“The air contains prana. The air itself is not prana. Prana is not the breath itself but the power that makes you breathe. Prana is in water and in food, too. It is not the food itself, but the power that digests that food: not drink itself, but the power that produces thirst. The prana in you is able to extract the prana from the air you breathe, and use it. It is prana that connects the body with the mind and therefore what happens in the body is reflected in the mind. If you control your prana your mind is controlled: if you control your mind, the prana is controlled.” ~Y.S.P, Swami Omkarananda
The Mundaka Upanishad explains that this breath has its source in the Atman. Atman means Soul or Spirit. The Kausitaki Upanishad tells us several times that the Atman (Brahman) is breath. And one of the oldest Sanskrit scriptures, the Atharva Veda, states “whosoever be driven by the breath of life, he will be reborn.”
“Prana, principles of life and consciousness equal to Atman (self). Prana is the breath of life within all beings in the universe.”-Upanishads
Benefits to the practice of pranayama:
- Brings us to the present moment
- Connects us to our bodies and spirit
- Improves your digestion as it helps bring prana to the digestive region
- Improves many sexual problems
- Influences our parasympathetic nervous system
- Establishes stability for longer sitting practices
- Relaxes the body and mind
- Increases our intake of oxygen
- It brings oxygen to the lower organs of the body
- Helps with anxiety
- Helps to reduce hypertension
- Assists in lowers blood pressure
The 4 Stages Of Pranayama Breathing :
- Inhalation / Puraka – the intake of a full inhalation, keeping it smooth & efficient.
- Internal retention / Antara kumbhaka- retention of air within the lungs after inhalation.
- Exhalation / Recaka – expelling of used air from the lungs.
- External retention / Bahya kumbhaka – containing the retention of empty lungs after exhalation. *In the practice of pranayama one is aims to include all four stages
The Foundation is: Full Yogic Breathing
In order to begin a Pranayama practice its important one has an established foundation, which includes learning how to breathe properly. This practice is also known as the full yogic breathe or the complete breath.
- Breathing into the three chambers of the lungs
- The lower part of the lungs: on the inhalation, it expands your abdomen
- Middle expands your rib cage lifts and opens the thoracic cavity
- The top expands and lifts the clavicle region
- The exhalation cleanses and removes carbon dioxide and the inhalation nourishes and brings in oxygen to nourish our blood.
The Best Results For Your Pranayama Practice
If you just embarked on the pranayama journey or have been practising for a while it’s like climbing an endless mountain, which needs patience, perseverance, and devotion knowing each step in the practice takes you higher on the mountain and deeper in the practice. If you fall down, you simply get back up, which happens to all of us in different times in our life and this is part of the learning and the strength building.
The best results for Pranayama is to cultivate your own personal practice this way it’s easier to teach as we have firsthand experience and this requires a consistent commitment to the practice. One must begin slowly as you would climb any steep mountain.
Breathe Through The Nose
Let us look at the physiological part of the nose in relation to breathing. This helps one understand how our intake of prana works, so it is utilized in the right way. Also gives understanding why breathing through the nose is so essentially important in yoga asana as well in pranayama practice.
Our bodies are so intricate and amazing; we have our smell and prana receptors located at the base of the tiny hairs (cilia) located in the mucous membrane at the top of the nasal cavity. There are about 50 million nerve fibers leaving the smell membranes on each side of the nose. These link with a further 50,000 nerve fibers which carry messages to the frontal lobes of the brain, giving us an indication of its importance at the mental level. The olfactory bulb is an extension of the cortex, situated immediately above the nasal cavity. Fibers from the olfactory bulb pass into the olfactory tract, which branches to various structures on or near the lower surface of the cortex that connects to our central nervous system.
Observe how quickly we react to strong smells, almost instinctively. The large groups of nerves and their uninterrupted route into the brain are primarily for energy assimilation; the energy – prana goes directly into the brain nervous system, which is connected, to the subtle bodies of the chakras or meridians.
Sitting options for your practice
Ujjayi: The Psychic Breath
Ujjayi is a subtle breathing practice, which very often occurs spontaneously in the presence of jalandhara bandha or can be intentionally activated by making a slight adjustment in the throat. It is known as the psychic breath as it can lead the practitioner to very subtle states of mind.
Ujjayi is usually only audible to the practitioner. If the sound is harsh and loud, then it’s generally a sign that too much effort or force is being made. However, when the body is challenged to work more deeply in asana, ujjayi may become louder but should still retain its soft and smooth quality.
