Pranayama – The Beginner’s Guide


 

People get started with yoga when they find its physical aspects appealing. But till the time they don’t support it with Pranayama or the breathing techniques, their bodies remain closed to the inner, mysterious workings of yoga. Most even find it irrelevant or illogical to be true. Such people need to understand that giving your system a little breathing exercise only amplifies the benefits of yoga and lets your body retain them for a much longer period of time.

Why should one practice Pranayama?

On an average, we take around 21,600 breaths per day. All unconsciously. When you practice Pranayama, you engage with the natural rhythm of your body and observe as it happens and changes it course. Gradually, we develop a control over it. Now the question is how gaining control over breath is helpful to us?

Tending to that, you must know that, our every emotional state has a typical kind of breath movement associated with it. The same goes for our physical activities too. In short, our breathing pattern varies widely throughout the day, sometimes shallow, sometimes fast and sometimes nervous. And as is visible, gaining control over our breath throughout the day can result in a better control of most of our emotional/stress reactions we go through during the day.

Moreover, science tells us, a person’s daily life is dominated by one side of their bodies/brain, depending on their dominant hand, right or left. Accordingly, their all kinds of positive and negative energies remain confined to that very side, which obviously creates an imbalance. When you practice Pranayama, you re-distribute these energies to create a fine equilibrium which you feel even after years of dropping the practice.

History and Origin

So, as you must have figured out by now, Pranayama is a set of ancient approach of controlling your breath. It is usually practiced in conjunction with Yoga poses. While, Yoga asanas aim at expanding your body/physical structure, Pranayama is focused at filling that newly created space with fresh breath and positive energies.

Pranayama, the word is derived from two words – Prana, meaning ‘life force’ and ayama, meaning ‘extending out’. So, Pranayama in essence is extension of your life force. The practice dates back to the origins of Hinduism or even before that (483 BCE). Although, it has no religious connections to it, and hence, can be practiced by anyone.

Health Benefits

  • Better concentration – steady mind and body
  • Relaxation and creating a balance between stress and emotional energies
  • Awareness of mind, body and self
  • Relief from depression, hypertension, diabetes, insomnia and all other kinds of psycho-somatic disorders
  • Can be practiced even during travelling. It is considered a medicine in hand.
  • Utilization of Respiratory system to its full potential
  • When practiced with simultaneous chanting of OM, it has many therapeutic effects on body too. Read about them in detail here: The Science Behind “OM” and Tapping Its Power In Yoga

How to get started

Ideally, you should practice Pranayama under expert supervision. Most Yoga classes provide weekend Pranayama classes along with regular conscious breathing with the poses. So, one should make a point to never miss any of it. Under any circumstance, if you don’t find a class or time in your schedule, make use of video resources available online and try slowly. Only when you find yourself comfortable, should you go for a certain kind of breathing technique.

According to ancient Vedic texts, Pranayama should ideally be practiced 4 times a day and 21 times in one go. However, considering the present lifestyle, it is not possible to devote this much time to conscious breathing alone. So, present day yogis advise to do it once everyday, preferably early morning, when the air is fresh and environment is tranquil.

Basic Pranayama lingo

Since Pranayama is essentially an art of breathing, its lingo revolves around only three words – Puraka (inhalation), Rechaka (Exhalation), and Kumbhaka (retention). Throughout the various procedures, you’ll find different variations of speed, number or duration of these three basic elements only.

Who should/should not do it

We all breathe, and so, everyone should perform Pranayama. However, some specific kinds like Kapalbhati Prananyama, which are more taxing than rest, and hence, are not advisable for people with acute respiratory and blood pressure problems. For convenience, here we have mentioned separately who should avoid that particular technique under every section. Although, it is best to first discuss it with your physician regarding your fitness level to perform Pranayama.

Things required

  • An expert guidance
  • Comfortable clothing and yoga mat
  • A peaceful and placid vicinity

Best poses

Lotus pose (Padmasana), Accomplished pose (Siddasana), Hero pose (Virasana), Pelvic pose (Vajrasana), and Easy pose (Sukhasana) are considered the best poses to practice Pranayama. But , in case you find yourself difficult holding these poses, just cross your legs in off or may be sit erect on a chair. The reason to sit in a comfortable position is that if you sit with difficulty, your concentration will be on your pains instead of breathing and this defeats the purpose of Pranayama.

