A little introduction to pranayama

I am committed to the breath, so it is only natural for me to start this yoga chat blog with some writing about pranayama. Here’s how it all began …

My yoga teacher Rosina took a long time to convince me to join Kia Naddermier’s pranayama course. I was adamant I had been breathing for a number of years and I knew how to do it. But this is like thinking one knows how to walk … You just need to go to a dance class to find out it is in fact not the case! So in April 2015, when I finally met Kia, my life changed. This is not an overstatement and many things converged for it to happen. I was beginning an intense period of 10 weeks of writing and having done it before, I knew I had to take care of myself for what was to come. My pranayama training came at the right time, when I could pick it up and when I most needed to breathe. Since then, I have practiced regularly, often daily with one full practice a week.

Kia teaches in the Kaivalyadham tradition of pranayama. I have been introduced to other types of practice, including the Ashtanga one but I have never found it as delightful or as inclusive. After all, Pattabhi Jois only taught pranayama to people in third series. If it was for him, I would never get to explore this other physical practice of yoga! Swami Rama writes:

When the student comes in touch with the finer forces called prana he can learn to control his mind, for it is tightly fastened to prana, like a kite to a string. When the string is held skillfully, the kite, which wants to fly here and there, is controlled and flies in the direction desired. All yogic breathing exercises, advanced or basic, enable the student to control his mind by understanding prana. Thus, the science of breath helps the student to bring prana under control in order to attain the higher rungs of spirituality. He who has controlled his breath and prana has also controlled his mind. He who has controlled his mind has also controlled his breath. (Science of Breath, pp. 72–73)

Instead of kites, Richard Freeman uses a fish analogy: ‘A basic axiom of yoga is that Prana and citta (the mind) move together like two fish swimming in tandem. Move one, and the other automatically follow’ (Freeman, p. 22). Whether moving together of one controlling the other, in my pranayama, I practice this relation between mind and breath and then apply it to my asana practice and to my life. Having been in therapy at various points in my life, and always mindful of my mental health, I have felt the benefits of a mind controlled by the breath, something with a plastic quality, incredibly powerful, portable, and unique to me.

Philosophical aspects

‘The word prana assumes the quality of “livingness” … If there were no prana, there would be no existence’ (Prana and Pranayama, p. 9). Yama, the first limb of the eightfold path, is an observance, a precept. Pranayama is therefore, an observation of a quality of existence within us. It is often translated as breath control and, while that is really what it ends up happening, simply observing the living quality within us, through the breath, is an already profound experience. The breath is not prana, but carries prana and gives an opportunity to observe it with subtlety (as the mind is refined and alert in practice) and direct pranic energy. Taming this energy, though, is like taming a lion, elephant or tiger: it should be treated with respect because if anything goes wrong it is very hard to correct.

Of course, there is not only one breath … There are five vayus (motion, or that which flows, Prana and Pranayama, p. 48), or primary forces, operating in the body, and felt differently in different parts as shown in the my drawing below. In my practice, I mainly work with prana (inward moving) and apana (descending). I have not explored vyana (diffusive), udana (ascending) or samana (equalising) so much.

18620637_1848541712063453_6286182419264207180_o

Krishnamacharya said that yoga is 90% waste removal and the exhalation is one of the most important parts of this process. If we give space to exhalation, the inhalation takes care of itself. Pranayama is a way of letting go of what we don’t want to make room for what we need. In what we take in and what we let go of, there must be a balance: how can I let something in without becoming dependent? How can I release without hardening or closing down? The Bhagavad Gita speaks of offering the out breath as a sacrifice, or an offering, to the in breath:

inhaling they offer into exhalation; exhaling into inbreath, as well, others: prana, apana’s, movement stilling, those devoted to pranayama.

Others curb what they eat, into prana, prana offer; all these, also, knowers of sacrifice: by sacrifice, their sins expelled. (Chapter 4, Verse 29–30, Menon p. 87)

This offering, this sacrifice, enables love, devotion, and letting go, and I personally relate it deeply to the last three niyamas: tapas, (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), isvarapranidhana (surrender). Pranayama offers me the chance to exercise these.

