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Bindu

Pranayama Yoga

Yoga and breath are intimately joined together. Breath is so integral to yoga that it is difficult to find a class or book on yoga that does not weave breath into it. This article throws light on what is pranayama in yoga, or yogic breathing, how to experience it, and how to build and establish a practice. 

The Sanskrit word for yogic breathing and its different techniques is Pranayama. Pranayama is a combination of two words – prana, which means life force or energy, and yama, which means to control. It therefore refers to using our breath in order to control or regulate our life force. 

The importance of Prana

Yogic texts talk about how prana rules over the whole body. It enables us to experience life. When we experience problems with a particular body part, it indicates that there is a deficiency of prana there. 

Prana is sometimes considered to be synonymous with breath. However, breathing alone does not mean prana. It is how we use the breath that affects our prana

Therefore, learning to establish the correct way of breathing is vital to increase prana.

Are we breathing right?

Unfortunately, most of us are not. Our breath is impacted greatly by our emotions, past experiences, imagination, stress, and trauma. In fact, depending on the state of our emotions, it can even feel uncomfortable to access our full breath. 

We mostly condition ourselves to limit our breathing, using either our upper chest, or our lower abdomen, or only the front of our body to breathe.

A deep and full breath can be felt in the whole body. Along with the lower abdomen and the chest, it also expands the upper abdomen and the rib cage and can be felt in the sides of the body as well as the back. 

The other thing, which might seem like the most obvious thing to do, but is not, is breathing through the nose. Yoga teaches us to breathe in and out of the nose. 

Yoga uses five criteria for assessing the quality of breath. The yogic breath is deep, even, smooth, silent, and continuous.

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We mostly condition ourselves to limit our breathing, using either our upper chest, or our lower abdomen, or only the front of our body to breathe.

What does yogic breathing do?

Yoga texts talk about two primary energy pathways that run along the spine – ida and pingala. Ida is the lunar channel, representing the qualities of the female, coolness, and fluidity. Pingala, on the other hand, is the solar channel, representing the polar opposites – the male, heat, and rigidity. 

Air that passes through the right nostril affects the pingala and that passes through the left nostril affects the ida. 

Yogic breathing directly impacts the flow of energy in the thousands of energy channels that run through the body. It helps control this flow of energy in different ways, heating or cooling, calming or stimulating. 

It also regulates our emotions. This article from Yoga International is a great read which talks about how to use your breath as an emotional barometer. 

How to begin a yogic breathing practice

The first practice when one begins pranayama is an exercise called nadi shodhanam or channel purification. It is only when the energy channels are free of impurities that vital energy can flow freely in the body. 

Nadi shodhanam is also called Alternate Nostril breathing as the practice entails breathing with one nostril at a time. 

It helps cleanse the channels of energy, calms the nervous system, and is also used as a preparatory practice for meditation. 

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Yogic breathing directly impacts the flow of energy in the thousands of energy channels that run through the body.

How to begin a yogic breathing practice

The first practice when one begins pranayama is an exercise called nadi shodhanam or channel purification. It is only when the energy channels are free of impurities that vital energy can flow freely in the body. 

Nadi shodhanam is also called Alternate Nostril breathing as the practice entails breathing with one nostril at a time. 

It helps cleanse the channels of energy, calms the nervous system, and is also used as a preparatory practice for meditation. 

How to practice alternate nostril breathing

Here are the steps to practice Nadi shodhanam or alternate nostril breathing:

  1. Sit erect in a comfortable position. Your back and neck in a straight line. Shoulders down and chest slightly open. Eyebrows and jaw relaxed. Allow your body time to settle down and become still.
  2. Connect with your breath. For a few minutes simply notice your breath and allow it time to become easy, deep, and smooth. Feel your body expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. 
  3. On the right hand, fold the index and middle fingers and rest them at the base of the thumb. Use the thumb to close the right nostril and the ring finger to close the left nostril. Close the nostrils lightly so there is not too much pressure on them. 
  4. If you are practicing in the morning, start by taking in a deep breath. Close the right nostril and take three full breaths with the left nostril, starting with an exhalation. So exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, and exhale, inhale. Then close the left nostril and repeat this cycle of breath with the right nostril. After the left and the right, take three full breaths with both nostrils together. 
  5. These nine breaths complete one round of nadi shodhanam.

In the evening, start the process with breathing through the right nostril instead of the left. 

  1. Pay attention to your breath. Make sure it is silent and smooth and the length of the inhalation and exhalation is the same. 
  2. Try and remain focused on the breath. Allow thoughts to come and go without attaching to them. With practice, you will realize that it is easier to keep the mind concentrated so it can turn inward. 
  3. You can practice nadi shodhanam two to three times a day, ideally after asana and before meditation. 
  4. Practice on a light stomach and empty bladder, in a well-ventilated room. Do not force yourself to breathe beyond your comfortable capacity. 
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The first practice when one begins pranayama is an exercise called nadi shodhanam or channel purification.

