PRANAYAMA AND THE PRACTICE

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga.  Pranayama is made of two separate words.  Prana is the life force within us that can be described as something that flows with us and provides vitality.   Prana can also be described as something that is infinite and present everywhere.  Ayama means to stretch or extend.

Pranayama practice is done sitting in a one place for an extended period of time with our spine held erect.  This requires that the sitting posture be comfortable and effortless so that we can totally focus on breathing.  The free flow of Prana within our bodies is essential for emotional well-being and results in happiness, peace, contentment, and vitality.  In this state of mind, our breathing is deep, relaxed, even paced, and complete.  This free flow of Prana is reflected in, relaxed, even paced, and complete breathing. 

When the Prana flow is restricted, the breathing is labored, rapid, and incomplete.  This represents a state of mind where we are unhappy, angry, fearful, anxious, and tired.  By focusing on our breathing, and shifting the breathing towards a more relaxed, deep, and even pace, we can clear and remove emotional blocks in our system by the practice of Pranayama.  In a way, we are influencing the flow of Prana in our bodies by focusing on breathing.  And when we follow the breath as in Pranayama, the mind will be drawn into the activities of the breath.  Our intention as we work with breath is to regulate it so as to calm and focus the mind for meditation.  In this way, Pranayama prepares us for the stillness for Meditation.  Just as activities of the mind influence the breath, so does the breath influence our state of mind.  Breathing helps in displacing things that do not serve us anymore with Prana, the life force that is responsible for peace, joy, clarity, and contentment.

Pranayama can improve mood, mental alertness and enhance memory by sending more blood to the brain.  Pranayama can calm an agitated or angry mind.  When you are feeling lethargic and dull, mindful breathing techniques can help you restore energy.  Pranayama will also help you find the “Observer” within you and thus help you recognize an emotional response before it gets in the way of what you want to accomplish.  When you become aware of what your triggers are Pranayama gives you the space to get grounded.

Pranayama practice helps in altering emotional and mental States.  Mindful breathing allows you to slow down and self-reflect when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.  Practicing breathing at work will help you slow down a conversation, have more time to observe what is being said, stay grounded, and give a more thoughtful response.  When you are able to successfully slow down a conversation, the other person in the conversation will slow down to.  Slowing subsequently improves quality of breathing and will shift energy on both sides of the conversation allowing for more connection and deeper understanding.

A useful visualization to help in meditation is to visualize the light of prana from the universe entering your body as you inhale and displacing the grey mist of stress, negativity, and depression that is expelled out of your body during the subsequent exhalation.

In Pranayama practice, we focus our mind on the flow of breath inside our body.  The focus of the mind on the inhalation, holding post inhalation, exhalation, and holding post exhalation will reveal the different possibilities available by varying the inhalation-exhalation breath ratios.

Our intention as we work with the breath is to regulate it so as to calm and focus the mind for self-reflection, introspection, and meditation.  Pranayama is conscious breathing.  It is essential not to suppress the body’s natural urges, pay attention to the reaction of the body during breathing stop to take a deep breath if necessary during the practice of pranayama.  Problems arise when we fail to recognize a negative body reaction during the practice.  If someone is laboring to breathe deeply and evenly, stop and have the person take a quick breath in between long slow breaths.  Remember, it is himsa, violence against you if you continue the practice despite the stress during pranayama practice.  And most importantly, seek the guidance of an experienced teacher and start your practice of pranayama with the teacher during the early days of pranayama.

Pranayama Techniques

Ujjayi also called throat breathing is done by contracting the larynx and thus narrowing the air passage which creates a slight sound during inhalation and exhalation.  This breathing has many variations.  In the first variation, start by breathing in through the throat, completely close one nostril and breathe out through the other nostril.  This technique is called a new anuloma ujjayi.  In viloma ujjayi, we breathe in through the nostril and breathe out through the throat.

In nadi sodhana technique, we breathe alternately through the nostrils.  Begin breathing by inhaling through the left nostril and breathe out through the partially closed in right nostril.  On the next breath, breathe in through the right nostril and breathe out through the left nostril.  Continue by inhaling alternately between the right and left nostril and alternately exhaling between the left and right nostril respectively.  We control the opening of the nostril by means of hand mudraNadi sodhana should not be practiced if the nasal passages are blocked as a result of cold or allergies.

