Prana – what?
When people think of yoga they think of asana practice, practicing the poses, yet when pranayama is practiced along with the poses, it is what helps us to stay in the moment, and to ‘work’ the poses, and soften into each pose. Pranayama is the channeling or control of our life force energy, our breath! Prana means life force, or breath, sustaining the body; Ayama translates to “extend or draw out.” Pranayama is the 4th Limb of the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Breathing is a natural reflex. We breathe automatically, usually, without even thinking about it. When we feel physically or emotionally challenged, it is the body’s natural response to hold the breath. Pranayama teaches us to breath slowly, evenly, and deeply.
If you simply sit quietly, in a chair, with your hands resting on your thighs, and observe your breath, without changing anything, you will likely note that your inhales and your exhales fluctuate. Your inhale may be longer than your exhale, at times. Or, one full breath may be short, another may be long.
Breathing slowly, evenly, and deeply increases the capacity of the lungs, brings more oxygen into the body and stimulates the Vagus nerve, which stretches from your brain stem down to your abdomen. When the Vagus Nerve is stimulated it activates the parasympathetic nervous systems to slow your heart rate, relieve stress, and heal your body. Wow! All that from breathing slowly, evenly, and deeply. Might be worth it, don’t you think?
Three types of breathing techniques that you can use to calm you body and your mind in preparation for asana practice, or simply to help relax your body and your mind, are Dirga Breath, Nadi Breath, and Ujjiyi Breath.
Dirga Breath is called three part breath because you actively breathe into three parts of your abdomen. First, the low belly, on top of, or just below the belly button. Second, the low chest, or lower half of the rib cage; and third, the low throat, or just above the top of the sternum. Dirga Breath can be a wonderful way to prepare for asana practice, by focusing the mind on the breath.
Dirga Breath is continuous, inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Begin by lying down on your back. The inhalation starts in the first position, bringing the breath to the low belly; then moves to the second position, the low chest; and finally, 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.
Resting your hands on the individual positions to feel the breath rising and falling through each position can help you to isolate the three areas. Eventually you will be able to relax the effort of the pranayama and breathe into the three positions gently, feeling a wave of breath move up and down the torso.
Nadi Breath, or alternate nostril breathing is also a good pranayama technique to focus the mind in preparation for asana practice. It can be used on its own if you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed to calm the body and the mind.
To prepare for Nadi Breath, sit comfortably, with a tall spine, chin parallel to the floor, and head centred over your body. Make a fist with your right hand. Keep the index and middle fingers folded in towards the palm and release the thumb, and then release the ring and pinkie fingers, extending the two as one unit.
Close your right nostril with the thumb of the right hand, and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Then close the left nostril with the ring and pinkie finger combination, open and exhale through the right nostril. Finally inhale through the right nostril, close it, and open and exhale through the left. Repeat 2 or 3 times, then release the hand mudra and breathe normally for a minute. You can also use the left hand if you prefer, but you will cover the nostrils with the opposite digit or digit combinations.
Ujjayi Breath, or breath of victory, is a wonderful pranayama to use during your asana practice. It is calming, the sound provides a point of focus and it warms your internal environment.
To practice Ujjayi Breath, sit comfortably. Inhale through the nose and then exhale through the mouth with an “haaa” sound. Now inhale and exhale through the nose, maintaining that same slight constriction at the back of the throat that you used to make the “haaa” sound. Your breath becomes audible, sounding like the ocean waves as they roll in and out along a beautiful beach. This is your Ujjayi Breath! Practice for a few minutes and then begin your asana practice.
There are many other Pranayama techniques: some to calm, others to energize! These are just three to get you started. Which one do you prefer? Are there any others that you use?