Pranayama is one of the 8 limbs of yoga that deals with using the breath to teach us to manage our “prana” or life force energy. Breathing is one of our most important life functions. We have direct control over our breath. The way we breath is the clearest indication of our state of mind. Pranayama practice is the most direct route to controlling our emotions and the start of controlling our mind. Breath awareness and breath practice will guide us to the proper way to dial into whatever energy level is required for our daily activities. This includes building up energy as well as calming the unpleasant energies of stress, anxiety and fear.
There are many types of Pranayama techniques. This discussion includes: Dirgha, Ujayi, Kapalabhati, Nadi Shodhana and Sitali.
The following Pranayama techniques should be done in a comfortable seated position with an erect spine. It is best done in the morning on an empty stomach and in a quiet location with fresh air and good ventilation.
General warning: consult your doctor before beginning this or any Pranayama practice. During this workshop or when practicing Pranayama on your own, if you experience any negative or physical or emotional effects (pain, anxiety, agitation, etc.), discontinue practice immediately and consult with me, another qualified yoga teacher or a physician.
1. Dirgha (long)
Three part breath: fill the belly, ribcage and collarbone
Main precautions: recent surgery to head or torso
- Is a warm up breath used to bring the mind into focus, is a concentration technique
- Welcome the breath
- Wherever the mind goes, the prana flows
- Loosen jaw, relax, “invite” the breath
- Options: 1) intense, working the breathe, or 2) gently, using regular breathing
Duration: 2-3 minutes
2. Ujjayi (victorious)
Ocean-sounding breath: create meditative sound by gently constricting the throat
Main precautions: respiratory infection, sore throat
- Victory over the mind, victory over the clutter of the mind
- Be gentle with this breath, use steadiness and a rhythm
- Is all about creating the sound, the technique of creating the ocean breath
- The sound is heard on both the inhale and the exhale
- Noise is created when the glottis in the throat is slightly closed by the epiglottis, some can create the sound deeper in the throat
- Helps with letting go of distractions, stress, anxiety
- Stimulates the parasympathetic, creates groundedness
3. Kapalabhati (skull polishing, lamp shining)
Skull-polishing or skull-shining breath: strong exhalation, passive inhalation. Done by gently pumping the belly during the exhalation and completely relaxing the belly during inhalation
Main contraindications and precautions: pregnancy, heart conditions, uncontrolled blood pressure, respiratory infection, respiratory conditions, emphysema, nervous system conditions, MS, COPD, glaucoma, hernia, colitis, IBS, acid indigestion, any recent surgery, menstruation (first few days), high anxiety, emotional vulnerability, ulcers, irritable bowl syndrome, cold/flu, heart conditions
- Breath is performed as if you were blowing out a candle with your nose, using a crisp, short exhale
- Is a Kriya, a purifying technique
- Active exhale (willfulness) and passive inhale (surrender)
- To be done smoothly with rounded off edges
- Stimulating, clears nasal, heating practice
- Best in the morning, best seated or can be done standing
Duration: 30 breaths = 1 round, do 1-3 rounds
4. Nadi Shodhana (channel cleansing)
Alternate nostril breath: use Visnu mudra (right thumb and right ring finger)
One cycle: inhale through left nostril, exhale through right nostril, inhale through right nostril, exhale through left nostril
Main precautions: respiratory infection, deviated septum
Can be done hands-free, in which case there are no precautions.
Hands free technique:
Visualize the body being divided into two halves (right and left), as you inhale imagine you are drawing prana up one side and as you exhale imagine you are letting prana flow downward, loosening and taking out toxins. This is just as effective as alternate nostril because “where the mind’s attention goes, the prana flows.” Follow the breath with the mind’s focus. “Pranafied and purified.”
- Nadi = river or channel, Shodhana = to purify
- Alternate, closing off the nostrils using the thumb and ring finger of the right hand
- Can put 2 middle fingers on forehead (creates heat), or fold 2 middle fingers down for a more cooled experience
- Thumb represents “space” element, ring finger represents “water” element
- Quiets the mind, soothing, calming
- Good for PTSD, insomnia, nervousness, anger, fear, high blood pressure, grief, writer’s block, lack of clarity
Nadi Shodhana is the most important Pranayama technique and profoundly healing
If done daily for 15 minutes will change your whole perspective
Body has 72,000 Nadis, or channels for prana.
