The 8 Limbs of Yoga: What IS Pranayama?
This month’s feature article in my monthly Newsletter, Green Spirit News, focuses on one of the limbs of Yoga. In the West most people think of the asanas (the postures), the physical practice, when they hear the word Yoga. In fact, this is only one limb, or aspect, of the 8 limbed path of Yoga. This 5000+ year old practice is so much more. It is a way of life. More on that later! For this month, I’ll focus on Pranayama (breathwork, the breath), and over the coming months, I’ll touch on each of the 8 limbs one at a time 🙂
Pranayama were developed by the ancient yogis for purification. Pranyama is used to control, cultivate, and modify the Prana in the body. Swami Swatmarama in Hatha Yoga Pradipika talks about Pranayama as the way to awaken the kundalini; regular practice of Pranayama can lead to spiritual awakening and self realization. “Pranayama is control of Breath”. “Prana” means “Breath” and is the life force, vital energy in the body. On subtle levels, prana represents the pranic energy responsible for life or life force, and “ayama” means control/exercise. So Pranayama is “Control of Breath”. One can control the rhythms of pranic energy with pranayama and achieve a healthy body and mind. Patanjali in his text of Yoga Sutras mentioned pranayama as a means of attaining higher states of awareness; he mentions the holding of breath as an important practice of reaching Samadhi. Hatha Yoga also talks about 8 types of pranayama which will make the body and mind healthy.
Dirga Pranayama (Complete Yoga Breath) the 3 part breath is calming and relaxing. Dirga Pranayama is called the three part breath because you are actively breathing into three parts of your abdomen. The first position is the low belly (on top of or just below the belly button), the second position is the low chest (lower half of the rib cage), and the third position is the low throat (just above the top of the sternum). The breath is continuous, in and out of the nose. The inhalation starts in the first position, the low belly; then moves to the second position, the low chest; then to the third position, the low throat. The exhalation starts in the low throat, moves to the low chest, and finishes in the low belly. Using hands on belly to feel the breath moving through each chamber is helpful initially. Eventually relax the effort of the Pranayama and breathe into the three positions gently, feeling a wave of breath move up and down the torso.
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Breath of Fire, Skull Shining Breath) used specifically for cleansing, revitalizing, invigorating, energizing, and purifying the body. It removes mucus from the air passages, relieves tension and clears blockages in the chest, and reduces CO2 % in the blood. This is achieved by deliberately breathing faster, and at the same time using only abdominal diaphragmatic breathing, not chest breathing. The breath is short, rapid, and strong using the lungs as a pump, creating pressure to clear air passages from the lungs up through the nostrils. Kapala means “skull,”and bhati means “that which brings lightness.” Kapalabhati is a good thing to do when feeling heavy or dizzy in the head. For problems with the sinuses or numb feeling around the eyes, kapalabhati can also be helpful. Kapalabhati is a very active, forced exhalation with a passive inhalation. To exhale, the belly quickly pumps into the spine forcing the air out of the nose. Place a hand on your belly to feel the belly actively pumping. Play with the tempo (45-60 exhalations/30 seconds), but keep a steady rhythm. Start with 2-3 rounds of 30 exhalations, and gradually increase the exhalations if comfortable.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) the victory or ocean sounding breath is focusing, grounding, and aids in concentration. Ujjayi Pranayama is called the ocean sounding breath because of the ocean sound made by contracting the epiglottis with the inhalation and exhalation. Ujjayi Pranayama has therapy applications, especially useful in insomnia, tensions, and heart diseases. This should not be practiced in low blood pressure because it puts pressure on the carotid sinus which further reduces blood pressure. This Pranayama is done through the nose, but it is helpful to begin practicing breathing through the mouth. To make the ocean sound, whisper the syllable “h” feeling a contraction in the throat. Keep this contraction engaged on the inhalation and exhalation.
Nadi Sohdhana Pranayama (Purifying Breath) alternate nostril breathing is balancing, calming, anti-anxiety, and very relaxing. Balancing the Ida (left nostril) and Pingala (right nostril), the mental force and vital force is one of the main objectives of Pranayama. If balanced, Sushumna nadi(the psychic nadi or channel carrying kundalini) can be awakened. Place the right hand in Vishnu Mudra (forefinger and middle finger bent towards the palm; thumb, ring, and pinkie in the air). To do one round: close off right nostril with the thumb and inhale into the left nostril; close left nostril with ring and pinkie fingers, open the right nostril and exhale through the right; close the right nostril again, open the left, and exhale through the left nostril. Continue, doing 5-20 rounds.
Shitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath) cools the body. The air passing over the tongue cools the blood by lowering its temperature. This type of Pranayama removes excess heat in the body. This Pranayama harmonizes the secretions of reproductive organs and all the endocrine system. Also it improves digestion reducing acidity, lowers high blood pressure (hypertension), and purifies the blood. Curl the tongue touching the roof of the mouth as far back as you can to the soft pallet. As you inhale clench the teeth together and slightly part the lips making a hissing “ssss” sound.
There are other forms of pranayama that should not be practiced without the guidance of a teacher or guru. But for now, the types of pranayama described here can get you on your way to practicing, understanding and reaping the rewards of this limb of on your path of Yoga.