Pranayama

“The practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong willpower, and sound judgement”. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

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Introduction: The Importance of the Breath

Breathing is important for two reasons. It is the only means to supply our bodies and its various organs with the supply of oxygen, which is vital for our survival. The second function of breathing is that it is one means to get rid of waste products and toxins from the body.

Oxygen is the most vital nutrient for our bodies. It is essential for the integrity of the brain, nerves, glands and internal organs. We can do without food for weeks and without water for days, but without oxygen, we will die within a few minutes. If the brain does not receive proper supply of this essential nutrient, it will result in the degradation of all vital organs in the body. Oxygen is critical to our well-being, and any effort to increase the supply of oxygen to our body and especially to the brain will pay rich dividends.

Breathing is so simple and so obvious that we often take it for granted, ignoring the power it has to affect body, mind and spirit. With each inhale, we bring oxygen into the body and spark the transformation of nutrients into fuel. Each exhale purges the body of carbon dioxide, a toxic waste. Breathing also affects our state of mind. It can make us excited or calm, tense or relaxed. It can make our thinking confused or clear.

Given that brain cells have a high rate of metabolism, the brain requires more oxygen than any other organ. From a mental perspective, lack of oxygen to the brain results in loss of concentration and decreased emotional self-regulation. Supplying the brain with sufficient oxygen is a key tool that is used in stress management techniques.

Benefits of proper breath support include improved concentration, increased clarity of thought, increased ability to deal with complex situations without stress, and improved emotional regulation and equilibrium.

Realizing the vital importance of an adequate oxygen supply, the Ancient Yogis developed and perfected various controlled breathing techniques called Pranayama to maximize the benefits of Prana or universal life force.

Pranayama is used in yoga as a separate practice to help clear and cleanse the body and mind. It is also used in preparation for meditation, and in asana, the practice of postures, to help maximize the benefits of the practice and focus the mind.


Breathing Mechanics

During an inhalation, the diaphragm descends toward the pelvic basin in order to accommodate expansion of the lungs during inhalation. In this process, the lungs fill with oxygen and the abdomen expands outward. During an exhalation, the diaphragm subsequently ascends as the lungs recoil and deflate, releasing carbon dioxide, with the abdomen contracting inward. There is a brief pause between the exhalation and inhalation. In the practice of Pranayama, this space is referred to as “kumbaka.”


Gaining Awareness of the Breath

Prior to initiating breath-work, it is encouraged to first observe the breath without an attempt to change or manage it in order to gain an awareness of the breath.

Although a comfortable seat is appropriate for Pranayama, it may be helpful to begin in a supine position, as our bodies often revert to a natural breathing pattern while in this position. To facilitate awareness of the breath, it is recommended that you place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest.

Inspired by the teachings of Donna Farhi, there are several parameters of the breath to notice:

  • What parts of the body move with your breath? Is the chest moving or still? Is the abdomen moving or still? If both are moving, which moves first?
  • At rest, most adults take between 12 – 20 breaths per minute. What is the rate of your breath? Is it fast, slow, or moderate?
  • What is the length of your breath? Do the inhalations match the exhalations, or is one longer than the other?
  • Does your breath flow in a steady and fluid manner, or is it irregular?
  • Does your breath travel deeply into the body, or is it shallow?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe your breath?

Common Misalignments of the Breath

Inverse Breathing: The abdomen contracts inward during inhalation and outward upon exhalation. This type of pattern prevents diaphragmatic expansion during the breath cycle. It often arises from wearing tight belts or clothing and from the perception that we must always keep our abdomen drawn inward.

Chest-Centered Breathing: In this pattern of breathing, the chest performs the main action while restricting movement in the abdomen. Upon inhalation, the abdomen is pulled inward and the breath is drawn into the chest. The lift of the abdomen and pelvic floor prevents the diaphragm from descending as we inhale. In more pronounced cases, the breath may rise has high as the clavicles and cause the shoulders to move up and down with the breath. As an example, imagine the response of your breath when you are startled.

Hyperventilation: This breathing pattern can develop as a result of chest-centered breathing, yet is more restrictive. When the diaphragm is not able to descend completely during inhalation, it reduces space in the chest and limits lung capacity. As a result, less oxygen is taken in with each breath. In this habit, the breath is quickened.

Breath Grabbing: A full cycle of breath consists of the inhalation, the exhalation, and then a brief pause before the next cycle of breath begins with a new inhalation. Breath grabbers take the next breath without pause.