Hand mudras are the gestures using our hand that we see commonly in yoga, pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses, and in the Buddhist tradition.  Dhyana mudra is the position of one hand resting on the other and Cin mudra is where the thumb and index finger of the left hand are held to form a circle.

Sitali technique uses the tongue during breathing.  During inhalation, curl up both edges of the tongue, or if you cannot curl the tongue, place the tongue carefully between the lower lip and upper teeth to create a small gap through which the air is inhaled.  This creates a cooling effect as you draw the air in.  During exhalation, breathe out through the throat or through alternate nostrils.

Kapalabhati is used specifically for cleansing and clearing the air passages.  This involves abdominal breathing only and does not involve the chest.  Abdominal breathing is short, rapid, and powerful to drive air out of the lungs rapidly and completely.  This technique builds abdominal strength and keeps the nasal passages clear.  This technique has to be used carefully since dizziness and lack of oxygen may be experienced for novice practitioners.  If this happens, stop the practice and breathe normally, deeply and slowly until the feeling of dizziness is gone.  This technique has to be practiced with experienced teachers first before one can practice on their own.  Always remember to incorporate ahimsa, nonviolence towards your own body in yoga practice.

Bhastrika technique involves rapid breathing using the abdomen like bellows and force the air out of a single nostril.  In the beginning breathing is initiated normally, and then air is rapidly inhaled and exhaled in rapid succession multiple times through one nostril, keeping the other nostril closed. Keep counts of the number of breathes and perform the same action through the other nostril for the same number of breathes.  Alternate breathing between the nostrils for a few cycles each time keeping the number of breathes the same with each nostril.  In between each cycle, it is necessary to relax, catch your breath by breathing normally and then continue with the next round.

In the practice of Pranayama, it is necessary to find a suitable place and position to sit for the practice.  The ideal place and position is one where the body is comfortable and stays comfortable for an extended period of time.  You could be sitting on the floor in Vajrasana, Virasana, Padmasana, Siddhasana or Sukhasana or on a chair with back support.  The goal is to keep the spine erect, body free of discomfort, and remove the focus from the body and direct total focus on the breath.

In the early stages of practice, make it your goal to understand what it is you need to gain from the practice, know your limitations, and nurture the desire to learn.  Start by focusing on the breath, develop the ability to sit in one place comfortably for an extended period of time, and don’t focus on the technicalities of breathing as prescribed in Pranayama.  Over time, you will master the ability to sit for an extended period of time and practice deep, slow, even paced, and conscious breathing. When you have mastered the technique of sitting comfortably in a place for extended periods of time and breathe comfortably and consciously with even, deep, and slow breaths, you are ready to experiment with breath ratios and the different techniques of Pranayama.

As you progress further along in Pranayama practice, learn to focus on the flow of breath inside of you.  This helps to follow the flow of the breath from the nostrils into the lungs and extension into other parts of the body.  Once this is mastered, you will sense the inconsequence of time, where time stands still, and then you will find yourself gazing at the object of your choosing and thus away from distractions.  This ultimately helps in keeping the eyes fixed at one point even while your eyelids are closed, thus bringing even your eyes to a complete stop.

It is essential to create a visualization to begin the practice of Pranayama that will help us calm down rapidly and prepare our body, mind, and breath for the practice.  Just being able to sit in one place, breathe effortlessly and create a calm and joyous state of mind is the key to still the mind, make passage of time irrelevant, and achieve Yoga.  Namaste!

About Kammitment:  Led by scientist and life-coach Kamalesh (Kam) Rao, Kammitment helps you realize and make a commitment towards self-actualization, through tailored leadership coaching, workshops and programs for students and professionals in all stages of their lives, by drawing upon the time-tested principles of Yoga and Mindfulness.  Kam has spent 20 years as a scientist and a manufacturing professional in the pharmaceuticals industry, and continues to consult with the industry.  In his free time he leads executive coaching programs for Fortune 100 clients.  A certified Yoga instructor, Kam lives in Oakland, CA and is an Improv actor who also enjoys Salsa dancing when he is not perfecting the next Pretzel pose in Yoga.  For further information, please email [email protected]

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