Prana is Sanskrit for vital or life force energy. It is often seen to originate from the sun and is the energy that permeates and flows throughout our entire cosmos. Yama means regulation, so Pranayama is the regulation of vital energy. This is achieved through various breath regulation exercises. Pranayama as described in the Yoga Sutras is used as a way to prepare the practitioner for meditation.
Prana, life force or vital energy, exists in the entire cosmos in both animate and inanimate objects. It has been described in most of the ancient Hindu texts known as the Upanishads and the Vedas. In the Indian science of life, Ayurveda, and the practice of Yoga, Prana is viewed as it pertains to our living beings. In our bodies, Prana presides over all physical functions, including digestion, assimilation, excretion, movement, and communication.
"Offering the inhaling breath into the exhaling breath and offering the exhaling breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both breaths; thus he releases prana from the heart and brings life force under his control." ~Bhagavad Gita IV: 29
The purpose of regulating the breath is to affect communication between the mind and the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the system of nerves that send messages between the brain and the body to automatically control many bodily functions including respiratory rate, heart rate, digestion, pupillary response, urination, reflexes such as sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting, and sexual arousal. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic (fight-or-flight response) system and the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system. The sympathetic nervous system is meant to engage when we are faced with an emergency to enable us to act quickly. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for stimulating bodily functions that occur while we are at rest, including digestion, assimilation, and elimination, and arousal. These two systems generally work opposite one another, meaning when one is active, the other one cannot activate. When we are in crisis or stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system primes us for quick action, preventing us from relaxing. While we are in a state of deep relaxation and the parasympathetic nervous system is working, we are not as ready to make quick decisions. The sympathetic nervous system is essential to keep us ready to respond in a crisis situation. The problem is, due its nature of needing to engage quickly and readily, in many people it is often engaged too easily and stimulates us to react to situations that are not emergencies, rather than rest, contemplate and digest the information and then respond.
Because the breath is the one constant autonomic function that we can control if we choose, it is the most potent and simple tool we have to affect our inner being. Most people who have not engaged in a Yoga and Pranayama practice generally live without paying much attention to the breath. Without practice of breath awareness, most people breathe in a superficial way, literally taking shallow breaths and sometimes holding the breath without being aware of it. This shallow breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and so impedes the work of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Superficial breathing also cuts our potential intake of energy short. Through our intake of breath, we take in fresh air and oxygen which supplies our blood with essential energy. Through our exhale, we exchange carbon dioxide and other waste products. Through the breath cycles we are constantly refreshing our bodies. By becoming more aware of how we breathe through the practice of Pranayama, we gradually bring a general change to the way we breathe, moving from shallow breathing to deep breathing. By engaging in formal breath regulation practices, we train our mind to pay attention to our breath, so that we begin to notice when we are not breathing as deeply as we could be, or when we are unnecessarily holding our breath. In addition to this general benefit, Pranayama can also be practiced to bring about various specific effects on the practitioner, such as increase of energy, relaxation, focusing the mind, cooling or heating the body, and balancing the subtle energy channels.
A few pranayamas are contraindicated for certain conditions or populations. The following Pranayamas are appropriate for all practitioners. If at any point while practicing, you feel lightheaded, short of breath, or dizzy, stop the Pranayama and come back to a natural breath. Note: During pregnancy, there should be no breath retention practiced.
Pranayama should be practiced with the spine comfortably straight, either by sitting on a cushion with legs crossed or sitting in a chair. Some Pranayamas can be practiced lying down. All Pranayamas should be practiced on a mostly empty stomach, not right after eating.
Full Yogic Breath aka 3 Part Breath
This is a method of breathing which expands all three parts of the torso: the thorax which contains the lungs and heart, the abdomen which contains digestive organs, and the pelvis, which contains the organs of elimination and reproduction. Expanding each of these three parts pulls the lungs open to increase the volume of air inhaled.
Effects: Relaxes the nervous system and purifies the body. It also expands our breath capacity by stretching the inner diaphragmatic muscles that have become short due to a lifetime of shallow breathing.