Developing a Pranayama Practice

The ancient texts describe numerous techniques, rules, and guidelines for practicing pranayama. The offerings of these ancient teachings help to guide us in the practice with moderation, balance, and temperance. Always practice under the direction of an experienced teacher.

Preparation: Use a neti pot before pranayama practice.

Breathing: Always breath through the nose, instead of the mouth. While inhaling, expand the nostrils and while exhaling, relax the nostrils.

Time: Practice is recommended 4 times throughout the day: morning, noon, evening, and midnight (which is not always possible). Otherwise, choose to practice at sunrise or sunset, the most sattvic times of the day. Practice at the same time and place. Occasionally, the same practice may become disturbing to the system. In that case, change the type or method of practice. One should feel rejuvenated and refreshed after practice.

Place: Practice in a quiet, clean, and pleasant room that is well ventilated but has no drafts. Avoid practicing in direct sunlight, except in the early morning or late evening. Turn off the telephone and television and ask others to avoid interrupting your practice.

Posture: A steady and relaxed pose is necessary for the full benefits. Insure that the spine is straight and the knees are relaxed. Sit on a cushion or folded blanket. Choose a mudra conducive to your intentions.

Bathing: One does not enter a temple with a dirty body or mind. Before entering the temple of the body, take a bath/shower before practicing. At least wash the face, hands, and feet. Clip the nails in order to use the hand mudra effectively. This is the practice of saucha (cleanliness).

Empty Stomach: Wait at least 3 to 4 hours after eating to practice pranayama. Food in the stomach places pressure on the diaphragm and lungs making full respiration difficult. Evacuate the bladder and bowels before practicing.

Avoid Strain: It’s extremely important to practice without strain. Inhale, exhale, and retention should be practiced only as long as it is comfortable to do so.

Eyes: Practice asana with eyes open and pranayama with eyes closed.

Saliva Management: Swallow after exhalation, never during retention. Keep the tongue relaxed.

Menstruation: According to the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar, the practice of pranayama is safe during the menstrual period. However, uddiyana bandha must be avoided.

Pregnancy: Do not pratice kapalbhati, bhastrika, kumbhaka. However, it’s okay to practice ujjayi, nadi shodhana, surya/chandra bhedana.


Pranayama Techniques

Dirga Pranayama:

Also referred to as the “Three-Part Breath” or “Complete Breath,” Dirga Pranayama is an ideal starting place for those who are new to Pranayama.

Dirga Pranayama is performed by breathing in and out through the nose in an easeful and fluid manner. On the inhalation, Dirga Pranayama involves sending the breath to expand the entirety of the lungs resulting in movement of 1) the lower abdomen due to diaphragmatic expansion, 2) the ribcage, and  3) the upper chest. On the exhalation, the breath is released from 1) the upper chest, 2) the ribcage, and 3) the lower abdomen as the diaphragm contracts.

How to Perform Dirga Pranayama:

  • Find a comfortable position, either seated or supine.
  • Part One: As you inhale, allow the abdomen to expand by drawing air deep into the lower lungs. As you exhale, allow the abdomen to contract. It may be helpful to imagine a balloon inflating and deflating as you breathe in and out. To facilitate this action of the breath, it may be helpful to place both hands on your abdomen. Repeat several rounds of breath, maintaining a smooth and relaxed flow.
  • Part Two: As you inhale, allow the abdomen to expand as described in part one. Expand the mid-chest region by allowing the ribcage to expand outward and to the sides. To facilitate this action, it may be helpful to place each hand on either side of your ribcage. As you exhale, release the breath first from the ribcage first as it recoils inward and then from the abdomen as it contracts. Repeat several rounds of breath, maintaining a smooth and relaxed flow.
  • Part Three: As you inhale, allow the abdomen and ribcage to expand as described in parts one and two. Continue the breath, allowing it to travel into the upper chest. To facilitate this action, it may be helpful to place a hand on the upper chest. As you exhale, release the breath first from the upper chest, then the ribcage, and then the abdomen.
  • Combine all three steps into one continuous flow. To facilitate the movement of the breath, it may be helpful to place one hand on the belly and another on the chest.

When to Perform Dirga Pranayama:

  • During the physical practice of yoga (asana).
  • Before meditation.
  • Any time you wish to restore equilibrium to the breath, the mind, or the spirit.