The sound of ujjayi acts like a mantra, soothing and detaching the mind from its preoccupation with external stimuli. The inhalation and exhalation will generally be long, deep and smooth. However, whenever a practice becomes extra challenging, the body works harder and requires more oxygen, at which time ujjayi will automatically become deeper, stronger and louder.
When practising asana, the sound of ujjayi can help to focus attention, relax the body and mind, intensify the practice, and create internal vibrations that increase circulation and energy flow to different parts of the body, creating numerous physical and psychological benefits.
- Creates a deeply soothing effect on the nervous system and a calming effect on the mind, helping reduce tension and slow down thought processes.
- Exercises the capacity of the lungs and increase gaseous exchange.
- Initiates the practitioner into states of awareness and meditation.
- Increases prana and oxygen levels.
- Creates an internal heat in the body.
- Reduces blood pressure, heart disease and hypertension.
Kapalabhati: Means Skull Shining
- The name is an indication of what is felt in the cranial area after the practice. Kapalabhati officially not traditionally a pranayama its one of the internal cleanses called Shat Karmas, yet offered in pranayama classes.
- The practice of kapalabhati is the rapid contraction and release of the abdominal muscles. The abdomen is quickly contracted or ‘snapped in’ to force air out of the body creating an exhale, after which the abdomen is relaxed and air automatically rushes back into the body creating a spontaneous inhale.
- The number of breaths in a round can be gradually increased over time to unlimited counts.
Kapalabhati – Alternate Nostrils Technique. The air is directed first through the left nostril and then through the right, ending the practice through both. Start with 10 strokes through each nostril.
- If at any time you feel stress or strain exhaling through the right nostril, release the practice, take a few natural breaths and then begin again.
- The more you relax into this practice the more the practice becomes fluid and effortless with the minimum amount of thoughts occurring.
- Sometimes it may take time to achieve the correct coordination, so in the beginning, a little patience with yourself may be required☺.
- Often tension unconsciously creeps into the shoulders, jaw and face so keep awareness throughout the whole body to remain relaxed.
- Cleans the nadis in the skull.
- Helps remove excess mucous that causes sinus problems and allergies.
- Stimulates the digestive organs and digestive fire.
- Initially stimulates the mind, which after time becomes clear and calm.
- Clears out any negative energy and releases tension.
- Restores a vibrant, energetic and light feeling to the body and mind.
Contradictions: Women who are on the heaviest part of their menstrual cycle, women who are pregnant, or persons with a hiatus hernia, heart disease and ulcers should not practice kapalabhati.
Sheetali & Sheetkari Pranayama
There is a genetic quality that allows some people to roll the tongue and others not. Those who cannot roll the tongue for Sheetali may perform Sheetkari instead. Generally speaking, the effects and benefits of the above two practices are very similar. *Avoid practice in cold places if suffering from chronic constipation or respiratory disorders.
The practice of Sheetali and Shekari
Sheetkari Pranayama: Hissing breath
Sheetali Pranayama: Cooling breath
Bhramari Pranayama: Humming Bee Breath
In this pranayama, one imitates the deep low pitched sound of the humming bee. It is used in nada yoga to awaken awareness of the inner psychic sounds.
- The vibrations of Bhramari produce a soothing effect on the mind.
- Reduces anxiety, hypertension and high blood pressure.
- It speeds up the healing of body tissue and postoperative patients greatly benefit from this practice.
- Helpful in childbirth and pregnancy
- Improves the voice
- Enhances memory and concentration
- Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, producing calming and relaxing effects.
Instructions: Step 1:
- Sit in a comfortable meditative position. Close your eyes and relax the whole body. Keep lips closed with the teeth slightly apart and jaw relaxed.
- Keep your elbows down and use the index or middle finger to plug the ears. The flaps of the ears may fold upwards and be pressed into the ears to create a seal.
- Alternatively, have the elbows out to the side to utilize your other fingers. Index fingers are placed over the eyes, middle fingers are placed tip to tip under the nose, the ring fingers are under the chin pointing at each other and the little fingers are placed under the chin
- Keep the mouth closed. Breathe in and out of the nose during the whole practice.
- Exhale slowly and evenly while making a deep, steady humming sound like that of the black bee.
- See if you can keep the humming sound smooth, even and continuous.
- Listen to the sound with your awareness focused in the centre of the head. In most cases, a soft and deep sound will make the front of the skull reverberate. At the end of the exhalation,breathe in deeply through the nose and repeat. Practice 5 to 10 rounds for beginners.
