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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

A Beginner's Guide to Pranayama

November 14, 2010
The day I enrolled in my first yoga class, I chuckled to learn my school offered a course on breathing. Friends had promised the exotic contortions of yoga would loosen my tight knots, strengthen my weak spots, and clear my frazzled brain. But they hadn’t mentioned anything about inhaling and exhaling, and the thought that someone would sign up for a course specifically to study the breath amused and even perplexed me. Who would be nutty enough to enroll in a so-called “pranayama” class? We breathe in, we breathe out. How hard can that be?

A year later, after dancing through hundreds of downward dogs and boatloads of upward bows, I signed up for the very breathing class that had once bemused me with its outlandishness. I had fallen under yoga’s spell, and the physical practice had begun to beckon me toward more subtle and sustaining energies within. Perhaps by design, the poses piqued my interest in the mind, the spirit, and, yes, even the breath.

That first pranayama class not only changed my breath, it also changed my life. Quiet but attentive exploration of my inhalations and exhalations transported me toward an inner oasis of tranquility and ease that had previously eluded me. Mindful breathing also left me feeling buoyant and gently energized, as if all my inner channels had been rinsed clean and refilled with a bright and soul-satisfying vitality.

As my practice deepened, I began to understand why ancient yogis offered the breath as a vital link between our inner and outer lives, as well as an introduction to meditation and the deeper dimensions of yoga. I began to rely upon my pranayama practice as an invisible doorway between the big bangs of my backbends and the soft, warm stillness that accompanies a quiet mind and an open heart.

Pranayama, the term used to describe yoga’s vast array of breathing exercises, has been cultivated over thousands of years by adepts seeking to quiet their restless minds while nourishing their stores of vital energy. According to yoga philosophy this invisible vitality, called prana in Sanskrit, flows through every inch of the universe. Both ancient and modern yoga masters tell us that by consciously controlling the way we breathe, we can learn to concentrate, store, and even direct this life-enhancing flow of prana within us. Unlike seated meditation, where the breath is used as an object of meditation but is not manipulated in any way, pranayama focuses explicitly on changing the way we breathe.


The catalog of yogic breathing practices is impressive, and includes a host of exotic exercises with imposing names, including “skull-shining breath” (kapalabhati), “bellows breath” (bhastrika) and “buzzing bee breath” (bhramari). Some exercises require practitioners to hold the breath for long periods of time. Some require them to breathe in and out in a ballistic fashion at a rate of more than 100 breaths per minute. And still others require exacting contortions of the tongue, perfection of various energetic “locks,” or bandhas, and precise manipulation of the belly, ribs and chest. These advanced practices are difficult and demanding, and require years of study with an experienced teacher.

Fortunately, some of the discipline’s most powerful techniques are also its simplest. Not only do these basic explorations serve as essential preparation for those hoping to huff and puff along with great yoga masters, but they also serve as potent tools in and of themselves that can revolutionize the way we breathe, feel, and relate to the world around us. Befriending your breath, quite literally, can transform your life.

Interested in getting started? Establishing a home practice requires little more than 15 minutes a day, a few blankets and a clean, quiet space. (See "Extras," below,for additional hints about getting started). Be forewarned, though: Pranayama is said to require more skill and attentiveness than even the most demanding asana. Yogis compare the process of regulating the breath to taming a wild animal.

They advise patience and caution, and counsel us to proceed slowly and mindfully through our explorations. Since respiration is closely linked to both the nervous and cardiovascular systems, they warn that moving beyond one’s abilities can harm the body and mind.

That means it’s always best to study under the tutelage of an experienced instructor. If you have a yoga teacher, seek out his or her guidance before setting sail on your exploration of the breath. If you practice on your own, stick with introductory breathing techniques such as the ones offered here, and be sure to give yourself ample time to grow comfortable with the subtleties of each new exercise before advancing to the next. When you feel ready to befriend more advanced practices, find a teacher to guide you.

