by Ella Ben-Zvi
I will never forget the time I almost missed my first Pranayama class. Yellow dust from the dirt road went up and into my nostrils, blocking the little air I was able to breathe. I started to choke. “You are not going to make it!” that familiar voice was repeating in my head. My side began to hurt and my hair was in my eyes. I opened the door of the studio, panting like a dog, “Am I late?” The girl behind the desk raised her gaze and looked at me baffled, “Late for what?” I tried to calm myself down, “For class!” She scratched her head. I couldn’t believe it, the class was canceled and I ran there for nothing, so frustrating! She looked at her screen, “Oh that’s right,” she said, “And it’s so weird! No one is here, you are the only student who came.” My mat dropped to the floor, along with my morale. “Wait here, I’ll go ask her.” “Her” was The Wizard, a world renowned Yoga and Pranayama teacher, who came to teach one class in Dominical, Costa Rica, before continuing south to Panama.
“You can go upstairs. She is waiting for you.” Step by step I went up and opened the door, awkwardly peeked inside. “Namaste,” she said. “Namaste,” I bowed. It was only the two of us in the huge yoga room. “What do you want?” she asked me straight forward. “I want to breathe.”
Silence filled the air. “Well,” The Wizard took a big breath in, “I will teach you how to breathe. Did you bring any air with you?” She asked. I was puzzled and didn’t know what to say. She gave me a serious look and waited for my answer. Then a smile came up on her face, “I am kidding with you! Relax a little…” She started to laugh and then we both laughed, now I was a little less embarrassed. “What is your name?” she reached out with her right hand. “My name is Ella.” “Well Ella, that was your first Pranayama lesson! Laughing is the best way to practice the alchemy of the breath, it turns air into happiness”. She smiled at me, and I felt joyful energy spreading through my body. The stress from being late, worry about missing out, fear of looking ridiculous had left my shoulders, and a new fresh ease took its place.
Pranayama, the yogic practice of breathing, was always a magical mystery to me. Much like how the alchemist turns rocks into gold, the Pranayama exercise turns air into powerful energies. For example it can create warm energy with BHASTRIKA (Bellows Breath), a belly breath practice of equalizing the inhalation and the exhalation. Or it can create cool energy with SHITALI, using the tongue to sip in fresh air.
“Air is what PRANA is made of, but it is so much more than just air”. She said, “The full translation of the word in Sanskrit is Life force, like the Chinese word CHI or the Japanese word Ki, it is the energy of life that flows in our body and all around us.” She opened her arms and spun around, it looked like she was dancing with the air. “We all have it, it is everywhere and it is free! But this is exactly the reason why we never notice it, why we take it for granted.” She stopped dancing and looked at me with her piercing gaze, “This is the second lesson of Pranayama – the practice of paying attention, of seeing what is there on the tip of our nose!” She sat down and guided me to sit with her. “Close your eyes and open your nostrils.” Following her lead, I tried to focus all my attention on my breath, on the tip of my nose. “What are you thinking about?” She asked but I had no thoughts.
One of the greatest benefits of Pranayama is its power to clear our thoughts. When we bring our awareness to the breath, the fresh air moves from our lungs to our head. In the exercise of KAPALABHATI, we use sharp and fast exhalation to create a cleansing energy. In English it translates to skull shining breath, as the rapid breathing is heating up the fire in our belly, the air turns into a bright warm energy, cleansing the body as well as the mind.
She took a big breath in and I followed her lead as the air turned into an OM, a long and vibrant OM. “Did you hear it?” she asked without waiting for an answer, “This was your third lesson. What you heard was the magic of turning air into sound. And now it is time to move!” We practiced ASANA for an hour, keeping the UJJAI breath throughout the whole practice, with a constriction in the back of the throat. “Listen to your breath!” The Wizard said again and again. “Close your eyes and listen”. I opened my ears, listening to the air moving in and out, synching with the sound of the waves of the great Pacific Ocean that was breathing with us outside the window.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” said The Wizard, as if she really wanted my permission. “What is the name of your PRANA, your PRANA doesn’t have a name??” What is she talking about, I thought to myself? “Your PRANA is your companion, and you should give it a name. And if you’ll be good to your PRANA, and you’ll get to know it on a personal level, you’ll be able to call it and ask it to go wherever you want inside your body. You see, this is how you turn the air into your best friend”. When we learn how the PRANA flows, we can learn how to direct it towards different areas in our body. Place your hand on your belly (try it!) do you feel the belly expanding with air under your palms? In the same way, you can direct the PRANA to other body parts; not only to your belly and chest, but also to your shoulders, jaw and knees. Do you feel how it relaxes and calms the area you are focusing on?
