It’s the first Monday of the month and that means it’s time to Ask a Yogini. Each month, I’ll answer a question about yoga – anything that you’re curious about. Chances are, if you have the question, someone else does too!
Disclaimer: While I am a certified yoga instructor, I am not your yoga instructor. Please exercise caution and honor your own body. These views are mine alone, based on my own experiences. Always consult a certified yoga instructor for additional guidance and assistance.
When you are in a yoga class, chances are that your teacher will speak as much about the breath as he or she speaks about the actual yoga pose. And for good reason. Not only is breath central to living, it’s a fundamental part of the yoga practice. But have you ever wondered, what is pranayama?
One of the biggest benefits of my yoga practice is learning how to breathe fully and deeply.
Pranayama and the Breath
In Sanskrit, prana = life force and refers to the vital life force that permeates the Universe and is the life force that sustains the body. The breath is a vehicle for prana.
So…Pranayama is the control of the breath pattern (which can be stretched, restrained or retained) to help cultivate and channel prana. In short, it can be described as a breath practice – as simple as coming back to your breathe during your yoga practice or more specific techniques that I’ll discuss below.
Pranayama is the 4th limb of the 8 limbs of yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Within the structure of the 8 limbs, pranayama bridges those yoga practices that are more outwardly focused (limbs 1-3 i.e. asana/yoga postures) and those that are more inwardly focused (limbs 5-8 i.e. meditation).
This is the perfect role for the breath because it is one of the only functions of the body that is both conscious and unconscious. Breathing just happens and is regulated by the body’s autonomic nervous system. But, you can also consciously control your breath by taking deep inhalations and exhalations or retaining your breath.
In this way, the breath is a unique tool that helps you bridge the physical with the inner body. Pranayama helps to refine the mind-body connection, stay connected to the present moment, help you stay calm and centered, soothes and revitalizes the mind and body, and serves as an internal metronome for your yoga practice.
When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika
There are some pranayama techniques that can be practiced continuously throughout class – You may be most familiar with Ujjayi breathing, which is often used in yoga classes. Some describe it as an “ocean-like” sounds while others describe it like the sound of Darth Vader breathing. There are other techniques that are practiced more as a stand-alone exercise.
There are four parts to each breath cycle:
- Inhalation or Puraka;
- A pause or retention at the top of the breath or Antar Khumbaka;
- Exhalation or Rechaka; and
- A pause or retention at the bottom of the breath or Bahya Khumbaka.
All pranayama begins on an exhalation and ends on an inhalation. There are a number of different pranayama techniques. In addition to Ujjayi breathing, there’s Nadi Sodhana or alternate nostril breathing, Bhastrika or breath of fire, and Viloma or three-part breath, among others.
It’s important to note that at no time should your breath practice feel strenuous. If it does, stop.
Here are two of my favorite breath practices:
Kapalabhati or Skull Shining Breath
Sounds intense, right? Well, it kind of is. This is a kriya – a cleansing breath practice designed to generate heat in the lungs, belly and mind. There is a sharp exhalation through the nose where it feels like your belly button is striking in towards your spine and upwards. It’s followed by a passive inhalation where the belly softens. Typically, you perform 108 pumps/sharp exhalations (about a minute) and I prefer to do this while in a squat.
Sama Vrtti or Same Breath
This is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kapalabhati. I often like to end my classes with a few rounds of sama vrtti right before settling in for savasana. I will have students lie on their backs with one hand on their belly and one hand on their heart. It’s a great calming breath practice.
The idea of this practice is to keep your inhalation and exhalation the same length. For example, you inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four. Then, inhale for a count of five and exhale for a count of five. You can increase the count to whatever you are comfortable with and then come back down the ladder.
With my classes, I will typically start with a count of four and proceed up to a count of six. For each inhalation and exhalation, you should fill and empty your lungs completely. Thus, you’re changing the rate at which your are pulling air into and out of the body.
There’s so much more to say about pranayama but I will leave it at that for now. Let me know if you have other questions.
Do you have a favorite breath practice?
Don’t forget to share any questions or future topics you’d like me to address!
Check out these other yoga-related posts:
- What is drishti?
- 8 benefits of yoga inversions
- 3 ways to use yoga blocks
- How to Incorporate Yoga into Your Daily Life
- Yoga for Runners Series
More Ways to Follow Love, Life, Surf