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

asana – seat or pose

“Why can’t you sit still?” I remember admonishing my daughter when she was little. Picture a 6 year old with two pigtails sitting on the stool ready to practice piano. Her legs hanging half way up and swinging. One hand disappearing from the keys every few minutes to brush her hair away from the face or to scratch an itch before one line of the song was completely played.

Then an epiphany. One morning, I noticed the number of times I moved during my breathing practice. I moved because of low back pain and tight hips. I moved because of tight shoulders and my foot falling asleep. How long was I sitting? Possibly 15 minutes. My attention was on my sleeping foot and lower back, not on breathing. My mind was agitated about the pain and discomfort and was not calm. My practice, putting it mildly – was pitiful. I needed to find a comfortable seat first before I could make a dent in the breathing practices.

Asana as seat

Asana is the crucial third limb of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga.

आसन asana is popularly translated as pose; it also refers to the place where one sits. Patanjali, the scribe of the text, Yoga Sutras writes – asana is “to be seated in a position that is steady and comfortable”. He implied the ability to sit for extended periods in this position is essential for success in meditation.

It is safe to say that Patanjali was not referring the poses posted on social media or to the variety of the poses we practice in class. He intended asana, posture as a seat for Pranayama and Dharana (breathing and concentration) practices. Asanas designated for meditation will be discussed in another post.

These days, the word asana conjures up images of perfectly aligned, fashionably attired magazine cover models in warrior poses, handstands, and impressive backbends. This tells us that the physical practice of yoga poses equals ‘asana’.

Asana as pose

I have not read them all, but here are a few yogic texts that mention asana, as pose.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (3000BCE – 1800 BCE) focuses on transcending the body and mastering meditation. It does not mention a single asana by name, merely specifies the characteristics of a good asana, i.e., steadiness and comfort required to stay seated for long periods for meditation. You can choose a seat from a few asanas that are recommended for meditation. Once chosen this asana must be practiced to mastery. Mastery then indicates that the student can stay motionless in comfort for upto three hours.

The Goraksha Samhita (10-12 century CE) an early Hata Yoga text, describes the origin of 84 classic asanas. Observing that there are as many postures as there are beings, the text implies that Lord Shiva assigned one asana to a group of 100,000 beings out of the 8,400,000 species to be in existence; thus giving 84 asanas in total. However, only two are described in detail: padmasana, lotus pose and siddhasana, accomplished pose; interestingly both are meditation poses.

The Hata Yoga Pradipika (15th century CE) considers these asanassiddhasana, padmasana, bhadrasana and simhasana important among 84 asanas. This text also has details of breathing practices, yogic diet, and other crucial tips for Hata Yoga practice.

The Hata Ratnavali (17th century CE) attempts to list the 84 asanas, although it appears a few may not have appropriate Samskritham translations or proper description. It appears only 52 asanas in the Hatha Ratnavali are described.

The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century CE) tells us that Lord Shiva taught 8,400,000 asanas, out of which 84 are prominent, and 32 are most useful for everyday practice.

In Shiva Samhita (17–18th century CE) the poses ugrasana and svastikasana replace the latter two of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Modern Asana

Ancient yogis lived during the times where processed foods, variety desserts and carbonated drinks were not available. They did not sit behind desks for long periods of time. It is possible they did not view their asana practice as a ‘work out’. They wanted to transcend the mind. They practiced mastery of asana for meditation purposes only.

The physical and emotional challenges of modern life make it difficult to maintain a healthy body and mind. What we buy, what we eat, and what chemicals we use in our houses, yards, in our cars, negatively affect our bodies and the world around us. Furthermore, the physical wear and tear due to lack of mobility prevents us from sitting still at the desk, let alone maintaining a steady and comfortable asana.

Here, asanas as poses, aide in ridding our bodies of impurities and blockages. In asana class, we twist, bend forward and backward, move sideways, and end up upside down to cleanse our bodies, promote healing and sustain health. Asana as a physical exercise – mindfully and respectfully performed, places the body in specific positions to promote strength and flexibility, and uses the movement of breath to cultivate awareness, concentration and relaxation.

I have benefited immensely from this practice of asana – strengthened my lower back, released the tension in my neck and shoulders. Now, with the help of a few props, I am able to sit motionless and concentrate on my breathing exercises for short periods of time. I am grateful.

Asana Wisdom

First, remember, poses can be challenging depending on your fitness and health. If you are struggling in certain poses, use props for proper alignment. Then settle into the posture for as long as your breath is comfortable. This supportive practice creates a space in your mind to find peace in a place you may find unpleasant. These poses, despite challenging, can open blocks and strengthen the body, and by extension, train us to find solace in difficult situations. Although, adopting the attitude of ahimsa, non-harming may hurt your pride, it is imperative to avoid the risk of injury. I can vouch for that from my own practice.

Second, be careful not to designate favorite poses and get attached to them. In poses that seem pleasant and wonderful, realize that change is inevitable and practice santosha, contentment as you transition out of these favorites. While my favorite asanas led me to ‘like’ one instructor and enjoy the class, my non-favorite poses made me dislike another, leaving me dissatisfied after the class. It took me years to understand that the instructor had nothing to do with the way my ego was operating -using likes and dislikes of asana to manipulate my emotions in a classroom setting.

Next, be open to new poses and variations to the poses. Do not become dull or stagnant by always doing the same asanas or using the same focus in poses. Watch out for habit-forming patterns – mental and physical, and prepare yourself to welcome change  – both in asanas and instructors. It becomes difficult to accept change when you operate from old habits. Conversely, don’t view your yoga class as a source of entertainment by looking for new poses all the time. That will leave you critical of your instructor and discontented with your class.

Finally, take a moment to reflect on how you can give valuable feedback instead of judging your yoga instructors. Every instructor is a student first. She or he began their practice on your side of the room and worked their way to the other side with the intention to share this wonderful practice. While there is always room for improvement, each instructor has patiently developed a style that they work from, while adding and modifying periodically. Place your mat in front of the classroom and ask yourself – how would you teach the class if you were the instructor.

Patanjali’s Sutra 2:46 states, स्थिरसुखमासनम्॥२.४६॥ – Sthira Sukham Asanam; “a posture that is steady and comfortable is called Asana.” Make your seat an asana-seat. Only then real “yoga” practice – the practice to transcend the mind in order to uncover inner joy – begins.

