More often than not, the first, and sometimes last, 5-15 minutes of a yoga class are spent on centering, intentions, and pranayama. Though it may sound daunting to both novice and expert yogis, pranayama boils down to a simple meaning. The word pranayama comes from two sanskrit words: prana, meaning vital life force and ayama meaning to extend or draw out. Our vital life force is our breath, and when we consciously extend or control our breath we end up with the practice of pranayama.
Pranayama is transformative and can take on many different forms. I am here to break down a few of the many pranayama techniques for you. That way, the next time your instructor mentions the word Kapalabhati, your face won’t be overrun with anxious confusion. We’ll start with one of the the more simple forms of pranayama, first.
Ujjayi can also be translated as the “victorious breath”. When your instructor guides you to inhale and exhale out of your nose, constricting the back of your throat, this is called Ujjayi breathing. This is an audible breath that will carry you throughout your poses in a flowing yoga class. It can sustain your energy effectively throughout even the most challenging asanas. Think of yourself fogging a mirror with your breath, and then do so with your mouth closed. Another way to cultivate this ujjayi breath, is to mimic the sounds of ocean waves, or alternatively, Darth Vader’s breath.
This is known more simply as “alternate nostril breathing”. Anuloma viloma is done by alternating inhales and exhales through each nostril. Typically, anuloma viloma begins by closing off the left nostril and inhaling through the right, holding, and exhaling through the left nostril as the right nostril is closed off. The cycle is then repeated by inhaling through the left nostril, pausing, holding and exhaling through the right nostril. Often times many practice extending their exhales a couple of counts longer than each inhale. This helps to remove carbon dioxide from the blood stream, and promotes relaxation. Additionally, anuloma viloma is known to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, balancing ones creative and logical abilities. If you have a regular meditation practice, anuloma viloma is also a fantastic precursor.
This is known as 3-part breath. The breath travels through three parts off the body- the belly, rib cage and upper chest all the way up to the collar bones. Dirgha is a great pranayama to practice at the beginning of a yoga practice, as it makes you very conscious of the way breath travels through your body. It’s best practiced in a comfortable seated position or even lying on your back. Personally, I like to place one hand on my stomach and one hand on my chest to feel the breath traveling. You begin this breath by inhaling first into the belly, letting it fill up completely, then continuing your inhale so that your ribs expand and finally your chest rises. You exhale so that your chest falls, you feel your ribs contract and finally the belly contract. It’ helpful to imagine the breath as a wave flowing in and out of these three chambers of your body.
This pranayama technique is one of my favorite, and better practiced once you’ve had some experience with pranayama. It can also be referred to as “Skull shining breath” as kapal means skull (including the organs underneath) and bhati means shinning or illuminating. Kapalabhati is rejuvinating and purifying; you can do it in an easy seated position or even while holding certain asanas for an extra challenge. It’s great for cleansing the lungs, sinuses and overall respiratory system. Kapalabhati consists of short powerful exhales through the nostrils, and passive inhales; you can work your way up to many rounds a minute, though 20 rounds is a good place to start . Regular practice with kapalabhati can strengthen abdominal muscles as well as your immune system.
Pranayama is a rewarding way to not only end or begin a yoga class, but is a great way to keep you conscious and energized throughout your yoga practice. If your mind is traveling to too many places, it’s a great way to recenter. If you’re energy is lagging, it’s a great way to reenergize. If you’re feeling stressed of over stimulated, it’s a great way to relax. Over the years, I’ve come to love practicing pranayama just as much as the asanas. After all, without breath, yoga would just be another aerobics class without the spirit and vitality that makes it wonderful.