The Sanskrit term pranayama (प्राणायाम) combines the two words prana (breath, vitality, energy, life force) and ayama (extension, expansion, regulation, restraint, control) referring to the aim of breath exercises to enhance your vital energy or life force by means of prolonging breath and its restraints (Iyengar, 1981 p13). Together with yamas, niyamas and asana, pranayama forms the four lower limbs of Patanjali’s eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (Yoga Sutras, Ch 2, verses 2.49 to 2.53). The breath can be seen as a bridge between outer physical action (asana) and internal deeper states (meditation).
As long as there is breath in the body, there is life. When breath departs, so too does life. Therefore, regulate the breath.” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Ch 2 : S 3)
The average lung capacity of an adult ranges from 4 to 6 litres. In normal breathing we use merely a tenth of this capacity, about 0.5 litres air per breath into our lungs. When practicing pranayama the breath can be both, extended up to the total capacity of our lungs as well as slowed down to a breathing rate from 15 to 18 breaths per minute to 4 to 8 breaths per minute.
From ancient times it has been known that controlled breathing can purify and cleanse the body, strengthen the nervous system, have calming effects for the busy mind as well as energising effects on the over-exerted body.
Similar to early Buddhist texts, Patanjali presents pranayama as essentially an exercise that is preliminary to concentration. Research suggests that pranayama techniques are beneficial in prevention of and in treating a range of stress-related issues. Pranayama practice furthers staying connected, aware and centred.
Because of its powerful potential pranayama is to be practiced with care, and best under the guidance of a teacher. For example, people with low blood pressure might want to approach pranayama cautiously or avoid it all together whilst people with high blood pressure might benefit from the practice. Pranayama is not recommended when you are sick, menstruating or pregnant. Best to consult with your physician if unsure.
BASICS OF THE BREATHING PROCESS
Pranayama is a science and an art, and offers “techniques to make the respiratory organs move and expand intentionally, rhythmically and intensively” (Iyengar, 1981 p14). In the beginning it is important to understand the basics of the breathing process and to become aware of your natural breathing habits. Sitting quietly and observing the natural flow of your breath, noticing the quality in each moment, the length of inhale and exhale, the depth of your breath, the texture, the pauses…
Prana = upward flowing
Apana = downward flowing
Puraka = Inhale
Rechaka = Exhale
Kumbhaka = Retention, state between inhale and exhale
Abhyantara Kumbhaka = Pause after inhale
Bahya Kumbhaka = Pause after exhale
These are some basic terms. The scriptures describe the breathing process in great detail.
BANDHAS IN PRANAYAMA
Jalandhara Bandha: During Antara Kumbhaka (inhale retention)
Uddiyana Bandha: During Bahya Kumbhaka (exhale retention)
Mula Bandha: All of the time
ASHTANGA PRANAYAMA SEQUENCE
There are a large variety of pranayama techniques. Basic techniques such as Rechaka and Puraka Kumbhaka are a good place to start. However, not all techniques are suitable for beginners, and it is recommended to seek the guidance of an experienced teacher.
Sri K Pattabhi Jois used to introduce the Ashtanga Pranayama sequence to students only once they had finished the intermediate series, adding one technique at the time. The full Ashtanga Pranayama Sequence comprises of five different techniques, and it takes about 45 minutes to go through a full cycle. Below you can find the beginning stages.
Start with 3 Ujjayi breaths – Inhale, with the exhale chant OM
1. Rechaka and Puruka Kumbhaka
Rechaka means exhale, Puruka means inhale and Kumbhaka is retention. There are three different sets.
- Rechaka Kumbhaka – Inhale, exhale then hold breath; 3 breaths
- Then immediately begin Puruka Kumbhaka – Inhale, hold breath, then exhale; 3 breaths
Inhalation to exhalation 1 : 1
Retentions exhale (rechaka) vs inhale (puruka) is 2 : 3 (e.g. if retention after exhale 6 counts, retention after inhale 9 counts)
3 Ujjayi breaths as a transition before next stage
Puruka Rechaka Kumbhaka
- 3 breaths with retention after both the inhale and the exhale
Retentions inhale (puruka) vs exhale (rechaka) 5 : 4 (e.g. if retention after inhale 10 counts, retention after exhale 8 counts)
3 Ujjayi breaths as a transition before next stage
3. Nadi Shodhana (or Analoma Viloma)
Nadhi refers to specific pathways through which Prana flows throughout the body. Shodhana means to cleanse. It is an alternate nostril breath with retention after each half breath, which calms mind and nervous system and creates balance in your body and mind. It is also said to help manage high blood pressure, insomnia and migraine. The fingers of the right hand control the flow of the breath in the Nasika Mudra (hand gesture).
Sama Vrtti (same action)
- inhale through both nostrils
- exhale through left nostril, no retention
- inhale right, hold 1st retention
- exhale left, hold 2nd retention
- inhale left, hold 3rd retention
- exhale right, hold 4th retention
- inhale right, hold 5th retention
- exhale left, hold 6th retention
- inhale left, hold 7th retention
- exhale right, hold 8th retention
- inhale right, hold 9th retention
- exhale left, hold 10th retention
Visama Vrtti (irregular action)
- inhale right, hold 11th retention
- exhale right, hold 12th retention
- inhale right, hold 13th retention
- exhale right, hold 14th retention
- inhale right, hold 15th retention
- exhale right, hold 16th retention
- inhale right, hold 17th retention
- exhale left, hold 18th retention
- inhale left, hold 19th retention
- exhale left, hold 20th retention
- inhale left, hold 21st retention
- exhale left, hold 22nd retention
- inhale left, hold 23rd retention
- exhale left, hold 24th retention
- inhale left, hold 25th retention
- exhale right, hold 26th retention
- inhale right, no retention
- exhale left
Inhalations, exhalations and retentions 1 : 1 : 1
3 Ujjayi breaths as a transition before the next stage of pranayama
Bhastrika means bellows and just like a bellows fans a flame to make it stronger, bhastrika increases our digestive fire (agni) in the solar plexus area. Benefits include a rapid revitalization and enhanced blood circulation.
- Sit upright, hold the tops of the feet and pull them back into the abdomen.
- Slow inhalation
- Series of rapid, vigorous exhalations followed by reflexive inhalation through both nostrils (50 to 100 cycles)
- Pull the lower abdomen back strongly during the exhalation, using both Uddiyana and Mula Bandha
- With the last exhalation, fully empty the lungs
- Slow inhalation
- Long retention after inhalation, 20 – 40 counts
Repeat the inhale, vigorous exhale/reflexive inhale x 100, slow inhale, hold x 20 – 40 counts, exhale sequence for a total of 3 cycles
3 Ujjayi breaths as a transition
- 3x OM during exhalation
BKS Iyengar demonstrating breathing…
BKS Iynegar (1981) Light on Pranayama, Unwin Paperbacks
Sri Swami Satchidananda (1978) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications
Hatha Yoga Pradipika