“Breathe in, breathe out, rising and falling. Focus on the air as it comes in and out of your body. Now stop breathing!” Her command caught me by surprise, leaving me breathless. “Exactly!” she said with her deep voice, “You see, the retentions between the breaths aren’t less powerful than the breath itself.” In the practice of Pranayama there is a great importance of the KUMBHAKA, the holding of the breath, feeling the abundance of the air after the inhalation and the emptiness of the body after the exhalation. One of the exercises of KUMBHAKA is to do 4 counts while breathing in, 4 counts holding in, 4 while breathing out and 4 counts for emptying out. With the “4 / 4” practice, the breath is shaped like a square of four equal sides. The counting helps to keep the mind focused and grounded. The use of counts is very effective in many of the Pranayama exercises. Another example is to count to 3 when breathing in, and count to 6 when breathing out, elongating the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
“Now my dear, there is just one more thing you need to know about your breath. Close your eyes and I will teach you how to turn PRANA back into air, listen carefully.” I tried to listen, but she stopped talking. I opened my eyes the wizard wasn’t there. I stood up and looked around, I walked around the yoga studio but couldn’t find her anywhere. Where is she? I went downstairs; the girl at the front desk was still staring at her screen. “Hey, did you see The Wizard?” I asked. She looked at me, baffled again, “who?” “The Wizard! The Wizard! She was here and then she just disappeared! Where did she go? We have to find her! She promised she would teach me how to breathe!” The girl tilted her head to the side and asked me perplexed “Aren’t you already breathing?”
Ella believes the most adventurous journeys begin on the Yoga mat. After 3 years of traveling the world, Ella is grateful to have a found a spiritual home at the Laughing Lotus in San Francisco. In her classes, she creates space for self exploration and self healing through movement, relaxation and breath.
A long time ago, when gods walked around the earth with people, all of the gods and demons got together to try to find the amrita. The amrita, also known as the nectar of the gods, can be understood as the sweetness of life, or to put it simply the good stuff. (You might be thinking to yourselves, that seems improbable, I don’t like stories, give it to me straight. But stay with me, this applies to your life today! In 2015! And for me, that time three days ago when I had temper tantrum at a bank in the Mission). Anyway, the gods and demons discovered that the amrita was buried deep under the ocean floor, so they all worked together to move through the tides and churn the ocean floor. All kinds of things came up when they did this, Lakshmi was born (the goddess of wealth and abundance) and pizza and flowers and the way it feels to curl up in the sunny spot on the couch. And then it came! The amrita! But much like Pandora’s box, with the amrita came the most deadly, world ending nuclear poison. The gods and the demons were shaking in their boots! What could be done? Lord Shiva (the god of destruction), took a deep breath, picked up the deadly poison and put it in his mouth, where it couldn’t harm the world. It didn’t harm him either, it stayed in his throat. Shiva is often depicted with a blue throat and face because he purified the poison using ujjayi pranayma, also called the warrior’s breath.
But back to my temper tantrum, I mentioned earlier. I was at the bank dealing with some fraudulent charges on my card. My bank had all these rules about what I needed to contest the charges. I felt stressed, vulnerable, and impatient and all of this bitterness, this poison, started welling up in my throat. And unlike Shiva, I did not take a deep breath, instead I opened my mouth and all of the bitterness came pouring out. I felt helpless as I watched all of my bitterness poison the environment around me. I yelled and even the phase “you’re all crooks” was involved! Did this help my cause? NO! Did it make me feel better? NO! Did it make the people around me feel better? CERTAINLY NOT.
Shiva saved the universe because he didn’t spit the poison out but by not swallowing the poison he saved himself. He didn’t stuff it deep into his heart or his body, only to be churned up later. He didn’t spit it out letting poison into the world around him. He used his breath to purify it. He sat with that poison in this throat, he breathed into it and it was purified.
We all have the power to purify through breath. If we give ourselves some breathing room, we are capable changing toxic emotions into inner peace. Next time that you feel bitterness welling up in your throat or seeping into your heart, take five minutes and practice ujjayi pranayama. Here’s how:
1. Find a comfortable seat where you can sit up tall, either crossed legged or sitting on your heels, or upright in a chair.