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surya namaskar abhyasa

Sunrise is one of the most beautiful sights of Mother Nature. Writers and poets near and far have sung its praises. Seeing the rising sun illuminate mountains and roof tops, places of work and worship is breathtaking. My best memory is a glorious ball of fire rising on a faraway shore as if emerging from the ocean itself on one of our family vacations. To this sacred light, the Divine fire that is the source of creation, I offer my salutations. 

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Guidelines for Surya Namaskar

Disciplined practice of sun salutations is called Surya Namaskar Abhyasa. Please refer to previous  posts for its history, names of poses and corresponding mantras.

Traditional Surya Namaskar is a practice open to people of all ages and levels.

Pace

There is no set pace for Surya Namaskar. The pace – set by your breath is the safest. If done at a faster pace you may jeopardize alignment and risk injury. At a medium pace follow the rhythm of Ujjaiyi breath and enjoy it’s energizing or aerobic benefits. At a slower pace with breath awareness, the practice relieves mental stress, and can become meditative.

Alignment

When you are focussing on the breath, you might wonder – ‘Am I doing each asana correctly? Will I injure myself?’ Good questions. This is precisely the reason why Surya Namaskar asanas have to be taught separately so the alignment can be mastered.

Each asana counteracts the one before, stretching the body forward/backward and alternately expanding/contracting the chest to regulate the breathing. Form and alignment of each of the twelve asanas must be learnt separately. This is followed by learning how to transition between each of the asanas safely within shorter sequences before introducing complete rounds.

The first few repetitions can be tiring when you are learning the asanas for the very first time. You will notice an increase in your heart rate and may perspire as well. As the practice gets regular, you will build up your endurance and then become ready to add Ujjaiyi breath into your rounds.

If you are wondering how many rounds to practice each day, there are no set rules. However, be aware of your physical and medical limitations. As a beginner, you may start with 2-4 rounds and work up to 8-10 very gradually (weeks or months) depending on your health and frequency of practice.

Props

Simple props like blocks, blankets or straps can help you learn each asana correctly and transition between asanas safely. At once, the ego may resist as it wants to portray a false sense of perfection even before you have dedicated yourself to this practice. The magazine cover that depicts a picture perfect asana is not you or me.

Using a prop can assist not hinder your practice. It will help you ‘feel’ the asana in the ‘right’ areas in your body and teach you not to hurt yourself. Over time you can try other props or discontinue their use completely based on your progress. Only with disciplined practice your body will begin to look steady and aligned.

Cautions

  • Do not eat (2 hours) a heavy meal before practicing Surya Namaskar.
  • Be aware of medical conditions like high blood pressure, spine injuries, diabetes, etc. that warrants a consult with your doctor before starting this practice.
  • If you are recuperating from sickness or surgeries, or a senior, please modify the poses accordingly or use a chair as a prop for support.
  • Knees can stay slightly bent to protect your lower back during transitions.
  • Avoid straining, excessive or painful stretching in asanas. Honor where your body is on that given day of practice.
  • Observe if your practice is weighed down by likes and dislikes. For example, you have to practice with a certain type of music, a certain sequence taught by your favorite teacher, occupy the same spot at the yoga studio, and external distractions, etc. These become limitations to your practice.
  • Be aware that teachers structure their classes differently based on their teaching styles, schooling and personal practice. Try not to be attached to one teacher.

Abhyasa – Practice

One full round of traditional Surya Namaskar is two sets of the twelve poses set in a vinyasa, sequence.

Here is a video of the traditional Surya Namaskar.

You may follow along and try it in your living room. However, it is best to learn the names and alignment of each asana, how to transition between asanas safely, and how to coordinate movement with the breath from an experienced teacher.

Start from Left or Right side?

You may begin the first set leading with the left foot and the second set leading with the right foot for a total of twenty-four asanas. 

Why left side first? Beginning on the left side of the body may be attributed to Devi Prakriti, Mother Nature, generally associated with feminine qualities of nurture, compassion, love, humility and for a more meditational and mindful practice. Beginning on right side of the body may be attributed to Purusha, the masculine aspects of assertiveness, courage, willpower, and the practice of mental concentration. One side is not better than the other. It depends on what quality you need on that given day.

This philosophy may have been used by yogis and gurus as a type of Chikitsa, therapy to help people through different mind states. For example: Each day check your emotions and state of mind before you begin your practice. If you feel lethargic, depressed, anxious, Sunday blues, bored – you may begin your practice from the right. Add Ujjaiyi breath (after learning it correctly) for an energizing practice.

On the other hand, if you are hyper, stressed, irritable, egotistical, restless – you should begin from the left. Move slowly through the asanas concentrating on the breath for a calming practice. This is an ingenious way devised by wise teachers for setting an intention at the start of the practice to keep the wandering mind in check and bring mindfulness to a physically-oriented practice.

Breath

Notice the alternating inhalation and exhalation in the asana sequence outlined in the Surya Namaskar table. In the sixth asanaAshtanga Namaskar (eight-point pose), the breath is held in external suspension, Bahir Kumbaka. Learning how to suspend the breath without a struggle takes diligent practice. Alternatively, you can practice with regular breath between the 5th and 7th asanas.

Manthra

You can make Surya Namaskar a spiritual practice by incorporating manthras. Japa manthras are more frequently practiced than the bija manthras. Here is a video of Surya Namaskar with Japa Manthras.

Gurus recommend the use manthras to coax a practitioner to bring reverence to a physically-oriented practice. By understanding the meaning of each manthra, you can slowly transform the egotistical attitude and cultivate devotion and gratitude.

Learn the mantras separately by listening and repeating them multiple times before adding them to the movement. You can find the manthras listed in the Surya Namaskar Asanas blog.

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Sunlight has found its way through the trees and into my living room. My mat is beckoning. I can’t wait to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. Let’s practice together. Roll out your yoga mat and step onto your sacred space. You may chant the Divine Light Prayer by Swami Sivananda Radha. Let it set your intention. Let us express reverence to Surya, the Cosmic Light by practicing Surya Namaskar with devotion and gratitude.

