Breath control: Pranayama
Pranayama is the science of proper breathing. It can also be defined as breath control. “Prana” is breath or vital energy in the body. On subtle levels “prana” represents the pranic energy responsible for life or life force, and “ayama” means control. So, pranayama is “Breath Control”.
Our whole life is entirely dependent on breathing. If we stop breathing then life itself ceases in the body.
Rules for proper breathing
Before proceeding with any pranayama (breath control) practises, the practitioner must abide by the following rules.
Rule No 1
The practitioner can adopt any comfortable sitting position, preferably on a mat placed on the ground. The 2 meditative asanas, sukhasana (easy pose) and vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) are particularly suitable at this early stage. However, as the body becomes more supple, you can adopt the best meditative postures for breath control practice: padmasana (lotus pose) and siddhasana (accomplished pose). The body should be relaxed and the back kept straight without any strain.
Rule No 2
The clothes worn should be as light and as loose as circumstances will permit. Avoid tight clothing. This is important as it will allow the abdomen to expand unrestricted during deep inhalation. If possible, avoid any belts or corsets. Try to keep yourself warm during the practice. Though accentuated respiration generates increased body heat, it is usually a good idea to wrap a blanket around yourself.
Women should not wear skirts, revealing shirts and tops. As for men, stop flirting your abs and avoid those tight shorts.
Rule No 3
You must practise in a clean, quiet and properly ventilated place so that the air within the room is well-oxygenated and free from any obnoxious smells. However, there should be no gale-force draught. The room should be free of all types of insects.
It is primordial to practise in the same place every day so that you gradually build up a quiet and conducive atmosphere for your daily yoga practices.
Rule No 4
The time of practice also is very important. It is recommended to practise early in the morning after asanas (yoga postures) and before meditation. You should practise at least one hour before taking food and four hours after food. For this reason, before breakfast is a particularly suitable time. “Breath control” (pranayama) can be performed at other times during the day but it is more difficult to meet all the restrictions. The evening is a reasonably good time to practise providing one can abide by the restrictions on food.
Rule No 5
It is advisable not to practise breath control if the stomach and intestines are completely full. This prevents the contraction and expansion of the abdomen during deep respiration. There is a saying by the ancient yogis: “Fill half your stomach with food, one quarter with water and the remaining quarter with air.” So in order to gain the most benefits from pranayama (breath control), moderation in eating is essential.
Rule No 6
The bowels must be emptied as much as possible. This allows less restricted and greater movement of the abdomen during respiration.
Rule No 7
Nasal blockage makes it very difficult to practise “breath control”. Also, you should never breathe through the mouth unless a particular pranayama (breath control) practice requires it. Therefore, jala neti (nasal cleansing) should be done when necessary before beginning any “breath control” practise.
Rule No 8
Awareness is an essential part of pranayama (breath control). It is important to be aware of the mechanics of the practice and not allow it to become automatic. When the mind becomes distracted, don’t become frustrated or try to suppress the wandering tendency. Only try to realize that your attention is elsewhere. This is difficult, for when our attention is elsewhere we are normally so involved with the distraction that we don’t realize that we have ceased to be aware of the pranayama practice. All is forgotten until sometime later we realize our mind is not on the practice. Merely becoming aware of the distraction will direct our attention back to the mechanics of “breath control”.
Rule No 9
During “breath control” practises, violent respiration must not be advocated. As our lungs are very sensitive, they should be treated with utmost care and respect. Respiration should be controlled and without any strain.
How to practice mudras (hand gestures)
Before proceeding with breath control practices we must learn about hand gestures (mudras). Mudras can be defined as hand yoga. It typically involves placing the hands and fingers in certain specific positions as has been described in the Vedas (oldest scriptures of Hinduism). Mudras have several physical, mental and spiritual benefits.
Jnana mudra (Psychic gesture of knowledge)
- Sit in any meditative asana.
- Fold the index fingers of both hands so that the tips touch the inside root of their corresponding thumbs.
- Straighten the other 3 fingers and separate them slightly.
- Place the hands on the knees, with the palms downwards.
- The 3 unbent fingers and the thumb of each hand should point downwards towards the floor in front of the knees.
Chin mudra (Psychic gesture of consciousness)
- This mudra is very similar to jnana mudra.
- Again the tip of the index finger can be either placed at the root of the thumb or so that the tip of the index finger is in contact with the tip of the thumb.
- The difference lies in the arrangement of the hands on the knees. During chin mudra the hands are placed so that the palms face upwards with the backs of the hands resting on the knees. The unbent fingers should also point forwards away from the body. The symbolic meaning is the same as jnana mudra.
