The main problem in the world is stress. It is not going to decrease –it is going to increase. If through pranayam the shock can be harnessed, the entire stress and disease can be eliminated. –Yogi Bhajan
In Part 1 (found here), I explored the breath, prana, and how to breathe deeply.
Now we’ll get into some pranayam (or pranayama) –breath exercises. A deeper definition of pranayama: using breathing techniques to control prana. You can use your breath as energy management through pranayam. B.K.S. Iyengar describes pranayam as a science, we study the breath’s action on the mind. It is “the bridge between the physical and the spiritual. Hence pranayama is the hub of yoga.” (in The Tree of Yoga)
As translated by Yogi Bhajan, Prana means life force, Pran is “first unit,” and ayama is expansion.
“With pranayama we expand the first unit, the seed energy. A slight change in this seed vibration can change our entire universe.” (Yogi Bhajan, in Aquarian Teacher)
I love this idea that just a slight change in our energy (through changing the breath) can create a really huge change. Using the breath can calm us down, or energize us. It can squelch fear, give us strength, give our mind focus. All of these things change our perspective and open up the universe for us.
Types of Pranayama and When to Use Each
Left Nostril Breathing
- Take the thumb of the right hand and, pressing on the right nostril, block the airflow so that you are only breathing through your left nostril. Left hand is in gyan mudra (index finger touching thumb).
- Continue long deep breaths through the left nostril
- Benefits: calming, relaxing, cooling, cleansing, associated with empathy
- When we breathe, one nostril is naturally more dominant than the other. These switch in cycles throughout the day. But by doing left or right nostril breathing you can consciously shift them if you desire one type of energy more than another for that moment.
Right Nostril Breathing
- Take the thumb of the left hand and, pressing on the left nostril, block the airflow so that you are only breathing through your right nostril. Right hand is in gyan mudra.
- Continue long deep breaths through the right nostril
- Benefits: The right nostril is associated with sun energy, warming, nurturing. Use this breath to increase alertness and concentration.
Alternate nostril Breathing (“U Breathing”)
- Take the thumb of the right hand to close off the right nostril, inhale deeply.
- Take the index finger or pinkie and close the left nostril, as you release the right nostril (making a “u” with your hand); exhale fully.
- Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
- Then block the right nostril and exhale through the left.
- Continue alternating nostrils in this pattern.
- Benefits: great for stress relief and headaches/migraines associate with stress. Good for sleeplessness and anxiety. Creates whole brain functioning by balancing hemispheres. Grounding. Creates deep sense of harmony, and integrates unwanted negative emotions.
Breath of Fire
- A powerful breath done from the navel point and solar plexus.
- Inhale, then draw the navel towards the spine as you forcefully exhale. An equally quick inhale will automatically come right after, as you relax the navel and diaphragm. Then keep repeating, keep those forceful exhales coming from the navel center. The inhales/exhales are equal in length, but you are really focusing on the exhale and the inhale just comes naturally.
- Someone once described how to do breath of fire in this way, and it seems the best way to describe it: it’s like a bug went up your nose and you forcefully exhale to get it out. Then keep repeating.
- Benefits –all kinds! It releases toxins from lungs, blood vessels and cells; increases lung capacity; strengthens nervous system to resist stress; repairs balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; maintains a neutral state of mind; boosts immune system
- *Contraindications* You should not do breath of fire if you are in your first few days of menstruation or are pregnant.
- Find a nice video tutorial of breath of fire here.
- Breath of Fire done through the mouth.
- Mouth forms an “o” shape –like a cannon
- Benefits: cleanses and strengthens the parasympathetic nerves, adjusts digestion.
- Extend tongue out and down towards the chin
- Breathe powerfully, feeling the breath move out over your tongue, without any rasping (sometimes done with Breath of Fire, or at the end of a pose/meditation)
- Benefits: felt in the upper chest and throat, great for the throat chakra (that’s the one for communication, self expression), and thyroid. Cleanses out toxins. Even any toxic thinking –roar it out like a lion!
- Curl the tongue into a “u” shape, with my speech therapy students I call this “taco tongue”
- Inhale through the curled tongue.
- Exhale through the nose
- The tongue may taste bitter at first. This is a sign of detoxification
- Benefits: powerful cooling and relaxing effect on the body, while maintaining alertness. Known to reduce fevers and aid in digestion. Good to calm a fiery temper!
A note on Suspending the Breath
Often the breath is suspended or held in, either after inhaling fully or exhaling. This should be done without tension. The throat, mouth, chest, shoulders are not holding on.
B.K.S. Iyengar describes breath suspension or retention beautifully: “One does not simply hold the breath by physical retention, but holds on to the very self, which was raised up and elated through the inhalation.”
Suspending on the inhale: Inhale to the lungs’ full capacity. Upper ribs are lifted, chin is tucked (neck lock), shoulders, throat, and face are relaxed. You are not holding on to the breath in tension, but simply allowing it to be suspended in the lungs. You become still and calm. Sometimes if you sip in a bit more air when you feel that urge to exhale, you can suspend a little longer.
**If you have high blood pressure you should avoid suspending the breath in, as it can temporarily raise the blood pressure.**
Suspending on the exhale: Exhale all air out of the lungs. Draw the belly button towards the spine, lift the diaphragm, compress the upper chest, tuck chin. Become still and calm. Exhale a bit more air to lengthen time of suspension.
Suspending the breath helps integrate the body systems, helps assimilate the energy just created in your pranayama (and asana). It takes us to that point of zero –shuniya. “Shuniya is a deep stillness, into which you can plant a seed –bij –to create a new rhythm or pattern of being. In shuniya the Kundalini flows.” (Yogi Bhajan)
Put it into practice
Why not try a couple of these that resonate with you. Are there certain times of the day they would be more beneficial? Starting with 3 minutes of a pranayama practice is enough to get into a rhythm with it and begin to experience its benefits. Then you can build up to longer times.
Happy Breathing! 🙂
Ooh, and that reminds me, when doing pranayama –feel happy, even smile, don’t furrow that brow, which we sometimes have a tendency to do. Relax into concentration, let it come to you.
Resources: The Aquarian Teacher: Level One Instructor Textbook, by Yogi Bhajan;
The Tree of Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar
- Breath Basics, Part 1 – That One. Deep. Breath. (theapproximateyogi.com)
- Ins and Outs of Prana (yinyangyogis.wordpress.com)