A basic introduction to pranayama and its techniques
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A basic introduction to pranayama and its techniques

As the scientific and medical communities begin to waken up to the immense health benefits that yoga, meditation and pranayama can bring to one’s life, these disciplines are becoming more and more mainstream. Nonetheless, the latter practice remains less popular than the others, either through ignorance, fear or confusion.

Given that pranayama is, according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the basis for preparing the body and its energies for achieving complete self-control and peace of mind, that lack of popularity is a crying shame and a missed opportunity for yoga enthusiasts, newcomers to the realm of self-improvement and indeed anyone who wishes to live a happier, healthier and more harmonised lifestyle.

With that in mind, we at Yogalap have laid out the basic principles of pranayama below, including its origins and its goals, as well as outlining a few breathwork techniques. This should give the uninitiated a brief introduction to the discipline and hopefully encourage them to incorporate it into their daily routine and their quest to become a better version of themselves.

Having said that, it should not serve as a substitute for the guidance provided by a qualified guru, since practicing pranayama without the adequate knowledge and expertise can actually be counterproductive. For that reason, we always recommend enlisting the services of a trained professional to guide your pranayama journey, or else signing up to an online course such as our Breath Is Life programme.

Widely regarded as the leading Pranayama &  breathwork course, it is a comprehensive introduction to pranayama and breathwork and, best of all, it’s available on a pay-what-you-like basis, making it accessible for all.

What is pranayama?

In verse two of chapter two of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swatmarama asserts that “When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still.” This, in essence, is the philosophy behind pranayama.

The word itself is a composite of two Sanskrit terms. “Prana” means “life force” or “vital energy”, while yama can be translated as “control” and ayama as “extension”. As such, pranayama can be defined as controlling and expanding the life force inside us via breathwork. It is practiced in order to calibrate our internal energies and render us receptive to achieving total control over our minds and our spiritual happiness.

In this manner, pranayama can be seen as a precursor to meditation which goes hand-in-hand with the practice and allows the full benefits of the latter to be realised within the individual.

Preparing for pranayama

Before beginning breathwork, it’s important to achieve the right conditions, both environmentally and physically. That means finding a space which is clean, comfortable and free from distractions. In the 14th century text, this refers specifically to animals and insects, but in today’s modern world, that could mean anything from other humans to the buzz of mobile phones.

Next, the body must be positioned so as to be conducive to allowing pranayama to take place. This means assuming one of the asanas (or postures) outlined by Swatmarama as appropriate for the practice. These create firmness both within the body’s frame and inside the mind, contributing towards a healthy and flexible physical and mental outlook. The asanas include, among others, padmasana (lotus pose) and siddhasana (accomplished pose).

It is also very important for the practitioner to set the correct intention and mindset. One must be committed to giving one’s full awareness and determination to the time in which one is practicing these techniques. Otherwise thoughts might wander with the creations of the mind about future ideas or memories from the past. What one wants to develop is a clear and present awareness that can clear out the impurities from both the mind and body.

Basic breathwork techniques

There are a wide variety of different pranayama techniques and it’s a subject too extensive to cover in great detail in an introductory article such as this. However, we will explain some of the basic practices below; if you are interested in learning more, our Breath Is Life course offers a far more comprehensive exploration of the topic.

  • Nadi Shodhana

“Shodhana” means “to purify”, and this alternating nostril-breathing exercise is intended to harmonise the Ida and Pingala nadis, thus achieving purification.

To practice it, simply close the right nostril and inhale through the left, before closing the left and inhaling through the right. Then switch around the order, so you are inhaling through the nostril through which you just exhaled, and vice versa.

Nadi Shodhana can be practiced on progressive ratios of inhalation and exhalation, starting out with 1:1 and graduating to 1:2, before adding in kumbhakas (retention of breath) between the inhalation and exhalation (1:4:2) and finally after exhalation as well (1:4:2:3). According to Swatmarama, three months of daily Nadi Shodhana practice will fully purify all nadis.

  • Surya Bhedana

This technique is similar to Nadi Shodhana, except it also features the introduction of bandhas (locks). There are three different bandhas: jalandhar bandha (chin lock), moola bandha (anus lock) and uddiyan bandha (abdominal lock).

To practice Surya Bhedana, you must inhale through your right nostril, then perform the bandhas while simultaneously holding the breath (kumbhaka), before exhaling through the left nostril. If necessary, you can rest for a few breaths between each cycle and in total, up to 10 cycles can be undertaken.

If practiced properly on a regular basis, Surya Bhedana is capable of stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and overcoming any gas or wind-related issues you may be suffering from.

  • Ujjayi

Variously known as the victorious breath or the psychic breath, Ujjayi involves breathing through both nostrils with mouth closed, then performing bandhas during kumbhaka and releasing the breath again through the nostrils.

Both inhalation and exhalation should be long, deep and controlled and accompanied by the production of a sound (known as an Ujjayi sound). This is produced by contracting the back of the throat (compressing the epiglottis) and allowing a noise to emanate from within. It can be combined with a mantra to achieve heightened awareness of the mantra.

Ujjayi is said to have therapeutic applications and can be effective in combatting tension, insomnia and even preventing cardiovascular diseases. However, it should not be practiced by those who suffer from low blood pressure due to the strain it places on the carotid sinus.

  • Sitkari

This type of pranayama is performed with the lips open but the teeth closed; the former should be as wide as feels natural. You must then inhale through your mouth, creating a hissing sound as the air passes through your teeth.

After retaining the breath (kumbhaka) and performing the locks (bandhas), the breath can be released through the nostrils. The mouth can be slightly closed while doing so. This should be done slowly and deliberately and can be repeated up to 20 times if desired.

Sitkari is associated with a range of health benefits, including removing excess warmth from the blood, reducing acidity and combatting hypertension, aiding digestion, lowering high blood pressure and harmonising the functioning of the reproductive organs and endocrine system.

  • Shitali

Shitali is known as the “cooling breath” technique and in essence, its form and effects are very similar to those of Sitkari.

Instead of inhaling through closed teeth, you should roll your tongue into a tube shape and inhale through this. Again, you should perform kumbhaka and bandhas, before exhaling through the nostrils. Like Sitkari, it can be repeated as many as 20 times as well.

As its nickname suggests, Shitali is adept at reducing the body’s temperature. It is also capable of delivering all of the same benefits listed above for Sitkari and can be performed interchangeably with the above technique.

  • Bhastrika

This practice takes its name from the word “bhastra”, which means “bellows”. In essence, the lungs are made to function like bellows, since you must inhale and exhale rapidly. Both actions should be performed as quickly as possible through the nose.

After 10 repetitions, you may take a deep breath in and release it slowly to finish the round. Anywhere between three and five rounds is a good number to complete your practice. For a more advanced session, you can inhale only through the right nostril, perform kumbhakas and bandhas and then exhale only through the left nostril.

The rapid pace and rhythmic repetitions of Bhastrika pranayama stimulates the circulation of cerebral fluid in the brain, as well as accelerating the circulation of blood in your veins. This not only improves circulation, but also provides a workout for the heart and lung muscles.

  • Kapalbhati

“Kapala” means “skull” and “Bhati” means “to shine”. The technique is similar to Bhastrik Pranayama; however, with Kapalbhati, there is a passive inhalation and a short, pulsing exhalation.

With this pulsing breath acting like a pump, one can purify their bloodstream, clear out the respiratory system and burn toxins and excess fat from the body. It is a great way to energize and clear the energy system.

  • Bhramari

This practice is colloquially known as “humming bee breath” and is intended to imitate the buzz made by a bee or humming bird.

Sitting in a comfortable asana with the eyes closed, you must press your index finger and middle fingers onto the fleshy part of your ear ligament and push it into the ear hole, thus effectively closing it off. With eyes and ears still closed, you should inhale deeply through the nose, paying attention to the sound the breath makes. When exhaling, release the breath accompanied by a soft humming sound. This can be repeated for 10 or 20 rounds.

Bhramari has an extremely calming effect and can be particularly useful for those suffering from anxiety, depression or stress, as well as mothers and newborn babies.

1 December 2022

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