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Inspired living

Your guide to the yogic practice of pranayama


breath breath

Credit: Fabian Moller

Normal breathing generates life, inspiration and energy. Balanced breathing, or controlling the “in” and “out” breaths to make them equal lengths, generates self-awareness, power and vitality. This is pranayama, the yogic art of breathing. Mastering your breath is an empowering process that encompasses rhythmic breathing for physical and mental health, breath retention for longevity and various breathing techniques to cultivate life force energy and wellbeing.

Pranayama is the fourth limb of the eight-limb path of yogic philosophy. “Prana” translates as life force or vital energy, “ayama” as extension or expansion and “yama” as control. As you develop your ability to extend the inhalation and exhalation and to retain the breath, you promote the absorption of life force energy into your being, leading to a healthier and more inspired life. “To inspire” literally means “to breathe”.

Pranayama, in its many forms, is medicine for the body and mind...

The ancient Indian yogis, in developing the various practices and disciplines of yoga, studied the ways of nature and animals to find out about life and longevity. They observed that animals whose hearts beat quickly and who breathed rapidly (such as butterflies and rabbits) lived a short life, whereas those with slow heart rates and relaxed breathing patterns (such as elephants and tortoises) had a much longer life span. From that extended the ancient yogic belief that each of us is born with a certain number of breaths to take before we die; thus, through lengthening the breath and retaining the breath, we’re effectively increasing our life spans.

To breathe is to be alive, however our quality of life is greatly affected by the quality of our breath. Pranayama is the best health insurance you can invest in. As stress is one of the primary causes of illness and disease, it makes sense to develop your breath. Short, sharp breaths indicate tight chest muscles, anxiety and stress. Long, full, deep breaths indicate healthy chest and respiratory muscles and a relaxed state of mind.

Breathing is one of the body’s most powerful cleansing processes. When you expand your lungs you receive maximum oxygen and nutrients and prana, the vital life force energy, is distilled from the air to permeate your whole body. Your physical health improves, as does your mental and spiritual wellbeing. When you focus on controlling the exhalation so it’s smooth and long, you expel from your body maximum wastes, carbon dioxide and what no longer serves you in life. You support the body’s natural inclination to be healthy and to live.

Pranayama plays a primary role in the ultimate aim of yoga: to be fully present and aware in this life. When the breath is scattered so is the mind. When you’re watching the breath, the mind stills and becomes clear. When you’re controlling the breath so it is smooth, even and rhythmic, the mind is steady and engaged. Pranayama cultivates mental health by reducing brain noise and spiritual health by developing stillness and inner peace. Coupled with the other aspects of yoga, pranayama culminates in self-awareness and presence.

Linking asana and pranayama

The many and varied yoga asanas (postures) were developed specifically to promote health of body and mind. Yoga postures help bring you to a place of physical and mental relaxation in preparation for sitting quietly to focus on cultivating the breath. A large number of postures were specifically designed to soften tight respiratory muscles, open the lungs and prepare the body for pranayama, or regulated breathing. Many yoga teachers will emphasise the importance of developing your ability to do the asanas comfortably before attempting the various breathing techniques. Other teachers will introduce various pranayama exercises straight away. It is important that there is no tension, anxiety or strain. You must be relaxed when doing pranayama.

Try this simple exercise to demonstrate the vital relationship between asana and pranayama. Round your shoulders, slump in your chair and tilt your head forwards and down. Notice how this compresses your chest, heart and lungs. From this position try taking a deep, full breath in and then out. Do you notice how this posture restricts your breath? Notice how you feel mentally. Now sit up straight with your spine erect, rolling your shoulders back and opening your chest. Notice the space around your heart, lungs and respiratory muscles. Take a deep breath in. Do you notice how much easier it is from this position to develop a longer, fuller breath and to even feel comfortable retaining the breath after the full inhalation? By simply adjusting your posture, sitting up straight with your chest, heart and lungs open, you are much more able to breathe well.

Inspiring health and transformation

In each and every moment we are transforming. The many and varied disciplines and practices of yoga, including pranayama, contribute to this transformational journey on all levels of your life. As you learn to breathe fully you increase the flow of oxygen and prana to your brain, organs and whole cellular body. As you feed your body increased levels of nourishing oxygen you speed up the body’s natural healing and regenerative processes. At every moment your body is changing, shedding old, unwanted wastes and building new tissue, new life. Conscious deep, full breathing stimulates this natural cleaning process.

As you learn to retain the breath you effectively develop your lung capacity, strengthening all the muscles and organs involved with respiration. Physiologically, the function of breathing charges the burning of oxygen and glucose to produce force, which energises your every movement, bodily processes and mental thought. Knowing how breathing is linked to wellbeing, it makes sense to develop an awareness of your breathing pattern and to become sensitive to the sounds of your breath, the flow of air through your nostrils, the inflation and deflation of lung tissue as the air moves in and out, the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm and the movement of the muscles between the ribs. A yoga practitioner learns to savour each breath and, in doing so, learns to savour each moment in life, to be conscious and present to life’s transformational process.

