Tag Archives: pranayama

Left Nostril Breathing

A big move is in the midst, interspersed with meetings, travel logistics and preparations for a subletter, hence I’ll be switching over to a weekly account of all things inspiring gratitude and thanks. Daily doses of thanks will be recorded in my journal, but I’ll only be posting on Sundays for a wee while.  Stick with me, gang, there are some sweet things on the horizon, I promise!

This last week was pretty phenomenal, and a major highlight had to be left nostril breathing.  Sounds so simple, I know – and it is.  I’ve practiced this technique almost every day this week to relieve the pressures of all these external changes going down.  And it’s discreet enough to do in just about any situation.

Left nostril breathing is also known as chandra bhedana and has been proven to improve spatial memory, decrease heart rate, systolic pressure (SP), pulse pressure, and rate-pressure.  Although the specific mechanics of these effects are unknown (is it normalization of autonomic cardiovascular rhythms with increased vagal modulation and/or decreased sympathetic activity along with improvement in baroreflex sensitivity?), utilizing the technique for immediate decreases in blood pressure is incredibly empowering for patients of hypertension and other conditions related to high levels in pressure and heart rate.  And while the sex of a patient may inform the outcome of spacial/verbal performance tests, effects of unilateral breathing are statistically significant across the board.

For me, left nostril breathing was a gift of relaxation and peace in the madness that is moving house!

Monday: I had a chance to interview two fellow members of the collective at Third Root.  We got in deep on questions relating to definitions of health, the relationship between social justice and holistic health, and a few personal perspectives and projects we’ve been working on.  It was a chance to elucidate, to bond, to work side by side in furthering the mission of our organization.  Very stoked to be able to work on this project before I go …

 

 

Tuesday: Adventures in Jackson Heights. If you haven’t been, get out there, action immediate. Delicious Indian food, fun shopping (bangles and saris and yoga books, oh my!), and very inexpensive grocery stores await your visit.

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Wednesday: Left Nostril Breathing (see above).  It came in particularly handy while I simultaneously packed and prepped my room for a visitor *and* a subletter.  Stress be gone!

 

Thursday: Sivananda ATTC mini-reunion!  A fellow teacher from the advanced training last year came to visit from Kuwait, along with a French comrade, a Russian Brooklynite, and ‘lil ole me.  We all met up before Dharma’s Master Class at 12 … and left 2 hours later sweaty and blissed out.  Sweet sweet connection.

 

IMAG0281Friday: My first international trip since moving to New York!  Need I say more?  Thank you, Matthieu!

 

Saturday: Agni sara and sirsasana.  They saved me from my jet lag.  Read on, and you’ll see why 😉

 

Sunday: Pain aux chocolat.  If you ever doubted the existence of divine in this life, I highly encourage you to eat one of these for breakfast.  You might just see the light after all!

 

 

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Mmmmm….hot crunchy heaven.

 

 

 

 

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Three-Part Pranayam: Keepin’ Travel Sane

With the inevitable incompetence, rudeness, and inordinate amount of variables on hand during long-distance travel, pranayam is without a doubt the most valuable tool in my traveler’s belt.  Water, stretches, and a juicy read are are tied for a very close second!

I often practice this pranayam (breathing exercise) seated, preferably somewhere the air is clean.  But if you’re in a stressful pinch – like your flight lands 10 minutes after your connecting flight back home leaves – it doesn’t really matter if you can lie down to practice.  We do what we can do, when we can do it.

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Today, doing my best to be the center of this travel storm, I’m grateful for Dirga Pranayam, Three-Part Breath, Complete Breath, sometimes called Mahat Yoga Pranayam.

 

Here’s a full rundown of the practice from About.com (Of course, if I were home with my collection of books, I’d reference a more established text!)

Three-Part Breath – Dirga Pranayama

By Ann Pizer, About.com Guide

Updated August 25, 2012

About.com Health’s Disease and Condition content is reviewed by our Medical Review Board

Benefits: Focuses the attention on the present moment, calms and grounds the mind.

This pranayama exercise is often done while seated in a comfortable, cross-legged position, but it is also nice to do while lying on the back, particularly at the beginning of your practice. When you are lying down, you can really feel the breath moving through your body as it makes contact with the floor.