The nadis

Pranayama is both about control (not in a necessity way, but in an artful way) and balance of the breath. This is why I start checking the swaras (a Sanskrit word meaning sound or note and denoting the continuous flow of air through one nostril), which are related to the ida and pingala nadis. The nadis are energy channels connected to the nerves, the brain and the spine. Out of the 72,000 in our body, ida, pingala and shushumna are key to the practice of pranayama. Ida and pingala are particularly important because they represent, at the micro-level of the body, the cosmic polarity of prana and consciousness (Prana and Pranayama, pp. 40–41). I balance them even before I prepare to practice by putting something (a towel, a shawl, a block) under the armpit of the nostril that is most open. I pay a fair amount of attention to the nadis, especially after I read that ida and pingala are equalised roughly every 1.5 hours and that this is the optimum time to practice pranayama.

According to Science of Breath, ‘the pranic sheath has an extremely complex anatomy, composed of pathways called nadis through which the subtle energy flows (p. 9). What ida, pingala and shushumna represent, and how the operate is best seen in a table:

Ida (comfort in Sanskrit)

Pingala (tawny in Sanskrit)

Chitta shakti

Prana shakti

Right hemisphere of the brain

Left hemisphere of the brain

The breath through left nostril (left swara, nadi located on the left side of the spinal chord)

The breath through right nostril (right swara, nadi located on the right side of the spinal chord)

Lunar energy, feminine, Shakti principle

Solar energy, yang energy, masculine, Shiva principle

Parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation), introversion

Sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response / stress response), extroversion

Feeling, perception, understanding function, ability to zoom out, sees the bigger picture

Thinking, rational function, ability to zoom in, label, analyse, make sense

Allows the world to act upon us and changes us

Acts upon the world and tries to change it

Floodlight, soft gaze

Spotlight, focused gaze

Cooling effect

Heating effect

Ganges river

Yamuna river

Shushumna

Middle, neutral, channel through the spinal chord, from the root to the crown chakra

Normally, prana does not flow through it

If accessed by balancing and clearing ida and pingala, it opens the way for Kundalini to ascend

‘Shushumna flows after practicing pranayama, prayer and meditation, and also when one is about to commit a criminal act’ (Prana and Pranayama, p. 43)

Balancing both ida and pingala, one receives openly and perceives clearly. One also opens the shushumna nadi, the central channel, and thus opens the possibility of kundalini awakening: ‘without awakening shushumna, deep meditation and the awakening of kundalini are impossible. There are only three techniques for applying shushumna: concentrating on the bridge between the two nostrils; doing pranayama breathing exercises while applying jalandhara bandha and meditating on the chakra system’ (Science of Breath, p. 109). Of these, pranayama seems to me the easiest to carry out. Kundalini awakening is not a particular goal for me, though, especially after reading about the difficult experiences of enlightenment in Feuerstein’s The Path of Yoga (Chapter 10) and Manuel and Forstater’s The Spiritual Teachings of Yoga. Yet, if that is what might be in store for me, I better practice, be strong and prepared.

As well as the relation between the nadis and pranayama, there is a relation between pranayama, the koshas and the chakras, other elements of the subtle body which I will write about in the future.

The practice itself

My regular practice lasts around one hour. The preparations I do (kriyas and other), pave the way to awaken the body, and purify certain aspects of it for prana to flow better in the actual four pranayama exercises. I work on the following preparations, which open and cleanse the body, from root to skull:

  1. Uddiyana kriya (the king of my practices, as constipation is the biggest obstacle to the flow of prana) and Nauli (the stomach roll I work towards every day—It is so slow coming!)

  2. [Agni Sara (Digestive fire) and which I only do seldom, not regularly]

  3. Simha Mudra (Lion)

  4. Jiva bandha (The tongue lock)

  5. Brahma mudra (To exercise the eyes and neck)

  6. Kapalabahti (skull shining, which I recently learned should be done seated in lotus and in multiples of 11 up to 121!)

