Pranayama (Yes, You are Alive!): By Sarah Hull

May 12, 2015   //   by Staff Writer   //   The Blog  //  No Comments

Growing up in the 80’s with severe asthma kept me in and out of the hospital and home recovering for days at a time. This afforded me a great opportunity to watch a lot of PBS and one of my favorite songs from Sesame St was from the rockin’ band, Little Chrissy and the Alphabeats which starts:

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(inhale) Breathe In!
(exhale) Breathe Out!
(inhale) Breathe In!
(exhale) Breathe Out!

For a little kid having difficulty breathing, I can’t begin to explain how great it would have felt to take those deep breaths. While being active was difficult for me, my doctor was very progressive, encouraging me to get involved with sports to help build my lung capacity and oxygen utilization.

Physiologically at the most basic level when we breathe, we breathe in fresh air, that contains oxygen which enters the lungs and breathe out waste gas in the form of carbon dioxide.

But what happens anatomically when we breathe? When we regularly inhale, the diaphragm pulls down, muscles contract, and the lungs expand while the rib cage moves up and out. The low pressure in the lungs creates a vacuum that draws the air in through the nose (or mouth) down through the trachea and into the lungs.  Exhaling is a passive process, where the muscles relax, the diaphragm rises, the chest contracts, the lungs deflate and the waste air is expelled.

Simple, right?

So, how does this relate to yoga?

The circulation and exchange of breath stokes the prāṇa (life energy), which impacts the state of mind. Meanwhile, the state of mind impacts prāṇa. There is said to be too little prāṇa in the body when the person is troubled or restless and this lack can cause illness. In Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, imbalances in breath are said to be an expression of uncontrolled prāṇa.

Prāṇāyāma, coming directly from the Sanskrit roots of prāṇa – life energy and yama – controlling processes, is just that, control of the life energy/breath.  Prāṇāyāma offers various breathing methods to draw precise attention to the breath. When practicing prāṇāyāma, there are three points of focus: the inhalation, the exhalation, and the pause/retention.

In their writings, Sri BKS Iyengar and Sri TVK Desikachar are both adamant that to properly practice prāṇāyāma, the body has to be in an erect aligned position (be it padmāsana, siddhāsana, sukhāsana, virāsana, vajrāsana, or just sitting on a chair or stool) for a given amount of time to allow the breath to circulate. Effectually, āsana practice prepares the body for prāṇāyāma. Prāṇāyāma prepares the mind for meditation.  Many teachers strongly recommend practicing prāṇāyāma under the guidance of a well-practiced teacher and after a year of asana practice. However, there are four basic practices that are regularly encountered in yoga classes.

Calming Breath – Practiced in the Dharma tradition in a ratio of 1:1:1:1. The inhale lasts a duration of 4 counts, the breath is suspended for a 4 count, exhale for 4 count, then pause the breath for final 4 count. This is one cycle. Many teachers describe visualizing a square when practicing this technique. Inhale up, suspend over, exhale down, and pause over. No core locks are engaged.

Nādī Śodhana – Alternate nostril breathing, where the opening and closing of the nostrils are regulated by mrgi mudrā (index and middle finger rest on the heel of the thumb, with the ring finger and little fingers extending outward and pressed together using the right hand). Used as a technique for lengthening inhalation and exhalation and aids in directing attention to where the breath is in the body. It should not be practiced if suffering from a cold or stuffed nasal passages.

In its basic form, Nādī Śodhana is practiced in a 1:1 ratio, 1 count inhale one nostril : 1 count exhale alternate nostril increasing up to 24:24. The next step adds a suspension of the breath resulting in a breath ratio of 1:3:2. In practice this would be a 3 second inhale : 9 second suspension of breath: 6 second exhale alternate nostril; 3 second inhale : 9 second suspension of breath : 6 second exhale alternate nostril. This is one cycle. Once the breath is easily suspended for 12 seconds, core locks can be used.

Kapālabhātī – Diaphragmatic breathing specifically for cleansing. Practiced with short, rapid, and strong breaths between the nostrils and abdominal area, the aim is to clear the nasal passages with the force of breath.

In this prāṇāyāma, the natural breath cycle is reversed. The forced quick exhale through the nose drives air from the lungs. As the diaphragm returns to resting position, air is automatically drawn back into the lungs. Generally practiced in cycles of 30, with an exhale followed by an inhale and suspension of breath. Can help clear the mind and alleviate problems in the sinuses or numbness around the eyes. (If it’s pollen season or if you’ve got a cold, bring a box of tissues.)

Ujjāyī – Commonly called throat breathing or ocean breath. In ujjāyī the larynx is deliberately contacted and the air passage is narrowed. A slight noise is created like the sounds of the ocean.

Ujjāyī is unique in that while it can be practiced in sitting, it is also incorporated into the Ashtanga yoga and many flow classes as part of the postures. In incorporating it into the asana practice, lapsed ujjāyī becomes an indicator of strain in the posture.

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These are just a few of the many types and variations of prāṇāyāma.
So what can you expect at Yoga District?

The table below outlines some of the classes where these forms of prāṇāyāma are offered as part of the class.

Breath is what gives us life and brings the mind and body into unity in the present.

Pranayama Type Classes at Yoga District Where Generally Practiced
Calming Breath Dharma, Meditative, Flow
Kapalabhati Dharma, Sivananda, Kundalini
Nadi Sodhana Dharma, Sivananda
Ujjayi Ashtanga, Rocket, Meditative, Flow


And for those of you looking to get your breathing groove on, Little Chrissy and the Alphabeats singing “You’re Alive” is available here:

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