TheLoneRider
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Yoga

Pranayama: An Introduction Oct 24, 2016

Pranayama: An Introduction

(updated Feb 2020 with T. Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda II)

Glossary
  • prana - the life energy that permeates our universe. Other cultures call it 'chi' or 'qi'. Without prana, there is no life.
  • pranayama - in yoga, it is the exercise of regulating the breath - the inhalation, exhalation and the breath-holds. Breathing should always be long and thin
  • kumbhaka - a type of pranayama where you hold the breath - either on the inhale (antara kumbhaka) or on the exhale (bahya kumbhaka). At the advanced level, it's a spontaneous cessation of the breath (kevala kumbhaka)
  • asana - the physical yoga pose
  • nadi - these are the energy channels within the psychic body, responsible for energy (prana) distribution. There are 72,000 nadies within the body. Analogy - an intricate road system within a city
  • surya - sun, masculine, high energy, right nostril breathing
  • chandra - moon, feminine, recovery and healing, left nostril breathing
  • bhedan - penetration
  • bhastrika - bellows

Human Shelf life
In the Indian culture, the longevity of a human life is predetermined by the number of breaths taken in a lifetime - not the number of years (e.g. - a boy is born with a pre-ordained 2 million breaths. If he uses up those 2 million breaths in 30 years, his life will end at age 30). This is a powerful statement because it means you can extend your life by regulating the breath (if this boy slows down his breathing or holds it between inhalation and exhalation to a point he uses up 2 million breaths in 31 years, then he extends his life by 1 year).

Nadis
Nadis are energy channels within our psychic body. Like capillaries, they form an intricate matrix (or road system) throughout the body for energy distribution. It is said there are 72,000 nadis in the human body, converging on the jivatma (heart) (or kandasthana, or muladhara chakra, depending on which text you read). Prana is distributed in our system through the nadis. If the nadis are blocked, prana cannot flow through - that is when sickness occurs. Example - if the nadis in our kidneys are blocked, prana or the life energy cannot enter our kidney. We begin to suffer kidney failure or kidney disease in the process. Through pranayama, asana, and shatkriya (purification process) we clear the blockages in the nadis and allow the free-flow of prana and this restores the body back to health.

Prana
Contrary to popular belief, prana is NOT just in the air we breathe. It is pervasive in the universe, without which, the universe itself cannot exist. Every individual already has prana within his system, and this prana governs all the actions of our faculties. We are able to control prana through our breathing. Prana can be exercised and strengthened in the same way we exercise our muscles by lifting weights. Our prana is what keeps us alive. Prana is a sheath around the body, extending to 12 inches outside the physical body. The more we breathe, the more we use up prana. The less we breathe, like while being in a meditative state, the more we conserve our prana and thus extend our life. Pranayama should be done at least 4 hours after the last meal.

Superman Effect
Breathing sounds so simple it's almost dismissive - we breathe day-in and day-out, so what's special about it? Out of curiosity back in Feb 2008, I toyed with pranayama as I was reading a Sivananda Yoga book. After doing it for half a day, I experienced what I would call the superman-effect. It gave me a first-hand account of just how powerful this technique is. Since that epiphany, pranayama has always been a part of my yoga practice. I follow my asanas with pranayama then meditation. I feel that those three in combination provide a synergistic effect that asana alone cannot deliver. I also integrate such combination whenever I conduct a yoga class, even abbreviating the asana portion just to accommodate the pranayama and meditation within a one hour session.

Caution
Pranayama is a double-edged sword and thus need to be done with caution or done with someone who understands pranayama. I would liken it to fire. If you know what you are doing, the fire can cook your food. If you don't know what you're doing, it will burn your house down...and even burn you. Doing pranayama is dealing with something volatile - you'd been warned!

Pranayama
Simon Borg-Olivier doing pranayama

Pranayama
Ideally, pranayama should only be done when you have gained proficiency in any of the seated asanas (padmasana is the best). Ensure you are seated comfortably with sit bones centered and a straight back. Slow, thin and deep nose breathing only unless specified otherwise. Do this on an empty stomach. Whenever appropriate, engage all 3 bandhas when doing pranayama - Mula Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, and Jalandhara Bandha. When closing the nostrils, best to use Mrigi Mudra.

    #1-3 cleanses body, mind and spirit. The results are slow but long-lasting

  1. Surya Bhedan (Suryabhedana) (right inhale, left exhale)
    Method: engage Mula Bandha (at all times), then very slow and thin breathing on the right nostril only. When fully inflated, hold breath for Jalandhara Bandha. Exhale very slowly on the left nostril and empty the lungs. Engage Uddiyana Bandha. personal note - also according to Krishnamacharya, for thin people (me!), Uddiyana Bandha can be done after the in-breath. This is what I'm doing - Uddiyana Bandha on the Antara Kumbhaka and not on the Bhaya Kumbhaka
    Effect: activates the sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight for energy surge
    Benefits: increases energy levels and makes you full of life
    For Whom: for people who are down, lethargic or suffering from depression
    Note: master this first before any other pranayama to take full benefit of other pranayamas

    Counter Pose

    Chandra Bhedan (left inhale, right exhale)
    Method: same as Surya Bhedan but reversed nostrils.
    Effect: activates the para-sympathetic nervous system - recovery, relaxation and healing
    Benefits: slows down the energy flow, relaxes the mind and calms the body
    For Whom: for people who are stressed and agitated. For people who want to fall asleep (for insomniacs)
  2. Ujjayi Anuloma (breathing-in is done through both nostrils, and breathing out through alternate nostrils)
    Method: long, thin, deep and steady breathing that rubs behind the throat and produces an audible hissing sound
    Benefits: reduces stress and calms mind
    For Whom: for everyone

