Pranayama defined implies vital life force, energy, or prolonged span of breath. In different terms it is the electrical current of energy representing life in living beings. Yes, of course you are breathing, or else you would not be alive and well, reading this article. Yet imagine being able to use that breath to connect to the infinite power of the universe with this valuable concept. The yoga tradition of Pranayama has embraced a very focused and aware breathing system that can, in essence, connect your body and mind to the energy of all life in the universe.
The most simplistic definition of yoga breathing is striving to be in complete control of the science, art and practice of breathing, and to embrace mindful awareness in every breath. Teaching pranayama exercise is most beneficial when you first educate your students on the many benefits of this amazing practice. For successful yoga breathing it is also important to create a beneficial practice environment, and teach your students tips and cautions as to when and how to practice pranayama. Now you are ready to choose an appropriate breathing exercise that fits your student’s background and needs.
Benefits of Pranayama
Through the practice of pranayama techniques you will eliminate stress, create mental clarity, gain energy, and enhance your overall health, plus much more. Studies have indicated that the practice of pranayama will help strengthen your heart, relieve pain, overcome cardiovascular and nervous system disorders, and build energy reserves. Many studies on pranayama have been done that show the practice of it also helps to:
- Release acute and chronic muscular tension around the heart and digestive organs.
- Aid sufferers of respiratory illnesses such as asthma and emphysema overcome anxiety of shortness in breath and increase lung capacity.
- Encourage proper nervous stimulus to the cardiovascular system.
- Dramatically and profoundly reduce emotional and nervous anxiety.
- Improve body detoxification through increased exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen.
- Amplify the auto immune system by increasing distribution of energy to the endocrine system.
- Soothe and calm the mind and create mental and physical balance.
- Strengthen and increase health of the lungs, chest and diaphragm.
- Increase capacity of the lungs.
- Help brain function by conveying more oxygen to the blood.
- Improve neuromuscular coordination.
Pranayama Practice Environment
To practice pranyama, choose a clean airy atmosphere free from pollution, noise and dust with a comfortable and relaxing temperature. It is also advisable to have some fresh air ventilated into the practice area, ideally practicing by an open window with trees and grass outside. If this is not possible, the next best thing is to bring lots of plants into the practice area. This will serve to oxygenate the atmosphere and provide better results. The most beneficial plant for oxygenating the room is wheat grass (the young grass of sprouted wheat). You can find this in trays at your local health store or market.
Props are also a nice addition for practicing pranayama, especially if your student has tight muscles in their lower back, hips and knees. Try placing one small pillow under the seat and additional pillows under each knee. If you are practicing pranayama outdoors be aware of insects and changing climate. There are some specifically-designed mediation cushions that can be used for seated pranayama exercise that will help prevent low back pain.
Pranayama Tips for Practice
Keep it simple. Once you initiate your exercise, start off with something easy and uncomplicated. This will build your confidence for more intricate exercises in the future.
- Avoid eating before practice. Try to practice on an empty stomach or at least only after a light meal.
- Maintain a simple diet. For best results, follow a balanced vegetarian diet. Eat foods in their natural state.
- Avoid liquid. Do not drink 20–30 minutes before or during breathing practice.
- Dress appropriately. Wear loose, comfortable and relaxing clothing for ease of practice.
- Stay consistent. Practice at the same time daily to gain familiarity and increase will power.
- Sit tight. Choose a comfortable seated position on the floor, and use props if necessary.
- Rest right. Try to get plenty of sleep on a regular basis to enhance your practice.
Pranayama Cautions for Practice
- Pregnant pause. In pregnancy, women should not hold their breath or practice rapid, harsh breathing.
- Kid stuff. Children should be at least 5 years old before beginning pranayama practice, and then practice should be moderate.
- Physical problems. Rapid and vigorous breathing of Kapalbhati should be done with caution or avoided if students are post-natal or have the following problems: Abdominal wounds, recent surgical operations, hernia, appendicitis, or a prolapsed rectum or uterus.
- High blood pressure. Students with high blood pressure should get permission from their doctor, yet can generally benefit from light and easy practice.
- Hypertension. If students have hypertension or asthma, they should not use breath retention.
- Labored breathing. If you feel tired or dizzy, relax into savasana and continue later on or the next day.
When and How to Practice Pranayama
The best time to practice yoga breathing is generally early morning or late evening, right before or after your asana practice. Some very strict traditionalists will advise you to practice 20 minutes before or 20 minutes after your asana practice. Try to practice yoga breathing on an empty stomach, as the process of digestion uses energy, blood and oxygen that will distract from your pranayama needs.
Teach your students the use of Bandha (locks), which are extremely useful to the practice of pranayama. Mulabandha (locking the anus), Jalandharbandha (locking the throat area or jugular notch), Uddiyanabandha (locking the abdomen or diaphragm) and Jivhabandha (locking the tongue) are the four locks performed during pranayama. When teaching beginners, educate them gradually over a period of time, starting with Mulabandha.
- Allow your breathing to be smooth and rhythmic.
- Try to always breathe in and out through the nose, unless an exercise specifies otherwise.
- Take your time and relax. No worries, no hurry.
- Complete inhalations and exhalations, unless specified otherwise.
- Be in the moment and practice conscious breathing.
- For beginners it is best to avoid breath retention, or at least long retention.
- Be mindful and practice with awareness.
- The exhalation should have just as much importance as the inhalation.
Appropriate Pranayama Exercises
The 8 main pranayama exercises are:
For beginning yoga students, keep it simple and allow them to focus mainly on the foundation of slow, deep and complete inhalations and exhalations.
Pranayama consists of four parts, practiced in the following order:
1) Puraka (controlled inhalation)
2) Abhyantara Kumbhaka (holding breath in)
3) Rechaka (controlled exhalation)
4) Bahya Kumbhaka (holding breath out)
Two Schools of Thought
Different systems endorse slightly different approaches to breathing techniques, both of these methods are appropriate, as you may find out for yourself in practice.
1) Three-part diaphragm breathing or low breathing.
Low breathing refers to focusing primarily on the lower part of the chest and lungs. It consists of moving the abdomen in and out with the breath, and changing the position of the diaphragm through these movements. Because of this, it is sometimes called “abdominal breathing.” In this type of breathing you can think of breathing in three parts: Expand the lower abdomen, then expand the middle of the chest, and follow with expanding the upper chest.
2) High breathing or rib cage breathing.
High breathing refers to what takes place primarily in the upper part of the chest and lungs. This technique is often called “collarbone breathing” and involves raising the ribs, collarbone and shoulders. In this type of breathing, some systems also teach the student to keep their abdominal muscles firm as they expand through the ribs and chest.
Written by Doug Swenson
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