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Pranayama Basics

November 14, 2010
Getting started with pranayama requires patience and clear vision. It’s important to follow a methodical plan and advance slowly into the practice. Here are a few tips to help you find your way, as you explore A Beginner's Guide to Pranayama, my article on getting started with a yogic breathing practice.

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.

Several classic yoga postures are often offered as good training grounds for the breath. Traditionally pranayama is practiced on the ground in an upright seated position such as lotus pose, or padmasana, simple cross-legged pose, or sukhasana, or adept’s pose, siddasana. In the beginning, though, you’ll have an easier time focusing on the breath while lying down in the following poses.

Simple corpse pose, or 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, or 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, or balasana, instead, with your hips on your heels and your head resting atop your wrists.

Supported corpse pose, or 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, or 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 lotus pose or hero’s pose 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.

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