Benefits of Dirga Pranayama:

  • Provides oxygen to the blood and rids the cells of residual carbon dioxide.
  • Promotes diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Relaxes the body and calms the mind.

Ujjayi Pranayama:

This breathing technique mimics the sound of the ocean, and therefore is often referred to as “Ocean Sounding Breath.” This sound quality is created by the walls of the throat gently contracting in a concentric manner with the vocal folds slightly adducted. It is important to note that the vocal folds are not actually vibrating during Ujjayi Pranayama —in other words, the vocal folds are not set into motion to produce a voice during this technique. Ujjayi Pranayama is also called “Victorious Breath,” which originates from the Sanskrit root ujii, “to be victorious.” Ujjayi Pranayama is the foundational breath that accompanies asana.

How to Perform Ujjayi Pranayama

  • Find a comfortable position, either seated or supine.
  • Visualize lifting your abdomen toward your chin and take long, slow, deep breaths through the nose. As you exhale, visualize your abdomen gently drawing away from your chin.
  • Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, creating an “h” sound as if you were fogging a mirror. Once you can easily create this breath quality, seal your lips and breathe in and out through the nose while maintaining this same audible  quality. Notice the slight constriction in the throat as the air passes in and out.
  • Continue this breath pattern in a continuous flow, lengthening the inhale and exhale as much as possible without creating tension or strain in the body. To optimize breathing, the length of the inhale should match the length of the exhale.

When to Perform Ujjayi Pranayama

  • During the physical practice of yoga (asana).
  • Before meditation.
  • Any time you wish to improve focus and concentration.

Benefits of Ujjayi Pranayama

  • Focuses the mind on the breath, which can facilitate the release of persistent thought processes.
  • Cultivates mindfulness and centers the mind on the present moment.
  • Improves concentration.
  • Serves as a grounding technique.
  • Generates internal heat.

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama: 

Also referred to as “Alternate Nostril Breathing” or “Sweet Breath,” Nadi Shodhana is a method for clearing and cleansing energy within the subtle energy pathways of our body. In Sanskrit, Nadi refers to the subtle channels and energy pathways through which prana flows and Shodhana refers to cleansing and purification. This technique is appropriate for beginning and advanced students.

How to Perform Nadi Shodhana Pranayama:

  • Find a comfortable position, either seated or supine.
  • Place the left hand to rest on your thigh or belly. Place your right hand in front of your face. There are two mudra variations to take with Nadi Shodhana. The first mudra brings the index finger and middle finger into flexion so that these two finger tips are touching your palm. The second mudra brings the index finger and middle finger to rest gently between your eyebrows at the level of Ajna chakra, the third eye. Next, place your thumb to your right nostril and your ring finger and little finger to your left nostril. Now you are ready to begin.
  • Seal the left nostril with your ring finger and little finger and inhale deeply through the open right nostril without creating strain or tension in the body.
  • Seal the right nostril with your thumb as you release the left nostril. Exhale fully through the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, then repeat the process of sealing the left nostril as you exhale through the right nostril.
  • This concludes one complete round of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama.
  • Complete several rounds. At minimum, complete 9 rounds to bring balance to the Ida  [the main left-sided channel of the body], the Pingala [the main right-sided channel of the body] and the Sushumna [the main central channel of the body].
  • Maintain a slow, steady, and full quality to the breath.

When to Perform Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

  • Before asana or meditation to calm and center the mind.
  • In anticipation of, during, or after a stressful or fearful situation.
  • Any other time you wish to cultivate a calming, peaceful vibration.

Benefits of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama

  • Calms and relaxes the mind.
  • Soothes anxiety and stress.
  • Balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain to improve mental clarity.

Kapalbhati Pranayama:

Also referred to as the “Breath of Fire” or the “Skull Shining Breath,” is is an active form of pranayama that operates on the mechanics of forced exhalation with passive inhalation.

How to Perform Kapalbhati Pranayama:

  • DO NOT COMPLETE THIS PRANAYAMA TECHNIQUE IF YOU ARE PREGNANT.
  • Find a comfortable seated position and place one hand on the belly.
  • Repeatedly exhale in a forceful manner, causing the abdomen to quickly pump inward toward the spine and direct the air from your lungs through the nose. The inhale will occur passively. As a facilitative technique, you can also mimic panting through an open mouth. Once this breath quality is achieved, close the mouth so that the air is directed through the nose.
  • Complete 2-3 rounds of 30 exhalations with a tempo of 45-60 exhalations per every 30 seconds. Maintain a steady rhythm. Gradually increase the number of exhalations as comfortable.