- As above, but this time, on each inhalation contract the throat as in ujjayi pranayama to produce a high pitched humming sound.
- On the inhalation produce a high-pitched hum and on the exhalation a low-pitched hum.
Nadi Sodhana is a practice that “cleanses” and “purifies” the psychic network by purifying and decongesting the Nadis (pranic channels). It is known as the silent pranayama, because when it is practised you breathe with minimum sound. The sound of loud, strong breathing is a sign that you are breathing too quickly or with too much force!
The practice involves inhaling (Puraka) and exhaling (Rechaka) through alternate nostrils. Use either Nasagra Mudra or Vishnu mudra to control the flow of air between the nostrils.
- Stimulates the left and right side of the brain balancing the left and right side of the body.
- Ida and Pingala, which govern the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are purified and balanced, which encourages Sushumna Nadi to begin flowing, taking the practitioner into heightened awareness and spontaneous meditative states.
- Enhances the psychic centre.
Sit in a comfortable seated position with a straight spine and begin by taking a few deep breaths. With each breath, feel yourself become more grounded.
- Start by closing the right nostril and allow the breath to flow evenly in through the left nostril.
- At the end of the inhalation close the left nostril and open the right to exhale evenly through the right nostril.
- Keep the right nostril open and inhale through the right side.
- Then close the right nostril and open the left nostril to exhale through the left side.
- This completes one round.
The Physiology of Alternate Nostril Breathing
Prana flows through various energy pathways in the body, the three important and influential pathways are, known as Ida, Pingala, Sushumna. They are located along the length of the spine. Ida and Pingala, nadis coil around Sushumana in three dimensions like a spiral staircase.
Ida and Pingala are flows of charged ions capable of exerting an influence of the flow of prana giving balance to the mind and system in the body. The left nostril is governed by Ida, which governs the lunar moon energy, more cooling in nature, holds a negative charge and influences the parasympathetic nervous system, Pingala is the positive current of energy, govern solar energy, starts on the right side of nostrils and the solar breath lead to transcendence. Influences our sympathetic nervous system more energizing than the lunar current.
These techniques are based on a deep understanding of the different energy currents (Ida & Pingala) that run through each nostril. More appropriately when the inflow of air is through one nostril it has a charging effect on one aspect of the nervous system, and when inhaling through the other, a different part of the nervous system is influenced. There are many more influences, which I have not mentioned here.
Guided Pranayama Practices
Beginners guided pranayama practice
Intermediate one-hour guided Pranayama practice
Tips For Creating Your Own Personal Practice of Pranayama
- Create a clean space where you practice every day.
- Make a realistic time commitment, which best reflects your schedule. Start slowly, and increase your practice time as your practice strengthens. The more we give the more we get from any practice.
- Always listen to your body, as we trek up a mountain, we need to take breaks and go slowly as like the pranayama practice. Perhaps you may not feel 100%, or you miss a day, its ok. Cultivating Ahimsa towards your self and listen to your body.
- Have a journal to record your practices, timing on each practice, reflections/ insights, and times from your practice is very beneficial another way to see your progression
- The best time to practice is on an empty stomach in the morning
- If you’re pregnant, avoid retentions, and all vigorous exercises. Continue with Nadi shodana, and brahmari.
- Its more important to have a shorter consistent practice then it is to practice once per wk.
- Kriyas are an essential part of the practice. Use a timer so you can record your retention times and how many seconds it takes to practice one round.
- The results may not be seen or felt right away, keep in mind there is always a cause and effect everything we do. Remember we are more than this physical body, and on the subtle level, change is happening.
Still the mind and heal the body
Not only does the Pranayama have a direct impact on the brain through changes to the amount of oxygen brought to the brain through the blood, but focusing on the breath in this manner has a profound effect on the mind and concentration. All of which makes Pranayama an important to enhance relaxation, concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana).
A gentle reminder it is important to go slow with the practice of pranayama because there are many changes happening within the body to get used to retentions. Restricting oxygen flow to the brain can lead to faintness, light-headedness or dizziness. If any of these or any other pain or adverse effects are experienced during Pranayama, then the practice should be stopped and contact an experienced senior yoga teacher.
The Subtle Energies
Prana Shakti (microcosmic energy ) also manifest as six energy centres also known as main chakras. They are storehouses of prana and consciousness. They are located along the spinal column. In order to control the functions of the body, Prana shakti also manifests in 5 subtle pranas known as prana vayus. This is a whole topic into its self which we will not discuss here at this time. Simply knowing there are 5 subdivisions of prana.