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Pranayama: Yogic Breath-work

Eine Yogi macht Pranayama.
“Pranayama enables you to control the flow of your breath and increase your vital energy. These breathing exercises uncover the light of pure consciousness and bring mental clarity.”


- Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, 2.49 and 52

Your breath is your most intimate companion. It is the essential interface between your body and your mind. Your breath both responds to and controls your emotions as well as your thoughts.

Yogic breathing exercises are called “pranayama”. The literal translation of this Sanskrit word is “control of the prana”. Prana is the vital energy, or life force, that is known in Chinese as “chi” and Japanese “ki”. It is the subtle energy that is used and manipulated in acupuncture, shiatsu, reiki, tai chi, reflexology and many Eastern martial arts.

People, often unknowingly, use the power of prana in daily life. When your child falls, you may rush over to “kiss” it where it hurts, thus transferring prana. If your friend is sick, you may gently stroke his head, thereby transmitting prana. When you bang your knee, you instinctively hold your breath and place both of your hands on the injury in an unconscious attempt to bring additional prana to the area.

With regular practice, pranayama enables you to more consciously control the non-physical subtle energy within your own being. Pranayama enables you to cleanse and strengthen your physical body while calming your mind.

Why do pranayama?


Pranayama is the link between the mental and physical disciplines of yoga. While the action is physical, the effect is to make the mind calm, lucid and steady”.

- Swami Vishnu-devananda, Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga

Swami Vishnu-devananda

Controlling your own mind is perhaps one of the most difficult things you can do in life. After observing the intimate connection between the mind and the breath, ancient yogis developed a series of breath techniques that would enable them to control their minds.

If you watch a person who is at peace, engaged in deep thought, you will notice that his/her breath is slow and even; it may sometimes even be suspended for short periods. You have also probably noticed that when your mind is affected by negative emotions, your breathing becomes fast, irregular and unsteady. These observations indicate the interdependence and interaction of breath and mind.

By its very nature your mind tends to be unsteady. It is constantly affected by the images it sees, hears and experiences through your senses. Pranayama helps you to make your mind one-pointed, so that you can feel more peaceful.

By the regular practice of yoga breathing exercises, you can:

  • Improve and maintain your general good health
  • Have a face that shines with vitality
  • Be better able to overcome viruses and bacteria, which thrive when your body is oxygen-deprived
  • Enhance your ability to deal with pressure and stress
  • Increase your powers of concentration
  • Experience a greater sense of calm and well-being
  • Maximise your verbal delivery – whether you are a performer, public speaker, teacher or simply need to give vocal presentations at work
  • Gain mastery over your emotions
  • Feel less tired
  • Have a voice that is sweet and melodious
  • Arouse inner spiritual forces that bring you joy and peace of mind

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When breath is irregular, your mind is also unsteady. But when your breath is still, so is your mind, and you live long. Therefore, practice breath control.

- Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2.2

Use your breath to deal with stress

Your breath affects and is a strong indication of your overall health and well-being: mental, physical, psychological and emotional. If you are not breathing fully, you may be depriving your body of sufficient oxygen to properly metabolise the food you eat and eliminate the toxins from your body.

If you are like most people, your breath tends to be shallow. Perhaps you use no more than the top third of your lung capacity. If you keep your rib cage rigid rather than allowing it to expand with each in-breath, you probably find that you tire easily and feel more stressed. This is because by walking around with hunched shoulders you block tension, which tends to accumulate in your upper back and neck.

Watch yourself the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation; notice that your breathing becomes faster and more shallow. But, instead of reaching for a cigarette or a drink, try to take a deep breath. The increased intake of oxygen will help to clear your mind and enable you to better deal with the situation.

By breathing fully, you lay a firm foundation for a rewarding yoga practice. The more deeply you breathe the calmer and more focused your life becomes. So, it is important to make sure that you are breathing properly.

Are you utilising the full capacity of your lungs?

