By Katherine Rae
How often do you practice pranayama? Technically you should at the very least be practicing it every time you do asana, because unless you are consciously breathing while you practice, really you are just stretching. But pranayama can be confusing. For one it seems deceptively simple…you breathe every day without even thinking about it so how hard can it really be? Pranayama is extremely helpful in getting us to understand activity and change in the subtle body, which we largely ignore in favor of the louder, more attention demanding physical body. Think of the physical body as a screaming infant that must be constantly fed, changed and snuggled, while the subtle body is more of a mysterious teenager who needs you to stop micro-managing them and start quietly listening without judgement.
Pranayama also gets us intimately acquainted with Aparigraha, the yogic precept of non-grasping. As the delightful Los Angeles based yoga teacher Annie Carpenter explained in Sunday’s workshop Pranayama: Developing and Sustaining Your Practice, there will always be a part of us that is grasping and thinking we are not enough because we live with the knowledge that our physical bodies will eventually die, no matter how much yoga we practice. This grasping often comes up during pranayama practice. You know that logically you are safe and absolutely will not die if you hold your breath for another second or two…but, “Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod,” says the anxious brain, “Inhale now, right now, right now or else!” Practicing pranayama is instrumental in teaching ourselves what we are capable of when we stop listening to the constant chatter of the mind and start listening to our bodies with our bodies. In Carpenter’s informative workshop we practiced and discussed the 5 pranayama that she feels are the most helpful and essential to your life and yoga practice. I’ve listed and briefly introduced them all below, but please remember that pranayama can be an extremely powerful practice and is best explored under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
1) Dirga (3-Part Breath)
Probably the first pranayama that most people learn when they embark on the yoga journey, Dirga teaches how to breathe fully and completely. Most of the time we take tiny, shallow breaths that are barely even noticeable from the outside. In teaching Dirga, often the instructor will have students place on hand on the belly and one over the heart so as to get a feel of the movement that should be happening there. Dirga first fills and expands the belly, then the rib cage and finally the heart and upper chest, and then exhales back down from the upper chest to rib cage to belly for a full, calming and balancing breath. With practice you will be amazed at the difference in length and quality of your breath when compared to your formerly unconscious, shallow breathing!
Another common pranayama, very popular in Ashtanga, power and vinyasa styles of yoga, Ujjayi is responsible for your classmates sounding like Darth Vader during practice. Meant to be just a slight constriction of the throat on both the inhalation and exhalation, often the constriction gets a little over-zealous, but hey, it’s called practice for a reason! Ujjayi is very effective in keeping the mind focused and in a state of dharana (one-pointed concentration).
3) Viloma I (Stop-Action Breath)
4) Viloma II
Much less familiar, Viloma I and II make use of breath retention. For Viloma I, Carpenter instructed us to take a “sip” of air and hold it for a couple of seconds. Another sip, another hold and then a final sip of breath and hold before slowly exhaling completely. Viloma II is the opposite: a full, complete, continuous inhalation through the nose and an exhalation in 3 parts interspersed with breath retention. Viloma II’s focus on the exhalation provides more grounding, relaxing effects, while its brother Viloma I is energizing and stimulating. Both practices are invaluable at developing steadiness and control in the breath.
Also known as alternate nostril breathing, Nadi Shodhana cleanses, purifies and balances the nadis, or subtle energy channels of the body, allowing healing prana (life-force energy) to flow freely throughout the body. Click the link above and watch an instructional video narrated by Sally Kempton on how to practice this most essential of pranayama.