Types of Pranayama

There are over 50 types of Pranayama with minor variations in technique but major influence on end effect. A few common kinds are summarized below with the procedure to do them.

  1. Kapalbhati Pranayama
  2. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
  3. Ujjayi Pranayama
  4. Surya Bhedi Pranayama
  5. Bhastrika Pranayama
  6. Kumbhaka Pranayama
  7. Sama Vritti Pranayama
  8. Sitali Pranayama

^Back to the list^

1. Skull shining (Kapalbhati) Pranayama

Translated as ‘skull illuminating’ breath, Kapalbhati forms part of an internal cleansing system of yogic tradition. The technique affects frontal and hind brain mainly, by cleaning the cranial sinuses through short and forceful exhalations.

Difficulty level: Intermediate to Advanced

Benefits: Cleared sinuses, energized brain, prevention of allergies[1]

Note: Patients of high blood pressure, hernia, asthma, emphysema, pregnant women should avoid doing it

Procedure for Kapabhati Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down. To bring your awareness to your lower belly, you can even place your hands on your belly, one on top of the other.

  1. Take a long deep breath through both nostrils.
  2. Using your hands or without them too, try to contract your low belly, forcing out the breath in a short burst.
  3. Keeping your focus solely on exhalation, quickly release the contraction.
  4. Initially, your goal should be 65-70 contractions per minute, gradually quickening to 95-105 exhalation/inhalation cycles per minute.
  5. After every minute of the exercise, inhale deeply and exhale slowly through your mouth.

^Back to the list^

2. Channel cleansing (Nadi Shodhana) Pranayama

It is also known as ‘Anuloma-Viloma‘ or ‘Alternate Breathing.’ In yogic philosophy, it is believed that human body consists of 72,000 energy channels which lead to energy centers. Now, due to human ignorance, energy remains locked in these centers unless a conscious effort is made to release them. This ensues unlocking of full potential of human mind and body.

The science of energy channels is explained at length in this article: Kundalini Yoga

Difficulty level: Beginner to Intermediate

Benefits: Cleansed energy channels, calm mind, enhanced immunity, strengthened nervous system, relief from insomnia and stress[2]

Note: The inhale exhale ratio advised is 1:2, i.e., exhale time should be twice as long as the inhale time.

Procedure for Nadi Shodhana Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Left on knee, palm facing downwards. Fold forefinger, middle and ring finger keeping thumb and small finger free of right hand.

  1. Close right nostril with thumb and breathe in through left nostril.
  2. Now, using the little finger, close the left nostril, simultaneously releasing pressure on thumb, breath out by right. This is one cycle of breathing. Repeat it for 3 minutes.
  3. Now, alternate the position of both hands. Right on knee and three fingers of left hand folded in.
  4. This time close left nostril with thumb and breathe in through right one.
  5. Use your left little finger, close the right nostril and release thumb. Breath out by left nostril. This is another cycle of breathing. Repeat it for 3 minutes.
  6. If you feel resistance or light-headedness, take a small break of normal breathing.

^Back to the list^

3. Ocean Breath (Ujjayi) Pranayama

Also known as hissing or victorious breath, the Ujjayi Pranayama is characterized by a sound similar to ocean waves.

Difficulty level: Beginner

Benefits: Relief from insomnia, depression, stress, thyroid, heart and blood pressure problems[3]

Note: The inhalation and exhalation ratio should be maintained 1:2

Procedure for Ujjayi Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down.

  1. Take a deep breath through both nostrils by contracting the throat so as to make a hissing sound.
  2. Exhale slowly through nose again by making the same hissing sound.
  3. Breath deep and long for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Rest for a minute by breathing normally.
  5. Repeat twice with intermittent breaks.

^Back to the list^

4. Sun piercing (Surya bhedi) Pranayama

Also known by the name of Moon piercing Pranayama, this is a technique of alternate nostril breathing. Yogic texts consider right nostril to be sun governed and left governed by moon. This procedure aims to balance both sides of a person’s body. As a caution: It should not be practiced by people suffering from high blood pressure and asthma/emphysema.

Difficulty level: Beginner to Intermediate

Benefits: Delays ageing, improves digestion and immunity, open up chest cavity and increase respiratory capacity, enhances body temperature

Note: The inhalation and exhalation ratio should be maintained 1:2 initially and later advanced to 1:4:2 (inhalation, holding and exhalation, respectively).