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Sarasvati, Satyananda Svami.1930. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga. Munger, India.

lessons in yoga-abhyasa

“We are what we repeatedly do; Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle 

Ready, Mat, Go

Asana as just an exercise is called Vyayama. This is where we all begin. So where is your yoga mat? Is it tucked away under your bed or in the corner of your hallway closet? Are you hitting the snooze button every morning instead of getting up for your practice? Are you scheduling meetings or work events at the same time you were hoping to take your own class? If the answer is yes to even one, you are not alone.

We all have good intentions to begin yoga-asana as exercise. Life happens. But, if we persist, Vyayama will lead to us to Ahbyasa. 

Abhyasa

For me, Abhyasa, yoga practice, clearly refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga- the path I was initiated into.

It is very easy to leave the theory of Raja Yoga between the pages of yoga texts. The only way to bring them to life is to practice them; disciplines that must be experimented consistently to gain deeper insights. Being able to study at YogaLife Institute with my teacher, Bob for 10 years and sharing in the yoga companionship of other teachers was a blessing.

My Abhyasa had its hiccups at first, but eventually found its rhythm. Every time I felt my practice had settled, something would happen (sickness, vacations, injuries, moving) to unsettle it. In any case, it is confession time to share the lessons learned.

Lesson 1 – Ego

At the infancy of my Abhyasa, I remember being so pleased at accomplishing 5 rounds of Surya Namaskar, sun salutations, that my whole body would swell with pride. When someone commented on my alignment in Virabhadrasana 1 or 2, Warrior pose, I beamed with pride again. When my eyes rested on a peer at the yoga studio, I remember thinking that my pose looked better than hers possibly with a sense of competition. When a different or new instructor came to teach the class, I compared her to my ‘regular’ teacher and dared to criticize her style for not fitting my personality. Now, I smile at my ignorance and recall the consequences of such pride-filled thoughts either through injuries or being humbled by teachers.

I have a long way to go before I can claim eradication of the ego in all thoughts and actions. I am fervently hoping that this practice can alert me when the hood of an ego-thought rises so I can catch it before its venous response is released to the world.

Lesson 2 – Mind

Abhyasa made me realize that my mind was constantly a critic, on and off the mat. It always seemed have an upper hand. I remember talking incessantly about yoga as if I were the designated spokesperson. It was I who was creating the busyness and depleting my energy. The quality of thoughts dictated my state of mind and the quantity determined whether I could ‘turn off’ the busyness on the mat.

It took me a long time to realize that it was the mind that controlled the outcome of my mat practice. When I anchored the mind to the breath and directed it to follow the movement, I began to notice a certain quiet in my body as well as settling of the thoughts. So, mat practice I discovered – is not just about body sculpting, it is about training the mind through asana.

Lesson 3 – Honoring the body

There are reasons some asanas are categorized as advanced. Watching some teachers and peers moving skillfully into positions that I could only dream of was annoying. You guessed right – I attempted them anyway, and paid the price – rehabilitation and forced reflection.

After going through repeated study of the first ethic, ahimsa, non-harming, eliminating the competitive attitude during mat practice became easier. I realized only when I am injury free, I can be of service. I had to consciously train myself to restrain and observe my body; muscles, joints, organs, breath, and the mind as they moved in each asana. Now, I remind myself each day to pause with reverence and send pure love to each part thanking them for their daily adeptness.

Lesson 4 – Forgiveness

Reminding myself to use the 8 fold path in thought, word and action is not simple. In fact, it is downright frustrating, and at times tantrum worthy. But, it is a practice that I have chosen to pursue. My failures – succumbing to laziness or participating in gossip, losing patience in the grocery line or lose it with my child. Blaming the other guy or the hormones did not work. Only with forgiveness I was be able to return to Raja Yoga practice.

Of course, I cannot control how others perceive my words or actions. But working to purify my intentions and motives is a primary part of my Abhyasa. In time, with my motives purified – I will not have to worry about the outcome of any interaction. I’m learning to define ‘progress’- one day, one mat practice, one interaction at a time.

Lesson 5 – Awareness

Before yoga, I was acting on the strongest impulse and reacting to the slightest provocation. I was acting without awareness and was a slave to the mind. To be established in awareness through yoga means to attend to all aspects of my being – body, mind, breath, emotions and the inner Self. It took me years to understand what that meant – to watch my actions, words and thought without a conflict. A very difficult practice.

Bringing awareness to the body helps me to release the pain and discomfort by just guiding my attention to it. And, awareness with gratitude brings a feeling of calmness. Awareness during the practice of ‘silence’ means not ask a question in response to a thought. If I do, I’m in for a long chat. The secret then, is to just watch everything that is going on in the body and mind without judgment. Training myself to be a detached observer – a silent witness.

Lesson 6 – Breath

Initially, it was a struggle to breathe; with tightness in my chest in certain poses and definitely during an emotional outburst. The muscles responsible for the act of breathing were so knotted that it took a lot of asana practice to release. In class, I was repeatedly told that awareness of breath induces an inner calm and urges the muscles to release. It also establishes you in the present moment. It is finally sinking in.

My teacher, Bob told me that the best way I can find the connection between breath and action is to become aware of how the small choices I make each day affects me, my family and friends, my community, – and  by extension- the world. Again, not easy at all – but great advice, nonetheless. Consciously relying on the breath is definitely helping settle my thoughts. It is urging me to indulge in loving actions – one breath at a time.

Moving towards Sadhana

Abhyasa after tedious efforts brought forth joy in the asana practice. Slowly, I began to hear the whisperings of the inner language of the asanas on the mat. Sometimes my heart filled with joy for unexplainable reasons. I am slowly being guided to elevate the asana practice from ego level of vanity, intolerance and impatience to a higher level of humility, compassion, and acceptance.

Yet, documenting my “progress” on and off the mat is a joke. The moment I think that I am close to mastery I fall off the ladder and it is uphill again. Of course, failure is hard to swallow. But my faith in the 8 fold path has prevented me from quitting and is inspiring me to become a seeker.

Yoga class on Wednesday and Friday mornings doesn’t cut it especially after being initiated into Raja Yoga. Because,the disciplines outlined on that path have to be practiced daily in order for them to be internalized. Therefore, starting the practice at the sound of the alarm is absolutely required and expected of a serious student-seeker. Patanjali calls this dedication – a Great Vow, Mahavratham.