Nature of life

Life is constantly changing, fluctuating from light to dark, hot to cold, young to old, good to bad, birth to death and construction to destruction. When you accept the nature of life with all its opposites, you accept your own true nature of opposites. You no longer live in the illusion of being only good or only peaceful. The cycle of your breath represents the nature of life. The inhalation is the act of life, of bringing in new energy, life force and nutrients to feed and heal the body. The exhalation is the act of death, of letting go, releasing, yielding to all that is and expelling the old and what is no longer of service in your life.

The techniques of pranayama cultivate life force so that you can move beyond personal limitations and attain a higher state of being on all levels of life. In The Science of Pranayama, Swami Sivananda writes: “There is an intimate connection between the breath, nerve currents and control of the inner prana or vital forces. Prana becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action, and on the mental plane as thought. Pranayama is the means by which a yogi tries to realise within his individual body the whole cosmic nature, and attempts to attain perfection by attaining all the powers of the universe.”

Aspects of breathing

The practice of breathing and controlling the breath comprises four main parts: inhalation (puraka); holding the breath in, or internal breath retention (antara kumbhaka); exhalation (rechaka); and holding the breath out, or pause after full exhalation (bahir kumbhaka).

As you develop fullness of breath, the lungs strengthen and the nervous system is balanced. As the systems of the body relax and you become more comfortable developing long inhalations and exhalations, the mind becomes steady and you are able to retain the breath for longer periods. The practice of deep, full breathing should not be forced but, rather, developed. There is little point in straining the breath, as this can cause more harm than good. Be in a compassionate space with yourself when practising deep, full breathing. Allow the breath rather than force it. Do not be rigid with your lungs or your mind. Even when retaining the breath there is still movement as the air permeates lung tissue. Be fluid and approach pranayama with softness.

With practice your lungs will grow stronger, your lung capacity will increase and deep, full breathing will come more easily.

As you inhale, exhale and retain the breath, you draw your awareness inward. You follow the sound of the breath and the airflow. Also, you can observe and control the diaphragm. Attention to the diaphragm is key to cultivating pranayama and to stilling the mind. During the inhalation, the back of the body remains still (you are either in a lying or seated position) while the front of the body moves. The ribcage expands forward and to the sides; the diaphragm moves to the sides and the lungs inflate fully. During the exhalation you slowly release the diaphragm as the air moves out of the lungs. With the lungs deflated the diaphragm fills the chest cavity. Continue rhythmic breathing with diaphragmatic awareness and notice how quiet brain noise becomes.

Pranayama, in its many forms, is medicine for the body and mind, with its therapeutic benefits being many. In deep, full breathing the lungs are expanded and made more flexible, increasing the removal of carbon dioxide from the body and making the lungs cleaner. Consequently, all the organs of the body are made more fluid, healthy and effective in their functioning. The rhythmic movement of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles in pranayama stimulates the peristaltic and segmenting movements of the intestines and promotes intestinal circulation, helping the intestines absorb food material and dispose of solid wastes. Digestion improves and the flow of pure blood throughout the entire body is maintained, helping prevent the onset of disease and illness. The brain receives more oxygen; energy levels, mental clarity, mind power, focus, vitality and vigour improve. Breath awareness helps to still the mind of busy thoughts as you direct attention to the “in” and “out” breaths. Thus, the mind steadies and unnecessary thoughts that can lead to anxiety and stress are dissolved.

Getting started

Breathing

Always breathe in and out through the nostrils. Follow the airflow in and the airflow out. Do not force the air into the lungs; rather, allow the air to flow smoothly in and out. Visualise the air permeating all the lung tissue. If you feel any strain or tightness in the chest, stop, rest and try developing fullness of breath with less force or for shorter lengths. With practice your lungs will grow stronger, your lung capacity will increase and deep, full breathing will come more easily.

Time to breathe

Find time in the day to sit quietly to practise pranayama. The best time is usually in the morning when the mind is quiet and there is little distraction. Allow five minutes and then build up to 20 minutes with practice. Also focus on cultivating deep, full breathing throughout the day. Notice when your breathing is short and shallow and change this pattern. With practice you’ll catch yourself more regularly and return more quickly to rhythmic breathing.

Sacred space

Find a clean and comfortable space to sit in. Light some incense or candles, close the door and take the phone off the hook. Prepare your space so you’ll have a quality breathing session without distraction.

