Our BYSJ Posture Talks are in-depth discussions and demos that detail each Bikram Yoga posture’s form and intention. Let’s kick it off with Pranayama – Standing Deep Breathing!

Michele Vennard and Matt and Sarah Newman explore the importance and purpose of this exercise. As Michele noted, it sets the tone for the rest of the class and helps build a mind-body connection. Watch the video of their discussion and demo, and read the highlights below.

Michele: It’s nice to be here talking about the postures. I’m a teacher here, and owner of Bikram Yoga San Jose, and I’m here with staff teachers Matt and Sarah. We’re going to start our BYSJ Posture Talks with a discussion about Pranayama – Standing Deep Breathing. Oh my gosh, what a way for a new student to start.

Sarah: The most complicated thing that we do.

Michele: You almost feel like, “Oh my god, can we just get through this?” Honestly, the rest of the class is not that hard.

Matt: It’s got the two most difficult things in the class: standing up straight and breathing.

Michele: I’m sure students are not even thinking about that. But we know it can give them a sense of confidence when they figure it out. When I first started Bikram Yoga, there was something proud about Pranayama – Standing Deep Breathing; I was learning a breathing technique to be able to feel my lungs on an inhale and feel my lungs on an exhale. Right away, you start building that mind-body connection. We don’t think about it at all, yet we do it 100,000 times a day.

Sarah: The interesting thing is with breathing, you can think about and control it, and you can not think about it; it’s the only function that is both voluntary and involuntary. Consequently, it is the connection between the mind-body structure.

Matt: What I always liked about it was that I’d walk into the room, and it didn’t matter what state my mind was in coming straight from work. My head could be busy and dizzy or maybe frustrated or annoyed. And I go in there, and I have this fairly simple repetitive thing that I have to do with breathing, where I’m just left to my own devices to get on with it. Then, eight minutes later, my brain is calmer than it was. I left a degree of that gunk behind and am now ready for the rest of the class.

Michele: Isn’t that a bit of the riddle, in a way? Right away, Bikram gets you into something where it’s a repetition, the staccato 1-2-3. It tells that monkey mind what we’re going to put it on the shelf, and it gets you zoned into the inhalation and exhalation; you can see it in the student’s eyes. When you’re starting class, they take their world and bring it in.

Sarah: ‘Concentrate, meditate.’

Michele: Yeah, right, Sarah? It’s in the dialogue, ‘concentrate, meditate.’ What do you guys think? What is the most common struggle that a new student has? It is complex but not necessarily complicated. There are some pieces to it that, if you understood some of these corrections, they could probably help you right away.

pranayama elbows up, head down
pranayama hands against the chin
pranayama head back, elbows forward

Sarah: Keep the hands touching the chin – no wandering around and coming off. ‘Always your hands touching the chin like glue.’

Michele: You see that a lot, right? They’re inhaling, and when they exhale, it comes off, or even on the inhale, or it moves around, it’s loosey-goosey. That’s the first time you realize the dialogue is literal; we don’t mean it halfway.

Sarah: It’s not a bunch of poetry.

Matt: The act of standing up straight and maintaining it whilst you’re moving your head and arms so that your head and arms are synchronized, but your body is not moving. The whole body often bends because they’re trying to lift the elbows up rather than keep bringing them forward.

Sarah: ‘Only the arms and head move.’

Michele: It takes a while. It’s why you’ve got to keep doing the class; it’s the repetition, where you finally hear Sarah saying, “Only the arms and head move.” And you emphasize that a lot, Matt, it’s in the dialogue: ‘Chest up.’ There’s your cue: keep your chest up and your spine straight – so, knuckles against the chin and keeping the body straight.

Sarah: And the ‘inhale through the nose and the exhale through the mouth, all the time through the throat.’

Michele: We’re going to demonstrate that because you’re like, what is that? What does that mean? And then the other one is the technique of the arms, right? What’s a common thing that we see? With the arms, the elbows go up, knuckles against the chin, and the elbows go back. Then, the way it works is you want to bring the head down and the elbows up. Often, you see people go down, back up, back and close, and then down; it looks like you’re swimming.

Sarah: Moving the arms and head together takes a lot of attention and concentration. That contributes to the meditation and the effectiveness of the breathing, and the neck feels better when you do it. When you start moving things around separately, you get a lot of pushing at the wrong times, and it’s too much.

Matt: For beginners, because the arm and head movement gets confusing, they focus on moving their head and arms rather than breathing. First and foremost, this is an exercise in breathing!

Michele: The arm movement helps open your chest and ribcage, and then the arms move forward to help you close the ribcage and exhale more. They’re tools to help the maximum expansion capacity.

Sarah: And speaking of breathing, I don’t see this much anymore, but the thumbs, especially if they come apart a little bit at the end of the exhale, make sure you’re not strangling yourself with your thumb.

Michele: Yeah, ten fingers, guys, it’s literally ten.

Matt: Also, think about the depth of the breathing. So again, if you’re overcoming moving the arms and synchronizing, then overcoming keeping the spine straight, you’ve remembered that it’s about breathing, not just waving your arms and moving your head. Then the next challenge you see, or perhaps as a student’s been doing a little while, is that they’ve got those basics in place, but they’re still not breathing deeply. To breathe deeply is to inhale until you feel like your lungs are full and keep inhaling. The moment we hit any resistance as we inhale, we start exhaling, so we never fill our lungs up fully. So then in the Pranayama, we’re getting to the point where people say, ‘Okay, that’s part full,’ then inhale more, ‘that’s a little more full…’

Michele: He’s doing it because his stomach is in! The more you use your stomach, the more you can use your lungs.

Matt: There’s that recognition that it’s inevitable that your chest will move; if you hold your stomach into your spine and try to inhale, it is inevitable. When I first started, my ribcage was rigid. Early on, I would get discomfort, like a pain sensation in between the ribs, and occasionally, I’d hear the ribs cracking, the joints of the ribs cracking. It was relieving to get past that hurdle of trying to bring back my ability into the ribcage.

Michele: What’s interesting is that I know Matt had smoked for 20 years, and then you dived right into a yoga practice, right? I’m sure your lungs were talking to you, and look at you now. So if you’re starting and you’ve smoked, don’t worry, make peace; here’s a living testimony right here. But you bring up a good point because a couple of things come to mind, such as when you first start breathing, you can feel overwhelmed. And all of a sudden, it’s like you’re getting a blast of oxygen to your brain, and you can feel dizzy.

Sarah: ‘Full lungs, until you feel dizzy.’

Michele: Exactly. And we have that fear factor when the point is that we want to hit that threshold. That’s good.

Sarah: And also exhale all the way out.

Michele: And that’s a big theme with Bikram Yoga. We’re always asking you to push the envelope and push the boundary a little bit to get uncomfortable. That’s the big theme in this class overall. It starts right away with Pranayama – Standing Deep Breathing. It’s interesting; there’s that famous book “Breath” by James Nestor. What it boils down to is the best way to breathe: six counts in and six counts out. It does so much for your mind, mood, blood sugar level, and immune system. So that was good to hear. Learning how to breathe will help your overall health – period, end of sentence.