In addition, if you suffer from a physical or emotional ailment – including respiratory conditions, cardiovascular conditions, depression, anxiety, or glaucoma – or if you are pregnant, consult your physician and an experienced yoga instructor before beginning a pranayama practice.

Experts offer one more essential bit of wisdom for anyone beginning a pranayama practice: Never, ever force the breath. If a breathing exercise causes strain or discomfort, it’s not for you – at least not for now. Back off, seek the advice of an instructor, and stick with explorations that leave you feeling softened and soothed rather than restless and rattled.

Pranayama is at heart a deeply receptive practice, and is as much about undoing as doing. So throw away all the words that come to mind when you consider working with the breath, like control, force, push or hold. Instead, think about inviting, nudging, yielding, perhaps even sweet talking the breath as you guide it in new directions.

As you embark on your exploration of pranayama – curious, wide-eyed and without strain – awareness of your breath may sneak into not only your asana practice but also your day-to-day life. You may begin to observe that your breath changes along with your moods and emotions. You may notice that a simple shift in your breathing can transform the way you respond to a stressful situation. And you may also learn how soothing and sustaining the simple ebb-and-flow melody of your breath can be.

Welcome this newfound awareness into your life. Nourish, cherish and befriend it. The breath begins as a stranger, but in the course of one’s exploration it becomes a friend, ally, and even healer. As yoga masters discovered centuries ago, awakening to the magic of the breath can open you to boundless oceans of peace, contentment and vitality within.

MONTH ONE: BREATH AWARENESS
Pranayama begins with basic breath awareness, a simple inquiry that serves as the foundation for every other pranayama technique. The principle is simple: Before attempting to regulate your own respiration, you need to know something about it. And the best way to gain this understanding is to rest quietly and use your powers of perception to sense the movement of the breath within.

It’s possible that you haven’t spent much time attuning yourself to the sensations that accompany your inhalations and exhalations. If so, you probably have a lot to learn. Think of this beginning phase of pranayama practice as a blind date with the breath.

To begin, rest on your back in corpse pose, or simple savasana. After settling here for a few minutes, draw your attention to the breath. Consider where you feel it as it moves through you. Which parts of the body move as you inhale and exhale? Do you sense the breath more fully in the belly or chest? In the front body or the back? In the left side of the torso or the right?

Once you’ve familiarized yourself the location of the breath, consider its flow. Does it feel fast or slow? Deep or shallow? And which is longer, the inhalation or the exhalation? Do you notice a pause at the end of the inhalation or exhalation? How do the breaths compare to one another – are they uniform or unpredictable?

Finally, you might consider the breath’s feel. Is it smooth or rough? Warm or cool? Moist or damp? Light or heavy? And does a particular color or image or emotion come to mind as you breathe? Remember, you’re not trying to change the breath here, you’re just trying to get to know it.

When your exploration feels complete, let go of the breath let your awareness spread beyond the breath. Rest here for several more moments, and consider how this breath awareness practice has changed you. Do you feel soothed? Frustrated? Delighted? Confused? Enlivened? Uncertain?

If you’re like me, in the beginning you’ll feel a little lost – like a neophyte traveler in a foreign country without a map. Rest assured that over a period of weeks, months and even years, you’ll discover a captivating array of sensations and feelings associated with the breath. You’ll begin to love this new country you’ve come to inhabit. And you’ll wonder how you could have lived for so many years with little awareness of how it actually feels to breathe.

MONTH TWO: RELAXED BREATHING
As you’ve grown familiar with the breath, it’s likely you’ve encountered days when your respiration feels choppy and agitated, and others when it feels smooth and deep. Advanced pranayama practices rely on the steadiness that comes with relaxed breathing, so before proceeding any farther it’s a good idea to explore techniques that allow your breath to feel as easy and tranquil as a quiet lake on a calm summer afternoon.

A relaxed breath has several important characteristics: It is slow, smooth, and easy. The abdomen is soft and receptive, allowing the belly to swell gently as you inhale and recede toward the spine as you exhale.