2. Tuck your chin slightly into your chest so the back of your neck is long.
3. Take a couple big exhales through your mouth, saying “hhhhhhaaaaaaa”
4. Close your mouth and begin to breathe in and out through your nose, trying to smooth and balance your inhale and exhales.
5. Imagine that you are trying to fog up a mirror with your exhale, so that you can feel your breath travel across your vocal cords, trying to make that hhhhaaa sound through your nose‐ might sound a bit like the ocean.
6. As you inhale, think “let” and as you exhale think “go”
7. Continue for five minutes or longer
8. When you’re finished, take a moment to notice how you feel.
Rebecca believes in leaving yoga classes feeling better. She feels privileged to have found yoga as a way to to connect her mind, body and spirit and is honored to lead others in this quest for wholeness. Her classes are playful, loving and full of light. She is dedicated to helping others find the breath of thread within themselves that connects us all with each other. View Class Schedule and take a class with Rebecca.
“Breathe into your armpits.” He said. “Now breathe into my hand” as he placed his hand between my shoulder blades. Did you know that we don’t use 60% of our lung capacity on a regular basis? Yoga and my body worker have taught me how to send breath I didn’t know I had, into places I didn’t know existed.
Pranayama is often translated as controlling the breath, but I prefer to explain it as the extension of breath. Through practicing these acts of controlling our Prana, our life force, we actually can extend the amount of breath our lungs can hold. No wonder hardcore yogis can live to be over 100!
Pranayama affects my life in many more ways than I realized. Here’s a list of what Pranayama, and more generally, my breath, means to me and how it’s impacting my life every second of every day:
Breath as a measure of health and wellness.
When I’m not in my routine, when I’m not getting enough sleep or not taking care of myself or eating healthy food, it shows up in the quality of my breath. That first OM when I finally get on my mat feels a bit stuck, a bit shorter than it normally does. I can feel the toxins, and spiritual/emotional/mental/physical gunk that needs to be released. Moving through a yoga class helps. Have you ever noticed your OM feels more powerful at the end of a yoga class compared to the beginning? This is yoga healing through your breath; moving things through your body and helping to increase your lung capacity.
A healthy mind has an easy breath. ~Author Unknown
Breath gives us the ability to concentrate, and focus
We are told to concentrate on our breath in countless practices. From meditation to running and many activities in between, we are guided to listen to and feel our breath as a means of staying in the present moment. As long as we are alive our breath is moving us, which means we always have the ability to tune in to ourselves. One can always come back to the breath.
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. ~Thích Nhất Hạnh
Pranayama gives us the ability to uplift or relax ourselves in any situation
Can you remember a time when you felt something akin to stage fright? Our shortness of breath is a very visible physical manifestation of feeling fear. From a young age many of us are taught certain breathing practices to help us regulate our breath in moments of intense emotions (e.g. counting to 10 when angry, curling into a ball to shorten the breath if one is feeling anxious, etc).
Practices like Nadi Shodhana and Sitali can help soothe and cool us while practices like Kapalabhati and Bhastrika can help detox and energize us and make us feel empowered.
When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace. ~Author Unknown
Practicing Pranayama gives us the ability to speak up, and sing out, and helps us move through fear.
Singing is breathing with added vibrations to create sound. Many people, including myself, are quite self conscious about others hearing them sing. We are all given these beautiful lungs, mouths and tongues that allow us to project our voices, to speak UP and sing OUT. Learning to use the full expression of our voice through song allows us to find our full expression in life. I’ve found that as I sing more and become more comfortable with projecting my voice through song, I’m also more comfortable speaking up in meetings and in large groups of people. I feel more confident expressing myself in all areas of my life.
Fear is excitement without the breath. ~Fritz Perls
The ability to create and participate in community
Being able to communicate with each other is critical to our survival and fulfillment as social creatures in this life. Feeling the power of our voices joined together in song, or in protest is something of awe. Having a voice allows us to connect with our oneness with everything. Having a voice allows us to enact real change. To support one another and be there for ourselves and our community. Our breath, and thus our voice, is a very powerful tool.
Breath is Spirit. The act of breathing is Living. ~Author Unknown
Breath is our fuel, our life force, our power and strength.