    Counter Pose

    Ujjayi Viloma (breathing-in is done through alternate nostrils, and breathing out through both nostrils)
    Method: long, thin, deep and steady breathing that rubs behind the throat and produces an audible hissing sound
    Benefits: phlegm is brought out, and this should be spit out
    For Whom: for everyone
  3. Nadi Shodhana (Nadisodana) (alternate nose breathing - other texts say this is the same as Lom Anulom Vilom)
    Method: long and thin breathing. Cover the right nostril and breathe-in to the left. Hold as long as you can. Close the left nostril and exhale slowly on the right nostril. Hold as long as you can. Breathe-in to the right nostril. Hold as long as you can. Exhale slowly on the left nostril. Hold as long as you can. Repeat for 5 minutes.
    Effect: clears the energy channels
    Benefits: purifies the blood and respiratory system, balances left and right brain
    For Whom: for everyone

    Variations

    Lom Anulom Vilom (alternate nose breathing w/o the breath hold)
    Method: cover the right nostril and breathe-in to the left. Short pause. Close the left nostril and exhale slowly on the right nostril. Short pause. Breathe-in to the right nostril. Short pause. Exhale slowly on the left nostril. Short pause. Repeat for 5 minutes.
    Benefits: balances the energy levels in the body and mind
    For Whom: for everyone
  4. #4-10 cleanses the body only. The results are fast but not long-lasting

  5. Shitkari (Sitkari) (rolled tongue between teeth inhale)
    Method: mouth inhale while tongue is rolled lengthwise, holding the breath with a chin-tuck and exhaling to the nose
    Benefits: cools the body
    For Whom: for people who are sweating a lot and need to cool down
  6. Shitali (Sitali) (tongue between teeth inhale)
    Method: mouth inhale while tongue is lightly pressed between teeth, and exhaling to the nose
    Benefits: lowers body temperature
    For Whom: for people who need to cool down due to hot temperature
  7. Bhramari (bee sound)
    Method: thumbs on the ears and the rest of the fingers covering the eyes, inhale to the nose and make a bee humming sound on the exhale
    Benefits: clears the mind and improves hearing, instantly calms the mind down
    For Whom: for people who are agitated and irritated, reduces blood pressure
  8. LAHARI or PLAVINI?
    Method:
    Benefits:
    For Whom:
  9. Kapalabhati (forceful exhalation)
    Method: forceful and rapid exhalation by contracting the abdomen
    Benefits: weight loss, strengthens the body by forcing more prana into the system
    For Whom: for people who want to lose weight, fortify their body, making it resistant to disease
  10. Bhastrika (rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation on both nostrils)
    Method: rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation on both nostrils
    Benefits: energizes the body and boosts memory power
    For Whom: for everyone

    Variations

    Surya Bhastrika (rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation on the right nostril - other texts would have it as a right nostril inhalation but left nostril exhalation)
    Method: close the left nostril then rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation on the right nostril. Sustain without straining. Last inhalation, hold the breath and chin tuck for as long as you can. Then tilt the head up and resume normal breath.
    Benefits: fills up with energy and vitality
    For Whom: for people who need to be energized, for people who are sad, forlorn and feeling down

    Chandra Bhastrika (rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation on the left nostril - other texts would have it as a left nostril inhalation but right nostril exhalation)
    Method: close the right nostril then rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation on the left nostril. Sustain without straining. Last inhalation, hold the breath and chin tuck for as long as you can. Then tilt the head up and resume normal breath.
    Benefits: calms the mind and relaxes the body
    For Whom: helps people go to sleep and calm down

    Surya Chandra Bhastrika (alternate rapid and forceful inhalation and exhalation)
    Method: close the right nostril then rapid and forceful inhalation on the left nostril. Close the left nostril followed by rapid and forceful exhalation then inhalation on the right nostril. Close the right nostril followed by rapid and forceful exhalation then inhalation on the left nostril. Repeat for 5 minutes. Last inhalation, hold the breath and chin tuck for as long as you can. Then tilt the head up and resume normal breath.
    Benefits: balances and energizes the body and mind
    For Whom: for everyone

  11. Murchha (loud exhale through the mouth)
    Method: nose inhale and loud exhale through the mouth
    Benefits: gives glow to skin, increases stamina, reduces stress
    For Whom: for people who want good skin

Ending Thoughts
I find it fascinating that this reservoir of immense power is free and readily accessible. But I remain baffled that people still subscribe to medication and pills to find artificial strength and vigor. My gratitude to the ancients for preserving this powerful technique and sharing it to the free world at large. Who would have thought that the mundane breathing, when properly executed and regulated, could be so powerful? Pranayama is perhaps the most under-rated wellness practice on the planet (although pranayama goes waaaay beyond wellness).



--- Gigit (TheLoneRider)
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Reader Comments:

Rosel Doval SantosRosel Philippines
Theosophical Society - Philippines
(Oct 24, 2016) The article warns of the dangers of the misuse of pranayama. It suggests the need for guidance. The focus of yoga is enlightenment, not the physical body. We should not lose sight of that. A friend of mine became afflicted with heart disease after wrongful application of pranayama. Yet those who know,!use it to insulate consciousness from the vibrations of the outside world in the pursuit of higher yoga. Shanti.

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