Yoga makes the heart sing

How to Introduce Pranayama for Beginners

Many people are attracted to yoga by its physicality rather than its spirituality. Teaching some simple deep breathing techniques is a great way to introduce pranayama to novice yogis.

So What is Pranayama Anyway?

Image Credit: José Antonio Morcillo via Flickr.
Image Credit: José Antonio Morcillo via Flickr.

In its simplest form, pranayama is just deep breathing. Yes, we can make it technical by using only one nostril, closing our throats or adding breath retention but it is still basically just air entering and leaving the body to bring in oxygen and flush out carbon dioxide. It’s good to introduce pranayama for beginners to bring awareness to this process.

The benefits of pranayama are well documented and confirmed by good, hard science. They include reduced blood pressure, reduced heart rate, increased feelings of well being, reduced feelings of anxiety, improved mood, improved sleep and relief from the adverse effects of stress. All things that most people will benefit from.

As our practice deepens we can develop a complex pranayama practice but working on alternate nostril breathing or kapalabati with beginners could easily frighten them away — not quite what you are trying to achieve as a yoga teacher. So how can we make pranayama less scary and really acceptable to new yogis?

Basics of Breathing

It is our diaphragm that is the power house of relaxed breathing. When we breathe in, its contraction creates the negative pressure inside the chest cavity that draws air in through the nose and mouth to fill the lungs. As it contracts, the diaphragm flattens and squashes the abdominal contents. This is why you can feel the upper belly swell on deep diaphragmatic inhalation. We may choose to cue ‘draw the air down into the belly‘ to help students get the feel of filling the base of the lungs but the air stays firms in the chest cavity and does not pass into the belly. 

If the inhalation is very deep, the diaphragm will get to a point where it can’t squash the abdominal contents any further and it becomes fixed. At this point, further contraction of the diaphragm will make the lower ribs lift up and out making the chest wider, this is called the bucket handle movement of the ribs. When the lower ribs run out of movement sideways, the upper ribs start to move forwards and up. Lifting the sternum and making the chest deeper front to back, the pump handle movement of the ribs.

See Also: Pranayama: The Silken Thread

Sequencing Pranayama

Image Credit: Athens Yoga by Maja Zilih via Flickr.
Image Credit: Athens Yoga by Maja Zilih via Flickr.

There is no right or wrong place to put breath work in your classes. It sits well at the beginning to help centring and focus at the start of a class or as preparation for savasana towards the end. I love to use it after savasana too — here it beautifully eases students gently from their relaxed state and allows them to really appreciate the feelings of calmness before rushing back to their busy lives.

Here’s a few things you can try:

  • Simple diaphragmatic or belly breathing — With the students lying on their back with legs bent or straight and one hand on the upper belly. Encourage them to feel the belly swell as they breathe in and soften as they breathe out. A few slow rounds of this is a great place to start.
  • Three-point breathing — This uses the diaphragm, bucket handle and pump handle movements of the ribs in turn. Start with a belly breath as above but keep on breathing in so that the lower ribs move out first then the upper ones lift the sternum. I find beginners struggle to this in sitting and practicing it in lying is a much more relaxing experience for them.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing on your belly — I use this after a few rounds of belly breathing lying on the back. Encourage students to slowly roll over, place both hands under their forehead to take some weight off the chest and resume belly breathing. Cueing students to push the air to the back of the chest helps to deepen the breath here.
  • Length of breath — Beginners may find it difficult to manipulate the breath and trying to achieve a 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale may prove stressful and uncomfortable rather than relaxing. Be sensitive to this and maybe leave this technicality until they are used to just breathing as slowly as they can.
  • How much is too much — I really think that less is more here. I use 8-12 breaths in each type of breathing. I will also often cue when it is time to change position too as beginners often lack the confidence to be the first to move and just keep on going till someone else moves.
  • Home practice — When you are teaching students to develop a home practice these techniques have to be high on the list of things to encourage students to try. They are so accessible and students feel the benefits immediately so they are easy to commit to and keep practicing.

See Also: Pranayama Sequencing – Making Time for Pranayama

Pranayama for Beginners

Image Credit: Amanda Hirsch via Flickr.
Image Credit: Amanda Hirsch via Flickr.

These simple techniques are incredibly effective at stilling the mind and offer so many health benefits for beginners. I have found that most new yogis really love this part of their class and it can be what really hooks them into continuing to practice. It would be such a shame for students to miss out on these things early in their yoga journey. How about making pranayama part of your beginners classes if you don’t already? Your students will love you for it!