Position

When starting out, lie in the savasana position (corpse pose) to practise pranayama. Use some folded blankets or a bolster to assist in opening your chest and lungs, making deep breathing easier. When your spine is strong try a comfortable sitting posture. Your body should be as relaxed and steady as possible throughout the practice, with your spine, neck and head erect. When sitting, put your buttocks on a folded blanket or bolster so that your hips are raised higher than your knees. That way your hips stay open while your knees are towards or on the floor. If there is weakness in the spine try sitting with your back pressed up against a wall.

Comfort

Wear comfortable clothes that don’t restrict your chest in any way. Make sure you are not going to get cold or too hot.

Lightness

It is best to practise in the morning when the mind is quiet, when the stomach and bowels are empty or at least one hour from eating so that the body’s systems are relaxed and your ability to maintain focus is enhanced.

What to avoid

Do not force the breath or hold the breath for long periods when there is anxiety, stress, chest tightness or strain. Develop your breathing practice slowly and carefully and know that with practice it will become more comfortable and easy. Avoid deep inhalations in the case of hypertension (high blood pressure) or heart problems. Avoid deep exhalations in the case of hypotension (low blood pressure) or depression.

Exploring the breath

There are many variations on regulated breathing techniques, ranging from simple breath awareness and deep, full breathing to much more complicated and advanced practices. Each technique has a specific therapeutic outcome and effect. Some practices calm the mind; others stimulate the body’s systems and bring light to the brain. To explore advanced pranayama techniques it is advisable to be under the guidance of an experienced yoga practitioner. Following is a guide to cultivating breath awareness and developing deep, full breathing and a balanced, even breathing rhythm.

Becoming aware of the breath

In this practice you simply develop your normal breathing rhythm. Be in a comfortable sitting position with the back of your hands on your knees. Roll your shoulders back and down and move your shoulder blades down. Close your eyes and consciously turn your awareness inward. Bring your focus to expanding your chest and lifting your sternum. Keep your chest lifted as you observe the inhalation and exhalation through your nostrils. After a few breaths, gradually extend the inhalation and exhalation. When your breath has become more rhythmic and smooth, extend the back of your neck to lower your head. Keep your chest up. Bring your awareness to your diaphragm and follow its movement as the air moves in and out.

Developing deep, full breathing

Here you begin to deepen the inhalation and exhalation as you focus on creating smooth, even inhalation and exhalation for balanced, rhythmic breathing. Be in a comfortable sitting position with the back of your hands on your knees. Roll your shoulders back and down and move your shoulder blades down. Close your eyes and consciously turn your awareness inward. Bring your focus to your chest. Let it expand; lift your sternum. Keep your chest up as you inhale and exhale through your nostrils. Extending from the back and sides of your neck, draw your head down, bringing your chin towards the notch of your neck. Keep lifting out of your lower back, with your spine erect, chest up and open and head down. Focus on cultivating a deeper, fuller breath. As you inhale, your ribs move up and out to the sides and your sternum lifts. As you exhale, keep your chest up and move your navel and abdomen back towards your spine. Work towards making the inhalation and exhalation of equal length. It helps to introduce silent counting: inhale for a count of five; exhale for a count of five. Notice the natural pause after the full inhalation and after the full exhalation. Never strain the lungs but control the “in” and “out” breaths so your breathing is smooth, even, rhythmic and relaxed. After your practice lie down and rest.

Breath retention after the inhalation

As you become more experienced with deep, full breathing you’ll notice that the natural pauses after the full inhalation and exhalation become longer. Now it’s time to introduce longer breath retention after the full inhalation. From the above position, begin to hold the breath in after the full inhalation. As you do this your chin is tucked and your sternum lifted. Only retain the breath for as long as is comfortable, without straining the lungs, chest or heart or causing any mental anxiety. When you’re ready, slowly exhale evenly through your nostrils.

Pause after the exhalation

Here you begin to introduce a longer pause than natural after the full exhalation. When your lungs are completely empty you hold the breath out. Only introduce this practice when breath retention on the inhalation has become easy and comfortable.

Squared/even pranayama

This pranayama exercise develops an even, or squared, breathing rhythm with breath retention and pause after the exhalation. Once you have mastered all of the above you can begin this practice, which cultivates balance of mind. From the same position as above, you simply inhale, retain the breath, exhale and hold the breath out — all for equal lengths. Start with a silent count that is easy for you, such as a count of four or five. As this becomes easier, gradually increase to a count of six, seven or eight. Practise a few rounds at a time and then rest. Build up the number of cycles as you become more comfortable with the practice. Keep all sides of this practice even; that is, the inhalation, retention, exhalation and pause should all be of equal length. There should be absolutely no strain or feelings of anxiety. Lie down and rest after the practice.

Further reading

Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati
The Breathing Book by Donna Farhi
Light on Pranayama by BKS Iyengar