Chinmaya mudra (Gesture of manifested consciousness)
- Hold the fingers in the same way as depicted for jnana mudra.
- Fold the 3 straightened fingers so that the tips touch or point towards the palm. The position of the thumb and index finger remains the same, whether the tips are in contact or if the tip of the index finger presses the root of the thumb. Both are correct.
- Place the hands on the knees, palms upwards or downwards.
Nasagra mudra (Nose tip position)
- Place the right index finger and middle finger on the eyebrow centre.
- Position the thumb above the right nostril and the ring finger above the left nostril.
- Have the little finger comfortably folded.
- Rest the left hand on the left thigh. Alternatively use it to support the right elbow.
Khechari mudra (Tongue lock)
- Sit comfortably in any meditative asana or on a chair.
- Roll your tongue upwards and backwards, so that the lower surface lies in contact with the upper palate.
- Stretch the tip of the tongue backwards as far as is comfortable.
- When you feel discomfort, release the tongue for a second or so and then again repeat the tongue lock.
Shambhavi mudra (Eyebrow centre gazing)
- Adopt any comfortable sitting pose.
- Straighten the back and head, place the hands on the knees and practise jnana, chin or chinmaya mudra.
- First of all close your eyes for a short time and relax the whole body. Then open your eyes and try to focus both eyes at the eyebrow centre.
- Try to direct your eyes inwards and upwards so that they point as much as possible in the direction of the eyebrow centre.
- Be sure not to strain the eyes, but only practice for as long as you feel no discomfort.
Unmani mudra (Attitude of thoughtlessness)
- Open the eyes wide open, but without strain.
- Keep your awareness at the bindu (it is located where the bones of the back and sides of the skull meet).
- As your awareness descends through the chakras (ajna, vishuddhi, anahata, manipura, swadhisthana to mooladhara), the eyes should slowly close.
- Though the eyes remain open, your attention should be on the chakras and the descending awarohan psychic passage. Your eyes are open, but you should be looking inside.
- Awarohan is the descending passage which starts at bindu, travels forwards to the ajna chakra, then down through the sushumna in the spine, passing through all the chakra trigger points in turn, to terminate at mooladhara.
- The eyes can be completely closed or slightly open when your awareness reaches mooladhara chakra.
- The practice is done more mentally than physically.
Types of pranayama (breath control) practices
You will not believe it, but there about 50 different types of breath control (pranayamas) practises described in the Vedas (oldest scriptures of Hinduism). However, below you will find a list and techniques of the most common practises.
Nadi Shodhana (Psychic network purification)
- Sit comfortably in either sukhasana (easy pose) or vajrasana (thunderbolt pose).
- If you cannot manage these positions you can sit in a chair with a straight back or you can sit on the floor with legs outstretched and back supported against a wall. If necessary wrap a blanket around you for warmth and to keep any insects away. Relax your whole body.
- Hold the spine upright but without arching backwards and thereby tensing the back muscles.
- Place the left hand on the left knee or in the lap.
- Raise the right hand and perform nasagra mudra. Close the eyes.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb.
- Slowly inhale and exhale through the left nostril.
- Be aware of the breath. Do this for half the time allocated for the practice.
- Then close the left nostril and open the right.
- Repeat the same procedure with awareness.
- Do this for about 1 week. Then proceed with part 2.
- This is the same as part 1 except that you now start to control the relative duration of inhalation and exhalation.
- Close the right nostril and breathe through the left nostril.
- Simultaneously, mentally count: 1, 2, 3, each interval being about 1 second.
- Don’t strain but breathe deeply in the manner previously described – yogic breathing.
- During exhalation again keep the count mentally.
- Try to make the length of exhalation twice as long as inhalation. For example, if you breathe in for a count of 5 then try to breathe out for a count of 10. If you breathe in for 4 then breathe out for 8, etc.
- 1 inhalation and 1 exhalation represent 1 round.
- Do 10 rounds through the left nostril. Then close the left nostril using the fourth finger, open the right by releasing the pressure of the thumb, and do 10 rounds through the right nostril.
- Be aware of the breath and the mental counting throughout the entire practice.
- If you have time, do 10 more rounds first through the left nostril and then 10 rounds through the right nostril.
- Practise part 2 for about 2 weeks.
- Make sure the nose is unblocked before starting the practice. If necessary do jala neti (nasal cleansing).
Anuloma Viloma (Alternate nostril breathing)
- Sit comfortably in any meditative pose.
