Why Practice Pranayama

Pranayama is the process and technique of increasing our life force energy and activating it to a higher frequency. It is not merely breath control. What yoga can do, the practice of pranayama yoga has been reported to be beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders, improving autonomic functions, relieving symptoms of asthma, depression, stuttering and reducing signs of oxidative stress (inability of the body to detoxify the harmful effects of free radicals).

How yoga helps the mind: The practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will power and sound judgment. In addition, regular pranayama exercises help to extend life and enhance perception: In old age, the respiratory function decreases due to the contraction of the air cells of the lungs. Pranayama will help to normalize their size and make the red corpuscles circulate in all parts of the body, infusing life and vigor throughout.

There are many different types of pranayama exercises and breathing techniques. Which yoga practice is best for you depends on the style of yoga as well as the intent being practiced. The following techniques of Pranayama are some of the most common in the modern Hatha Yoga System:

  • Upper Breathing 
  • Middle Breathing 
  • Abdominal Breathing 
  • Yogic Breathing 
  • Full Yogic Breathing 

Ujjayi pranayama (pronounced: oooh-jai) is also called victorious breath or ocean breath (in kid’s classes it’s playfully called Darth Vader breath). This pranayama stretches and warms the breath before it enters into the lungs. This helps in generating a heat that is effective in getting rid of the toxins in the body. Both the inhalations and exhalations are performed through the nose. The breath is directed to the back of the throat while the muscles are constricted, causing a hissing sound like the sound of an ocean. As the passage of the throat is made narrower the air speed is increased.

Benefits of Ujjayi Pranayama

Ujjayi pranayama is yoga breathing for stress relief, it helps to bring calmness to the body and mind. As the focus is on the breathing during the practice, concentration also improves. Ujjayi pranayama also offers benefits in stimulating the metabolic rate and increasing the blood circulation through the body. It also enables the lungs to absorb more oxygen, and helps to heat the body from the inside. According to Krishnamacharya, ujjayi pranayama is a balancing and calming breath that increases oxygenation and builds internal body heat. It also helps to regulate blood pressure, and is frequently used in Power Yoga and Vinyasa Flow Yoga. This breath enables the practitioner to maintain a rhythm to his or her practice, take in enough oxygen, and helps build energy to maintain practice, while clearing toxins from the body. This breath is especially important during transition into and out of asanas (postures), as it helps practitioners to stay present, self-aware and grounded in the practice, which lends it a meditative quality.

Will yoga help my breathing? Yes. Another way to think about ujjayi breathing is to visualize your throat as a garden hose, with the breath passing through like a trickle of water. If you put your thumb partially over the opening of the hose, you increase the power of the water that is coming through. This is the same thing you are doing with your throat during ujjayi breathing. The air that comes in through your constricted throat is a powerful, directed breath that you can send into the parts of your body that need it during yoga. You could begin practicing ujjayi pranayama for around three minutes, and slowly go up to ten minutes (eventually you will maintain ujjayi throughout your asana practice). The time duration of your inhalations and exhalations should be the same. As and when you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the breathing.

Antara Kumbhaka (inhale retention) Bahya Kumbhaka (exhale retention)

Antara Kumbhaka means full container. It refers to the part of the breath after the inhalation (puraka) when the lungs are full of air. It can be done passively or with an energy throat lock called jālandhara bandha.

How to learn yoga breathing: Introduce the technique after inhalations have been mastered and harmonized rhythmically. 

Once the lungs have filled with air cease forcing it in. Many practitioners try too hard when inhaling and as a result strain the nervous system. This can shorten the time they are able to retain after inhalation.

Using too much force when entering this kumbhaka results in a negative effect on the exhalation. A good indication of capacity is the quality of your subsequent breath: If the exhalation has a rushed, forced quality, then the inhale retention was too long.

Benefits of Breath Retention Pranayama

Yogi scholars believe that a person has one thought on inhalation, and another on exhalation. The speed at which one breathes, determines how many thoughts they have. The more thoughts one has, the faster the breathing rate, and the harder it is to find the concentration (dharana) needed for meditation (dhyana) to reach total absorption with the divine (samadhi).

Larry Schultz (ref: Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, 2000) gives the example of a water pot made from clay/mud:

  • Before you fill it up, you need to bake and seal it so that it’s strong and water won’t leak out from the bottom → the exhale retention ensures this doesn’t happen, by lifting the pelvic floor and drawing the navel in to the spine, the bottom of your pot prevents prana from leaking out. 
  • At the top of the pot, you need to have a stopper preventing water from overflowing and spilling out → inhale retention with jalandhara bandha is the stopper.

The idea here is to bring the breath up through the sushumna nadi on the inhalations, while the exhalation maintains grounding and stability. This pranayama exercise is soothing for the system, and a great way to learn how to engage the bandhas with breath.

Bhastrika Pranayama (bhastrika: bellow)

How does yoga breathing work? Bhastrika pranayama (bellows breathe) is performed with breathing that is deep and rapid. The main focus in Bhastrika pranayama is the expulsion of air.

Bhastrika requires forceful abdominal breathing through the nostrils for both the inhalation and exhalation. Ensure inhalation and exhalation are of equal length. Continue to breathe in this manner for 10 rounds. At the end of the 10th breath, take a slow and steady inhalation, followed by a complete exhalation. Take note that only the lungs, diaphragm and abdomen move, not the shoulders and chest.

Note: Beginners should stick to a limit of 5 breaths x 5 rounds. However, you should take care when performing expulsions that are powerful as they can damage the lung tissues.

This practice is similar to kapalabhati, but both inhalation and exhalation are forceful and of equal length. If the exhalation is shorter than the inhalation, it might cause hyperventilation. Another difference is that sounds are produced from the nose, not from the throat.

Benefits of Bhastrika Pranayama 

Bhastrika pranayama is strongly energizing, helps to balance the three doshas (vata, pitta, kapha) and brings calmness to the mind.

This is one of the most vitalising and dynamic pranayama techniques. It accelerates the metabolism and strengthens the nervous system. It fans the internal fire, heating both the subtle (energetic) and physical bodies:

  • Stimulates pranic movement in the coccygeal, navel, thoracic, and brain centres.
  • Increases physical vitality and clarity of mind.;
  • The heat generated helps to purify sushumna and prepares it for the ascent of kundalini energy.
  • Contraindications: People with high blood pressure, heart disease, vertigo, brain tumours, stomach or intestinal ulcers, glaucoma, dysentery, diarrhoea should always/only attempt these pranayama exercises under the case of an experienced yoga practitioner/guru, as well as under advisement of their healthcare professional.
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