It's Hard To Breathe In The Big City
I sit in Nevine Michaan’s pranayama class at Katonah Yoga and she talks about folding and unfolding joints just as if we were practicing the art of origami. We fold ourselves to make corners meet, to make our joints fit together, and our curves match up. She explains that if asana is the act of folding paper, the practice of pranayama is making that origami plane fly, making the swan float, the boat sail, and the hat protect.
I have been practicing yoga for most of my life, started to teach recently, and decided it was time to explore the art of breathing. Searching through hundreds of studio schedules, I notice there aren’t many straightforward pranayama classes available. I decided to attend a few, like Nevine’s and to strengthen my understanding of the 4th limb of yoga.
So why has this ancient and sacred practice taken a back seat to asana? New Yorkers are action oriented. The city’s emphasis on physicality combined with the population’s rugged, individual values of entrepreneurship and doing-it-yourself-ness, makes for students who are highly concerned with exercise that yields fast, visible results.
Katonah Yoga hosts one of the cities few regular pranayama classes It is taught as a therapeutic practice in which breath can sooth the nervous system. The teachers drive you forward with metaphors; “Fire is the agent of change, add oxygen to it, feed it, and we can begin to change our bodies, change our minds, change our bad habits, and start to loosen up all the stuff that gets clogged up in your lungs.” I peak around the room and see everyone is really whipping their heads back and forth; spinning their arms to and fro.
I attend Dharma Mittra’s “Psychic Development Techniques” which is held on Wednesdays at 8 and Fridays at 5:30. Dharma talks about how practicing pranayama can harness power and purify the nadi’s, or pathways that run up and down our bodies. In class he teaches alternate nostril breathing, chins in jalandhara bandha and pelvic floor in mulha Bandha. This master teacher explains that engaging the locks is like damning up a river, redirecting and engaging one’s potential energy.
We also practice bhastrika, and kapatibali breathing. Dharma talks about the breath making the mind one-pointed. His practice intertwines breathing with other “psychic development techniques” because he teaches that in order to harness the power of the mind, one must control the breath.
Since I’d heard that Kundalini was very breath-oriented, I went to Hari NYC for a Kundalini class. We started off by undulating our spines and breathing our rhythms; kicking our own lower backs into action. Then we moved into a stamina building practice that employed fast paced breath to keep poses from becoming flaccid. Here,it is not enough to hold a pose; one must make it dynamic, with current moving through it. These poses, though held for long periods of time, became exercises in following the breath in and out - back and forth in order to find and stay in the center. The postures were not contortions and Hari’s dialogue was simple, easy to follow and relate to, I enjoyed the way this ancient discipline integrates breath in a way that informs our sense of balance and endurance.
Genny Kapular’s Monday class, which has been taking place at her studio in Soho for the last 15 years, started with everyone on their backs, relaxing into our normal breathing rhythms before we began to play with them. We assumed poses for about 5 minutes each and the breath work was done at the beginning and end of class. This breathing was about calming down the system, letting the breath work like a cooling agent after we had conjured so much heat holding headstands. Genny guides her students through a soothing physical experience where breath becomes a way to cultivate the diamond body, or subtle energy in all of us that radiates a type of spiritual consciousness. The class feels home-y and community oriented and the pranayama is not so physicallydemanding.
There are some other great pranayama classes in NYC. The Anatomy & Breath Clinic with Leslie Kaminoff at The Breathing Project takes place on Wednesdays at 4:15. And, the Iyengar Institute of New York holds classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. At Integral Yoga, breathwork is part of every class.
In NYC it is clear that the breath has not left us yet. Those who appreciate its necessary place in the yoga world can find a class if they seek it out. And those who haven’t experienced its benefits of health and well-being should try one of these classes.