1. Come to lie down on the back with the eyes closed, relaxing the face and the body.

2. Begin by observing the natural inhalation and exhalation of your breath without changing anything. If you find yourself distracted by the activity in your mind, try not to engage in the thoughts. Just notice them and then let them go, bringing your attention back to the inhales and the exhales.

3. Then begin to inhale deeply through the nose.

4. On each inhale, fill the belly up with your breath. Expand the belly with air like a balloon.

5. On each exhale, expel all the air out from the belly through your nose. Draw the navel back towards your spine to make sure that the belly is empty of air.

6. Repeat this deep belly breathing for about five breaths.

7. On the next inhale, fill the belly up with air as described above. Then when the belly is full, draw in a little more breath and let that air expand into the rib cage causing the ribs to widen apart.

8. On the exhale, let the air go first from the rib cage, letting the ribs slide closer together, and them from the belly, drawing the navel back towards the spine.

9. Repeat this deep breathing into the belly and rib cage for about five breaths.

10. On the next inhale, fill the belly and rib cage up with air as described above. Then draw in just a little more air and let it fill the upper chest, all the way up to the collarbone, causing the area around the heart (which is called the heart center in yoga), expand and rise.

11. On the exhale, let the breath go first from the upper chest, allowing the heart center sink back down, then from the rib cage, letting the ribs slide closer together. Finally, let the air go from the belly, drawing the navel back towards the spine.

12. You are practicing three-part breath! Continue at your own pace, eventually coming to let the three parts of the breath happen smoothly without pausing.

13. Continue for about 10 breaths.

 

Pranayam in Crunch Time

It’s been a full on week.  Columbia application.  GRE preparation.  Gramma worries.  Work projects.  My student’s TOEFL test.  Eliminating Health Disparities Health Summit preparation.  Fainting.  A door from my past closing.  All this on top of a regular teaching schedule.

In 24 hours, things will be a lot more spacious, but for now, I’m having to create that space internally.  The best way I know how to do that, on the go, is through pranayam.

The word means “energy control” and it connotes a host of breathing techniques in the yogic tradition.  The stated purpose of pranayam differs school to school, and there are particular exercises for specific goals (heating, cooling, balancing, anxiety, low energy, etc.).  During times like these, when the stress levels are high, I do a simple deep three-part breath, with retention, double time on the exhale.

A few weeks back, I wrote a ‘lil something on Ujjayi, a technique used to warm the body and focus the mind.

Here is a great article from Yoga Journal on different approaches to and uses for pranayam.

Breathing is without question the most important thing we do each day.  Probably a good idea to do it well 😉

 

YJ profiles the pranayama practices of six yoga traditions and finds differences ranging from the subtle to the profound.

By Claudia Cummins

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The elegant shapes and impressive contortions of the asanas may be the most eye-catching element of hatha yoga, but yoga masters will tell you they’re hardly the point of practice. According to yoga philosophy, the postures are merely preludes to deeper states of meditation that lead us toward enlightenment, where our minds grow perfectly still and our lives grow infinitely big. But just how do we make the leap from Downward Dog to samadhi? Ancient yoga texts give us a clear answer: Breathe like a yogi.

Pranayama, the formal practice of controlling the breath, lies at the heart of yoga. It has a mysterious power to soothe and revitalize a tired body, a flagging spirit, or a wild mind. The ancient sages taught that prana, the vital force circulating through us, can be cultivated and channeled through a panoply of breathing exercises. In the process, the mind is calmed, rejuvenated, and uplifted. Pranayama serves as an important bridge between the outward, active practices of yoga—like asana—and the internal, surrendering practices that lead us into deeper states of meditation.

“My first American yoga teacher, a guy named Brad Ramsey, used to say that doing an asana practice without a pranayama practice developed what he called the Baby Huey syndrome,” says Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller. “Baby Huey was this big cartoon duck who was very strong but kind of stupid. He wore a diaper. Basically what Brad was trying to say was that asana will develop your body but pranayama will develop your mind.”

