I practice pranayama just about everyday to feel energize or completely relaxed, to be very focused or more meditative. I use it to be at my best and I always include it during my private yoga classes, so what is it exactly?      In the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. The word pranayama can be roughly translated as breath control but pranayama goes beyond the mere adjustments of ones breathing patterns. When we practice pranayama, we are working with the life force itself. Pranayama is really comprised of two words, prana and ayama. The word Prana is translated as life, spirit, air or vital life force. The word ayama could be translated as expand, lengthen, extend, control or restrain. So pranayama is the extension or lengthening of the vital life force.  For centuries, the yogis knew that the life force that flowed through us could be greatly influenced and regulated by certain breathing techniques. They also knew that the breath, body and mind are closely linked to each other. You know this to be true as well. Surely you've noticed that shallow breathing makes you feel less than great and deeper breathing makes you feel much better (if not, try some slow deep breathing now). You've probably also noticed that when your breathing is irregular in some way, the mind has a difficult time remaining at peace. Yogis use the practice of pranayama to calm or balance the mind and to energize and purify the body. Students usually love how they feel when they start a regular daily practice. Some of the pranayama methods use very specific breathing ratios. By being mindful of the length of inhalations (puraka), exhalation (rechaka) and retention of breath (kumbhaka), the yogi could work toward stilling the mind, detoxify the body and uplifting the spirit. This in turn can lead to greater well-being and a longer life. In addition to those benefits, a regular pranayama practice helps prepare you for meditation ( the seventh limb of Pantanjali's Ashtanga Yoga).  

          Please keep in mind that the practice of pranayama can be very potent. Some pranayama techniques that involve retaining the breath may not be suitable if you have certain medical conditions like asthma, pregnancy or high blood pressure. Please consult with your doctor first if you have these or similar conditions. Beginners should not practice pranayama without the guidance of a competent yoga teacher.  


       Before you sit for Pranayama practice there are a few things that you should know to make your experience safe, beneficial and enjoyable.

CLEANLINESS  To attain a clear mind using pranayama, it helps to have a clean body and it really helps to have clean nostrils. If you have and know how to use a neti pot, great! Nasal irrigation is an excellent way to keep the sinuses and nostrils clear. Yoga practitioners have been using neti pots for centuries. Jala Neti means "water cleansing" in Sanskrit. The nasal cavities are gently rinsed with a warm saline solution by slowly pouring water in through one nostril and out of the other nostril. A yoga teacher can guide you in the correct use of the neti pot. Not only is it important to have a clean body and nostrils, the place for pranayama should be held in a tidy and ventilated space but Pranayama should not be performed under a strong draft of air.

CLOTHES  When you practice pranayama, being comfortable is very helpful. Wear clothes that are loose fitting and made from natural fibers like cotton if possible. TIME  Early morning is an ideal time to do your pranayama practice, the city is still asleep and hopefully the other people and pets in your home are too. You don't want to be around any noises that may be a distraction and make it difficult to concentrate on your breath. Practicing pranayama with an empty stomach gives the best results. Having an empty stomach is more likely when you first wake up in the morning but if you prefer to practice at some other time, make sure to leave yourself 2 to 3 hours after your meal before you start. If you are a coffee drinker, please avoid drinking it right before your practice. It is also important to be consistent in your practice; a daily practice is best, so choose a time and stick to it.

COMFORT  Pranayama is best done in a comfortable seated position with a straight spine. If you are able to sit easily in one of the cross legged yoga postures like sukhasana (easy pose), siddhasana, virasana or even padmasana (lotus pose) do so, otherwise sit in a straight back chair to support the spine or on a cushion. Once your seated, be still and do your best to minimize any fidgeting. Also avoid pushing yourself too far in your practice of pranayama. If you ever feel dizzy, "spaced out", completely out of breath  or fatigued, please stop and return to your normal breathing. Your breathing should be controlled and your attention should be focused on only the breath and your posture.

QUIET  Most types of pranayama can be done fairly quietly. You don't want the sound of the breath itself to become a distraction. Pranayams like ujjayi, breath of fire and kapalabhati will produce a small amount of sound but the breath should never become uncontrolled or create a feeling of dizziness. Also practicing in a quiet place is very helpful.

