What is Pranayama?
Pra means the first, primary or the most important and na is a form or unit of energy. Thus Prana is said to be the foundation or the most basic energy of all life and movement.
Yama means to control and expand.
Put it all together and you have Pranayama - to expand with control the most fundamental form of energy.
A Little Background
Pranayama is the 4th limb in the 8 limbs of yoga. When the flow of prana - the breath - is balanced and restored to its natural and even state, the whole body is then brought into alignment. Pranayama practices purify the body, cleanse the mind and create space for higher connection. From calming the nervous system, to building heat, to cleansing the sinuses and toning the abdominals - there are a plethora of practices that offer different benefits and experiences.
When practicing Pranyama, it's mucho importante to listen to your own body!
Depending on your age, body type, constitution, diet, lifestyle and life stage, different Pranayama practices might be awesome for you and alternatively, some may not be so desirable. For example, if you're on your period - you won't necessarily want to perform any practice that draws energy up from the root of the spine. If you have high blood pressure, doing really fast-paced breathing might leave you feeling woozy. Or if you're already feeling quite lethargic, a calming Pranayama practice might just put you straight to bed.
It's important, like with any part of your yoga practice, to tune in and see how you're feeling and where you're at.
It's hard to rock the breathing when you're all snotty and congested or when one side of your nose is a little foggy compared with the other side. Both of the pics below are linked to either an article or a video that will give you the insider scoop on cleaning your nose. Please know, these are not essential (especially the flossing). But they're both ancient yoga techniques that you may want to learn about.
A Quick & Easy Pranayama Guide
This isn't a complete guide by any means, but will give you some insight into the more commonly explored Pranayama practices. At the bottom, you'll find a video that will give you a sample of what each practice looks, feels and sounds like. I hope you learn a butt-ton! Now let's dive in:
A deeply connecting breath that helps to release tension from the belly. If you sit at a computer all day, chances are you're a chest breather. This practice will help you bring awareness to the base of your lungs while you enjoy a hugely expansive breath. Abdominal breathing is great for relaxation, focus and a perfect starting point for any Pranayama practice. With your hands on your belly, breathe deeply, letting your whole belly soften. Perform lying down or sitting up if that's more comfortable for you.
3 Part Breath | Full Yogic Breathing
For this Pranayama, you get both the top, middle and the bottom of the lungs working. It involves a rolling and steady inhalation and exhalation, that brings to life the whole breathing system. You can place one hand on your heart and one on your belly. As you inhale, first feel your belly rise, then your ribs, then your chest. As you exhale, it's the opposite - chest drops, then ribs, then belly. Perform lying down or sitting up if that's more comfortable for you (I almost always opt for lying down!)
Ocean Sounding Breath | Ujjayi
This Pranayama is the one you hear during class when it sounds like everyone is simultaneously breathing heavily and whispering. The back of the throat (glottis) is contracted as if you were fogging a mirror, but with your mouth closed. The inhalation and exhalation are even. Try to create the sound on both the in and out, keeping balance and building heat. This practice maintains an even flow of Prana throughout the yoga practice, builds and maintains heat in the body and is a great audible sound to connect into.
Kapalabhati Kriya | Shining Skull Breath
This is actually a kriya (cleansing technique) but gets lumped in with the Prana practices because the breath is used. This practice clears the sinuses and expands the passages, brings strength to the abdominals and moves out toxicity and stale air that can sit in the base of the lungs. It also purifies the blood and boosts the immune system. This is the practice that uses a strong exhalation from the belly (like a pump) and a soft, soundless inhalation - all through the nose, never through the mouth.
Bhramari Pranayama | Honey Bee Breath
This practice is so simple and soothing. With your mouth closed, you create the buzzing mmm sound of a bumble bee. With a deep long breath in and steady buzzing exhalation, you can release negative thoughts and emotions, sooth your nervous system and bring an overall sense of calm to your whole bod. This is a very simple and accessible Pranayama that most will find enjoyable and easy.
Agni Prasana | Breath of Fire
This energising, strong and powerful breath is used in Kundalini yoga but can also be explored with other yoga practices. Breath of Fire synchronises all aspects of the subtle and physical body, bringing balance, releasing anxiety and building immunity - both against disease and stress. It is even on both the inhalation and exhalation but is very strong and quick, with the belly pumping in and out to move the air. This practice is not recommended for beginners, if you're menstruating (because it draws energy up while your body is working to expel it), for pregnant women or anyone feeling light-headed, dizzy or scattered.
Anuloma Viloma | Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is all about balancing the lunar and solar sides of your body, bringing that uplifting energy into alignment with the calm and collected one. You'll see in the video how to use a mudra (hand gesture) to perform this practice. Using your thumb on the right nostril and ring finger on the left, you switch back and forth, closing and releasing. One complete round is as follows: Always begin with an inhalation through the left, then exhalation out of the right nostril. Then inhale right and exhale left to complete. Your stress melts away, concentration is improved, the mind and body are soothed and oxygen supply is improved (Pranayama rhymes are awesome).
Probably the most fun Pranayama (if it's even considered a Pranayama). This practice opens and releases the jaw and tongue, strengthens the eyes and creates a sense of expansion in the face. The inhalation is steady, while the exhalation is a borderline growl - the mouth opens wide, eyes look up toward the third eye and the tongue reaches out and down toward the chin. Also the most attractive looking of the Prana practices.
Watch the video to see how it's all done!
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