The 3 most important Nadis are:
- Sushumna – intense, energetic channel that runs up the spine along the chakras
- Ida – left nostril (controlling the right side of the brain: feminine, cooling, creative, intuitive, lunar)
- Pingala – right nostril (controlling the left side of the brain: masculine, stimulating, linear, rational, solar)
5. Sitali (cooling)
Cooling breath: inhale through curled tongue, exhale through the nose
Sitkari – an option if tongue does not curl: inhale through clenched teeth and exhale through the nose
- Pronounced SHEE-tali or SHA-tali
- Swallow frequently as this dries out the tongue and mouth
- Cools down the tongue, good for moods of anger or aggression or whenever the mind is running hot with emotion (Anger is pitta – fire/hot)
- Good for excess heat in the blood (i.e., rash, hives)
- Good for frustration, criticism, inflammation, any kind of “itis”
Duration: 30 seconds to 2 minutes, be soft, quiet and consistent
Four seats of yoga – these ground the prana:
- Sukhasana – easy pose, simple cross legged
- Swastikasana – sun wheel, creates a closed chain keeping prana enclosed
- Padmasana – full lotus, slightly open chain, blood pools in the belly which is good and needed for advanced Pranayama
- Siddhasana – half lotus, accomplished or expert pose
When the ego (Ahankara) is challenged by prana, two things are likely:
- We quit, close down
- Get tired, become fatigued
Prana can bring up/create strong emotions (Samskara) and can cause fatigue.
“Invite” the prana into those areas of our body or those spots that are dark and “inky.”
Slowly and slowly!
Marma points used in Ayurvedic
Teaching and guiding Pranayama (Tips)
- Warm up, speed up, cool down
- Teach from your own personal experience
- Emphasize precautions/contraindications
- Offer options (i.e., “If you cannot do Kapalabhati, stay with Dirghe”)
- Pause to assess energy between each round (“Scan the body” “How does that feel?”)
- Don’t overwhelm (“pepper” just a little Pranayama in the class as appropriate)
- Do not force
- Give yourself permission to not know (the answer to questions)
- Medical conditions: if you are not sure, give basic/safe options (i.e., safe = Dirghe and Nadi Shodhana)
- Provide time for integration (e.g., journaling, meditating, sharing, etc.)
Deciding which kind of Pranayama to practice or teach
- Determine what is needed for balance before you start. Is calming and gentleness needed or is energizing needed?
- Beginners may not want/understand much Pranayama at first.
- Steps to presenting: name, define, give benefits/contraindications or precautions, demonstrate, lead practice.
- Can use Pranayama before Asanas to center the class.
- Dirghe can help center the class at the beginning (maybe use a short sequence, then do Asanas, then add in more Pranayama if appropriate).
- Can follow the flow of Ashtanga, the 8 limbs of yoga in your approach to a yoga class structure, going from gross to subtle:
- Yama – read a poem
- Niyama – set or invite and intention
- Breath and invite prana into the areas that need healing.
- Prana is powerful and subtle. As a teacher, build up skillfulness with a specific Pranayama, study it thoroughly, and find out what works best for you.
- Try all sorts of variations, guides, queues, times of days, conditions, etc. to find your own way to “language.”
- Know your audience (i.e., may not want to say “clean and purify” to someone with eating disorders but would instead say “nourish and calm”).
- Love, patience, compassion – consider language that is most appropriate for the student.
- Recognize what is out of balance in someone, then choose something that will help balance that. You may have to start with energies that attract them and then slowly (slowly and slowly!) introduce opposites and skillfully guide to harmony.
Learning to be with yourself in a deep and satisfying way is the springboard for sharing that depth with others. Share yourself in a way that is fulfilling and keeps your love flowing. Teach from the radiance of your own experience with Pranayama.
Share the stuff you love.
Share and teach the things that light you up.
Workshop with Larissa Hall Carlson at The Lotus Pond Center for Yoga and Health, Tampa Florida
Illustration of Marma points from various sources including: http://ayurvedayogavilla.com/scretsofmarma.html
Illustration of three main nadis from various sources including: http://www.india2australia.com/ajna-chakra/