Daily Pranayama

Thinking back to the beginnings of my pranayama feels like a different lifetime. It is interesting how the body and mind can be harnessed once you commit to this training. Now, a day of missed practice feels unbalanced; more than one day feels like I can’t breathe. Not in the literal sense of course. My emotions are triggered easily and mind becomes susceptible to agitation. I have come to rely on these practices, especially now – during menopausal roller coaster. Seated pranayama followed by meditation techniques prepares me for the day where I hope to juggle between Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde with dignity.

Pranayama is the fourth limb on the eight-fold path of Raja yoga. Daily yoga-breathing practices, called Pranayama Nithya Abhyasa,  प्राणायाम नित्य-अभ्यास or just Pranayama, is essential for everyone for general health. Although some of the practices listed here may be performed anytime of the day, others like Kapalabhati, must be done at set times as a seated discipline. There are a few other pranayama techniques that are not mentioned here.

Of course, preparation for pranayama is the essential first step. Then proceed to familiarize yourself with the sequences listed below.

Pranayama Sequences

A few basic pranayama practice sets are presented – certainly not limited to the following:

Set 1

  1. दीर्घ प्राणायाम, Dirgha Pranayama (Three-Part Breathing) – Detailed instructions are provided in this link.
  2. Focus on expanding and contracting of the three parts – diaphragm or upper belly, ribcage or chest, and the space below the shoulder bone, clavicle.
  3. Allow the breath to become smooth (which takes time – weeks or months) by just watching the breath.
  4. To finish: as you inhale silently chant So’as you exhale silently chant ‘Hum’.
  5. So Hum means ‘I am Eternal’ – stay in this meditation for several minutes.
  6. When you are finished slowly open your eyes starting with a downward gaze and gradually bring the rest of the world into your vision.
  7. Do your best to take the positive effects of this practice into your daily activities.

Set 2

  1. Start with Set 1. Add Set 2 – explained below.
  2. समा वृत्ती प्राणायाम, Sama Vritti Pranayama (Equal Breathing) is an extension of the Dirgha breath. This breath may be practiced as a part of Set 2 or separately.
  3. Once you become comfortable with Dirgha Pranayama, focus on making both inhales and exhales the same count.  For example, if you inhale to a count of 6 (OM1, OM2, OM3 and so on), exhale to the same count; i.e., equalizing the breath.
  4. Keep you attention on the count and not on the three parts as in Dirgha Pranayama.
  5. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Set 3

  1. Begin with Set 1 and 2. Add Set 3 only if you are comfortable with the technique.
  2. नाडी शोधन प्राणायाम, Nadi Shodhana is called Alternate-Nostril Breath.
  3. Detailed instructions are provided in this link. 
  4. This breath may be practiced as a part of this set or separately.
  5. Keep the breath smooth and gentle to balance both hemispheres of the brain and soothe the nervous system.
  6. Pause and feel the emotional, mental, and spiritual effects of this breath.
  7. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Set 4

  1. Start with Set 1. Continue with Sets 2 and 3 if you have added them to your practice. Add Set 4 only when you are ready.
  2. Although उज्जायी, Ujjaiyi Pranayama (Ocean-Sounding or Victory Breath) is relatively easy, its best to learn the technique from an instructor.
  3. Detailed instructions are provided in this link. 
  4. Ujjaiyi breathing should be practiced separately at first and then added the practice sequence.
  5. In Ujjaiyi, keep the breath fluid and rhythmic; avoid straining or forcing the breath. This helps to calm and quiet the fluctuations of the mind.
  6. Pause and feel the harmonizing effects of Ujjayi. Scan for any new sensations and emotions. Discuss them with your instructor if necessary.
  7. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Set 5

  1. Begin with Set 1, 2 and 3. Set 5 is added only after mastery.
  2. Kapalabhati, कपालभाती (Skull-Shining Breath): This practice must be learned from an instructor.
  3. Detailed instructions are provided in this link.
  4. This breath must be learned separately. Then, follow your teacher’s advice on when to add it on as a part of regular practice.
  5. Contraindications are important here. Don’t begin the practice Kapalabhati if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, glaucoma, hernia, or abdominal discomfort; recent surgery, or are pregnant.
  6. Pause and feel the effects of Kapalabhati. Scan for energizing sensations such as heat, tingling, lightness, expansion, or enhanced awareness. Discuss them with your instructor if necessary.
  7. Finish using steps 4-7 from Set 1.

