Observe a child. He breathes into the abdomen. As one grows older, one begins to breathe only to the chest. Just as eating and sleeping patterns affect the health and longevity of an individual, breathing patterns too have a huge impact. Pranayama is the bridge between the body and mind, the external and internal journey of yoga. It is a preparation for meditation.
One of the yoga sutras describes the fourth rung of yoga, pranayama, as follows:
Tasmin sati shvasa prashvayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah
Tasmin: upon that; sati: being accomplished; shvasa: inhalation; prashvayoh: exhalation; gati: of the uncontrolled movements; vichchhedah: slowing or braking of the force behind; pranayamah: expansion of prana or regulation of breath
This implies the slowing or regulating of the force behind (prana) and of unregulated movement of inhalation and exhalation which is called regulation of breath or pranayama.
The moment one inculcates awareness into the breath, it begins to slow down. When one is unaware of the breath, stressed, angry or physically unfit the breath rate is faster because the breathing is shallow. Yogic techniques slow down the breathing pattern. Pranayama is the speed breaker of life. The slower one’s breath rate, the longer one can live.
Three parts of pranayama
- Poorak or inhalation
- Kumbhak or retention –there are two types, namely, antar kumbhak or internal breath retention and bahir kumbhak or external breath retention
- Rechak or exhalation
How to practise pranayama
A prerequisite to pranayama is the ability to sit still in one of the meditative postures. Though siddhasana (accomplished pose) is ideal, it is not recommended for everyone as it inhibits the reproductive system over a period of time. Opt for either padmasana (lotus pose) or vajrasana (diamond pose). If one is unable due to lack of fitness or joint problems, sit in sukhasana (easy pose).
Keep the eyes closed; relax the facial muscles and the jaw. Keep a gentle smile which helps to stay in the present. This will keep the mind from wandering. Breathe through the nose and not the mouth unless instructed otherwise.
Complete awareness of inhalation, retention and exhalation is absolutely essential. Awareness is essentially what makes the difference at not only the physical but also the mental, emotional and energy levels.
The pranayama techniques have a fixed ratio of inhalation, retention and exhalation. The ideal ratio of pranayama is 1:4:2. For example, if inhalation is for five counts, retention should be for 20 counts and exhalation for 10 counts. But a beginner should start with 1:2:2. Inhale for three or five counts, hold for six or 10 counts and exhale for six or 10 counts. Do not jump the ratio. Build over a period of time else the lungs will not be able to cope up.
Breath retention requires practise. Emphasis is on inhalation and exhalation at the beginning, in order to strengthen the lungs and balance the nervous system in preparation for the practice of kumbhak. This should not be forced.
The techniques to be practised also depend on the weather conditions and time as they affect the temperature levels in the body. Specific instructions need to be followed.
Practice of the week
Keep in mind
When you’re stressed or anxious, inhale deeply through the nose and exhale completely through the mouth, 10-20 times. This will help you relax almost instantly. Listed are postures to improve lung capacity.
Next week: Understanding pranayama - 2
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