“There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then there is another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity”.
The daily need for bread, cloth and shelter is well known truth of entire human race. One can afford to skip a meal, live under the tree for days and can manage with any type of cloth but to skip a breath is hardly possible. Thus, breath is essential to life or in other words we can say, ‘Breath is Life’.
According to many Yoga scriptures, body, mind and breath are inter-connected and can influence each other. Our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology can be influenced by our breath. Learning to breathe consciously and with awareness is the forth limb of Eightfold Yoga i. e. Pranayama, and it can be a valuable tool in helping to restore balance in the mind and body.
“Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind”.
-B. K. S. Iyengar
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is the blend of two words, Prana and Ayama. Prana means life force, energy, vitality, breath or vigour and Ayama means to enhance, expand and extend Prana. Pranayama is a means to channel the breath for storing energy.
In human beings, Prana exists in the form of breath, respiration, life, vitality, energy and strength and Ayama means to extend, expand, lengthen, stretch or restraint. Therefore, Pranayama is extension, expansion and holding of breath. It is commonly known as the science of breath control.
We inhale and exhale but the breath moves in a zigzag manner. Practice of Pranayama regulates our breathing and makes it deep, smooth and fluent.
Pranayama is an important and integral part of eightfold Yoga. Generally, it is misunderstood as simple breathing exercise which is not true. It is more than simple exercise.
According to Yogic terminology, it is a systematic process by which one gains control over Prana (subtle life force). It is a voluntary effort to control and direct the Prana. Thus the word Pranayama means the expansion, control and extension of subtle life force.
Pranayama is also a very valuable exercise for the proper functioning of human body and its systems. By the regular practice of Pranayama the nerves and muscles which control the functions of the bowels and the kidneys are toned up and rendered healthier. It also influences the other systems and secures their efficient and harmonious working.
Prerequisites for practicing Pranayama
The practice of pranayama is vital for body, mind, brain, nervous system and overall health of an individual. One who begins the practice of pranayama, should do so only under the supervision of an expert. He must also know few precautions to overcome the obstacles during practice.
Any place that is well-ventilated, free from irritating noises, mosquitoes and flies. A place where the basic necessities of life are readily available is suitable for the practice of Pranayama.
Environment, season and time
One should not begin the practice of Pranayama in the Winter (too cold), Summer (too hot) and Rainy season. If one begins the practice in these seasons, one may catch diseases. Therefore it should be commenced by the beginner in Spring and Autumn season. One attains success while doing so and keeps himself away from the diseases. Success is attained easily as both the seasons are favorable for keeping the body and mind in tune with external environment.
Measured and controlled diet
All aspect of human health – physical, mental and spiritual are very much affected by the food one takes. Purity of food leads to pure mind. Therefore one who takes pure and moderate diet surely gets success in his practice of Pranayama.
Seat and asana (posture)
The seat should be soft, thick and comfortable so the temperature of the floor should not penetrate through it. The practitioner should choose a posture in which he can sit for longer period in a relaxed manner without any discomfort and tension. However, Padmasana is considered as the most suitable posture for practicing Pranayama.
Physical and mental fitness
Practitioner should be physically fit and mentally prepared before practicing Pranayama. One should begin Pranayama practice after the age of 12 when almost all the systems, especially, respiratory system is fully developed to meet any resistance or pressure in holding the breath. Women should avoid the practice during pregnancy and menstrual cycle. A clear nasal passage is very important for the practice. Therefore, one must not be suffered from cold or cough during the practice.
It is necessary to practice Pranayama correctly and systematically under the guidance of a Yoga expert or instructor. Following the rules and regulations properly is advisable. If practice is irregular or incorrect it can be very harmful. Therefore, it is better not to practice at all.
Types of Pranayama, their benefices and a step by step practice guide.
This is one of the fundamental types of Pranayama. This practice is also known as Anuloma-viloma.
This pranayama balances Ida and Pingala, two of the most important nadis or energy channels, which criss-cross the central nadi and each of the chakras situated along the spine. It is an excellent relaxation technique for calming the mind and re-establish balance to the whole system. Nadi Shodhana also balances the two hemispheres of the brain. It improves mental focus by clearing out blocked energy channels in the body. If you have time for only one Pranayama, opt for this one.
Steps to follow:
- Sit in any comfortable meditative posture, preferably Padmasana.
- Keep the head and spine erect.
- Close the eyes and pay attention to the breath.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb.
- Inhale through the left nostril for 5 seconds.
- After 5 seconds of inhaling, release the pressure of thumb from the right nostril and press the left nostril with the ring finger, blocking the flow of air.
- Fully exhales through the right nostril for 5 seconds, keeping the respiration rate slow, deep and silent.
- Repeat the same steps for the right nostril.
- Repeat 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.
Note: Make sure that there is no sound when the air passes through the nostrils.
The purpose of the right nostril breathing is to increase the pranic and physical energy and to revitalize the body. It boosts the nervous system, especially the sympathetic nervous system and also increases the efficiency of the digestive system.
Steps to follow:
- Sit in Padmasana. Close the eyes. Keep the left nostril closed with your ring and little fingers.