Like Miller, many accomplished yogis will tell you that minding the breath is central to the practice of yoga. But take a tour of a dozen yoga classes in the West and you’re likely to discover just as many approaches to pranayama. You may be taught complex techniques with daunting names like Kapalabhati (Skull Shining) and Deergha Swasam (Three-Part Deep Breathing) before you even strike your first pose. You may find breathing practices intermingled with the practice of the postures. Or you may be told that pranayama is so advanced and subtle that you shouldn’t bother with it until you’re well versed in the intricacies of inversions and forward bends.

So what’s a yogi to do? Breathe deep into the belly or high up into the chest? Make a sound so loud the walls shake or keep the breath as quiet as a whisper? Practice breathing techniques on your own or weave them throughout your existing asana practice? Dive into pranayama from the get-go or wait until you can touch your toes? To help answer these questions and sample the range of yogic breathing, we asked experts from six yoga traditions to share their approaches to pranayama.

Inegral: Connecting Movement with Meditation

In the integral yoga tradition propounded by Swami Satchidananda, pranayamais incorporated into every yoga class. A typical session starts with asana, moves on to pranayama, and ends with seated meditation. “A hatha yoga class in the Integral Yoga system systematically takes the person deeper,” says Swami Karunananda, a senior Integral Yoga teacher. “Asana is meditation on the body, pranayama is meditation on the breath and subtle energy currents within us, and then we work with the mind directly, with the ultimate aim of transcending body and mind and experiencing the higher Self.”

While practicing asana, students are advised when to inhale and exhale, but no additional manipulation of the breath is introduced. Within the pranayama portion of the class—which may comprise 15 minutes of a 90-minute session—students sit in a comfortable cross-legged posture with their eyes closed.

Three basic pranayama techniques are routinely taught to beginners: Deergha Swasam; Kapalabhati, or rapid diaphragmatic breathing; and Nadi Suddhi, Integral Yoga’s name for alternate nostril breathing. In Deergha Swasam, students are instructed to breathe slowly and deeply while envisioning that they are filling their lungs from bottom to top—first by expanding the abdomen, then the middle rib cage, and finally the upper chest. When exhaling, students envision the breath emptying in reverse, from top to bottom, pulling in the abdomen slightly at the end to empty the lungs completely.

“Three-part deep breathing is the foundation of all the yogic breathing techniques,” Karunananda says. “Studies have shown that you can take in and give out seven times as much air—that means seven times as much oxygen, seven times as much prana—in a three-part deep breath than in a shallow breath.”

In the Integral tradition, Kapalabhati consists of multiple rounds of rapid breathing in which the breath is forcefully expelled from the lungs with a strong inward thrust of the abdomen. Students might start out with one round of 15 breaths in quick succession and build up to several hundred breaths in one round. In Nadi Suddhi, the fingers and thumb of the right hand are used to close off first one nostril and then the other. This pranayama starts with an exhalation and an inhalation through the left nostril, followed by a full breath through the right, with the whole pattern repeated several times.

Instruction in the breathing practices is systemized in the Integral system, with each technique practiced for a specific duration or number of rounds in one session. As students progress, they are taught to incorporate specific breathing ratios—inhaling for a count of 10, for example, while exhaling for a count of 20. Students move on to advanced practices only when they meet specific breathing benchmarks along the way, indicating that the nadis, the subtle energy channels of the body, have been sufficiently purified and strengthened.

Only at more advanced levels do students learn to incorporate retention, or breath holding, into pranayama. At this point Jalandhara Bandha, the chin lock, is introduced. Retention is said to be important because “it super-injects prana into the system,” says Karunananda, and “builds up tremendous vitality.” Students are also sometimes invited to incorporate healing visualizations into this practice. “As you inhale you can visualize that you’re drawing into yourself unlimited quantities of prana—pure, healing, cosmic, divine energy,” Karunananda says. “You can picture any form of natural energy that appeals to you. Then on the exhalation, visualize all the toxins, all the impurities, all the problems leaving with the breath.”

