This is the first in a series of book extracts from Uma Dinsmore-Tuli that we are publishing on the yogayoga website.
• If you are interested in further reading, we stock a small selection of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s books at the studio.
Postures for Pranayama
By Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
There is no point practicing pranayama in postures that cause any discomfort. Complex or difficult sitting positions are unnecessary: it is best to be sitting or lying absolutely comfortably in order to be able to focus on the breathing techniques fully. Once the mental awareness is brought to focus on the breath then the body can become even quieter and more comfortable. It is a positive feedback loop, a very beautiful and dynamic circle around which the deepening rest of the body and the deepening rhythms of the breath follow each other, tracing circuits of mutual support and encouragement.
Once you are fully familiar with the practices you can take them off the mat/bolster/beanbag, and out into your life. You can then develop the almost constant breath awareness practice that accompanies you as you walk down the street, use the toilet, reverse your car into a parking space, or dash fast after a small child who is about to do something very frightening with a sharp knife. In these practical applications of pranayama, it doesn’t really matter what posture you’re in. What really matters ultimately is having the practices by heart so that they can always be with you. However, as we start out, or as we seek to refine and deepen our practice, then it’s good to have some guidelines on how to accommodate the physical body so as best to access levels of awareness that extend beyond it, into the realms of energy, intention and feeling.
For Full Yogic Breath, Golden Thread exhalations and Ujjayi it is easiest and simplest to begin practice by lying down. Up to 25 - 30 weeks of pregnancy, although it can be comfortable to lie on the back, with palms facing upwards, it is best to modify the standard Shavasana or ‘Corpse’ relaxation pose (in which the knees are usually straight), by having the knees bent and the soles of the feet on the floor, or having a bolster or some other soft support like cushions or rolled blankets under the backs of the knees. In the knees bent with the soles of the feet on the floor posture it is often comfortable to let the knees touch, or alternatively, to allow the knees to roll outwards and the soles of the feet to come together in a soft Supta Baddokonasana (reclining tailor’s/cobbler’s/or butterfly pose). In this version, it’s best to have good support under the knees so as not to strain ligaments. Bean bags work well for this.
After 25 -30 weeks of pregnancy it is safest to shift to laying on the left side, with the head on cushions, and the right knee bent and supported in front of the body on a bolster or cushions. Be sure to have sufficient lift under the head to keep the head, neck and spine in alignment, and give yourself enough blocks or cushions to support the bent knee at a height that prevents a pulling feeling in the sacrum (the lowest part of the back). Provide yourself with extra blankets and pillows to allow the shoulders and arms to be comfortable. One of the common discomforts of the side lying option is the sense of numbness that can come from having the weight of the body resting entirely on the underneath arm. To avoid that feeling, have some pillows underneath your arm, and turn a little more towards the floor to release pressure in the underneath shoulder. If you have soft shoulders you may find that you can free the lower arm and reach it out behind you, thus turning the lying post into a form of passive twist. It’s important to experiment with the postures sufficiently to get a comfortable option that works for you. Once you get the physical body comfortable then you can begin to work deeply with the flow of breath and energy through the body.
Upright sitting is best for Bhramari, Nadi Shodana and the Birthing Breath, and can also be used for full yogic breath and Golden Thread exhalations. There are a variety of comfortable sitting options during pregnancy. The shared aim of all these sitting practices is to free the hips outward to allow the spine to rise up, effortlessly straight and strong, so that head, neck and spine come easily into a balanced upright column.
1: High kneeling (Vajrasana/Virasana) variations
Kneeling with support can be very easeful. Have the knees wide enough apart to allow for bump clearance if you are pregnant. Bring the knees closer together to encourage pelvic realignment post-natally. In either case, try three (or more) yoga blocks (less, if you’re not pregnant and have flexible hips), or a couple of telephone directories with cushions on top, or a low stool with cushions on top to give the right height. At the very least have a cushion between buttocks and heels, and either a rolled blanket or a cushion tucked behind the backs of the knees to ease pressure on the calves. It’s worth experimenting with different heights and types of support. You’ll know you have the right height when you feel absolutely no sense of pressure in the ankles and calves, and the tilt of your pelvis creates a feeling of easeful comfort and upright dignity in the lower back. When you have this posture right it usually makes you smile, and feel as if you could stay there for ever. Sometimes, if you have stiff, swollen or otherwise aching feet, you may also need a rolled blanket underneath the front of the ankles.