See Also: 5 Step-By-Step Breathing Exercises For Beginners

Sally Schofield
When you\'re ready to go further

Jessica Biel found Self-Acceptance…with Yoga!

Jessica Biel is a Hollywood golden girl. Married to Justin Timberlake, with a burgeoning career as an actress and producer, stunningly beautiful, an enviably toned body and intensely down-to-earth, she’s like a Head Girl that everyone actually likes.

Image Credit: Marco Antonio RC via Flickr.

True to the Head Girl theme, as a girl, Biel was very sporty, playing football and training as a gymnast. This disciplined approach to physical fitness has held her in good stead as she tackled her more challenging roles for the big and small screen – she’s recently starred in the successful crime drama series The Sinner.

However, at the ripe old age of 36, Biel feels that she needs to give her body a break from the aggressive pounding of competitive sport. “I spent so many years of my young life playing soccer and jamming my knees, running and sprinting, and so many years as a gymnast gashing my body … I realized, as I got older, I can’t keep this up,” she says.

Over the last 10 years, Biel has practiced yoga, until it has become one of the things that she does for herself that she can no longer do without.

What Changed

What changed for Jessica is what changes for most of us, she got older, and her priorities changed. She got married and had a son, three-year-old Silas Randall, who now keeps her running around. Becoming a mother changed her attitude to her body. “Having my mind focused on exactly how I need to look and that perfect bikini body—that’s changed,” she says. “I just want to be healthy. I want my joints and my ligaments and my body to feel good and free of pain, so I can have fun with my family.”

As well as the pressures of family life, she also has the ups and downs of the showbusiness industry to contend with, and she finds that having yoga as a fixed point in her day helps her to deal with that too. “It’s something that I refuse to let go of in my life. I really try and manage and maintain.”

Why Yoga?

Image Credit: Keng Susumpow via Flickr.

As a natural sportswoman, yoga isn’t the obvious choice. But it’s precisely the lack of competitive elements that has made yoga such an important part of her routine. “I like that yoga is just me with myself, my practice, and wherever my practice is in that moment on that day, then that’s where it is,” she says. “No one’s yelling at me to push harder and go tougher, it’s all about me, and sometimes if I want to sit still and lie in Savasana for 20 minutes, then that’s my practice for the day.”

She also finds that the breathwork helps her to connect her mind to her body in a way that she doesn’t do on a day-to-day basis. This mind-body connection allows her some real quality me-time, amongst the hecticness of her busy life. “Yoga is about having something that’s just for me—the benefits outnumber so many other ways to relieve stress or take time for yourself.”


Looking at the woman, you’d think that Jessica Biel wouldn’t have much trouble accepting herself. I mean, what’s not to like?! But – and as a woman myself I feel I can say this – all women are masters at self-criticism. What looks like perfection to anyone else is probably full of flaws to her own critical eyes. Biel herself admits: “I think it takes a lot of years to really start to accept who you are,” she says. “I believe that the philosophy behind yoga and the yoga community is not about what shape you are; it’s not about what you look like; it’s really about health from the inside out. Yoga has brought me a lot of feelings of power and confidence.”

To read more about Jessica Biel’s love of yoga read here and here.

Poppy Pickles
Teach Pregnancy Yoga

5 Reasons You’re Not Improving In Your Yoga Practice

What's niggling you?

Have you ever felt stuck on your yoga journey? Or got the niggling feeling that something’s getting in your way? Read on to discover the five obstacles that might be blocking your path.

Road Blocks Happen

In part two of the Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali introduces the concept of the five kleśhas. This chapter is considered by many to be one of the most useful chapters for modern day yoga practitioners as it is the chapter which offers practical methods to practice yoga beyond your mat. This can be (and has been) partnered with many philosophical concepts like the yamas and niyamas.

The yamas and niyamas give us a framework to cultivate positive attitudes to help us in our yoga practice. When studying yogic philosophy, you examine what it really means to be truthful, honest, kind and content, as well as generating a practice full of heat, study and surrender. But I’m going to be honest with you here – we’re all human. No matter how good our intentions, no matter how dedicated we are, sometimes things get in the way.

In philosophical terms, these obstacles are known as kleśhas. By recognising these obstacles for what they are, you’ll discover ways to work with, and overcome, each one. I can’t promise you’ll never again skip a morning practice in favour of an extra few hours in bed, but you will understand why you do it. Along with this perspective and understanding, you’ll probably feel less guilty about it, and be able to overcome it more successfully next time.

The Kleśha Family Tree

So what are the five kleśhas anyway? To begin with, we have ignorance (avidyā). In some drawings of the kleśhas, avidyā often appears as a tree trunk, with all the other kleśhas appearing as branches deriving from avidyā.

