pranayama is about engaging with the life force - the prana. some refer to this as the ch'i. if you've experienced reiki, or other energy work, you'll understand. it's the universal life force that infuses everything with its energy. it's different from the breath, though it's accessible through the breath.
birjoo explained that the difference between asanas and pranayama is like the difference between doing carpentry and cooking. with carpentry you're constantly interacting with the piece of wood, chipping at it or sawing it or nailing it until you get the desired result. with cooking you do all the preparation, chopping the vegetables and soaking the rice and making sure the stove is at the right heat, but the actual cooking is beyond your control. lifting the lid off the pot or turning the heat up or down will not help the cooking process. so it is with pranayama - all you can do is create the appropriate environment and then let the universal energy do its thing.
in order to connect with our innermost selves, birjoo had us lay in two different poses - one with our back flat on the floor and our feet raised (on whatever height will ensure the back is flat) with knees spread open (supta baddha konasana), and one with our sacrum resting on blocks or bolsters with shoulders and feet on the floor (setubanda sarvangasana). we were asked to observe our breathing in both postures, to determine whether the will was invoked in the exhale or the inhale on both. normally, our will is required for the inhale, but the exhale just happens on its own. we discovered this to be the case in supta baddha, but in setubanda it was reversed - it was the exhale that required the will, and the inhale happened quite naturally.
we also observed where, in the body, the breath occurred. in supta baddha the breath happened in the periphery of the body, and in setubanda it was in the core.
then we did a seated pranayama, sitting either in padmasana (lotus) or with a simple cross legged position.
aside: one of the things people love about mr. iyengar's way of teaching is that it incorporates props - blocks, belts, bolsters, blankets, ropes, walls, all sorts of benches and aids to help people achieve the asanas. birjoo explained that it's our consciousness that keeps us balanced, or that props us up, but we can also use a prop to accomplish that. this is especially wonderful for beginners, so they can get the feel of an asana without straining or hurting themselves. as we proceed we remove the props, which is a very satisfactory feeling. but there's no pressure to do all the poses without props immediately. mr. iyengar was a sick child himself, born into extreme poverty from a mother who carried influenza. he had a very stern teacher and forced his body to do things to the point of pain, in order to please his teacher. later in life, after travelling to europe and africa (where he wasn't allowed to leave his hotel because of apartheid, i learned while watching a film about his life during the break), he realized people are not all accustomed to yoga, and are all shapes and sizes and abilities, and he introduced props into his teachings. i understand this is one of the main differences between the iyengar style of teaching, and others (and it's just one reason we love him so much!).
back to pranayama .... after we brought our intelligence to our breath, and observed it, we were instructed to remember what it felt like to breathe from the core. often we breathe from the periphery. but if we focus, we can move the breath from the core outwards. in the pause, between the inhale and the exhale, the consciousness moves to the periphery and basically pushes the breath back towards the core. then it moves into the core, and 'pushes' the breath to the periphery. birjoo demonstrated this with blocks, repeatedly, until we understood it. then we practiced it for 20 minutes or so. and after that we lay in savasana and let the prana do its magic, healing and awakening and infusing our bodies with its universal energy.
all you need is la
after a short break we began a 2.5 hour asana practice. birjoo again spent a lot of time explaining some ancient wisdom. i think we only did about 5 different asanas, but we did them repeatedly using the instructions he gave us. today we were instructed in the magic of the chakras.
the chakras are essentially centres of energy located along the centre cortex of the body. acupuncturists and other alternative healers know about chakras. some profess an ability to see colours associated with them, and they carry sound. birjoo began to introduce us to their sounds, and we were encouraged to say the sound he suggested, silently, as we practiced each asana.
so we began, with adho mukha savasana (downward facing dog) saying, to ourselves, the sound 'la.' 'la' is associated with the base chakra, the muladhara. 'la' offers stability. we were encouraged to think of nothing else except 'la' while practicing the asana. 'la' is good for a number of poses that require stability. we were also instructed to experiment with 'wa' and 'ya', associated with water and air respectively, but to be careful with 'ra' - the fire energy. off the top of my head i don't remember which chakras those other sounds are related to, though 'om' is the sound of the chakra at the top of the head (sahasrara), but i can tell you that the effect of saying those sounds, silently, while practicing, is remarkable. it's some kinda crazy magic.
in full arm balance we were instructed to direct our breath to the space underneath our diaphragm and fill it with air. the analogy used was bread -- it's as if you are baking bread and suddenly the yeast begins to react and creates space there. amazingly, the legs automatically go up the wall! we've all been taught to use our muscles and our will to do things like get our legs up the wall, but birjoo showed us how to do it simply using our breath.
there's just no end to this yoga path of learning ....