2: Sitting with straight legs (Dandasana) variations
Sitting with legs straight out in front at an easeful width is a comfortable option for pranayama for many pregnant women, particularly if swollen ankles make other postures difficult. Post-natally, bring the legs closer together and work to feel the abdomen and the pelvic floor providing a toning lift to the spine. In either case, a lift under the base of the spine (cushion or block) can give enough height to encourage a comfortable tilt in the pelvis. Sitting with the back supported against a wall often makes this posture more sustainable. If having the legs straight is uncomfortable, then bending the knees and putting the soles on the floor is a good option. Alternatively, introduce a more modest bend to the knees by providing support (rolled blanket/s or cushion/s) under the back of the knees.
3: Low kneeling (Virasana/Saithalyasana) variations
Triangle base sitting, with one heel tucked into the perineum and the other tucked round the outside of the buttock can also give a comfortable openness across the hip. In this position the weight of the body rests more heavily on the sitting bone corresponding to the bent knee. Sometimes, especially if the knees don’t drop easily to the floor, then it is more comfortable to have a cushion or block (or two) under the sitting bones, to raise the hips and encourage an easier tilt.
4: Knees wide (Baddokonasana/Poorna Titali) asana variations
Butterfly sitting with the soles of the feet pressed together, and the knees opening outwards can also give easeful openness for hips and belly. Be sure not to over-stretch the inner thighs, only drawing in the heels to a comfortable distance from the buttocks. Support the knees on cushions to allow them to release downwards, even if they are already very close to the floor. Sitting with the spine supported against the wall can make this posture more sustainable, especially if a cushion is placed between the shoulder blades and the wall.
5: Cross legged (Sukhasana/Siddha Yoni asana/Ardha Padmasana) variations
Cross legged variations of all descriptions are also appropriate if a woman is at ease in these postures. Take care in pregnancy not close the cross of the legs too tightly in any of these sitting positions, as they may cause or aggravate varicose veins. Better to use the looser open cross, such as sukhasana, and to have a block or cushion under the sitting bones.
6: Chair sitting variations
Sitting in a straight backed chair with knees wide is a fine way to practice pranayama, so long as the soles of the feet can be placed flat on the floor. It may be necessary to have a block (or two) on the floor under the feet to make this possible. Post-natally, bring the knees closer together and ensure the back is well supported. During pregnancy, you may find that sitting backwards on a chair, facing the backrest and resting over it, is comfortable, especially if you place a cushion over the top. If you discover that the size of the bump means you have to retreat from the chair back and your bottom slips off the front of the seat, then the solution is to use a pair of similar chairs and to have the front edges of their seats touching. It is best to leave a gap between the chairs to start with, and then draw the second chair in behind you once you’ve sat down.
7: Back to back sitting
Any of the postures, from 1 – 4 above, with a partner can provide a warm support for the back, and a useful focus for following the rhythm of the breath. Often in this position, the placing of a flattish cushion or pillow between the two backs can make the position more comfortable and sustainable. Some find the cushion is best placed between the two upper backs, and others find it more comfortable lower down, behind the waist. It all depends on the relation between the two sets of spinal curves and the relative heights of the partners; experiment to find what suits best.
8: Ball sitting
Everyone’s favourite! Choose an exercise/fitness ball that is the right size for you. Usually women around five foot four (162cm) and under are best off with 65cm balls, and taller women are more comfortable on 75cm balls. With the soles of your feet flat on the ground, your knees should be either at the same level as your hips, or just a little lower, but no higher. That way you can relax into the supported sitting position. The beauty of the ball is that you don’t have to be still – you can bounce and circle and wriggle comfortably, and keep a fluid ease of movement through the spine. Use a good quality ball that says ‘burst resistant’ on it somewhere. That way, if it does get punctured (and we hear of those that do), then at least it will deflate slowly, and not explode.
These book extracts appear on the yogayoga website by permission of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and are all copyrighted materials. See Uma's new books at and www.sitaram.org and www.yonishakti.co
Pregnancy & Postnatal yoga book extracts by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli:
Mother's Breath: Postures for Pranayama
more extracts from 'Mothers Breath' soon to follow...
You can stay updated about new articles from yogayoga's facebook page