Yesterday, I went on the KPJAYI website. In the section explaining the basics of the practice, it says,
"Breathing is rechaka and puraka, that means inhale and exhale. Both the inhale and exhale should be steady and even, the length of the inhale should be the same length as the exhale. Breathing in this manner purifies the nervous system."
Very simple instructions, right? Keep the inhalation and exhalation even and of equal length while doing the postures, and you will purify your nervous system (yay!). But this is not always easy to do during practice.
During my practice this morning, I kept this passage in mind, and tried my best to keep the inhale and exhale of equal length. I didn't have too many problems with this during primary (I slipped during Supta Kurmasana, but was able to quickly get back into the flow of the breath), but it was in second series that maintaining this evenness of breath became a real challenge for me. In the first few backbends of second, I started noticing a tendency for my breath to quicken, and for the exhalations to come in short bursts of air. Things got to a head in kapotasana. By the time I got my ankles in kapo, my exhales were coming out in really short bursts.
And then something very interesting happened. I started telling myself in kapo, "Try to see if you can control the out-breath more, so that not all the air comes out in one short burst... See if you can kind of "drag" out the exhale a little." And my body actually listened! I managed to slow down my exhalation, so that it was almost (though probably not exactly) equal in length to my inhalation. The moment that happened, I also discovered that I could feel that posture more in the front of the body, especially the quads. Which is a very good sign, since it meant that I wasn't compressing my lower back muscles.
I really feel that this lengthening of the exhalation also benefited my finishing backbends. After three dropbacks and standups, I walked my hands to my heels. I still can't catch my ankles on my own, but I can touch my heels; so it's not quite chakrabandhasana, but something approximating it :-) But something cool happened today. It took fewer walks of my hands to reach my heels, and once there, I could actually see my heels out of the corners of my eyes. Very cool. I'm quite sure that it has something to do with my better control of my breath today.
So here are a couple of insights from today's practice:
1. Getting the inhalation to be the same length as the exhalation takes conscious work, especially in the backbends (at least for me).
2. The more one can get the inhale and exhale to be of equal length, the more deeply one can get into postures. I'm not entirely sure why this is; probably because the more equal in length the two parts of the breath are, the less agitated one is likely to be. My teacher once told me that the tendency among beginning students is to take big gulps of air on the inhalation and expel the air quickly on the exhalation, which tends to make the mind more agitated, both on and off the mat. So if one can equalize inhalation and exhalation, and thus reduce the agitation of the mind, the body also becomes more relaxed and flexible, allowing one to go deeper into postures (especially challenging postures like kapotasana).
All of this reinforces my conviction that the practice is first and foremost a breathing practice. Pretty cool, eh?