What Is Pranayama? A Guide To Yogic Breath
If you’ve been to a yoga class or read about yoga, you’ve likely heard the word pranayama before. At the very least, you’ve been told to focus on your breath or to move with your breath. Well, that is what pranayama is all about: the breath. Sort of…
Pranayama is commonly known as breath control. However, if we delve a little deeper, we see that it’s really the practice of controlling energy through the use of the breath.
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In Sanskrit, prana means ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’; it is the energy that rides on the breath, and it is responsible for all life experiences, physical and spiritual. It is sometimes referred to as the breath itself, but this is not exactly the case. The latter end of the word can be broken down and translated a couple of different ways: as yama (‘control’ or ‘restraint’), or ayama (‘to extend or expand’). So pranayama is either ‘control’ or ‘expansion of vital energy or life force.’
Either way, we’re talking about manipulating prana, our life force. The breath is a physical aspect or external manifestation of prana; therefore, pranayama begins with regulating the breath. By controlling the breath, we can control the prana. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga, as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is one of the steps on the yoga journey, and it is just as, if not more important than asana (the practice of postures).
Ready to Try?
There are a number of pranayama techniques you can try. I’ll outline a few simple ones here to get you started.
Sama Vritti Pranayama: Even, Regulated Breath
Sama vritti translates as ‘even, regulated breathing.’
- Observe your breath for a few minutes
- Without rushing, gradually guide the breath into a smooth and even rhythm, making each part of the inhale the same as every other part of the inhale
- So the beginning of the breath isn’t faster or stronger than the latter part of the breath; do the same with the exhale – even it out.
- When you’ve found an evenness within each inhale and each exhale, begin to match the length of the inhales and exhales.
- So if you inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts. Any count is fine, as long as there is no strain on the breath and you are able to match inhales and exhales.
Continue like this for as long as you can maintain it.
Ujjayi Pranayama: Victorious Breath
You may have heard the word ujjayi before, particularly if you’ve been to a vinyasa yoga class. It’s unique in that it is really the only pranayama that is practiced in conjunction with postures.
Ujjayi is practiced by creating a slight constriction at the back of your throat, giving your breath a Darth Vader-esque, ocean-sounding voice.
- Take a hand and place it in front of your mouth; pretend it’s a mirror. Take an inhale and exhale a “ha” sound through the mouth like you’re going to fog up that mirror in front of you.
- Notice the sensation at the back of your throat when you do this. That’s the constriction you’re looking for.
- Now close the lips and exhale in the same fashion, keeping that constriction at the back of your throat.
- Keep the lips sealed and the constriction active on the inhale as well.
You should feel the breath passing along the back of your throat, on both the inhale and the exhale. You should also be able to hear the breath. Listen to the tone of your breath as you breathe, and make that tone as even and smooth as possible, without any raggedness or changes in intensity.
Sama Vritti Ujjayi Pranayama: Even, Regulated Victorious Breath
When you have practiced both sama vritti and ujjayi pranayama for some time, you can combine them. You should be able to sustain both individually with steadiness and ease for at least five minutes. You will start with sama vritti, finding an evenness in your breath, and then add the ujjayi, so that the audible inhales and exhales are even and smooth.
Anuloma Viloma Pranayama: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Anuloma viloma is alternate nostril breathing and it’s a great practice for finding balance. Anuloma Viloma is practiced by alternating the nostrils we inhale and exhale through. You will need to use a mudra (hand gesture) with your right hand to cover and release your nostrils. You have a couple of options:
1. Vishnu mudra:
Curl the index and middle finger into the palm, and leaving the thumb, ring, and pinkie fingers free (it will feel a little awkward, just go with it). You’ll use your thumb to cover your right nostril and your ring finger to cover your left nostril.
2. Nasarga mudra:
Place your index and middle fingers between the eyebrows and use your thumb to cover your right nostril and your ring finger to cover your left nostril.
Come into any comfortable seated position, with your spine tall and long, and shoulders relaxed.
- Bring your right hand into the mudra of your choice.
- Take three deep, even breaths in and out to get ready.
- On your 3rd exhale, bring your hand up to your face and cover the right nostril with your thumb. Breathe in through the left nostril only.
- When you reach the top of your inhale, cover your left nostril with your ring finger, and release your right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril.
- Keeping your hand in the same position, inhale through the right nostril. At the top of the inhale, switch sides and cover your right nostril to exhale through the left. This is one round.
- Aim to do 8 rounds, counting with your left fingers, or by using mala beads in the left hand.
May The Life Force Be With You
The pranayama exercises outlined above will give you a solid start to connecting with your breath, and through doing so, to controlling and expanding the life force within you.
Pranayama is also an excellent stress relief tool; you can read more about yoga for stress relief here.
Do you have a favorite pranayama exercise? Please share them in the comments!
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