Kripalu: Cultivating Sensitivity and Awareness

Pranayama is also introduced from the very beginning in the Kripalu tradition. Here, however, breathing exercises are just as likely to be offered before asana practice as after. “I always begin my classes with 10 to 15 minutes of pranayama,” says Yoganand Michael Carroll, former director of advanced yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. “I have folks sit down and do pranayama until they’re quiet, they’re sensitive. If we can feel more when we go into our postures, we’re more likely to be aware of our limits and be respectful of the body.” Pranayama is almost always taught in a seated position in the Kripalu tradition, with eyes closed and with little emphasis on particular bandhas, or energy locks, until intermediate stages of practice. Students are counseled to follow a slow and gentle approach. Teachers may stop and ask students to note sensations, emotions, and thoughts that come up for them, in order to help them taste more subtle aspects of the practice.

“In Kripalu Yoga, one of the premises is that through developing sensitivity to the body we can learn a lot more about the unconscious drives,” Yoganand says. “Breathing is a really integral part of that because unconsciously we choose how much we’re going to feel by how much we breathe. When we breathe more deeply, we feel more. So when I’m leading pranayama, I’m primarily encouraging folks to slow down, to release constrictions in breathing and focus on what they feel.”

Attention is also paid to the breath during the practice of postures. In beginning asana classes, students are instructed when to inhale and exhale as they enter and release postures, and to simply pay attention to their breath at other times. In more advanced classes, students are encouraged to observe how different postures change their breathing patterns and what feelings arise with these changes. In addition, seasoned students are encouraged to employ a gentle version of Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), a practice in which the throat is slightly constricted and the breath made softly audible.

In the pranayama portion of the class, beginners usually start with a three-part deep breathing pattern similar to that of Integral Yoga. Beginners are also introduced to the Ujjayi breath during seated pranayama, as well as to Nadi Sodhana, Kripalu’s term for alternate nostril breathing. In addition, Kapalabhati is taught in a particularly slow and steady fashion. “When I teach this,” says Yoganand, “I usually have folks visualize that they’re blowing out a candle, and then I have them exhale in the same way but through the nose.” Students learn to extend this practice gradually, starting with 30 to 40 breaths and adding repetitions as well as speed as they grow more adept.

Only at more advanced levels do students move on to additional pranayama practices, Yoganand says. At this level, students use a centuries-old yoga manual called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as a guide, mastering the subtleties of the eight formal pranayama practices detailed in this text. “The pranayama is to make you more sensitive,” says Yoganand. “As folks become more aware of sensations and feelings, there’s a real possibility for personal growth and integration.”

Ashtanga: Unifying Action, Breath, and Attention

Join a workshop with students from different yoga traditions and you can pick out Ashtanga practitioners with your eyes closed. They’re the ones who sound like Star Wars’s Darth Vader even when they’re standing in Tadasana. That’s because they’re practicing Ujjayi breathing, which is carried all the way through the vigorous series of postures in this tradition.

Ashtanga teachers say the deep and rhythmic breath fuels the inner energetic flames, heating and healing the body. Just as importantly, Ujjayi breathing keeps the mind focused. By returning again and again to the subtle sound of,this breath, the mind is forced to concentrate and become quiet. “Since the Ashtanga practice is very breath-oriented, in a sense you’re doing a kind of pranayama from the moment you begin the practice,” says Tim Miller, who has been teaching this approach to yoga for more than two decades.

In the Ashtanga tradition Ujjayi breathing is taught in concert with both Mula Bandha (Root Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock). This means that while breathing, the pelvic floor and the belly are gently drawn inward and upward so that the breath is directed into the upper chest. When inhaling, students are instructed to expand the lower chest first, then the middle rib cage, and finally the upper chest.

Seated pranayama practices are also a part of this tradition, although Miller says that Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Yoga, hasn’t taught it to groups since 1992. Today only a handful of teachers regularly teach this series, which is comprised of six different pranayama techniques. These practices are learned progressively, each one building upon the previous, and are practiced in a seated position with the eyes open. Typically, they are only introduced after students have practiced yoga for three to five years, Miller says, and have mastered at least the Primary Series of Ashtanga postures.

