power to “churn” things up, physically and sometimes emotionally. It can be utilized in asana in strong or difficult postures in order to conjure up the extra power you need to maintain a long hold. Depending where you are at, it may also stir up your emotions, uncovering ignored baggage or bringing certain feelings to the surface. An uncomfortable practice indeed, but a necessary one.
I thought I was going to deal with my emotional night by getting rid of it. Powering through a yoga class and ignoring it under the guise of “letting it go”. Instead, I was pushed to be present with myself and my emotions. To feel, not fight. To use this churning breath to uncover and become aware of what was really bothering me.
I left class feeling calm in the midst of my own chaos. Like my problems may not have been solved, but I sure was empowered to handle them. They were no longer able to ruin my day, and I didn’t have to spend all my energy consciously trying to ignore them, either.
All of this from simply learning a new breathing technique!
Pranayama is often an overlooked, underrated aspect of our yoga practice, though it has the power to bring us incredible depth and life. Prana itself means life force after all, and yama means control. When we learn pranayama exercises, like kapalabhati, we are learning new ways to live consciously, to control our responses to ourselves and the world around us. Rather than to resorting to our default state of survival, we learn to thrive.
So, lesson learned. Never again will I internally grumble when my instructor takes up time of class to formally teach breathing. Instead, I will be incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn to live a little bit more fully! Actually, if you attend studio classes that do not do this already, I urge you to ask your instructors if they would be willing to teach pranayama.
Now, you can look up these breathing techniques online, but I and every other yogi professional out there will strongly warn you not to begin practicing without proper guidance from a well practiced mentor. Pranayama exercises are techniques, and there are a lot of nuances that we just cannot police on our own without knowing the ins and outs like a more experienced yogi would. There is also danger, like with kambalabhati, in self-inducing panic attacks if you are not practicing correctly. This should not deter you from picking up a pranayama practice at home, but it definitely means you should invest in proper instruction from an online course or an in-person studio experience rather than just performing a google search!
Namaste, my loves!