- Slowly inhale without making any sound as long as you can do it comfortably through the right nostril.
- Then close the right nostril with your right thumb and retain the breath firmly pressing the chin against the chest.
- Then exhale very slowly without making any sound through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with the thumb.
Note: It should not be done by people suffering from high blood pressure.
Ujjayi breath is especially good for settling agitation or stress and balancing the mind. Use this pranayama whenever you find yourself becoming aggravated or stressed. You should notice its soothing effect rapidly. Try focusing on Ujjayi breathing while practicing yoga to help you stay focused and centered as you flow from one posture to the next. This pranayama encourages free flow of prana and increases feelings of presence, self-awareness, and meditative qualities.
Steps to follow:
- Sit in Padmasana.
- Close the mouth and gently constrict the back of your throat as you Inhale slowly through both the nostrils in a smooth, uniform manner till the breath fills the space from the throat to the heart.
- Retain the breath as long as one can do it comfortably and then exhale slowly while gently constricting the muscle at the back of your throat to get the ‘‘ocean sound’’
Note: People who are suffering from hypertension and cardiac disorders should not practice this Pranayama.
Besides building breath awareness, Sitkari cools the body and adds moisture to the system. This pranayama also helps to calm hunger and thirst and cultivate a love for solitude. In ayurveda, it soothes a pitta imbalance which is common during summer. In addition, this practice reduces fevers, fatigue and high blood pressure.
Steps to follow:
- Sit in Padmasanaand close the eyes.
- Touch the palate with the tongue closely.
- Close both the jaws with their teeth closely, keeping the lips open.
- Draw in the air through the mouth with the hissing sound “Si”.
- Retain the breath as long as one can hold on with comfort.
- Then exhale slowly through both nostrils.
Sitali Pranayama is often referred as “the cooling breath”. Like Sitkari, its practice is said to have a cooling and calming effect on the nervous system.
Steps to follow:
- Sit in Padmasanaand close the eyes.
- Bend the tongue from their extreme ends so as to form a cylindrical shape.
- Inhale through mouth filling the lungs with air to their maximum capacity.
- Retain the air as long as one can.
- Then close the mouth and exhale through the nostrils.
Note: Those who are suffering from cold, cough or tonsillitis should not do this.
Whenever you feel sluggish, try this energetic breathing to give you an energy boost and clarify your mind. Bhastrika pranayama produces heat thus detoxify and energize the body. It also tones the abdominal muscles and the digestive system. Bhastrika balance the doshas and their associated humours: phlegm for Kapha, bile for Pitta and wind for Vata. This pranayama balances the nervous system, calm the mind and prepare it for meditation.
How to perform Bhastrika Pranayama:
- Sit in Padmasana relax your shoulders, breath in and out from your nose. When inhaling, expand your belly fully.
- Close the mouth. Exhale forcefully through your nose. Quickly followed by a forceful inhale at the rate of one second per cycle. Inhale and exhale quickly ten times.
- Make sure the breath is coming from your diaphragm; keep you body still while your belly moves in and out. Take a deep breath through both nostrils then rest for a while, breathing naturally.
- Continue with a second cycle of 20 Bhastrika breaths, then a third and final one of 30 Bhastrika breaths.
- Inhale deeply and exhale completely.
Note: Those suffering from lungs and heart problems and high blood pressure should perform it slowly.
Bhramari uses sound and breath to calm the mind and nervous system by directing the mind inwards as the eyes and ears are closed. Bhramari breath is helpful if you are feeling anxious or unsettled and also improves concentration and memory. It relieves tension in the brain thus appease headaches, reduces anger and irritability.
How to perform Bhramari Pranayama:
- Sit in Padmasana and close the eyes.
- Keep the mouth closed and deeply inhale.
- While exhaling make a humming sound.
- In order to get more benefits close both the ears with thumbs and exhale out making the humming sound of the bee.
Benefits of Pranayama
- It increases the digestion and assimilation of food.
- It improves the quality of the blood and expands oxygen in the lungs. This helps in the elimination of toxins from the system.
- It improves the health of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, nerve centers and nerves because of expanded oxygenation.
- It rejuvenates the glands, especially the pituitary and pineal glands.
- It rejuvenates the skin. The skin becomes smoother and reduces the facial wrinkles.
- The movement of the diaphragm during the deep breathing exercise massages the abdominal organs and the heart by increasing the blood circulation.
- The lungs expand and become healthy and powerful.
- Deep, slow breathing during the practice of Pranayama reduces blood pressure and heart diseases.
- It helps in the weight control. The extra oxygen burns the fat more efficiently. If one is under weight, the extra oxygen feeds the starving tissues and glands.
- In addition to this supply of oxygen to the brain cells reduces anxiety levels.
Authored by Shobha Gupta
Shobha is a passionate yogi, an ayurveda enthusiast and unlocking chakras mysteries is her favourite subject. Holding a degree in yoga science from the renowned Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga in India, she shares her knowledge about yoga, meditation and ayurveda on Giving Hands Reiki’s blog. If you would like to read more articles by Shobha, clic here. If you would like to write an article for our blog, please read our guest posting guidelines.
Photo: Escola Humaniversidade