When John Scott taught the focused 12 breath, he made us recite in Sanskrit while doing it, starting with the out breath (as this is the first thing we do in life): Ekam puraka, ekam rechaka; Dve puraka …Thus, I learned about the recitation aspect and the stages of the breath. Puraka (the action of inhaling, as opposed, but related to to prana), and rechaka (the action of exhaling, as opposed but related to apana) are the two aspects of my breath practice, which combine in different patterns in the pranayama exercises I regularly do (the third kumbhaka or retention has not been given to me by my teacher):

  1. Nadi shodana (somewhere between a kriya and pranayama, a practice in its own right. It balances ida and pingala. This is the most difficult one for me. It has the same name as the intermediate sequence of asana in ashtanga yoga, a series which also does something to my energy while balancing it)

  2. Ujjai pranayama (breathing out through ida, enhancing the parasympathetic nervous system and promoting relaxation)

  3. Shitali (the cooling breath)

  4. Brahmari (not strictly a pranayama practice, but one I tend to locate at the end because of its vibrations, its opening effects on me. I relate it to the cosmos: ‘this whole world—whatever there is—vibrates having originated from prana’ (Prana and Pranayama, p. 10)

  5. Aum recitations (usually to close off and to drop into a meditative state)

In my short practice, which I do most days, I do uddiyana kriya, kapalabahti, nadi shodana or ujjai pranayama, and shitali (to cool my fiery tendencies). Most of these exercises have different ways of being practiced: for example, brahma mudra can be done with eyes closed or open, agni sara seated or standing and brahmari with the bee sound on the exhale only or both inhale and exhale. This gives me a little variation and allows me to chose what will benefit me the most on each particular day.

What pranayama does to me

I find pranayama the perfect gateway to meditation, a practice that allows me to fall into that state much more easily than when I simply sit to meditate, no matter what method I chose to focus the mind. Pranayama practice is also, for me, an excellent diagnostic of where I am today. Its structure allows me to identify where I might be stuck and what I need to work on. Sometimes, I can mask certain things in certain asanas. In truth, where I really am will become revealed in the course of a full practice but it seems much quicker in pranayama. In fact, I only need to do nadi shodana to find out.

The relation between asana and pranayama is very strong. They support each other. Through getting to know my breath and exploring its limits (of range, slowness, fullness, emptiness, upness, downness etc), my pranayama practice allows me to breathe in asana, to transfer and explore what I do from the seated postures to inversions, forward folds, twists and back bends. My asana practice, on the other hand, allows me to become strong enough to forget the body (apart from what is needed to breathe) in pranayama, with the focus being solely on the breath, rather than fidgeting because I cannot sit for a certain period of time.

It is in pranayama that I feel everything is connected: my seat, meditation, the koshas, the nadis, the chakras, the vayus, prana itself, vibration, dharana, pratyahara … Perhaps because I consider asana as more energetic, sympathetic and yang, and pranayama, more relaxing, parasympathetic and yin in nature, balances me out. It is a tendency lacking within me so when I practice, I immediately feel the balance and its effects make themselves felt in other aspects of my life. I slow down and therefore, I often do what I am doing better. I love practicing, for example, before cooking dinner, or before teaching, as it makes those other activities more enjoyable rather than just running with inertia.

Pranayama is an essential part of my life, as yoga is. Being such a key part of the yogic path, it is really difficult to find courses, practices, classes or groups as most teachers do master classes or include it with their asana practice. Leading classes in Glasgow in my teacher Rosina Bonsu’s programme and at Merchant City Yoga has been a joy and a privilege. Any challenges faced in the first week (for taming the breath is hard) dissipated as soon as we met the second week and benefits were made manifest. By the third week, practitioners began a home practice adapting the exercises I shared to their individual needs. I see the difference in them and in me, as it is wonderful to be able to share something so profound with a dedicated group.

Books I mentioned

Georg Feuerstein, The Path of Yoga
Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, The Art of Vinyasa
Kaivalyadhama School, The essence of Pranayama
Swami Kuvalayananda, Pranayama
Jo Manuel and Mark Forstater, The Spiritual Teachings of Yoga
Ramesh Menon, The Srimad Bhagavad Gita
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Prana and Pranayama
Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine and Alan Hymes, Science of Breath

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