“As Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutra, one should have reasonable mastery of asana first, which means for sitting pranayama practice you need to have a comfortable seat,” he says. “Not that people necessarily need to be able to sit in Padmasana (Lotus Pose) for 45 minutes, but at least they have to be able to sit in an upright position where they can be relatively still.” In the first technique, students practice Ujjayi breathing while adding a pause at the end of the exhalation, a pattern called Bahya Kumbhaka. Then they reverse that pattern and pause at the end of the inhalation, a pattern called Antara Kumbhaka. Once mastered, these practices are integrated into a single sequence: three Ujjayi breaths with no breath holding, three Ujjayi breaths with exhalation retention, and then three Ujjayi breaths with inhalation retention. Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha are engaged throughout, and Jalandhara Bandha, the Chin Lock, is added only during the inhalation retention.

The second practice in the Ashtanga sequence combines the retentions learned in the first sequence into each breath cycle, so that the breath is held after both the inhalation and the exhalation. The third sequence builds on the second, this time adding alternate nostril breathing, and the fourth incorporates Bhastrika (Bellows Breath), a rapid, forceful, diaphragmatic breathing that’s similar to the practice Integral Yoga calls Kapalabhati. The more advanced practices build upon the first four in ever more complicated and demanding patterns.

“I think a lot of people are scared off by , and yet personally I think it’s the most important part of yoga,” Miller says. “People spend all those years making a ‘good seat’ with asana practice. At some point I hope they’re going to use it.”

Iyengar: Developing Precision, Power, and Subtlety

Like Ashtanga yoga, the Iyengar tradition takes seriously Patanjali’s counsel that should be introduced only after a student is firmly grounded in asana. In this approach, formal breathing practices are separated from asana and are introduced in a slow and methodical fashion. Mary Dunn, who was a senior teacher in the Iyengar tradition, once said that students are ready to begin when they can practice deep relaxation in Savasana (Corpse Pose) with a calm and attentive mind. “They have to really be able to go inward and not just drop off into sleep,” she said. “And they have to have a refined place where they can stop and simply be—not in an action or in the imagination, but in recognition of their internal state.”

Savasana is introduced in a reclining position, with the chest and head supported, so students can focus on the breath without the distraction of needing to maintain proper posture. Precise directions are offered to ensure that basic aspects of yogic breathing are well understood before students move on to more strenuous practices. True to Iyengar’s “Come watch” approach, it’s not uncommon to see 40 students fervently gazing at their teacher’s rib cage, watching the instructor point to the precise area of the chest that should be engaged in any given phase of the breath.

Fundamental breathing awareness is introduced first, with students guided to observe the rhythm and texture of inhalation and exhalation. Ujjayi breathing is then introduced, first extending the breath on the exhalation and then reversing that pattern, lengthening the inhalation while exhaling normally. The belly is kept passive, and the lower ribs are activated first, followed by the middle ribs, and finally the upper chest—as if filling the chest from the bottom to top. Even when exhaling, emphasis is placed on maintaining an expansive quality to the rib cage.

The practice of Viloma (Stop-Action Breathing) is also introduced early on. Here, a number of pauses are interspersed into the breath—first during the exhalation, then during the inhalation, and finally during both. Dunn said this teaches students how to direct the breath into specific areas of the chest, ensuring that the entire rib cage is fully activated while breathing deeply. “Viloma allows you to work on a piece of the breath at a time, and it also allows you to be more subtle in terms of placement, developing steadiness, control, and inwardness.”

Once seated is introduced, Iyengar teachers focus on maintaining a balanced posture, starting out with a well-supported Sukhasana, or simple cross-legged posture, with the hips elevated on folded blankets. Specific breathing practices are introduced with the same methodical approach as when students lie down for Savasana, and in a similar sequence. Special emphasis is placed on Jalandhara Bandha, which Dunn said should be maintained throughout practice to protect the heart from strain.

