Pranayama is the formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force. Pranayama is the working with the breath in a way that activates the vital energy, the five pranas of the system, as well as moves the lymph and increases oxygen in the system.
Pranayama is defined as yogic breathing exercises often used to activate the Kundalini energy. Pranayama is very important, and generally increases the prana of the mind and helps expand consciousness.
Pranayama purifies the annamaya kosha, the kamamaya kosha, and especially the manomaya kosha. The manomaya kosha is strongly affected because, when the prana is steady and full, the mind becomes quiet. When the mind becomes quiet, then the Light filtering through the higher koshas can come through more easily. When the mind is active, it steals all the Light coming through to us from the Atman and we are not able to directly experience the Light that is naturally ours. A mind filled with concepts, worry, anxiety, and regrets grabs this Light to maintain its existence. Pranayama is very important, and generally increases the prana of the mind and helps expand consciousness. At the level of the annamaya kosha, pranayama is the developing of physical prana, which moves up all the way through the subtle levels to the vijnanamaya kosha.
From the moment we’re born, we breathe— taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide through the process of respiration. In general, breathing is a simple, automatic—yet vital—function of our nervous systems, and does not require our attention.
In healthy individuals, whether we are awake or asleep, areas deep in the brain align the breath with our activities and oxygen requirements without our intervention.
According to yogic tradition, the breath is far more than an automatic bodily function; it is our life force, or prana, the unseen energy that animates our bodies and minds. The breath is within our control and with practice, we can learn to use the breath to decrease our blood pressure, heart rates, and stress hormone levels, which can help improve our health and quality of life. For individuals with addictive behaviors, learning to control the breath can aid in breaking the cycle of addiction.
The following are some simple pranayama exercises, or breathing techniques, that can be practiced every day to help reduce stress and give us more clarity and energy. To begin any of the exercises, find a comfortable place to sit with your spine straight. You may sit on the floor, on a cushion in a cross-legged position, or choose to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
Nadi Shodhana, or “alternate nostril breathing,” is a simple yet powerful technique that settles the mind, body, and emotions. You can use it to quiet your mind before beginning a meditation practice, and it is particularly helpful to ease racing thoughts if you are experiencing anxiety, stress, or having trouble falling asleep.
There are several different styles of Nadi Shodhana, but they all serve the purpose of creating balance and regulating the flow of air through your nasal passages. In fact, the term Nadi Shodhana means “clearing the channels of circulation.”
Nadi Shodhana Practice
- Take a comfortable and tall seat, making sure your spine is straight and your heart is open.
- Relax your left palm comfortably into your lap and bring your right hand just in front of your face.
- With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows, lightly using them as an anchor. The fingers we’ll be actively using are the thumb and ring finger.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily.
- Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
- Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.
- Inhale through the right side slowly.
- Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb).
- Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.
- Repeat 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.
Steps 5-9 represent one complete cycle of alternate nostril breathing. If you’re moving through the sequence slowly, one cycle should take you about 30-40 seconds. Move through 5-10 cycles when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or in need of a reset button. Consistency is helpful, so try to match the length of your inhales, pauses, and exhales. For example, you can start to inhale for a count of five, hold for five, exhale for five, hold for five. You can slowly increase your count as you refine your practice.
-Witnessing the Breath
Witnessing the breath can ground us in the present moment, helping to alleviate anxieties associated with recalling the past or projecting the future.
To start, close your eyes. Inhale and exhale deeply through your nose slowly and easily. Begin to imagine the breath as it flows in through the nostrils and then out through the nostrils, in and out, inhaling and exhaling. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently return your attention back to witnessing, or imagining the breath, inhaling and exhaling gently through the nose.
Continue in this way for 5 to 10 minutes.
-Ujjayi Breathing – the Success Breath
Ujjayi breathing, or the Success Breath, can be particularly calming, helping to settle and focus the mind and body. When done correctly, Ujjayi breathing mimics the sound of the ocean, which can be quite soothing. This breathing technique also helps cool the back of the throat and balance both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
To practice Ujjayi breathing, inhale through the nose more deeply than in the previous techniques. Then, exhale through the nose, constricting the throat muscles, which will make a snoring sound.
For beginners, another way to practice this breathing technique is to inhale through the nose and make a snoring sound. Then, hold your hand in front of your face as though it is an imaginary mirror. Exhale through an open mouth like you are fogging that mirror. Try this two times. On the third attempt, at the end of the exhale, close your lips around the breath, and you will hear that snoring sound. Continue to practice this technique, breathing in and out only through the nose.
Practice Ujjayi breathing for 5 to 10 minutes.
Energizing and Cleansing Techniques
-Bhastrika – the Bellows Breath
An energizing and cleansing breath, Bhastrika, or the Bellows Breath, is very empowering.
Start by practicing slow, deep belly breathing through the nose. After a few deep breaths with a final, full exhale, begin forceful deep exhalations, followed by forceful deep inhalations through the nose—like a bellows—at the rate of one second per cycle. The entire breathing practice should originate from the diaphragm, and it is important to keep the head, neck, shoulders and chest relatively stable while the belly moves in and out.
Perform 10 rounds of Bhastrika breathing, then resume normal breathing and observe how you feel. If you feel lightheaded or tingly, return to normal breathing and only begin Bhastrika breathing again when you feel ready.
-Kapalabhati – Shining Breath
Kapalabhati or Shining Breath, is a variation of the Bellows Breath, involving forceful exhalations followed by passive inhalations.
Begin by forcefully expelling the air from the lungs; then, allow the lungs to fill passively. Note that the primary source of movement in this technique is also the diaphragm.
Practice this breath 10 times, returning to normal breathing between cycles. As you breathe normally, witness how your body feels. Continue by repeating these cycles four times.
[*Please note, if you are pregnant or menstruating, it is best to refrain from practicing energizing breathing techniques.]
Fortunately, simply by paying attention to our breath, we can take steps to reduce stress and cultivate greater clarity, balance, and energy in our daily lives.
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