We often take the miracle of our breath for granted. Yet, it is always there whenever we need it. Yoga masters from thousands of years ago knew this and found ways to use the breath to cultivate a sense of calm when the body is agitated and to enliven the body when there is sluggishness. You can learn this ancient practice and discover how it can add to your overall well being.
Pranayama is a practice in yoga where you work with your breath in various ways to bring about calm or energy. Prana means life force and Ayama means to extend or draw out. These two words together mean breath extension or control.
And why would we want to extend or control our breath? Most of us don't even think about breathing. It just happens. Interestingly enough, our breath responds to our state of mind.
In yoga, the thought is we all have prana, or a life force, within our bodies. But sometimes this prana gets stuck or gets too amped up. When that happens, our minds often reflect what's happening in our bodies. We get down or depressed and we also get stressed or anxious.
Ancient yogis figured out that one tool we have to manipulate this prana (and also the mind) is our breath. Over thousands of years they discovered specific exercises that help even out the breath and the mind. Here are a few of the more common pranayama practices:
Victorious Breath (Ujjayi)
This technique is also referred to as ocean breath due to the sound it creates. To try it, partially constrict the back of your throat, as if you were about to whisper a secret, and exhale slowly through both nostrils. This exhalation will sound like an ocean wave or gentle rush of air. You should feel the air on the roof of your mouth as you exhale.
Cooling Breath (Sitali)
This breath encourages clearing heat with coolness. Roll your tongue until the outer edges touch, forming a taco. If you can’t curl your tongue, make an oval shape with your mouth, keeping your tongue flat. Inhale through your mouth, taking in all the air that you can. It may make a hissing sound. After inhaling, bring the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and seal your lips.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadhi sodhana)
This is a very relaxing, balancing breath that is used to help calm the nervous system and aid in a restful night’s sleep. Start by emptying all the air from your lungs. Using the thumb of your dominant hand, block your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril only. Be sure to inhale into your belly, not your chest. Once you are full of breath, seal your left nostril with the ring finger of the same hand, keeping your right nostril closed, and hold the breath for a moment. Then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril only. Be sure to exhale all the breath out of the right side and pause before inhaling again through the same side. Seal both nostrils once you’ve inhaled on the right side and exhaled through the left side. A complete cycle of breath includes an inhalation and exhalation through both nostrils.
Equal Breathing (Sama vritti)
This technique focuses on the idea of "equal" breaths, meaning that inhalation lasts for the same amount of time as exhalation. Begin to slowly count to four as you inhale. Take a moment at the top of your inhalation with the lungs full of air. Then also count to four as you exhale. Again take a moment to feel empty. Then inhale again to another count of four. Continue this pattern. The exercise is to match the lengths of your inhales and exhales.
We'll be practicing these techniques as well as learning some of the science behind pranayama in my upcoming workshop: Pranayama: Your Breath as a Tool of Physical and Emotional Well Being on Saturday, April 10, 2021. Hope to see you there!
Peace, love & yoga!