OBSERVING THE BREATH If you are new to yoga or doing pranayama, it can be very advantageous to simply observe the breath. Allow yourself a few minutes or longer to simply notice the pattern of your breathing without trying to change it at first. Place your hands on your abdomen and pay attention to the rise and fall of your navel point (this can also be done lying on your back. Savasana , also known as corpse pose would be a good choice). Allow your mind to become quiet and the body to become relaxed. When a few minutes has passed, begin to make your breathing pattern as even and tranquil as you can.       



SAMAVRITTI  This is a yogic breath that can be used when the practitioner wants to make his or her breathing even. The word Samavritti  pronounced (sah-mah-VREE-tee) literally translates to equal movements or same actions.   The technique of Samavritti is fairly easy and a good place to start if you are new to yoga. This pranayam requires the yogi to match the length of their inhales to the length of their exhales. When Samavritti is done correctly it brings about a deep feeling of calm and relaxation and we could all use more of that.                  

  How to do Samavriiti:      This controlled breathing technique can be done lying on your back or sitting with a straight spine. The breath can be divided into equal parts of 2 (inhalation-exhalation),  equal parts of 3 (inhalation-retention-exhalation) or  equal parts of 4 (inhalation-retention-exhalation-retention).   

     Try this version of Samavriiti in 2 equal parts to get started:  SLOWLY count to 4 in your head as you inhale for the duration of the count and SLOWLY count to 4 for the duration of your exhale. Make sure that the breath is without force or strain of any kind. With regular practice you can increase your count from 4 to 8 or even longer under the guidance of a teacher.  

    Try this version of Samavriiti in 3 equal parts if you already have a steady yoga practice (not for people with asthma or hypertension)  SLOWLY count to 4 in your head as you inhale for the duration of the count, gently retain the breath for a count of 4 and SLOWLY exhale for a count of 4 as you exhale. Make sure that the breath is without force or strain of any kind.

Nadi Shodhan  (Alternate Nostril breathing without Retention or Kumbhaka).  This is a yogic breath that can be used by the beginning student. Nadi Shodhana , sometimes called the sweet breath is a simple form of alternate nostril breathing that is very calming and brings a state of balance to the mind, it is also known as the nerve purifying breath. Doing this type of pranayama practice purifies the nadis ( pronounced NAH-deez). Nadis are the energy channels in the subtle body, yogis say that you have 72,000 nadis and the 3 major nadis run through the spine. It is perfectly suitable to practice any time of day but it can be most helpful whenever you are upset, restless, sleepless, anxious or feel stressed out ( I like to use it before I meditate).                 


     To get started using Nadi Shodhan rest the left hand on your left knee and fold the first two fingers of your right hand into your palm and bring the hand up to your nose. Let the ring finger rest lightly just above the nostrils on the left side of your nose, and the thumb rest lightly just above the nostrils on the right side of your nose. This relaxed folded hand position is called Vishnu Mudra (the hand gesture of Lord Vishnu). First close the right nostril by pressing gently against it with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Your breath should be steady and slow. Then close the left nostril by pressing gently against it with your ring and little fingers and open your right nostril by gently releasing your thumb and exhale fully with a slow breath through the right nostril.

    Next inhale through the right nostril, close it off with the thumb and exhale through the left nostril. That is one complete round of Nadi Shodhana (Alternate nostril Breathing). To do a second round, simply inhale through the left nostril and continue as before. Begin with 4 to10 rounds and add more slowly in a few days if you feel ready to do so or instructed by your yoga teacher.  Please keep in mind that the breathing is calm and steady.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Breath of Fire (Agni Prasana)  This is a yogic breath that is often used in Kundalini Yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan, Master Teacher of Kundalini Yoga). Breath of Fire is an energizing breath and it also has a cleansing effect. Most of the body is free of  tension while you lightly pump the breath, in a continuous rapid rhythmical pattern.Breath of Fire sounds like light panting through the nose. The inhale and exhale are of equal length and occur about 2 to 3 breaths per second. Breath of Fire is stimulating to the nervous system. Do not confuse this breath with Kapalabhati breathing which looks similar to the new yoga student. It is best to learn this breath directly from a yoga teacher if you are unsure about the technique. Although the breath is safe to do, if practiced improperly, you may start to feel a little light headed or tired.