pranayama

Notes on Prāṇayāma

The following are some notes I have taken over the past few years on practicing and teaching prāṇayama. I wish I'd written dates and teachers so I could give attribution to the shared knowledge. The bulk of what I have learned came through teacher training with the Yoga Well Institute and discussions with my personal teacher, Pam Hightower, as well as reflections on my own experience.

What is Prāṇayāma?

Prāṇa is thought of as vital energy or sometimes spirit, and its presence is what makes the difference between something being alive or not. The word prāṇa comes from the word roots "pra" (completely) and "an" (moves), meaning "that which moves/exists throughout" or "that which moves well." The word root "āṇ" also means "to breathe," from which we have the association of prāṇa with breathing.

The word root "āyāma" means to stretch, or to extend. Some texts will translate prāṇayāma as "control of the breath," combining the roots of prāṇa (breath/life force) and yama (control/restraint). However, the second word should be -āyāma (note the long a), and while this difference may seem pedantic, a practice of controlling the breath and that of extending the breath will differ in their approach and attitude.

For me, the word "extension" doesn't simply mean lengthen, as in making the breath so many counts longer, as much as bringing a quality of evenness and endlessness to each breath. I think of the breath as fine thread, and the "extension" is the gentle drawing out of kinks and tangles so the thread is smooth.

According to the Yoga Sutra (2.49-50), prāṇayāma is practiced by interrupting, or consciously influencing, the natural/chaotic flow of the breath once the body is in a state of sthira-sukha (a balance of stability and ease). In prāṇayāma, we strive to keep the breath long and subtle/smooth (dīrgha-sūkṣmaḥ) as we modify the exhale, inhale, and the suspension of breath after exhale and inhale.

Why do we practice prāṇayāma?

Prāṇayāma is the "chief way of focusing prāṇa," and the ideal tool for working with disruptions to the flow of energy in the body (see the prāṇa vayus) and for preparing the mind for meditation.

In a yoga practice or group class, we usually begin with movement to connect with the body. The body is easiest to move and be in relationship with, as it's a physical thing that we are accustomed to moving consciously. Then we move to the more subtle breath. By working with breath in prāṇayāma, we prime the mind for working with thought in meditation.

Prāṇayāma has a profound effect on the state of the human system. Depending on how it is structured, the practice can build capacity for clarity, or letting go, or digestion, or many other qualities that will prepare the system for the direction meditation is intended to go.

Yoga Sutra 2.51 and 2.52 give the result of prāṇayāma:

Once a student is established in prāṇayāma, the veil that obscures the light of knowing disappears, and the mind attains the capacity for concentration.

How do we practice prāṇayāma?

To begin a practice of prāṇayāma, we first need to know the capacity of the practitioner. The quality of a person's breathing is an indication of their state, and that state has a given capacity. Trying to exceed that capacity will only "anger" the prāṇa.

And while "angry prāṇa" may have a funny ring to it, it's no fun! I know this from a lot of experience angering my prāṇa by trying to push it too far. It leaves me feeling anxious, depleted, sleepless and generally miserable. Remember that this is your vital force you're working with. The goal is to develop a relationship with it, not take over its job!

One of my teachers put it this way: "The key is to participate in the way the state is functioning." This is true for all yoga tools in your system--consider yourself a participant, or a partner, not a micro manager (she tells herself).

That said, there are many techniques available for prāṇayama. Here are a few possibilities to consider:

You can change the length of different parts of the breath (the exhale, inhale, or pause after the exhale/inhale).

Usually you'll need to modify the size of the aperture the breath flows from to change the length. For this we have ujjayi breath, in which the throat is gently constricted to slow the flow of breath, or nostril-control breathing, in which we breathe through one nostril at a time. There are also sitali and sitkari, in which we breathe through the mouth (I'll post more on these individual techniques later).

Another way to alter the length of the breath is by using chanting, in whatever language you are comfortable with. Saying words or phrases of different lengths is a more subtle way to control the length of the breath, and in my experience, the more subtle I can be when working with prāṇa, the more digestible the practice will be.

We also use breathing techniques in which we consciously draw the lower belly in during exhale, or lift and expand the chest on inhale. As long as these are not too forced, they can be an excellent support for concentration and connection to the experience of the breath in stillness or in āsana practice. These breathing techniques include bandha practice as well--a complex topic I will have to cover in a separate post!

How Do I Develop a Prāṇayāma Practice?

Quite frankly, I would leave the work of creating your own practice to a qualified teacher. Even I am most successful when somebody else (who knows me and has carefully observed my state) plans my breathing practice. It's so hard to consider yourself and your practice objectively, especially if you have a goal you are tempted to rush toward.

