Blue Lotus Ayurveda Newsletter

Pranayama, the Science of Breathing

February 2005

The practice of pranayama originates in the Hatha Yoga system and is the fourth limb of the Asthanga ("eight limbed") Yoga, also known as Raja Yoga. The word prana means "vital energy" and ayama means "to expand." Hence the practice of pranayama is the expansion of the vital life energy in the body.

From conception until the soul leaves the body, prana sustains life. Prana is the movement of consciousness, both at the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. We are all born with an individual store of prana and also receive it through the food we eat and the air we breathe. Since ancient times yogis have sought to gain mastery over this vital energy so as to circulate and expand it throughout the body, in order to energize and accelerate their spiritual practices.

The aim of this practice is to quiet and concentrate the mind, purify the gross and subtle bodies, awaken the Kundalini energy and hasten its movement through the central nerve channel, called shushumna nadi, in the spinal cord. According to Ayurveda, these breathing practices also have profound healing effects upon the internal organs and channels, and play a key role in yoga therapy.

Natural Breathing Phases

Pranayama works with the natural breathing pattern, which has four phases: inhalation, inward retention (kumbhaka), exhalation, and outward retention (rechaka). Pranayama techniques alter the ratio of these four phases with the goal of slowing the rate of the breathing and ultimately the length of retention.

Because mental activity is directly related to the breath, the quicker or more unstable the breath is, the more the thoughts rush through the mind. Conversely, the slower and more steady the breath becomes, the more the thoughts calm down. Calming the mind increases one's ability to develop one pointed concentration and meditation. It is thought that the length of time spent doing pranayama correctly helps to silence the mind for the same amount of time, thus giving a good kick-start towards meditation.

It should also be noted that mantra yoga --the practice of repeating mantras (words of power) or chanting sacred verses and prayers-- also acts as a natural pranayama, especially when chanted in Sanskrit. The same is true with kirtan, or devotional chanting.

For Maximum and Lasting Benefits...

There are many schools of thought in relation to the methods of practice of pranayama, but the most important considerations are that they should be learned from an experienced teacher and that the techniques be authentic. Book learning is not a safe or sufficient method of learning this science, especially for the intermediate and advanced techniques. To gain maximum benefit from these practices, they should be performed daily for relatively the same period of time, with a positive attitude, in a well ventilated room, and then followed by meditation.

The body should be clean and the clothing clean and loose fitting. It is also important that the practices be introduced and increased in stages and done only to one's ability, and never forced, which can put undue strain on the heart, brain, and lungs. People with ulcers or heart and lung diseases should not perform pranayama, especially without the guidance of a teacher who knows how to treat such conditions with yoga practices, diet, and herbs.

Practice should be done in the same place daily, if possible, to infuse that area with the subtle energy of the practice. For the same reason it is good to use the same asana (meditation cushion or mat), which is only used for sadhana, or spiritual practice. A good asana can be made out of a wool blanket folded four ways, covered by a small cotton blanket or piece of fabric. Wool helps to insulate one's spiritual energy, so it doesn't drain from the lower energy centers, while cotton absorbs and holds the energy.

We are giving instructions here for a few safe and simple pranayama techniques, which can be done by most everyone. Although they are gentle, they can deeply balance and purify the body and mind when done with awareness.

Begin by sitting still and comfortably in either lotus pose or half lotus pose. If this is not possible, then sitting in a chair will do, but try not to rest against the back of the chair. Keep the back, head and neck straight but relaxed. Remember that the breath should be slow and smooth, first breathing into the navel area and then filling the mid and upper chest. This is three part yogic breathing or see-saw breathing.

Nadishodhana (Alternate nostril breathing)

Gently exhale all the air from the lungs, then block the right nostril with the thumb of the right hand, and inhale a full breath through the left nostril. Block the left nostril with the ring finger, while simultaneously releasing the thumb and exhaling though the right nostril.

Once the exhalation is complete, inhale a full breath through the right nostril, block it with the thumb, and exhale out again through the left nostril. This completes one round. Start with ten rounds and increase to forty.

Nadishodhana helps to balance and purify the Ida and Pingala, or the solar (male) and lunar (female) channels of the body. It calms the mind and is the best practice to start with. It can be done alone before meditation or before doing any other pranayama techniques. See side bar for other simple pranayama practices.