Subflux via Flickr.
Subflux via Flickr.

Other schools believe that, unlike the yamas and niyamas, each kleśha creates the next one. If you’re suffering from ignorance, then egoism (asmitā) is sure to follow. This is when the naturally selfish quality of the ego is allowed to take hold of the reins and dictate our actions. From this, we encounter attachment (ragā). We’re all familiar with this one I’m sure – the feeling we get when we ‘need’ the latest iPhone, another expensive holiday, or even more yoga clothing! It’s not just consumerism where the kleśhas thrive. Just take a look at certain news reporting on situations of refugees fleeing war torn countries, and we can often see the acting out of what is ‘ours’, and how ‘they’ might take it.

This fear of ‘them vs. us’ displays our belief in separation and often leads to the fourth kleśha often translated as aversion or hatred (dveṣa). And finally, we come to abhiniveśha, the clinging to bodily life, or fear of death. The accumulation of hatred and fear leads us to cling anxiously to life, obsessing about the past, worrying about the future and never quite letting go enough to just be in the moment.

Sounds like a lot to think about? Don’t worry, we’ll be looking at each of them in detail, and discovering ways to overcome each obstacle both on and off your yoga mat.

What’s In A Word

Lost in translation
Image Credit: Manjushri on flickr.

It is worth mentioning here that, as with all yoga philosophy, it is important to always be aware that what you are reading is always a translation. Whenever anything is translated, it can result in a miscommunication; sometimes comic, sometimes just plain confusing. We also have the added complication that a lot of yoga philosophy was written in a completely different script, in a different time, and a different culture, to the world we reside in today.

Take the fifth kleśha: abhiniveśha. In the Satchidananda translation of the Yoga Sutras, this is interpreted as ‘clinging to life’. Let’s take a moment to think about what this means. If we changed ‘clinging’ to ‘valuing’, would we really consider this an obstacle to leading a peaceful, contented life? After all, most people go to yoga to feel better about themselves and to make life more enjoyable through easing tensions in the body and mind.

This doesn’t mean that the kleśhas are no longer of use to that, more that we need to look critically at how we interpret them to ensure they still serve us. Imagine a life with no fear, no neediness, no worries. Sounds good, right? This is what we can aim for in our yoga practice, if we find a way to make yoga philosophy relevant to us here and now.

A Millennia Of Discussion

A lot of interesting modern authors (Matthew Remski and Mark Singleton, to name just two) are re-examining some of the more widely known yoga philosophy and theory, with very interesting and exciting results. Sometimes it can feel frustrating that it isn’t all black and white, but to me, that ambivalence is where the excitement lies. Yoga philosophy most certainly isn’t dead! The ideas floating around as far back as 200BC (and maybe even before then) are still relevant enough to be debated and discussed today. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think that’s pretty cool.

No matter where we are on our road to yoga, whether you’ve just discovered it or have been practicing for over 50 years, we all can encounter obstacles at any time. As Patañjali says in the first Sūtra, the time to practice yoga is now. It’s all about the practice, and knowing what you need, on that day.

Yoga is your journey, and philosophy is personal to you. Practice lots, read up on the subjects that appeal to you, and stay open minded. Don’t be too hard on yourself, or others around you. The practice of yoga can seem overwhelming sometimes, but remember, we’re all human.

Entertain This Thought

Can anyone hear your frustration?
Image Credit: Michael Pardo on flickr.

This week I invite you to consider whichever kleśha jumps out to you as the most relevant to you right now, and begin to ask yourself, what does this mean to me? If you’re not sure right now which seems most relevant, just go with the first one, avidyā, or ignorance. Are there areas of life that perhaps seem shrouded in ignorance? Or can you see ignorance being played out in wider society, maybe in politics or the media?

Starting to ask questions is the first step to beginning to become fully aware of any kleśha.

The “Magical Art of Tidying” can help your Yoga

I recently treated myself to the phenomenal global bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, written by Japan’s expert declutterer, Marie Kondo.

Within minutes of starting to read it, I leapt up and had every single item of clothing in a shockingly large pile on the bed. Three bin bags later, my wardrobe was looking fabulously empty and organised. Consequently, this has been a very hard article to write, because every time I sat down to research the piece, I found myself sorting out yet another area of my home.

Image Credit: Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash.

Included in my epic clear-out were some dearly-loved old yoga clothes that I’d had from the beginning of my yoga journey. Like a talisman representing the epic scale of my journey, they were well-worn from hours on my mat. A grey pair of cotton leggings, they were paper thin, had a hole in the knee, and a little darned patch where a moth had nibbled a hole.

