An age-old practice, popularised by modern Indian gurus in the last hundred years, Pranayama today is widely practiced for its health benefits. The ancient yogis developed pranayama primarily for mental focus, rejuvenation, clarity, healing and purification.
In layman's terms, pranayama is a way to control breath resulting in an expansion of life force and vital energies. The classical pranayama of hatha yoga have been modified to meet the myriad physiological and mental health needs of today.
What are the benefits of practising pranayama?
The goal of pranayama is to strengthen the mind-body connection. Practising pranayama helps normalising heart rate and high blood pressure, it boosts immune system, strengthens and improves respiratory system and nervous system, helps release mood imbalances and chronic stress and can help improve sleep quality and insomnia.
Things to keep in mind before the pranayama practice
Suitable postures for the practice
Padmasana, Siddhasana, Vajrasana and Sukhasana are the basic postures that can be considered for practicing pranayama. The body should be relaxed throughout the practice, and the spine, neck and head should be erect. You can also sit against the wall or on a chair for back support. It is also important to have a well insulated mat - like a woollen blanket - for the practice. Never sit on the bare floor for pranayama practice.
Sequence of the pranayama practice
Pranayama should be performed after asana practice and before your meditation. If required, you can lie down in Shavasana after performing pranayama for few minutes.
Breathing Technique to follow
You should always breathe from your nose, breathe only from your mouth when instructed by your yoga teacher. If you have mucus blockage in your nostrils, try practicing jal neti before your pranayama practice.
A place well ventilated, clean and free from external noise is a suitable place for practice. Avoid practising in direct sunlight, that might over heat the body. Try Practicing in the same place and time everyday so that it turns into a habit. Regularity in practice increases willpower as well.
Choose the Right time
The best time to practice is usually in the morning, during sunrise or after sunset, on an empty stomach or 2 hours post meal.
Wear Comfortable clothes
Wear loose fitted and comfortable clothes to feel relaxed. DO cover the upper body with a shawl or a light blanket to keep the energy intact.
Seasons for Pranayama practice
Hatha texts recommend starting the pranayama practice in either Spring or Autumn. These seasons are known to be best suited in terms of energy levels and the environment for a safe and effective pranayama practice.
What are the best pranayama practices for beginners?
Here are a few practices that are great for a beginner. Choose any 3 breathing practice technique and be consistent with it.
Three Part Breath (Dirga pranayama)
It is one of the most calming and grounding breathing exercise you can practice. It helps focus your attention on the present moment and get in tune with the sensations of the body. This pranayama is also the foundation for a lot of breathing exercises.
Practicing Three part breath (Dirga Pranayama) is going to increase oxygen supply in different parts of your body. This Pranayama can fill up your body with seven times more air than what you typically inhale in one session of shallow breathing. This is going to bring down your anxiety and stress levels.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Anulom vilom)
A yogic technique that controls the pranic energies or the vital force flowing through our body. Studies have found that practising this exercise has many physical and mental benefits.
Alternate Nostril Breathing helps relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Consistent practice can help you treat respiratory disorders like asthma and bronchitis. It also improves lung capacity and oxygenation throughout the body. If you practice this asana for a long time, you will notice that your patience, concentration and focus has increased a lot.
Breath of fire (Kapalbhati)
There are three types of Kapalbhati — Vatakrama kapalbhati, involves active exhalation, passive inhalation; Vyutkrama kapalbhati involves sniffing water through nostrils and spitting it out the mouth; Sheetkrama kapalbhati is where water is taken through the mouth and emanated through the nose.
Kapalbhati has a cleansing effect on the lungs and is a good practice for respiratory disorders. It balances and strengthens the nervous system and tones the digestive organs.
Bee Breath (Bhramhari)
Bhramari comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Bramar’ which means a kind of black Indian bee. The vibration of the humming sound creates a soothing effect on the mind and nervous system.
Bhramari relieves stress and cerebral tension, and so helps in alleviating anger, anxiety and insomnia, increasing the healing capacity of the body. It strengthens and improves the voice. Bhramari induces a meditative state by harmonizing the mind and directing the awareness inward.
Victorious Breath (Ujjayi)
It is a great practice to calm the mind and the body down. This breathing exercise can also be used to some extent as a healing practice. It has a profoundly relaxing effect at the psychic level.
Ujjayi is classified as a tranquillizing pranayama and it also has a heating effect on the body. This practice soothes the nervous system and calms the mind.
How long can you practice Pranayama?
If you are a beginner, starting with 5 mins of practice is good. Over a period of time with consistent practice, you can slowly increase the time of your pranayama practice
The only way you can enjoy all the benefits are by practising pranayama consistently. Having said that, in verse 16, chapter 2 of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is said that” When Prâṇayama, etc, are performed properly, they eradicate all diseases; but an improper practice generates diseases.” So it is important to practice pranayama the right way, so we always suggest you to practice under the guidance of an experienced teacher who can help you through your practice.