One of the most effective ways to cultivate slow, deep, and easy breathing is to rest on the belly in crocodile pose, or makarasana. Once you’ve settled in, draw your attention to your lower back. Do you sense it sailing upward toward the sky as you inhale and sinking back toward the ground as you exhale? Don’t force the action - just wait, watch, and open to it. (If you have trouble sensing this movement, place a small beanbag on your lower back - or better yet, ask a friend to gently rest his or her hands there as you breathe.)

After several moments attending to the sensations in your lower back, shift your awareness to your side waists. Linger here for several breaths, noticing how the two sides swell away from one another as you inhale and shrink back toward one another as you exhale, like gills on a fish. After another few moments, shift your awareness to your belly, sensing it press toward the earth with each inhalation and relax toward the spine with each exhalation.

Finally, spread your awareness throughout all the areas you’ve just explored independently: back, belly and sides. As you breathe in, sense the entire belly area blooming outward; as you breathe out, sense it softening toward your body’s core. Invite each breath to be deliciously slow, smooth, and soul-satisfying.

Remain here for five to 10 minutes. Before you emerge, consider how these few moments of relaxed breathing have affected you. It’s possible you’ll feel as settled and stress-free as a cat emerging from an afternoon nap - calm, quiet, and at ease.

MONTH THREE: EQUAL BREATHING
After a few months attending to the breath’s sensations through both Breath Awareness and Relaxed Breathing, you’ve likely reached a point where you can’t imagine NOT noticing your inhalations and exhalations. As your breath has morphed from stranger to friend, you’ve been prepping yourself for the next step in pranayama’s journey: gently directing the breath. We’ll begin by nudging the breath toward a smoother, rounder and more even shape.

We’ll explore this practice, called samavrtti, in supported corpse pose, or supported savasana. After resting quietly for a few moments, key into your breath. Notice whether there are any segments that feel a little choppy or rough. Compare the inhalation and the exhalation: Is one smoother than the other? Rounder? Steadier? Longer? Finally, examine a string of breaths in a row. Do the breaths feel similar or do they vary in rhythm and shape?<

Invite the inhalations and exhalations to grow rounder and more even. Fill out all the spaces in your chest evenly. Let the breath feel silky and fluid as it moves through you. Imagine ironing all the wrinkles out of the breath until every phase feels as even and undisturbed as every other.

When you feel comfortable with this first step, begin fine tuning the inhalations and exhalations until they feel equal in length. Over time, the inhalations and exhalations should even out not just within the same breath, but also among several breaths in a row. When this happens your breath will feel steady, smooth, and rhythmic. Your mind might begin to feel this way, too.

After five minutes exploring this practice, release control of the breath and rest easily. Observe the impact gently reshaping the breath has had on your body and your mind.

MONTH FOUR: LENGTHENING THE BREATH
Once you’ve reached a general level of comfort with the breath and have also tasted the possibility of shaping it without strain, you’re ready to begin gently lengthening it.

We’ll focus here on lengthening just the exhalation, a practice yogis for millennia have offered as an effective means of quieting a restless mind. Start out in crocodile pose, settling the body and relaxing the breath. Once you’ve established a slow and steady breath, draw your awareness to your exhalation. When you reach the endpoint of your normal breath, consider whether you might be able to press just a teeny bit more air out of you - increasing the exhalation by just a second or less. When you’ve done this, inhale naturally and breathe freely for several rounds.

After three or four normal breaths, repeat this exercise. Don’t push or strain, just invite a long, satisfying exhalation to emerge. If it helps, gently contract the abdominal muscles at the end of your exhalation to press that last smidgen of breath out of you. Imagine removing all the inner roadblocks that are obstructing a complete exhalation. When that happens you may find an enormous sigh of relief flowing out of you.

After practicing this breath for five minutes – lengthening every fourth or fifth exhalation - return to natural breathing. Soften, surrender, and observe what effect this exercise has had. If you’re like me, it will have lulled you into a calm and quiet oasis of peace.