Method: Sit with your spine erect or lie down comfortably on your back. Take your hand to your abdomen and breathe in through your nose to about a third capacity, feeling your belly expand as it lifts your hand. Next take both your hands to your low ribs with your fingertips touching. Breathe in the next third of the way feeling your ribs expand out to the sides and your fingers lightly separate. Then take your hands, fingers spread, so that the fingers rest along the two collarbones and breathe the rest of the way in, feeling your sternum and your collarbones lift. Pause for a short moment, without tension, to notice the expanded quality of your abdomen and chest. Then relax your hands and let your breath flow freely out through the nose. Repeat 3-5 times. Each day you practice this you can add several more rounds of breath. If you feel at all light headed or out of breath, rest.
You can also try this the reverse order, starting at the upper chest, then the middle abdomen, and finally the lower abdomen.
Ujjayi is commonly translated as victorious, from Jai meaning victory. This is a very powerful breath with many benefits, especially in its power to keep the mind focused on the breath, hence the victory achieved when practicing this Pranayama! This can be practiced seated as well as during asana practice. It is a slight constriction in the epiglottis at the back of the throat while breathing in and out through the nose.
Effects: The breath practice focused the mind on one point: the breath. It helps promote calm and relieves irritation. It can help regulate blood pressure. Ujjayi can also gently increase body heat and energy. It is a powerful tool to keep a rhythm during a dynamic yoga practice.
Method: Begin practicing in a comfortable seated position. To learn Ujjayi breathing for the beginners, start by taking a natural breath in through the nose. On the exhale, open the mouth and whisper "HAAAAAH" as if you were attempting to fog up a mirror. After a few rounds like that, close your mouth and feel the same effect in the throat. Then try tomake the same feeling in the throat when you inhale as well as when you exhale. The sound is like that of the waves at the shore of the ocean, which is why this breath is sometimes called Ocean Breath.
Nadi is Sanskrit for the subtle energy channels that run through the body. Shodhana means clearing or purifying, so this breath can be translated to mean channel purifying, though it is also commonly and appropriately called Alternate Nostril Breathing. There are said to be thousands of subtle energy channels throughout the body. The principle one runs along the spine and is called the Sushumna Nadi. The next two most important channels run along either side of the spine. The left Nadi is called the Ida Nadi and relates to the lunar, cooling aspects, while the right Nadi is called the Pingala Nadi and corresponds to the solar, or heating aspect. These two channels correspond to the left and right nostril. Throughout the day, the energy moves back and forth between the left and right in about a 2 hour period, in a healthy body. This can be observed by placing a finger above your upper lip and exhaling to notice when one nostril is expelling more air. In an ill or sluggish body, the nasal cycle shifts more slowly. This Pranayama helps to balance this nasal cycle and so can help shorten recovery from illness.
Effects: This is one of the best Pranayamas topromote ease and relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety. It balances the left and right channels of the body and hemispheres of the brain. It is a great way to prepare for meditation or prepare you to fall asleep. It can also be used to ease the nerves after a stressful situation, or before a big test or speaking engagement.
Method: Sit comfortably with the spine erect. This Pranayama uses a mudra called Mrigi Mudra:
To take this mudra, curlyour first and second fingers of the right hand towards the base of your thumb.
For Nadi Shodhana, use the thumb to touch the right nostril, and the ring finger to touch the left nostril.
Begin by closing off the right nostril with the thumb. Inhale slowly and evenly through the left nostril. At the top of the breath, pause for a moment as you close the left nostril with the ring finger. Open the right nostril and exhale slowly and evenly out of the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril. Pause for a moment as you close the right nostril and open the left. Exhale out the left nostril. Begin again and repeat the cycle. This breath is done in cycles of three, so that you finish by exhaling out the right nostril. If you have a cold and are too stuffed up for this Pranayama, try it by visualization only.
Effects: This breath is very calming and eases the mind.
Method: Sit in a comfortable position with the spine erect. Imagine there is a candle about 12 inches in front of your face, or practice with a real candle. Take your breaths in deeply through the nostrils, filling up the chest and abdomen. Exhale through pursed lips as if you are trying the make the candle flicker without blowing it out. Slow the exhales down so they last 2-3 times as long as the inhales. Notice the calming effect on your mind. Pay attention to keeping the shoulders relaxed and the chin gently pulled in.
Effects: This breath is energizing and gently warming.
