Pranayama is a traditional practice that has always been used alongside Yoga and Ayurveda. It is one of the most important practices of yoga science. This ancient technique has made its way into modern day yoga classes. Beginning students generally focus their attention either on yoga postures or meditative techniques, without understanding the importance of pranayama exercises, which affect the whole of our being. After practicing basic breathing exercises for some time, we can realize that exercises in breathing are as important as any exercise of yoga. When this is understood, a serious practice pranayama can be pursued. To put it simply, pranayama is the conscious regulation of inhalation and exhalation. While Prana means vital force, yama means expansion. Pranayama is the expansion of the vital force, which moves through our breath and into our bodies. Breathing is not only what brings oxygen into our lungs, but it also allows Prana (energy) to move through our whole system. Pranayama is the practice of balancing energy within the body. Benefits of pranayama A wide variety of effects can be achieved through different techniques of pranayama, which can be either invigorating, heating, cleansing, cooling or calming. Pranayama can be used to find calmness in the mind for meditation. It has also been found to aid diseases related to the respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems, including chronic fatigue. It can ease psychological and emotional disorders such as depression, grief, stress and tension. Pranayama stimulates the lungs and all the organs within the body. Breathing massages the internal organs and increases circulation, allowing the body to re-energize and detoxify.
Stages of the breath cycle
Each cycle of breath has five stages, known as Pranagni. The first stage is called Prana, where energy enters your body through inhalation. The second stage is Samana, where there is retention of the breath, and oxygen is absorbed through the lung tissue. The third stage is Vyana, where oxygen is absorbed into the blood and carried through the rest of the body. The fourth stage is Udana: at the top of our exhalation, the breath creates positive feelings, while releasing tension. The fifth and final stage is Apana, where the end of the exhalation expels waste and carbon dioxide. Take in a deep delicious sip of air and notice all of these different stages. It’s amazing how much you can feel when you bring awareness to your breath. It is believed by ancient practitioners that the best time to practice pranayama is two hours before sunrise and sunset, or, as a gentle practice, just before falling asleep.
Techniques of Pranayama
Under the umbrella of Pranayama, there are a number of different techniques to control the breath and expand prana. The most common among modern yoga classes is the Ujjayi breath. Often in Hatha yoga classes, the teacher will ask their students to breathe through the back of their throat, so that they can distinctly hear their own breathing. This form of Pranayama has a heating effect on the body, and is at the same time calming, bringing awareness to in the mind, throat and heart. A beautiful Mantra to incorporate into your Ujjayi Pranayama practice is So Ham. On the inhale, mentally repeat Sooo and on the exhale, think Ham. The mantra also brings awareness to your true self, as it means “the conscious spirit am I.”
Another common breath that is practiced in yoga is alternate nostril breathing. Using the thumb to block the left nostril, inhale through the right nostril. Once your lungs are full and satisfied, hold your ring finger to your right nostril and exhale through the left. This practice has several wonderful influences on the mind and body. Primarily, it balances the opposite energies of the left and right sides of our bodies. It is an excellent preparation for meditation.
The right nostril is associated with solar energy. It stimulates heat in the body and supports digestion, liver, gall bladder and right kidney functions. The left nostril is related to lunar energy and has a soothing and cooling effect on the body. It is a focused breath that supports the heart, stomach and left kidney functions. It also opens the body be receptive of nourishment and rest. The body is always breathing through one nostril predominantly, either heating or cooling your system. Usually when the right nostril is dominant, the environment around is cool and the body needs to be heated. Right nostril breathing also stimulates energy in the body and is used to overcome fatigue. The left nostril is usually dominant when the body needs to be cooled down, often during sleep or when the body is in a hot atmosphere. Left nostril breathing can also be used as a treatment for fevers, hyperactivity, insomnia and restlessness.
Sushumna breathing is a technique that brings attention to the spine. On the inhale, imagine a cooling breath traveling up the spine. On the exhale, imagine a warm breath traveling down the spine. This type of breathing is meant to stimulate kundalini energy and internal awareness to support meditation practice.
Kapalabhati (Skull shining breath) is a Pranayama practice in which the practitioner forces out all the air swiftly on the exhale, contracting the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. To inhale, they simply relax the abdominal muscles and let air naturally flow into their lungs without effort. This practice is energizing and enhances digestion.
Shitali breath is a technique that is done to cool down the body’s system. In this practice, the tongue is held out of the mouth and folded up at the sides to form a narrow tube. The practitioner is meant to feel a cooling sensation as they inhale through the tongue and fill the lungs with air. Hold the breath as long as possible and then exhale through the nostrils. Shitali means cooling, and the practice is meant to help with dehydration, high fevers, high blood pressure, hyperactivity or overheating.
Although these practices sound beautiful and inviting, they should always be learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher. The techniques of pranayama are unique and powerful, as we are working with the fundamental aspect of our being. The breath has tremendous impact on regulating brain wave patterns and can directly regulate prana; directing and expanding. This can be of great benefit to a serious practitioner. The methods are highly effective and their efficacy can only be fully appreciated by advanced students.