Yoga practice is a complex fabric of subtly interconnected threads of development. These threads work on many scales: a repetition of a single movement, in a sequence of movements that make up a practice, in the thousands of practices over a lifetime. One fundamental thread is a gradual transition from gross to subtle. For example:
- Asana (physical postures) practices involve careful coordination of breath + movement + attention.
- Pranayama (breathing practice) is done in a static seated posture. Movement has been replaced by stillness and the practice involves only breath + attention.
- All this is a preparation for a meditative space where breathing is natural and the practice involves only attention.
Pranayama is in a unique transitional role in this overall scheme. The practices that come before pranayama have a quality of doing. The practices that come after pranayama have a quality of being. Pranayama is a kind of frontier where preparatory work we can “do” is completed and we become available to “be” in the presence of emergent meditative qualities.
Pranayama practice is made up of a sequence of breathing formulas and breathing techniques. The practice has a mathematical structure in which constant counting is required of both the length of each breath and the number of breaths. This occupies and involves the mind, it requests presence and creates containment that gives the practice an accessible meditative quality.
A practice session typically takes 5-20 minutes. In the beginning, practices are shorter and focused on acquiring basic skills and developing breath capacity. Then, as breathing capacity increases, the overall length of practice also increases.
Once a day is a good practice target. However, it can be practiced more than once a day if there is a space for it. It is possible to tailor different practices for different needs and different times. For example, if a student is inclined to embrace a deeper relationship with practice there can be a morning practice, a short mid-day practice and a practice for night-time before going to bed.
Pranayama practice is tailored to an individual student. A starting point is established based on an assessment of breathing capacity. The student is given a practice sequence and goes off for a period of practice. When the student feels comfortable and settled with the practice, a review is scheduled and the practice sequence is updated. The frequency of reviews depends on the engagement and development of a student. Typically reviews are more frequent in the early stages (weeks apart) and less frequent in later stages (months apart).
There is practically no limit to the depth and refinement of a personal pranayama practice. It is an artful practice that can span a lifetime.
As personal practices develop over time (at least one or two years), subtle underlying patterns that have been embodied in the practice itself come into a student’s field of view.