If you are a teacher wanting to develop a prāṇayāma practice for your students, the first step is to observe their quality of breath at rest and during yoga practice. Is it smooth and easy? Does the body have freedom to move as the breath flows in and out?

Most students do not have a daily yoga practice and will be best served by beginner and early intermediate breathing practices. These include:

  • ujjayi breath and sound (chanting);
  • gradually lengthening the exhale (perhaps to 6 or 10 counts) while leaving the inhale free;
  • and building up to a ratio like 4.0.8.0 (inhale four counts, exhale eight counts).

These are the practices I give most often in group classes, although I might give something more challenging (like pausing after exhale, or lengthening inhale) to students who have been attending class consistently and are in a balanced state.

The best prelude to prāṇayāma is some movement connected to the breath. This helps students come in to their bodies and builds their concentration for working with the less tangible breath. Depending on the students' state, 10 to 30 minutes of asana usually warms them up to a seated breathing practice.

It is difficult to bear in mind that the simplest prāṇayāma practices are often the most useful! I have to remind myself frequently that the goal of prāṇayāma is stable energy and a steady mind, not having an impressive breath capacity. Whenever I feel tempted to push the breath, I look instead for a feeling of ease in my breath, heart and mind. Remember that this is a practice of meeting the breath where it is each day, of being curious about how it is, and accepting that it knows what it's doing.

Moving Inward: Meditation and Breathing for Balance in Winter

One of the things that surprised me most when I started a daily yoga practice was how effectively breathing, meditation, and chanting balance my mood and energy level, and how much more deeply the effect went than a sequence of yoga poses. An added bonus is that the inner practices are often more accessible practices for students, since there are no bendy or strenuous poses to do, and the practices themselves ask very little time to have a powerful effect.

Since they do have a powerful effect, though, it's very helpful to work with a teacher first hand to receive practices that will be appropriate. Different bodies, constitutions and minds have different responses to some of these practices. The practices I've outlined below are generally well-received, but pay attention to how you feel just after practicing and for the next day or so to know if they work for you.

These "inner" practices usually work best if they are preceded by some asana, as linking movement with breath will prepare you for the mental work of prāṇayāma and meditation. See my post on āsana in the winter for ideas on how to build a supportive physical practice.

Here are the breathing, meditation and chanting exercises I most often use in class during the cold months of the year.  In fact, I have two sets of practices, so that the practices respond to and support students when the seasons change. I encourage you to give each of these a try for a few days and see what happens.

Early Winter

I often teach and practice this general type of breathing and meditation from around Thanksgiving or the first hard frost to early January, after the holidays. Early winter season is dry and windy and cold, with a lot of holiday busy-ness and stress, and these practices are intended to be stabilizing and nourishing.

1. Prāṇayāma

Breathing practices in this time of year are almost always long exhale practices to bring some relief and calm into the system. For some students, a pause after inhale and exhale could also be steadying without causing agitation.

2. Meditation

I like to lead meditations on objects that are soft and steady this time of year. Like peaceful water, or warm light, and sometimes a dawn sun for morning classes. The goal of many meditation practices this time of year is to help students feel less frazzled by holiday stress.

3. Chanting

I usually find myself chanting Srisuktam this time of year, as the sounds and meaning are soothing and fill me with a sense of reassurance and contentment. I haven't written a blog post on Srisuktam yet, but here's a snippet you can hear.

Late Winter

Mid to late winter (mid January to mid March) is wet and dark and cold, and feels slow and heavy. To balance this, most physical practices I give have a mobilizing, warming effect, and the breathing and meditation practices are more energizing and focusing.

1. Prāṇayāma

Depending on student needs on the day of practice, I like to teach breathing with an even inhale or exhale and teach a ratio with a long exhale and short pause after inhale. However, most students attending yoga classes are there because they are looking for relief from stress, and challenging breathing practices will only be agitating, so I play it by ear with breathing.

2. Meditation

Light is a favorite object for me this time of year. Sunlight, moonlight, candlelight--it's all warming and uplifting. I also like to use a vibrant tree or other green living plants to help students feel a sense of vitality and energy. Especially around mid-February when students are so ready for winter to be over, connecting with the idea of newly-emerging buds and leaves can be very powerful.

3. Chanting

The Medha Mantra is my favorite chant when I'm feeling lethargic or lifeless, as can happen when the skies are gray for days on end. You can read about the Medha Mantra and listen to it here.

I hope you find these practice ideas helpful and supportive during the winter! You are welcome to listen to my classes to see how these sorts of practices work out in real life.

3 Things You Can Do to Breathe Better Now

When it's hot and humid outside like it is now, a lot of people tell me they can't breathe.

Especially if you have asthma or COPD, the air feels too heavy to pull in and your breath is short and unsatisfying.