Over the course of several weeks, you may feel ready to drop the rest breaths, one at a time, until you reach a point where every exhalation is an extended one. You may also find that over time the exhalations begin to quite effortlessly stretch out even farther. Some experts suggest that one of the most relaxing breathing patterns has an exhale that is twice as long as the inhale. Your body may be heading in that direction on its own.

MONTH FIVE: THE PAUSE
According to some ancient texts, the goal of pranayama is to learn to stop the breath for extended periods of time in an effort to help silence the fluctuations of the mind. This practice of breath retention, or kumbhaka, is considered an advanced technique that should be undertaken under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher.

It is possible, however, to briefly pause the breath without jumping into advanced waters. In the fifth month of breathing exploration, we’ll consider one way to do that: accentuating the pause at the end of the exhalation.

Begin in crocodile pose. After you’ve settled into a relaxed breathing pattern, notice what happens when you reach the end of the exhalation. Do you detect a slight pause? Over the next several moments attend closely to that gap between the breath out and the breath in, however infinitesimal.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with this little rest at the end of the exhalation, consider lingering in that pause for just a half-second longer than usual. Don’t think of holding or freezing the breath. Instead envision simply resting in the stillness. Keep your throat relaxed as you do this, and your eyes cool and quiet. Don’t stay here any longer than you’re comfortable, and discontinue this exploration if it feels disquieting or unnerving.

When you feel the urge to inhale, do so, and then breathe normally for a few moments. When you’re ready, settle again into that brief pause at the end of the exhalation, extending it ever so slightly. Enjoy peace and stillness it offers. Many practitioners find this silent moment the most tranquil and blissful of their entire yoga practice.

After several rounds of lengthening the pause – with three or four natural breaths in between each - emerge from this exploration, noticing how it has affected your state of being.

MONTH SIX: ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING
Once you’ve built a solid foundation of breath awareness and gentle breath control over the course of several months, you may feel ready to explore the classic practice called alternate nostril breathing, or nadi sodhana.

In this technique the fingers are used to close off one nostril at a time, restricting the breath to the opposite side of the nose. This practice emerges from yogis’ belief that each nostril is allied with a particular sort of energy. Breathing through the left nostril is considered to engender feelings of calmness and receptivity, while breathing through the right is associated with feelings of brightness and invigoration. Alternating between the two is said to promote a balanced, fortifying melding of these energies, and a calm and centered mind.

To begin, sit upright with your spine long and erect. Nestle your chin to your chest while remaining uplifted through the heart. When you’re ready to begin, curl the index and middle fingers of the right hand toward the base of the right thumb and then draw that hand to your nose. Gently rest your thumb on the outside of the right nostril, and the fourth and fifth fingers on the outside of the left nostril.

To get the feel of this practice, first restrict the breath only as you exhale. Inhale normally through both nostrils, and then gently close the left nostril while exhaling through the right. Reverse this action on the next round of breath, inhaling normally through both nostrils and then exhaling only through the left. Practice this exercise for 10 to 20 breaths.

Once you feel comfortable with this pattern, perhaps over a period of days or weeks, practice alternate nostril breathing only as you inhale. Exhale normally through both nostrils, block the left nostril and breathe in through the right. Exhale normally through both nostrils and then inhale through the right.

After spending several weeks exploring nadi sodhana bit by bit, you may feel ready to try the complete practice. Start by exhaling and then inhaling through only the right nostril while blocking the left with your fingers. And then change sides, exhaling and inhaling through only the left nostril while closing off the right. You’ve just completed two breaths, or one cycle of nadi sodhana. If you’ve enjoyed this taste of alternate nostril breathing, continue with it until you’ve completed 10 full cycles, or 20 breaths. End just as you began with an exhalation through the right nostril.

Check in with your body and mind. Observe the effect this exercise has on you. Do you feel a little more centered and grounded? A little more balanced and at ease, perhaps? Enjoy the sense of wholeness and wellbeing this classic pranayama practice offers you.