At more advanced levels of practice, students incorporate Kumbhaka (Breath Retention) into Ujjayi and Viloma techniques, and are introduced to alternate nostril breathing. Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha aren’t even mentioned until students have reached the most advanced levels of practice. Outside of practice, Iyengar Yoga has a reputation for focusing more on alignment than breath, and often in a beginning asana class you won’t hear much more than “Breathe!” But Dunn said the system attends carefully to the breath during movement, just in somewhat subtle ways. She pointed to Light on Yoga, the bible for Iyengar students, in which B.K.S. Iyengar offers detailed descriptions about breathing during the practice of specific postures. “There are instructions about the breath all the way through. It’s the linchpin; it’s in every pose,” she said. “Once the shape and actions of the asanas are mature, form and breath merge,” Dunn added. “The breath in all its aspects becomes an integral part of the experience of practice.”

Viniyoga: Creating a Personalized Practice

In the Viniyoga approach, pioneered by T. Krishnamacharya and his son T.K.V. Desikachar, breathing is the foundation upon which all other practices are built. “For us, even at the level of asana the focus is on the relationship between the flow of the breath and the movement of the spine,” says Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute. “Even within asana itself our emphasis is to understand very technically, even biomechanically, how to control the flow of the inhalation and the exhalation, and how and when to progressively deepen the flow of the breath.”

During asana practice students are instructed to breathe in a way that supports the movement of the spine: usually inhaling during backbending movements, for example, and exhaling during forwardbending and twisting movements. Students are sometimes asked to change the length of the exhalation relative to the inhalation in a particular posture, or even to briefly hold their breath. At other times they are asked to alter their breathing pattern progressively as they repeat a movement. “Let’s say we do an asana six times,” Kraftsow says. “We can make the exhalation four seconds the first two times, six seconds the second two times, and eight seconds the last two times.”

Once students are familiar with the quality and control of the breath during asana, they are introduced to formal breathing practices. It is generally introduced in a comfortable seated position—occasionally even in a chair—and is adapted in a reclining position for those who aren’t able to sit for long periods of time. Long retentions and bandhas aren’t introduced until more advanced stages of practice, Kraftsow says, unless there are therapeutic reasons for incorporating them.

In the Viniyoga approach, students are often taught to inhale from the top down, emphasizing an expansion of the upper chest first, then the middle torso, then the lower ribs, and finally the abdomen. “Our view is that chest-to-belly expansion will actually help you deepen the flow of breath,” Kraftsow says. “If I’m trying to expand my chest, chest inhalation is going to facilitate that. If I’m trying to straighten my thoracic spine, chest inhalation is going to facilitate that. But there are many contexts in which chest breathing is contraindicated. If I have asthma, chest breathing might aggravate this condition.” In such cases, he notes, a student would be offered a different breathing pattern, one that eases rather than exacerbates the condition.

True to the Viniyoga approach, which holds that yoga’s practices should be offered in a personalized form that matches the needs of each particular student, Kraftsow says there’s no set sequence of techniques once an essential awareness of the breath has been cultivated. “My first emphasis will be progressively lengthening the flow of the inhalation and the exhalation,” he says. “And then the direction I’ll go depends on your needs or interests. If you find yourself having low energy in the morning, I’d suggest one thing. If you’re overweight or have high blood pressure, I’d suggest a different.”

And although Viniyoga focuses on adapting the practice to suit the needs of each person, this doesn’t mean students can approach the breath in a willy-nilly fashion. “One should be careful unless one has been initiated by someone who knows what they’re doing,” Kraftsow says. “I would encourage students to seek out a well-qualified and highly trained teacher before going deeply into strong practices.”

Kundalini: Combining Mudra, Mantra, and Breath

In Kundalini yoga, introduced to the West by Yogi Bhajan, breathing practices are integrated into all classes along with asana, chanting, meditation, and other cleansing practices designed to liberate healing flows of energy from the base of the spine. Strong techniques are fundamental to this approach, and breathing is given greater emphasis than precision of movement or technique. “In Kundalini Yoga, breath is as important as asana,” says Kundalini instructor Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. “That’s the root, that’s the structure—breathing into a soul, living within a body. Everything else is frosting on the cake.”

Techniques in this tradition are often woven directly into the practice of asana. For example, in a class students might hold a posture like Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) for five minutes or more while breathing rapidly, inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose. Or one particular movement—standing on your knees and then bowing down into Child’s Pose—may be repeated for 10 minutes or so, while breathing in a particular rhythm and chanting one phrase or mantra, sometimes to music.