How to experience yogic breathing 

One of the simplest ways to develop seamless, deep, and smooth breathing is by lying down on your back in Savasana or Corpse pose. 

You can follow these steps to experience the magic of yogic breathing: 

  1. Your legs are slightly more than hip width apart. Your hands are away from the body, palms facing up. Your shoulder blades are tucked slightly underneath so your chest can open. If you need to, place a thin cushion under the head and neck. 
  2. Once you relax in this position, you will find that your attention can be easily moved to the flow of your breath. 
  3. Soften your abdomen and release it into the floor. You can place a sandbag or a hand on your belly to feel its movement. 
  4. As you breathe in, you will feel your abdomen rising. Visualize fresh energy coming into your body, nourishing you, nurturing you. 
  5. With the out breath, feel your abdomen emptying itself, cleansing you, releasing any stored tension or fatigue. 
  1. To make your breath continuous, at the end of an inhalation, consciously relax and let the exhalation take over. Similarly, when you come to the end of an exhalation, relax the effort and let the inhalation naturally occur. 

The trick here is to build awareness of the breath and stay with it all through. When you reach the end, the awareness itself will be a guide that will lead to the next movement of the breath. 

  1. It is natural for the mind to get distracted. When thoughts arise, rather than fighting them, acknowledge them and allow them to leave. Return to your breath whenever there is an awareness that you have been thinking. With practice, the mind will become calmer and more focused. 

Ways to establish a practice of pranayama in yoga 

If you are looking to build, sustain, or deepen a yogic breathing practice, here are some tips that can help. 

1. Prepare the body

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the eight limbed approach of Ashtanga yoga lays down asana as the third limb, while pranayama or yogic breathing is the fourth or next higher limb in the progression. 

A regular asana practice helps prepare the body to sit for a prolonged period of time with ease and in comfort. Also, irrespective of the flexibility one acquires in their asana practice, what still is the most challenging to do is learning to sit still.

If the body is at unrest, the mind cannot become still. Hence, there is no substitute for asana.

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One of the simplest ways to develop seamless, deep, and smooth breathing is by lying down on your back in Savasana or Corpse pose. 

2. Breathe from the diaphragm 

This is an important one. We often do not use our diaphragm or abdomen for breathing. 

It is necessary to train the body to breathe from the diaphragm as it helps establish inner equilibrium.

To start, keep one hand on your belly and simply notice the hand being pushed out as you breathe in and collapse inwards as you breathe out. 

3. Practice moderation

Yoga is balance. It starts with a balanced lifestyle

Creating a routine helps deepen a yoga practice. Pay attention to what and how much you eat, choosing the qualities of fresh, healthy, and nourishing, and not eating too much or too little. 

Take care of your sleep. One of the most difficult things for most of us is to be able to go to bed on time. Lack of sleep results in tiredness, irritability, and a decreased motivation to do our yoga practice. 

Using the morning hours for a yogic breathing practice is considered to be the most effective. Following a discipline around sleep is one of the most effective ways to get into a yogic lifestyle. 

4. Be consistent

There is no shortcut to reaping the benefits that come from practicing pranayama in yoga. When practiced consistently over a prolonged period of time, yogic breathing can prove to be transformative and life changing. 

There are both short term and long-term benefits of a yogic breathing practice and the effects are incremental. 

The takeaway

Practicing yogic breathing for even as little as ten minutes a day can help establish a lifelong habit. Over time, you will find yourself more in control of your emotions and have greater balance. You will also build yourself an anchor to ground yourself when events in life create distress or uncertainty. 

Each time you sit down to practice, it will sow a seed of self-love and self-care. That’s where our yogic journey actually starts. 

Interested to know more about yogic breathing? This TEDx talk shares interesting insights on the science of yogic breathing. 

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When practiced consistently over a prolonged period of time, yogic breathing can prove to be transformative and life changing. 

The takeaway

Practicing yogic breathing for even as little as ten minutes a day can help establish a lifelong habit. Over time, you will find yourself more in control of your emotions and have greater balance. You will also build yourself an anchor to ground yourself when events in life create distress or uncertainty. 

Each time you sit down to practice, it will sow a seed of self-love and self-care. That’s where our yogic journey actually starts. 

Interested to know more about yogic breathing? This TEDx talk shares interesting insights on the science of yogic breathing. 

BINDU

Bindu

Nidhi @thebigbindu is a practicing yoga therapist and an advanced yoga teacher. Her writing is inspired by her experience of yoga and her study of Ayurveda, Yoga philosophy, and Yoga psychology.