Introduction To Pranayama And Yogic Breathing

Breathing is so simple and so obvious we often take it for granted, ignoring the power it has to affect body, mind and spirit. With each inhale we bring oxygen into the body and spark the transformation of nutrients into fuel. Each exhale purges the body of carbon dioxide, a toxic waste. Breathing also affects our state of mind. It can make us excited or calm, tense or relaxed. It can make our thinking confused or clear. What’s more, in the yogic tradition, air is the primary source of prana or life force, a psycho-physio-spiritual force that permeates the universe.

Pranayama is loosely translated as prana or breath control. The ancient yogis developed many breathing techniques to maximize the benefits of prana. Pranayama is used in yoga as a separate practice to help clear and cleanse the body and mind. It is also used in preparation for meditation, and in asana,the practice of postures, to help maximize the benefits of the practice, and focus the mind.

Below are several of the most commonly used forms of pranayama.

Ujjayi Ujjayi is often called the “sounding” breath or “ocean sounding” breath, and somewhat irreverently as the “Darth Vader” breath. It involves constricting the back of the throat while breathing to create an “ah” sound — thus the various “sounding” names.BenefitsFocuses the mindIncreases mindfulness Generates internal heat.

How To Do It

1. Come into a comfortable seated position with your spine erect, or lie down on your back. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils.
2. Allow the breath to be gentle and relaxed as you slightly contract the back of your throat creating a steady hissing sound as you breathe in and out. The sound need not be forced, but it should be loud enough so that if someone came close to you they would hear it.
3. Lengthen the inhalation and the exhalation as much as possible without creating tension anywhere in your body, and allow the sound of the breath to be continuous and smooth.To help create the proper “ah” sound, hold your hand up to your mouth and exhale as if trying to fog a mirror. Inhale the same way. Notice how you constrict the back of the throat to create the fog effect. Now close your mouth and do the same thing while breathing through the nose.

When To Do It

During asana practiceBefore meditationAnytime you want to concentrateDirgha PranayamaKnown as the “complete” or “three-part” breath, dirgha pranayama teaches how to fill the three chambers of the lungs, beginning with the lower lungs, then moving up through the thoracic region and into the clavicular region.

Benefits

Promotes proper diaphragmatic breathing, relaxes the mind and body, oxygenates the blood and purges the lungs of residual carbon dioxide.

How To Do It

Sit with your spine erect, or lie down on your back. Begin taking long, slow, and deep breaths through the nostrils.
1. As you inhale, allow the belly to fill with air, drawing air deep into the lower lungs. As you exhale, allow the belly to deflate like a balloon. Repeat several times, keeping the breath smooth and relaxed, and never straining. Repeat several times.
2. Breathe into your belly as in Step #1, but also expand the mid-chest region by allowing the rib cage to open outward to the sides. Exhale and repeat several times.
3. Follow steps #1 and #2 and continue inhaling by opening the clavicular region or upper chest. Exhale and repeat.
4. Combine all three steps into one continuous or complete flow.

When To Do It

During asana practicePrior to meditationPrior to relaxationAnytime you feel like itNadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)Nadi Shodhana, or the sweet breath, is simple form of alternate nostril breathing suitable for beginning and advanced students. Nadi means channel and refers to the energy pathways through which prana flows. Shodhana means cleansing — so Nadi Shodhana means channel cleaning.

Benefits

Calms the mind, soothes anxiety and stress, balances left and right hemispheres, promotes clear thinking
How to do it
• Hold your right hand up and curl your index and middle fingers toward your palm. Place your thumb next to your right nostril and your ring finger and pinky by your left. Close the left nostril by pressing gently against it with your ring finger and pinky, and inhale through the right nostril. The breath should be slow, steady and full.
• Now close the right nostril by pressing gently against it with your thumb, and open your left nostril by relaxing your ring finger and pinky and exhale fully with a slow and steady breath.
• Inhale through the left nostril, close it, and then exhale through the right nostril. That’s one complete round of Nadi Shodhana —
• Inhale through the right nostril
• Exhale through the left
• Inhale through the left
• Exhale through the right. Begin with 5-10 rounds and add more as you feel ready. Remember to keep your breathing slow, easy and full.

Note from Xan: Keep the face forward (bring the hand to the face and not the face to the hand) and let the elbow extend away from the body to about 45°to maximize lung capacity. Raising the elbow higher will tire the arm quickly.  Let the eyes rest on one point in fronto of you or towards the forehead with eyes closed. Keep the mouth relaxed and closed.

When To Do It

Just about any time and any where. Try it as a mental warm-up before meditation to help calm the mind and put you in the mood. You can also do it as part of your centering before beginning an asana or posture routine. Also try it at times throughout the day. Nadi Shodhana helps control stress and anxiety. If you start to feel stressed out, 10 or so rounds will help calm you down. It also helps soothe anxiety caused by flying and other fearful or stressful situations.

Meditation is the state achieved from intense concentration on a single object until all other thoughts vanish and all that is left is an intense awareness of the object.

For some traditions, that’s all there is to it. In yoga, however, the ultimate goal is a bit more ambitious. Meditation is one of the Eight Limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Called dhyana, meditation is considered the highest practice and is the final step before bliss. James Hewitt, in The Complete Book of Yoga defines the goal of yoga meditation like this: “…meditation means sense withdrawl (pratyahara) and concentration (dharana), sustained into contemplation (dhyana), with the aim of triggering a super-conscious state (samadhi), which is one of intuitive realization of the identity of the individual soul or spirit and the cosmic soul or spirit.”Of course, samadhi may be a long time coming. Frankly, it doesn’t matter because there are lots of other benefits to be had along the way. For example, meditation helps reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve concentration, clarity and creativity. Or, to paraphrase Patanjali’s classic comment about yoga, yogaschittavrittinirodhah — meditation calms the fluctuations of the mind.

However, meditation is not always easy. The “fluctuations of the mind” do not like to be calmed. It’s amazing how many thoughts, how many stories, how many little movies can run through your head in the space between two breaths — especially when you’re trying to meditate. Anne Cushman, a writer for Yoga Journal, once described meditation as being locked in a closet with a lunatic with a megaphone. Fortunately, it’s usually not that bad. Usually.

Whether your goal is enlightenment, revelation, relaxation, simple clarity or low blood pressure, the process of mediation puts you in touch with something good and quietly profound.

A Simple Meditation

Sit in a comfortable position, either in a chair or on the floor, with your back and head straight. You can “warm up” with a couple of deep breaths, ujjayi pranayama or nadi shodhana. Close your eyes. Breathe through your nose. Focus on your breath — cool air in, warm air out. If the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath. That’s it. Start with a 5-10 minute meditation and work your way up to 15, 20, 30 minutes or more. A variation that may make things a little easier at the beginning is to count your breaths. Count up to four and then repeat, over and over. You can add an “and” between counts to fill up the space between breaths. It goes like this: inhale (1) – exhale (and) – inhale (2) – exhale (and)…and so on up to four.

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