Cautions For Pranayama

Cautions for each of the breathing techniques are in the links provided above. A few additional considerations:

Fatigue can hinder the practice of pranayama, while a good night’s sleep can enhance your morning practice.

If you suffer from diabetes, heart conditions, epilepsy, or vertigo, please consult your doctor before you begin Kapalabhati.

Smoking will nullify the effect of pranayama.

Any time you become anxious, angry, emotional or uncomfortable during pranayama practice, please stop. Transition to ‘normal’ breathing and relax in Shavasana, corpse pose or in crocodile pose, Makarasana. Consult with your teacher immediately.

Practicing with conflict or heightened emotions can compromise the benefits of pranayama.

Do not strain or be in a hurry during practice. Pranayama should be a refreshing experience.

Breath Observations

Your breathing should not be jerky or hasty. The process of breathing in and out should be smooth, soft except in Kapalabhati.

Always breathe through nose unless advised otherwise.

Holding the breath is not recommended for a beginner. Once you have prepared the body through asanas and enhanced the capacity of the breath with daily pranayama practice, then, Kumbhaka, retention and suspension maybe introduced by an experienced teacher.

The correct way to breathe is to first lengthen the breath by strengthening the muscles of the diaphragm and lungs using deep yogic breath, Dirgha Pranayama. Here, the lungs will be trained to expand to full capacity. This breath can be mastered through diligent practice.

Choosing the ‘right set’ 

Pranayama should be done with great care, awareness and reverence. Once you complete your pranayama preparation, plan a disciplined routine using the guidelines in the sets listed above.

If you are just starting out, Set 1 is definitely where you will begin. Since sets 1-3 are considered as cooling and harmonious breaths, you can easily add up to Set 3. Decision to add on Sets 4 (Ujjaiyi) and Set 5 (Kapalabhati) must be made with your yoga teacher.

Each time you add a new set, the time required for seated pranayama practice is lengthened. If 15 or 30 minutes is the time you have available, then choose the sets accordingly.

Most importantly, allow your teacher to observe your practice so she can catch inappropriate breath patterns, facial tics or unnecessary body movements before they become faulty habits.

Be assured that Pranayama will improve your concentration, and revitalise your body and mind. Once you start, stay disciplined but enjoy the journey. Over time you will begin to notice the benefits of pranayama.

Here is a promise – each pranayama practice will leave you wanting more.

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Rama, Swami; Ballentine, Rudolf, M.D.; Hymes, Alan, M.D.1998. Science of Breath – A Practical Guide. Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, PA.

Sivananda, Swami; Science of Pranayama.1935. Divine Life Society Publication, Uttar Pradesh, India. Download a copy at http://www.dlshq.org/download/pranayama.pdf

Preparation for Pranayama

Although first day of spring left us buried in snow this year, the only thing we can be sure of is that Mother Nature will prevail. She will arrive in all her colorful grandeur bringing with her a basket full of allergies for those privileged few. If you are one of those (un)fortunate people, this blog is for you.

Pranayama, yogic breathing practice is essential for everyone, especially for those with seasonal allergies. Here are a few basic suggestions to prepare yourself for pranayama. 

Guidelines For Pranayama

Time

Pranayama is generally practiced early in the morning as the body is rested and mind is calm. However, to wake up early, there must be a discipline of going to bed at a decent hour without the distraction of television and other digital diversions to promote restful sleep. If mornings are not feasible, cooling practices such as dhirgha, ujjayi, and nadi shodhana can be done in the evening or before bedtime.

Consistency is more important than duration, so choose the most realistic time for your home practice. Even if the practice is for 10-15 minutes per sitting, a daily routine is a must. It is best to do pranayama at the same time, same place everyday as regularity strengthens will power and cultivates discipline.

Duration and counts are explained in separate links pertaining to each of the pranayama techniques listed in the next post.

Place

Practice Pranayama in a ventilated room. Avoid practicing under a fan or near an air conditioner vent as blowing air can be a distraction and may also cause chills. Keep this space uncluttered. Bottomline, make your practice space clean, safe and sacred.

