Thus being established in asana and having control (of the body), taking a balanced diet; pranayama should be practiced according to the instructions of the guru.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktibodhananda, p. 149
When prana moves, chitta (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this (steadiness of prana) the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air).
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Muktibodhananda, p. 150
Previous entries have made a consistent effort at demystifying yoga. We have clarified what it is and is not and have briefly explained some of its more obscure and metaphorical ideas so as to make it more approachable to the modern individual –including, as well, Pro-sports athletes. So yeah, we cannot really say that we don’t have an agenda, because we definitely would love for everybody to have a go at real yoga at least once and learn to dive in deeper with it into the heart of who they are.
Still, we do understand that people’s lives are busy and not everybody is willing (or can simply manage) to find the time to practice yoga regularly. Which is precisely the reason for this entry. Because, if a person can only scrap 10 to 15 minutes of time every other day for themselves to do something that makes them feel better, then, it all boils down to bringing it to the bare essentials. And yoga’s most bare but essential ‘essentials’ are pranayama or breathwork, on the one hand, and meditation, on the other.
Hence, this entry today will go quickly over some of the theory on pranayama to offer practical ‘how to’ advice for any person interested in establishing a weekly yogic breathwork routine. Indeed, everybody should be able to enjoy yoga’s most accessible benefits also from the comfort of their own home!
Pranayama, from the Sanskrit union of the terms ‘prana’ (vital life force) and ‘ayama’ (control or restrain over the length of prana), is one of main steps or limbs of yoga as prescribed by Patanjali in his famous Yoga Sutras.
In a nutshell, pranayama refers to the practice of a series of yogic breathing techniques meant to (de)activate different physical, psychological, and psychic mechanisms inbuilt into our bodyminds to help us attain greater relaxation and/or deeper states of concentration.
In the Yoga Sutras, pranayama follows from asana as the next step in the way to yogic realization. And so, a yoga practitioner who masters the art of asana or postural work and is well established in the science of conscious inhalation and exhalation (one of the basics of being human!), must progressively move on to incorporating a variety of breathing routines and techniques meant to take her to the next level.
These ancient techniques directly affect the body and the mind, allowing the practitioner to tap into the subconscious to progressively dissolve the rational ego, so as to lead to breath retention/cessation for the practitioner to have greater chances at deeper concentration.
As Patanjali would argue, breath retention must be practiced to prevent the fluctuations of the mind so that our experience of the world can amplify. Indeed, we normally breathe according to certain nasal cycles involving nostril alternation approximately every 2 to 4 hours, depending on the individual.
Nasal cycle is connected to the autonomic nervous system and has the ability to affect numerous biological processes, including our reactions to stressors and/or the way we feel. This is why pranayama is really so fundamental. Not only does it contribute to an increasingly freer flow of air through our nostrils, one nostril at a time, but it can also improve simultaneous nostril breathing, thus bringing us to a more balanced state overall.
Still, one thing must be clear: “[p]ranayama is more than simple breathing exercises” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, p. 149). It is a series of techniques “through which the quantity of prana in the body is activated to a higher frequency” (p. 149). And what does this mean? That by conscious manipulation of the rates and cycles at which inhalation, exhalation, and breath retention happen, we can actively affect consciousness and regulate the often irregular workings of our very complicated minds!
Oh c'mon, don't be shallow!
Shallow breathing is, for example, a very common condition for many modern day individuals. Conscious and unconscious stressors are generally at the roots of it, and its effects are most noticeable: from exhaustion to anxiety, depression, or even higher risks of cardiovascular disease, all of these are factors that can lead to very serious complications.
If your breathing is shallow, this means you are not making use of the full potential of your lungs and are basically staying on the surface of experience, breathing only into the clavicle area. This requires a great deal of effort to produce much less air than you’d normally draw with a full breath, which creates an oxygen deficit that can only be overcome by quickening the intake of (still superficial) air.
We see this as a suitable life metaphor, because, when the breathing is shallow, so is our experience of the world. Still, it is relatively easy to suffer from shallow breathing or to have periods in life where, for whatever reason, we feel as if we were not properly able to breath life in. So, for those of you with ‘profounder aspirations,’ here’s an easy 10 to 15 minute routine for you to try out now and then to eventually breath life to its full! This easy pranayama routine will expand your lung capacity overtime, by slowly, but steadily, stretching the tissues that can otherwise restrict your breathing.
Classic alternate nostril breathing or nadi shodhana pranayama
To begin with, asume a comfortable position, either sitting on the floor in siddhasana or padmasana (cross-legged), or in a comfortable surface and position of your choosing. For more advanced practitioners, baddha padmasana would be the position of choice. Then, draw a few even long breaths. No rules apply. Just breathe in and out fully, relaxedly following whatever rhythm feels most natural.
Eliminate any potential distractions and, if desired, time yourself to avoid worries about going ‘overtime.’ Once ready, place the index and middle finger of your right hand on the spot between your eyes –your third eye area– and use the thumb and ring finger of the same hand to block/release the flux of air into your nostrils, as shown in the picture above. The thumb goes to the right nostril, the ring finger to the left one.
Then, nadi shodhana pranayama can begin:
With the right hand thus placed, close the right nostril with your thumb and take a deep inhalation through your left nostril. Fill your lungs to capacity but do so without rushes, slowly.
Once full, close your left nostril with the ring finger and hold your breath (kumbhaka) for as long as you can. Beginners can establish an 6-second landmark to release the air at, while more advanced students can use their own judgement and increase the duration as desired.
Then exhale the air out through your right nostril slowly and without a rush.
Now alternate the direction.
Close the left nostril with the ring finger, and inhale through the right nostril to capacity.
Hold your breath for as long as you can, then release the air slowly through your left nostril by lessening the pressure from your ring finger.
Continue the exercise for as long as desired by inhaling with the same nostril through which your previous exhalation took place, and do all of this calmly and slowly, trying to feel the air in and out and, with it, your body giving in to relaxation.
As you ease into the practice, feel free to establish different ratios for inhalation, retention, and exhalation to pace your own development and be at rest. If 8 or 10 seconds of kumbhaka or breath retention seems like too big a feat for you to accomplish at the beginning, play it safe and hold instead for 6. You can try the following tempo: inhale for 6 seconds, hold for 6 seconds, and exhale 6 seconds as well. The overall idea is for you to ease in ‘naturally’ into the breathing and avoid any type of tension, either physical or mental.
This easy pranayama technique will stimulate and balance the main nadis (ida on the left and pingala on the right) helping you ‘clear the air’ both literally and metaphorically. It is essentially a purifying breathing routine that will leave you simultaneously relaxed and focused, contributing to a more even use of both nostrils by clearing potential nasal blockages along the way.
Additionally, sadi shodhana pranayama has a tangible effect on both the mind and lung capacity, aiding in the achievement of deeper concentrative states, as well as with the prevention of continuous shallow breathing, for a fuller and more profound experience of life! So don’t hesitate and give it a try. And if you feel like you could also master more than one thing at a time, go ahead and incorporate some easy meditation to your practice. For more ‘how to’ info on the latter, check our previous blog entry on that!