Procedure for Surya bhedi Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Left on knee, palm facing downwards. Fold forefinger, middle and ring finger keeping thumb and small finger free of right hand.

  1. Close right nostril with thumb and breathe in through left nostril.
  2. Now, using the little finger, close the left nostril, simultaneously releasing pressure on thumb, breath out by right. This is one cycle of breathing. Repeat it for 3 minutes.
  3. Now, alternate the position of both hands. Right on knee and three fingers of left hand folded in.
  4. This time close left nostril with thumb and breathe in through right one.
  5. Use your left little finger, close the right nostril and release thumb. Breath out by left nostril. This is another cycle of breathing. Repeat it for 3 minutes.
  6. If you feel resistance or light-headedness, take a small break of normal breathing.
  7. After mastering this for a month or two, try holding breath for four times as long as the inhale time and exhaling twice of inhale time. Maintain a proportion of 1:4:2 between inhale, holding and exhale time.

^Back to the list^

5. Bellows (Bhastrika) Pranayama

It derives it name from iron smith’s bellows and holds the potential to light a person’s internal fire or metabolism, as is done by bellows to a furnace. It is performed as a series of rapid breathing, both inhalations and exhalations.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Benefits: Enhanced endurance and stamina, energized body, improved reaction time[4]

Note: A good breathing exercise for winters

Procedure for Bhastrika Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down.

  1. Take a fast and strong inhale.
  2. Exhale immediately with a snap contracting your diaphragm.
  3. If you feel resistance or light-headedness, stop and rest intermittently with full breaths.
  4. Finish with 10 minutes of silence in Savasana.
  5. For advanced Bhastrika Pranayama, try alternate nostril breathing (inhale from one and exhale from another).

^Back to the list^

6. Retention (Kumbhaka) Pranayama

This Pranayama is all about retaining and holding your breath to stop time and savor the beauty of moment. Kumbhaka Pranayama can be done in two ways: holding breath on inhale and holding it after exhale. However, as a beginner, inhaled breath should be held and later graduate to exhaled retention after a month’s regular practice.

Difficulty level: Beginner to Intermediate

Benefits: Enhanced cardio stamina and endurance, improved digestion and immunity, positive and energized mind[5]

Note: Never strain your body to hold breath for longer, as the capacity increases by itself over time. Take normal breathing breaks intermittently.

Procedure for Kumbhaka Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down or in hermit’s gesture (forefinger and thumb gently touching each other’s tips, rest fingers casually opened)

  1. Breathe normally with both your nostrils. Do not raise your head up or slouch your back.
  2. Try to hold it for a few seconds and exhale slowly. The ratio between inhale and exhale should be 1:2.
  3. As you find yourself comfortable, try holding breath for longer than twice of inhale time and gradually move to four times of it.
  4. Once your inhale, hold and exhale ratio becomes 1:4:2, make effort to hold breath after exhale, i.e. inhale, exhale and hold.
  5. When you master this, ultimately move on to: inhale, hold, exhale hold.

^Back to the list^

7. Equal Breath (Sama Vritti) Pranayama

Sama vrittin Pranayama involves easy breath work of equal breaths. Consequently, the focus moves from following a protocol of inhalation or exhalation to breathing in balance, which eventually leads to a calm and focused mind. This method is regarded as an excellent mental relaxation routine for students.

Difficulty level: Beginner

Benefits: Reduced levels of stress, increased concentration, positive feeling, energetic body

Note: Best breathing exercise to practice while travelling which everyone can do.

Procedure for Sama Vritti Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down or in hermit’s gesture (forefinger and thumb gently touching each other’s tips, rest fingers casually opened)

  1. Begin by sitting quietly and observing your normal breathing.
  2. Now, breathe in for slow count of 4.
  3. Immediately, exhale with same slow count of 4. This is one cycle of breathing.
  4. As you advance, increase the count gradually, till your system comfortably allows.

^Back to the list^

8. Cooling (Sitali) Pranayama

This breathing style is ideal to perform during summer or after a vigorous yoga session, as it cools down the body instantly. The mouth acts like a mini air conditioner for the body and can be done anywhere in a very short span of time.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Benefits: Restored heat balance in body, alleviated psycho-somatic disorders, purified blood, improved digestion[6]

Note: Do not perform in a polluted environment or during chilly weather

Procedure for Sitali Pranayama:

Position: Sit in a comfortable position with straight spine.

