Friday, August 28, 2009

Just Breathe

Pranayama is the yogic practice of breath control. Most of us unconsciously breathe short, shallow breaths. This short, shallow breathing taxes the heart and nervous system, exacerbating many common ailments. Through the process of pranayama, or conscious control of the breath, we learn to deepen and extend the breath, thus reducing the number of breaths required per minute. Deep mindful breathing provides relaxation to the nervous system, as well as decreases the workload on the heart. Practicing pranayama also increases the amount of oxygen supplied to the brain. According to Patanjali, sage and philosopher who authored the Yoga Sutras, pranayama helps one develop concentration and clarity, preparing a person for meditation.

In the yoga community there are mixed feelings regarding the practice of pranayama. Because pranayama is thought to be instrumental in raising Kundalini, the dormant energies in the body, some gurus and respected yogi's recommend practicing pranayama only under the strict and watchful guidance of a well trained teacher. Others believe that the careful practice of pranayama is appropriate and beneficial for all yogi's. My personal opinion is that pranayama is a beneficial practice, and that after learning proper technique from a trained teacher, pranayama should be added to your daily practice of yoga.

There are several different pranayama techniques designed to create a different effect on the body, mind, and spirit. I will list and discuss some of the most common techniques here.

Deerga Swasm is also known as the 3 part or diaphragmatic breath. It is a deep breathing technique that fills and empties the lungs completely. Deerga swasm utilizes and increases lung capacity. Deerga Swasm is a great pranayama technique to add to the beginning of any asana or meditation practice, as it is calming and centering.

Deerga Swasm is practiced by sitting comfortably with the spine erect. Begin by inhaling deeply drawing the breath low into the belly, feeling your abdomen expand in all directions. As the abdomen becomes full of air, the breath then moves into the rib cage. Focus on feeling the rib cage expand in all directions; front to back and side to side. Finally, the breath rises into the chest, slightly lifting the chest and clavicle. Once the entire torso is fully expanded by the breath, you slowly release the breath in reverse, from the chest to the belly, drawing the navel in toward the spine to release all stale air before beginning again.

Kapalabhati is known as the skull shining breath. This breath sends energy to Sahasrara, the crown chakra. Kapalabhati is a rapid breath, with the emphasis on the exhalation. This breath is very clarifying and energizing and is beneficial in releasing toxins from the body. Beginners should start this breath slowly and work toward a more rapid breath. One round of kapalabhati is around 25 breaths for a beginner, working up to as many as 300 breaths for a more advanced practitioner.

Kapalabhati is performed by beginning with a deep inhalation, expanding the abdomen. On the exhalation snap the abdomen in actively, then passively inhaling again. Remember the emphasis in kapalabhati is on the exhalation

Nadi Shodhana is also known as alternate nostril breathing. Nadi shodhana cleanses the nostrils and balances the energy channels of Ida and Pingala. Ida ends in the left nostril and represents the moon side of the body. The lunar side of the body possesses more cooling, yin, feminine energy. Pingala ends in the right nostril and represents the solar side of the body, possessing warming, yang, masculine energy. Nadi Shodhana calms the nervous system and begins to draw awareness inward.

There are several ways to practice nadi shodhana. The right thumb is used to close the right nostril, the right ring finger is used to close the left nostril. To begin, sit in a comfortable position, spine erect. Seal off the right nostril, inhale through the left. Seal the left nostril and exhale through the right. Inhale through the right nostril, seal off right, and exhale left. This makes up one round (each round is completed by exhaling through the left nostril). Another popular technique for practicing nadi shodhana is by sealing the right nostril, inhale and exhale through the left. Seal the left, inhale and exhale through the right. This would be one round for this technique.

Other popular forms of pranayama are the Ujjayi Pranayama, Bhastrika (Bellows Breath), Bhramari (Humming Bee Breath), and the Kundalini Yoga Breath of Fire.

The following example of a pranayama practice is designed to calm the mind and create energy in the body. Please consult a trained instructor before beginning a pranayama practice. It may be helpful to have a timer near so that you aren't distracted by how long you should practice. I suggest practicing each section of pranayama for at least 2 minutes, unless otherwise noted.

Begin by finding a comfortable seated position. Sitting on a bolster or blanket to lift the hips if this is comfortable for you. Be sure to relax through your hips, knees and ankles. Allow the spine to become erect, yet relaxed.

Start by closing your eyes, resting your hands on your knees or in your lap, and just breathe normally and naturally. Bringing your focus to the tip of your nose and noticing the breath that flows in and out of your nostrils. Notice the temperature of the air, the texture and speed of the breath. Don’t attempt to do anything at this point to manipulate your breathing, just notice what is natural for you. Take a few minutes of quite time here allowing for focus on breath.

Now begin to deepen the breath and draw the breath deeply into the belly. With each inhalation feel the lower abdomen expanding, then notice the breath rise into the lower lungs as the rib cage expands in all directions, finally you notice the breath rise into the upper lungs as the clavicles lift. Exhaling in reverse. First emptying the upper lungs, then the lower lungs, then finally the abdomen. Draw the navel in toward the spine to release all stale air, and then begin again. Focusing on inhaling in three parts and exhaling in three parts. Take a few minutes of quite Deerga Swasm here.

When the 2 minutes have passed, finish one more complete 3 part inhalation and 3 part exhalation, then inhale deeply through your nose, hold the breath for a moment and exhale through pierced lips. Now return to your normal breath for a few moments.

Moving to Nadi Shodhana, begin by using the thumb and ring finger of the right hand to close the nostrils. Begin with one deep inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils to cleanse. Following the exhalation, close the right nostril with the thumb, inhale through the left nostril. Close the left nostril after inhalation, open the right nostril and exhale. Inhale through the right nostril, close the right, open the left and exhale through the left. This completes one round. Again, inhale through the left, close, exhale through the right, inhale right, close and exhale left. Continue in this manner silently for a few moments. The breath should not be deep or forceful, just smooth consistent inhalations and exhalation. Imagine that there is a feather between your nostrils and try to keep that feather from moving as you breath. This will help develop a smooth, consistent breath. Take a few quiet minutes for Nadi Shodhana.

When the 2 minutes have passed, finish the round of Nadi Shodhana that you are on then complete one more full round. Finish with a cleansing breath in through the nose, out through the mouth then return to normal breathing.

End your pranayama practice with Kaphalabati. During this breath you will be emphasizing the exhalation by snapping the stomach and inhaling passively. This breath can be practiced as fast or as slow as feels comfortable to you. If you get tripped up on your breath just begin again. Do 3 rounds of 25 breaths each, followed by a cleansing breath in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Now, just return to your normal breath and notice how you are feeling.


  1. Nice posting. Do you know about these pranayama books?

  2. Thanks for this post! Love it when I can learn something :)