Felling too stiff for yoga, too tired for a run and too exhausted for pretty much anything? Do you find yourself watching your puppy, kitten or your children wondering where they get all their energy from? Do you reach for tea and coffee far too often and then find you cannot sleep properly?
What if I told you that there is a tool that can help you re-establish and maintain your vitality and that tool is as simple and as accessible as breathing itself ? We very seldom consider using our breath as a remedy for modern life ailments so I wanted to bring your attention to some yogic practices that can definitely make a difference when practiced properly and regularly. These practices are known as Pranayamas.
"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 - CH2.S3)
The word Pranayama can be translated as the restraint of Prana, the energy that pervades the universe which is identified with the breath. Pranayama is therefore the Yogic discipline of retaining the universal energy within our bodies through conscious modification of our natural breathing patterns. In his book "Light on Pranayama" B.K.S Iyengar spends a few pages extolling the physiological benefits of a regular pranayama practice , these include the toning of internal organs, of the nervouse system and brain and the curing of diseases. He also points out that Pranayama can also have negative effects if practiced incorrectly.
To really benefit from a pranayama practice follow these simpe rules :
choose a quiet and clean place and choose the right time when you know you can dedicate yourself to the practice for 15 minutes (mornings are best but you may also find some techniques helpful at the end of a busy day)
Take your seat, you do not necessarily need to sit on the floor cross-legged , your aim is to have a long spine, each vertebra stacking over the one below , the chin goes towards the sternum ( breast-bone)
Here are 3 easy to practice breathing techniques and suggestions on when to practice them for optimal health.
Samavritti ( equal action)
I like this Pranayama as it has different levels of practice and it helps focus on the 4 movements of the breath.
Set a timer with 3 separate 5 minutes intervals:
Dedicate the first 5 minutes to create an even breath where the inhale and exhale are of the same length, focus on making both as smooth as you can and as equal as you can. Adding counting can help you focus : count to 5 or 6 as you inhale and 5 or 6 as you exhale.
During the second interval of 5 minutes begin focusing on the pause between the inhale and exhale, adding a count of 2 to start with and perhaps increasing to the retention of breath for 5 or 6 . With practice you will be able to create the following count : inhale 5, hold 5 , exhale 5 , pause , back to inhale.
On the third interval practice adding breath retention at the end of the exhale and gradually increase it so to end up with a "square breath" : inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale for 5 , hold for 5.
You must remain relaxed during this exercise, there must not be any gripping or clenching of the abdomen or the chest, think softness, the holding and releasing of the breath should be effortless.
The four parts of the breath are known as :
Antar Kumbhaka (Retention after Inhalation)
Bahya Kumbhaka (Retention after Exhalation)
This is a great pranayama to practice at any time of day, it calms and focuses the mind and relaxes the body.
Kapalabhati breath (intermediate/advanced level, please read the important note below)
A great breathing practice for the morning especially during the colder seasons, the name of this pranayama means "shining skull", it is a cleansing, warming breath that if practiced correctly can assist elimination and leave you feeling energized. It is one of the 6 yoga shatkarmas (purification practices)
Take your seat making sure you can sit upright without straining, you can lean against a wall or sit on a chair if necessary.
Relax your belly completely and take a few deep but natural breaths without straining.
The essence of kapalabhati is a steady repetition of forceful exhalations followed by slightly slower, passive inhalations. Each outward breath is propelled by a powerful thrust of the abdomen. Following this thrust, the abdomen is quickly relaxed and the breath flows back into the lungs, recoiling from the force of the exhalation. The inhalation is smooth and effortless. All breaths are through the nose and you can choose how fast you go, start rather slowly and then work towards a faster steady rythm.
Each cycle of exhalation and inhalation is counted as one breath.
Aim for 2 rounds of 11 breaths once or twice a day. The full practice is , with time, to aim to increase to 22 breaths then 33 and so on until you can manage 121 rounds of breath.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Kapalabhati is an intermediate/advanced practice and it is not to be practiced by persons with high or low blood pressure or with coronary heart disease. Those who have problems with their eyes (e.g., glaucoma), ears (e.g., fluid in the ears), or a bleeding nose should not practice this exercise.
Always practice on an empty stomach, two or more hours after eating. Do not practice if you are pregnant. Stop if you experience pain in your side, if you feel dizzy, or if you are unable to maintain a steady rhythm.
Nadi Sodhana Pranayama
A great way to close your yoga practice or to calm the mind after a busy day, I love practicing this pranayama when I feel a bit scattered or restless. An ideal practice before bedtime.
Nadi Shodhanana, also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing, is a powerful breathing practice with wide reaching benefits. Nadi is a Sanskrit word meaning “channel” or “flow” and shodhana means “purification.” Nadi shodhana is primarily aimed at clearing and purifying the subtle channels of the mind-body, while balancing our masculine and feminine sides.
Choose a comfortable sitting position—either cross-legged on the floor (with a cushion or blanket to support the spine), or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. If you are not planning to use your hands to close your nostrils you can even practice this breath lying down on the floor.
Allow the spine to lengthen so that the back, neck, and head are erect throughout the practice. Gently close the eyes.
To practice Psychic Nadi Shodhana, breath in and as you breath out visualize the breath exiting the body through the left nostril , breath in through the left nostril, breath out through the right, breath in through the right, out through the left and so on.
Once you are familiar with this rhythm, practice the full pranayama including the physical closing of the nostrils using your right hand in a mudra as follows.
Fold the tips of the index and middle fingers inward until they touch the palm at the base of the right thumb (Vishnu mudra). You will alternately use the right thumb to close the right nostril and the right ring and pinky fingers (together) to close the left nostril.Use the right thumb to close the right nostril. Exhale gently, but fully, through the left nostril. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril and deep into the belly. As you inhale, allow the breath to travel upward along the left side of the body. Pause briefly at the crown of the head.Next, use the ring and pinky fingers of the right hand to gently close the left nostril and simultaneously release the right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril, surrendering the breath down the right side of the body. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhalation.Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale once again through the right nostril, allowing the breath to travel up the right side of the body.Then again, use the right thumb to close the right nostril as you release the left nostril. Exhale through the left nostril, surrendering the breath back down the left side of the body. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhalation.This completes one round of nadi shodhana.
Benefits of this pranayama include but are not limited to : balancing of masculine and feminine energy, calming and rejuvenating effect on the nervous system, fostering mental clarity and ability to concentrate. There are no counterindications for this pranayama and it is suitable for anyone.