Abhyasa then, is a start towards becoming a spiritual seeker; one who follows a path of purification – in order to discover the Higher Truth. Abhyasa done with reverence and gratitude matures into Sadhana. Going deeper in Sadhana means one has to act with a sense of non-doership by accepting the inner teacher’s guidance unequivocally. 

Yogis assure us that once our Abhyasa crosses over to the realms of Sadhana, we are in different territory. No one can stop us from going all the way to discover the Highest Truth. One day I hope to find myself in that realm. Of course, it begins with me – showing up each day – on the yoga mat.

Sharing the Practice

The days I get to share my practice as a teacher is humbling. I try to remember that everyone who walks into the classroom is dealing with ‘things’. Perhaps the yoga mat represents for them the same sacred space it represents for me. Our collective Abhyasa – each of us in our own sacred space, is sincere and heartwarming. I am honored to practice together and share everyone’s deepest desire to find their original goodness – to be the best we can be when we step off the mat. I am only just beginning to like the person I am becoming after each practice.

Gurus promise that the yogic disciplines not only improve health and well-being, but also prescribe a definite way to uncover the Spirit. We just have to be ready for a long, hard journey to travel from the surface of the mind into the depth of our consciousness.

“Strive to be calmly active and actively calm. Never compare your journey with someone else’s. Your journey is yours alone, and not a competition. ” Paramahamsa  Yogananda

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nadi shodana – alternate nostril breath

Nadi Shodhana, नाडी शोधन प्राणायाम, is also known as Anuloma Viloma Prāṇāyāma, अनुलोम विलोम प्राणायाम.  Simply referred as Alternate Nostril Breathing, it is a powerful breathing practice.

Nadi, नाडी, is a Sanskrit word for ‘channel’ or ‘flow’ and shodhana, शोधन means ‘purification.’ The Nadis, channels that connect the chakras, energy centers are the psychic pathways within the human system.  This pranayama technique is used to purify these channels, balance the masculine and feminine energies.

How to Practice

Seat

  • Choose a comfortable seat; on the floor (with a cushion, block or blanket), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor or on a block with an erect spine and head.

Guidelines

  1. Begin with Dhirgha Pranayamadeep yogic breath.
  2. When the breath feels relaxed, begin Nadi Shodhana.
  3. Bring the right hand into Vishnu mudra by folding the index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb. Align the length of the ring and pinky fingers on the right hand. (You may also fold index, middle and ring fingers in a modified version of this mudra)
  4. Alternatively,  Nasagra Mudra may also used.
  5. You will use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) or just the pinky to close the left nostril alternately.
  6. Left hand is placed on the knee palms facing up (gesture of receiving). (Note: the mudras, yogic seals for pranayama – not discussed in this post.)

Variation One

  1. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril.
  2. Exhale through the left nostril.
  3. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the spine – from the pelvic floor to your head.
  4. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  5. Use the pinky and/or ring fingers of the right hand to close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril.
  6. Exhale through the right nostril, sending the breath down the right side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  7. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  8. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril, drawing the breath back up along the right side of the spine from the pelvic floor up to the head.
  9. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the inhalation.
  10. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril.
  11. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body from the head down to the pelvic floor.
  12. Pause for one silent OM at the end of the exhalation.
  13. This is one round of Nadi Shodana, Alternate Nostril Pranayama.
  14. Do 5-10 rounds.
  15. Complete your final round with an exhalation through the left nostril.
  16. Return your right hand on your knee and breathe with complete awareness.

Breath Ratio

The above instructions are meant to provide a simple introduction to Nadi Shodhana.

Single Nostril Nadi Shodana can also be introduced to beginners. In other variations of Nadi Shodhana, advanced techniques incorporate breath retention and duration ratios for inhalation and exhalation.

There are multiple instructions regarding breath ratios in this pranayama. I was oblivious to this in the early stages of the practice. I was introduced to the variation one (see above) in the first year of yoga classes at Yogalife Institute. This variation provided a sense of calmness I needed at that time.

Frequently suggested breath ratio is 1:1, where the inhale count is the same as the exhale count. This is the safest way to introduce Nadi Shodana Pranayama to a new practitioner. For example, if your inhale count is 6, your exhale count should be 6, following the 1:1 ratio, i.e. 6:6.

However, within this pranayama, the practice of Kumbhaka or breath retention (at the end of the inhale –Antara – internal retention) and suspension (the end of the exhale – Bahir – external suspension), is taught only when students are ready.  The word ‘ready’ implies different meanings for different people. Hence it’s always best to learn Kumbhaka in person, from a qualified teacher and choose the practice variation that is right for you.

For example, the first ratio can be 1:1:1 with instructions for breath retention to be the same count as the inhale and exhale. That means – 6 will be your retention count – i.e. 1:1:1 ratio pattern equals 6:6:6 breath count.

If you are also practicing breath suspension, then the ratio will look like this – 1:1:1:1, where the last number refers to breath suspension – 6:6:6:6

Cautions 

  • Breathing should never be forced. The breath should be slow, soft and relaxed, and performed with full awareness.
  • Remember –The quality of the breath is always more important- not the ratios.
  • Performing a lower ratio correctly is more beneficial than trying to forcefully perform a technique beyond your capabilities.
  • If you feel any discomfort, stop and return to normal breathing. Only when you are  comfortable with a technique attempt the next level under the guidance of a teacher.
  • Practice for 2-4 weeks or more on the first technique, but it could take years to master it. It depends on how often you practice.
  • As the nadis, channels are cleared, blockages will be released. They could surface in unexpected ways. Be prepared for emotional releases (desirable and undesirable) and seek professional help if issues become uncomfortable or confrontational.
  • Nadi Shodhana should be practiced on an empty stomach. Early mornings are best, or choose the best time and make it part of your daily practice.
  • Everyone and everyday is different. How you progress depends on how disciplined you are in seated practice. In time you will notice the effects on your mind and body.

Benefits

Nadi shodhana can be very gratifying, even when practiced for as little as 5 minutes regularly. But practicing daily for 15 minutes offers deeper benefits.

