Pranayama: breathing in yoga & in life

Yogis, this post is all about prana or “that which is infinitely everywhere” – the universal energy that flows within and around all of us. We’ll talk about some about prana then we’ll talk about pranayama – the 4th limb on the yogic path. Finally, I’ll give you some pranayama to take home and practice. (Including some embarrassing but hopefully helpful selfies)

Keep in mind, while an asana practice is likely to lead to body awareness and a more comfortable seat and is therefore helpful for pranayama, absolutely no physical yoga experience is required to benefit from these breathing techniques. You don’t need to be able to do a handstand, have big muscles, a flat belly, any flexibility, or fancy yoga clothes. All you need is lungs, a nose, a mouth, and one hand. Got it all? Great.

What is prana?

So “that which is infinitely everywhere”…complex topic, yeah? Prana can be translated and interpreted in many beautiful ways (life, breath, flow, universal energy, etc) but we’ve got at least one thing down for sure, without prana, there is no life. Prana is shared and infinite. We are all one, taking part of this flow. If physical or mental issues disrupt this flow, we don’t feel our best and cannot truly connect with our highest self.

To make things more tangible, consider your breath. It flows in and out of your body, filling you, gifting you life. This is prana. It is already in you, flowing continuously from within your own being. As you inhale and exhale, you are experiencing “that which is infinitely everywhere”. You are taking part in the universal flow. So cool.

There are different forms and directions of prana in our body called vayus. I won’t get into these but Google if it sparks interest.

And pranayama?

You may have heard the word yama in other yoga contexts. If not, no worries. The yamas are the first limb in the yogic path. The word yama means “constraint”. So 1 + 1 is 2 and pranayama is breath constraint. The breath is mentioned all over ancient yoga texts. As I mentioned before, disruptions in prana = not well. So the goal in pranayama as a concept is to be able to control and maintain our prana. Formentioned yoga texts depict a well person with prana within them – they have a lot of space for prana. While an unwell person has prana constantly flowing out of them – they are blocked and full of other junk, making less space. This isn’t a new concept to you. Think of how you lose your breath when you are shocked or frightened. Think of how your body relaxes when you take a deep breath in. And a slow breath out.

If you’ve been to a yoga class, you may have experienced pranayama. Maybe slowing down the breath, lengthening your exhale, maybe counting is duration, breathing in a specific way, etc. In Asana practice, we often focus on our breath to stay present and not wander off into discomfort or distractions. Breath also helps us deepen our asana practice. Notice how you feel when you inhale your way into a deep backbend: your front body extends in every direction with breath. So there are benefits of breathing in particular ways for your physical yoga practice as well as in your ordinary life.

All of this being said, pranayama is an advanced practice. It requires body awareness, patience, and consistency to further you towards your goal. If a pranayama practice is uncomfortable, if you ever feel you are gasping for breath, this may be a message from your body to practice breathing normally and focusing on the breath instead.

Let’s get into some of my favorite pranayama techniques. For each of these breath exercises, you will find a comfortable seat. This could look anyway you need, but the spine is upright. Lotus, meditation cushion, easy seat, criss cross applesauce, kneeling, hero’s pose, a chair, whatever.

Sitali

Sitali is a favorite pranayama of mine, especially as I am living on the Equator and sweating my a$$ off every day. Because, sitali is a cooling, refreshing breath. Sita means cool. I love sitali on a hot day, during a rest in a hot yoga class or intense yoga practice, sometimes I even practice this breath between sets at the gym…because that is me. It would also be good to cool down from a stressful situation or argument.

Come to your seat. In Sitali breath, we will curl the edges of the tongue to form a tongue tube. Inhale through the tongue tube for as long as you can. Inhaling over your moist tongue will cool your throat. Before you exhale, draw the tongue back against the palate as far as possible to keep it moist. (Do people still have an issue with the word moist? Lmk) then exhale out the mouth or the nose slowly with control (I prefer mouth). See my photo. If you cannot roll your tongue into a tongue tube, don’t fret! You can get the same cooling effect by parting the lips and teeth, placing the tongue between the upper and lower teeth, and inhaling through the mouth, allowing air to flow over the tongue. Yes, this breath should make a little noise.

Kapalabhati

You don’t have to pronounce it correctly to get the benefits. This is a goodie. Kapalabhati is an intense cleansing breath. Kapala means skull. Bhati means bringing light. So this pranayama technique is often referred to as “Skull Shining breath”. If you feel full of mucus, this will clean you right up. It’s good for if you feel ill but it is also preventative and great for your immune system. Beyond the physical, practice this breath when you are looking for intense changes or cleanups of life. This breath makes me feel lighter, stronger, capable and confident.

I find this breathing technique quite difficult so don’t fret about getting it right right away. The breath will be rapid and shallow. We will use our lungs like a pump. Come to a comfortable seat. Close your eyes and turn them upwards, like you’re trying to see your 3rd eye. Focus here. Seal your lips. Inhale through the nose 1/3 of capacity. Exhale forcefully through the nose. In this breath, we exhale with so much force that the inhale comes natural – push so much air out in such little time that you inhale very quickly after. It may be helpful to place a hand on your belly and feel the rapid motion of your breath.

Practice this breath with caution as it could cause you to feel dizzy or lightheaded. You also may want to avoid this pranayama after meals as the sharp exhale may restrict your stomach. Be sure to take breaks and breath normally. I aim to breath rapidly for 40s-1min at a time before breathing normally and repeating but it is important to listen to your body and never constrict prana.

Nadi Sodhana

The best for last – this may be my favorite pranayama. I practice this every day, usually twice a day. Nadi means “passage” of which energy flows and sodhana means “cleansing”. This breathing technique brings a calming, balancing energy. I encourage you to try this one out before bed, before a yin yoga practice, before meditation, when you’re stressed or feeling out of wack, etc.

Find your seat. To practice, we will use our right hand to open and close our nostrils as we inhale and exhale. Find a comfortable seat. Rest your left hand where it is comfortable, you can use a mudra here or not. Bring your right hand towards your face. See photo. Place your index and middle finger on your forehead, between your brows. Slight pressure. With your thumb, block (partially or fully, up to you & your sinuses today) your right nostril. Inhale with your left nostril. Retain the breath at the top for as long as comfortable (maybe not at all). While retaining, use your ring finger to block the left nostril. Unblock the right. Exhale through the right nostril. Keep left blocked and right unblocked. Inhale through the right, retain, switch, exhale through the left. Inhale left, retain, switch, exhale right. Inhale right, retain, switch, exhale left. And so on. We switch nostrils at the top of each inhale. & yes that is some fresh ink on my finger #teamtatted (I’m joking) (but it is ink. My pen leaked into my bag pity me)

If you find the hand position uncomfortable or restrictive, use the surfers hand instead. Thumb blocks right, pinky blocks left. See picture. Hang freaking ten.

Repeat for as long as comfortable. I usually practice nadi sodhana for 2 – 5 min.

Enjoy the prana 😘

If you have favorite pranayama techniques, leave them in the comments!

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