Cuing students in the asanas with a balanced attitude of vairagya (letting go) and abhyasa (persevering practice) helps ensure that students feel supported in their practice while feeling free of attainment-related expectation. By conveying this attitude through every aspect of one’s teaching, including in offering and giving tactile cues, students more naturally find their way to their inner teacher, utilizing the intensity of physical sensation and the barometer of the breath to guide their effort in their personal practice.
Indeed, an essential element of this balanced approach to sustainable and transformational yoga practice rests in the breath. Curiously, although the classical writings on Hatha yoga give primary emphasis to pranayama (from pra, “to bring forth,” an, “to breathe,” and a combination of ayama, “to expand,” and yama, “to control”), pranayama practice—basic yogic breathing—is typically given little attention in many contemporary yoga classes. As with asana practice, with pranayama it’s important to develop the practice gradually and with steadiness and ease.
However, soft, gentle, subtle ujjayi—“ uplifting”—pranayama can be safely practiced by all, including complete beginners, pregnant women, and those with blood-pressure issues, infirmities, and other pathological conditions. The breath itself nourishes our cells and our entire being. The light sound of ujjayi helps us keep our awareness in the breath in a way that makes it easier to cultivate the smooth, balanced, steady flow of each and every inhalation and exhalation, providing immediate feedback on our movement in, through, and out of the asanas. As such, it is a perfect barometer for sensing and cultivating energetic balance in doing asana practices. If the breath is strained, it’s a sure sign that one has slipped away from steadiness and ease.
Rather than trying to squeeze the breath into the asanas and the movements within and between them, ideally our practice finds expression in and through the integrity of the breath. As we will see, this is equally an essential element in guiding the practice. As we move closer to crossing the bridge from practicing to teaching yoga, all of these qualities of practice become part of the path of the teacher.