Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Addicted to prana

I took a couple power yoga classes with alternative teachers recently, due to social reasons. Yes, yoga is like a social activity for me now. Some people go clubbing or go for coffee with friends; I go to various studios for yoga classes with friends whom I haven't seen for awhile. I also try to attend classes of people who have newly gotten their teacher training certifications. It's my way of showing support for fresh new teachers and racking up karma points. I used to get disappointed if people don't reciprocate the favors, but now I've learned that karma is not about how others returning the favors; it's about how I feel about my own chosen actions, which should be a reward in itself.

Anyways, there was one class that was nothing like Ashtanga but I really enjoyed it, and another that I honestly hated. I was wondering why I had such adverse reactions to certain power classes even though I  really appreciate the teachers' enthusiasm and efforts. The initial criteria that come to mind are the sequencing of asanas, the pace and rhythm with which the teacher takes us into poses, and the clarity of the teacher's instructions. After today's gorgeous Ashtanga class, another answer dawned on me: I am addicted to the generation of prana in yoga classes.

To me, if there's no linking of breath to movement, it should not be considered as a yoga class. I guess many of the new teachers, especially those with fitness backgrounds, are too eager to challenge the students, making them hold a tough pose for what seems to be an eternity, or sequence the poses in a way they might as well label as circus or bootcamp training. It's nice that the class challenges the muscles, but the fact that I cannot breath with my movements through the asana sequence they designed bugs me like crazy! I noticed in today's Ashtanga class that the strong ujjayi breathing carried me through tough poses/vinyasas and half way through the sequence I felt energized by my breathing, and had higher energy than at the beginning of class! I think sometimes a teacher's enthusiasm can uplift the entire class (like my rocket yoga classes), and for today's case my own breathing helped me build up more energy. With the power class I liked, I'm not sure if it was the teacher's Anusara training or his martial arts background, but even though he broke his class up into different segments with pauses in between (where I learned to get into a handstand with assists, woohoo!), he seemed to pay a lot of attention to breathing and energy flow in the warm up and cool down sequences.

So, I guess the verdict is that I'm a breathing/prana junkie. For my friends who are not fans of Ashtanga, or who love power classes for the sheer challenge on the muscular body, I'm guessing they haven't really experienced a really good pranyama practice yet. I also appreciate that one first needs to be able to comfortably get into a good proportion of the poses in Asthanga before being able to enjoy an ease of rhythmic breathing, and that takes a good period of dedicated regular practice.

p.s. For my personal record, my heels lifted a millimeter off the ground for kurmasana today for the first time. Woohoo :)


  1. YEahhh on the heels lifting!!! wohooo!!! that is a huge one congratulations... I hear you on the being "addicted to prana or energy generation" from classes, nowhere have I felt that in a bigger way perhaps than in Mysore where not just the teachers but the students are all so focused on it, on going deep and so on... You are brave for trying new classes and instructors, I give you a lot of credit I wonder if I would have the patience... but I suppose socializiing is a good way to look at it, why not? people interested in yoga can be cool to chat with :-)

  2. I feel the same way about Power Yoga classes. Sometimes, the sequences are creative and beautiful and fun, but often it's just too much like an aerobics class. I want to tell these teachers, "just because we have Savasana at the end doesn't make it yoga. Breathing is essential!" I do wonder if some teachers just scrap the whole linking-breath-to-movement thing because, as you mention, breath control can take years of practice to develop, and so many students are just in it for the fitness.

  3. "just because we have Savasana at the end..." That's a good one MY! Not needing favors reciprocated: True Liberation!! Lot's of great energy in this post. I needed that, thanks.

  4. Shaking it up is always a good way to find where you're at. I agree with the breathing. I pick certain instructors purely because they emphasize prana, and especially since it's so easy to forget that we do in fact breathe to live. I find yin to be the best classes to remind oneself, and power to really put the mindfulness into practice.

  5. Nice post! I agree with everything you say about prana. Very often, the fancy sequences in power yoga classes are interesting to do and nice to look at. They also offer the student a sense of instant tangible gratification, since the student can see that they are able to do a particular posture or sequence (or at least try to do it). But very often, the sequences that really build prana (Ashtanga primary series, for example) don't look half as fancy or glamorous as these power yoga sequences. I can't quite explain why, but it seems that sequencing to build prana and sequencing for fanciness/instant gratification often don;t come together.

    Congrats on your heels lifting in Kurmasana! :-)

  6. Thanks Claudia! Sounds like the energy in Mysore India must be incredible! I think I'm starting to get less patient in trying out new classes.. I go because my friends who have their own favorite teachers rave about them. Word-of-mouth recommendations work pretty well most of the time.

    MY, I love your line... I feel the same!! I think rhythm + tone of instructions play big roles in helping students establish even breathing. Probably not that easy to pull off. I'm amazed at the consistency of instruction cues given by my favorite teachers.. I wonder if they taped their own voices, played back and improved upon them until they've perfected their monologues :D

    SF, I can always count on you to leave me such heart-warming comments :)

    Jethero, I had no idea how poorly I've been breathing my whole life until I started yoga. When I first started practicing I actually used to get dizzy from breathing as deeply as the teacher made us. My body wasn't used to having that much influx of air at once. Crazy!

  7. Hi Nobel, you sure have the knack for turning the abstract thoughts in my head into a paragraph that actually makes sense! I think it might be possible to build prana in those fancy sequences if we were given the chance to practice the sequence until the body can do it without strain and the brain can focus on breath flow instead of directing muscle/limb movements. Hmm.. that's like watching an expertly performed dance, where you can see the performer who has practiced the sequence many many times developing an energy flow rather than mechanically going through the moves. But that's not how those Power yoga classes work.

    So maybe the secret to building prana is repetition rather than black magic in the Ashtanga sequence? I mean, the sequence does make sense in systematically warming up and opening up different joints in the body, prepping for the poses down the road, but it's not the only sequence that can generate prana.

  8. Fellow prana junkies unite! ;) Reading your post made me realize that I'm a prana/breathing junkie too. It's the best way to clear and settle the mind and leave you refreshed for the day.

    I can see how the absence of a breath+movement connection doesn't seem like yoga (especially in Power Yoga classes), but what about restorative forms of yoga like Yin, where you hold a pose for minutes at a time?

  9. Savasanaaddict, I think of Yin and restorative as more challenging meditative practice to clear the mind. In terms of breath, Ashtanga and power yoga generate masculine, strengthening energy, whereas Yin and restorative make use of the "feminine", healing energy. You still send breath to all parts of the body but you're asking your body to calm down and rest. Some people are so used to holding tension in the muscles at all times (even when sleeping) it actually takes 5-10minutes for the body to respond to mental signals telling it to stop holding tension. The practices help us gain back mental control of the body.