So far we have covered the first 3 limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga:
The next stage in the eight-fold path is the practice of Pranayama, or control of the breath. Prana is the vital life force which manifests itself as the breath that sustains the body. Through practicing extension of the breath (ayama) we can calm the nervous system and in turn, the mind, preparing ourselves for meditation, or simply the challenges of everyday life! There are endless healing benefits to be gained from correct and consistent practice of Pranayama, with numerous techniques to follow too.
“Yoga breathing control or pranayama is a joyful song that soothes, purifies, energizes and harmonizes our body, mind and soul to create inner healing. So, practice singing the song of pranayama.”Debasish Mridha
3 Key Stages
- Puraka – Inhale
- Kumbhaka – Retain
- Rechaka – Exhale
Sun and Moon Energy
Pranic breathing is rooted in the concept of feminine and masculine energy, symbolised by Chandra (moon) and Surya (sun). These two energies have opposing yet complementary qualities. Masculine energy is associated with heat, vitality and action. Feminine energy brings cooling qualities, calmness, healing and rest. Both depend on each other to exist and both are present inside every person. However, sometimes they can be out of balance, resulting in negative effects such as lethargy (lack of Sun energy) or restlessness (lack of Moon energy).
This is the reason why practice Hatha Yoga, specifically Pranayama. Pranic breathing techniques can directly affect our energy levels so we can use them strategically to suit our needs.
Why Practice Pranayama?
Physical benefits include:
- Balanced energy levels
More vitality during the day time, avoiding afternoon slumps or tiredness at work. Come evening, Pranayama allows us to experience more calming energy and relaxation before bed
- Improved sleep quality
- Improved lung function
The lungs are a muscle, so like any other muscle in the body, they benefit from regular exercise. We can exercise the lungs by controlling the breath, encouraging the expansion of the lungs to take in more air, and strengthening the muscle by retaining the breath
- Better digestion
The lungs are directly connected to the nervous system. When we extend our exhales, we encourage the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for ‘rest & digest’ mode (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system which causes ‘fight or flight’ stress mode)
- Relieve headaches
Improved lung function allows more fresh oxygen to flow, bringing better blood flow to the brain
Mental and spiritual benefits include:
- Better concentration and mental clarity
Pranayama helps you to focus at work and have clearer judgement so you can handle situations in a calmer manner
- Reduced stress
- Deeper meditation
- Improved mind-body connection
The breath is a direct link between the body and the mind
Tips for Pranayama Practice
Pranayama can be practiced at any time, but to experience maximum benefits, it is believed that you should practice in the early morning on an empty stomach. If not then wait at least an hour after eating. Ideally, you would be outside in an area with clean air and a mild temperature, but a well-ventilated room works well too.
Sit in a cross-legged position on a yoga mat, or a cushion or chair if it’s more comfortable. Ensure you sit up with your head, neck and back in one straight line.
Please consult a physician if you are unsure about whether it is safe for you to practice Pranayama. Be especially careful if you have high or low blood pressure, heard conditions, bronchitis or breathing issues, or if you are pregnant or menstruating.
Pranayama techniques often have heating or cooling effects (by stimulating either Sun or Moon energy) so you should avoid practicing ones that will not complement your current state. For example, avoid cooling pranayama (e.g. Chandra Bhedana) if you have the flu. Avoid heating pranayama (e.g. Kapalbhati) if you have a fever.
Beginner Technique: Alternate Nostril Breathing
If you are just starting to practice Pranayama, it is important to first lay a quality foundation and go slowly. Start with 5-10 minutes with minimal retention – there is no need to hold the breath for extended periods of time or to experience discomfort/straining. The body and lungs will adapt with consistent practice.
Alternate nostril breathing is a great method to begin with. Also known as Anulom Vilom, this simple technique actually means ‘cleansing of the nerves’.
- Close your eyes and take a few normal breaths to relax the body. You will use your right hand. The left hand can rest on the left leg or take a mudra.
- Place your right thumb on your right nostril to close it off while you inhale through the left nostril.
- Release the thumb and use the last two fingers to close off the left nostril this time, while you exhale through the right nostril.
- This is one round. Now repeat but switch sides – inhale through the right nostril, exhale through the right.
- Repeat for ~5 minutes with your final exhale being from the left nostril.
Your breathing during Anulom Vilom should be as natural and calm as possible with no retention of the breath in between exhales/inhales since this is suitable for beginners. When you are ready to advance, you can introduce retention (kumbhaka) – this technique is called Nadi Shodhana.
- Ujjayi – constriction of the back muscles of the throat while breathing with the nose in order to build heat and Prana in the body. This is used in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and is known as ‘ocean breath’ due to the sound it makes
- Kapalbati – repeated forceful exhale. Translates from Sanskrit as ‘skull-shining’ due to its internal cleansing properties, also known as ‘breath of fire’
- Bhastrika – rapid and forceful inhale and exhale for energising the body and clearing the mind, also known as ‘bellows breath’
- Bhramari – also known as hummingbee breath, it involves humming whilst taking Shanmukhi mudra and is excellent for managing stress and soothing the mind