Breath Teaching Cautions

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we examine the fundamental cautions related to pranayama.

Objective

Become clear on the fundamental cautions related to practicing pranayama and the associated implications and best practices for teaching about the breath.

Description

Clarify the importance of distinguishing between preparatory breath practices and formal pranayama techniques. Delineate which practices are safe for beginners and which are not. Learn which aspect of the breath cycle requires particular experience and skill to safely practice and teach. Explain cautions to be observed during practice. Describe multiple perspectives from which to consider and teach breathing practices and pranayama.

Introduction & Benefits

Focusing on the Breath: Extensive Benefits

As explained in the lesson Yoga’s Impact on the Nervous System & Stress, some of the benefits of working with the breath include the following.

  • Breathing affects every system in the body.
  • Although part of the autonomic nervous system, breathing can be controlled at will.
  • Research shows the direct connection between breathing patterns and emotions.
  • Breathing techniques are associated with stress management, pain relief and improved posture.
  • Yoga teaches that pranayama is the most effective way to extend and direct life energy.
  • As you navigate within the deep section on Pranayama & the Breath, you’ll find more about the effects of specific practices.

An Inspirational Story

A funny thing happened to me [with regular pranayama practice] … I noticed my sugar cravings were pretty much gone. As I continued to regularly practice pranayama, I continued to have a lack of almost all cravings, and I began to lose weight… I have reaped so many benefits for my pranayama practice… I am happier, and more accepting of and compassionate with myself and others. I appreciate my life… My lung capacity has increased, maybe as much as 35-50%… I am a much calmer person… My blood pressure is down enough for my doctor to cut my dose in half… My resting heart rate is down in the low 40s… Last, but certainly not least, my chronic neck pain is much better given the good stretch the back of my neck gets in pranayama, as I use Jalandhara Bandha in each practice. – Baxter Bell

Summary of Cautions

Breathing Practices vs. Pranayama

There are many breathing practices that are safe for most students. Most traditional pranayama techniques, however, are associated with vital cautions and contraindications — some general to all pranayama practices, and some specific to the technique. Please become familiar with these cautions and consult with an experienced teacher before practicing and teaching them.

Fundamental Teaching Cautions

  1. Do not teach advanced techniques to inexperienced students.
  2. Teach preparatory practices to beginners.
  3. Refer students with chronic conditions to experts.
  4. Teach breath retention only if qualified, and only to experienced students.
  5. Pranayama (vs. breathing exercises) requires knowledge of bandhas. (And, as you’ll see in the bandhas lessons, they are not appropriate techniques for beginners.)

Practice Cautions

  • Do not force.
  • Avoid practicing before or after strenuous asana.
  • Be mindful of posture.
  • Ensure fresh air is circulating.
  • Wait after eating.
  • Be aware of cautions for particular techniques.

Go deeper into these cautions below.

Fundamental Teaching Cautions

Don’t teach advanced techniques to inexperienced students.

  • Traditional wisdom teaches that pranayama requires a still body and calm mind as developed through asana. Some lineages adhere to this while other modern styles teach pranayama alongside asana.
  • In considering this point, bring to mind raw beginners who exhibit bodily tension, habitual egoic aggression, and an inability (yet) to listen to their body or observe their mind. Asking them to sit still for an unknown period of time and then directing them to extend and hold their breath or spend minutes counting their breath tends to result in rounded shoulders and stiff torsos, strained faces and tense bodies as these students heroically “fight” to perform the task they have been given.
  • In such cases, asana and breathing fundamentals are a necessary precursor to safely practicing pranayama.

Pranayama Requires More Care Than Asanas

Pranayama is attempted only when the body, nervous system, and lungs have been strengthened by asana practice. This usually takes at least two years. As breath is subtle, even more care has to be taken over it than over the asanas. – Silva Mehta

Teach preparatory breathing practices to beginners.

  • Although many students may not yet be ready for most formal pranayama techniques, basic breath practices are excellent preparation.

Refer students with chronic conditions to an expert.

  • Be aware that the majority of breath practices and pranayama techniques are intended for relatively healthy individuals.
  • When appropriate, refer students with chronic conditions to a yoga therapist or other expert.

Your Breath Can be a Powerful Ally

Please note that I’m not recommending that you try to breathe away chronic anxiety, fatigue, or depression. None of these conditions is easily or safely self-treated. In fact, tackling them by yourself, without professional supervision, could make them worse. But your breath can be a powerful ally in coping with temporary physical and emotional states — whether you’re despondent about an argument with a close friend, apprehensive about an upcoming job interview, or exhausted after a tough day at work. – Richard Rosen

Teach breath retention only if qualified, and only to experienced students.

  • Spontaneous pauses may be part of an evolution of practice. Pranayama practices incorporating kumbhaka, however, are known to be powerful while also presenting serious risk.
  • Holding the breath is only recommended for experienced students with qualified teachers.
  • Most recommend kumbhaka only with awareness of bandhas.
  • “Like the formal Root and Upward Locks, outer retention (bahya kumbhaka) is a relatively advanced practice best learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher.” (Richard Rosen)

Sri Swami Satchidananda

One should be very careful about retention, however. It should be practiced properly under personal guidance, without going beyond what a teacher tells us. The prana is very powerful energy. We shouldn’t play with cobras without a proper cobra trainer nearby. – Sri Swami Satchidananda

 I. K. Taimni

Deep breathing has nothing to do with pranayama and may be practiced as an exercise for promoting health to any reasonable extent. Its beneficial effects depend chiefly upon the increased intake of oxygen and a somewhat greater influx of prana into the body. As it does not affect the pranic currents in the body its practice is not attended by any risks…

Breathing alternately through the two nostrils begins at once to affect the pranic currents to a certain extent and tends to remove the congestion from the channels in which prana flows normally… This purification of the nadis is a preparatory exercise and all those who intend to practice pranayama have to go through a long course extending over several months or years… This exercise is not attended with any risk and can be adopted with caution by those who live a well-regulated and clean life and are not given to excesses of any kind. But since the pranic currents are affected in the process, caution and moderation are necessary and it is advisable to work under the supervision of an expert.

Real pranayama begins when the breath is stopped for some time between inhalation and exhalation… The retention of breath, called technically kumbhaka, affects the flow of pranic currents in a very marked and fundamental manner… Pranayama has to be practiced for a long time, the period of kumbhaka being slowly increased over long periods of time… The important point to keep in mind is this. Not only is kumbhaka the essential element of real pranayama but it is also the source of danger in the practice of pranayama. The moment one starts retaining the breath — especially inside — in any abnormal manner, the danger begins and one can never know what it will lead to, unless there is a practical and competent teacher at hand to guide and correct the flow of these forces if necessary. – I. K. Taimni

Formal pranayama requires knowledge of bandhas.

Knowledge and Application of the Bandhas

Simple breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing can be healthy and helpful. But in order to really practice pranayama the knowledge and application of the bandhas is important. Without the application of the bandhas, pranayama practices can be injurious to one’s health. A comprehensive knowledge of both the theory and practice of the bandhas is essential. – Swami Rama

 * * *

Serious pranayama should not be practiced without prior knowledge of the bandhas… The Yoga Rahasya states that pranayama without application of the three bandhas does not confer benefits and that without the bandhas, pranayama is useless and may give rise to disease. Contrarily, if done with all three bandhas, pranayama will destroy the causes of all diseases, according to its author, Nathamuni. – Gregor Maehle

Practice Cautions

Do not force.

The most widespread caution is that one must never force or “overdo” any breathing exercise. Creating discomfort of any sort is an immediate cue to release the effort, return to natural breathing and only begin again if it can be done with ease.

Make sure you don’t grip your breath with your body during retention. This tends to harden just about everything. You want especially to keep the tongue, eyes, ears, and brain soft during retention. As you’re learning to hold your breath, you might want to wrap your forehead with an elastic bandage and shrink your brain to the back of your skull. – Richard Rosen

 * * *

It is not advisable to do pranayama immediately before or after strenuous asanas, as these disturb the breath and the lungs. It may be practiced after a quieting asana session consisting of supported inverted poses. — Silva Mehta

Be mindful of posture.

The deep roots of wisdom that brought pranayama to the world are clear about the crucial role of the spine in practice. Preparing with asana for some months or years is particularly important in Westernized locales, where poor posture and muscle tone inhibits the ability to sit with alignment and comfort. Propping can be a vital aid for many. In the Iyengar tradition, breathing practices are first practiced in Savasana with the back supported in order to train the lungs without causing strain.

Ensure that fresh air is circulating.

Amy Weintraub advises having fresh air circulating in the room or to go outside.

Avoid practicing right after eating.

As with asana, it’s usually recommended to wait two or more hours after eating to practice.

Be aware of particular technique cautions.

See the particular cautions for each specific pranayama technique.

Not Everyone Experiences Practices the Same Way

Even though breath practices and pranayama often provide a common set of results, NOT EVERYONE EXPERIENCES BREATH PRACTICES THE SAME WAY. Here, Nina Zolotow of Yoga for Healthy Aging explains:

My beloved long-time teacher Donald Moyer… was personally trained by B.K.S. Iyengar. He told me that the type of classic pranayama that Iyengar taught made him — not sure I can remember the exact word — nervous or anxious or something like that. That’s why Donald came up with his own way of practicing and teaching pranayama that involved bringing awareness to certain parts of your body and focusing on breathing into those areas. And many of his students loved the way he taught pranayama.

But I didn’t. I found — and trust me I gave his type of pranayama many tries over the years — that while his style of breath work didn’t make me anxious, it made me feel “bad,” not calm and relaxed. How to describe it? Sort of heavy and mildly depressed. So I talked with him about it. He told me about his experiences with Iyengar. I told him about both my positive and negative experiences, both with classic Iyengar style pranayama and his way of teaching. And Donald’s advice to me was that I should either do a different breath practice (such as extending my exhalation — which works well for me) or none at all. So that even in his classes, I should just go ahead and do whatever worked for me. And that’s what I did. (Thank you, Donald.)

So really the bottom line for pranayama is if it’s not working for you, it’s not working for you. And that means no matter what the official story is about a practice — especially if something makes you anxious — you shouldn’t do it. – Nina Zolotow