When to Perform Kapalbhati Pranayama:

  • Before asana practice to generate internal heat.
  • As a method to shift energy and balance the three gunas — specifically, when tamas [stuck or inert energy or resistance] is predominant.
  • As a technique to cleanse and purify the body.

Benefits of Kapalbhati Pranayama

  • Invigorates, energizes, and purifies the body.

Sit Cari Pranayama: 

Also referred to as the “Hissing Breath,” this pranayama cools the body and the mind.

How to Perform Sit Cari Pranayama:

  • Curl the tongue so that the under-surface contacts the roof of the mouth, reaching as far back toward the soft palate as possible. As you inhale, slightly retract the lips to create a hissing “s” sound. Notice the cool air as it contacts the heated, moisturized environment within the oral cavity. As you exhale, release the air through the nostrils.

When to Perform Sit Cari Pranayama:

  • As a method to release excess heat from the body — e.g., during asana practice. This technique can be especially useful in heated yoga or during the summer months. It is advised to use this technique with caution during cold weather or the winter season.
  • In anticipation of, during, or after a stressful situation.
  • As a technique to balance Pitta dosha.

Benefits of Sit Cari Pranayama:

  • Cools the body.
  • Calms the mind.
  • Restores equilibrium to the body when the fight-or-flight response is triggered.

Shitali Pranayama:

Originating from the Sanskrit word shital, “soothing” or “cold,” Shitali Pranayama is also referred to as the “Cooling Breath.”

How to Perform Shitali Pranayama:

  • Roll the tongue, which will protrude the tongue slightly beyond the lips. [Note: if this motion of the tongue is not accessible to you, complete Sit Cari Pranayama instead — the benefits are similar].
  • Once the tongue is rolled, inhale through the mouth, drawing cool air across the surface of tongue tongue. Retain the breath for 4 counts, with the option to tuck the chin toward the chest into Jalandhara Bandha. Notice the cool air as it contacts the heated, moisturized environment within the oral cavity. Release Jalandhara Bandha and exhale through the nose for 6 counts.
  • Expand the breath as comfortable to 4:8, 5:10, or 6:12 counts.

When to Perform Shitali Pranayama:

  • As a method to release excess heat from the body — e.g., during asana practice. This technique can be especially useful in heated yoga or during the summer months. It is advised to use this technique with caution during cold weather or the winter season.
  • In anticipation of, during, or after a stressful situation.
  • As a technique to balance Pitta dosha.

Benefits of Shitali Pranayama:

  • Cools the body.
  • Calms the mind.
  • Restores equilibrium to the body when the fight-or-flight response is triggered.
  • Maintains youth.
  • Improves sleep.
  • Dampens hunger and thirst. Due to this technique’s impact on the organs within and below the naval center, do not complete if experiencing chronic constipation.
  • Decreases blood pressure [caution to those with low blood pressure].

Simhasana Pranayama: 

Originating from the Sanskrit word simha, “lion,” Simhasana Pranayama is also referred to as “Lion’s Breath.”

How to Perform Simhasana Pranayama:

  • Find a comfortable position, either seated or supine.
  • Seal the mouth and lift the tongue upward to contact the hard palate.
  • Keep the tongue anchored against the hard palate as you inhale.
  • Open your mouth wide and protrude your tongue as far as possible as you exhale audibly “haaa,” mimicking a lion’s roar. Maintain this position for 20-30 seconds before inhaling again.
  • Repeat 5-6 rounds, with the optional addition of Jalandhara Bandha.

When to Perform Simhasana Pranayama:

  • Before or during asana practice as a cleansing method.
  • During or after stressful situations.
  • As a technique to balance Pitta dosha.

Benefits of Simhasana Pranayama:

  • Releases tension from jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding.
  • Stimulates and firms the platysma — a superficial, thin, and broad muscle that overlays the mandible and anterior aspect of the neck, extending to the pectorals major. Simhasana Pranayama decreases sagging of the anterior aspect of the neck that occurs as a result of the normal aging process as tissue loses elasticity.
  • Relieves tension accumulated in the neck and chest musculature.
  • Stretches the tongue, which increases circulation to the root of tongue and throat.
  • Activates the larynx, trachea, thyroid, and bronchioles.
  • Improves vocal tone.
  • Serves as a healthy release for anger or frustration while also promotes a sense of humor about yourself.

 

 

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