Have you ever wondered what your yoga teacher is talking about when he or she encouraged you to use “ujjayi” breath? Or heard the person on the yoga mat next to you breathing loudly? Pranayama, the practice of yogic breathing, may seem mystical and elusive at first, but is accessible with a little background knowledge and can even improve your health and yoga practice. Our ambassador, Ingrid Yang, from our La Jolla store writes about incorporating Pranayama into your yoga practice with tips on how to begin.
the importance of pranayama
Asana (Hatha yoga) is just one of the 8 limbs of yoga. Another limb, and an essential aspect of yoga, is the conscientious use of your breath, or “Pranayama”. It calms the nervous system, relieves unconscious habits and inspires us into movement and positive energy. Start with Pranayama before your yoga practice or use it to begin or end your day. Start in a comfortable seat as we look at four of the most accessible Pranayama practices.
- Aliases — “Ocean Sounding Breath”; “Victorious Breath”
- Technique — Partially constrict the back of the throat as though you are about to swallow a drink of water. Inhale and exhale slowly through the nose dragging the breath along the narrow passageway you’ve created in back of your throat. It will feel like sipping a thick, creamy milkshake through a straw. This results in a hissing sound (Ocean sound) that allows the breath to be smooth, un-interrupted and of uniform quality. Ujjayi may be used throughout your yoga asana practice or while seated for any period of time.
- Benefits — Ujjayi heats the body but will not overheat. It extends the breath and builds lung endurance.
- Aliases — “Alternate Nostril Breath”; “Channel Cleansing Breath”
- Technique — Take “Vishnu mudra” with the right hand by curling the peace fingers in (image A). Gently press the soft part of the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through the left nostril for a count of 5 (image B). Press the right ring finger on the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril for a count of 5 (image C). Inhale through the right nostril, close both nostrils and retain the breath for a count of 5 (image D). Exhale through the left nostril for 5 and inhale through the left for 5. Close both nostrils, retain for 5 and continue like this for 20 breaths on each side.
- Benefits— Alternate nostril breathing is a powerful breathing technique that cleanses and balances the nervous system and energy passageways of the body. This technique revitalizes and balances both hemispheres of the brain, as well as the front and the back. It is especially good for relieving insomnia or stress.
- Aliases — “Skull Shining”; “Breath of Fire”
- Technique — Make successive, sharp exhales through both nostrils using contractions of the abdominal wall from below the navel. While the exhalation is active, powerful and vigorous, inhalation is passive with the abdomen relaxed. Start slowly. Try 3 sets of 10 with deliberate, sharp exhales with passive inhales. It will take some concentration and when you first start this, you may not perform this technique as rapidly as other students in class.
- Benefits — A cleansing and detoxifying breath, Kapalabhati directly effects circulation and digestion. It improves abdominal organ tone, produces heat in the body, activates circulation and brings mental clarity and alertness.
- Alias — The Sanskrit word Shitalata is used for feeling the coolness of the body.
- Technique — Stick your tongue out and curl the outer edges up to form a tube. If that is difficult for you, touch the back of the teeth with the tip of your tongue. Inhale through the cylinder-like tongue. Exhale through both nostrils. Repeat this 10-15 times for 3 rounds.
- Benefits — Shitali is a cooling breath and reduces stress.
So now that we know the basics, let's make sure we're breathing everyday. Yesterday, I did it for 24 hours in a row. Working with my breath made a huge difference to my yoga practice, I'd love to hear any of your epiphanies that have fundamentally changed the way you do yoga.