You try to breathe in, but the inhale feels tight, like there isn't enough space.

But what you may not feel is that the exhale is probably also short.

When you don't get enough air out of your lungs on the exhale, then you don't create the natural vacuum your body relies on to pull air in for your inhale.

Now, forcing all the air out in a big whoosh is not going to solve the problem. Do that a few times, and you'll either hurt yourself, or you'll make your breath even shorter.

Here are three easy things you can do to breathe more easily today:

I've put them in a five-minute yoga practice recording for your convenience.

Try to do the practice once a day for a few days in a row, and your breath will be so much easier and full.


Why do we use Ujjayi breath?

Most new yoga students are surprised by how much I talk about the breath during class. In fact, I probably give more directions for your breath than your body in a typical group class.

Our ability to control our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have in yoga practice. Consider the vital role that breath plays in our body--its influence is everywhere! 

What's very cool about yoga is that a long time ago, people realized they could change how they feel and how their minds and bodies work by changing their breathing patterns. Notice your breath as you imagine being surprised, excited, relaxed, angry or sad. It changes a lot.

One of the things we might do in yoga is breathe in a relaxed way, and that way of breathing persuades the other parts of your system that you are relaxed. And then you really are relaxed.

It's a little more complicated than that, and we spend a lot of time talking about and practicing this stuff in teacher training, but that's the gist of how it works.

There is a great deal of utility in manipulating the breath if you know what you're doing. And learning something like ujjayi breath is a perfect start to yoga breathing practices.

First, here's a little tutorial on how to do ujjayi breath:

  1. Breathe in through your nose, and as you exhale, whisper "ahhhhhh" a few times.
  2. As you make the whisper sound, listen to it. See how smooth you can make the sound and see if it can last the entire length of your exhale.
  3. Then, close your mouth and see if you can still make the same whisper sound as you breathe out through your nose.

That's really all there is to it. You may also be able to add the whisper sound to the inhale right away, but in my experience, the inhale is a bit trickier to work with for new students. I suggest sticking to exhale only for a week or so and add the inhale as it becomes easy.

If you prefer to listen and practice, I have a recording all about ujjayi breath here.

Admittedly, spending a lot of time thinking about your breath and making a sound with it is strange at first. But there are three very useful things that ujjayi breath brings to your yoga practice:

1. Makes the breath more substantial

Creating a noise gives your breath a sound and a feeling that makes it easier to notice and control. Something as subtle as air becomes more tangible, and it's more satisfying to work with and focus on, especially for beginning students.

The sound and sensation also give students something to focus on. You can't tell someone to clear their mind and expect them to successfully keep their mind empty and still. Our minds don't work that way. They need something to do. And focusing on creating and listening to a sound in the breath is a nice little challenge to keep the mind engaged.

As the student advances, his breath grows more soft and subtle, so that even ujjayi breath is barely audible.

2. Provides feedback

One of primary elements of ujjayi breath is that the sound or sensation created should become entirely smooth and require almost no effort.

You'll notice in the beginning that the volume may change throughout the length of your exhale, or the breath may sputter or break up a bit. But as you become more proficient, you'll be able to maintain a very smooth sound even during movement and in more challenging breathing practices.

A break or unevenness in the breath is an indication that you are working beyond the level of effort that's useful or desirable in yoga. Most of the systems we are working with in yoga are highly refined, and they don't welcome forceful disruptions. Listening to the breath and staying at a level where the breath is smooth keeps your yoga practice healthy and effective.

3. Lengthens the breath

To create the whisper-like sound in your breath, your throat needs to gently constrict a bit. And this constriction slows the stream of air that passes through, in the same way that a drink flows more slowly through a narrow straw than through a wide one.

I won't spend a lot of time on it here, but one of the main ways that we influence the breath in yoga is by using different ratios for the inhale and exhale.

A inhale that is longer than the exhale is excitatory, and can produce anxiety, so I don't use it in yoga class.

An exhale that is longer than the inhale, on the other hand, tends to have a very relaxing influence. I use that one a lot.

Creating the sound with ujjayi breath gives students the ability to more precisely control the stream of air as it leaves or enters. So if I ask them to breathe in for 6 counts and out for 12, they have more capability of controlling the breath.

 

There you have it: three very good reasons to practice ujjayi breath.

If you're curious, the word ujjayi is in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and comes from the root "ud," which means up. The entire word means something like "one who is moving up," and in the case of yoga studies, one who is advancing or becoming enlightened. You may have heard your teacher refer to ujjayi breath as victorious breath or ocean breath as well. We yogis are quite fond of this tool and give it many names!

Enjoy your breathing! As I always say (not really, but perhaps I should), "Breathing every day keeps the doctor away!"