An important element of Kundalini Yoga is the Breath of Fire, a rapid diaphragmatic breath similar to what’s called Kapalabhati in other traditions. Khalsa doesn’t overwhelm beginning students with detailed techniques; instead, she encourages them to dive into the practice immediately. “Usually I just say, ‘Open your mouth and pant like a dog,'” Khalsa says. “or, ‘Pretend you’re a Saint Bernard in the Mojave Desert.'” Once students get a feel for this fast-paced breath, with the belly swelling on the inhalation and pressing back in toward the spine on the exhalation, Khalsa instructs them to close the mouth and continue this breath through the nose. In a typical class, Breath of Fire might be practiced for several minutes on its own or else performed while moving through a repetitive series of movements, like scissoring the legs back and forth overhead while lying on one’s back.

In addition to Breath of Fire, students are also taught techniques that emphasize long, deep breathing, Khalsa says, as well as alternate nostril breathing. Kriyas (cleansing practices), mantras (sacred sounds), and mudras (hand gestures) are combined together with various breath techniques. Khalsa says the unique combination of these techniques helps turbocharge the breath and foster deeper states of meditation. “Breath alone is just a physical exercise, ” she says. “But when you start adding the other components, that brings change about much quicker than sitting and following your breath alone.”

Consideration of the chakras, or energy centers, is also integral to the Kundalini tradition. Khalsa encourages her students to feel the breath originating from the lowest three chakras at the base of the torso. “We have to bring forth the prana, the life force, from the source,” she says. “And the source is really the mother, the Earth.”

When they’re not practicing a particular breathing pattern, Khalsa encourages her students to breathe in a very relaxed and easy fashion, with the belly swelling on the inhalation and then releasing back toward the spine on the exhalation. Sometimes if she notices that a student’s belly isn’t moving with the breath, she’ll place the spine of a book into the belly horizontally and tell the student to press against it with the abdomen on an inhalation and then release the pressure against the book on an exhalation. “So many people do yoga for years and never breathe right,” Khalsa says. “Their breathing is nutty; it’s barely there. Their practice might look really good, but it’s not taking them where they really want to go,” she says. “Most of us inhale way more than we exhale, and we need to reverse that so we give back more than we take. The breath heals more than anything else in the whole wide world.”

Finding Your Own Way

How can so many experts offer such different approaches to pranayama. In part this variety results from the brevity of the ancient texts upon which our modern practices are based. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, for example, says that lengthening the exhalation can help to reduce disturbances of the mind, but doesn’t offer detailed techniques for doing that.

“Different people come along and interpret these very succinct verses in different ways, and then they practice based on their interpretation,” says Kripalu’s Yoganand. “Yoga is so powerful that people tend to get an effect almost regardless of what they do. So someone says, ‘I did it this way and it worked, so I must be right,’ and someone else says, ‘I did it completely differently, but it worked, so I must be right.’ Since neither can convince the other and since they both have experience to support their beliefs, they go off and generate two schools. It makes perfect sense that no one can agree. Everyone’s experience is different.”

In the West you can even find teachers who counsel us to step with caution into traditional practices. When students aren’t well prepared, they say, classical breathing techniques can actually distort natural and organic patterns of breathing, forcing us into rigid and controlled ways of being.

“Most people begin yoga with so many pre-existing blocks and holding patterns that to introduce a controlled breathing regime right away further concretizes the blocks,” says Donna Farhi. “I think it’s extremely important to remove the blocks and holding patterns first, to reveal the natural breath that is our birthright. And then it can be very interesting to explore the subtle movement of prana through formal work. But for the most part this controlled practice is introduced too soon and often only obscures the unconscious forces that drive the breath-holding patterns.” Viewed alongside one another, these varied perspectives offer us the unsettling yet inspiring prospect that there may not be one right way to reap the gifts of . Our teachers offer us skilled instruction, but we need to use our experience and discrimination to discern which approach works best. Each of us must decide for ourselves which method steers us closest to yoga’s ultimate gift: the ease, balance, and inner quiet that help us see into the very heart of life.

Sesame Street Teaching Belly Breath!

