Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. The word pranayama can be broken down into two roots: prana (breath or life force) and yama/ayama (restriction/cultivation). Thus, pranayama can be defined as either “breathing control,” or “life force cultivation.” Both definitions are useful and complementary because they point to the different ways in which pranayama exercises function: one is to restrain the breathing to enter into specific states of consciousness, while the other is to cultivate the feeling of vitality that comes from a healthy body and mind.
Why practice pranayama?
Pranayama is the gateway from the external world to the internal world. You have already started to observe and cultivate your relationship to the external world through your focus on yama (ethical precepts which concern how you treat other people) and niyama (disciplines which concern how you treat yourself). Not to mention, your absolute first exposure to yoga was through asana (the physical postures), how you treat your physical body. If you were to simply stop at yama, niyama and asana, then your practice would certainly bring you many benefits – social, personal, and physical – but your personal growth would remain stunted and mundane. And the whole purpose of practicing these first three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga is to prepare you, ultimately, for meditation and bliss.
So before you can even meditate, you have to be able to concentrate. Before you can concentrate, you have to be able to focus. Before you can focus, you have to withdraw your attention from the play of the senses. And finally before you can withdraw your attention, you have to learn to harness the power of your breathing patterns. This is where you start with pranayama.
Your ethical practice of nonviolence, truthfulness, continence, generosity, and respect for others’ property continues to make your relationship more harmonious. Your personal disciplines of cleanliness, contentment, discipline, study and devotion create the right mental environment for the practice of the asana. The practice of the asana, the physical postures, creates a supple, healthy body, free of unnecessary pain, tightness and reactive neural patterns. And then you get to pranayama, the gateway of breathing and energy cultivation. This is the chance to go deeper in your practice.
You don’t need to start with a long complex series of breathing exercises. You don’t need to spend 45 minutes doing pranayama after your 90 minute asana practice. You don’t need to read a book to learn how to do it. As long as you are reasonable about how you practice and what you practice, then you can start a pranayama practice by yourself. (If you want to learn more, then seek the guidance of a professional teacher.)
Start simple. Start small. Be regular and attentive.
The two following exercises are basic exercises in traditional pranayama methods: samavrtti pranayama (even-length breathing) and kapalabhati (skull-shining breath).
The first, samavrtti, means “even-length.” In this exercise, you aim to make the inhalation and the exhalation equal to one another in duration. It is done as follows:
- Sit in a comfortable position, preferably in lotus, half-lotus or siddhasana. If you cannot sit in one of these positions, then sit on a chair.
- Make sure that your hip bones are higher than the level of your knees, so that you can keep the natural curve in your lower back.
- Feel the connection through his sitting bones through the earth. Feel the top of your head rise up.
- Use the minimal amount of muscular effort to hold yourself upright.
- Next, spend a few moments observing your natural breathing pattern. How long is your inhalation? Your exhalation? How does your breathing move your body? What does it actually feel like? Try not to intellectualize this part too much: just make it an exercise in observation.
- Then, focus on the area of your heart. Feel the heart beating as you inhale and exhale. Your heart is going to be the metronome for setting your pace.
- Begin with a count of four, inhale smoothly, slowly and silently (no ujjayi sound).
- Pause for a brief second.
- Then exhale for a count of four, smoothly, slowly and silently. Pause for a brief moment at the end of the exhalation.
- Repeat this process 5 times.
- Then relax
That’s it. Start with 5 rounds of samavrtti. It will take you a few minutes, maximum.
Then, when you can comfortably do those 5 rounds for a week, every day, then add one round to make 6 rounds. Keep adding a round every week until you reach 25 rounds. Stay at 25 rounds for one year before you decide to add more. Why?
Because it is not about simply accumulating more and more rounds of breathing. Once you get the basic concept down, then you try to make the breath smoother, slower, and more silent each time. Focus on quality rather than quality.
The second exercise, kapalabhati, means “skull-shining.” It is characterized by short sharp exhalations produced by a forceful contraction of the lower abdomen, followed by passive soft inhalations. The set-up for this pranayama is the same as above: get steady and comfortable in your seat, observe your breathing for a few rounds. Then:
- Exhale sharply through the nose while pulling the lower abdomen in, as if you are trying to slap your navel against your spine. The force of the contraction does not need to be especially strong: you are not trying to break your spine! Just make it a dynamic pulling back of the navel, generated through the intent to exhale sharply.
- The inhalation is soft, passive and relaxed. You simply let the breath in by relaxing the navel from the spine.
- Continue this process for 10 exhalations, with a steady, soft rhythm. This is not a competition to see who gets done first.
- Then rest
That’s it. Do three rounds of 10 exhalations, every day. Pay attention to how you perform the exercise, not to just counting out the rounds. Don’t put 100% effort into the exhalation at first. Start at 50% of what you think you need to do.
When you can do 3 rounds of 10 comfortably, add 10 exhalations to each round. Now you will be doing 3 rounds of 20 exhalations. Do this for one month. On your third month of regular practice, then increase your rounds to 3 rounds of 30 exhalations. Stay at this level for one year, working on perfecting your technique, softening your breathing, and paying attention to the effects it has on the rest of your life.
When is the best time to practice pranayama?
After asana and before meditation.
Is there a particular order I should do these two exercises?
Kapalabhati should be done before samavrtti. This way, you have warmed up the respiratory muscles, unclogged your nose, and generated some heat. You can do the pranayama exercises immediately after asana or later on in the day.