Prana can be translated to mean breath, though in subtle terms it is also associated with ‘life force’, ‘vital energy’. Ayama means control. Together, Pranayama means control of breath. It is a vital part of Yogic practise consisting of breathing exercises which can have profound effects on the body and the mind.
The breath is automatic and occurs as a bodily process even when we are unconscious of it but it can also be consciously controlled when we will it with our minds. This is why the breath is claimed to be the bridge between the mind and the body. You may have also observed how the breath changes based not only on physical exertion and rest, but also based on different emotions. The corrolary then is that physical and emotional states can also be controlled through the control of the breath.
Traditionally, the mastery of Pranayama is arrived after the mastery over Asana – posture. But in practice, some Pranayama exercises are integrated into a Yoga class. The breath is central to the practise of Yoga. Asanas without attention to breath are simply empty movement with far less benefits.
Here I introduce a few common and simple breathing exercises.
Keep in mind that before doing any Pranayama
- You should feel light and comfortable in terms of your body (read; a light stomach and done with all ablutions) and clothes.
- The body should stay relaxed with the spine erect and centered, and eyes closed.
- A meditative posture such as Padmasana or Vajrasana is recommended though the simple cross legged Sukhasana is also fine.
- There should not be any strain during these exercises. Breath should not be retained longer than comfortable. Normal breathing is sufficient.
- Those with loose motions should take a break from Pranayama. Those with heart complaints, high blood pressure, slip disc or spondylosis, or those who are menstruating or pregnant should avoid Kapalabhati and Bhastrika (not covered in this post).
- Pranayama should leave you feeling fresh. Do not overdo your practice all in one go. Try to maintain a regular practice
- Perform the exercises in a place with fresh air, no dust or insect disturbances.
The diagram above illustrates different aspects of our total lung capacity. Automatic breathing, when we are not particularly aware of our breath, nor controlling it in anyway, is illustrated by Tidal Volume. This can give you then an idea of how much of lung capacity we don’t actually utilise.
Yogic breathing is a method by which to take fuller breaths. Often this practice starts with sectional breathing consisting of belly breathing, chest breathing and clavicular breathing.
One of the most crucial exercises to build awareness of a full and relaxed breath is Belly Breathing.
- Sit relaxed with your back straight, preferably in a meditative posture and eyes closed
- Place your hands over your belly on either side of your bellybutton with your fingers loosely interlaced
- Breathe slowly and fully into your belly in a way that it rises and expands and the interlace of your fingers come apart
- Breathe slowly and fully out in a way that your belly falls and contracts back inwards and fingers will interlace back together
- Repeat slowly five to ten times
This may feel awkward or counterintuitive at first since many people are used to breathing into their chest and sucking in their belly. Practising belly breathing can be it itself very relaxing. The method becomes clear when we watch how people breathe when they sleep.
In Belly Breathing you are gaining lung capacity by expanding and contracting the diaphragm at the base of the lungs.
- Slide your interlaced fingers upwards to the centre of your chest
- Breathe slowly and fully into your chest, keeping your belly as uninvolved as possible. The rise and expansion of the chest will be felt in the interlaced fingers.
- Breathe slowly and fully out and let your chest fall inwards. The fingers will interlace more closely.
- Repeat slowly five to ten times
In Chest Breathing you are gaining lung capacity by expanding and contracting the intercostal muscles located between each of the ribs.
- Slide your interlaced fingers further up until they are on your clavicle between your shoulders
- Breathe slowly and fully into your the top of your chest raising your shoulders and collar bones. Keep your belly and chest as uninvolved as possible. The rise and expansion of the clavicle will be felt in the interlaced fingers. The expansion will be fairly small relative to the belly and chest.
- Breathe slowly and fully out and let your shoulders drop. The fingers will interlace more closely.
- Repeat slowly five to ten times
In Clavicular Breathing you are becoming aware of the expansion possible from the shoulder and collar bones area. It corresponds to the uppermost lobes of the lungs. It is the shallowest form of breathing.
After the sectional breathing, the capacity by the expansions of different parts of the respiratory system becomes clear. Now full Yogic Breathing becomes simple.
- Inhale and expand the belly, chest and then the clavicles in sequence as the breath reaches full capacity
- Exhale and drop the belly, chest and then the clavicles in sequence, pulling them all inward as much as possible until all the air is expelled
The inhalation and exhalation happens first by expanding or contracting the belly so it acts almost like a fulcrum. Remember, the positioning of the hands on the belly, chest and clavicles are only to get a sense of the expansion in the right areas as you start out. Once you develop the awareness of each section and the expansion possible in them, it is perfectly fine to do this exercise without the interlaced fingers.
Another thing to keep in mind during this breathing exercise is to keep the breath smooth. It may be difficult to breathe so slowly and fully at first as you may not be used to using this much of your total lung capacity but with practise you will find that it gets easier.
Note – the residual lung capacity cannot be exhaled as it is what keeps the alveoli and the delicate lung structurally stable.
This second exercise is a form of cleansing as it removes stale air pockets not normally circulated during shallow breathing. Typically a Yoga session can start with this kriya as another method to open the lung capacity and refresh the lungs and body. It is an especially useful exercise to feel fresh and alert in the mornings.
- Sit relaxed with your back straight in a meditative posture and eyes closed
- Keep face and jaw relaxed
- Take a deep breath and exhale slowly and fully
- From this state of exhalation (the lower limit of Tidal Volume) begin a forceful and fast exhalation by sharply drawing the belly inward. (You are clearing out as much of the Expiratory Reserve Volume as you can with each exhalation and creating enough circulation that even the Residual Volume is refreshed)
- Allow the inhalation to be passive. Do not exert any control over this inhalation.
- Follow with active and forceful exhalation again
- Continue in a steady rhythm that is comfortable to you
- To start with, 20 is a good count. As you get more comfortable, build it up to around 80 or 100 at a time.
- Once you are done, keep still and observe the changes in your heart rate and breath. Often you may not feel like taking an inhalation for a few moments. Once you do, take a few full breaths and return to normal breathing.
There are several variations within Kapalabhati such as done in different postures, or using only one nostril, or alternating nostrils between the breaths or after each breath. Each of these have the basic benefits of Kapalabhati and some extra uses.
My guru always stressed Nadi Shuddhi as one of the most important exercises you could ever learn. She said if you do nine rounds of it six times a day you will never get sick.
Take your finger horizontally under your nostrils and feel for which nostril is more active. The right one is associated with surya, the Sun – higher metabolic processes and the sympathetic nervous system whereas the left nostril is associated with chandra, the Moon – calmer, more relaxed state and the parasympathetic nervous system. The body automatically alernates the primary nostril every few hours or based on the environmental or psychological state one is in. The body needs to have a balance between these two types of processes. Sickness can result from an imbalance in this alternation.
Nadi Shuddhi brings the body back to a balance through this connection between the breathing patterns of the nostril and our metabolic states. The aim is to have balanced breath betwen the two nostrils, slowed down and with heightened awareness. It can have a very profound effect when done around 20 cycles or more in one stretch. It simultaneously relaxes and refreshes the body and the mind. The minimum though is nine cycles in one go. It is usually done towards the end of a Yoga session.
A fundamental mudra in Pranayama practice is the Nasika Mudra. In your right hand fold in the pointing and middle fingers and keep the ring and little fingers straight along with the thumb. The palm will bend a little into itself. This is ok. In alternate nostril breathing the top of the thumb is used to block the right nostril and the top of the ring finger is used to block the left nostril. The fingers should not press into the nostrils such that the nose bends. They should only gently close the nostrils.
- Sit with spine erect in a relaxed comfortable posture, preferably a meditative posture
- With the Nasika Mudra on the right hand, bring it up to the nose
- Take a deep breath and release
- Now, block gently the right nostril as you inhale from the left nostril
- Block the left nostril and exhale through your right nostril
- Keeping the left nostril blocked, inhale through the right nostril
- Switch to block the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril
- This completes one cycle. Repeat at least nine times in one session.
Ensure that the breath is smooth and does not feel forced. There may be an imbalance in the length of each inhalation and exhalation in the two nostrils. Just be aware of this and how it may change as you continue to practice. As you continue with each cycle, the depth of the breath may increase and the overall pace of breath may slow down. Pay attention to your posture and keep a count of the breath cycles.
That brings us to the final section of this post:
The Scientific studies that have been done related to Pranayama. Unlike Meditation, Pranayama has not been studied by as many people. Here is a very brief taster of the studies out there.
The most studied exercise is Nadi Shuddhi, also called Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril breathing. One study explores the effect of three types of nostril breathing to try and isolate the effect of each nostril on metabolism as indicated by relative oxygen consumption and galvanic skin response. Another study investigated the effect of nadi shuddhi on cardiorespiratory functioning and found that after four weeks of practice of only fifteen minutes a day in the morning, significant decreases occures in pulse rate, respiratory rate and diastolic blood pressure, promoting parasympathetic activity. Forced alternate nostril breathing has been studied with EEG and found to have balancing effects on the function of both hemispheres of the brain. Yogic breathing seems to have beneficial effects on spatial memory. A study also showed that blood pressure decreased significanlty following alternate breathing.
Though the studies are fascinating, experiencing the effects of these breathing exercises first hand is quite another thing. And all you need is your breath!