Hands: Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing down.

  1. Begin by sitting quietly and observing your normal breathing for a minute.
  2. Deep breathe in and out for next 5 breaths.
  3. Curl your tongue forming a tube between your lips. If you cant do that, create an ‘O’ with your lips.
  4. Now breathe in from mouth and slowly exhale through nose.
  5. Repeat it for 5-10 times till you start feeling your body temperature going down.

Tips and tricks to improve

  • The place of practice should ideally be silent, tranquil and devoid of any disturbing noises. This ensures a highly rewarding breath work.
  • Natural sounds of water like flowing river, waves, waterfall are considered to rhythmically respond to breathing pattern, and thereby enhance the quality. A background of birds chirping is also treated as therapeutic.
  • Make sure the place is neat and tidy, the air fresh and chances of disturbance as low as possible.
  • Use a chair or back support if you face problems sitting and staying erect during the practice.
  • Beginners may also utilize Savasana or the corpse pose initially to get into the rhythm and learn the craft and later graduate to performing it in a seated pose.

Common mistakes to avoid and warnings

  • All kinds of Pranayama involve Diaphragmatic breathing, commonly known as breathing from belly. It forms the core of this technique and must always be borne in mind while practicing Pranayama. That’s why, Pranayama is also known as ‘conscious breathing.’
  • Always perform under guidance first and later continue practice at your leisure.
  • Never strain your body and work within its limits.
  • Keep your back and shoulders erect while practicing and never slouch.
  • Never force your breath on inhalation, exhalation or even retention.
  • Keep your face as relaxed as possible.

Related Reads:

1. The Science Behind “OM” and Tapping Its Power In Yoga

2. Can Pranayama Enhance Lonegvity?

References

[1] Dr. Harendra Singh Papola. Effect of Kapalbhati Pranayama on Cardiovascular Endurance. International Journal of Research Pedagogy and Technology in Education and Movement Sciences (IJEMS). ISSN: 2319-3050. ^Back to Top^

[2] Fareedabanu, Shetty, Darshit P. A Comparative Study of Effect of Nadi-Shodhan Pranayama and Suryanamaskar on Pulmonary Functions. Indian Journal of Ancient Medicine & Yoga . Jul-Sep2012, Vol. 5 Issue 3, p121-129. 9p. ^Back to Top^

[3] Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II--clinical applications and guidelines. J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Aug;11(4):711-7. Review. PubMed PMID: 16131297. ^Back to Top^

[4] Shashikala G. Veerabhadrappa, Anita Herur, Shailaja Patil, Roopa B. Ankad, Surekharani Chinagudi, V.S. Baljoshi, Shashidhar Khanapure. Effect of yogic bellows on cardiovascular autonomic reactivity. Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research, Volume 2, Issue 4, Pages 223-227. http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/0975-3583.89806. ^Back to Top^

[5] Tapan Gandhi, Ankit Kapoor, Chhaya Kharya, Veda Vrata Aalok, Jayashree Santhosh, Sneh Anand. Enhancement of inter-hemispheric brain waves synchronisation after Pranayama practice. International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology. doi: 10.1504/IJBET.2011.042494. ^Back to Top^

[6] Shirley Telles and K. V. Naveen. Voluntary Breath Regulation in Yoga: Its Relevance and Physiological Effects (pdf). Association for Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback. Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar, India. Volume 36, Issue 2, pp. 70-73. ^Back to Top^

Last Updated: May 24, 2014

Next Scheduled Update: Jul 24, 2014

What's Your Reaction?
Lol Lol
0
Lol
Angry Angry
0
Angry
Confused Confused
0
Confused
Cry Cry
0
Cry
Cute Cute
0
Cute
Damn Damn
0
Damn
Dislike Dislike
0
Dislike
Fail Fail
0
Fail
Geeky Geeky
0
Geeky
Like Like
0
Like
Love Love
0
Love
OMG OMG
0
OMG
Scary Scary
0
Scary
Win Win
0
Win
WTF WTF
0
WTF

You've got an opinion ?? Discuss Here !!

Choose A Format
Personality quiz
Trivia quiz
Poll
Story
List
Meme
Video
Audio
Image