Ashtanga Yoga and Pranayama

(from a Facebook post of Guy Donahaye)

Pranayama is an essential feature of Ashtanga Yoga, occupying one of the eight steps or practices of this integral yogic method.

Even for those who do not associate the physical practice of asanas with the comprehensive system that integrates all eight steps as explained by Patanjali and others, breathing is an essential feature.

Pranayama is a composite of two words: prana – breath and ayama – to increase or control. Even in asana practice, lengthening, co-ordinating and controlling the breath is a key characteristic of the method.

While the focus on breath in asana is a clear factor in Ashtanga asana practice, what are the features and purposes of pranayama as an independent practice?

On the one hand pranayama greatly benefits asana practice by specifically focusing on control of breath in isolation – something that can then be applied as an enhancement to asana practice, on the other hand, pranayama is a bridge to meditation.

So often, in our tendency to project our Western values and preferences onto Eastern practices, we fall into the trap of assuming that intensity and extremes will take us to the next level. Pattabhi Jois did nothing to undermine this idea – if anything he seemed to support it.

Just as we erroneously tend to think of Samadhi as an ecstatic state, a highly exalted and difficult to attain state that requires intense effort and dedication, we also tend to believe that the practices that might lead there should be characterized by this intensity.

This is nothing but the projection of our own character and prejudice!

The first principle of yoga is ahimsa. Not doing harm is characterized by gentleness, softness, peace, quiet – not by intensity, extreme effort and “feeling the burn”. This intensity is a feature of our character, not of the practice that will take us to the next level.

On the one hand, KPJ was an intense individual and the emphasis of his teaching was on the physical, not the subtle. On the other hand he was confronted by intense and toxic Western individuals who were competitive, athletic, stressed out and distressed – he concluded that these individuals wanted or needed extreme methods.

KPJ only taught pranayama to students who attained advanced asana practice and neglected to share this practice with students who did not show the ambition to attain peak physical fitness.

His teaching of pranayama was also characterized by extremes and the intentions behind his sequencing of pranayama exercises have to be questioned.

Rather than leading towards a quiet and introverted state that moves the mind towards meditation, the practices he put forward were more focussed on energizing and extraverting the mind.

There are a few individuals who have dedicated long term practice to the method he put forward, but most most have recognized that this method is not effective in moving the practitioner towards the next steps of ashtanga yoga. There are even individuals, who having dedicated decades to these practices have experienced serious negative health outcomes.

Even Sharath teaches pranayama differently. KPJ would have mocked Sharath’s teachings – not intense enough! You can see his views on simple pranayamas such as Sharath teaches here (at 2:45):…

Putting aside the question of intensity, the pursuit of a sequence that does not expressly intend to take the practitioner deeper into meditation is also dubious. While it may be valuable for teachers to learn an array of practices for the benefit of teaching, without a specific intention or insight into the means of guiding the student deeper, these practices can be at best meaningless and at worst actually harmful. The warnings about the potential harm are evident in the hatha literature.

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