Alternatively, practice outdoors in your garden or in a park, provided the weather is neither too cold nor too hot or windy, and you don’t suffer from allergies.

Diet

General rule is not eat anything for 3-4 hours before pranayama, hence practicing first thing in the morning is advised. It is difficult to perform breathing practices on a full stomach. Mostly, what you eat, quantity of food consumed and the lateness of the previous night’s meal will impact your pranayama the next morning. Follow the essential principles of a yogic diet while allowing considerations for your health issues.

Distractions

Please turn off (not on vibrate, please) and put away your phones (cell and wrist), tablets and computers to avoid interruptions. If your neighbor or friends usually call or drop in at regular times, let them know ahead of time that you are busy with your practices and will call them later.

Women 

If you are menstruating, gentle breathing practices such as dhirgha, ujjayi, and nadi shodhana will help alleviate painful symptoms and lessen fatigue so you can function during the day. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor about joining a prenatal yoga classes to start pranayama.

Dhrishti 

The mind is easily distracted even if you are focusing on the counts assigned in each technique. Yoga recommends the use of Dhrishti, eye gaze, to control the roving mind. Most popular focus points are – tip of the nose, Nasagray or the space in front of the closed eyes, Chidaakasha. Pick one that you can sustain throughout your seated practice.

Nasal Wash

Before you begin, remember to perfect the art of nasal cleanse by using this technique of Jala Neti. This practice may feel unnatural at first, but I cannot stress enough how important this is to make your pranayama successful.

Finding the right seat

Some people do not practice asanas but have a regular pranayama practice. The eight fold path of Raja Yoga, recommends the practice of asanas to condition the body before pranayama. It also helps to transition from busyness of daily activities into quiet mindful awareness on your yoga mat.

Finding the right seat or posture for the body to be comfortable in a seated position is first and foremost before attempting pranayama practice. How can your mind concentrate on breathing when every two seconds it is worried about the annoying pain in your knee, shoulders or back? Daily yoga-asana practice starts to loosen up your body, relieves minor aches and pains and strengths the posture muscles.

If you are coming out of injuries or have long term knee issues, please consider the use of props to help you get started. Sitting on a cushion, a block and/or folded blanket to stabilize the pelvis, support knees and hips, lengthen the spine, and relax the belly is a wonderful and sometimes a necessary option.

Most popular asanas for pranayama are Vajrasana – thunderbolt pose or Sukhasana – easy pose. You may also experiment with Ardha Padmasana – half lotus, Padamasana – full lotus, and Siddhasana – adept pose. Google these asanas and you will find instructions on how to perform them correctly.

If you cannot sit comfortably in any of these asanas or with props, please use a chair. Sitting on the edge of a chair with your feet grounded or on blocks and the knees over ankles can provide comfort for painful spots or longer practice sessions.

Work on consciously relaxing the major tension holders in the body – the forehead, eyes, jaw, shoulders, belly, hips, hands, ankles and feet. This allows you to sit still for extended periods of time. Only then seated pranayama practice can be effective. Remember to wear loose fitting, soft breathable clothes for utmost comfort.

Intention

Reading an inspiring quote or chanting a prayer at the outset sets the right intention. It helps to decrease mental distractions and anchor the mind on the purpose of purification and concentration.

And Finally

It is easy to put things off or not be consistent with any kind of exercise or practice. These basic guidelines show how you can begin, and where you might encounter breakdowns. Please use these guidelines to be prepared and avoid a few pitfalls before they happen.

As you finish reading this blog – if you are thinking about how you can make changes on your calendar to carve out time for pranayama, or wondering about ‘your right seat’ or how to frame your intention, then you are inspired to begin. Finding the right sequence for your breathing practice becomes your next logical step.

Welcome to the practice of pranayama.

Next Post: Pranayama Sequences

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Rama, Swami; Ballentine, Rudolf, M.D.; Hymes, Alan, M.D.1998. Science of Breath – A Practical Guide. Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, Honesdale, PA.

Sivananda, Swami; Science of Pranayama.1935. Divine Life Society Publication, Uttar Pradesh, India. Download a copy at http://www.dlshq.org/download/pranayama.pdf