On Practice & Teaching
Waking Up: A Daily Morning Pranayama–Meditation Practice for Everyone
After 15 years of doing this practice pretty much daily, I’m writing it out for the first time as requested by the folks in the December 2019 5-day sequencing immersion at triyoga in London.
Enjoy doing and sharing this practice for fully waking up and getting on top of the day.
Start in a simple seated position (Sukasana, Padmasana...) for a few minutes (3-10), at first simply sitting and allowing awareness to be full and present.
Teach sitting: neutral/level pelvis, spine and head, active rooting of sitting bones, connection of "groundedness" and spaciousness, highlighting this idea/effect from time-to-time in much of what follows. Use whatever props it takes to sit as comfortably tall as can be in that moment.
Simply sitting, breathing seems to naturally come more into awareness; go with it. One might cue the four phases of the breathe – puraka, antara kumbhaka, rechaka, bahya kumbhaka – allowing it rather than actively cultivating it. I usually suggest feeling how one's bodymind is moving with the breath, thus more connecting breath with awareness and sensation.
With rechakas, bring awareness to the natural way the belly engages and lends to greater grounding, then keeping the very light easy engagement of the belly as the breath flows in begin to more fully sense how grounding enhances that natural expansion associated with the inhalations. I often suggest the visual/kinesthetic sense in the body akin to how in filling a jug with water it spreads evenly outward and upward…go with it.
Gradually cultivating ujjayi pranayama, I might teach the technique (depending on who's in the class) (one simple way is mouth open, breathing only though the mouth to get the light whisper-like sound and vibration in the throat for a few cycles of breath, then maintaining those qualities of sound/feeling with the mouth closed).
Now use the sensations created by ujjayi to cultivate sama vrtti (equal or same fluctuation – the inhalations and exhalations the same in pace, duration, texture...) for several cycles of breath, still attuned to the kumbhakas – making the transitions in and out of them as smooth and seamless as can be.
Next, stretch the exhalations longer the inhalations – visama vritti (unequal fluctuation) for several cycles of breath. Here I borrow from Patanjali's idea about asana in suggesting the idea of "sthira sukhum pranayam," encouraging the most minimal (or no) disturbance to the qualities of breathing one was experiencing with sama vritti. Here I suggest paying closer attention to the transition out of bahya kumbhaka: no “disturbance.”
Now stretch the inhalations to match the lengthened exhalations (thus an expanded sama vritti), stilled attuned to sthira sukhum pranayam and still connecting breath with overall awareness and sensation.
Staying with the breath, making sthira sukham asanam (steadiness, ease, and presence of awareness) and sthira sukham pranayam most interesting, begin very slowly swiveling the spine around in circles (recently dubbed “Sufi Circles” by some), all the while with equal rooting of the sitting bones. Gradually expanding the circles, continue for 1-2 minutes before switching directions.
Coming back to center, come to all fours, alternately extending the legs back with toes curled under on the floor to release tension from the knees and legs.
Sit in Vajrasana with one foot (not ankle) resting on the other (Thunderbolt…use props, and consider a propped Virasana [Hero] if Vajrasana isn’t easily accessible and comfortable).
Renew ujjayi and sama vritti for several cycles of breath before doing several cycles of viloma pranayama, starting with a single pause at the midpoint of each inhalation and exhalation. Suggest staying with one pause if that’s what it takes to maintain sthira sukham.
Over time (as in the next 10+ years, but starting in this practice) explore stretching everything – movement of the breath, vilomas, kumbhakas – eventually to five vilomas held for a count of five and movement of the breath between those the pauses to a count of five. Start with one pause, and counts of 2-3 when the breath is moving and when holding it. Hold the breath lightly, only so strongly as it takes to keep it there.
As before with kumbhaka, be attuned to the transitions in and out of the pause(s) – smooth and steady as can be. If the breath rushes even a little, or there’s any other sort of disturbance, back off a little or a lot. Explore using sensations in the eyes, throat, and heart as registers of sthira sukham.
Renew awareness of sthira sukham pranayama as you stay with the viloma practice for a few or several minutes.
Coming back to simple ujjayi, consider introducing mula bandha as a nearly natural effect of the movement into bahya kumbhaka. Emphasize light and even lifting of the pelvic floor without bearing down at all.
Introduce retention of the kumbhakas. With bahya this leads of uddiyana bandha (contraindicated if pregnant). Emphasize completely relaxing the belly before inhaling. With antara teach jalandhara bandha with a super comfortable throat and neck. One doesn't need to scrunch up!
Do several cycles of breath with retained kumbhakas. Over time explore vilomas along the way.
Renew simple ujjayi and sama vritti for several cycles of breath, come to all fours to stretch out the legs, then return to sitting as before (Vajrasana).
Make tight fists and bury them into the groins. Gazing a bit up while taking a deep inhalation, with the exhalation slowly fold forward, pressing the fists firmly into the groins while drawing the forehead toward the knees – sensitive to the knees, low back, and neck. Sthira sukham. With each inhalation slowly rise back up. Do this 10 times.
On the 10th inhalation retain the breath for as long as one comfortably can. Then slowly exhale, enjoy a few cycles of ujjayi, just being in it, then slowly come to Savasana for 1 minute, completely relaxing and letting it all soak in.
Come back to sitting in Vajrasana with the hands resting on top of the thighs or knees. Do three rounds of kapalabhati (skull lightening) pranayama. Do not do this if pregnant, experiencing hypertension, anxiety, other nervous disorders, or cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial flutter, atrial fibrillation, tachycardia, etc.
On the third cycle of kapalabhati, explore positioning the hands and arms as though hitchhiking. Gazing toward the knees, slowly raise the arms and gaze (the gaze as though in the plane of the hands, such that when the arms are level the gaze is level to the horizon), continuing until the arms arm fully overhead, palms are together, and the gaze is to the thumbs (or not…honor the neck!).
When the arms come to level extend the fingers and radiate out and up from the heart and out through the fingertips…all the while rooting though the sitting bones. Start with arm-raising practice with ad duration of perhaps 30 seconds. Over time, with sthira sukham, explore going for 5 minutes.
Slowly come to Savasana; be there for 1 minute, completely relaxing and letting it all soak in.
Come back to sitting in a simple cross-leg position or Padmasana. Position the fingers for nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breath – pinky and ring fingertips together, tips of index and middle fingers tucked into the base of the thumb).
Do several cycles of basic nadi shodhana, then reset with a few cycles with simple ujjayi.
Consider simply sitting for a few minutes, then come to a full Savasana (5+ minutes).
Explore further iterations of ujjayi, essentially retracing the practices given above: vrttis, vilomas, retained kumbhakas, and kapalabhati.
Simply sit. Play with Patanjali’s suggestion of pratyahara, relieving the senses of their external distractions. Put differently, play with suspending the cognitive apparatus from the outside world. You might wish to stay in that, concentrating on something (dharana) and naturally releasing into a contemplative state (dhyana).
As calm and present as can be in that moment, gradually allow your senses – and you – to be in a natural state, in the nature of your being amid the natural world of which we a part. We might call this apratyahara, sensing how you are in and of the wholeness of the universe. Here you might find guidance in Sally Kempton’s wonderful Meditation for the Love Of It in conjunction with the 112 micro-practices given in the Kashmir Shaivite Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (a good rendition is found in Daniel Odier’s Yoga Spandakarika).
Thank you for letting me share. Enjoy your day!
Email: [email protected]
Mark Stephens Yoga
1010 Fair Avenue, Suite C
Santa Cruz, CA 95060