To begin to assess your breathing, lie flat on your back on the ground or another firm surface. You may want to place a small cushion under your head or neck. Separate your legs and let your feet relax. Shake out your shoulders to make sure that they are fully relaxed. Gently roll your head from side to side, do this 2-3 times and then return it to centre. Place your hands onto your abdomen (in the region of your naval).

Take a few long, slow, deep breaths. Feel your abdomen rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation. Try to draw the air into the lowest portion of your lungs, causing your abdomen to expand slightly – but don’t balloon it out.

After you have perfected the abdominal breathing, sit up. Come into a cross-legged position or sit on a straight-backed chair, with your feet flat on the floor. It is important that your back is straight, your chest erect and your shoulders relaxed.

Place one hand on your abdomen (in the region of your naval); have the other hand on your bottom ribs. These “floating” ribs need to expand outward as you inhale and draw inward as you exhale.

Before you begin, close your eyes for a moment. Visualise your lungs as long, skinny balloons. Remember how, when you try to blow up a balloon, the part near your mouth tends to expands, but the lower part remains empty and limp. Picture yourself taking a deep breath that fills the bottoms of your lungs/balloons first. Then “see” the middle lungs expand and finally the top part fills with air.

With this image in your mind, inhale and feel your lungs expand from the bottom, then the middle and finally in your upper chest. As you exhale, feel this process reverse itself. Use your hands to check that you are breathing fully and evenly.

Practise this full breath for a few days before you have mastered it. It is a good idea to make sure that you are breathing deeply and fully before attempting yoga breathing exercises.

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Kapalabhati: purifying your breath, mind and body

Pranayama is the link between the mental and physical disciplines of yoga. While the action is physical, the effect is to make the mind calm, lucid and steady”.

    - Swami Vishnu-devananda

The literal translation of the Sanskrit word “kapalabhati” is “shining skull”. With regular practice, this exercise purifies your entire system so thoroughly that your face shines with radiant good health.

Sit with your back straight and your head erect, preferably in a cross-legged position. Take 2-3 deep breaths, then inhale and begin the rhythmic abdominal pumping as follows:

  • Active exhalation: contract your abdominal muscles quickly. This causes your diaphragm to move up into your thoracic cavity, emptying the air from your lungs and pushing it out through your nostrils.

  • Passive inhalation: relax your abdominal muscles; your lungs will automatically inflate with air. Do not forcefully inhale.

Repeat this pumping 20-30 times. End on an exhalation and then take 2-3 deep breaths to bring your breathing back to normal.

Kapalabhati: purifying your breath, mind and body

This is one round of kapalabhati. Try to do 3 rounds daily.

  • Kapalabhati cleanses your nasal passage, lungs and entire respiratory system while strengthening and increasing your lung capacity.
  • It eliminates carbon dioxide and other impurities from your blood stream, permitting the red-blood cells to suck in more oxygen. The additional oxygen enriches your blood and aids in the renewal of body tissues.
  • The movement of your diaphragm and abdominal contractions massage your stomach, liver, spleen, heart and pancreas. Abdominal muscles are strengthened; digestion improves.
  • You feel an increase in alertness and mental clarity as a result of the increased intake of fresh oxygen.

NOTE: Kapalabhati should not be practiced during pregnancy – also not if you have a hernia, abdominal pain or cramping, high blood pressure or are experiencing an asthmatic attack.

It is best to learn kapalabhati from a qualified teacher. Once you have mastered the basic concept, you can practice it regularly on your own.

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Alternate nostril breathing: using your breath to balance your energies

Before beginning to practice pranayama, try the following experiment: hold a hand under one of your nostrils and breath out normally. Then hold the hand under the other nostril and breath out. You will probably notice that your breath is stronger on one side than on the other.

In a healthy person, the breath changes sides every 1 ½ to 2 hours. As we know that the right side of the body is controlled by the left side of the brain, this also indicates that the predominance of brain activity would be shifting regularly. The only time that the breath is even is during meditation.

