Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sitali Pranayama practice with a friend

Image compliments of
Usually, I post a picture of a flower.  Today it's bergamot, a wonderful citrus used often in aromatherapy.  I have "bearing fruit" on the brain.

Last night I shared some time, in practice, with a friend.  In preparation for my yoga therapist training with The American Viniyoga Institute, I've been asked to work with three different people over the course of four sessions to develop a home practice.

A dear friend has volunteered to step into my lair (insert evil laugh here).  We spent our first two sessions together developing a rapport, and building a vocabulary of Viniyoga asana.  Viniyoga is incredibly special in many ways but I'll focus on the training it takes to understand movement as an extension of the breath.  We have a seven posture sequence that we've crafted together.  The initial intention was to address tightness in the hips and psoas.  As we work together, I sense other needs, bubbling below the surface.  I rely heavily on my intuition.  I pick up on a general "flavor" from an early conversation and feel a path stretching out before us.  However, at any one point, I'm continually setting aside that path and listening for new clues, new cues.

What is most important to me is being present and listening to the words and feeling the feelings of the person I'm with.  The words that I give in return are spontaneous, though rooted in the tradition through my teacher.  It's a joy to have the rigorous training that allows for complete freedom and confidence in this work.

Last night I did something very special.  I initiated my friend into pranayama.  (This ain't no Bikram pranayama, for any who do that practice!)  I gave her the "entree" of a breath technique called Sitali pranayama.  Entree means that I gave my friend just some of the instructions that accompany this technique.  We did the tongue curl and ujjayi exhale but skipped the head lifting.  This technique can be done with exhale through alternate nostrils as well.  These aspects (head tilting and alternate nostrils) will be added our pranayama practice next week.

Here's a nice rundown on the technique from Yoga Journal by Kate Holcombe:
The Cooling Breath
Sitali Pranayama is often translated as "the cooling breath" because the act of drawing the air across the tongue and into the mouth is said to have a cooling and calming effect on the nervous system. To practice Sitali, you need to be able to curl the sides of your tongue inward so that it looks like a straw. The ability to curl the tongue is a genetic trait. If you can't, try an alternative technique called Sitkari Pranayama, which offers the same effects.
Benefits: Can improve focus; reduce agitation, anger, and anxiety; and pacify excess heat in the system.
How to: Sitali Pranayama: Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, with your shoulders relaxed and your spine naturally erect. Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue lengthwise, and project it out of the mouth to a comfortable distance. Inhale gently through the "straw" formed by your curled tongue as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, lifting only as far as the neck is comfortable. At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nostrils as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.
The most rewarding part of the session, for me, was giving someone a teeny tiny anatomy lecture on the way the breath works inside the body.  The balloons, the meat bag, the fact that we don't "drag the air in" to our bodies... we actually expand the musculature which creates a small vacuum effect.  The pressure inside the chest cavity is lower as the intercostals and diaphragm contract, which means the air all around us just rushes in to fill the space (equalizing the pressure).  On exhale, everything returns to neutral (not contracted), which pushes the air out as the chest cavity gets smaller.

It's truly enlightening to learn how the air around us nourishes us without our effort.  It can create a new sensation of the activity inside.  I saw this knowledge change my friend's practice completely - bringing it out of the head and into an intuitive, body-sensing exploration.

Talking about the anatomy at the beginning of the practice allowed us to sink into the practice and stay inwardly directed as we moved from asana (through a brief savasana) to pranayama, sitting in chairs.  We brought the knowledge from breath in movement to breath in structure, allowing my friend to feel deeply. I noticed my friend feeling the natural expansion that makes the head feel a little bit like a bobble head (I LOVE this... the head starts rolling around on the top of the spine as the spine grows taller...).

Then we brought a gentle ujjayi to the breath, making the slight constriction in the back of the throat that makes the breath gently audible, like an ocean sound.  Finally, we took the air in through a curled tongue, and out through ujjayi contraction in the throat while the tongue folds back on itself to re-wet.  This allows the air coming in through the curled tongue valve to be cool and moist, bringing a sense of calming and wellbeing to a student with a naturally wonderful, strong, fiery and intense pitta constitution.

I've been a little bit of a wuss when it comes to teaching pranayama, choosing to work with people who've already had some instruction.  This is my first time bringing the practice to someone who hasn't touched the stuff - though she had an experience of breath practice with someone a long time ago, it's not something that's really in her vocabulary.  What made it a good fit was her willingness to learn and discover uncharted territory.  When someone is hungry for tools to help herself, the learning comes quickly.  What a pleasure it was to watch the breath blossom and the mind still.

I give thanks for my position as a conduit of this knowledge and tradition.

Edited to add the testimonial:

Anna's gentle, caring and intuitive guidance during our yoga training sessions raised my personal experience with yoga to a higher level than I could have ever imagined.  I am so grateful for the skills and gifts that she offered to me during our practice and I have been able to develop them into a powerful regular practice that not only helps keep my back issues under control but has also connected me to other levels of myself.  Anna beautifully combined the teaching of the physical postures and actions with the energetic and spiritual insight into the practice as well as encouraging me to be comfortable in creating things in my practice that feel right for me.  I have learned so very much during my short time with Anna and am so impressed with her gifts.  I love that I hear her voice in my head during my practice "there's always room for expansion".  Thank you so very much Anna, and I would be honored to work with you anytime!

No comments: