Prāṇāyāma: The Breath 101

Pranayama Course Sydney

Use the breath to stay calm.

Conscious deep breathing works like a brush and helps to clear and focus the mind. It sweeps and cleanses your body and mind, releasing you from tiredness, fogginess, poor attention and stress. Incorporating pranayama in your yoga practice improves awareness and is an essential element to help you create space for energy, clarity, calmness and concentration.

Content from T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga

Yoga recommends two possible ways for achieving the qualities of sukha, comfort and lightness, and sthira, steady alertness. The first is to locate knots and resistances in the body and release them. The second possible means for realizing the concept of sthirasukha consists of visualising the perfect posture.

Prāṇāyāma: The Breathing Exercises of Yoga

The word prāṇāyāma consists of two parts: prāṇa and āyāma. Āyāma means “stretch” or “extend,” and describes the action of prāṇāyāma. Prāṇa refers to “that which is infinitely everywhere.” With reference to us humans prāṇa can be described as something that flows continuously from somewhere inside us, filling us and keeping us alive: it is vitality.

The Forms of Prāṇā

There are five forms of prāṇa, all having different names according to the bodily functions with which they correspond. These forms of prāṇa are:

  • udāna-vāyu, corresponding to the throat region and the function of speech
  • prāṇ a-vāyu, corresponding to the chest region
  • samāna-vāyu, corresponding to the central region of the body and the function of digestion
  • apāna-vāyu, corresponding to the region of the lower abdomen and the function of elimination
  • vyāna-vāyu, corresponding to the distribution of energy into all areas of the body

Agni, the Fire of Life

What happens within this movement of prāṇa and apāna? According to yoga we have a fire, agni, in the body, situated in the vicinity of the navel, between the prāṇa-vāyu and the apāna-vāyu. The flame itself is constantly changing direction: on inhalation the breath moves toward the belly, causing a draft that directs the flame downward, just like a fireplace; during exhalation the draft moves the flame in the opposite direction, bringing with it the just-burned waste matter. It is not enough to burn the rubbish; we must also rid the body of it. A breathing pattern where the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation is aimed at providing more time during exhalation for freeing the body of its blockages. Everything we do to reduce the rubbish in the body is a step in the direction of releasing our blockages.

Practical Aspects of Prāṇāyāma

The object of prāṇāyāma practice is to emphasize the inhalation, the exhalation, or retention of breath. Emphasis on the inhalation is called prūaka prāṇāyāma. Recaka prāṇāyāma refers to a form of prāṇāyāma in which the exhalation is lengthened while the inhalation remains free. Kumbhaka prāṇāyāma focuses on breath retention. In kumbhaka prāṇāyāma we hold the breath after inhalation, after exhalation, or after both. Whichever technique we choose, the most important part of prāṇāyāma is the exhalation.

Prāṇāyāma Techniques

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  1. Ujjāyī– In one prāṇāyāma called ujjāyī, or throat breathing, we deliberately contract the larynx slightly, narrowing the air passage. Ujjāyī translates as “what clears the throat and masters the chest area.” Ujjāyī breathing has many variations.
  2. Nāḍī Śodhana– We breath in through the partially closed left nostril, breathe out through the partially closed right nostril, and repeat. The name of this breathing technique is nāḍī śodhananāḍī is the passage or vein through which the breath and energy flow; śodhana means “cleansing.”
  3. Śītalī– During inhalation we curl up both edges of the tongue so that it forma a kind of tube, then we breathe in through this tube. During inhalation the air passes over the moist tongue, cooling down and refreshing the throat. In order to be sure that the tongue remains moist, we roll it back as far as possible against the palate during the entire exhalation so that the next breath is just as refreshing as the first. This technique is called śītalī prāṇāyāma. Śīta means “cool.”
  4. Kapālabhātī– In this practice we deliberately breathe faster, and at the same time use only abdominal breathing, not chest breathing. The breath is short, rapid, and strong. Kapāla means “skull,” and bhātī means “that which brings lightness.”
  5. Bhastrika– The word bhastrika means “bellows.” In bhastrika breathing he abdomen moves like a pair of bellows. If one nostril is blocked, then we draw the air in quickly through the open nostril and breath out strongly through the blocked one.

The Gradual Process of Prāṇāyāma

When we take up the practice of prāṇāyāma, we should proceed gradually, step by step. Because we are starting something new, directing our attention toward the breath-not the body-it is important to rest for several minutes after we finish āsana practice and before we begin prāṇāyāma. The time between āsana practice and prāṇāyāma practice is not just to rest the body it also helps the mind to make the transition from one practice to the other.

Breath Ratios

It is possible in prāṇāyāma to fix the ratio between the inhalation, the retention afterward, the exhalation, and the retention after that. The many possibilities for these ratios can be divided roughly into two categories:

  1. The inhalation, the exhalation, and the breath retention are all the same length-we call this samavṛtti prāṇāyāma (sama means “the same” and vṛtti means “to move”). This type of prāṇāyāma practice is good for people who use a mantra in their breathing exercises; they can make the inhalation, the exhalation, and the retention of the breath = last for the same number of mantra repetitions.
  2. The different phases of the breath are of different lengths-we call this viṣamavṛtti prāṇāyāma. The general rule in this practice is to let the exhalation be twice as long as the inhalation.

Focus on Prāṇāyāma

There are certain techniques that will help us maintain concentration in prāṇāyāma. In concentrating on the breath, we can focus on the flow of the breath, the sound of the breath, or the place where the most work is occurring. The latter will be determined by the phase of breathing we are in.

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