Cleansing the Nadis - Four Purifications

Before starting an intermediate level pranayama practice it is essential to cleanse the nadis (subtle nerve channels). Traditionally this is done with shat karma, or yogic cleansing practices such as enema, purgation, nasal flushing, and other therapies. Since many of these practices are difficult for the average person to perform regularly, yogis were kind enough to devise an easier method for cleansing the body called the four purifications. These pranayama techniques are easy and safe, and can be used to achieve the same benefits of shat karma, although they need to be practiced daily for at least three to six months.

This method consists of four separate techniques: Nadishodhana, Kapala bhati, Agnisara dhauti and Ashvini mudra, which are linked together to increase their effectiveness. Gradually the rounds of each practice are increased. They help to strengthen the power of digestion, massage the internal organs, burn up toxins, calm and purify the mind, and enhance the upward moving prana.

The Ayurvedic cleansing and rejuvenation program known as panchakarma, as well as other rejuvenating therapies, are also a practical way to increase the effectiveness of regular yoga sadhana. To learn the four purifications and other aspects of pranayama, you can attend our pranayama and Yoga and Mantra for Healing workshops.

Meditation to Quiet the Mind

After pranayama is completed, it is advised to do some form of meditation to help direct the energy. Without meditation, pranayama can make the mind a bit chaotic. If you don't know a meditation technique, then simply focus on the movement of the breath.

Just follow the breath as it comes in through the nostrils and travels down behind the navel and then back out again through the nose. Whenever the mind starts wandering, gently bring the attention back to the breath.

At first it will seem difficult, but in time the "muscle" of concentration will become toned and make it easier and easier to collect yourself back to the aim of the practice. The use of a short mantra like Om or Ram may help to focus, if concentration on the breath alone is too difficult or the mind wanders too much. The key to meditation is to become a witness to and not a judge of the mind. When the attention to the breath is lost, and thought waves appear, simply go back to the mantra without focusing on any thought. Let the breath (and the mantra, if used) be the anchor of your attention.

Pranayama, Mudra and
Bandha Workshop

February 26 1:00 - 4:00 PM
Asheville Yoga Center
239 S. Liberty St.

Pranayama is one of the most direct ways to quiet the mind and draw it inwards for meditation.

This workshop will focus on the classical application of pranayama, bandha (energy locks) and the Maha Mudra (Great Energy Seal).

Students will learn techniques to purify the gross and subtle bodies, as well as how to structure a safe and balanced pranayama practice to enhance their yoga and meditation routine.

More information...

Dirgha Rechak
(Long Exhale Breath)

Inhale a normal three-part breath and then exhale as slowly and smoothly as possible. The concentration is on the prolonged exhalation, making it slow and subtle.

Then inhale again normally and start the next round. Begin with five to ten rounds and increase to twenty.

Dirgha rechak helps to make the exhalation long, slow, and subtle. It strengthens prana, the lungs, and digestion, quiets the mind and improves concentration and memory.

Dirgha Purak
(Long Inhale Breath)

Exhale normally; then inhale as slowly and deeply as possible. Concentration is on the prolonged inhalation, making is slow and subtle.

Then exhale normally and start another round. Begin with five to ten rounds and increase to twenty.

Dirgha purak makes the inhalation slow, steady, and subtle and has the same benefits as dirgha rechak.

Note: Dirgha Rechak and Dirgha Purak should always be done together.

Spring 2005 Program - Level I March 2nd - May 18th
Blue Lotus Ayurveda Center - School in Weaverville, NC.

Learn Ayurvedic principles and concepts, as well as their practical applications in daily life, and Ayurvedic approaches to nutrition, cooking, yoga, herbology, bodywork, healthy routines, self-healing techniques and more!

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Ayurvedic Cooking
& Kitchen Pharmacy

March 19, 9:00 AM - 2:00 PM
Blue Lotus Ayurveda Center - School in Weaverville, NC. $50/person.

Join us to learn about the Ayurvedic approach to cooking and nutrition, as well as the medicinal uses of spices for common ailments, while you prepare delicious dishes!

Pre registration required.

More Information...

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