Learning yogic breathing, or pranayama, can lead to many health benefits, in addition to the much-touted spiritual ones. Unlike yogic asanas, or physical postures, in which a new student should seek active instruction, pranayama lends itself easily to self-study, as it is based on a skill we all have--the simple act of breathing. But oddly, the market seems to be exactly backwards: There is a wealth of offerings for various styles of yoga asana practice for all levels, but precious little in the way of instruction on pranayama. Simply put, pranayama is breathwork. There are several types of pranayama exercises you can do, either alone or in conjunction with a larger meditation and yoga practice. But why do it at all? Some of the benefits of pranayama include:
- Increased sense of control over the disorder inherent in the natural world. By making order out of the chaos of natural, unconscious or reflexive breathing (what we practice most of the time), we support that natural part of ourselves that seeks to make order out of disorder.
- Lower blood pressure and pulse. Controlled breathing can help your heart rate slow down and reduce your stress level, which in turn can help lower your blood pressure given time and sufficient practice.
- Reduced stress. The negative effects of physical and mental or emotional stress on the body are well-documented. Proper breathwork, regularly practiced, can assist us in responding more positively to stressors and may ultimately help us achieve a more equanimous response to both little stresses and big tragedies.
- A quiet mind. Like the practice of meditation, pranayama can help one focus and still the mind, momentarily quieting all the random noise that usually bounces around inside our heads.
However, there are risks in pranayama. Physically, it's possible to hyperventilate through a too-vigorous practice. Emotionally, some practitioners report feeling anxious or spacey after practice. It is advisable to start slowly, with a deliberate approach that gradually builds in intensity, in order to avoid both of these unfortunate results.
- Find a quiet space in which to practice. No distractions, no telephones or televisions or interruptions. You'll need at least ten minutes for a good practice. Some people find it beneficial to tack on pranayama at the end of their normal yoga asana practice. Others do it after lunch in their offices (with the door closed, of course), while still others prefer just before bedtime. Whatever works with you is fine, but make sure you'll be undisturbed.
- Wear comfortable loose clothing. Don't wear anything that would restrict your full breath, i.e., belts, ties, pants or skirts with tight waistbands, etc.
- Lie down on a folded blanket down the middle of your spine. Start by folding the blanket lengthwise (it should be at least 30 inches long when folded). Lay it out flat on the floor, and sit on the edge of one end with your legs straight out before you, a cushion or bolster underneath your knees for additional support for your back if you like. Lie back so that the blanket is centered beneath your spine. Relax the body, including your face muscles. Soften your gaze, or close your eyes.
- Begin simply by noticing your breathing. It is probably, at least at first, unsteady or arrhythmic. Don't try to change this at first, but merely note the breath as it flows in and out.
- After several minutes of this (maybe 2-3 minutes in a 10-minute practice), begin to gently shape the breath into a rhythm. Count a slow four-count in and, at the same pace, a slow six-count out. By forcing the breath out on a longer count than the inhale, you wring stale air out of the lungs.
- Place your hands on your rib cage, one above the other, in order to make the mind-body connection between the inhale and exhale cycles. Continue this type of breathing for 3-5 minutes.
- Gradually become aware of the muscles in your torso, and begin to envision the breath rolling in like a wave through your body--from belly, to ribs, to chest, to upper chest, and back again. Explore this movement for 1-2 minutes. Alternately, you can envision the breath filling your torso like a bottle from bottom to top.
Once you're proficient in these methods, you can try pranayama in a seated position, and experiment with different types of breaths:
- Ujjayi breath or victorious breathing is best thought of as "noisy breath." By half-closing the epiglottis, the air is forced over the structure and produces a substantive sound. To achieve this effect, you might try starting off vocalizing with your mouth opened the "ah" sound (as in "aaaahhh-vocado") on both an inhale and an exhale, then closing your mouth and keeping the sound going. That's ujjayi breathing. Practice it for five minutes or so. When you feel proficient at it, you might try incorporating it into your asana practice, but be sure to stop if you begin to feel lightheaded or unsteady on your feet.
- Explore the practice of kumbhaka, or retaining the breath. This is achieved by expanding the pauses between the inhale and the exhale cycle.
- Try "the breath of fire" by inhaling and exhaling forcefully and rapidly, at your own pace. Caution: the danger of hyperventilation is pronounced with a careless practice of this breath.