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.

**************************************

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

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