Pranayama? But I already know how to breathe...
How many of you have a pranayama practice? Not just the slow, deep breathing we do at the beginning of yoga class, but an actual, regular practice you perform as part of your sadhana at home?
If your answer was, "You mean I should be doing that too?" you're not alone. Even more so than meditation, pranayama tends to be one of those things yogis never get around to doing. But I would challenge you to add it to your sadhana if you want to accelerate your progress. Pranayama is not just one of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, it is the platform upon which we build three others: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption into the One).
Pranayama is often translated to mean "control of the breath," and doing so is a fundamental part of practice. For most people (very advanced yogis excepted), breathing is the only bodily process that we can allow to happen unconsciously OR regulate consciously using the mind. And when we modify the ways we normally breathe, interesting things start to happen.
Pranayama is not just one of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, it is the platform upon which we build three others: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption into the One).
"Yama" means "yoke" or "restraint." "Prana" refers not just to breath, but to life force energy that operates in the body in a variety of ways. So while it may appear superficially that we are simply changing the speed or pattern of our breathing habits, we are also manipulating the ways currents of energy work and flow in the physical and subtle bodies.
For example, the practice of mahamudra involves engaging three energetic bandhas (collectively called mahabandha), or locks, in the body -- mulabandha at the perineum/anus; uddiyana bandha in the low belly, and jalandhara bandha at the throat -- while holding the breath in, or out (kumbhaka). For beginners, the position quickly becomes uncomfortable.
So why do this? Because we are always trying to center and concentrate both our conscious attention and our sum total of pranic energy in the body, specifically in the energetic corridor of the spine called shushumna nadi. And once we've found a way to concentrate it there, we encourage it to move upward through the chakras, in the form of kundalini, to help us Awaken.
Mulabandha prevents that prana from "leaking" down into the earth. Uddiyana and jalandhara bandhas help maintain pressure in the thoracic cavity to facilitate oxygen uptake and CO2 exchange in the lungs, among other things. Meanwhile, as the breath is retained in kumbhaka, the brain, sensing an interruption in oxygen flow, begins to compensate by creating new neural pathways and activating certain latent centers that support enhanced spiritual perception. The heart rate changes (faster or slower depending on the practitioner's experience and fitness) and the yogi may become increasingly attuned to it, further centering her attention inward.
(Many more beneficial processes are initiated/accelerated as well -- too many to expound on here, but a good resource for detailed information is "Prana and Pranayama" by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati.)
Where does one start? If you've taken my yoga class you may be familiar with nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing. Many teachers advocate it as an essential daily practice, and one of my teachers likes to say that five minutes of nadi shodhana daily will provide all the energetic benefits of a regular yoga class.
Here's how to do it:
1. Using your right hand, place the index and middle fingers at the third eye center (ajna) between the eyebrows. Rest your thumb against the right nostril, ring finger against the left.
2. Close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale smoothly and deeply to a count of 6 or 10. Visualize the inhaled energy flowing to the third eye.
3. Hold both nostrils closed and retain the breath for the same count.
4. Open the left nostril and exhale slowly and smoothly on that side for the same count.
5. Keep the left nostril open and inhale as you did on the right side.
6. Hold both nostrils closed and retain the breath for the same count.
7. Open the right nostril and exhale for the same count.
8. Repeat the process moving the breath from side to side for 5 minutes or as long as desired.
As you become more practiced at nadi shodhana, you can change the ratio of inhale-retention-exhale from 1-1-1 (e.g., six counts in, six counts held, six counts out) to 1-4-2 (e.g., six counts in, 24 counts held, 12 counts out). Alternately, eliminate the retention portion and practice an inhale-exhale ratio of 1-2, making the exhale length double that of the inhale length, and increase both over time.
Nadi shodhana balances the left and right, feminine and masculine channels in the body (known as "ida" and "pingala," respectively), concentrating prana in the center channel of the spine, shushumna nadi. This concentration/balance creates a meditative state as shushumna becomes energized, so performing nadi shodhana just before your meditation is an easy and effective practice to help you drop in more deeply.
Mahamudra and nadi shodhana are just two examples of pranayama practice -- there are many more. Some are esoteric and protected by certain schools of practice (Kriya Yoga, for instance) but many more are available to the unaffiliated yogi through books and online resources. If you work with a teacher, I encourage you to ask for guidance. As always, yoga encourages you to find out for yourself -- follow your intuition and see what works*, but remember not to give up too early if it seems like "nothing's happening." The benefits of consistent practice reveal themselves over time; meanwhile, we can always benefit from and enjoy the residual effects of increased lung capacity, oxygenation and relaxation.
Feel the breath. It is literally what you are made of, and with practice, will carry you to amazing places. Namaste, Rishika
*If you have a history of heart problems, blood pressure management concerns, or any other condition that might prohibit breath retention, please consult a medical pro before practicing.