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EXTRAS

GETTING STARTED
- If you have a yoga teacher, seek out his or her guidance. If pranayama classes are offered in your area, sign up!

- If you suffer from a physical or emotional ailment – including respiratory conditions, cardiovascular conditions, depression, anxiety, or glaucoma – or if you are pregnant, consult your physician and an experienced yoga instructor before beginning a pranayama practice.

- Devote at least 15 minutes each day to exploring the breath. Practice in loose, comfortable clothing and on an empty stomach.

- Always begin your pranayama practice with several minutes of relaxation in corpse pose. Once you feel settled, spend a few minutes practicing Breath Awareness before moving to additional pranayama exercises. End each session as you began, resting quietly for several moments in corpse pose.

- Practice with your eyes closed, and whenever possible breathe through your nose.

- The exercises offered here are progressive. Introduce them into your practice in the order they are offered. Stick with each new practice for at least a month before moving on to the next. Progressing through this program even more slowly will deepen the benefits you gain from the practice.

- With the exception of alternate nostril breathing, learn each exercise while lying on the ground. If you are able to sit comfortably with an erect spine for at least 15 minutes at a stretch, consider transitioning to an upright position only after exploring each exercise for several months on the ground. On days when you feel particularly tired, spend your entire pranayama practice resting on the floor.

- As you add new elements practices to your practice, mix and match them to suit the needs of your day. Some days, simple Breath Awareness may be enough. Other days you might like to explore extending the breath and then lengthening the pause. The possibilities are endless. As you learn the effect each exercise has on your body and your mind, you’ll know just what you need in order to soothe and settle your mind.

- Never, ever force the breath. Any time you feel uneasy, lightheaded, dizzy, nauseous, or anxious, let go of the breath entirely, and return to simple relaxation.

PRANAYAMA POSTURES
Traditionally pranayama is practiced on the ground in an upright seated position – such as lotus pose (padmasana), simple cross-legged pose (sukhasana), or adept’s pose (siddasana). In the beginning, though, you’ll have an easier time focusing on the breath while lying down. Instructions for the breathing postures in this program follow:

- Simple Corpse Pose (savasana) – Rest on your back with a pillow or folded blanket underneath your head and neck, making sure that the forehead is slightly higher than the chin. Rest your arms comfortably at your sides. Position your legs so they are either outstretched evenly on the ground, or, if you prefer, with the knees bent and resting on a pillow or folded blanket.

- Crocodile Pose (makrasana) - Lie on your belly with the upper arms on the ground alongside the ears, the elbows bent, and one forearm on top of the other. Rest your forehead on the top wrist. If this is exceptionally uncomfortable for you, rest in child’s pose (balasana) instead, with your hips on your heels and your head resting atop your wrists.

- Supported Corpse Pose (supported savasana) – Fold a blanket to form a long support that is approximately three feet long, 10 inches wide and three inches thick. Lie back over this support, with your hips on the floor and the rest of the back atop of it. Slip an extra pillow or folded blanket underneath your head and neck. Your body will form the shape of stair steps: Your hips will be on the ground, your back will be one step higher on the long bolster, and your head will be another step higher on both the long bolster and the extra head support. Take care to let the chin nestle toward the chest, and even when your eyes are closed invite the them to gaze downward toward your belly.

- Simple cross-legged pose (sukhasana) – Sit on the edge of one or two folded blankets, with the knees bent, the shins crossed, and each heel directly under the opposite knee. Position yourself on your sitting bones, with the spine long and erect. Gently nestle the chin toward the chest, while maintaining an uplifted and broad feeling across the heart. Rest the hands on the thighs. If you prefer, adept’s pose (siddhasana), lotus pose (padmasana), or hero’s pose (virasana) can also be used for seated pranayama. If you are unable to sit in any of these with ease, consider lying down or sitting on the edge of a chair instead.

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This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (October 2006)