Physical/Physiological

  • Infuses the body with oxygen
  • Clears and releases toxins
  • Rejuvenates the nervous system
  • Helps to balance hormones
  • Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies that cause hay fever, sneezing or wheezing
  • Balances solar and lunar, masculine and feminine energies
  • Brings balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain

Mental/Spiritual

  • Reduces stress and anxiety
  • Fosters mental clarity and an alert mind
  • Enhances the ability to concentrate
  • Calms the emotions and prepares the mind for meditation

My Practice

At the outset, this pranayama had an instant calming effect for me. It was/is helpful to slow down my racing thoughts and overactive mind. I returned to it, sometimes several times in a day, if I was anxious, stressed, or had trouble falling asleep.

I was told by different people that if I had been practicing variation one of this pranayama regularly for over a year, then I could add the retention/suspension ratio. I did experiment with the ratios with limited success and finally settled down with what is best for my body and mind.

The 1:1:1 ratio for internal retention did not work for me. I modified the ratio to look like this: 1:1/2:1 = 6:3:6. This practice was manageable and did not agitate the mind or unsettle my emotions. Although I have increased the count of my inhalations and exhalations since then, the base ratio for kumbhaka – retention and suspension still remains at 1/2; meaning if my inhale and exhale is 12, my retention and suspension is 6 = 12:6:12:6.

And, when I am exhausted or rushed, I break it down further. I do only retention or only suspension for 5 -1 0 rounds. The ratios look like this: retention = 12:6:12:0 and suspension = 12:0:12:6.

These decisions are based on the physical capacity of my lungs and is guided by the first ethic, Ahimsa, non-harming.

Now, Nadi Shodana is an integral part of my daily seated pranayama practice. I use it to quiet my mind before meditation.

Next Post: Preparation for Daily Pranayama Practice

kapalabhati pranayama – skull shining breath

Pranayama techniques may be categorized as:

  • those that are heating (energizing or vitalizing) and those that are cooling (tranquilizing)
  • those which are safe to learn from a book or a website
  • And those that must be learned over an extended period of time from a qualified teacher. Kapalabhathi, कपाल भाति , belongs to this kind. 

Although this blog is going to present you with instructions on the technique of Kapalabhati, it is still best to learn this pranayama from a yoga instructor who has had a long standing personal practice, instead of learning from books and videos. Along with learning the basic technique, there are variations that have to be introduced at the ‘right’ time based on the regularity and progress in your practice.

Kapalabhati कपाल भाति is often considered as an important Kriya, a cleansing process, also called as Kapalashodhana;  कपाल शोधन. But it is also considered a Pranayama, breathing technique. Kapala means “skull,” and bhaati means “that which brings lightness or shine.” Therefore, it is referred to as skull-shining breath.

Cautions

In Kapalabhati, the breaths are short, rapid, and strong. Most frequently asked question here is – should the abdominal muscles be actively contracted for this pranayama? It is logical to assume that the breath is expelled through the nose due to the contraction of the abdominal muscles. The following is a simple explanation of how it happens.

Following a deep inhale, short, rapid, strong puffs are expelled. The abdomen relaxes which prompts the diaphragm to descend triggering a passive inhalation. In other words, air is pushed out of the lungs as exhales or multiple puffs, which is generated by passive contractions of the abdominal muscles. And, inhales are involuntary responses to the release of this contraction, which mechanically draws the air back into the lungs. The abdomen is instinctively contracted and relaxed in this way for a series of puffs.

Most importantly, Kapalabhathi is often misunderstood as Bhastrika Pranayama, bellows breath, where the abdominal muscles are active in both inhales and exhales (another post).

It is critical to understand the technique clearly before you perform it. Faulty habits when performing Kapalabhati can lead to abnormal changes in the energy system leading to restlessness, dizziness, anger and other undesirable emotional changes.

Kapalabhati must be done on an empty stomach. It must not be practiced at night as it may cause insomnia. It is contraindicated in people suffering from heart disease, vertigo, ulcers and pregnancy.

Kapalabhathi

There are two types of Kapalabhati.
1) Single Nostril Kapalabhati
2) Double Nostril Kapalabhati

Single Nostril Kapalabhati 

  1. Find your most comfortable seat.
  2. Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale.
  3. Do 5-10 rapid/forceful exhalations through your left nostril.
  4. On the 10th count exhale completely. Take a deep inhale and slow exhale through both the nostrils. 
  5. This completes one round of Kapalabhati through the left nostril.
  6. Do 3-5 rounds each side.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6 by closing your left nostril with left thumb and rapid exhalations from your right nostril.
  8. Start with 5-10 puffs. You can increase 5-10 puffs every two weeks depending on the consistency of your practice.
  9. Some schools may instruct you to increase to 50 or 100 puffs rather quickly. Please monitor the changes in your daily emotions and energy in your activities before making your decision. The choice is yours.
  10. If one nostril is blocked, do not perform this pranayama on the open nostril only and forget about the closed one. This also causes changes in your energy system giving rise to undesirable emotional changes.

Double nostril Kapalabhathi

  1. Begin by settling your breath.
  2. Inhale. Begin rapid puffs or exhales.
  3. Keep your focus on tip of your nose (Nasasgray Dhrishti)
  4. Count 10-20 breath puffs, keeping a steady rhythm and emphasizing the exhalation each time. (start with 5-10)
  5. Exhale completely, followed by a deep breath.
  6. As you become more adept at contracting/releasing your belly rhythmically, you can increase your pace to your comfort. Faster is NOT necessarily better.
  7. Do 25 to 50 puffs for the first 6 months to a year with consistent regularity.
  8. Observe any changes in your energy and activity levels, health or appearance of undesirable emotions. Gradually increase up to 100, 10 breaths every 2 weeks or every 4 weeks or at your pace.

Note:

It is best to work with an instructor on a regular basis to discuss your experiences and make adjustments to your practice. It is also beneficial to let the instructor observe your practice so she can detect any abnormal rhythms or techniques that you may have introduced unconsciously and catch it before it becomes a faulty habit.

Benefits

Physical/Physiological

  • For seasonal allergies – The air sharply expelled helps to remove dust particles from the respiratory tract and helps to clear the toxins and phlegm in the nasal passages.
  • Cleanses the lungs & entire respiratory system
  • Increases lung capacity, increases oxygen throughout entire body and
  • Tones the digestive system and regulates metabolic rate
  • Brings balance into sympathetic and para-sympathetic parts of the nervous system
  • Stimulates normal functioning of the endocrine system and tones abdominal muscles.   