Hahaha~~~ Of *course* Sesame Street teaches yoga!

This video right here made my day (and it’ll make yours too, especially if you work with or have any kids that suffer from the occasional “inner monster” that needs a chillin’ out!)

With Common, Elmo, and Colbie Callait . . .

 

 

If Sesame Street is doing it (as well as hundred of schools in India, Northern Europe and Canada) … shouldn’t we start thinking about having more yoga in schools?

 

Pranayama for Winter: Ujjayi

Today I’m thankful for the warming and centering effects of Ujjayi pranayama (breathing exercise)!  I’ve been instructing a variation of the technique in my classes and a few students have loved the effects so far.

Check it out . . .

(oo-jy [rhymes with “pie”]-ee)
ujjayi = to conquer, to be victorious

“Ujjayi” comes from the Sanskrit prefix “ud” (उद्) added to it and root “ji” (जि): “ujji” (उज्जि), meaning “to be victorious”.  Ujjayi (उज्जायी), thus means “one who is victorious”. Ujjayi breath means “victorious breath”

According to the Wiki, “Ujjayi breathing is a breath technique (pranayam) employed in a variety of Hindu and Taoist Yoga practices. In relation to Hindu Yoga, it is sometimes called “the ocean breath” (just like the ocean in a conch shell!).”  Although ujjayi was classically done on its own, recently it’s been integrated with asana practice.

Sivananda’s description of how to perform Ujjayi:

“Sit in Padmasana or Siddhasana. Close the mouth. Inhale slowly through both the nostrils in a smooth, uniform manner till the breath fills the space from the throat to the heart. (You’ll hear a slight hissing sound.)

Retain the breath as long as you can do it comfortably and then exhale slowly through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with your right thumb. Expand the chest when you inhale. During inhalation a peculiar sound is produced owing to the partial closing of glottis. The sound produced during inhalation should be of a mild and uniform pitch. It should be continuous also. This Kumbhaka may be practised even when walking or standing. Instead of exhaling through the left nostril, you can exhale slowly through both nostrils.

This removes the heat in the head. The practitioner becomes very beautiful. The gastric fire is increased. It removes all the evils arising in the body and the Dhatus and cures Jalodara (dropsy of the belly or ascites). It removes phlegm in the throat, Asthma, consumption and all sorts of pulmonary diseases are cured. All diseases that arise from deficient inhalation of oxygen, and diseases of the heart are cured. All works are accomplished by Ujjayi Pranayama. The practitioner is never attacked by diseases of phlegm, nerves, dyspepsia, dysentery, enlarged spleen, consumption, cough or fever. Perform Ujjayi to destroy decay and death.”

 

Those are some pretty spectacular claims!

 

In Iyengar’s “Light on Pranayama,” the technique is described in much greater detail.
After much preparation, in the 8th stage, Ujjayi is described without retention.  As the stages increase, various retentions are explored: the deliberate internal retention (sahita antara kumbhaka), deliberate external retention (sahita bahya kumbhaka), internal retention (antara kumbhaka), external retention (bahya kumbhaka), and finally the combination of antara and bahya retentions in the final advanced stage 13.

Iyengar takes special care to note, “Listen to the sibilant sound of the breath.  Control, adjust and synchronize its flow, tone and rhythm.  The flow is controlled by the resonance of the sound, and the tone by the flow.  This is the key to success in pranayama.”

“As you breathe in, your body, lungs, brain and consciousness should be receptive rather than active. Breath is received as a divine gift and should not be drawn in forcefully.”

“Inhale with warmth, elation and joy as if you are receiving the life force as a gift from God.  Exhale with a sense of gratitude, silently expressing your humbleness as a surrender to the Lord.”

Iyengar was on the verge of death when he came to yoga .  He had suffered every severe respiratory condition imaginable in his childhood and doctors had very little confidence in his ability to survive.  Luckily, he was a relative of Krishnamacharya and was sent to the ashram to learn yogic practices and heal his lungs.  At the impressive age of 94, no one knows breathing techniques better than this man!

If the chill of winter is slowing you down, experiment with Ujjayi and see how it effects your day . . .