Breathing in Conversation

Prana and Apana

In the physical practice of yoga, our approach to the body becomes expansive and poetic. We allow our awareness to drop deep inside by considering the body to be a vast landscape, or even a universe unto itself, replete with the pull of physical forces and the interactions of elements. In various postures (asana) different parts of the body become stable as other parts become fluid; the vinyasa method involves (among other things) juxtaposing contrasting landscapes, training the body to become progressively more responsive and malleable. There are obvious biomechanical benefits to this: for example, any physical therapist will tell you that the key to keeping joints healthy is to keep them moving and well aligned. But there is also a less obvious functionality to training the body to be fluid and adaptable. Creating new positions and spaces for bodily movement has a corresponding cognitive effect: the mind also expands and becomes flexible. Yogasana increases somatic intelligence, and while I can't claim that mastering downward dog will suddenly allow you to breeze through Kantian metaphysics, progressively refining postures and movements requires a parallel refinement of mental processes. It is an intelligence-building practice.

Vinyasa yoga is built upon, animated by, and governed by the breath. There is no physical aptitude requirement, and there is no expectation that an advanced practice involves more pretzel-like postures. When we practice we're learning to understand the innate qualities of the inhale and exhale, and how those qualities relate to the particular posture or movement we happen to be working on.

I've been learning a lot about those innate qualities of the breath from Richard Freeman lately and I wanted to use this blog post to both process what he's teaching me and also share what I've learned.

If I had to boil down my dedication to yoga to a single reason, it would probably be the <em>grounding</em> nature of the practice. As a moody artist-type I'm always in need of more grounding and stabilizing; before I found yoga I had no method of reigning myself back in from the psychological intensity of my creative practice, and I was suffering as a result. I'm far from a yoga master, or even an advanced practitioner, but years of practice have provided me with a great understanding of how to harness the practice to recenter myself, and I put that knowledge to work every day.

Now, about that grounding/centering. According to Richard Freeman, the inhale and exhale both have innate patterns associated with them. These are both physical patterns and subtle patterns -- emotional and energetic patterns -- that literally ride on the wave of the breath. It's not quite as esoteric as it might sound. The inhale pattern is called (in the Asthanga Vinyasa tradition) prana, and the exhale pattern is called apana. One way to explain the goal of the physical yoga practice is the uniting of these two patterns. Since they are opposing energies, when they come together, they cancel out each other's movement, resulting in a kind of stillness.

Within the context of asana practice, every physical position and every movement has a relationship with these prana and apana patterns. Most forward folds, for example, are intrinsically apanic: they are associated with the exhale pattern. Most backbends are inherently pranic, corresponding to the inhale pattern.

Prana, the inhale pattern, is expansive, building, lightening, and stimulating. When the light bulb goes off in your mind as you are hit with a novel idea, you inhale, right? The "a ha!" moment is pranic.

Apana, the exhale pattern, is reducing, contracting, solidifying, and grounding. It is inward turning. When a traffic cop stops your car, talks to you for a while, then decides to not give you a ticket, you exhale into your relief.

Where these patterns become interesting in the physical practice is in their <em>conversation</em>. As Richard says, prana loves apana and apana loves prana, and the work of the practice is to always bring them closer together, especially as you're working on postures that emphasize one or the other. So in pranic patterns, the idea is to consciously apply some of the apana pattern to ground the stimulation. Likewise, in apanic patterns, the need is to lighten the grounding pattern by introducing some prana as a counter force. Without this cross-patterning, there is reduced sensitivity and subtlety and thus reduced potential for meditation.

The binding of prana and apana is also essential on an anatomical level: the inhale and exhale patterns also pattern the movement of the spine and the rotational spins of the limbs. Prana (inhale) puts the spine generally in extension, and apana causes spinal flexion. So even on an anatomical level, it's important for the health of the body to work with both patterns. For example, in urdva dhanurasana, upward-facing bow posture, the pranic pattern expands the heart center and the rib cage. But unmitigated prana will also cause the lumbar spine to contract, a very common problem in this pose, that can result in stressing of the low back and sacroiliac joint. Applying apana from within the posture causes the coccyx (tailbone) to curl in, the muscles of the pelvic floor to tone, and the low back to stabilize. Richard humorously attributes the "spacy" feeling many people get from backbending to a lack of engaging the grounding apana pattern in these poses.

Like all topics yogic and ayurvedic, the prana / apana conversation is both universal and local in scope, and its application is a fine art. Since it's ultimately about breathing, and we're breathing all the time, cultivating the prana/apana relationship might be useful to any aspect of life. Our goal may not always be stillness, but if more grounding and centering is needed in any part of your day or aspect of your life, perhaps it may be productive to consider the relationship between these fundamental dynamics. For me, I often find myself becoming too pranic when I'm engaged in painting and other creative work; I get very stimulated, ideas start racing, and I have difficulty making real progress on the actual work in front of me. After a little while, I flame out, exhausted. Solving this problem is multifaceted, but part of the solution may be as simple as making sure I'm exhaling slowly and fully. And the brilliance of yoga practice is that, sometimes, it really is that simple.