Spiritual

  • Kapalabhati is practiced before meditation as it minimizes sensory distractions and induces a calm state of mind.
  • It also helps to overcome depression, stress and other negative emotions.
  • It brings tejas, तेजस्, brilliance, shine to the face and activates energy in the body.

My Practice

It took me couple of months to learn the technique perfectly and few more months to settle into a routine of daily pranayama practice.

In the beginning, the breath appeared to be ‘caught’ in my throat and I ended up doing Ujjaiyi Pranayama with rapid puffs on the exhale. I had to restart each time this happened.

When I practiced Kapalabhathi correctly, I noticed an increase in body temperature. The layers of blankets came off,  warming me up from the inside on cold winter mornings. This pranayama definitely falls under the category of heating pranayamas.

When I was tired I noticed my effort waning. I was unable to keep the first breath/puff as strong as the last one and had to cut down the number of rounds from five to three. Although I (my ego rather) did not want to go back to previous count on tired and sick days, practicing with Ahimsa, was necessary to honor my body.

When increasing the numbers of breaths/puffs per round, I had to monitor the strength of the last puff and progress accordingly.

I realized that attention was key to stay on track. If my mind wandered, the technique became faulty and my breaths were not strong and clear. The idea is to keep the breath steady and powerful.

Practicing Kapalabhathi Pranayama has led to a decrease in postnasal drip and I am able to manage my seasonal allergies effectively during the months that I am not on medication. As a result, my mind is not bogged down by the body and I am able to direct my attention to the technique and notice its mental/spiritual benefits in my daily pranayama practices.

Next Post:  Nadi Shodana or Anulom Vilom

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Saraswati, Niranjanananda Swami. 2009. Prana and Pranayama. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of  Yoga, Munger, India.

ujjaayi pranayama – victory breath

Ujjaayi (उज्जायी) Prāṇāyāma (प्राणायाम )

Ujjaayi (उज्जायी), means “one who is victorious”. Ujjaayi breath means “victorious breath. Also referred to as the psychic breath because of its positive effects on the mind.

Seat

  1. This breath can be performed while moving, standing, walking or sitting.
  2. Sit comfortably on the yoga mat using props or in a chair for seated practice.

Technique

  1. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to the sensation of the breath in and out through the nostrils.
  2. Imagine there a small opening or a constriction in your throat where the breath is being released making a soft whispering or hushing sound.
  3. Whisper ‘ha’ with an open mouth to feel the sensation in your throat.
  4. Then close your mouth and continue to produce the soft ‘ha’ sound. This time the sound will not be loud as the mouth is not open, but you should feel the sound being produced in your throat in a soft whisper.
  5. Although there is a constriction of the throat, the Ujjayi breath flows in and out through the nostrils, with the lips remaining gently closed.
  6. This hushing sound on both inhale and exhale is Ujjaayi Breath.
  7. One inhale and one exhale of this breath is considered one round. You can begin with 5 rounds. This seated practice is Ujjaayi Pranayama.
  8. You can slowly build up your practice to 10-20 rounds. When you are ready to modify your practice, please find a yoga instructor who has a long standing personal Pranayama practice to guide you.

Practice tips

  1. Breath should be long (dhirgha), smooth (sukshma).
  2. The sound of the breath is audible to the practitioner.
  3. Cover your ears to it hear it louder noticing that it sounds like the ocean.
  4. Become comfortable with Ujjaayi Breath in a seated practice before using during asana practice.
  5. The tongue may be placed upward touching the roof of the mouth in Jihva Mudra (tongue seal) or resting lightly in the center of the mouth.
  6. Train the ears to concentrate on the sound of the breath making it a Pratyahara (5th Limb of Raja Yoga) practice.
  7. Focus on finding a sense of relaxation and harmony than on the effortful performance of the breathing technique.
  8. This breath can be practiced anywhere, anytime.
  9. You may feel dryness in the throat initially. Please hydrate.

When can you use Ujjaayi Breath

When you’re agitated, angry, restless: Since the this breath is good for relieving agitation, try Ujjaayi breath whenever you are aggravated or stressed. You may notice a soothing effect.

When you’re nervous or anxious: The slow and rhythmic nature of the Ujjaayi breath is helpful to calm nerves. Next time you find yourself anxious try this breath to soothe yourself.

When you’re tired, lethargic, sleepy: This breath is also energizing, so use it to revitalize your energy and improve your alertness and concentration.

When you’re practicing asana, poses: Try focusing on Ujjaayi breathing while practicing asana, pose to help you stay focused as you flow from one posture to the next. Becoming absorbed in Ujjaayi allows you to remain in the asana for longer periods of time.

When you perform daily seated practice: Ujjaayi breath is an integral part of seated Pranayama, breathing practice. It trains the senses to go inward reducing distractions in order to prepare the mind for meditation.

Benefits

Physical/Physiological

  • reduces postnasal drip
  • clears sinuses, detoxifies the body
  • trains the senses (Pratyahara – 5th Limb of Raja Yoga) to go inwards
  • increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and is energizing
  • builds internal body heat which relaxes the muscles allowing them to move safely in asana, reducing the risk for injuries
  • regulates blood pressure

Emotional/Spiritual

  • Calming and soothing, relieves tension and anxiety
  • Quiets the nervous system and calms the mind
  • Diminishes distractions and increases feeling of self-awareness
  • Allows you to remain present and grounded in the practice
  • Practice induces concentration (Dharana – 6th limb of Raja Yoga)

My Practice

Realizing the deep connection between the breath and the mind, Yogis urge us to practice this breath everyday to help us stay equanimous when faced with the challenging interactions in our daily lives.
This is where I need most help – to catch the triggers before they have been activated or to transform destructive, habituated thought patterns into a constructive ones.
Ujjaayi breath has been an indispensable tool for my health and to manage my behaviors.
  • Because of Ujjaayi Pranayama, I have significant decrease in postnasal drip. Along with Dhirgha and Kapalabhaathi Pranayama, I am able to manage my seasonal allergies effectively.
  • Ujjaayi allows me to practice deep breaths during asanas, poses and to be mindful through the challenges of a physical (vinyasa – sequencing) practice.
  • Ujjaayi  practice has also helped me go deeper in poses with a feeling of surrender. It is a reminder that I am constantly and compassionately guided to perform these movements, and to take a step back and observe my ego in action.
My practice is definitely a work in progress. I have a long way to go before I can affirm equanimity. I rely on this breath to guide me everyday, one interaction at a time.

