Learn how teacher Rodney Yee uses pranayama to quiet the mind.
Rodney Yee would like you to stop, sit or lie down, listen, and feel. The iconic yoga teacher—who pioneered accessible asana practices through the creation of instructional DVDs—has become an ardent advocate of restorative yoga, body-scan meditation, and pranayama. To Yee, pranayama refers to techniques that help you relax and return to your natural, easy way of breathing. In the following pages, learn more about his approach, then practice an exclusive restorative sequence designed to help you relax, open up your diaphragm, and prepare to welcome prana—your essential life force. This calming sequence offers a taste of Yee’s new Yoga Journal Master Class workshop on beginning a pranayama practice, launching next month.
I realized pranayama was a powerful tool for quieting the mind in the mid-’80s. I was first introduced to the practice through Iyengar Yoga and Ramanand Patel, an early student of B.K.S. Iyengar. Around 1985, Ramanand started teaching pranayama once a week out of a student’s house in Berkeley, California. One day, after his class, I felt like I was waking from a hypnotic spell. Ramanand said to me: “Today is the day you dedicate yourself to pranayama every day—or let go of the practice.” Initially, I had felt some effects from the practice, so I was curious what would happen if I committed. But more than anything, what kept me on track was that I simply trusted my teachers—that they had experienced something spectacular with pranayama, and that if I were disciplined, I would, too. From that day on, I practiced every morning for 30 minutes, for nearly 25 years.
Pranayama is often interpreted as “breath control,” but to me equating breath with prana is like saying the brain embodies the soul. Prana is the subtle force that animates you, while breath is what brings oxygen to your cells. But because it is impossible to measure prana with our present technology, we can only sense that life force through feeling the breath. That said, observing the breath is a wonderful meditation practice and probably the single best tool for understanding subtle alignment in asana. To feel the breath flowing in an asana, it is usually necessary to shift your effort and alignment. When prana is spread evenly throughout the cellular body, equanimity and compassion arise, and the fluctuations of the mind cease. To think that we are in control of this phenomenon is mistaken. The hard part, paradoxically, is to let go of working, whether consciously or unconsciously, and to simply listen.
Pranayama and meditation are constant acts of letting go. Through these practices, you can let go of the tension in your calves, throat, and belly, but more importantly you can let go of psychological blockages, freeing yourself from your perspective of, and attachment to, who you consider yourself to be. Think of these psychological obstacles as dams on a river. But unlike river dams, which block the flow of water, our internal emotional dams obstruct the flow of breath and prana. Through your asana and pranayama practices, you become intimate with these bindings. From there, you can assess how you identify with the blockages and how your ego is dependent on holding onto your story. Through this intimate awareness, you might see the silliness of this trap. If you let it, prana and love can flow through and into everything and restore the freedom of being.
If you see yourself as separate from everything outside of yourself, then there’s potential to be in conflict with everything. There’s no peace, no relaxation. When you start to free up unnecessary tension in your body and quiet the turmoil in your mind, the illusion of isolation lessens. If you can marinate in the breath and prana, you can move toward contentment and quietude. Then something else is revealed. Practicing asana, pranayama, and meditation can unveil the reality of oneness and wholeness.
Teaching pranayama is difficult. Back in the late ’80s, I would schedule a pranayama class and people would come for about a month, then they’d let it go. When it comes to pranayama, very few people stay tenacious. Some people, looking for a quick fix, don’t think there is enough of an immediate benefit. For others, it causes too much change, which can be confusing or scary. The pranayama practice is subtle, but it affects us at the root of our physical and mental existence. Because the practice is powerful and delicate, we need to dedicate ourselves to it daily. Only when it is done daily do we build up the sensitivity that is necessary to understand the language of the breath and prana. Every asana class I teach, I attempt to get students to experience the absorption of prana.
Teaching is a vital aspect of who I am. My brothers and sisters were all teachers—it’s a part of our DNA. It means that I get to share something special; yoga still raises the hair on my arms. It is endless and infinite; it feels like the whole gamut of life is captured in yoga. Sharing it makes it more real for me. I get to test out practices, asking, “This works for me; does it work for you?” and “This makes me feel this way; how did it make you feel?” Yoga helps me feel that I’m not alone or in conflict with the world. Sharing it makes me whole.