There’s nothing like learning how to breathe again with Ashtanga instructor Tim Feldmann.
I attended a pranayama and bandha workshop with Tim last night at Yoga Life studio in Jacksonville, Florida.
Tim began his Ashtanga journey with a small Ashtanga kula in Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied with Ashtanga founder and guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India.
Our kula in Jacksonville started where the Ashtanga practice always begins: the breath.
“Breathing is at the very heart of the Ashtanga practice,” said Tim. “Ultimately, what we are trying to do is get our breath solid, and then form the body around that.”
As Sri K. Pattabhi Jois once said, “The Ashtanga Yoga practice is a breathing practice—and the rest, just bending.”
Tim makes it clear that Ashtanga asks a lot of its practitioners, who generally revisit their Ashtanga sequences five to six days a week.
Last night, we broke down the dynamics of the Ujjayi breath, the victorious and audible breath that Ashtangis ride like a wave throughout their practice.
Or as Jois, known to his students as Guruji, was fond of saying: “You breathe with sound breath!”
“It’s an extended breath that feels sweet and comfortable,” added Tim.
We learned to constrict the valve in the throat if the lungs fill too quickly. With practice, every student becomes their own best Ujjayi teacher.
So we practiced extending our victorious breath, filling up the three compartments of the lungs: lower, middle and upper.
Tim reflected that in yoga, “because self awareness of the mind and emotions is so difficult, we start with the body.”
And the catalyst for change is our breathing. After the breath is mastered, it is just bending.
From there, we moved to kumbhaka, or breath retention.
Tim detailed the difference between soft and hard breath retention, just hovering with a full inhale or completely closing off the valve of the breath.
“The fear we feel in retention is a good thing,” said Tim. “The body is used to patterns. Whatever you teach it, it will pick up.”
With breath retention, we stay a little bit until we feel uncomfortable. But the more we do it, the more we start to realize that nothing is going to happen by just holding our breath.
It’s there, at that place, that we start to find a balance between attraction and aversion.
The first series of Ashtanga Yoga is known as Yoga Chikitsa, or ‘yoga therapy.’ The idea is to bring awareness into those places that don’t feel good so that maybe we will feel better later.
Engaging our bandhas allows us to that. Bandhas are valves or locks in the body that you open and close voluntarily in conjunction with the breath. Bandhas are the basis for Ujjayi breathing.
Jalandhara Bandha is the throat lock that we use to hold an inhale. Mula Bandha is the root lock engaged by lifting the pelvic floor.
According to Tim, if Mula Bandha eludes you a little, it’s because we’re not used to working it.
Or you can just take Guruji’s advice: “Squeeze your anus.”
That’s where we start to find Mula Bandha.
“It’s easily trainable,” said Tim. “Squeeze it a lot.”
Uddiyana Bandha is the lift lock or the upwards flying bandha. It allows the energy fly back up into the body. It’s the same muscles we would use to stop urination. The lift in the abdominals is a result of this lift.
The next step is to engage Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha with a victorious breath in asana.
“Eventually, these things help us move into the energetic reality,” said Tim. “Some day, we can squeeze a little less.”
And that’s what yoga does, moving us from our learned inefficient patterns (samskaras) to more efficient ones.
“We can work strong or we can suffer,” said Tim. “We start to work hard when we have suffered enough.”
Tim and his wife, Kino MacGregor, are directors of the Miami Life Center in Miami, Florida. Stop by for some southern-style Ashtanga if you are in Miami, and visit Yoga Life studio the next time you are in the Jacksonville, Florida area.