- Relax the whole body and close the eyes. Become totally aware of the breathing process. Feel as though nothing else exists but your breath.
- Try to feel that you are only breathing in and out of the left nostril. Continue this practice for a minute or two.
- Then repeat the same thing with your right nostril. Try to feel that the whole flow of breath is moving in and out of the right nostril. Again do this for a minute or so.
- Be aware of breathing throughout the practice.
Now you must try to mentally control the breath flow moving in and out of each nostril alternately.
- Feel that you are inhaling through the left nostril. Then feel the exhalation through the right nostril.
Feel the breath being inhaled through the right nostril. Then the breath being exhaled via the left nostril. This is 1 round of anuloma viloma. Do 4 rounds.
Samaveta (Breathing through both nostrils)
- Sit comfortably in any meditative asana. If you feel uncomfortable with these sitting postures, then you can sit on a chair or against a wall with the feet outstretched. The essential thing is that the spine remains erect.
- Close the eyes. Start to practise yogic breathing. Try to make the movement of the abdomen and the chest as rhythmical as possible, so that as you inhale there is a wavelike motion from the abdomen to the chest and as you exhale there is a wavelike motion from the chest to the abdomen.
- Don’t strain but try to breathe as deeply as possible, expelling and inhaling the maximum amount of air.
- Keep your eyes closed throughout the practice. Continue in this way for a few minutes. Now you will begin the practice of samaveta pranayama.
- At the end of inhalation, hold the breath for a second or so, without straining. Then breathe out. Your breathing should be as slow as is comfortable.
- Exhale as much air as possible and then inhale.
- Again hold the breath for a short time and then exhale. Continue in this way for as long as you have time.
Ujjayi (Psychic breath)
This is a unique form of breath control in which one makes a hissing or whispering sound in the region of the throat. It is far easier to do than to describe.
- Sit in any comfortable meditational asana.
- Fold the tongue into khechari mudra. Close the eyes.
- Relax the body, holding the neck and head upright.
- Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Partially close the glottis in the throat. This is done by slightly contracting the throat. If this is done properly you will simultaneously detect a slight contraction of the abdomen.
- If you merely contract the glottis you will automatically feel a slight pulling sensation in the region of the abdomen.
- As you breathe you should hear a continuous sound emitted from the throat.
- This sound is caused by the friction of the air as it passes through the restriction that you have made in the glottis by contraction. The sound will be similar to the gentle sound that a baby makes while sleeping.
Moorchha (The fainting pranayama)
- Sit in any comfortable meditative asana. Hold the spine and head upright.
- Relax the whole body.
- Fold your tongue against the upper palate (khechari mudra).
- Do shambhavi mudra. Inhale deeply and slowly with ujjayi pranayama.
- Simultaneously bend the head backwards so that the movement of the head is synchronized with the inhalation. At the end of inhalation your head should lean backwards but not completely.
- Straighten the arms and lock the elbows, pressing the knees with the hands.
- Continue to practise khechari mudra. Hold kumbhaka (breath retention) for as long as possible, but without strain.
- Fix your whole awareness on the eyebrow centre. Then bend the arms.
- Slowly exhale with ujjayi pranayama as you bend your head forwards.
- Simultaneously practise unmani mudra by slowly closing your eyes as you exhale and move your head. At the end of exhalation your head should
face forwards and the eyes should be completely closed.
- Relax the whole body while breathing normally.
- Keeping the eyes closed, feel the lightness and calmness pervading the whole mind.
- This is the end of 1 complete round. Repeat another round.
Surya Bhedan (Right nostril breathing)
- Assume any comfortable sitting position. Hold the spine and head erect but without tension.
- Place the hands on the knees. Close the eyes and relax the whole body.
- Let the breathing become deeper.
- Now start the practice of surya bhedan.
- Raise your right hand in front of the face in nasagra mudra.
- Place the index (second) and middle (third) fingers on the forehead with the ring (fourth) finger and thumb on either side of the nose.
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril. At the end of inhalation, close both nostrils with the ring finger and thumb.
- Hold your breath for a comfortable length of time. Do not strain.
Then release the pressure of the ring finger.
Chaturtha (The fourth pranayama)
There are five stages. You should practise each one in turn in the following order.
Stage 1: Breathing awareness
- Sit comfortably. Close the eyes. Hold the back straight.
- Breathe deeply in and out without retention. One round equals exhalation and inhalation. Do as many rounds as time permits.
- Let the breath become deeper and more subtle.
- Fix awareness on the rhythmical flow of breath.
- Then after a number of rounds (at least 25), proceed to stage 2.
