DO Hold Your Breath!


If you come to class you know what Pranayama are: breathing techniques and exercises. In Sanskrit ,Prana means the body’s vital or psychic energy and yama means mastery.  My first teacher, trained in the Sivananda tradition, placed much emphasis on Pranayama; I couldn’t imagine yoga without it. Yet, somewhere, en route to America, much of it was “lost in translation.”When new students with yoga experience appear in class, I am always curious to know if they have had any Pranayama training. Surprisingly, most have not.  I always try to make it non-threatening for first timers, as it looks pretty weird and can be intimidating.  That said, I am excited at the prospect of helping the uninitiated take their practice “to the next level.”  That said, there is some mind/body awareness required and a level of subtlety and patience required; it’s easy to understand why fitness/group exercise yoga often gives it a miss.  However,  in the yoga hierarchy, Pranayama is above all asana (postures), so even the most difficult poses are subjugated to it.

My first teacher referred us to research by a German Doctor in the 1980’s in which a group of yoga teachers did Ujjayi Pranayama (Don’t know what that is? Come to class!) while a control group did not. Both groups had  their brainwaves recorded.  One teacher in the experiment recalled, “I sat in the lotus pose and did Ujjayi, when, without warning, one of the researchers struck the metal table hard. It made a loud crash. But it didn’t affect me.”

The researchers were expecting all the subjects to react and come out of their relaxed state, but the yoga teachers’ EEGs did not change or show disruption, while the others did. Somehow,  the “alpha activity” in the teachers’ brains was stable. Don’t know what alpha waves are?  Come to class!


“When the breath is irregular, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still and the Yogin obtains the power of stillness.  Therefore, the breath should be restrained.” ~Hatha Yoga Pradipika

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Shaila Cunningham

Shaila Cunningham

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