There is a fuctional relationship between Asana & Pranayama. Understading it is useful in putting both Asana & Pranayama practices in context and draws them together into a fuller understanding of Yoga.
I’ve been looking for a metaphor to demonstrate this relationship for some time until I remembered to revisit the engine metaphor which I had already called on, but this time with a different focus.
A combustion engine (which is what you will typically find in cars) is a mechanisms that literally transforms explosions into orderly movement. A typical engine block has numerous cylinders and in each cylinder is a piston. An explosion is typically created in the cylinder by mixing fuel and air and igniting the mixture – creating an explosion. The explosion pushes the piston out of the cylinder. I found a great animation of this on Wikipedia:
The pistons in the engine block are connected to a crankshaft in such a way that when they are moved in a synchronized way the crankshaft rotates. This synchronized movement is achieved by precise timing of the explosions in the cylinder. And once again Wikipedia provided a nice animation of this process:
I’ve never really noticed (until now) that it is possible to divide an engine into two logical systems. One system creates explosions using fuel injection, air intake and ignition. The other system creates physical movement using pistons and a crankshaft. They come together in the cylinders and together transform raw explosions (which have no particular direction or even use) into rotational movement.
In Yoga, Asana practices are the 1st system – the one that creates explosive energy. This is what physical practices are intended to do. It is easy and inviting to relate Asana which involve physical movement with the 2nd system of physical movement, but that is a common misunderstanding. Yoga postures are designed to move energy and do so by moving the body. Movement of the body is the means by which energy is moved.
Pranayama is the 2nd system which regulates the flow of energy that is created in the 1st system. Without Pranayama, Asana practices are like misdirected explosions. If you don’t hook up the pistons to a properly placed and maintained crank shaft then you have an engine that simply creates explosions – which, rightfully, seems pointless.
This raises the question – can Pranayama be practiced without Asana? One important difference between a car’s engine and ours is that ours runs all the time. So yes it is possible and recommended to practice Pranayama even if you don’t practice Asana. But Asana practice does support and enhance Pranayama practices. Have you ever noticed that sometimes when mechanics check your car they rev-up your engine? There are some things about an engine you can only see when it is rotating fast or as it settles back down again. Asana is kind of like that – it places effort on the system, invigorates it and then lets it settle back down (which is why very often Asana practices end with a posture like Savasana).
A final interesting parallel to draw between a combustion engine and ours is the cylinders where all this magic happens – where the two system connect. The pistons needs to be a perfect fit inside the cylinders – tight enough so that nothing leaks out of the cylinder and lubricated enough so the piston can move really fast in and out of the cylinder. In our engine we can think of the cylinders as our Nadis – channels of energy. Energy “explodes” into the Nadi in Asana and then their flow is regulated with Pranayama.
With this in mind we can make some applicable observations about Asana, Pranayama and their relationship.
- If you have limited time and have to choose between Asana & Pranayama – Pranayama will probably serve you better (remember: your engine is running all the time!).
- If you practice only Asana make sure you run your engine properly (don’t push it too far too fast) and remember to let it settle at the end of the practice … oh … and please add Pranayama to your practice.
- If you are practicing both Asana & Pranayama – asana should come first and Pranayama second. Pranayama will will both help the system settle and will be more effective when the energy is coursing through you and malleable.
- Pranayama expands your breathing capacity, refines the quality of your breath and articulates your understanding and control of your breath. This will support you in your asana practice, it will give you an increased range of practice … which in turn will empower your Pranayama practice in a never ending feedback loop of expansion and refinement.