I hadn’t been able to part with them, and kept them just to wear at home, but Kondo discourages this.  What she suggests is that we acknowledge all the hard work our things have done for us, and then, we feel able to let them go. True to the KonMari method, I earnestly thanked my knackered leggings, and put them ceremoniously in the bin. It worked.

This clothes-cleanse got me thinking about how this radical tidying method could be applied to all areas of yogic life. So, here are five ways the KonMari Method (named after the first halves of the author’s name, spliced together) can be applied to your yoga practice.

1. Actual Yoga Stuff

Considering the Yogic principle or Yama of Aparigraha, which means non-hoarding, it is ironic that yogis can and often accumulate a vast collection of yoga stuff. This is despite the statement by B. K. S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga that: ‘The yogi reduces his physical needs to the minimum, believing that if he gathers things he does not really need, he is a thief.’

There’s the leggings, tops, under-layers, over-layers, yogic wraps, equipment, books and the accompanying yoga ephemera such as mala beads, incense burners, yoga coasters, scarves and so on.

We invest in these things as a way of believing that they will somehow make us better at yoga, or turn us into more of a serious practitioner. But in the end, the only thing that makes us better at yoga is practice, and in order to practice, we need very little:

  • 1 mat
  • comfortable, non-loose clothes

Kondo encourages us to really free up our yoga practice by simplifying our possessions down to the bare, joyful essentials, and in that way, bring ourselves back to the purity of the yoga itself.

2. Discarding the Past

Kondo emphatically states that to order the world around us, ‘discarding must come first’.

Are there habits in your yoga practice that you can get rid of? Are there things that have gone way past their sell-by date, but that you cling on to because they’re familiar and comforting?

For example, I have got into a habit of starting my yoga practice by folding down onto the mat into child pose. This is a calming way to start a yoga practice. However, recently I’ve realised that I’ve stopped doing my standing poses as much as I used to. These are the basic building blocks of our yoga practice, and if we stop doing standing poses, we lose the strength in our legs, as well as endurance. If I started with Tadasana then there would be a more natural transition to standing poses.

Also, especially in forms of yoga that use props, it is easy to get into the habit of taking the prop offered, be it a belt for gomukhasana, (cow-face pose) or two bricks for Uttanasana (standing forward fold). But if we always take the props, then in a way, we are blocking our progress. Try ‘discarding’ the prop next time and just see what happens.

3. Keep Only Things that Spark Joy

Image Credit: Saffu via Unsplash.

Once you become a yoga teacher or start on the path to becoming a yoga teacher, it is very easy to lose that spark of joy that yoga brought you. Your practice can become habitual, formulaic, and focus all on lesson planning and sequencing.

Kondo’s tidying method requires that you physically hold your possessions in your hands, and only then decide if it sparks joy in you or not. This can also apply to our yoga practice. When you’re on the mat, are you really in touch with your body? Are you inhabiting the pose, or is your body going through the motions, while your mind remains elsewhere?

Joyfulness comes from being fully engaged with the unlimited bliss available to us at any given time, which reflects the Niyama, Santosha – contentment. Rather than worry about spending a certain amount of time on the mat, or ripping through a long list of yoga poses, simplify your practice down to just a few poses and only move on to the next one once you’ve connected to the essence of each pose.

4. Choosing What to Keep, not what to Give Up

A breakthrough moment for the author came when she realised that ruthlessly getting rid of things is not the answer. What she needed to focus on was what she wanted to keep.

The same can apply when it comes to yoga.

In the West we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to give things up – alcohol, sugar, smoking and so on. But perhaps this constant attention on what we shouldn’t be doing acts as a distraction, and we can spin the perspective to what we should be doing.

What can we take up more of in order to feel healthier, stronger and lighter? If, every time we are faced with a good and not so good choice, we think to ourselves, which one would make me feel better – in the long term? In this way, we can choose to keep the parts of our yoga practice that really bring joy. And then feel completely happy to let the rest go.

5. Cherish Who You Are now

Image Credit: Form via Unsplash.

There is a strict order to the KonMari Method to achieve long-lasting tidiness. The last thing on the list is photographs. This is because they represent our memories and are the hardest thing to part with.

But Kondo has a very convincing argument encouraging us to get rid of most of our photographs too. “It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

Similarly, in yoga. Perhaps we used to be thinner, fitter, or able to do an advanced pose that we can no longer even attempt. Perhaps we look forward to a time when we will be able to do a free-standing handstand or get into padmasana (lotus pose) without feeling our hips creak.