 Next Post: Kapalabhathi Pranayama

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Rama, Swami., Ballentine, Rudolf. M.D. 1978. Science of Breath. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

3 – part breath: dhirgha pranayama

Dhirgha (दीर्घ ) Prāṇāyāma (प्राणायाम )

Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma,  a cooling breath, is the process of elongating the breath using specific techniques. Dhirgha breath is often referred to as Dhirgha Shvāsam, Deep Yogic Breath. This is often the first breathing technique taught to new yoga practitioners.

  • Dhirgha (दीर्घ ) has several meanings – “slow,” “deep,” “long,” and “complete.”
  • Shvāsam is the breath.
  • Prāṇāyāma (प्राणायाम ) is collection of breathing practices.

This practice is also called as the Three-part Breath. The three parts are:

  • diaphragm
  • thorax
  • clavicle

Instructions

Seat

  • Establish a most comfortable seat with spine straight, shoulders relaxed and neck and head aligned. There is no rule that you must sit on the yoga mat in a difficult pose to work with your breath.
  • If you are bothered by the aches and pains its best to use as many props as you need like blocks, blankets, stool or a chair – in order to be comfortable enough to forget your body and focus only on the breath.

Identifying the 3 parts

  • First, place hands on your upper portion of your abdomen, just below the chest cavity (diaphragm). Inhale and notice the expansion in your abdominal muscle, which is actually the movement of the diaphragm moving down making room for the breath in the lower part of the lungs. Repeat.
  • This is Part 1 – Diaphragmatic Breath.
  • Next, place your thumbs under your armpits and fan out your fingers around the ribcage. Inhale and observe muscles of the chest (thorax) expand and contract. Repeat.
  • This is Part 2 – Thoracic Breath.
  • Lastly, place your hands just below the bony part of your shoulder (clavicle). Inhale and observe the movement in your shoulder muscles. This movement is very subtle and may not be observable for a long time but improves with practice. Repeat.
  • This is Part 3, called the Clavicular Breath.
  • Once you are familiar with identifying the three parts, you don’t need to place the hands in these specific areas each time you practice. With your eyes closed, just direct your attention to these three parts and follow the breath.

Variation One

  • Inhale in this order – Part 1, 2 and 3, followed by an easy exhale. Repeat 5 times.
  • Next, assign 1 count for each part on the inhales . This will total to 3 counts per inhale. Follow with an easy exhale.  Repeat.
  • Increase counts by 1 count after a week only if you have established a daily practice.
  • For example; if you increase the count by 1, you are actually adding one count for each part, essentially adding three counts to the total. Now, you will have two counts for each part for a total of 6 counts.

Variation Two

  • Inhale an easy breath and begin the exhale in this order –  Part 3, 2 and 1. Repeat 5 times.
  • Next, assign 1 count for each part on the exhales. This will total to 3 counts per exhale. Follow with an easy inhale.  Repeat.
  • Increase counts by 1 count after a week only if you have established a daily practice.
  • For example; if you increase the count by 1, you are actually adding one count for each part, essentially adding three counts to the total. Again, you will have two counts for each part for a total of 6 counts.

Variation Three

  • Inhale in the order Part 1, 2 and 3 and Exhale in the order Part 3, 2 and 1.
  • Use 1 count per part to begin for a total of 3 counts for inhale and 3 counts for exhale. This constitutes One Round. Repeat 5 times = five rounds.
  • If you are doing 2 counts per part, your inhale will be 2+2+2 for a total of 6 and your exhale will also be 2+2+2 for a total of 6 counts. This constitutes One Round. Repeat 5 times = five rounds.
  • This is the complete practice of Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma, 3 part breath.
  • Do not increase counts and rounds at the same time. If you are feeling dizzy or breathless, return to previous count or to Variation 1 and 2 for another 2 weeks.

 Practice Tips

  • Variation Three is the technique that is mostly presented in books and articles on Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma. I used Variations 1 and 2 as it was helpful for me in the beginning (still do at times).
  • Initially, the transitions from one part to the next may feel choppy. Eventually the breath will flow through the three parts as one complete, deep breath.
  • Inhalation always starts at the diaphragm (filling lower lungs), then moves upward to the thoracic area (filling mid lungs) and finally to the clavicular area (filling upper lungs).
  • Exhalation always starts from the clavicular area (emptying upper lungs), downwards to the thoracic area (emptying mid lungs) and finally to the diaphragm (emptying lower lungs).
  • Both inhalation and exhalation are always performed through the nose.
  • Although Dhirgha breath can be practiced at bedtime to release stress and improve quality of sleep, the instructions provided above are for seated Prāṇāyāma practice.

Benefits of Three-Part Yogic Breath 

It is best to practice this Prāṇāyāma and experience the benefits first hand. The following are some of the benefits gleaned from various sources.

  • Consistent practice of Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma will lengthen the breath and strengthen the lungs preparing the breath for more difficult Prāṇāyāma practices.
  • Deep breathing infuses the blood with extra oxygen and stimulates the body to release tranquilizing endorphins, reducing anxiety and making it an effective stress management technique.
  • Deep rhythmic yoga breathing reduces the work load for the heart, decreases heart rate leading to a more efficient, stronger heart.
  • This Prāṇāyāma increases lung capacity and eliminates toxins and stale air. It also helps to balance emotions and reduce stress, which can improve immunity and make you less susceptible to allergies and colds.

My Practice

At the start of the practice I was unable to maintain the same length for both inhales and exhales. After struggling for a few weeks, I decided to try working on inhales (Variation One) and exhales (Variation Two) separately for a couple of weeks to see if it made a difference. It absolutely did. In a few weeks I was ready to introduce Variation Three.

When I had to skip the practices for a week or more due to colds, flu or other sickness, I needed to start at the beginning of my practice. You will experience these restarts as well. With regular practice, my restarts are slowly getting more efficient.

Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma is teaching me to breathe fully and completely. It is this breathing practice that sets the tone for my daily Prāṇāyāma. I also use it for centering before asana practice. While my posture has improved because of asana, this breath reminds me to maintain a good posture during the day. This helps to keep the chest open and breath healthy.

What I discovered along the way is that Dhirgha Prāṇāyāma was also training me to redirect my restless energy and manage my emotional triggers a little better.

Each time I fail to maintain my composure overpowered by the stubborness of my ego, instead of retreating with resentment or shame, I am slowly learning to let go with a long, slow exhale.

Each time I think I have made progress, I jinx myself into taking a long downward pride-slide in the practice before resuming the tedious climb.

Each time I become aware that I am actively bringing my mind back to the breath, I am realizing that it is short-lived. As tempted as I am to add another slash to the success column, I am learning to simply notice it and be grateful.

Spring is the worst season for me, and I rely on pills and nasal sprays. But “this too shall pass” when blooming is complete. I am happy that the rest of the year is managed with only Jala Neti, nasal wash and Prāṇāyāma.

                                                                                                                                      Next post: Ujjaiyi Pranayama

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Rama, Swami., Ballentine, Rudolf. M.D. 1978. Science of Breath. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

pranayama for seasonal allergies

How often are we aware of the presence of a certain power source with which we are born, and without which we cannot exist?

We simply refer to it as the breath, but it is so much more.

And, seasonal allergies directly interfere with the health of this precious power source. Here, Pranayama, breathing practices, help to soothe the symptoms by activating the body’s healing process in order to make each season manageable.

Pranayama – a brief introduction

Prāāyāma is a Samskritham (Sanskrit) word  which means “restraint of the prana or life force” or “extension of life force.”

  • The first syllable is Prāna, referred to as the life force, vital energy, cosmic breath.
  • The second syllable can be conjugated in two ways.
    •  yāma”, denotes restraint, control. Here, Prāāyāma refers to control or restraint of prana.
    • āyāma”, means to extend, lengthen, liberate. Here, Prāāyāma means expanding the dimension of prana, creating a process to teach the body and mind to heal itself.

Both convey the essential meaning of Prāāyāma. The breath is the medium through which Prāāyāma is instructed.  Ancient yoga scriptures detail collective practices, and hence, Prāāyāma is simply referred to as breathing practices.

Types

There are many types of Prāāyāma practices taught by different schools with multiple variations. They can be categorized as heating and cooling, energizing and calming. The teacher who is well versed in this science is able to structure the practice for a student based on her health and personality. In other words, the teacher will find the correct mix of heating and cooling, energizing and calming Prāāyāma in order to promote optimal health and well-being of the student.

I am going to present four types of Prāāyāma and relate them to allergies in the next few posts. However, these practices also have many other benefits, such as – to promote emotional well-being and to assist in cultivating discipline for a spiritual aspirant, etc.

The four types of Prāāyāma are:

  • Dhirgha or Three-part Breath
  • Ujjaiyi or Victory or Ocean Breath
  • Kapalabhati or Skull-Shining Breath
  • Nadi Shodana or Anuloma Viloma or Alternate Nostril Breath

Caution

The techniques of Prāāyāma include various ways to manipulate the breath such as restraining, controlling, expanding and suspending. This requires proper instruction, disciplined practice and ongoing guidance in order to decipher the effects and adjust the techniques, based on the changes that may be perceived through regular practice.

If you have already been instructed in Prāāyāma by an certified teacher trained from a certain yoga school or lineage, please continue to follow the same. It is possible that you were given specific instructions according to your health and personality and hence need to consult with the same teacher before you make any changes to your practice.

On the other hand, if you are just getting into daily yoga asana practice and are considering adding Prāāyāma to your personal routine, Dhirgha Prāāyāma (next post) is the best place to begin. This Prāāyāma is safe for any age group, youth to elderly, for those who are recovering from injuries or surgeries and can be practiced anywhere, anytime.

General Practice Tips

  • First, Jala Neti, nasal wash, must be performed before any Prāāyāma for best results.
  • Next, a comfortable seat – asana must be established. Fighting with the aches and pains in your body throughout the 15-30 minutes defeats the purpose of Prāāyāma. Quoting one of my teachers – ‘hang up your ego and pull up a chair’.
  • Early mornings are usually the best time for any breathing practice as the stomach is empty and you are well rested. However, you can do them at other times, as long as you haven’t had a large meal. (2-3 hours after a main meal is recommended)
  • Some gurus recommend the practice of Prāāyāma both in the a.m. and p.m. Many may recommend 3-4 times a day. Remember the phase of life you are in before abiding to such rules.
  • For example, if you have chosen the path of a householder (family) or as a caregiver for the elderly, or a professions/careers, etc., then time may be a constraint. Then, plan accordingly so you can stick to a simple Prāāyāma routine, instead of giving up the practice altogether.
  • Conversely, if your choice is monastic or ashram life to pursue your spiritual practice, intensive Prāāyāma should fit in nicely. And you won’t need to read this blog!
  • Always remember to begin slowly and allow enough time (weeks, months) for the breath to get acclimated to being ‘controlled or manipulated’. It helps if you are consistent in your practice.

My Practice

I cannot begin to tell you how much I have benefitted, and continuing to benefit with Prāāyāma practices. I try my hardest not to miss a practice. But, if I did miss my regularly scheduled ‘sitting’ one day, there is a nagging feeling that I have forgotten something really important, and my body continually asks for it. Sometimes I am able to squeeze in a quick 10 minute Prāāyāma at some point in the day, and at other times I have to wait until next day. On these days, I notice a decrease in my energy, calmness and concentration. I have come to rely on Prāāyāma to take me through the day.

I started Prāāyāma with the intention of managing my seasonal allergies. The practices have not only helped me manage them but also enjoy Mother Nature at her best with reverence and gratitude. But more importantly, I need Prāāyāma to manage my emotional triggers and issues of self-worth. And, to deal with menopause and a teenager! And, since Prāāyāma is essentially a precursor to Dhyāna, meditation, and I want to continue on the spiritual path, I have chosen to make it a permanent part of my yoga practice.

                                                                                       Next Post – Dhirgha Prāāyāma

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Rama, Swami., Ballentine, Rudolf. M.D. 1978. Science of Breath. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA