“Pranayama” refers to the different breathing techniques practiced in a Yoga-sadhana. In a broad over-view, it involves consciously regulating the breathing patterns to enable the flow of vital energy in the body, and has traditionally been known to be a relaxation practice. On a deeper level however, regulating the breath has profound effects on both the mind and the body.
The word Pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words: Prana – meaning vital life force, which denotes constancy, and ayama- meaning the capacity. Thus, pranayama is the technique which helps the internal prana, residing as quantums/pockets of vital energy within the body, to be activated and released.
All Pranayama techniques involve 3 steps: Inhalation, Retention (or kumbhak) and Exhalation (or rechak). Of these, retention of the breath, or Kumbhak, is the most important – it helps in assimilation of prana by allowing exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the cells. Thus, vitalizing the tissues, muscles and organs.
The breathing process is directly connected to the central nervous system. Every intake of breath creates a nervous impulse as air enters the nasal passage, stimulating the nasal membranes, sending signals up to the central nervous system, particularly the hypothalamus, and the frontal lobe, stimulating the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, which in turn are connected to the visceral body organs. Thus, on a physiological level, pranayama helps regulate systemic functions and also maintains optimum oxygen levels in the blood, keeping the organs and tissues healthy.
From a yogic point of view, pranayama helps to balance the pingala (which denotes the masculine, dynamic, solar energy; activating the left brain hemisphere) and the ida (which denotes the feminine, or passive, lunar energy; activating right brain hemisphere). These represent the fluctuating waves of dominant energies in the body. Pranayama helps in balancing and bringing together these two poles of energy to enable the prana to rise up through the Sushumna (or the middle path). This can be depicted as the stimulation and activation of the central nervous system, along the spinal column, through the pituitary gland, medulla oblongata and the pineal gland.
Most Hatha yoga practices are aimed to concentrate on the physical body first (with the help of asanas), so as to gradually and eventually develop the mental strength that would enable us to withstand the chaos within and outside. The philosophy being that with practice and discipline, overcoming first the physical and then the physiological barrier, so that eventually, the mind becomes steady by itself. The goal of a yoga practice is to realize, channelize and utilize this internal energy to achieve a healthy mind-body balance, or Shiva consciousness. This state of being doesn’t necessarily have to be marked by a profound experience, but is simply a sense one-ness with the self – of the mind, body and spirit. In more relatable terms, it translates into the ability to live a happy, stress-free, healthy life. And that, after all, is what all of us want to take away from a yoga practice.
Most pranayama techniques can be practiced by anyone. However, it is generally advised that certain practices like Bhastrika (bellows breathing), kumbhak (holding of breath) should be avoided by people with heart conditions, hypertension or blood-pressure. Studies have shown that pranayama is particularly effective for people with Asthma, chronic anxiety disorders, Insomnia, Nasal conjestions, obesity and related conditions. It helps improve lung capacity, tones intercostal and abdominal muscles, helps maintain optimum blood oxygen levels thus keeping the organs and tissues healthy. By becoming aware of the breath and by being able to effectively control and retain the breath, pranayama helps to balance and regulate nervous response, thus harmonizing the brain wave patterns, relaxing and calming the brain. Thus, pranayama is often adopted into meditation practices.
During Pranayama, one can sit in any comfortable meditative posture, either padmasana (lotus pose/half lotus), sukhasana (cross legged) or vajrasana (warrior, feet tucked under, sitting on the heels). Most pranayama techniques can be practiced by anyone. However, it is generally advised that certain practices like Bhastrika (bellows breathing), kumbhak (holding of breath) should be avoided by people with heart conditions, hypertension or high blood-pressure. These people can eliminate the breath holding step and should ideally consult a guru before beginning a pranayama practice on their own.
Given below is a basic pranayama sequence that can be practiced regularly.
1. Kapalbhati / Frontal brain cleansing
Sit in a comfortable meditative pose, with the spine erect and palms resting on the knees. Rapidly and continuously exhale through the nose for up to 100-150 respirations. With practice, combine the rapid exhalation with continuous movement of the abdominal muscles.
It helps to decompress and activate the frontal lobe of the brain, improves lung capacity, clears air pathways, and arterial blockages. It helps to tone abdominal muscles, clears the nasal and mucosal pathways and removes stale air, thus helps in detoxification. It also on the cardio-vascular system and is beneficial in obesity and fat reduction.
2. Ujjayi pranayama / psychic breathing
Take a deep controlled breath in through the nose, so that it is felt in the throat producing a deep sonorous sound. Hold the breath and slowly exhale through the nose with control, so that it produces a deep throaty sound. Practice for 6-8 breathes. Ujjayi breathing can be practiced sitting, standing, walking or during an asana, and even while in meditation.
It helps remove phlegm, improves lung capacity, tones inter-costal muscles, clears energy blockages and stimulates digestive fire.
3. Vrikshasana / Tree pose (Standing pranayama posture)
Standing erect, lift your right foot and place it on the inside of the left thigh (or rest it over the thigh). Maintaining your balance, close the eyes and join the hands together in pranamasan, either in front of the chest or raised over the head. Take deep regular breaths and hold pose for 1 to 2 minutes to begin with. Repeat with the other foot.
This pose is good for regulating the breath as well as for improving the balance and concentration.
4. Nadi shodhan pranayama / Alternate nostril breathing
Sit in a comfortable meditative pose, with the left hand on the left knee. With the thumb of the right hand close the right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril for 3 counts. Hold the breath, gently lower chin on the chest and hold for 6 counts. Slowly exhale through the left nostril for 6 counts. Practice 8 rounds and then repeat with the right nostril, by closing the left nostril with the ring finger of the right hand.
5. Anulom-vilom/ Alternate nostril breathing
Close the right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril for 3 counts, hold the breath and exhale through the right nostril, and again breathe in through the right, hold and then exhale through the left (1 cycle). Practice 7-11 such cycles to begin with.
Develop the practice over time, gradually increasing the retention and exhalation times so that the Inhalation:Retention:Exhalation is in the ratio of 1:2:2 counts. The aim is to retain the breath for a longer time followed by a long, controlled exhalation. Kumbhak or breath retention step should be eliminated by people with high BP/ hyper-tension.
This practice helps to balance the pingala and ida, energizes the brain, helps in anxiety and insomnia.
6. Bhramari / Humming-bee pranayama
Sit in a comfortable meditative pose, keeping your spine erect ad body relaxed with the eyes closed. Take a deep breath in, close the ears with the pads of the thumb, the little fingers close the centre of the eyebrows and index and middle fingers on the cranium. Slowly exhale while making a low-pitched reverberating humming sound. Practice up to 5 rounds to begin with.
Once finished, keep the eyes closed and sit in dhyan for a minute, concentrating on the subtle sounds around you. It helps to stimulate the hypothalamus, improves circulation in the brain, helps developing concentration, improves cognitive functions and helps calm and relax the mind.
For more details on how to perform these breathing techniques please visit our asana directory http://total-yoga.org/asana-directory/ and our youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/totalyogaorg
Slavica Gokul is a certified Vinyasa, Hatha and Power yoga teacher through Total Yoga in Bangalore, India. She has been an aspiring yogi for more than 20 years. She dedicated herself to consistent practice 9 years ago and while residing in India from 2012-14 underwent teacher training.