Control of the Breath (Pranayama)
The breath is an important bridge between the conscious and subconscious minds, and between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, because it can be controlled both voluntarily and involuntarily.
Yogis have experimented with the effects of different types of breathing for millennia. This discipline is referred to as "pranayama", composed from two Sanskrit words: prana meaning life force (noted particularly as the breath), and either ayama (to restrain or control the prana, implying a set of breathing techniques where the breath is intentionally altered in order to produce specific results) or the negative form ayāma, meaning to extend or draw out (as in extension of the life force).
Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, mentions pranayama as means of attaining higher states of awareness. He explicitly mentions the holding of breath as important practice for reaching Samadhi.
Benefits of Pranayama
Pranayama techniques utilise and strengthen the whole range of the respiratory organs. Practitioners explore the lower, middle and upper parts of the breath and regulate the inhalation, retention and exhalation of the breath.
A regular pranayama practice can stimulate the parasympathetic system, countering the overstimulation our bodies go through during the Fight or Flight response. Western medical science has begun studying the effects of pranayama on the physiology. Early results indicate effects such as reduction of stress indicators and reduction in inflammatory response.
Practicing pranayama clears obstacles in the physical and energetic bodies, allowing breath and energy (prana) to flow freely. Breathing is improved, physical bodies function better, and the mind becomes clear and calm.
Pranayama can also be used as a cleansing and purifying technique before a Tantric ritual.
Most pranayama techniques are practiced sitting down with an upright spine for example in Cross-legged Pose, Hero’s Pose (on props if needed) or Lotus Pose. The vertical spine allows the breath to be smooth, not strained, even after breath retention. Some pranayama techniques can also be practiced during yoga asana practice, or during Tantric lovemaking.
Basic Pranayama Techniques
There are many pranayama techniques, and some are very complex, or very challenging. It is wise to have guidance from an expert practitioner, to ensure you are properly prepared, before attempting advanced techniques.
Pranayama techniques focus on conscious control of all four phases of the breath:
- Inhalation (puraka)
- Internal retention (antara-khumbaka)
- Exhalation (rechaka)
- External retention (bahya-khumbaka)
The exhalation is said to be the most important part of the breath, to fully clear the system of stagnant, waste energies. Only when the practitioner can exhale and empty fully can they take a full new inhalation.
These basic techniques may allow a beginner to experience some of the effects of pranayama.
The abdominal breath moves the diaphragm down as you inhale and up as you exhale, pushing the abdominal organs forward, and then back inward. The air is encouraged into the lower lobes of the lungs and the organs in the lower torso are massaged, stimulated and relaxed.
This breath is most useful for men during Tantric lovemaking, as it assists with brahmacharya (retention of the semen).
The Complete Yogic Breath (in three parts)
Combining the belly breath, the mid chest breath and the upper chest breath in sequence creates the complete yogic deep breath, also known as the 3-part breath. It is essential for a practitioner to breathe deeply in this manner, since it forms the foundation of most yogic breathing techniques.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate Nostril Breath is a gentle, relaxing pranayama technique that soothes the nervous system, calms the mind and balances the right and left - hot and cold, sympathetic and parasympathetic, activating and relaxing - aspects of our being.
This breath is particularly useful as a daily practice for Tantric men seeking to attain brahmacharya (control of the ejaculation). Ejaculation is a function of the sympathetic nervous system, and alternate nostril breathing allows conscious access to the parasympathetic nervous system. Remaining in a state of parasympathetic nervous system activation will prevent ejaculation.
It is best to practice pranayama in the morning on an empty stomach and in a room with fresh air, after performing a sequence of hatha yoga asanas to clear any physical or energetic blockages.
If the lungs are polluted, for example from smoking, or from living in a city with high levels of air pollution, it is best to begin pranayama practice carefully, under the supervision of a teacher.
Certain kinds of pranayama are not recommended for women during their period or pregnancy. Some pranayama techniques are not suitable for those with digestive problems or certain hernias, because they involve abdominal contractions with an upward motion. Pranayama with fast rhythms or breath retention should not be practised if you have asthma, heart disease, hypertension or are pregnant.
This is not a complete list of precautions, if you have a specific health condition please speak with your health professional or local yoga therapist before practising pranayama.