Kondo reminds us that both sentiments are unhelpful: ‘We live in the present. No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now is more important.’ By freeing ourselves from the possessions we no longer really need, we allow our minds to focus on what we love. And through that, rediscover the joy and freedom of the yoga we are practising right here, right now.

Poppy Pickles

YogaLondon and Oxford joining forces

YogaLondon’s exclusive course on the Philosophy of Yoga is run jointly by YogaLondon (YL) and the prestigious Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS). We talked to our very own co-founders, Edward Serrano and Rebecca Ffrench, who gave us the inside info on this new partnership.

  1. How did the partnership between YogaLondon and the OCHS come about?

Edward: A couple of years ago, when Rebecca was half-way through her MSt at Oxford University, she skyped me sounding pretty excited about a conversation she’d had with one of the Executive Directors of the OCHS. She asked me what I thought of an online learning partnership between YL and the OCHS. My response was ‘Of course!’ Of course I want to pair up with Oxford University!

Do I want to have a microwave meal of yoga or a gourmet entrée of yogic delights?

Because with the OCHS that’s exactly what we’d be offering.

  1. How are YogaLondon and the OCHS a good match?

Rebecca: YL and the OCHS are really well matched. We both have a passion for our particular area of study and strive to be the best that we can possibly be.

Edward: It’s an evolving partnership. Although the OCHS is a recognized branch of Oxford University, they get little or no funding, so they have to go out and make their own money, which is where their online courses come in. The online courses enable them to fulfill their ultimate aim of furthering Hindu studies throughout the UK.

And I think the motivation for the OCHS was that they’d seen that YL had been around for a while, and most importantly, work exclusively in yoga education, rather than a smorgasbord of everything and anything to do with yoga. To put it simply, we were able to provide the type of audience they needed.

  1. What does the OCHS bring to the YL learning experience?

Edward: To be frank, we’re the only yoga teaching company in the world that we know of to have an alliance with OCHS. We have an opportunity to introduce Oxford University trained tutors to our students, which adds more world-class knowledge to our teaching staff, which has always been our focus, providing our students with the best tutors.

I think that the quality that the OCHS brings in their knowledge of Hindu studies and the philosophy of yoga is unlike anything else that one can hope for in London. I don’t mean to demean the work that anyone else is doing, but when you’ve got a powerhouse like Oxford University with experts who’ve dedicated their entire lives to a particular subject matter, it really makes for an incredibly deep and powerful learning experience.

  1. What will the joint ‘Philosophy of Yoga’ course involve?

Rebecca: Because ‘The Philosophy of Yoga’ is an optional part of the 500-hour Advanced teacher-training course, it includes curriculum elements for it to count towards those 500 hours.

Photo by Diego Duarte Cereceda on Unsplash

The theoretical content is delivered over a weekend by an OCHS teacher actually in front of you, which leads to an exponentially greater learning experience. For one thing, you get to ask them anything. The practical content will be delivered by our experienced YL teachers, balancing the theoretical experience with expert practical tuition.

  1. Doesn’t YL already cover these subjects?

Rebecca: On the 200-hour teacher training course we include ‘introductions’ to a variety of philosophical topics, but on this course the experts at the OCHS give a much deeper perspective on how the vast patchwork of ideas and philosophies, from Vedanta, to Tantric practices, to the Bhagavad Gita, have evolved into the yoga of today.

  1. Is the course exclusive to graduates of the YL teacher-training course?

Rebecca: No, this immersion weekend course is for absolutely anyone. You don’t even need to be a yoga teacher to attend. It’s open to anyone who loves yoga and is interested in the philosophy behind it.

  1. Will YL continue to work with OCHS?

Edward: Beyond the quality of the OCHS it’s an opportunity for YL to really show its commitment to the education of yoga. By partnering up with OCHS we’ve made a powerful statement that we’re really serious about education – education is who we are and what we will always be.

We’re also excited about the opportunity for the partnership to develop. Since the initial contact, the relationship has metamorphosed into a far deeper, much more collaborative one. Now, as well as promoting their online courses, we’re working and teaching together on the ground. Just as exciting, if not more, is the potential for the relationship to evolve – who knows what will happen next!


For more information about this course, please click here. Additional information is also available for YogaLondon’s 200-hr teacher training, our advanced trainings and in-studio workshops. Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies offers a number of online courses which can also further your yogic knowledge. Learn more today…


Zen Monkey, a sub-division of YogaLondon, is an online conduit for yoga students and teachers to share ideas and develop a catalogue of content that is informative, creative and fun. We are a community founded from the collection of writers and yogis we've mentored, worked with and been inspired by. Together, we are building a tribe that shares the tools, the inspiration and the motivation to lead a healthy, mindful and sustainable life.