Pranayama is the practice of experiencing the boundless potential of prana, or life force, inherent within us. It’s less about contorting the breath and more about removing the obstructions that block its flow. From this perspective, pranayama is a surrender to the awesome reservoir of depth and power already within us.
Pushing or bullying the breath to meet our expectations is a square peg round hole situation. If we force our breath beyond its capabilities, it will create strain. This is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve in our pranayama practice. In pranayama, we learn to trust the breath and allow ourselves to be breathed. First, though, we must learn how to get out of its way.
A pranayama practice begins with paying attention. When we pay attention, we become more sensitive to what’s already there. We learn about our breath’s true nature by observing it in its natural habitat. Over time, attention evolves into awareness. Awareness cannot be willed—it can only be cultivated through attention. We practice cultivating awareness over many, many years. There’s no rush. There’s also no end because awareness is infinite.
The best way to begin a pranayama practice is to start exactly where you are. It’s a good idea to support your body so that you’re comfortable. For many, supine positions can be helpful for promoting relaxation. Here’s one of my favorites: Fold two blankets into long rectangles that measure the length of your trunk, neck, and head. Stack them one on top of the other, alternating the folds. Sit on the floor in front of the blankets. Loop a strap to approximately hip-width and slide it up over your knees to the middle of your thighs. Tighten it a tiny amount, just to create the feeling of the thighs rolling towards the midline. Lie down on the blankets behind you.
You can begin by scanning your physical body to notice where you might be holding tension. Pay attention to your face, relaxing around your eyes and jaw. Move down the body towards the feet and let go where you can.
As you drop into yourself, you will come up against discomfort. You will observe yourself trying to mastermind your own experience. In those moments, and there will be many, practice zooming out. Reconnect with your physical body to ground you in your attention. Focus on where you feel ease in your body and breath. Bring your mind to the quality of space. Where do you feel spacious and expansive? Let your attention rest there.
Slowly and with patience, our relationship with the breath deepens. It becomes a sort of friend. In time, our pranayama practice guides us inward towards a more easeful and expansive relationship with ourself.