We often talk about food as our fuel, but breath, this life force, is much more vital (how long can we live without breath?) Every cycle of breath feeds our cells on the inhale and removes impurities on the exhale. Pranayama enables us to bring ease to these cycles for breath that many of us take for granted. Bringing ease to our intake of life fuel and excretion of toxins is surely a required ingredient to the extension of our lives.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am. ~Sylvia Plath
To breathe is to love. By focusing on our breath we are focusing on our life. We’re taking responsibility for our highest Selves. Breathing is not always easy. We often find we have to breathe through things, breathe into things. By being courageous and doing our work, we will find an ease in our breath, and thus in our life, that will carry us through.
There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then, there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity. ~Rumi
Sena teaches from a deep desire to make yoga accessible to everyone, and strives to infuse each class with a sense of playfulness. She believes that yoga can help us heal and that we all have the capacity to heal ourselves. She works at Google by day, and is gradually accomplishing her goal of getting techies into yoga, one engineer at a time.
Check out the schedule to see when she’s subbing next!
I once had an asthma attack as a kid. I was at my grandparents’ house after finishing a day at kindergarten class and my grandma noticed me breathing strangely, gasping for breath as I sat in her living room watching television. Alarmed, she called my mom and off I went to the hospital where I stayed for a few nights. I never had another attack after that, but my lung capacity henceforth has always left a lot to be desired. After every cross country meet in high school, I would cross the finish line doubled over, short of breath. This was far beyond what my teammates experienced. In my mid twenties, I had to receive medication for a serious illness that restricted my lung capacity even further. For these reasons, my breath was always something I struggled against as a child and young adult, and my nervous, fearful temperament reflected this fact.
All of this began to change when I began practicing yoga. I discovered, to my amazement, that I could actually befriend and work with my breath. The life force coursing through me didn’t have to be my enemy. I could slow down, take up space, and not have to go through life as if I was being chased by a giant grizzly bear! I noticed my behavior change as well. I became more extroverted, calm, assertive and adventurous as my practice grew.
The benefits of mindful breathing are manifold. Here are just a few:
Reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body
Shifts body from autonomic nervous system agitated “fight or flight” reactions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system of “rest and digest” response, returning the body to homeostasis
Positively shifts emotional states
Lowers/stabilizes blood pressure
Relaxes the muscles
As many in the community know, the past month has been rather tumultuous to say the least. The only thing any of us can do is take life one day at a time and keep breathing through it all. No matter what happens, just keep breathing. What other option is there, really? We can try with all our might to influence the world around us, but we can not control most externalities. All we can even attempt to control is ourselves. Pranayama is a Sanskrit term defined by many as “control of the breath.” By starting at the most gross, visceral level and guiding the breath, we can begin to direct the mind as well. There is no more valuable resource than this. I often tell my students that I don’t care what the pose looks like, I’m far more concerned with the quality of their breathing.
The most common breath practice in yoga is something called ujjayi pranayama – victorious breath. It is aptly named because it is a powerful tool for helping the yogi work towards self-mastery while releasing misplaced desires to manage what is beyond one’s reach. This is, of course, the most meaningful victory of all.
Try this simple exercise to experience ujjayi pranayama for yourself:
Find a comfortable seat in which you feel both relaxed and alert. Sit up tall and let your shoulders release away from your ears. Bring both hands to your stomach and feel your hands move outwards on an inhale and inwards on an exhale. Keep your mouth open for now. The idea is to replace our normal shallow breathing that occurs mostly in the chest with slow, even deep belly breathing. Place one of your palms directly in front of your face and on your next exhale breath as though you’re trying to fog up a pair of glasses. This will produce an audible, rather strange sound not unlike Darth Vader from Star Wars. (When Madonna tried teaching this to Rosie O’Donnell back in the nineties, the comedienne exclaimed “Ohhhhh my God, that sounds like Satan making capuccino!!!!!”) Keep that sound and position of your throat going for the inhale. Breath in and out like that a few more times.
Final step: keep everything the same but close your mouth and breathe only through your nose. You’ll still be making a strange, audible sound, but it won’t be quite as loud. Once that feels comfortable, you can begin to slow down your breath and intentionally equalize the length of the inhale, the exhale, and even the spaces in between. It might feel laborious at first, but you’ll get it n no time if you keep practicing.
Be grateful for every breath, it means you’re still alive.
Enrique draws from a background in dance and theatre and seeks to challenge and inspire his students with enthusiasm, humor and kindness. He believes that yoga is a fantastic tool for dissolving limitations and uncovering the brave, wise, compassionate warrior within. Join Enrique for Candlelight Flow on Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30-9:30pm!