Method: Sit in a comfortable position with the spine erect, hands resting on the thighs. Start with a full inhale into the abdomen. Exhale and bow the head towards the floor, rounding the spine. Sip the air through the nostrils in 6 steps as you rise the torso back up. Repeat 3-9 times, then rest in a natural breath.
Effects: This Pranayama cools down the body and mind. It is useful anytime you feel overheated, physically or mentally.
Method: Sit in a comfortable pose with the spine erect. Curl your tongue into the shape of a U. If this is not possible for you, lightly touch the top teeth to the bottom teeth, and round the lips as if sipping through a straw. Inhale slowly and deeply, feeling the coolness of the air against your tongue/teeth and throat. Relax your mouth and palette, exhale through your nose. Repeat as long as you like.
Simhasana (Lion's Breath)
Effects: This Pranayama opens the throat and chest, releases tension from the jaw, and clears negative energy from the body and mind.
Method: Kneel in Vajrasana with the heels under the hips, (or hips can sit on a block). Place the palms on the upper thighs. Reach up through the crown of the head to lengthen along the spine. Inhale deeply here. As you begin the exhalation, slide the hands towards the knees. Open the mouth wide and roar as you exhale, while you simultaneously open the eyes wide, look upwards, stick the tongue out, making a fierce Lion face. Repeat several times.
Effects: Opens the heart, chest, and shoulders. Warms up the spine. Unites mind and body as you coordinate movement with breath.
Method: Sit or stand with the spine erect. Bring your hands to prayer, or Anjali mudra, at your heart. Inhale, lifting through the chest and crown of the head. Exhale as you press your palms foward, rounding the spine. As you inhale, extend the arms out to the sides as you again lift through your chest and gently arch your spine. Exhale and bring your hands together again, reaching them straight out in front of you, rounding the back. As you inhale, return to the starting point, hands at prayer in front of the heart, spine long. Repeat as long as you like.
Brahmari (Bee's) Breath
Effects: This breath calms the mind and is especially effective in times of acute stress or anger. It can also help relieve headaches and lower blood pressure.
Method: Sit in a comfortable position. The thumbs will press the earlobes closed, and the fingers can rest lightly over the eyebrows, eyelids, and cheeks. Touch the tip of the tongue lightly to the roof of the mouth. Lift the base of the skull as you gently pull the chin in. Inhale fully. On the exhale, hum for as long as you can. Repeat for 7 rounds.
Quantum Light Breath Meditation
The Quantum Light Breath was created by the late mystic Jeru Kabbal (1930-2000) who used this method in his teachings and workshops all over the world. He was greatly influenced by Vipassana, an ancient form of meditation where one sits in stillness and silence for extended periods of time. Jeru realized that when elements of Vipassana were combined with deep rhythmic and consciously connected breath, it could bring a participant into the recognition of Oneness without having to sit still in silent meditation for hours a day. Jeru used verbal and energetic guidance along with evocative music to lead people into the recognition of the mind’s separate realities and to encourage an experience of the mystery of true presence. From www.quantumlightbreath.com
Method: This breath is practiced with a facilitator guiding you in a rhythmic deep breathing session accompanied by a powerful soundtrack.
Mantra with Pranayama:
Combining conscious deep breathing with the words of a mantra is a simple yet powerful practice that can relax and ground you. It can be practiced anytime, anywhere, such as while driving, while waiting in line, when having trouble falling asleep. It can also be used in the beginning of a seated meditation practice as a way to bring the mind and body into a focused and relaxed state to facilitate your meditation practice. Any mantra that resonates with you and that feels appropriate at the time can be used. Simply choose a suitable pace of the words in a natural rhythm following your deep, even breath rate. See the Mantra chapter for lots of ideas of mantras to use.
Asana with Pranayama
Whenever practicing asana, engage in conscious breathing to both enhance your physical practice and make your asana practice into a spiritual endeavor. Breathe as a you move, noticing ways to move naturally with the breath. For example, notice whenever you lift your arms and expand your chest, it feels natural to inhale deeply, and when you lower your arms and fold forward, the exhale follows naturally. In another example, when twisting, notice how the breath is natural expelled as you turn into a deep twist, and how there is more room to take a deep breath in as you release the twist.