Known as ‘anuloma viloma’ in Sanskrit, alternate nostril breathing equalises the flow of your breath. This can help you to calm your mind, release stress and prepare yourself for meditation. Regular practice purifies and strengthens both your physical and subtle bodies.


Preliminary practice 1 – single nostril breathing: close your right nostril using your right thumb. Inhale deeply through your left nostril to the count of 4; exhale to a count of 8. Practice this, making sure that you are using a full yogic breath (see above); practice this 10 times, breathing through your left nostril.

Next, repeat this exercise on the other side. Close your left nostril, using the ring and little fingers of your right hand. Inhale through your right nostril to a count of 4 and exhale to a count of 8, using full yogic breath. Do this 10 times through your right nostril.

Practice single nostril breathing for a few days – or a few weeks – until you find that it has become easy – then go on to the next exercise.


Preliminary practice 2 – alternate nostril breathing without retention:

Bring your right hand into the hand position known as “vishnu mudra”.
Vishnu Mudra
You can do this by folding your index and middle fingers into your palm. Use your thumb to close your right nostril and the 2 end fingers (ring and little fingers) to close your left nostril. Always use your right hand (even if you are left handed); never switch hands!

Begin the exercise by closing your right nostril with the thumb of your right hand and inhaling through your left nostril to a count of 4.

Change sides (releasing the right nostril and closing the left nostril with the ring and little fingers of your right hand); exhale through your left nostril to a count of 8.

Inhale through your left nostril to a count of 4

Change sides and exhale through your right nostril to a count of 8.

Make sure that you are using the full yoga breath. Repeat this exercise 10 times daily, until you feel comfortable with it and are ready to take your practice to the next level.


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Preliminary practice 3 – alternate nostril breathing, half retention:

Bring your right hand into vishnu mudra (see picture above) with the index and middle fingers folded into the palm of your hand.

  1. Close the right nostril with your right thumb, breathe in through your left nostril for a count of 4.
  2. Pinch both of your nostrils closed; hold your breath for a count of 8.
  3. Release your thumb from your right nostril and breathe out through the right for a count of 8, keeping your left nostril closed with your ring and little fingers.
  4. With your left nostril remaining closed, breath in through the right to a count of 4.
  5. Close both nostrils and hold your breath to a count of 8.
  6. Release your left nostril and breath out through the left for a count of 8, keeping the right nostril closed with your thumb

Practice this exercise 10 times daily, until you feel ready to increase the retention.


Full Alternate Nostril Breathing

You can attempt this exercise once you have mastered the preliminary ones.

  1. With your right hand in vishnu mudra, close your right nostril with your thumb and breathe in through the left nostril to a count of 4.
  2. Pinch both nostrils closed; hold your breath for a count of 16 (4 times as long as your inhalation).
  3. Release your thumb from your right nostril and breathe out through the right for a count of 8 (twice the count of the inhalation), keeping your left nostril closed with your ring and little fingers.
  4. With your left nostril remaining closed, breath in through the right to a count of 4.
  5. Close both nostrils and hold your breath to a count of 16.
  6. Release your left nostril and breath out through the left for a count of 8, keeping the right nostril closed with your thumb.

This completes one full round of the alternate nostril breathing; try to do at least 10 rounds daily.

Alternate nostril breathing helps to balance the hemispheres of your brain. It calms your mind, making it lucid, steady and ready for meditation.

Your entire respiratory system is cleansed and strengthened. Stale air and waste products are expelled from your lungs.

During retention, the rate of gaseous exchange in the lungs is increased as a result of the increase in pressure. This means that more oxygen from your lungs goes into your blood steam. Also more CO2 and other waste products are eliminated during exhalation.

Note:
Do not hold your breath if you are pregnant.

Practice suggestion:
do kapalabhati first, followed by alternate nostril breathing. Do both of these exercises before your asana and/or meditation practice.

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