Stage 2: Synchronization of breathing with Om
- Continue the deep breathing.
- Mentally synchronize the mantra Om with the breath.
- The sound ‘O’ should arise with inhalation. The sound ‘M-M-M-M’ should arise with exhalation. Remember, the sound is mental.
- Breathe through the nose, keeping the mouth closed.
- Continue in this manner with awareness of the flow of breath and the mantra.
Stage 3: Individual chakra awareness
- Continue stage 2.
- Simultaneously fix your attention on any one of the chakras, at the bhrumadhya (eyebrow centre) or nasikagra (nose tip). Choose any one centre.
- Feel that you are breathing in with the mental sound ‘O’ at that centre.
- Feel that you are breathing out with the mental sound ‘M-M-M-M’ at that centre.
- Continue in this manner with awareness of breath, mantra and psychic centre.
Stage 4: Chakra piercing
- Fix your attention at sahasrara (crown chakra – 7th primary chakra).
- With inhalation and the sound ‘O’ feel that all the chakras are being pierced in turn in the following order, starting from sahasrara: ajna, vishuddhi, anahata, manipura, swadhisthana, mooladhara.
- Feel the breath and ‘O’ sound moving downwards through the spine.
- Then with exhalation and the sound ‘M-M-MM’ feel the chakras being pierced in turn from the mooladhara upwards to the sahasrara: swadhisthana, manipura, anahata, vishuddhi, ajna, sahasrara.
- Feel the breath and sound passing upwards in the spine.
- This is the end of 1 round. Do more rounds according to the available time. Then proceed to stage 5.
Stage 5: Subtle japa
- Again choose any one chakra. The best option is the bhrumadhya (eyebrow centre).
- Continue mental repetition of Om synchronized with the breath, but now there is no need to be aware of breathing.
- Be aware only of the mantra and the psychic centre.
Feel the ‘O’ and the ‘M-M-M’ sound at the chosen centre.
- Continue in this manner for as long as possible.
- This will lead to deep introspection and relaxation of the mind. This is the end of the practice.
Bhastrika (The bellows breath)
Sit in a comfortable pose. Hold the head and back straight. Close the eyes while relaxing the whole body.
Stage 1: Left nostril respiration
- Raise your right hand in front of your face and do nasagra mudra. The other hand should rest in your lap or on your knee.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb. Breathe forcefully and quickly through the left nostril 10 times.
- The pumping action should be done by the expansion and contraction of the abdomen. But try not to use your chest.
- Forceful exhalation is induced by firmly and quickly contracting the abdominal muscles.
- Forceful inhalation is induced by fully expanding the abdominal muscles.
- The whole process of breathing should be rapid and rhythmical.
- You should do it sufficiently fast so that you hear a snuffing sound in the nose as you breathe in and out.
- Then, after completing 10 rapid respirations, breathe in deeply through the left nostril. Keep the right nostril closed. Fill the lungs as much as possible by expanding both the chest and the abdomen. Hold your breath. Close both nostrils.
- Press your chin against the chest. Contract the throat so that it is locked. This is the same as jalandhara bandha, but without the arm lock.
- Also contract the perineum, the area of the mooladhara chakra, as in moola bandha.
- Hold the breath for as long as you can. Do not strain.
Mentally count the duration of breath retention.
- Then raise your head. Release the pressure of the ring finger. Breathe out slowly through the left nostril. Then begin stage 2.
Stage 2: Right nostril respiration
- Close your left nostril and open the right one.
- Breathe in and out deeply and rapidly through the right nostril 10 times.
- Then inhale slowly and deeply through the right nostril. Hold your breath. Close both nostrils.
- Press your chin against the chest.
- Contract the throat to form jalandhara bandha.
- Contract the area of mooladhara chakra.
- Mentally count the duration of breath retention while raising your head.
- Release the blockage of the right nostril and breathe out slowly through the right nostril. Finally proceed to stage 3.
Stage 3: Respiration through both nostrils
- Open both nostrils. Breathe in and out deeply and rapidly 10 times through both nostrils together. Then inhale deeply and slowly through both nostrils.
- Close both nostrils with the thumb and ring finger. Hold your breath.
- Press your chin against the chest.
- Contract both throat and mooladhara chakra areas.
- Mentally count the duration of breath retention.
- After a comfortable length of time raise your head.
- Release the pressure on both nostrils.
- Breathe out slowly through both nostrils.
- This is the end of stage 3 and also the end of 1 complete round. One round is stage 1 + stage 2 + stage 3.
- Then start another round.