So what is pranayama?
In short, Prana means ‘life’ and yama means ‘to extend’; the practice of pranayama is therefore the practice of breathing techniques designed to make you live longer.
The ancient sages (or saints) of India coined some of these breathing techniques which have various physiological benefits, promote longevity of life and enhance well-being. A single hour's pranayama practice is said to be the equivalent of 4 hours yoga asana (yoga postures) practice! These breathing techniques can be practiced at any time of the day on an empty stomach (that is 4 hours after eating a heavy meal or two hours after eating a light meal and at least 30 minutes after drinking any liquids).
For all of the following breathing techniques you should sit in Ardha Padmasana (half lotus pose) with the right leg crossed on top of the left leg. You must remain absolutely still at all times. Aside from anything else, if you move around, or shift your body weight, or unfold and re-cross your legs, then you will ache and feel de-motivated. Only if you stay perfectly still will you avoid numbness in the legs and discomfort. If you cannot hold this seated position, then there are other postures in which you may practice pranayama. Unless otherwise stated below, both hands should be held in chin mudra (touching the tip of your thumb to the tip of your index finger) with the backs of the arms resting on your knees. At all times your tongue should be pressed as far back on the roof where the soft pallet is at.
If you want to increase your energy levels then try twelve rounds of Anuloma Viloma pranayama as this will get your energy levels soaring! Whilst seated with your hands in chin mudra, you begin by exhaling all the air from your lungs. You then breathe in for a count of 4. What I mean by this is that you divide your inhalation into 4 equal parts. You breathe in the first quarter of your total lung capacity (visualising the path of the breath in through the nostrils and through to the throat) and then you pause very briefly; this is the first count. You then breathe in the second quarter of the breath (visualising the path of the breath from the throat to the heart) and again you pause briefly before the next breath; this is the second count. Then follows the third count, inhaling the third quarter of your total lung capacity (visualising the path of the breath from the heart to the lungs); again you pause briefly before the next breath. Finally, you inhale the last quarter of your total lung capacity (being the fourth count) visualising the path of the breath from the heart to the base of the spine.
After breathing in for a count of 4, you then exhale for a count of 6. This means dividing the breath into six equal parts and pausing briefly after each exhalation. As you do this you should visualise the breath moving up the spinal column in six equal parts: from the base of the spine up to the lower/lumber region, then up to the thoracic cavity region through to the upper back, then the cervical spine, to the neck, all the way to the pineal gland (third eye). This is one round of Anuloma Viloma pranayama. Try 12 doing rounds. You can count the rounds with your left hand using your thumb (counting three rounds to each finger).
To purify your body and cure disease you should regularly practice the following three types of pranayama which simulate certain Nadi. Nadi literally means 'flow or current' and they are the channels with which prana flows through your body. In the ancient texts it is written that there are seventy-two thousand nadis in the psychic body of man. Of these thousands of nadi three are most important. The first is the chandra nadi, the second is the surya nadi and the third is the susumna nadi.
Chandranuloma pranayama (left nostril breathing) stimulates the chandra nadi. Whilst seated with your hands in chin mudra, you begin by folding in the first two fingers on your right hand (i.e. your swearing fingers) pressing your thumb on your right nostril so it cannot take in any air and then exhale all the air from your lungs (through the left nostril). Next, breathe in through the left nostril for a count of 4 and breathe out through the same nostril for a count of 6 (at all times visualising the path of the breath as described above). This is one round; do 12 rounds.
Suryanuloma pranayama (right nostril breathing) stimulates the surya nadi. The technique is the same as the previous one only it is repeated on the right-hand side. So, using the same right hand (with the two fingers tucked in), press your thumb on your left nostril so it cannot take in any air and then exhale all the air from your lungs. Next, breathe in through the right nostril for a count of 4 and breathe out of the same nostril for a count of 6 (at all times visualising the path of the breath as described above). This is one round; do 12 rounds.
Nadi Shodhana pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) stimulates the Susuma nadi. Shodhana means ‘to cleanse’ and the Susuma nadi benefits the whole body bringing into harmony the left and right hemispheres of the brain which correlate to the logical (masculine) and emotional (feminine) sides of our mind. Again, using the same right hand (with the two fingers tucked in), begin with the left nostril (by pressing the right nostril with your thumb) and breathe in for a count of 4, then using your ring finger, cover the left nostril and uncover the right nostril (releasing the thumb) and breathe out for a count of 6. Then breathe in for a count of 4 through the same nostril. Then cover that same (right) nostril with your thumb and breathe out of the left nostril for a count of 6. This is one round; again do 12 rounds.
Among these various breathing techniques, Kapal Bhati pranayama (skin and skull shining) is considered the most important and effective for detoxifying the body and clearing the nadi energy channels. This is done with free hands (so both hands held in chin mudra with the backs of the arms resting on the knees). As ever, you begin by exhaling all the air from your lungs. You then breathe in for a count of 4 and then you force all the air from your lungs out of your nose using your diaphragm. Do 50 forced exhalations in a row and repeat the same four times. These rapid forced exhalations take the additional prana all around your body (enough to make your skin and skull shine).
If you are over thinking things or otherwise wish to calm your mind, then find somewhere where you can make a bit of noise without disturbing anyone and try the Bhramari pranayama (bee breath). This breathing technique is also good for those with hypertension and/or anxiety issues. Bhramari pranayama stimulates a group of nerves in the body which are beneficial for emotional well-being. Again, with free hands, exhale all the air from your lungs and breathe in for a count of 4. Then, ensuring your tongue is pressed as far back on the roof where the soft pallet is at, make a prolonged humming sound like a bee as you exhale. Then breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 6. This is one round; do 8 rounds.
The physiological effects of all these breathing techniques are stunning. For example, pranayama has been shown to help the glands in your body function better. Your glands serve to keep your body in a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) by setting hormone levels which affects the whole body-mind cycle: hormone levels affect the mind, the mind affects the breath, the breath affects circulation and circulation affects blood pressure.
The psychological benefits of all these breathing techniques are equally as impressive. With pranayama you get to unravel the many layers of the mind and, in so doing, you get know yourself. When you know yourself you will love yourself. When you love yourself you will see yourself in other people and your love in life will grow.
It is with little wonder, then, that pranayama is described as a ‘higher level’ of yoga in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Prana Vashya Yoga™ incorporates certain pranayama techniques in its series and it is the perfect accompaniment to pranayama.