One of the fundamental principles in traditional tantra is that we all are an integral part of a bigger whole, the Absolute. If this Absolute Consciousness is imagined as a stream (Water), then us, individuals would be the whirls or vortexes in the stream. A part of the whole and made of same material with same qualities, but appearing as an individual. I will get back to this idea in a later post, but for now this simple parable will do. This sets the foundation for the article of this week, Pranayama.
Often Pranayama is referred as “breath control” or “breathing exercises”. This is only a part of the story. Here I will provide simple and doable basic instructions on how to start practicing this powerful and exciting method.
Basics and benefits
Pranayama is widely practiced in yoga, and simply concentrating on your breath will already calm down your mind and nervous system. Much like meditation practice.
The importance of breath can’t be overlooked. We breathe from the first moment at our birth until the death. Normally we inhale and exhale about 21600 times per day, which makes 15 times per minute. Normally we can hold our breath for up to a minute or two, and a few more minutes without oxygen will get you to serious trouble!
Deep and regular breathing calms down our mind, reduces stress and anxiety. Our nervous system is relieved even by the simple exercise, where we exhale longer than we inhale. This will activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” state.
Breath is one of the functions of the body which works totally fine even if we’re not paying any attention to it. But we can take control of it at any moment. Thus it is said to be one of the bridges between the conscious and unconscious mind.
However, in pranayama our aim is to influence and enhance the flow of prana in our bodies by different breathing patterns. Prana means vital energy, or life force. Normally we would not be aware of this, as prana is something we can’t see or easily perceive, but there’s no life without Prana. By rhythmic and controlled breathing, we can influence the dynamics of the whirl or vortex I mentioned in the beginning. Prana is the moving force of the creation.
With a regular practice of pranayama, you will soon start noticing the balancing and energizing effects in your life. It’s ok and good to do pranayama in the evening too.
Here’s a chapter about prana from the famous yogi Swami Vivekananda:
Just as Akasha is the infinite, omnipresent material of this universe, so is this Prana the infinite, omnipresent manifesting power of this universe. At the beginning and at the end of a cycle everything becomes Akasha, and all the forces that are in the universe resolve back into the Prana; in the next cycle, out of this Prana is evolved everything that we call energy, everything that we call force. It is the Prana that is manifesting as motion; it is the Prana that is manifesting as gravitation, as magnetism. It is the Prana that is manifesting as the actions of the body, as the nerve currents, as thought force. From thought down to the lowest force, everything is but the manifestation of Prana. The sum total of all forces in the universe, mental or physical, when resolved back to their original state, is called Prana.
The technique of pranayama
There are many different kinds of pranayama taught, and they can have slightly different methods and recommendations. Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing is perhaps the most common and easy to learn and practice. The name Nadi Shodhana means purification and balancing the two main subtle energy channels, or Nadis.
It is strongly recommended that you do some yoga asanas before entering to pranayama. The body and mind should be in a stable state when doing the pranayama practice.
The pranayama is best done in a seated and meditative asana, such as Vajrasana or Padmasana (you can check them from this earlier article). The back should be straight, and the position comfortable.
In Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, we use the thumb and the ring finger of the right hand to control the flow of air through our nostrils. Place your index and middle fingers on to your forehead (as in the photo on the right) and thumb and ring fingers on your nostrils. If this feels complicated to you, you can just use any finger to block the nostril!
- First, block the right nostril and inhale slowly, filling your lungs from the bottom up, all the way to the shoulders.
- Then hold the breath for as long as it feels comfortable. You can block both nostrils with your fingers if you like.
- Block the left nostril and slowly exhale through the right nostril.
- Inhale slowly through the right nostril.
- Again, hold for as long as comfortable.
- Finally, block the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
This is one round. Always end with an exhalation through the left nostril.
Do a few rounds to get comfortable with the practice.
The next steps
Once you get used to regulating the breath, you can start adding timing to the practice. The recommended ratio to start with is 1:2:2, which means if you inhale for the count of 4, then hold for count of 8 and exhale for count of 8. It is important that you do what feels comfortable for you. Do not try to overdo, or to hold or exhale too long. You can count seconds in your mind, or listen to your heartbeat (may be a bit difficult at first!). One good measurement could be to say mentally thousand one, thousand two and so on, but use whatever way you can to measure the time.
When the ratio of 1:2:2 feels ok and you can hold your breath for some time, you can move on to the ratio of 1:4:2, which would make for example 6:24:12 seconds. To get to this point can take some time, so don’t hurry!
Until now we only did the breath retention with full lungs, but there’s more. After you have exhaled, then there’s a possibility for another retention with lungs empty. You can start this with 1:4:2:1. These retentions are the most important parts of the pranayama practice.
And this is only the beginning 🙂
Important points to remember
It’s essential that you start the practice from a good physical and mental state. Pranayama can amplify whatever you have going on in your body or mind, so it’s better be well grounded before entering the practice.
You should not feel discomfort or suffocating feelings at any time. If you do, you’re trying too much too fast (it’s normal, I know!). Take baby steps and your efforts will be rewarded.
When you start the pranayama practice, you could do 5-15 minutes at a time. It’s best to do the practice at the same time every day, if possible.
If the breath is not flowing equally well in both nostrils, you can start doing the Jala Neti practice. I wrote about it in more detail in this post. You can also start observing your breath through the nostrils during the day. Normally the breath flows better in one or the other nostril, and this is changing throughout the day in cycles. When the breath flows better on the left side, or Ida Nadi, the feminine or the receptive aspect is dominant in your being. When the breath flows better on the right side, Pingala Nadi, the masculine or active aspect is more active. You can use this rhythm to find a better flow throughout your day, a bit in a similar manner you can observe your chakras and how they affect your life.
If you like pranayama and would like a handy mobile app to help you with the practice, I would highly recommend this one (for Android). It’s easy to use and customize.
Here’s an excellent book on the subject if you would like to know more: Prana and Pranayama by Bihar School of Yoga.
To conclude, I will add another quote from Swami Vivekananda:
Suppose, for instance, a man understood the Prana perfectly, and could control it, what power on earth would not be his? He would be able to move the sun and stars out of their places, to control everything in the universe, from the atoms to the biggest suns, because he would control the Prana. This is the end and aim of Pranayama.
Do you practice pranayama? What kind of results did you get? Why would you recommend this practice to someone? Leave your comments below!