What Is A Yogi? (And How Do I Become One)- Part Five: Pranayama

The fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama which translates to extension and control of breath. Prana means breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy, and strength. Ayama means length, expansion, stretching or restraint. Essentially, pranayama is the rhythmic control of the breath. Slow, controlled breathing can strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system, and reduce craving. The goal of pranayama is to be able to control the senses and eventually reach a state of mindlessness.

Yogic breathing is generally inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the nose. Instead of sucking air up and in and blowing it back out, sometimes it’s helpful to think of an inhale as sipping air in slowly and deeply into the nose, letting the air travel down into the lungs and lower belly, filling up with air. On the exhale, you pull the belly in, drawing the air out of the stomach, up out of the lungs, and back up and out through the nose. So, the belly expands on the inhale and contracts up and in on the exhale. Now, there are several reasons to practice nostril breathing:

1. The nasal passages are naturally moist. Therefore, when inhaling through the nose, the air is moistened and better received by the bronchial passages and the lungs.

2. Inhaling through the nose gives the air a longer distance to travel to get to the lungs which begins to create heat, warming the air, better preparing it to enter the lungs.

3. Our nose hairs can cleanse the air we inhale, keeping any possible air borne particles from entering our lungs.

4. Exhaling through the nose allows us to retain the heat that was created by the inhale and further nourished in the lungs. This heat can then enter the blood cells in our nasal passages on the exhale and travel throughout our body to our muscles and tissues.

5. Breathing through the nose allows us to more easily slow, control, and elongate the breath, resulting in a deeper focus on our yoga asanas or meditation.

Before we talk about a few pranayama techniques, I want to briefly talk about how we can incorporate this practice daily and in harmony with our asana practice. As I mentioned in my post on asana, one of our focuses during practice is to marry the body with the breath. We inhale to expand and exhale to contract. As our body moves through the asanas, it’s important that our breath is moving right along with them. Without the breath, asana practice is simply aerobics. It’s the breath, along with the postures, that creates that yoga magic.

So, here are a few tips to help develop your pranayama practice. Keep in mind that this might take awhile to get a hold on. For me, I didn’t start breathing correctly until I had fully understood the physical postures. When I would practice in the beginning, it took all my concentration to focus on the poses, making sure they felt right and that I was following all the cues and in proper alignment. I always forgot my breath. But after time and lots of practice, I began to get in the groove and feel how breathing into the postures really can change the energy and the flow of it all in such a beautiful way. I also learned that if I am having trouble catching my breath or breathing deeply in a pose, I need to either slow down or back out of the pose a bit. Your breath should come first. Don’t worry if you’re not as deep in the pose as the pictures on Instagram show. Make sure you feel good in your body and that you are able to breathe. Deeply and easily. And you should never ever feel pain. Discomfort? Maybe. Muscles on fire? Absolutely. But never a pinching or sharp pain. That’s a sure way to know that you need to back off a bit. Speaking of discomfort though, pranayama is a great way to deal with that. Say you’re in a yoga pose that is challenging, and you are meant to hold the pose for awhile. You’re uncomfortable. Your muscles might be burning and shaking. Your body is transforming. One way for me to take my mind off the not-so-pleasant sensations is to focus on my breath. Try matching the length of your inhale to the length of your exhale. Focus on the sound of your breath. This really helps me quiet my mind, reduce stress, and drop into the moment. Truly feeling the power and grace of my body without panicking and giving up.

Let’s talk about a few specific pranayama techniques.

The first I’m going to talk about is a term that you might often hear in a public yoga class or yoga video, and this is Ujjayi (pronounced oo-ja-ee) or victorious breath. This is a very common pranayama technique to use during an energetic, powerful vinyasa flow practice. Ujjayi creates heat in the body, aerates the lungs, increases endurance, soothes nerves, and tones your entire system. This breath requires a slight restriction at the back of the throat during both the inhale and the exhale. It kind of sounds like ocean waves and is sometimes referred to as the Darth Vader breath. 🙂 This might take a while to practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a great breath to really bring you to the present moment, and the sound is something that is easy to focus on when you want to steady your mind.

Check out Yoga with Adriene’s instructional video for Ujjayi breath here!

The second technique that I really love is Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing. This pranayama technique is great for headaches, anxiety, and cleansing the sinuses. It’s also great for just a simple system reset for your energy channels and entire body. To practice this technique, you take your right hand and fold down all fingers but your thumb and your ring finger. Close your eyes if you wish, then plug your right nostril with your thumb, and take a deep inhale through your left nostril. Retain your breath at the top while you remove your thumb from the right side, and plug your left nostril with your ring finger. Exhale completely and with control out your right nostril. Inhale deeply into your right nostril. Retain the breath at the top while you switch your fingers (unplug the left and plug the right), then exhale completely out the left nostril. Inhale deeply through the left nostril, and repeat back and forth for as long as you wish. Next time you are feeling anxious and need to reset your busy mind, try some alternate nostril breathing. It really works!

The last pranayama technique I’m going to introduce is Kapalabhati or breath of fire. This is great for all sorts of things. It can improve digestion, invigorate the liver, spleen, and pancreas, and can create a feeling of exhilaration. Bonus: it’s also great for your abs! For this technique, you take a slow, deep inhale, followed by several vigorous rapid-fire exhales. During each exhale, you pull the belly in tight to the spine. This might take a while to coordinate, but after practice you’ll get the hang of it!

Check out my video on Alternate Nostril Breathing and Breath of Fire here!

Pranayama is a great companion to your asana practice, but it’s also a great practice on its own. I know for me, the more I practice yoga and focus on my breath, the more I am aware of it off my mat. I am aware if I begin to hold my breath or take shallow breaths in stressful situations. I take notice, and begin to take deeper breaths, calming my mind and soothing my nerves. It’s a great tool for anxiety, anger, or just when you’re feeling super down. And the best part about it is that it can be practiced anywhere at anytime, so give it a try. And be patient, because it might not come naturally to you right away. That’s why they call it a practice. 🙂

Stay tuned for the next post on the fifth limb of yoga, Pratyahara. Also, if you have ANY questions at all, please email me at nicol.eliz.yoga@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you!

Note: my study of this limb of yoga came from Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.

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